“Wounded 27 times”; When re-naming a fighting ship makes sense!

We are usually up in arms when things get re-named in South Africa, as more often than not it’s usually a political motivation that underpins it ahead of actually honouring South Africans highly deserving of it.   But now and again we get it right, and the renaming of the SAS Oswald Pirow in 1997, a South African Navy fighting strike craft, to her new name the SAS René Sethren is a case in point.

So why was Oswald Pirow singled out to get his name taken down from an honour bestowed on him and who the heck is René Sethren?  It’s almost guaranteed that most modern South Africans would have no clue who Sethren was, most would properly just assume he was this or that ‘struggle hero’.

Far from it, Rene Sethren is a hero all South Africans can stand very proud of, but more of him later, what’s the issue with Oswald Pirow?

Oswald Pirow

In a nutshell Oswald Pirow was an Afrikaner Nationalist who served as a Minister of Parliament and Minister of Defence under the nationalist Hertzog coalition.  He was pivotal in creating South African Airways and famously prosecuted Nelson Mandela in the Treason Trial.

But he had a very dark side, he was also an ardent full-blown Nazi, prior to World War 2 he launched the Nazi New Order ideology in South Africa, he adored and met both Hitler and Mussolini, and his disposition to Nazism as an ideology did not end with the end of the war, in fact with the election of the National Party in 1948 he felt more empowered in his beliefs and it ramped up somewhat.

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Oswald Pirow (in civilian dress) inspecting Nazi German forces

After the war Pirow went into collaboration with the infamous British Fascist Party leader Oswald Mosley to write a joint paper on the separate development of white and black races in all of Africa along the lines of white supremacy and black subjugation – the idea to feed ‘white’ African southern states from ‘black’ North African states with exploited migrant labour.

So, naming a South African strike vessel after him was going to be very controversial, it applauded all the old South African Navy veterans and serving personnel who went to war against the very ideology Oswald Pirow followed.  They had watched thousands of South Africans make massive sacrifices including the ultimate one, fighting on British and South African vessels against Nazism, and now they watched an insular nationalist government name a fighting vessel after an ardent flag waving Nazi.

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Oswald Pirow and Oswald Mosley

Not a military man either, Pirow had never served in the military other than to be a Minister of Defence, he had no military credentials and he was hated by the South African jewish community, the war veteran community and South African black community – in fact ‘hated’ would be an understatement.

Hardly a ‘hero’, the naming of his SAN Strike Craft vessels after Ministers of Defence called ‘Minister Class’ would be controversial from the get-go, a simple case of political one-upmanship and the case of Oswald Pirow the nationalists would be seen as rubbing the South African navy veterans noses in it for supporting Britain in World War 2.

So, no surprise really as to why the ‘Minister Class’ of defining strike craft and Oswald Pirow’s name had to go. But thankfully, this time in a breath of fresh air, the South African Navy decided on a simple hero, and not political one-upmanship, when it came to re-naming the SAS Oswald Pirow.  They chose CPO (Stoker) René Sethren, but who the heck is he and what did he do?

René Sethren

sethrenChief Petty Officer (Stoker) René Sethren CGM has a story which is simply jaw dropping to say the least. René Sethren left school after Std 7, a keen boxer and highly astute he joined South Africa’s fledgling navy as a stoker in 1940, rising in rank eventually to Chief Petty Officer (Stoker).

On the 30th June 1941, a small flotilla of ships including South African mine-sweepers is on convoy from Mersa Matruh approaching Tobruk in the midst of the fighting around Tobruk between Rommel’s German and Italian Axis forces and the British and Commonwealth Forces, with South Africans right at the centre of it defending Tobruk and El Alamein.

As they close in on the coast the convoy comes under fire from German shore batteries and is also attacked by a number of German Stuka dive bombers, JU87’s and Messerschmidt 109’s.

Enter one small South African ship, HMSAS Southern Isles, a converted whaler, performing anti submarine, patrol and general support duties in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, and its stoker René Sethren.

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HMSAS Southern Isles

Five German JU-88’s attacked the HMSAS Southern Isles, luckily with no real damage, then came a little lull in the fighting, during which a single JU-87 which had been attacking a convoy merchant called the ‘Cricket’ nearby made a close pass to the HMSAS Southern Isles and was shot down by the Southern Isles’ rear gun.

But that was not the end of it, a bigger and more fierce attack was to come.  The convoy came under attack from 50 enemy aircraft, 8 of which were concentrated on any one ship in the convoy.   The commander of the HMSAS Southern Isles described it as “The sky appeared to rain bombs”.

As a result of this action there are by then a number of casualties on the upper deck. In order to assist those fighting off the attacking Stuka aircraft Chief Petty Officer (Stoker) René Sethren is sent up from his normal station shovelling coal in the engine room, he had been at this task for a 12 full hours.  René is also a qualified reserve machine gunner and he was urgently needed, his best friend who had been manning the ships’ twin Lewis anti-aircraft machine gun was dead lying next to gun. René immediately took over the gun, standing on ammunition boxes to train his gun he starts a non stop volley of fire against the attacking German aircraft.

At this stage a German JU88 aircraft joined the Stuka attack and strafed the ship’s upper deck with its machine guns. Sethren is seen to fall after he was hit by machine gun bullets from the JU88 (he had 8 separate bullet wounds  – read that again – shot 8 times).

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Junkers JU-88

Notwithstanding his wounds he muscles up some superhuman strength and stands up, and unbelievably he again engages the attacking aircraft with the Lewis gun. At the conclusion of the battle Rene Sethren is found to have more than just the eight bullet wounds, in fact medics count a total of 27 wounds in one arm, both legs and his side.

Conspicuous_Gallantry_Medal_(Flying)_(UK)For his actions he is awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal – the highest award won by a South African rating in World War 2, the only South African to be awarded this medal and one of only 243 men who had been awarded the medal prior to that day since its introduction in 1855.

Rene Sethren received his gallantry decoration from King George V. His wounds are so extensive he spends 18 months recovering in hospital, his boxing career over and because of his injuries he is unable to ever go to sea again.

In conclusion

Wow, now that is a man we can stand around of, that is the sort of person we can name a fighting ship after.  No politics, just pure gallantry from a simple rating, an engine stoker – an inspiration to any person serving in the navy.  In every respect the right person to re-name the SAS Oswald Pirow strike craft after.

The Warrior Class South African Ship René Sethren started on her final voyage in October 2001 leaving  Durban harbour for the South African Navy’s fleet headquarters in Simonstown to be finally decommissioned after 22 years of service, with a fitting name to a proud fighting legacy.

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SAS René Sethren

Related Work and Links

Oswald Pirow;  South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow

Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

HMSAS Parktown; The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

HMSAS Treern;  The last South African Navy ship to be lost in action; HMSAS Treern

HMSAS Bever; “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever

HMSAS Southern Floe; ‘A sole survivor and a ship’s crest’; the South African Navy’s first loss – HMSAS Southern Floe

Military Heroes; Tainted “Military Heroes” vs. Real Military Heroes


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References, Day by Day SA Naval History by Chris Bennett. Allan du Toit’s  ‘South African Fighting Ships Past and Present’.

Cruel history, Italian tankers in inferior tanks were actually very courageous!

You may have heard the joke the old South African World War 2 North African campaign veterans used to often tell about ‘Italian Bravery’ – how many gears does an Italian tank have?  Answer; one forward and four in reverse!

History is very cruel to these very brave Italian tankers fighting alongside Nazi German forces and the likes of Rommel against the South Africans, British and Allied forces.

Weighting only 14 tons, by Allied standards the Italian M13/40 tank was seen as a light tank. For the unfortunate crews who manned it, it was nothing short of a death-trap.

Its semi-automatic 47 mm Ansaldo 47/32 gun could penetrate 1.7 inches (43mm) of armour at 550 yards (503 m), making it more than adequate to deal with most allied tanks -saved for the cumbersome Matildas- and its diesel engine had a low probability of catching fire when hit, but it lacked power which made the M13/40 a slow moving target, specially off-road.

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Although it had armour deemed adequate by 1940 standards, this was made of low quality steel which lacked tensile strength, resulting in a higher probability to shatter when hit, spraying the crew inside with deadly pieces of metal from their own armour.

To these men in dark blue overalls, destined to fight on unequal terms, history has often been cruel. Nevertheless, time and again, they charged gallantly against a superior adversary, often paying the ultimate price for their courage.

Note on the main featured image: The number 3 on the turret and the rectangle with a white stripe identifies this tank as the 3rd tank of first Platoon. The rectangle background colour identified the Company, the number of stripes the Platoon.

These Italian tanks were easy prey to the British, South African and other Commonwealth and Allied forces, here a member of the crew of an Italian M13/40 tank giving himself up near Gazala. His captor might be a soldier of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifles Brigade (part of the British and ‘Allied’ forces in North Africa).

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As courageous the Italian tankers in these tanks were, so too were the Australian ones, as captured kit, including tanks were always handy as they afforded more protection than not having the convenience of armour at all.  Here’s an interesting colourised photograph of the re-taking of Tobruk by the Allied forces.

Note the port installations as they burn again over the harbour on 24 January 1941. Of interest to this article, note in the foreground, here later version M11/40 (on the left) and M11/39 (on the right) Italian tanks can be seen, under new ‘ownership’. White kangaroo symbols can be seen on the tanks, now the possessions of the 6th Australian Division.

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Related Work and Links

Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Tobruk; The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

Tobruk; Job Maseko; one very remarkable South African war hero


Researched and Written by Peter Dickens.  Original’s source of feature photograph unknown, feature image, colourising and caption by “In colour veritas”.  Insert image – Imperial War Museum copyright. Colourised Australian M11 tanks by Benjamin Thomas, Photographer: Lieutenant L.B. Davis, No. 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit – Imperial War Museum.

Comrades legend, Springbok and war veteran – the remarkable Bill Payn

So, which Springbok rugby player and war veteran also has a top ten Comrades finish running in his rugby boots and then went on to play a game of rugby the next day?  This is one very remarkable man and he comes from a time when men were cut from a different cloth, read on for the story of the legendary Cecil “Bill” Payn.

Bill Payn was born on 9 Aug 1893 in Harding, South Africa, he was christened Cecil, the son of James Herbert Payn. He was a very well known personality, a much loved teacher, and a sportsman. He taught at Durban High School for boys for 40 years or more, only having a break during his army service in the First and Second World Wars. He was particularly well known in Natal and Rhodesia and was described as big hearted and kindly “Big Bill” and stood 6 ft 3 in in his socks. He was a battle-field hero and an ex PoW.

His life was dedicated to helping others, whether his fellow prisoners of war, team mates, school pupils or every day friends and acquaintances. He was a Springbok rugby player and at cricket bowled with distinction. He was a boxer, an athlete and shone at baseball. He was truly a great and kindly man, he died suddenly at age 66 on the 31st Oct 1959.  Ever generous he even left money for his friends to have a drink after his funeral.

Top 10 Comrades finisher in his rugby boots

In summary of his Comrades achievement, Bill came 8th in the 1922 Comrades Marathon. A Springbok rugby player, he ran one of the most famous races in the history of the Comrades.  Bill Payn hosted Arthur Newton the evening before the race, and after a number of stiff drinks, was persuaded by Arthur to enter (Arthur went on to win the race).

Bill arrived on time for the start, wearing his rugby boots. At Hillcrest he stopped for the first time to take in a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Not much further a fellow runner, “Zulu” Wade, invited Payn for a chicken curry. This they consumed and then continued on to Drummond, where they celebrated reaching the halfway mark by drinking a beer at the hotel. Wade didn’t continue, but Payn did. A lady spectator en route helped him keep his energy levels up by providing him with oranges, peach-brandy, water and tea. He finished eighth. On the next day Payn took part in a club rugby match, but because his feet were blistered from the long run in rugby boots, he elected to play the match in his running shoes.

The first Comrades Marathon race was a down run from Pietermaritzburg whilst the first up run from Durban to the provincial capital took place in 1922 and consisted of a field of just over 100 athletes.  In those days the Comrades took place on mainly sand and gravel roads (which in part was more conducive to wearing studded rugby boots).

World War 1

Bill Payn played provincial rugby over a period of eighteen seasons losing four years whilst serving overseas in the First World War. He did have the opportunity then of representing South Africa in the Imperial Services Tournament held in Britain before returning home. In all, he represented Natal in fifty nine matches.

An “all rounder”

Bill had a natural affinity for all sports, a true “all-rounder,” attaining provincial colours in five sports, he represented Natal at cricket, boxing, baseball and athletics in addition to his main sport of rugby. However sport was but one of his interests, he was an outstanding English scholar and a leading South African expert in the science of Etymology.

Bill Payn also received Springbok colours and played in two tests on the flank in the 1924 series but later after his own playing days were over he was to have an important role in the development of a post World War Two Springbok rugby legend.

The 1922 Comrades Marathon in Bill’s own words

Bill Payn’s own words on the 1922 Comrades Marathon are now legendary and well worth the read, an abridged version of that day by Bill goes as follows:

`On a bleak May morning I toe’d the line at the start when some civic dignitary fired a pistol and then very sensibly buggared off back to his warm bed. When the shot rent the air, off we sped – like a crowd of Armenian refugees fleeing from the wrath of the Turkish army. Shall I ever forget that infernal run. It was not very long before I realised that I was prey to an all consuming thirst, so clamant indeed, that I could not refuse any man who offered me a drink. At Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugby boots and found a mass of blisters had formed on the soles of both feet, some kind follower provided me with brilliantine with which I anointed my feet and then repaired to the hotel for a huge plate of bacon and eggs. This done and much refreshed I ran up Botha’s Hill where at the top I found a friend who was also taking part, but he was in a very bad state so we sat down next to the road and exchanged notes and took stock of ourselves and the situation we were in. I fear that we did not move with the freedom of young athletes but rather resembled two old ducks, suffering from some distressing gynaecological disorder.

Fortunately at that stage my friend’s supporter arrived on the scene with a wicker basket which contained a delicious curried chicken set on a huge bed of rice. This we shared equally and then set off together in happy companionship for Drummond and here we bent our steps to a pleasant oasis – the pub – where I lined a dozen beers up on the counter determined not so much to celebrate a victory but rather to drown our sorrows. Whilst we were busy at this, one of the camp followers arrived on the scene and urged us both to continue as there were only five runners in front of us. My friend could not continue so I set off alone for Pietermaritzburg.

Somewhere along Harrison Flats I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks standing at the side of the road. She held up in one hand a bottle and in the other a glass. I stopped, and with old world courtesy bowed low saying `Madame your servant to command’. `Tis peach brandy’, she volunteered, `and I made it myself’. I gulped down a full tumbler of this home-made brew and in a second realised that I had swallowed a near-lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am still convinced that to this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines. Fortunately I was facing Maritzburg and I was propelled along the way. I was too far gone in my cups even to ponder on whether this assistance did not breach the prescribed laws of amateur marathon running.

On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg I was hailed by my wife’s family who were taking tea on the veranda. I went off the road and joined them in their tea and cakes. While we were thus happily engaged, two of my ‘hated’ rivals went past and so it was that I ended the course number eight. In the changing rooms I discovered that the soles of my feet were now two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law then arrived and he had the uncanny insight to my most immediate needs, for he gave me a bottle of champagne, for which I was most grateful. Shortly thereafter a rugby friend arrived and chided me as to whether I had forgotten that I was due to play a first league rugby match the next day and that our team needed me. Cadging a lift on the back of his motorbike we went back down to Durban and on the following day I played full back in a pair of old `tackies’.

This account by Bill Payn does not appear possible but it has been vouched for in every detail by Arthur Newton, the friend who persuaded Bill to enter the race in the first place and who was himself destined to become a legend in the world of marathon running.

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Arthur F. H. Newton, winner of the first “up” version of the Comrades in 1922 in a time of 8:40:00.

Bill Payn’s description of the race is filled with humour which so characterised his outlook on life. To illustrate this aspect there is a classic story told of Bill when he was captaining his club’s first cricket side in the premier league and they were not having a very good season with the bat. He placed an advertisement in the local Natal newspaper which read,

“Join Stanford Hill and bat twice on a Saturday afternoon”

His Passion for Rugby

Of all his sporting interests, rugby was his greatest love and he devoted many years of his life to the administration of the sport and coaching young players in the enjoyment of the game. He was the founder of Natal schools rugby and became a father figure to organisation serving on its executive from 1933 – with a gap for the war years – right through until he passed away in 1959. It is interesting to note his thoughts on the game of rugby and why people are keen to play the game.

Quoting him again `Why do men love to play rugby, is I feel sure, that it is the simulacrum – in simple terms it means an image of – of war as waged in the medieval days when battles were marked by the two cardinal virtues of courtesy and courage’.

His very close friend and fellow schoolmaster, Isak Van Heerden, who was to become the Springbok coach in the 1960’s, when commenting on Bills outlook on the game said

“He looked upon the game as a friendly and controlled war, feeling that man still has his primitive instincts and one of the strongest is the love of a good fight, which no amount of civilisation has been able to eradicate. Bill saw the game merely as a natural desire of a healthy man to pit his strength and skill against that of another and that rugby was the best possible outlet. He worshipped the game for the companionship amongst friends and for the opportunities that it allowed for comaradieship with opponents after the match was over”.

Cecil “Bill” Payn’s Test summary: Tests: 2 Tries: 0
First Test: 16 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Kingsmead, Durban
Last Test: 23 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Wanderers, Johannesburg

World War 2

Bill Payn was very much a man of Natal being educated at Maritzburg College and after qualifying as a teacher spent much of his working career teaching at Durban High School for Boys, but in 1939 ,at the age of forty six he once again set off for war serving as a gunner in North Africa.

Whilst in action in the Western Desert he was awarded the Military Medal, receiving a personally signed letter of commendation from the Commander-in- Chief of the Allied Forces, General Alexander.

General Harold Alexander (right), pictured here in 1942 as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, surveys the battlefront from an open car and the Military Medal warded Payne (left).

Taken as a Prisoner of War (POW)

Later in the campaign the Allied troops were forced to retreat from Gazala back towards El Alamein. With the German Army closing in around them Bill made two desperate efforts to escape but was captured on each occasion, imprisoned first at Benghazi in Libya, he was struck down with acute dysentery and lost substantial weight, he eventually recovered and was transferred to a POW camp near Rome.

Bill’s strength of character was such that he looked on prison life as a challenge refusing to be restricted and to quote him again

“Life is always life if one can laugh and that captivity is what your heart makes of it.”

He accepted the conditions of imprisonment refusing to acknowledge their limitations, preferring to see in them an opportunity for fulfilment, the enrichment of character and to be of service to his fellow prisoners.

Using his ability in developing mental pursuits he kept many of his fellow inmates highly amused and was in great demand as a speaker with a range of subjects stretching from discussing the complete works of Shakespeare, a set of which he had with him in camp, to his talk on whales and their habits which was also a great favourite. He continued to teach, and was again in demand, conducting classes for those Prisoner’s of War who were taking correspondence courses.

A fellow prisoner wrote of him that his most outstanding characteristic was his unquestionable spirit which knew no bounds. Although he was no longer a young man, when the Italian war effort collapsed, Bill and two companions managed to escape into the mountains of Italy and were on the run for over two weeks, diverting enemy troops from the front, to search for them. Eventually they were recaptured by German troops and sent to prison camps first in Austria, then Poland and eventually to Germany itself.

Whilst he was busy keeping the spirits of his fellow prisoners up intellectually, his love of sport also played an important role in their well being with Bill forever arranging rugby and cricket matches, even teaching the prisoners from the other Allied nations the art of jukskei!.

Informal “Tests” between “Springbok” and “All Blacks” POW

It was while they were in Stalag XX-A near Thorn (Toruń) in occupied Poland which contained an equal number of young New Zealanders and South Africans crazy about their rugby that Bill Payn’s organisational ability was shown off at its very best.

A rugby ball was received through the Red Cross and Bill proposed a series of `test’ matches between the rugby worlds greatest rugby rivals. He roped in two able assistants, Peter Pienaar, the son of the 1921 Springbok captain to New Zealand and Billy Millar Jnr, whose father led the 1912/13 Springboks to the United Kingdom.

With Bill Payn as the driving force, they arranged practices and made up the jerseys, and served on the `Springbok’ selection panel. The making Springbok jerseys is a story in itself, with Red Cross vests being boiled together with the olive green Russian battle dress which were freely available, to obtain the green. The gold was more problematical but an ingenious solution was found, the S.A. Medical staff boiled up a solution of anti-malaria tablets to achieve the right result. It was important to look the part. The rugby field was marked off with yellow clay lines on the vast sandy parade ground and with army boots considered too lethal, the players played with bare feet in the middle of the Polish winter.

Aaron “Okey” Geffin

It was during this period that Bill came across another young South African who had been playing for the Pirates Rugby Football Club in Johannesburg before the war, and he had been captured at Tobruk. He was a strong, talented prop forward who also had a useful boot on him.

Bill encouraged him to work hard at this aspect of his game whilst stuck in the POW camp and to concentrate on his accuracy with his place kicking. The young soldier was none other than `Okey Geffin’ who five years later was to become a legend in the annals of South African rugby as well as an immense thorn in the flesh of the 1949 All Black side under Fred Allen.

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Aaron “Okey” Geffin (28 May 1921 – 16 October 2004), considered the greatest Jewish rugby player of all time,nd he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

While in Stalag XX-A Okey Greffin said of Bill Payn,

“We used to scrum for hours on end, and he coached me. Payn arranged rugby games in camp: South Africa against the New Zealanders. Our gear was dyed underpants and vests, but no boots. We played barefoot. Payn encouraged my development and told me I would be a Springbok if I continued to play after the war.”

He spent three years in POW camps in Italy and Germany, as well as Poland, where he practised his kicking barefoot near a mass grave of Polish victims of the Nazis.

Geffin was one of the few prop forwards in the game to kick for goal. The Springboks won ten matches in a row, including a 4–0 whitewash of New Zealand on their 1949 tour to South Africa. Prop Okey Geffin helped kick the Springboks to victory—they won all four Tests despite the All Blacks scoring more tries in three of them.

Back to Bill Payn’s story, and his personal account of the Comrades Marathon which reflected both his humour and his tenacity. It was his friend, Izak van Heerden who perhaps summed Bill up best of all when he said, `

He was always seeing a humorous situation and playing upon it. He was a merry companion, a real friend and a great champion of the game of rugby‘.

Related work and links

Comrades Marathon; A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon; Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

Living War Memorials; A war memorial in Cape Town which saves children’s lives


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. References:  Maritzburg College Old Boys Association, wikipedia.  Main reference article – author unknown.

‘Carry On’ the South African Army – the story of Sid James

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Sid James in the South African Army

Sid James – was the famous ‘cockney’ Jack the Lad star of the “Carry On” movie series with his legendary trademark ‘naughty’ laugh. He epitomised a London ‘wide-boy’ and exists in British comedy as Super-Star.

But did you know Sid James was in fact a South African and served in the South African Armed Forces during World War Two?

Not many know this as off-screen Sid was a very private man, and when not in his ‘cockney wide-boy’ character, his South African accent would find its voice.

Sid James was born Solomon Joel Cohen, on 8 May 1913, to Jewish parents, in South Africa, later changing his name to Sidney Joel Cohen, and then Sidney James.

His family lived on Hancock Street in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Upon moving to Britain later in life, he claimed various previous occupations, including diamond cutter, dance tutor and boxer; in reality he had trained and worked as a hairdresser.

It was at a hairdressing salon in Kroonstad, Orange Free State that he met his first wife. He married Berthe Sadie Delmont, known as Toots, on 12 August 1936 and they had a daughter, Elizabeth, born in 1937. His father-in-law, Joseph Delmont, a Johannesburg businessman, bought a hairdressing salon for James, but within a year he announced that he wanted to become an actor and joined the Johannesburg Repertory Players. Through this group he gained work with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

Sid’s abandonment of his career and then his young bride and child was the last straw for her wealthy father (whom apparently ‘put a price’ on our man’s head), so Sid decided to cut his losses and join the army. Sid was never to look back, as when he volunteered to join the South African army  World War Two had broken, and funnily it the war aided this emerging performing career and grounded his career.

After a stationing with the South African Tank Corps in Abysinnia, Sid felt his talents were better used in troop morale, so he joined the Entertainment Unit of The South African Army, he was initially made a corporal and proceeded to put on shows for his fellow troops.

During this time, he was also caught under heavy fire at the notorious ‘Fall of Tobruk’, South Africa’s largest capitulation of arms, he managed to escape Tobruk ahead of Rommel’s forces and was eventually promoted to the rank of Staff Sergeant. Sid was eventually given a commission as a lieutenant in the entertainment unit, and subsequently took up acting as a career.

Around this time he acquired for himself a second wife, another South African – dancer Meg Sergei, and come the war’s end and his demobilisation, the couple’s showbiz ambitions saw them leave their homeland for the glamour of London.

Sid and Meg arrived in the UK on Christmas Day 1946 and, amazingly enough, within days he’d landed himself not just an agent but a small role, the rest is movie and show-biz history.

Ironically Sid died in complete character with his trademark ‘dirty laugh’ at the Empire Theatre on Monday, April 26, 1976. He was appearing in a suitably smutty comedy called ‘The Mating Game’. Sitting next to Sid on the stage was actress Olga Lowe, an old friend from his early days in his native South Africa, and he died of a heart attack staring at her breasts … a “Jack the Lad” to the end.

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Related Work and Links:

Fall of Tobruk: “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

El Alamein; “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”; The Battle of El Alamein


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference Wikipedia and The ghost of comic legend Sid James by Ian Robson.  Video Clip – YouTube, master image of South African troops in North Africa during World War 2, Imperial War Museum copyright.

‘Orange’ is the new ‘Red’

Original colour images of South African Air Force (SAAF) in Gabes in Tunisia April 1943.  Here we see a SAAF Supermarine Spitfire pilot of ER622, No 40 Squadron, SAAF as he confers with his ‘No 2’ after landing at Gabes.  This original colour image  shows off a key identifier that only the South African Air Force squadrons used in the Allied theatre of combat …. ‘Orange’.

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Note the distinctive ‘orange’ dot in the rondel identifier of the South African Spitfires, of all the commonwealth and British aircraft used in the north African campaign, the South Africans where the only ones to have the rondel in the colours of the ‘old’ national flag i.e. Orange, White and Blue on all their aircraft.

All others, British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian air forces used a red centre in their roundel identifiers to signify the Union Jack (Flag) of Great Britain i.e Red, White and Blue, as seen in this original colour image below.

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Allied Spitfires in Royal Air Force colour scheme, note the Red, White and Blue identifiers

Also note the officers in first photograph are wearing army rank insignia (not air force), another distinctive attribute specific to South Africa at the time.  To compare the difference in aircraft identifiers, here is the SAAF scheme, as shown by these SAAF 40 Squadron Spitfires in desert scheme.

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This distinctive difference in SAAF identifiers to RAF and other commonwealth county’s identifiers was given the SAAF because of Jan Smuts’ influence in forming both the Royal Air Force as the first independent air force and the South African Air Force as the second oldest independent air force.  Also, the SAAF had identified a separate scheme as they were not a ‘Royal’ Air Force – as the RAAF (Royal Australian AF), RNZAF (Royal New Zealand AF) and RCAF (Royal Canadian AF) were.

Squadrons made up of pilots from Allied countries under occupation also flew in the British markings, the difference was a small national identifier usually found on their cowlings, the Dutch 322 Squadron for example used a small Orange triangle and the Poles used a small Red and White square.

A little history of the SAAF Spitfires featured 

As the 8th Army advanced through Libya into Tunisia, SAAF No. 40 squadron flew Tactical Reconnaissance (Tac.R) and Photo Reconnaissance sorties in support of ground operations.

SAAF 40 Squadron converted to the Supermarine Spitfire Vb at the end of February 1943. This variant had clipped wingtips to enhance its low-altitude performance, most notably its roll-speed. Sorties now included vertical and oblique photography, battle area Tac.R, target marking for fighter bombers, searches for night bomber targets, and identification of landmarks for day bomber navigation.

In early 1943 the squadron received Artillery Reconnaissance  training, however, unreliable radios meant that artillery shoots were not as successful as had been hoped. Nevertheless, the squadron continued to report the activities of enemy artillery.

Related work and links

Smuts and the Royal Air Force; The Royal Air Force’s 100th Birthday and its founder – Jan Smuts

Smuts and the Royal Air Force; Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force


Researched by Peter Dickens. Image copyright IWM Collection.  Reference Wikipedia

‘Severely wounded, he single-handedly attacked a machine gun nest and an anti-tank gun’; Quentin Smythe VC

487590_145585105611230_766406177_nNow this is a very notable South African, and a true hero – Sgt Quentin George Murray Smythe VC,  who won the Victoria Cross in the Western Desert on 5 June 1942.  The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration awarded for valour “in the face of the enemy” to members of the British armed forces and various Commonwealth countries (of which South Africa is one).

Quentin George Murray Smythe, was born in Nottingham Road, Natal, South Africa on 6 August 1916 as son of Edric Smythe. He was the grandson of the First Administrator of Natal, Charles Smyhte. Quentin Smythe attended the Estcourt High School in Estcourt. After his education he started farming in Richmond.

During the Second World War,  Quentin Smythe served with the 1st Battalion Royal Natal Carabineers, 1st SA Infantry Division, South African Forces in the East Africa Campaign against the Italians before moving to the Western Desert against the German and Italian Axis Forces.

On May 26, 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps attacked the British Army ( which had just been weakened by losing two divisions, an Armoured Brigade and some squadrons of the Desert Air Force to the Far East ) in order to pre-empt a new British offensive. The Germans hoped to capture Tobruk and, ultimately, to drive the British back to Alexandria, although this attempt was finally checked at El Alamein by Auchinleck the next month.

Gazala

A German gun crew manning a 3.7 cm Pak 36 anti-tank gun in the Western Desert, during the Gazala offensive, June 1942.

The initial attack caught the British off-balance, but they recovered and fought back, forcing the Germans to take up a defensive position, which became known as ‘The Cauldron’. Unfortunately, the British were at this stage equipped with tanks and guns which were inferior to the Germans’, and after a number of desperate battles they had to fall back.

For related articles on this retreat – know as the ‘Gazala Gallop’ see “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”; The Battle of El Alamein and the Fall of Tobruk “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

On June 5 the South African forces were holding a position in the north of the line (which consisted of defensive “boxes” separated by minefields), and when Rommel launched a heavy attack in the northern sector he encountered strong and determined resistance. The cost in casualties on both sides was high. Smythe, who was then a sergeant, realised that there was no officer to command his platoon and took charge himself, leading his men in an attack on the enemy’s strong point at Alem Hamza, 20 miles south of Gazala

His citation in attacking Axis Forces says just about everything as to how this hero earned his VC and reads as follows:

medalNo. 4458 Sergeant Quentin George Murray Smythe, South African Forces.

For conspicuous gallantry in action in the Alem Hamza area on the 5th June,

“1942. During the attack on an enemy strong point in which his officer was severely wounded; Sergeant Smythe took command of the platoon although suffering from a shrapnel wound in the forehead. The strong point having been overrun, our troops came under enfilade fire from an enemy machine-gun nest. Realising the threat to his position, Sergeant Smythe himself stalked and destroyed the nest with hand grenades, capturing, the crew. Though weak from loss of blood, he continued to lead the advance, and on encountering an anti-tank gun position again attacked it single-handed and captured the crew. He was directly responsible for killing several of the enemy, shooting some and bayonetting another as they withdrew.

After consolidation he received orders for a withdrawal, which he successfully executed, defeating skilfully an enemy attempt at encirclement.

Throughout the engagement Sergeant Smythe displayed remarkable disregard for danger, and his leadership and courage were an inspiration to his men.”

Citation was gazetted on 11 September 1942, see this rare Associated Press video of the actual award ceremony where Sgt. Smythe received his Victoria Cross from Maj. General Dan Pienaar.

When Sgt. Smythe VC returned to South Africa, he returned a national hero, he had won the country’s first Victoria Cross in the Second World War. In all five South African’s won the Victoria Cross during World War 2, of which there are only two very well known recipients, these been our hero today, Quentin Smythe VC and Edwin Swales VC (see Edwin Swales VC DFC, a South African Hero whose legacy has been eroded!)

The remaining three are George Gristock VC, Gerard Norton VC and John Nettleton VC (you can read more on John Nettleton – see John Nettleton VC – an unknown South African Victoria Cross recipient)

Sgt Smythe is well known because he enjoyed great media attention and was presented to the Premier Jan Smuts and this PAHÉ footage captures the occasion.

On leaving the Department of Defence he returned to farming in the Richmond area of Natal. He was an outstanding marksman, a passionate conservationist and animal lover. He died from cancer in Durban, aged 81 in October 1997 and was buried with military honours by his Regiment – The Natal Carabineers.  He left three sons, a daughter and 11 grandchildren.

His Victoria Cross is now part of Lord Ashcroft’s collection and is kept in the Imperial War Museum in London.


Researched by Peter Dickens. Image Copyrights – Imperial War Museum.  Video copyrights Associated Press and British PATHÉ respectively.