War in Darfur – Operation Cordite

Looking into South Africa’s more recent involvement in Peacekeeping Missions in Africa.  Here, on  2 August 2010. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Lieutenant Justin Heath, from Boksburg (greater Johannesburg), forms part of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Sudan for 7 months.

He is seen here patrolling in Tiksas, a village abandoned by the population some years ago due to the war in Darfur.

The War in Darfur is a major armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, that began in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups began fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

Estimates of the number of human casualties range up to several hundred thousand dead, from either combat or starvation and disease. Mass displacements and coercive migrations forced millions into refugee camps or across the border, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The Sudanese government and the JEM signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2010, with a tentative agreement to pursue peace. However, talks were disrupted by accusations that the Sudanese army launched raids and air strikes against a village, violating the Tolu agreement. The current situation is that the JEM, the largest rebel group in Darfur, vowed to boycott future negotiations.

Operation Cordite in Sudan began in July 2004 with the deployment of South African National Defence Force staff officers and observers to Darfur, Sudan, in support of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) It was an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force operating primarily in the country’s western region of Darfur with the aim of performing peacekeeping operations related to the conflict in Darfur.

The AU mission was terminated in December 2007 when it was integrated into the United Nations mission to form the UN African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) in January 2008. it was the first African Union-United Nations hybrid mission. An Infantry Protection Company and an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit were added to the deployment, which was increased further in February 2005.

Operation Cordite made an immense contribution to the successful referendum on the future of Sudan, which resulted in the relatively peaceful division of the country into two: Sudan and South Sudan. Additional South African soldiers were sent to Juba, the capital of the new country, South Sudan, to assist with security for the independence celebrations in July 2011. In addition to this, South Africa also helped secure the air space for the duration of the celebrations. South Africa also trained police, prison officials and air traffic controllers: currently stationed at Juba International Airport

However typically, successful military operations are so often undermined by political antics of governments and Operation Cordite is no different.

In April 2016, South Africa withdrew it UN forces from Sudan, ending Operation Cordite after a short and unspecific Presidential statement – coincidentally and unsurprisingly it was marred with controversy and against a backdrop of political scandal which started in June 2015 when President Omar Al Bashir – who was visiting South Africa to attend an African Union summit, was allowed to escape South Africa in a private jet.

His escape, allegedly with the connivance of President Jacob Zuma, came in defiance of an order by the South African High Court, pending a decision on whether to hand Al Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in accordance with international arrest warrants for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The decision remains highly controversial in South Africa today, so too South Africa’s strained relationship with the ICC (South Africa taking the standpoint that the ICC should not interfere in South Africa’s legitimate obligations to African Union AU).

150904ZumaBashir-jpg

The repercussions on how South Africa sees its compete military role in United Nations Peacekeeping remains to be seen, hopefully in future it will positively underpin the great work of the majority of good South African men and women who enter the armed services and have the privilege of wearing the United Nation’s “Blue Beret”.

Photo copyright Albert Gonzalez Farran / Unamid

400 shells/min fell on the Springboks … “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

With the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme offensive and the Battle of Delville Wood coming around every year, we remind ourselves once again of the hell endured by the South Africans fighting in the wood, known at the time as “Springboks” – and nothing says it more than seeing the mountainous piles of artillery shells fired at them.  In all during the battle 400 shells per minute were being fired into the South African positions no more than a square mile in size – and that went on day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute 400 explosions at a time – now imagine that sort of ‘hellfire’ and ‘sheer terror’ for a moment, and you’ll be in the mind of a Springbok soldier at Delville Wood witnessing it in 1916.

This World War 1 feature photo from the Herr Woerner Eugen Collection, shows the German side opposite the South African offensive at Delville Wood, this German soldier is overseeing the shell case dump nearby the wood.  That’s just the spent ammunition, so let’s have a look at the South Africans who took the brunt of this intense barrage and how they came to be there.

10426660_302525313250541_1405609637130134780_n

“Hold it at all costs”

As part of the initial Somme offensive, the British under Major-General Furse of the 9th Division, had to secure the advance on Longueval, but to do this, Delville Wood (a small wood directly next to Longuval) had to be taken first.  Major General Furse had no option but to commit his last reserve—the 1st South African Brigade to do it.

The 1st South African Brigade under Brigadier General Henry Lukin was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July 1916 and “hold it at all costs”.

The first attack progressed smoothly and by 07:00 the South Africans had secured the southern half of the wood,  by 14:40 the whole wood had been secured, with the exception of a strong German position in the north west adjoining Longueval.  The South African troops where now spread along the entire perimeter in groups forming strong–points supported by machine–guns.

But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, occupying a salient with only the south-western base being in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the perimeter of the wood was made difficult by roots and remnants of tree trunks from the previous day’s artillery fire, making the preparation of proper trenches impossible, with the South Africans having to make do with shallow shell-holes and burrows. With unprepared trenches, a narrow base to their salient and facing over 7,000 German troops, holding the wood was going to be extremely difficult!

The Germans launched one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war in an effort to dislodge the South Africans in the wood. It has been estimated that at its peak the rate of firing exceeded 500 shells per minute – even at one stage some references say 600 shells per minute were fired at the South African positions. To think this relentless volley of shelling was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometre in size.

The South Africans began to dig in beating off counter attacks as they did so. The roots and remnants of tree trunks made the preparation of proper trenches impossible and the South Africans had to make do with shallow ones.

The bloodiest battle hell of 1916

Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood  – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.

“…Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair….”

10405542_874163019269673_4645022932964781731_n

The battle is of particular importance to South Africa, as it was the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The casualties sustained by this Brigade were of catastrophic proportions, comparable to those encountered by Allied battalions on the first day of the Somme. On the Western Front, units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualties had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “…the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”

It was this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic and cultural divides – fighting as one in union and strength, that the newly formed Union of South Africa’s national identity was forged for the years come.

Related links and work

Springbok Valour – Battle of Delville Wood Centenary ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

In Flanders Fields (Afrikaans) ‘In Flanders Fields’ translated into Afrikaans for the Somme 100 commemoration, July 2016

William Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

A Diary from Delville Wood A South African soldier’s diary captures the horror of Delville Wood

Mascots at Delville Wood: Nancy the Springbok Nancy the Springbok

Mascots at Delville Wood: Jackie the Baboon Jackie; The South African Baboon soldier of World War One


Researched by Peter Dickens.

Image copyright: Herr Woerner Eugen Collection – Imperial War Museum, Images of the wood copyright to the Imperial War Museum. Feature Illustration – The Battle of Delville Wood Illustrated London News Lithograph by the Spanish artist – José Simont Guillén (1875-1968).  Block images copyright Imperial War Museum.