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

The featured photograph of Field Marshal Rommel inspecting South African and British Prisoners of War (POW’s) after the fall of Tobruk is very telling of South Africa’s singular biggest capitulation of arms in its proud military history.  Sir Winston Churchill, who rather embarrassingly on his trip to Washington had to hear the news from President Roosevelt, was to famously later write on his feelings about the fall of Tobruk:

“This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were the military effects grim, but it affected the reputation of British arms ……. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.”

So let’s have a look at why this loss of a small North African coastal port in World War 2 affected the British in this way, its ramifications for the British and South Africans, and why Churchill chose such a harsh rebuke of South African military prowess – which prior to Tobruk had been held in high regard and after Tobruk the South African military establishment literally had to fight an uphill battle in Italy to earn their respect again and recover their honour.  In effect we need to ask ourselves if this was indeed a fair comment, so let’s have a look at what actually happened.

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The Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, chatting with British Army General Staff Officers during his tour of the Western Desert.

The Rats of Tobruk

The Rats of Tobruk was a nickname given to the soldiers who held the small Libyan port of Tobruk against Rommel’s German ‘Afrika Corps”and their Italian axis forces.  Rommel had laid siege to the port in his push to invade Egypt, these hardened, belligerent  soldiers effectively put Rommel’s plans on hold as they dogmatically dug in and resisted for 8 long months.  The siege started on 10 April 1941 and was only to end later in November 1941.

They consisted of  around 14,000 Australian soldiers from the 9th Australian Division commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, accompanied by regiments of British artillery, the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade and 3rd Indian Motor Brigade – reporting to Australian command.  In all they constituted about 30 000 troops – a very strong garrison.

At the time the port was surrounded by a strong line of defences, the garrison had air support, and Rommel had been at the end of his supply lines. Early Axis attacks were disorganised affairs that were easily fought off, and by the time Rommel was able to launch a stronger assault the defenders were really dug in ready to meet him. The defence of Tobruk became one of the iconic moments of the entire British war effort.

It dominated strategy in the desert in 1941, and the relief of Tobruk was the target of the unsuccessful Operation Brevity and Operation Battleaxe. The siege was finally lifted as a result of Operation Crusader and in the aftermath Rommel was forced to retreat west out of Cyrenaica, ending the year back at his starting point.

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The ‘Rats of Tobruk’ – some of the 15,000 men of General Morshead’s 9th Australian Division shelter in caves during an air raid during the siege of Tobruk. After six months besieged in the vital supply port the Australians were evacuated by sea and relieved by fresh troops. 823 men had been killed, 2214 wounded and 700 captured.

Tobruk was held in hero status and its defenders, the ‘rats’ went into the annuals of history as legends.

South African Honour to defend Tobruk

Tobruk secured, the Australians finally relieved and cycled out, by 1942 the Allied Middle East Command decided to leave a ‘temporary’ force to hold Tobruk while a new strike force was built up near the new frontier – on the Gazala line to the west.

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General Klopper

The ‘honour’ of defending Tobruk was given to the South Africans. The new  garrison was to be formed by the 2nd South African Infantry Division with Major General Hendrik Balzazar Klopper in command.  General H.B. Klopper, was a school teacher before joining the South African Army. He was a Major General of one month’s standing when he was given overall command of Tobruk with limited combat experience.  In all the same number of troops, over 30 000 were given to him to defend Tobruk if attacked, as had been the troop strength with the Australians earlier.  Only with some relatively small but key differences.

Simply put, the defences of Tobruk weren’t as solid in 1942 as they had been in 1941. The main reason for this was that large numbers of mines had been lifted and moved to the Gazala line, as had a great deal of the barbed wire.  The tank traps and anti-tank ditch were also in a very poor state and had begun to silt up with sand.

On the plus side, Maj. General Klopper had at his disposal some fine fighting units and very good equipment, he had his own division, the second South African Infantry Division, as well as some British and Commonwealth detachments – 60 Infantry Tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, the 201st Guards Brigade, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, three regiments of field artillery and two of medium artillery. There were 35 000 men in total. Tobruk had also now become a major supply base for the Gazala Line, and as a result was also crammed full of stores, ammunition and equipment.

But, again on the down side, unlike the Australians, there was little chance of solid air support for the South Africans, as the Desert Air Force had been forced to retreat to Sidi Barrani, and there were only fifteen 6-pounder anti-tank guns in the fortress.

There was also another very important difference, this time some of the defending troops were exhausted, their morale was lower, and the garrison was filled with a feeling of insecurity and impermanence.  Something later historians would point it out as a failing as General Klopper had not inspired change or adequately dealt with it, other sources point to the relative inexperience of the South African troops, stating that although morale amoungst the South Africans specifically has high, their Commander himself was out of his depth.

The fatal flaw

In terms of the defence perimeter, the Western and Southern sides of the port were well defended by the South Africans, but the East side was weak, and it proved to be fatal.

The eastern perimeter defences were left in a very weak state, and now they were to be defended by mainly Indian regiments reporting to General Kloppers command located in the centre.   The 2/5th Mahrattas and the 2/7th Gurkas were great fighting units and till that point had been involved in the thick of fighting, so they had been pulled to rear to recuperate and these men were utterly exhausted.

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An even more critical flaw in planning was an underestimate of German resolve, by both the Allied command and General Klopper. Erwin Rommel’s was utterly resolved to take Tobruk once and for all, his entire campaign to invade Egypt depended on it, and unlike the earlier siege of Tobruk with its Australian defenders, now he was going to throw just about everything at his disposal into the advance on Tobruk.  He replenished and reinvigorated his forces, consolidated his plans and began his advance east again.

The Desert Fox Attacks 

General Erwin Rommel had a fearsome reputation amongst the Allied Forces and was nicknamed ‘The Desert Fox’ by his enemy because of his skill in manoeuvre and deception, as usual for Rommel he also devised a ruse for capturing Tobruk.

Only his infantry approached the western perimeter, while his mobile forces swept on past, to give the impression that the German and Italian armour was heading straight for the Egyptian border (sending radio messages to that effect to complete the ruse).  He then swung his mobile armoured forces around and attacked Tobruk from its weak point – the eastern perimeter.

Rommel’s zero hour was 05h20 on 20 June 1942. As dawn broke long black lines of tanks, trucks and infantry slowly started to move forward. As it grew louder and closer to Tobruk waves of German Stukas and Ju 88’s aircraft appeared overhead (Rommel pressed every single Axis airplane in service in North Africa into taking Tobruk).

As the heavy artillery began to fire, the planes released their bombs and quickly got out of the way for the next wave, operating a shuttle service between the defence perimeter and El Adem airfield, 10 miles away. They pounded a gap open 600 yards wide. Behind them, under cover of artillery barrage and half-hidden by smoke and dust, German and Italian sappers raced forward to lift mines and bridge the tank traps with tanks and infantry racing through the gaps. As they move forward, they lit green, red and purple flares and the Stukas dropped their bombs just ahead of the advancing, multi-coloured smoke screen while the other planes and artillery blasted the South African rear (the seaward side of the port) with shells and bombs.

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German armour and Rommel encicling Tobruk

The situation inside Tobruk under this juggernaut attack very quickly became very desperate.  It literally became a fight for survival and into the fight went everyone,  including the ‘non combative’ members of The South African Native Military Corps who were given rifles and expected to fight on the front line with everyone else.  As the fight became more and more desperate, three small minesweepers, two of them South African – the HMSAS Bever and HMSAS Parktown were called into port to take on evacuation duties.

Both the Bever and the Parktown acquitted themselves in the highest order whilst under a hail of shelling and bombing – and please feel free to refer to two earlier Observation Posts’ links for an in-depth profile on their brave fight – “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever and The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

Inside Tobruk the situation was chaotic. General Klopper – his Head Quarters now bombed out, his radio and telephone wrecked and his code booked destroyed, lost the last vestige of control.

Left with no choice General Klopper and staff could do nothing but watch the German Panzers (tanks) race past their headquarters on their way to capture the fuel dumps in the harbour.

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South African troops in disarray as Tobruk capitulates

Some British and South African troops managed to break out and make their way back to Allied lines, whilst most stayed and fought a lost cause as grimly and with as much determination as they could. By dawn on 21 June 1942, Tobruk was just a pile of ruins with a massive pall of smoke reaching up into the atmosphere.  The harbour riddled with the wrecks of destroyed ships.  General Klopper gave his compass and staff car to 7 young South African soldiers determined to escape, saying, ”I wish I was coming with you.”

Surrender and shame

Shortly afterwards a small party of officers set off in a truck with a little white flag of surrender fluttering over the hood to negotiate terms of surrender, and by 09h40 Tobruk was officially turned over to Rommel. Soon after, a large white flag was hoisted over the South African Head Quarters by South African Native Military Corps drivers.

And that was it. Major-General KIopper formally surrendered with 32,000 men, including 10,722 South Africans of the 2nd Infantry Division, of whom 1,200 were members of the Native Military Corps, and all the British and Commonwealth units under his command.  Of the two South African Infantry Divisions in the North African combat zone of operations, one entire division (literally half of the South African Army’s fighting force in North Africa) went into captivity.  This and thousands of tonnes of resources – the Germans captured 2,000 tons of fuel, 5,000 tons of provisions, 2,000 vehicles and large stockpiles of ammunition – the situation now for the Allies in North Africa was a very grim one indeed.

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Erwin Rommel inspects South African POW in Tobruk

Britain’s entire war effort was now compromised and very much in the balance, the fight from here out would be a herculean one.  It was also the single biggest capitulation of South African forces in the country’s history – before or since.  Now you can begin to see Churchill’s point, as to him it seemed more than a ‘defeat’ and more of a ‘disgrace’ – as in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the British armed forces by 1942 found themselves again with their backs against a wall – largely due to the fall of Tobruk – and as a result South Africa was going to get the full blame for it by literally every single Commonwealth country, Allied country and the British themselves.

Captivity

The South African, British and other Commonwealth units forced to march across the desert to an Italian POW camp.  The Italian treatment of South African and British prisoners of war was nothing short of diabolical, prisoners were murdered, punitive measures on food allocations and other atrocities became normative.

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British and South African troops marching into captivity after Tobruk falls.

However an even worse treatment was reserved for Black members of the South African Native Military Corps and the Indian troops in captivity.  German and Italian forces displayed a complete disregard for the rights of the Indian or black POWs as they did not view them as regular troops due to Nazi and Facist doctrine and in-bred racism .

There are however accounts of bravery whilst in captivity, with a number of escape attempts and escapes.  Even that General Klopper himself managed to escape captivity in 1943.

One notable heroic deed in captivity at Tobruk was that of a South African Native Military Corps man – Job Maseko, who created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, cordite taken from bullets and an extremely long fuse to blow up a German freighter ship (F Type) in Tobruk harbour as a retaliation for his treatment as a black man and those of his colleagues by the Italians.  To learn more of his heroic tale please visit this Observation Post link Job Maseko; one very remarkable South African war hero

Rommel’s Success  

After 2 years in British hands Tobruk had fallen in 2 days, Rommel had captured enough supplies to carry him on his drive to invade Egypt. On 22 June 1942, Rommel received a message from the Fuhrer – Adolph Hitler, informing him that at the age 49 he had just been appointed Germany’s youngest Field Marshal.

Rommel celebrated that night with canned pineapple and a small glass of whisky, but after dinner he wrote his wife, ”Hitler has made me a Field Marshal. I would much rather he had given me one more division.

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Rommel surveying Tobruk after he captures it

But true to character, by the very next day he was on the advance again.  His order: ”Soldiers of the Panzer Army Africa! Now we must utterly destroy the enemy! During the coming days I shall be making great demands upon you once more, so that we may reach our goal.” The Nile.

Rommel would never get to the Nile and take Egypt.  For Winston Churchill the German advance in North Africa was the desperately needed ‘second front’ which would see the end of Nazi Germany, for the Germans however the North African campaign was nothing more than a side-show in support of Italian imperialism in Africa.  The bulk of their military effort was focussed on the invasion of Soviet Russia. Hitler discontinued the attack on Malta and refused to send Rommel adequate supplies, these actions would make defeat in the North African desert for Germany and Italy inevitable.

Consequences for the British and South Africans

Ironically there was an upside to the Fall of Tobruk, The defeat did have some positives.  It forced Churchill and the British to fundamentally re-appraise the Command and strategy in North Africa.  It led to a shake up of Command which would see General Bernard Montgomery take over overall Command of the British 8th Army (after Churchill’s original replacement, General William Gott was killed in action). Under ‘Monty’ the entire operation received a boost in resources, purpose and training (including much-needed American armour).  Monty and the 8th Army would then go on to victory at El Alamein and more successive victories for the British and Commonwealth forces followed (eventually with American assistance when they entered the war), and it would see the entire German Afrika Corps pushed back completely from North Africa and into captivity.  The issue of Tobruk and Britain ‘against the wall’ gradually became a distant memory.

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Lieutenant General B L Montgomery, General Officer Commanding Eighth Army, watches the beginning of the German retreat from El Alamein from the turret of his Grant Tank. He is wearing his famous tank beret.

The remaining South African forces in North Africa i.e, The 1st South African Infantry Division would go on to recover their reputation somewhat in these strings of success under Montgomery, also starting with Battle of El Alamein.  However Tobruk continued to haunt them and the British still remained dubious of South Africa’s military prowess by the time the next phase i.e. the Italian campaign came around.

After the 1st South African Infantry Division’s job was done in North Africa, the 6th South African Armoured Division was formed to continue with South Africa’s World War 2 contribution.   The British initially wanted to side-line the 6th South African Armoured Division and allocated it just to go to Palestine – in what was really a side-show.

At this point it is actually Churchill who comes around to bat for the South Africans, despite his anger and lambasting of the South Africa military establishment as a ‘disgrace’ over Tobruk, it is Churchill (influenced by Jan Smuts) who insisted that the South African 6th Armoured Division join the main thrust of the war in Italy and not sit it out in Palestine.  The 6th South African Armoured Division then went on to serve in Italy with great gallantry and distinction – and ultimately recovered the country’s pride.

General Klopper’s career post Tobruk

The fall of Tobruk came as a shattering blow to the British public and British morale. General Klopper came in for most of the criticism, but was he entirely to blame?  The inquest into the Fall of Tobruk found fundamental short-falls in overall British Command and the decision to invest in Tobruk and concluded that General Klopper was placed in an extremely difficult position at Tobruk from which he had little hope of a proper defence – the circumstances he had faced were very different to those the Australians had faced before.  In conclusion to the inquest General Klopper was exonerated for the loss of Tobruk.

General Klopper however did come into a hail of controversy as to his command ability and experience subsequently to the inquest, and had South Africa remained a British Dominion after the war it would have been doubtful that his career would have advanced.

Luckily for General Klopper, the Afrikaner Nationalist government came into power in 1948, and he found more favour with them, when he was very controversially promoted to serve on the Army Chief of Staff from 1951 to 1953, after that a stellar career ensued as he was promoted to Inspector-General from 1953 to 1956, and as finally he took the most honoured position in the South African Defence force as Commandant-General, which is the head of the South African Defence Force, and he held this post from 1956 to 1958.

In conclusion

To answer the question of whether Churchill’s comment that South Africa’s capitulation at Tobruk was the difference between ‘defeat’ and ‘disgrace’ it can honestly be said that Churchill’s comment is somewhat unfair, however given the circumstances and the timing it is understandable that he was enraged, the consequences were very bleak for the British War effort.

But Churchill was equally vicious in his remarks as to his own forces when the British garrison at Singapore capitulated due to poor command earlier in February 1942 with an equal consequence in the Asian Pacific field of operations.  On Singapore’s fall Churchill asserted that the British commander General Percival’s decision to surrender was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

So we have to take Churchill and his comments in context of the man, his politics and the circumstances he found himself in. Also, in the end it is Churchill himself who plays a role in recovering South Africa’s pride by insisting the 6th Armoured Division take part in the  Italy campaign – even placing British Household Division Guards under South African 6th Armoured Division command as their Infantry support.  In the greater scheme of things South Africans can hold their heads very high in the role they played ridding the world of Nazism in what Smuts would call ‘the Great War for Liberty and man’s Freedom’ – Churchill’s need to alliterate one of his quotes aside.

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Researched by Peter Dickens.  References – Wikipedia, Extracts and references from. THE GREATEST MILITARY REVERSALOF SOUTH AFRICAN ARMS: THE FALL OFTOBRUK 1942, AN AVOIDABLE BLUNDER OR ANINEVITABLE DISASTER? by David Katz. Extracts from Military History Journal Vol 7 No 6 – December 1988 TOBRUK – 1942 Compiled and translated from the official War Diary of the German Supreme Command by Jochen OEO Mahncke.  Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum. Narratives from North Africa: South African Prisoner of War experience following the fall of Tobruk, June 1942 by Karen Horn.

The little known South African connection with The Household Division (The Guards)

The Household Division are very well-known for the spectacular marches they perform, in their distinctive red tunics and black bearskins, with ceremonies ranging from a daily Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to the annual Trooping of the Colour at the Horse Guards parade ground.  However, for all the pomp and ceremony, the Household Division is actually a combat ready fighting division in the British Army and it has a very long list of Battle Honours, including ones shared with South African fighting units, and here a very special relationship has existed between ‘The Guards’ and South Africa.

The origin of The Changing of the Guard dates back several centuries, since 1660, Household Troops have guarded the monarch and the Royal Palaces.  The Guard at Buckingham Palace is usually carried out by one of the five Foot Guards Regiments of the Household Division – the Grenadier, Coldstream, Welsh, Irish & Scots Guards. (They are identified by the number of buttons on their tunics and the plume in their bearskin head-dress).  The mounted cavalry of the Household Division comprises the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals.

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However, at certain times the honour of guarding Buckingham Palace is given to regiments and units of the Commonwealth forces, and that certainly is also the case with South Africa. Here members of the South African Coronation Contingent of 1937 take over guard duty at Buckingham Palace from 1 Bn Welsh Guards.

Yes, South Africans have had the honour of Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace, however the history of the Household Division and South Africa has not just been a ceremonial one, a long history exists between The Guards and South African fighting units and it unveils a largely forgotten but very special relationship, where even some current South African military insignia carries with it Household Division accolade and honour.

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So how did this unique history and relationship between the Household Division and South African Regiments and units come about, like many British regimental relationships with South African ones, this relationship starts with the Boer War.

The Boer War

The Household Cavalry Composite Regiment was the first unit to be sent to South Africa and served with the 2nd Cavalry Division throughout the first phase of the Boer War campaign (the ‘conventional’ phase). The 1st Guards Brigade consisting of the 3 Bn Grenadier Guards, 1 Bn Coldstream Guards, 2 Bn Coldstream Guards, and 1 Bn Scots Guards, also joined the force sent to relieve the siege of Kimberley. The Brigade took part in various battles in the northern Cape Colony to relieve Kimberley, leading up to Black Week 10-16 December 1899 – where the Boers gained the upper hand and the British suffered a number of humiliating defeats.

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Life Guards during The Boer War

Following the ‘Black week’ disasters, more Guards were sent to South Africa to boost their numbers, two additional Guards battalions in fact, 2 Bn Grenadier Guards and 2 Bn Scots Guards.

As the war progressed, the two Boer republics were annexed by the British, and the Boer commandos reverted to guerrilla warfare tactics in a new second phase.  To combat the ‘hit and run’ tactics of guerrilla war, the British then established blockhouses across the country to restrict the movement of the Boer guerillas. Mobile units were created to protect the forts and chase down the Boer Commandos. These included two Guards’ mounted infantry companies comprising recruits from all four regiments of the Foot Guards at the time.

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Grenadier Guards at Magersfontein during the Boer War

After the end of the 2nd Anglo Boer War, May 1902, the Guards, both Cavalry and Foot, returned to the United Kingdom.

The Irish Guards has South African roots

The Sovereign’s fourth regiment of Foot Guards, the Irish Guards, owes its establishment to the actions of various Irish regiments in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. During ‘Black Week’, when the British experienced set-backs at the battles of Magersfontein, Stormberg, Colenso and Spionkop, the only comfort the British people could derive from these early disasters was that the soldiers had served gallantly and specifically the Irish regiments, especially at the Battle of Spionkop.

In an expression of appreciation for the bravery of the Irish Regiments in South Africa, on 1 March 1900, a letter to the editor appeared in the Sunday Times from Summing Macdona suggesting that the same honour be given them as was the case with English and Scottish Foot “ There are Scotch Guards and English Guards – why not add to the roll of glory a regiment of Irish Guards?”

Queen Victoria approved the proposal and on 1 April 1900, Army Order No 77 was issued: ‘Her Majesty the Queen having deemed it desirable to commemorate the bravery shown by the Irish Regiments during the operations in South Africa in the years 1899-1900 has been graciously pleased that an Irish Regiment of Foot Guards be formed to be designated the Irish Guards.’

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General Poole and the Guards

After the Boer War, several South Africans either served with or were seconded to a Guards regiment. One significant South African officer of the South African Union Defence Force to do this was Maj. General William Henry Everard Poole. General Poole led the 6th South African Armoured Division during World War 2 in Italy.

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General Poole and Jan Smuts

In 1935, as a temporary lieutenant-colonel and after a period as the Officer Commanding the Special Service Battalion in South Africa, Poole was sent to the United Kingdom, and attached to the Brigade of Guards.  He spent time with three Guards battalions: 2 Bn Grenadier Guards, 1 Bn Scots Guards and 1 Bn Welsh Guards. Whilst serving with the Grenadier Guards, he took part in the Royal Review of the British Army by King George V and was presented to the King.

Poole’s experience with the Guards was to be cemented in the coming of World War 2, where an important association was to be formed, and detachments of Guards were to find themselves under South African command.

The Second World War – North Africa

During the June 1942 crisis in North Africa the South Africans and the Guards were rather unexpectedly thrown together. When the British Eighth Army withdrew from the Gazala line, only the Tobruk garrison lay in the path of Rommel’s the advancing Axis forces.

The Garrison at Tobruk was hastily put together and the defences were inadequate, however the task of defending it was put to the 2nd South African Division under the command of Maj Gen H B Klopper, under his command were also a handful of British and Indian brigades, including the 201st Guards Brigade, the main component of which were the Coldstream Guards.

Rommel quickly encircled the garrison at Tobruk and attacked from the weakest point – from the east.  Tobruk fell and the South African 2nd Division were forced to surrender on 21 June 1942, however some 400 Guardsmen managed to escape capture and make it back to Allied lines.

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Rommel inspecting South African and British POW at Tobruk

WW2 Italy – 24th Guards Brigade and the 6th South African Armoured Division

When the North Africa campaign ended in 1943, the Allied High Command took the decision to invade Italy, then ally of Nazi Germany in the Axis Pact. The 6th South Africa Armoured Division was eventually earmarked for service in Italy at the insistence of Smuts and Churchill. The Division comprised one armoured and one motorised infantry brigade, however due to the mountainous terrain of Italy it was necessary to add an additional infantry component to the Division, this  fell to the British 24th Guards Brigade, comprising 5 Bn Grenadier Guards, 3 Bn Coldstream Guards and 1 Bn Scots Guards, all of whom were allocated to the 6th South African Armoured Division under South African command on 20 May 1944.

For nine months this close association existed between the Guards and the South Africans.  Whilst under South African command, this association was described by Capt the Hon D H Erskine, the official historian of the Scots Guards, as ‘ … the happiest of the campaign – if not the whole war’.

The success of the association can be directly attributed the General Officer Commanding the 6th South African Armoured Division, Maj General William Poole, who had (as previously noted) been attached to the Guards in the inter-war years.  In some senses it also ‘qualified’ him for command in the eyes of the Guardsmen, who by tradition had always been commanded by a Guardsman (this was the first time a ‘foreigner’ had commanded The Guards).

The British Guard Brigade fought with the South African Armoured Division until 17 February 1945. During that time, the high regard in which the 6th SA Armoured Division was held was manifested by the Guards in different ways. The regimental history of the Coldstream Guards records that ‘ … it was a marked breach of tradition for the men of the 3rd Battalion to wear a divisional sign, used as they were to sport only a Roman III on their sleeves; but even the most conservative was proud to wear on his battledress the green and yellow triangle of the 6th SA Armoured Division’.

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3rd BN Coldstream Guards with 6th SA Armoured Division triangular flash

One Guardsman even felt it necessary to express his feelings for the Springboks in the following letter published in Division’s magazine, The Sable:

‘Hello Springboks! Somebody ought to tell you about yourselves, so why not I? !t’s a pleasure. I like you. Nobody with a red tab on his shoulders has told me yet how big the skyscrapers are in Cape Town and I haven’t heard yet that you are winning the war for us. You grouse as much as I do, and about the same things, but it’s always a private grouse and you keep it in the family. When we first got together, you knew us – mind you, we’ve been in British divisions who couldn’t tell one guardsman from another.

British troops generally are never unanimous in their opinions of anything or anybody – of course with the agreed exceptions but I’ve yet to hear any guardsman who doesn’t want to stay in “Our Div”. There’s a general satisfaction with the news that the flash is now on our vehicles, and that’s significant.

Yes, we’ve never been out of sound of your tracks and wheels since we came among you. Where a Sherman has not got to go, has been due to mechanical impossibility and you’ve proved it by trial. This may not be sound brasshat economics but it’s very convincing to the footslogger. Even if it means a tank out of commission, he knows you had a damn good try, and although I wish every mother’s son of you a speedy return to the kopjes and kloofs of sunny SA, I hope you’ll see the Guards Bde through these deadly hills first! – I’ll trek along with you.’

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Coldstream Guards attached to the SA Armoured Div advancing in Italy

Members of the Coldstream Guards after battle for Monte Sole on the 15 December 1944. These tired and exhausted members of the Coldstream Guards were attached to the 6th South African Armoured Division, as they reach La Quercia on their way back to the rear for a few days rest. These men fought several days taking, losing and retaking a hill just under Monte Sole, South of Bologna on Route 6620.

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24th Guards Brigade winged badge

The Pretoria Regiment was the most closely associated South African Regiment with the Guards, as it was the Pretoria Regiment who provided much of the armoured support for the 24th Guards Brigade. (see Observation Post Pretoria Regiment Sherman tanks in Italy – Operation Olive)

At the farewell parade held on 26 March 1945, the Pretoria Regiment was permitted to wear the winged blue-red-blue flash of the Household Division, and it is still worn today behind their headdress badge.

The significance of the wings is that, on several occasions, the Regiment had managed to get their tanks supporting the Guardsmen into such inaccessible positions in the mountains that it was remarked that ‘ … they must have flown there.’ In appreciation, the Pretoria Regiment presented each of the Brigade’s battalions with a mounted impala head, the emblem of the Regiment.

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Pretoria Regiment with Guards Colours and wings behind their beret badge

At the same parade, the 24th Guards Brigade provided the 6th SA Armoured Division with 9 company colour of 5 Bn Grenadier Guards and the commanding officer’s flags of 3 Bn Coldstream Guards and 1 Bn Scots Guards.

These flags and colour can be seen in the display featuring the 6th South African Armoured Division at the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.

The Guards Chapel’s South African Association

On 18 June 1944 the Guards Chapel, located in Wellington Barracks in London, was hit by a V1 flying bomb. The bomb hit the chapel during a Sunday morning service and 121 people were killed. Much of the building was destroyed. As a token of their regard for the Guardsmen, the men of the 6th SA Armoured Division contributed £5 000 towards rebuilding the Chapel.

This gesture aroused the deepest feelings of gratitude throughout the Brigade of Guards.’ The gift was used to purchase new bronze doors for the main entrance of the Chapel and to renovate the mosaics in the apse. Today the bronze doors carry both the star of the Household Division and the green and gold flash of the 6th South African Armoured Division.

In Conclusion

Unfortunately this strong association between South Africa and the Household Division has deteriorated somewhat. It started when the Nationalist Party Government came to power in 1948 with its proposals of Apartheid and its abject hatred of anything British (fuelled by deep seated Afrikaner resentment of British actions in the Boer War).  To this end they re-established the Union Defence Force as the South African Defence Force when they withdrew South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961,  ‘British’ associations to South African regiments were either removed or reduced in the case of some Regiments to a more token association – either in insignia, name or relationship ties.

Much of this association was further lost in South Africa’s isolation years.  To a degree some of these relationships were re-kindled post 1994, with South African Regiments invited to and attending key ceremonies and parades in the United Kingdom.  However they remain relatively low key as the now re-configured South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has focussed its priorities on African issues only and gone even further to strip any ‘Colonial’ references from South African Regiments.  New proposals have now been accepted to change or remove much of this association from the SANDF Reserve Regiments.

It is hoped that in all the political transformation of the SANDF, that the traditions and hard-fought for battle honours won by South African units with the Household Division, which were brushed aside by the Apartheid regime, are now properly rekindled and maintained.

However it is very unlikely at this stage given the current ‘transformation’ trajectory, and it is not a sentiment held by the British, who remain keen on heritage and have maintained it for Australian and Canadian Regiments associated with the Guards, but the will to reassert these links has to come from the South African military and political establishment themselves or they will forever be lost to modern South Africans.

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Researched by Peter Dickens. References – Coldstream Guards in Italy = Photo by Baker. 3131 Signal Service Co.” Near Madonna della Quercia, Italy. 15 December 1944.  Photo copyright of Guards and Pretoria Regiment SANMMH copyright.

Key extracts and photos  taken from the Military History Journal, Vol 13, Number 1, June 2004 written by Allan Sinclair of the South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg

South Africa’s one-legged fighter pilot

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Capt. Doug Rogan DFC

Did you know that during World War 2, South Africa had a one-legged fighter pilot?  This is the extraordinary story of Capt Douglas Smith “Doug”/”Shorty” Rogan DFC.

2 Squadron SAAF

Doug Rogan Joined the South African Air Force as a Permanent Force pilot and he served with SAAF 2 Squadron from September 1941 in the North African theatre of operations.  2 Squadron were known as the ‘flying cheetahs’.

He almost immediately started seeing some success when on the 12th October 1941, he damaged a German Bf-109 flying a SAAF Tomahawk Mk.IIb, however in the engagement he took some damage.  He had another success later that month, when on the 22 October he logged his first confirmed kill of a German Bf-109F near Gasr el Arid, during the battle his SAAF Tomahawk Mk11b again took on some heavy damage, however he managed to get home and score his first combat victory.

By the next month on the 06 November he had further success in the Tomahawk and recorded his second confirmed kill, that of an Italian S.79 short down in the Matruh area.    The S.79 had taken some punishment from other SAAF pilots, but Doug finished it off, so was accredited with the kill.

 

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SAAF 2 Squadron Tomahawks in action by Derrick Dickens

Luck ran out for Doug late in November 1941.  By this time he logged  60 “operation” flying hours,  however during a routine operation on the 24th November he was Wounded In Action (WIA) when his Tomahawk received anti-aircraft ground fire, a  20mm AA shell struck Doug in his right leg.  Severely wounded and losing blood, Doug turned for home and against the odds managed get both himself and his stricken aircraft back to base.  So severe was the wound to Doug’s leg that his leg had to be amputated

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Douglas Bader

Recovering in South Africa, Doug took inspiration from Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE, DSO (Bar), DFC (Bar).  Douglas Bader was the famous Royal Air Force pilot who was a double leg amputee during the war, he was credited with 22 aerial victories. Bader had joined the RAF in 1928 and in 1931, while performing some aerobatics he crashed and lost both his legs. When war broke he insisted on flying, even as a double amputee. His determination saw him become a Battle of Britain icon using a “Big Wing” of fighters to attack enemy formations over England. He also became a Prisoner of War after he was shot down over France later in the war, and despite his disability he frustrated his German captors by embarking on a number of escape attempts.

With this proof positive account that pilots who had suffered leg amputations could still perform in combat, Doug focussed on getting back to flying, and back to combat flying.  Col. Laurie Wilmot promised Capt. Doug Rogan that if he could be passed the “fit for flying” test with only one leg, he would see to it that Rogan got a posting “up North” again (i.e. back to the theatre of Operations in North Africa and Italy).

1 Squadron SAAF

Fitted with an artificial leg Doug resumed flying fighters with 6 Sqdn on home defence in the following year. After a check ride he passed his fit for flying test and was returned “up north” as promised.  Back in combat flying he was posted to SAAF 1 Squadron in November 1942, known as the ‘Billy Boys’.

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SAAF 1 Squadron Spitfire by Derrick Dickens

His return to operations was marred by a couple of errors up front, one occasion he took off with a mechanic still hanging on to his tailplane but managed to land without damage to either the mechanic or his Spitfire. Also, once landing in a dust storm his Spitfire hit that of another pilot’s already on the ground. He however began scoring again later that same month on 13th December 1942, he damaged a Bf-109G whilst flying a SAAF Spitfire Mk.V.   By 1943 his victories started to stack up flying in the famous Spitfire Mk. V,  12th Jan he shot down a Bf-109G (probable), 21st Jan he shot down a MC.202 (probable) in the Castel Benito-Tarhuna area.  By 27th March he attained a confirmed kill of a German Me 210 near Gabes. On the 08 May he is recorded as damaging an Italian Re.2001.

He was “Returned To Union” (RTU – meaning returned to the Union of South Africa) after his successful tour on Spitfires in August 1943, by this time he was with SAAF 1 Squadron in Sicily. In all is final score from the war: 3 Kills, 2 Probable, 3 Damaged.

On the 19th of March 1943, Doug was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions and bravery.   In later life he became an air fighting instructor at 11 O.T.U. When he retired from the Air Force he took up residency in the beautiful little coastal town of Knysna.

Another unassuming South Africa hero not known to many now, a true role model and inspiration to any South African, those who have disabilities and even those who do not.


Written by Peter Dickens.  Scorecard comes courtesy of Sandy Evan Hanes’ SAAF Data base. Story content and image provided by Tinus Le Roux on his SAAF Heritage site. Research provided by Sandy Evan Hanes and Warren Williamson.   Artworks of 1 Squadron and 2 Squadron by Derrick Dickens (artist), copyright Peter Dickens.

 

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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Original’s source of feature photograph unknown, feature image, colourising and caption by “In colour veritas”.  Insert image – Imperial War Museum copyright. 

“Tomorrow I am going to die”

This is what Captain Walter ‘Jack’ Webb told his fellow 40 Squadron pilot, Lt. Michael Welchman, on the day that Mike snapped this photograph.

“Tomorrow I am going to die”

The very next day, 4/11/1942, Jack was shot down over the Alamein front whilst doing a tactical recce sortie on enemy positions. He forced landed on friendly territory but unfortunately landed in a mine field with tragic consequence that ended his short life.

19105707_10154760075403269_1391824141783588154_nJack was a survivor of three times being shot down but returned to the squadron unscathed every time . When he did not return after this particular sortie no one in the squadron were too much worried as they were confident he will pitch up on foot soon, but it never happened.

Jack was promoted to the rank of captain just days before his death and was recommended for an immediate DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) award.

What a poignant and sad image of someone clearly philosophical of his fate, and resigned to it.

May South African heroes like Capt. Walter John Stanley Alexander Jack’ Webb forever Rest in Peace. In the full knowledge that they are not forgotten and their sacrifice is a direct reason for all our modern-day liberties and freedoms.

He is buried in Egypt at the El Alamein War Cemetery. Grave Reference: Plot XXIII. Row A. Grave 8


Image colourised and caption researched by Tinus Le Roux – with kind thanks

Photo credit to Michael Welchman (left) who is still around and lives in Hermanus, this is the original shot he took (right) of Captain Jack Webb.  Headstone image courtesy Brett Fennell.

German POW’s hitch a ride on a South African armoured car

Amazing image taken at Fort Capuzzo in Libya during WW2 – December 1941. Two German Afrika Corps soldiers – now Prisoners of War (POW) – hitch a ride into captivity on the front of a 2nd South African Division Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car.

The Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car was a series of armoured vehicles produced in South Africa and adopted by the British Army, other Commonwealth Forces (India used them) and South African army during World War II.  Highly popular as they could be adapted into all sorts of roles and configurations, some captured examples even made their way into the German army and other Axis forces during the war.

 

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Marmon-Herrington Mk III

Featured image Copyright Australian War Memorial

 

‘Armed’ SA Native Military Corps in WW2 – this Corps screams out for a definitive work!

Now what is truly remarkable about this photograph?  Well it shows a bunch of armed South African soldiers during World War 2 who by all accounts never carried a firearm and by directive were not allowed to either.  These are members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC), and it’s proof positive that there is no such thing as skin colour or ‘Segregation’ legislation when under fire.

This photograph was taken by Warren Loader’s Grandfather Noel Edgar Fuller while serving with The Royal Durban Light Infantry (DLI) B Coy in North Africa during WW2. What makes this photo remarkable is the DLI L/Cpl is standing next to three armed members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC).

During the Second World War the South African government of the day held out that members of the NMC could only function in non-combatant roles, and where not allowed to carry firearms whereas funnily members of the Cape Corps (Cape Coloured members) where fully armed and enrolled in combatant roles.

All this political segregation and racial discrimination became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances serving Regiments, Units and Sections of the South African Army quite quickly issued firearms to their NMC ‘support’ members – and this photo stands evidence of such practice.

Thier lives – Black or White, depended on it, and logic prevailed.  As is often the case in combat, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

The caption written on this photo is “our Lance Corporal and his two native pals”. Quite a lot can be seen and said to this remarkable snapshot into the attitude of the time versus the attitude of soldiers.

It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published, lest national heroes be made of these ‘Black’ men.  Simply put the ‘Black’ contributions to World War 1 and World War 2 were quite literally erased from the narrative of the war after 1948 and dismissed by the incoming Apartheid government as ‘traitors’ (a tag also suffered by their ‘White’ counterparts) for serving the ‘British’.

Bear in mind when reviewing what this actually means to the prevailing opinions by many South Africans of the war (White and Black)  – approximately 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”.  In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.  Mull that over for a minute.

The sacrifice of the men of the Native Labour Corps no less significant – if you think that as “non combatants” this corps came through unscathed by war, also think again – this is the honour role of those NMC members who laid down their lives during the war, their sacrifice is literally quite eye-opening:

In total approximately 1655 Native Military Corps members died during World War 2, read that again – One Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Five ‘Black’ South African soldiers died during World War 2.  That’s almost three times the number who died on the SS Mendi during World War 1, and that’s only from one ‘Corps’.

Put into context, nearly as many South Africans died during the entire 23 years of fighting during the Border War in the 70’s and 80’s (approximately 2013 died) – from all arms of the military, yet the here we are talking about only one single Corps of South Africans.  Consider that the book shelves on South African history are stuffed full of books on the Border War and not one single book is dedicated to the history of the South African Native Military Corps in World War 2.  There is also almost nothing by way of definitive work on the unit history on the internet.

The history of the South African Native Military Corps needs to resurface – it’s screaming out for a proper definitive work and information access – this photograph alone calls for it.  We need to fundamentally rethink who and what has been sacrificed to military conflict by South Africans of all ethnic origins, we need to completely re-dress how we honour them and we need to take some serious perspective.

Written by Capt. Peter Dickens (Retired)

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NMC Corps Badge