The first man to land on an aircraft carrier at sea was a South African

A South African holds a very prestigious place in the world of aviation firsts.  Edwin Dunning was the first man to land an aircraft on a moving ship adapted to carry aircraft, a feat that at the time was near impossible, and the practice of landing aircraft even today on an aircraft carrier takes supreme skill and is reserved for the ‘best of the best’ pilots, such is the hazard.  Unfortunately for his pioneering endeavour his efforts were to end in tragedy.

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Squadron Commander E H Dunning climbs out of his aircraft on the flying-off deck of HMS FURIOUS after the first successful landing on an aircraft carrier underway.

Edwin Harris Dunning was born in South Africa on the 17th July 1892, the second child of Sir Edwin Harris Dunning and was later educated at Royal Navy Colleagues in the United Kingdom.

A very skilled aviator, he took to pioneering naval aviation.  He rose to a high rank within the Royal Navy’s newly born Air Service or RNAS (which was to evolve into their ‘Fleet Air Arm’).  During World War 1 the Army and the Navy ran separate Air Services under their own Command. During the war the Royal Navy began to look at how aircraft can be operated from fighting ships.

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Squadron Commander E H Dunning

Previously the Royal Navy had used catapults to launch the aircraft from ship decks but landing them was a different matter – early naval aircraft types were fitted with pontoons (sea-plane or ‘float’ plane) and ‘landed in the ocean next to the vessel to be hoisted back on.  This posted a number of difficulties, sea conditions and time and manoeuvring of the aircraft and ship for hoisting for starters.  Also, they could only operate one aircraft from a ship and it was usually used for one thing – ‘spotting’ i.e. reconnaissance work.

The solution lay in an adapted fighting ship with a runway from which a number of aircraft could take-off or be catapulted from and could land directly on the ship again, this could then bring the formidable nature of air-power – striking targets anywhere in the world within range completely at will into the realm of sea-power.  The concept of the aircraft carrier was born (a concept that to this day divides a super-power from an ordinary country).

However, you needed people with considerable skill and courage to try this idea out, that it was dangerous to land on a ship in high winds and rolling seas is an understatement – think of runway that is always moving around.  They found such a man in our hero, one very brave South African aviator.

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HMS Furious with the original flight deck conversion in the front

The Royal Navy decided to convert a Courageous-class Battlecruiser, the from a fighting ship into a fighting aircraft carrier by removing her forward gun and a flight deck was added to the bow in its place.  A difficult proposition to land on as the approaching aircraft had to manoeuvre around the superstructure to land (much later on they removed the rear gun and extend the flight deck to compensate for this, but it look a tragic learning).

Squadron Leader Edwin Dunning, aged just 25, flying a Sopwith Pup bi-plane marched into the history books at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, Scotland during test exercises in the Flow.  He became the first person to land on a moving aircraft carrier at sea.  He completed this landmark aviation feat on 2 August 1917.

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A colourised image captures Dunning’s milestone.  Note naval personnel ‘catching’ his aircraft

The landing was extremely perilous – whereas now arrest wires would bring a plane to a halt, Dunning was relying on the deck crew of the Furious to grab the wings of his Sopwith Pup to bring it to a halt.

Five short days later, after completing his milestone, Dunning endeavoured to do it again.  However tragedy struck during his third landing of the day. On approach, his aircraft stalled and he came down on the deck of the Furious at too steep an angle. Dunning was knocked unconscious, his port wing lifted as the plane went over the side of the ship and he drowned in the cockpit.

 

Recognition

Edwin Dunning is buried at St Lawrence’s Church, Bradfield in England. A plaque in the church says just about everything in recognition of his contribution to naval aviation.

It reads:

“The Admiralty wish you to know what great service he performed for the Navy. It was in fact a demonstration of landing an Aeroplane on the deck of a Man-of-War whilst the latter was under way. This had never been done before; and the data obtained was of the utmost value. It will make Aeroplanes indispensable to a fleet; & possibly, revolutionise Naval Warfare. The risk taken by Squadron Commander Dunning needed much courage. He had already made two successful landings; but expressed a wish to land again himself, before other Pilots did so; and in this last run he was killed. My Lords desire to place on record their sense of the loss to the Naval Service of this gallant Officer”.

In memory of Edwin Dunning, the Dunning Cup is given annually to the officer who is considered to have done most to further aviation in connection with the Fleet for the year in question. In the 1950s and 1960s it was awarded to Royal Air Force squadrons which achieve the highest standard on courses at the Joint Anti-Submarine School.

A memorial stone was also unveiled at Swanbister Bay in Orkney in 1992 in recognition of Dunning’s feat.

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On the occasion of the centenary of Dunning’s feat the British marked the occasion in Orkney with a Hawk flypast and a new plaque was unveiled.  Lt Cdr Barry Issitt, Commanding Officer of 736 Naval Air Squadron, paid tribute in August 2017 to mark the centenary, he said;

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The new plaque has been produced by local craftsman Stuart Wylie, of Orkney Crystal – 2017.

“The event itself is of particular significance to the Royal Navy and Fleet Air Arm as it marks the first successful landing of a fixed-wing aircraft on a ship under way at sea; a moment that would be the genesis for the establishment of the pre-eminence of aircraft carriers.

“It is all the more poignant considering the current regeneration of the UK’s carrier capability, with HMS Queen Elizabeth currently conducting sea trials not far from the location of Dunning’s landing, with Merlin helicopters from 820 Naval Air Squadron operating from her flight deck.”

In Conclusion

As is typical to South Africa’s lack of recognition to countrymen who attained greatness serving in the ‘hated’ British forces (as was the case with the old National Party) or in the case of the ‘colonial’ forces (as is the current case with the ANC), even if the feat was an international aviation milestone.  So it passed unnoticed and no such flybys, plaque unveilings, awards, centenary mark or national salutes were given to our pioneering hero in South Africa – and that’s more tragic than the tragedy itself.

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Cdr Chestnutt is presented The Edwin Dunning Trophy on the pride of the Royal Navy, the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth

Related Work and Links 

Fleet Air Arm – South African sacrifice ; South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

Fleet Air Arm – Dick Lord; Dick Lord – the combat legend who took learnings from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to the SAAF

South African Navy sacrifice in the Royal Navy; The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Source and Extracts – Wikipedia and BBC News

The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated

1200px-Emblem_of_the_South_African_NavyHere’s a question for many,  in what action did the South African Navy (SAN) experience its greatest single loss of personnel, the largest sacrifice of South African life in a single  sea battle  – in essence when and what was the South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’?

I’ve asked this question of senior South African military personnel, including the South African Navy as well as the South African Naval fraternity, the veterans – and the bottom line is … nobody knows.

Some immediately say it was the Mendi, as the remembrance of the Mendi is now the South African Navy’s key responsibility, but the loss of the SS Mendi in World War 1 was not a loss of South African Navy personnel (the South African Navy did not exist in WW1 and the Royal Navy was in charge of this particular troop ship full of South African ‘Army personnel’) and the loss of the Mendi was an accident at sea and not a combat action.

za)nv81Most (actually the majority) of SAN officers and veterans would say it was the loss of the SAS President Kruger (16 souls) but that would also be very wrong, both in terms of scale and action, the SAS President Kruger loss was also an accident at sea and not a combat action.

A tiny handful of SAN officers and vets who have a little knowledge of World War 2 might venture to answer the question by stating the loss of any one of the four South African minesweepers sunk during the war as the ‘darkest hour’ of the war.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nThese are the HMSAS Southern Floe (24 souls) or the HMSAS Parktown (5 souls), or the HMSAS Bever (17 souls) or the HMSAS Treen (23 souls) – getting warm but that too would be wrong, as these did not happen over a defined period of the war that would warrant a ‘darkest hour’ in Churchill’s definition of the phrase (Churchill coined the term).

Nope, the largest loss of South Africans in a single sea battle, its ‘Darkest Hour’ took place fighting against Imperial Japan from the 5th to the 9th April 1942 … yup, the Japanese – believe it, and by the end of this particular naval engagement at sea a grand total of 65 South African souls were lost.  Now how many people know that!

The reason to ‘forget’!

So why does nobody know about this, why is this incident not ‘recognised,’ why is nobody ‘commemorating’ it and what exactly happened?

Simply put, it’s because they all died fighting whilst seconded to four British war ships in an action in the Pacific called ‘The Easter Sunday Raid’ – and it involved the sinking of the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire in a single day – and later the sinking of HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock a few days later by the Japanese Imperial Navy.  But why should that be an issue and a reason to ‘forget’?

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Japanese Imperial Fleet Ensign from World War 2

Again the simple answer is because just three short years after World War 2 the National Party in a stunning and unexpected election win over Jan Smuts’ United Party, came into power with their proposal of ‘Apartheid’ and making South Africa a ‘Republic’ independent of Britain – and they hated the British or anything to do with Britain.  The Nationalists had grounded an entire Afrikaner identity and a country’s ‘nationalism’ on two events – The Great Trek and The 2nd Anglo-Boer war, both of which carried a history of either British betrayal or British atrocity.

During the Second World war these nationalists either openly sided with Nazi Germany and in many cases (by their tens of thousands in fact) even joined Neo-nazi South African parties and/or adopted national socialist movement (Nazism) ideology publicly, some (including a future Nationalist South African President) embarked on sedition and terrorism to undermine the war effort (see “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag).

Bottom line, to the Nationalists thinking anyone who took part in Smuts’ campaign for South Africa to fight in the Second World War was a traitor to their ‘Volk’ (peoples).  In their minds they went to fight ‘Britain’s war’ alongside the hated British – traitors all (even though an unprecedented 1 in 4 white South African males volunteered to fight in WW2 – half of them Afrikaners).

For the Nationalists commemorating the sinking of South African ships fighting alongside British ones in World War 2 was bad enough.  However, commemorating and remembering the South African loss whilst fighting on His Majesty’s British ships themselves would be, for the nationalist government at least, an unforgivable betrayal.

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Members of the South African Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve serving on board HMS Nelson. The group is sat on one of the 16 inch gun barrels.

For this reason, the sinking of South African ships lost in World War 2 was not really extensively commemorated by the ‘old’ South African Defence Force  (SADF).  The SADF came into existence once the Nationalists declared South Africa a ‘Republic’ and replaced Smuts’ old ‘South African Union Defence Force (UDF) with a reformed military entity.  The sinking of HMSAS ships are only ‘remembered’ in small pockets of veteran South African Legion branches and MOTH shell-holes.

It is also for this reason that the SADF and the South African Navy did not ever commemorate the South African losses on British Ships, it is the reason why this particular ‘darkest hour’ in the South African Navy’s history is not recognised or remembered at all, which is utterly unforgivable as this is the very institution who supplied the men to The Royal Navy in the first place.

It is made worse in the modern epoch, by the newly reformatted South African National Defence Force’s Navy after 1994, which has not only lost the link thanks to the Nationalists, but also does not attempt to re-kindle it, party because of lack of knowledge, but also because it suits the African National Congress’ political agenda not to remember this association (commemorating or remembering a time when South Africans went to war for the ‘Colonials’ does not suit their current narrative).

So, let’s start addressing this betrayal of our armed forces personnel and understand what happened to qualify this as the South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’, who is on this honour roll and what’s been done about in now?

What happened? 

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Simonstown Dry Docks, when next there look out for the ships emblems of the Dorsetshire, Cornwall, Hermes and Hollyhock

As Simon’s Town was a Royal Navy base during World War 2 (British soil in the middle of South Africa), men volunteering for the “South African Naval Forces” (SANF) to fight in World War 2 where either allocated to Royal Navy ships (titled HMS – His Majesty’s Ship) or on South African Navy ships (tilted HMSAS – His Majesty’s South African Ship), therefore whenever a large Royal Navy ship was lost during the war it is almost guaranteed that a number of South African Naval Personnel (SANF) were lost with it.

When large HMS ships are lost in an action on the same action the number of South African naval personnel lost just rockets – and this is the case with the sinking of the HMS Cornwall, HMS Dorsetshire, HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock.

The Japanese Easter Raid of 1942

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A Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane takes off from the deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, part of the Japanese Naval force in the Indian Ocean

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (now Shri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class HMS Hollyhock.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo.

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,  However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday – 5th April –  achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance.

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The Japanese high command had planned the bombing of Colombo very much like the Pearl Harbor operation (many of the same planes and pilots participated in both strikes); but most of the British Eastern Fleet was at Addu Atholl in the Maldives, so when the Japanese attacked at Colombo there were only three ships there.

The sinking of the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire.

The day before, 4 April, when the Japanese carrier fleet was spotted, the two heavy cruisers the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out for Addu Atoll in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon.

As part of the engagement known as the Easter Sunday Raid, a wave of dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, and sank the two ships.  Both the Dorsetshire and the Cornwall had long associations with South Africa and had large contingent of South African Naval Personnel on board.

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Japanese combat photograph showing the Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on fire and sinking

In the attack, the Japanese airman flying Japanese  D3A-1 ‘VAL’ dive bombers, a total of 53 dive bombers in the attack wave, dropped 10 bombs on the HMS Dorsetshire itself (250- and 550-pound bombs) and 8 near misses, all in the span of 8 minutes.  One of the bombs detonated an ammunition magazine and contributed to her rapid sinking.  Of the two British cruisers, the HMS Dorsetshire sank first, with her stern going first at about 13:50, the HMS Cornwall was hit eight times and sank bow first about ten minutes later.

For a full story on the HMS Dorsetshire and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link: “They machine gunned us in the water”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Dorsetshire

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For a full story on the HMS Cornwall and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link: “A terrific explosion lifted the ship out of the water”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall

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British and Allied losses were 424 men killed; 1,122 survivors spent thirty hours in the water before being rescued by HMS Enterprise and two British destroyers.

The sinking of the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock

If the above losses qualify a dark day for the South African Navy it then becomes the SAN’s ‘darkest hour’, when in the same Japanese Operation, only a couple of short days later, on 9 April 1942, the Japanese focussed their attack on the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The HMS Hermes left the Royal Naval Base of Trincomalee, Ceylon escorted by the Australian Destroyer HMAS Vampire and HMS Hollyhock looking to engage the Imperial Japanese fleet which had attacked Colombo.

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, this British flotilla was also attacked by the Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force now in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes which sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs. HMAS Vampire was also sunk by bombs a short while later.

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HMS Hermes ablaze and sinking

The HMS Hollyhock was about 7 nautical miles from the HMS Hermes escorting a tanker, the RFA Athelstane when the Hermes came under attack.  The Hollyhock came under attack by the same Japanese aircraft and it too was bombed and sunk.

Once again, the HMS Hermes also had a very large South African Naval Forces contingent seconded to it on board, and the same applied to the HMS Hollyhock, and therefore once again there is a large of loss of South African life in this action against the Imperial Japanese fleet.

For a full story on the HMS Hermes and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link “Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

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For a full story on the HMS Hollyhock and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

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HMS Hollyhock

The Honour Roll

Total South African Naval Force (SANF) losses on the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire in the single day of action were as follows (MPK means “missing presumed killed”):

HMS Cornwall

BESWETHERICK, Hedley C, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 86671 (SANF), MPK
BOTES, John S, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68924 (SANF), MPK
COMMERFORD, Noel P, Able Seaman RNVR, 66493 (SANF), MPK
CRAWFORD, Cecil E, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 67922 (SANF), MPK
DU PREEZ, Charles P H, Able Seaman, 68175 (SANF), MPK
DUTTON, Charles C, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68949 (SANF), MPK
HANSLO, Raymond F, Able Seaman RNVR, 68295 (SANF), MPK
KEITH, Kenneth I B, Able Seaman RNVR, 66742 (SANF), MPK
KENYON, Graeme A B, Able Seaman RNVR, 68002 (SANF), MPK
KIRSTEN, Monty G W, Able Seaman RNVR, 68917 (SANF), MPK
LAW, Edward, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 66760 (SANF), MPK
MCDAVID, William K, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69138 (SANF), MPK
MITCHELL, William A, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68796 (SANF), MPK
PALMER, Walter A, Able Seaman RNVR, 68344 (SANF), (rescued, aboard HMS Enterprise), Died of Wounds
SPENCE, Noel W, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68732 (SANF), MPK
SQUIRES, John E, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68728 (SANF), MPK
STEPHEN, Eric B, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68861 (SANF), MPK
SWANN, Lawrence T, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68710 (SANF), MPK
THORPE, Maurice, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69140 (SANF), MPK
VERSFELD, Peter H S, Able Seaman RNVR, 68859 (SANF), MPK
VINK, Benjamin F, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68860 (SANF), MPK
WILLSON, Gerald F, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69006 (SANF), MPK
WRIGHT, Thomas H, Able Seaman RNVR, 68039 (SANF), MPK

HMS Dorsetshire

BELL, Douglas S, Ty/Act/Leading Stoker, 67243 (SANF), MPK
BRUCE, Alexander M, Stoker 2c, 67907 (SANF), MPK
CONCANON, Harold Bernard, Surgeon Lieutenant (Doctor)
EVENPOEL, Albert, Stoker 2c, 67909 (SANF), MPK
GEFFEN, Sender, Stoker 1c, 68035 (SANF), MPK
HOWE, Horace G, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68680 (SANF), MPK
KENDRICK, George, Stoker 2c, 67910 (SANF), MPK
MCINTYRE, Norman G, Able Seaman, 67446 (SANF), MPK
MCLELLAN, Robert, Ordinary Telegraphist, 67897 (SANF), MPK
MILNE, Lawrence Victor, Able Seaman
MORROW, Douglas E, Able Seaman, 67989 (SANF), MPK
ORTON, Charles P, Able Seaman, 68009 (SANF), MPK
REDMAN, Roland A, Leading Stoker, 67406 (SANF), MPK
SCOTT, William J, Able Seaman, 68007 (SANF), MPK
SEVEL, Harry, Stoker 1c, 68100 (SANF), MPK
VAN ZYL, David Isak Stephanus, Stoker 1st Class
WILLETT, Amos A S, Stoker 1c, 67240 (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMSON, Walter N, Able Seaman, 67803 (SANF), MPK

But, unfortunately there is more.  As in the same Japanese Operation, just a couple of days later saw the loss of the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock (also lost in a single day), the honour roll of South Africans on board these two fighting ships who were lost is as  follows:

HMS Hermes

BRIGGS, Anthony Herbert Lindsay Sub-Lieutenant (Engineer) Royal Navy (South African national), MPK

BRYSON, Neil W, Ordinary Telegraphist, 69147 (SANF), MPK
BURNIE, Ian A, Able Seaman, 67786 (SANF), MPK
CLAYTON, Frederick H, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68102 (SANF), MPK
DE CASTRO, Alfred T, Stoker 1c, 67914 (SANF), MPK
KEENEY, Frederick W, Able Seaman, 67748 (SANF), MPK
KEYTEL, Roy, Able Seaman, 67296 (SANF), MPK
KIMBLE, Dennis C, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 67600 (SANF), MPK
KRAUSE, Frederick E, Able Seaman, 68321 (SANF), MPK
RAPHAEL, Philip R, Able Seaman, 67841 (SANF), MPK
RICHARDSON, Ronald P, Able Seaman, 67494 (SANF), MPK
RILEY. Harry Air Mechanic 2nd Class, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Navy (South African national), MPK
TOMS, Ivanhoe S, Able Seaman, 67709 (SANF), MPK
VICKERS, Colin P, Able Seaman, 68296 (SANF), MPK
VORSTER, Jack P, Able Seaman, 67755 (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Edward G, Stoker, 68026 (SANF), MPK
WIBLIN, Eric R, Able Seaman, 67717 (SANF), MPK
YATES, Philip R, Supply Assistant, 67570 (SANF), MPK

Included in this Honour Roll is also a South African serving with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on the HMS Hermes.

RILEY, H, Air Mechanic, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Hermes, died 9 April 1942

HMS Hollyhock

ANDERSON, Henry G, Able Seaman, 67501 (SANF), MPK
BASTON, Douglas T, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68600 (SANF), MPK
BUITENDACH, James M, Stoker 2c, 69223 (SANF), MPK
JUBY, Kenneth J, Ordinary Seaman, 69211 (SANF), MPK
LEACH, Peter A D H, Stoker 2c, 69225 (SANF), MPK

 Lest we forget the tremendous sacrifice of our countrymen in this world war for the liberation of human kind.

Why is it important we get this history right?

Logo_of_the_Royal_NavySo there we have it, the South African Navy’s biggest single loss in a single day – 41 souls, a ‘black day’ and added together with the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock , we see a complete total of 65 South African souls lost in one single engagement at sea – qualifying a very ‘black week’ – The Easter Sunday Raid and this then marks the Easter period as the South African Navy’s ‘Darkest Hour’.

But is this correct – is this the full complement of South Africans lost in the incident?  The answer unfortunately is – probably not.

Whilst the honour rolls distinguish the South African Naval Forces personnel seconded to British ships, they do not distinguish the South Africans who joined the Royal Navy directly in either Simonstown or in the United Kingdom – of which there were thousands and those who lost their lives are now listed under the Royal Navy’s honour roll.

The ‘old’ South African Defence Force (SADF) did not maintain these records, nor was a honour roll tracked by the South African Navy and simply put, when the Nationalists broke the formal ties with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and after the resultant four decades in the ‘wilderness’ during the Apartheid epoch – many of these names are now ‘lost’.to all of us as South Africans.

To find out which of these are South Africans requires research into each and every case on the Royal Navy’s record – a momentous task which some dedicated people looking into this are only now beginning to get their heads around.  Here we must thank the likes of Glenn Knox, David Bennet, Allan du Toit, Cameron Kinnear and Graham Du Toit and a handful of others for sterling work recovering this history.

So, in all likelihood more than just ’64’ South Africans died in this action, and why is this important for us to know who they were? Read this letter I received when I published this honour roll and action in a previous article on the HMS Dorsetshire it says everything as to the importance of this work:

Letter from Chris Crossley

Hi Peter,
Just another story for you! This post you put up on the Legions page has some amazing history which you wouldn’t know about but I am happy to share with you to show my gratitude for these “nuggets” of info you share with us.

My wife, Tracy, was an adopted child who after 35 years found her birth parents. Wonderful people they turned out to be and we are building a relationship with them that is priceless. As things go, curiosity led us to find out about family history and Tracy’s birth Dad told us about an uncle of his that was lost during the war. He was in the SAN and went down with “some” ship somewhere. He was married at the time and his wife, on hearing the news that her husband was lost at sea (MIA) never gave up on the hope of his return to Durban because he was never seen and not confirmed deceased. Because of this, she never remarried and passed away many years later, remaining faithful to her husband. Her husband was Roland Redman who served with the SA Navy volunteers on the HMS Dorsetshire that your story includes. His name is included in the Role of Honour for the Dorsetshire.

None of the wider family have ever known what happened to him and the facts and details of his service were not known by the surviving family members either. This last Saturday evening, I was talking to my wife’s birth Dad when he recounted the scant details he had of his uncle. I went on line and found your article and shared it with him on fb. Well he was overcome by this information as well as other members of his family and now for the first time in seventy odd years the facts of Uncle Roland, his service and his sacrifice are now known and cherished by his family left behind.

As an historian, I am sure this story will be something that you can cherish as your post has made a huge difference to some wonderful people! Thank you.

Chris Crossley

See When “nuggets” of history make a BIG difference

In Conclusion 

Now, with this letter in mind, I cannot think of a better reason to get this history right and establish the correct commemorations and full honour roll.  We owe it to our countrymen whose sacrifice brought us international freedom and liberty – it is our duty to carry this flame of remembrance and rid ourselves of the divisive and petty politics of one-upmanship played out by politicians with agendas (nationalists and the ANC) – this politicisation shrouds our most honourable history and only serves to dishonour the sacrifice of our South African servicemen and women – which is by its very nature is as ‘unforgivable’ as it is ‘dishonourable’.

Related work and Links:

For related work in the Observation Post on the above story, click on the following links:

SS Mendi: Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard 

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

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

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

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

SAS President Kruger:  “Out of the Storm came Courage” … the tragedy of the PK

South Africans lost on other Royal Navy ships:

HMS Barham: “She blew sky high”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Barham!

HMS Edinburgh: “Gold may shine; but it has no true light” South African sacrifice on the HMS Edinburgh

HMS Gloucester: A “grievous error”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Gloucester

HMS Helca: “Every man for himself” … South African sacrifice and the sinking of HMS Hecla

HMS Neptune: South African sacrifice on the HMS Neptune


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References Wikipedia. CASUALTIES BY DATE and SHIP Compiled by Don Kindell sourced on the Royal Naval History Homepage.  Image copyright of Royal Navy, SA Naval Reserve, Imperial War Museum.  Japanese Imperial Ensign object, Imperial War Museum copyright.

 

Guy Hallifax, the most senior African Naval officer lost during WW2

29662349_2114964258732561_5863672511395231607_oThis Easter we also remember Rear Admiral Guy Hallifax, the most senior South African Naval officer  to lose his life during World War 2.  His contribution to the Navy is significant as he literally is one of the founding fathers of the modern South African Navy as we know it.

Guy Hallifax served in the Royal Navy from 1899 to 1935, and ended his RN career on the staff of the last British Governor-General of South Africa, the Earl of Clarendon.  Remaining in South Africa, at the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, he was recruited by the South African government to form a Navy, which was to be named the ‘Seaward Defence Force’.

As the first Director of the Seaward Defence Force, he established a small fleet of minesweepers and anti-submarine vessels for coastal defence, and organised naval detachments in the major ports.  In his work, the South African seaward defence forces became a formidable institution by 1943, please take the time to watch this short Pathé newsreel which captures it.

In March 1941, Guy Hallifax flew in a small de Havilland Dragon Rapide to Walvis Bay, a small South African naval territory in South West Africa (now Namibia), for a staff visit to the base.   Uncomfortable with the old bi-plane Dragon Rapid, he elected to return in a heavier, modern and more powerful Loheed Lodestar.  This is Dragon Rapid he flew to Walvis Bay in – courtesy the SA Naval Museum.

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The de Havilland Dragon Rapide used by Guy Hallifax to fly to Walvis bay

On the 28th March 1941, when Rear Admiral Guy Hallifax returned from his staff in a civilian registered South African Airways Lockheed 18-08 Lodestar, Registration ZS-AST en-route to Cape Town, which tragically flew into the high ground near at Baboon Point near Elands Bay (Elandsbaai) in dense fog. All on board were killed which including Rear Admiral Guy Hallifax and three civilians.

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Similar SAA Lockheed 18-08 Lodestar to ZS-AST

They are all buried in a mass grave in the Plumstead cemetery, the grave is cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Here is his final resting place.

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Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References Wikipedia and the SA Naval Museum, with thanks to Glenn Knox.  Video copyright Pathé news , also referenced is Day by Day SA Naval History: By Chris Bennett.

“Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

29060739_2111661739062813_6833898184469216994_oThis South African’s Victoria Cross turns 100 on the 21/22 March 2018, so today we honour another true South African hero and Victoria Cross recipient, and this man, Captain Reginald Frederick Johnson Hayward VC MC & Bar is one very extraordinary South African.

“Bravery” is an often over used word, then you read about a South African who won the Military Cross for Bravery, not once but twice and then goes on to win a Victoria Cross. Now this Hilton College old boy is a “brave” man cut from a different cloth, “superhuman” in fact (as is noted in his VC citation) and this is his story.

Reginald Hayward, was the son of a stockbreeder family, Frederick and Gertrude Hayward, he was born on 17 June 1891 at the Beersheba Mission Station near Swartruggens, East Griqualand in South Africa.  He was educated at Hilton College and represented Natal against English Rugby teams in 1911. Serving with the cadets he became Regimental Sergeant Major.

After leaving school Reginald attended  Durban Business College from 1909-1910 and continued to excel as sportsman especially in rugby, football and cricket. In May 1912 he travelled to England and began studying at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and captained their Rugby XV in 1913. He also played for Rosslyn Park Club and for Middlesex.

When the 1st World War broke out be volunteered and in May 1912 Reginald arrived in the United Kingdom and joined the 6th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant on 29 September 1914.

The Somme Offensive 1916

Later the same year he was promoted to temporary Lieutenant and in March 1915 joined the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment in France where during October 1916 he was involved in action at Stuff Redoubt, Thiepval, France during which he was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and initiative, gazetted on 8th October.

Wounded during the action he briefly returned to London to have the piece of shrapnel removed from his eye.

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Officers and men of the 1st Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment, after their return from the fighting at Thiepval, photographed at Bouzincourt, September 1916

On 19 December 1916 Reginald was promoted to Temporary Captain and on 22 December 1916 was promoted to the substantive rank of Lieutenant. During the battle of Messines Ridge in Belgium on 07 June 1917 he was awarded a bar to his Military Cross which was gazetted on 18 September.

The Spring Offensive 1918

On 21 March 1918 the Germans launched their Spring offensive against the section of Front manned by British Third and Fifth Armies running from Roeux on the River Scarpe east of Arras in the north to the River Oise west of La Fere in the south, as the crow flies a distance of about 50 miles, but over double that on the ground. 6th Corps held the British Line south of Arras. From the previous evening, German troops had begun probing British positions at this point. 13th Battalion Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own (Yorkshire Regiment) were in the line from St -Leger, just east of the road south from Arras to Bapaume, along the road south to Mory.

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Captured British tank with German markings crossing a trench. Note a biplane flying over the battlefield during the German’s Spring Offensive of 1918

It was here on the morning of 21 March 1918 that Temporary Second Lieutenant E F Beal gallantly repelled a German incursion, helping to stabilize the situation until he was killed. However, German pressure was relentless and the British were pushed back. As the enemy advances steadily towards Bapaume, 1st Battalion The Wiltshire Regiment was moved to the north of Fremicourt, a village east of Bapaume and just south of the Cambrai road. 4th Corps was trying to hold a line between Vaulx and Morchies to the north of the road. It was for his gallantry in the fighting which followed that Acting Captain R F J Hayward was awarded the VC.

Just to get a measure of the man and this Victoria Cross, on 21/22 March 1918 near Fremicourt, France, while commanding a company, Captain Hayward displayed “almost superhuman powers of endurance”. In spite of the fact that he was buried, three times wounded in the head, rendered deaf and had his arm shattered, he refused to leave his men, instead he motivated them as he continued to move across the open fields of fire from one trench to another with absolute disregard for his own safety – all the time under ceaseless enemy attack.  His actions directly attributed to his Regiment holding their defensive line and stemming the enemy advance.  

Imagine that, an officer with multiple serious wounds running out into open hell-fire time and again keeping his men in place and fighting, his action alone changing the tide of the battle – that’s the stuff of a Victoria Cross.

Here is his citation and it says everything about the action and his courage:

medalCITATION
For most conspicuous bravery in action. This officer, while in command of a company, displayed almost superhuman powers of endurance and consistent courage of the rarest nature. In spite of the fact that he was buried, wounded in the head, and rendered deaf on the first day of operations, and had his arm shattered two days later, he refused to leave his men (even though he received a third serious injury to his head), until he collapsed from sheer physical exhaustion.

Throughout the whole of this period the enemy was attacking his company front without cessation, but Captain Hayward continued to move across the open front from one trench to another with absolute disregard of his own personal safety, concentrating entirely on re-organising his defences and encouraging his men.

It was almost entirely due to the magnificent example of ceaseless energy of this officer that many determined attacks on his portion of the trench system failed entirely.

The surviving Wiltshires, three officers and 54 NCO’s and men, were gathered at Bihucourt, north-west of Bapaume, on 24 March. Hayward had been evacuated with the other wounded the night before.

When the German offensive had opened on the 21st, 8th Battalion The Gloucestershire Regiment mounted an unsuccessful counter-attack at Doignies to try to contain the enemy advance south of the Cambrai-Bapaume road. They were then withdrawn west to Velu Wood. By the 23rd, the German advance had reached this point and the Glosters, together with the 10th Battalion The Royal Warwickshire Regiment was ordered to cover the further withdrawal of British forces. Bapaume itself was abandoned to the Germans.

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Composite battalion made up of surviving troops of the Wiltshire, Warwickshire Regiments, Northumberland Fusiliers and others at the end of the first phases of the German Spring Offensive. Seen here resting by the roadside. Caestre, 17 April 1918.

Post World War 1

The war would grind on for a couple of more months and end in November 1918. Reginald survived his injuries and the war and in 1919 he became the Adjudant of the 1st Battalion Wiltshire Regiment and later that same year, along with Lieutenant S. J. Parker MC DCM carried the 1st Battalion’s Regimental Colours at the Peace Parades in London and Paris.

Over the period 1919 to 1921 he served in Dublin, Egypt and Palestine and on 27 September 1927 he was promoted to the substantive rank of Captain. On 04 April 1935 he was transferred to the Reserves. On 09 July 1938 Reginald marries Linda Angus (nee Bowen in the Christ Church, Burbage, Buxton, Derbyshire.

World War 2

When the Second World War started in 1939, Reginald was called back into full-time service and served as Commander of the Royal Army Service Corps Anti-Aircraft Command (CRASC). Over the period 1945 to 1947 he was Commandant of Prisoner of War Camps where after he retired on 09 July 1947 as an Honorary Lieutenant Colonel.

Later Life

10999432_417568698412868_2379871863135790696_nReginald worked at the British Broadcasting Corporations (BBC) Publications Department from 1947 to 1952 and as games manager of the Hurlingham Club from 1952 to 1967.

His Victoria Cross investiture, along with his Military Cross, was on 24 October 1918 by King George V at Buckingham Palace. His Victoria Cross is held at the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment Museum in Wiltshire.

Apart from his Victoria Cross and Military Cross with Bar he was awarded the 1914 – 1915 Star, British War Medal 1914 – 1920, Victory Medal 1914 – 1919, Defence Medal 1939 – 1945, Coronation Medal 1937, Coronation Medal 1953 and Territorial Efficiency decoration.

Reginald died on 17 January 1970 in Chelsea, London and was cremated on 23 January 1970 in the Putney Vale Crematorium, London while his ashes are scattered in the Garden of Remembrance. He is commemorated in the St Mary’s Church, Limpley Stoke, Wiltshire. His medals are now held at The Rifles Museum, Salisbury, Wiltshire.

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Original content courtesy Charles Ross, additional research and content by Peter Dickens

Extract published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013.  Information obtained from VC on-line (The comprehensive guide to Victoria Cross and George Cross).  Images were referenced IWM Imperial Museum Copyright.

Mast image shows The Wiltshire Regiment on the advance over trenches at Thiepval during the Battle of the Somme.  Copyright Imperial War Museum.

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

Recently military institutions and veteran organisations have been marking a landmark in world history, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, as usual there has been much fanfare to celebrate this in the United Kingdom – it’s a definitive battle which for the first time gave the British and Commonwealth a glimmer of hope – this battle was to the British and Commonwealth forces what the Battle of Kursk was to the Russians.  It’s a big deal.

South Africa played a key role in the Battle of El Alamein, in fact it was a battle on which much South African life was sacrificed on the crucible of war, after the fall of Tobruk South African honour was at stake and this battle went a long way to redeem it. However, as usual, there was a low-key reaction in South Africa marking this anniversary – it was very much contained to the odd South African Legion of military veterans branch and MOTH shell-hole to remember it.

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Original colour photo taken of a South African position in the North African theatre of operations in 1942 – note the bleak and hard landscape

To the older generation in South Africa, terms such as the ‘Knightsbridge Box’, the ‘Desert  Fox’, the ‘Cauldron’ and the ‘Gazala Gallop’ were common knowledge, as were these words by General Montgomery “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”, in fact these words were a sensation at the time and seen as a national redemption.  But they are now lost completely to the new generation of South Africans.

So, lets give a little recognition to South African sacrifice in this tide turning battle, understand why it is so important and understand why this understated signal sent from General Bernard Montgomery to General Dan Pienaar meant so very much to the generation which came before us.

Prelude to The Battle of El Alamein

For the South Africans the 2nd battle of El Alamein needs to be looked in context of these events – The  Battle of Sidi Rezegh, the Battle of Gazala, the Surrender of Tobruk and the 1st Battle of El Alamein.

The Battle of Sidi Rezegh; (see Sidi Rezegh – South African blood helps turn the tide in North Africa), in November 1941 saw the 1st South African Division’s 5th Brigade fight themselves down, literally to the last man in an outstanding degree of bravery, their sacrifice – to lessen the impact of Rommel’s drive and help save the day for the British to fight another day.

For the 1st South African Division this outstanding action in the field was added to by The Battle of Gazala; By March 1942 the 1st South African Division was deployed along the Gazala line (they made up the Northern sector).  The Gazala line was to the west of Tobruk, the task of defending Tobruk was also left up the South Africans, this time the 2nd South African Infantry Division under General Klopper.

Energised and re-armed General Erwin Rommel – the ‘Desert Fox’, advanced on Egypt (and Tobruk) in May 1942, their mission was to take the Suez Canal and cut Britain from her vast empire (and resources) in the Middle East, India and the Far East.

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General Erwin Rommel (centre) with his staff

Rommel’s armoured advance with at least 10,000 vehicles hit the Allied’s ‘Gazala line’ and then headed south, to make a long sweeping right-hook around the southern end of the line.  They swept past the British 7th Armoured Division in the south and headed back north behind the Gazala line.  The Allied forces reeled and re-deployed catching up with Rommel’s forces in an area known as “The Cauldron” situated between Bir Hakeim and Tobruk. Three days of armoured fighting ensued in the area of ‘the Cauldron’ and Rommel applied pressure in ‘the Cauldron’ ultimately destroying the Allied defenders.

Rommel’s Axis forces then continued to push east to Egypt and forced the British Guards Brigade to withdraw from the Knightsbridge Box on the Gazala Line back to the Tobruk perimeter.  Now on the back-foot, on the 14th June, the British command authorised the withdraw of all units from the Gazala line, and thus began the ‘Gazala Gallop,’ a very hasty retreat.

The Gazala Gallop The 1st South African Division was ordered by British Command to withdraw along the coastal road back towards Tobruk.  They withdrew to series of defensive boxes and actions at Williams Post, Best Post, “Point 187,” Commonwealth Keep and then Acroma. The 21st and 15th Panzer attacks forced the 1st SA Division to fight a rearguard action and to withdraw through each of the respective boxes. Chased by Rommel’s tanks and driving east, the 1st South African division was now spread out between the original Gazala defences and Tobruk trying to make their way east.

By 15 June 1942, the British and Commonwealth forces had started the ‘Gazala Gallop’ in earnest (sarcastically referred because of the rapid nature of the retreat) and withdrew to a new defensive line – set up further east on the Egyptian border at an insignificant railway siding called El Alamein.  This was to be the ‘Last Stand’ by the British and Commonwealth Forces, behind El Alamein lay Rommel’s prize – Egypt.  However this left Tobruk, and the 2nd South African Division defending it isolated and highly vulnerable to Rommel’s advance.

The Fall of Tobruk;  It should have come as no surprise that the South African 2nd Division defending Tobruk would eventually be overtaken by Rommel’s rapid advance, the defences were in a poor state when the South Africans were tasked with defending it and they were ‘on their own’ without air support given the rapid withdrawal of British and Commonwealth forces from the Gazala line.  But this did not stop searing criticism from the British Command and especially Churchill who would go on to refer as South Africa’s capitulation at Tobruk as a ‘disgrace’ and his ‘lowest moment’ in the war.  See “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Tobruk, Rommel, Bayerlein, englische Kriegsgefangene

General Erwin Rommel inspects South African and British POW after the fall of Tobruk

In a nutshell, Tobruk was the largest loss of arms in South African military history, Rommel ‘bagged’ 32,000 British and South African defenders, using a Axis force half the size of the defenders’ force and he took just one day to do it.  The Fall of Tobruk opened Rommel to the Suez and therefore left Britain’s war and her entire empire in the balance.  It also left the proud South African military command and fighting reputation in absolute shreds.

It would now be up to South Africa’s remaining division, the 1st SA Division, to recover South Africa’s pride – the opportunity would come in the Battle of El Alamein.

The 1st Battle of El Alamein

Having arrived back from the Gazala Line, the 1st South African division spent two weeks improving their defences at El Alamein in what was known as the “Alamein Box”.

The Battle of El Alamein would be fought over a simple railway siding on the Egyptian border, in the middle of ‘nowhere’. But it was more than a railway siding, it was the gateway to the Axis forces invasion of Egypt and of significant strategic importance, a loss at El Alamein for the British and Commonwealth forces would mean the loss of  what Churchill referred to as the ‘second front’ – in effect it would have been the end of the British and commonwealth forces in the war – the outcome and future of the war (with future American involvement) would have looked very different should El Alamein have been lost – a lot depended on winning it.

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A rare wartime original colour photo of El Alamein railway station, taken October1942. It looks somewhat dilapidated now.

For Hitler the invasion of Russia, now in full swing was more important, and the action in North Africa for the German ‘Afrika Korps’ had been to appease and assist their key ally – Italy and Mussolini’s African colonial ambitions and conquests.  Although of lessor importance the North African campaign drew key resources, equipment – planes, tanks and personnel as well as critical leadership away from the Russian campaign to deal with an ambition to take Egypt and the Suez Canal, knock Britain out the war completely and support Italy’s ambitions.  It was to a degree the ‘second front’ Hitler had wanted to avoid.

General Auchenlik – the British Commander of the 8th Army at the time then issued an order instructing all surplus personnel to be sent back to the Egyptian Delta for rest, re-supply and training, a moved which greatly displeased General Dan Pienaar.

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General Dan Pienaar

The 1st South African Division, under General Dan Pienaar had been deployed with two brigades of infantry, each accompanied by a battery of artillery to protect the areas west and south of the El Alamein defensive box. Auchinlecks order effectively meant that Pienaar could only hold the box with one under-strength brigade.

It did not take long for Rommel to advance on the El Alamein ‘Box’, At 06:05am on the 30 June 1942 Axis transports were seen advancing to within 2,000 yards of the South African 3rd Brigade positions and they were engaged with machine and anti-tank gun fire by British units.

The South Africans were soon in the fight alongside their British and Commonwealth counter-parts and the Rand Light Infantry drove off German towed artillery, whilst the South African Air Force bombed Rommel’s supply columns. An hour later, by 07:30am the Germans had been halted and were pinned down by the South Africans, determined to avenge Gazala and the surrender of Tobruk.

For three days, 30 June to 3 July Brigadier Bobby Palmer’s 3 SA Brigade Group courageously and successfully halted the Afrika Korps’ continuous attacks on the parts of the El-Alamein Box held by the South Africans.  He held a line some 10 km long with only 1 000 infantrymen.

Counter-attacks by the South Africans found them stretched into untenable positions and the British command resolved to remove the South Africans to the rear to rest them citing they had been under too much combat stress and should they capitulate, as had been the case with the 2nd SA Div at Tobruk, it would be a political nightmare.  Both South African Divisions in the war would have been captured and it would surely spell the end of South Africa’s war effort and the Smuts government.

The intension was to replace them with an Australian division, however General Pienaar would have none of it, he famously stated to an American war correspondent  “Here I stop, I’ve retreated far enough, whether we hold the damn thing or not!”

Mussolini had flown to a nearby enemy held airfield so as not to miss out on a triumphal Roman entry into Cairo. He had not anticipated a very defiant thin line of red-tabbed Springboks and other British and Commonwealth soldiers literally stopping him in his tracks.

The Axis advance had been stopped all along the Allied line of defence at El Alamein by the 27th July and a stalemate ensued giving the British time to make changes and prepare to go on the counter-attack, this was to be the upcoming decisive battle – the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.

A Change in British Command

Outraged by the conduct of the war in the Middle East, especially the loss on the Gazala line, the surrender of the Tobruk and the hasty ‘Gallop’ retreat,  Churchill headed off to Egypt in August 1942 to make some sweeping changes to British Command.  When adding the surrender of Singapore to the mix just previously to Tobruk, it was clear to Churchill that the British Empire needed to be saved and his direct intervention in command inevitable.

South Africa played a role in advising Churchill on changes to be made to Command and the entire strategy of the war going forward, in August 1942 General Smuts was requested to meet Churchill in Cairo, here they decided on a new war strategy.

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Winston Churchill with Jan Smuts at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.

On the 5th August 1942, Winston Churchill even paid a surprise and informal visit to the South African Division. He remarked: ‘It is a long time since I was in South Africa.’  to a group of South Africans and one of the men humorously replied: ‘Yes Sir, you were in the bag then, weren’t you?’ (referring to Winston Churchill’s time spent as a Prisoner of War during the 2nd Anglo Boer War courtesy of the Boers).

General Auchenlik and his Eighth Army staff, were all given the boot (a little unfairly as Auchenlik had stabilised the Allied position after the First Battle of El Alamein). Churchill’s preferred replacement was initially not General Bernard Montgomery, he was Churchill’s second choice, General William Gott was appointed to head up the 8th Army.  Unfortunately General Gott was killed in action on 7 August 1942 when his aircraft was shot down.

General Montgomery was duly appointed to lead the 8th Army, and a decisive and very popular decision that proved to be (despite a terse relationship between Montgomery and Churchill – and notwithstanding that the two of them were polar opposite in character).

The 2nd Battle of El Alamein 

General ‘Monty’ Montgomery then set about on a massive troop and equipment build-up and extensive training and moral boosting speeches had the British forces ready.  He knew the first part of the offensive would require breaching a massive German/Italian mine-field which separated the two forces, he also knew that the headlong offensive was 1st World War in thinking, only with the use of an incredible amount of armour – as such ‘attrition’ (a battle of casualties by numbers) would play a major factor and Monty needed a vast force to overcome it.

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South African engineers training with mine detection equipment in North Africa. British and Commonwealth forces trained intensively in minefield clearance in preparation for the Second Battle of El Alamein.

In the interim South African engineers and sappers set themselves up training for the very large and very important mine clearing job to come.

Operation Lightfoot – Break-in

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Start Line Deployments for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein

The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role on the opening of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. It had to breach the German minefield which had been sown with more than half a million mines – with a dab of military humour this part of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein was called ‘Operation Lightfoot’.  South African sappers were to play a significant role opening up the minefield to allow the Allied and South African forces to push through.

General Montgomery’s basic idea was that the Australians and Highlanders were to force a northern corridor through the Axis (German/Italian) minefields while the New Zealanders and South Africans were to do the same in the southern sector.

The 1st Infantry Division (South Africa), was tasked to attack on a two-brigade front to secure the southern end of Mieiriya Ridge. The Indian 4th and Northumbrian 50th Divisions were deployed to their south and to the north was the 2nd New Zealand Division.

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A 25-pdr gun firing during the British night artillery barrage which opened Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October 1942.

The South Africans were to attack towards the south-west with 2nd SA Infantry Brigade (under the command of Brig. W.H.E. Poole) on the right and the 3rd SA Infantry Brigade (under the Command of Brig. R. Palmer) on the left. The 1st SA Infantry Brigade was deployed further south and was responsible for creating an anti-tank screen to protect the left flank of the South African attack.

Operation Lightfoot started at 2140 on 23rd October 1942 with a five-hour artillery barrage fire plan, the start of which signified H-Hour for the infantry assault.  General Pienaar had deployed each of the lead brigades, with on battalion leading for the first phase to the “red line”  – after a pause of an hour and a quarter, the two trailing battalions would pass though to the final objective on Miteiriya Ridge.

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Lucas Majozi DCM

The South African 1st and 2nd Field Force Brigades (FFB), as soon after the battle began, became pinned down in the German Axis forces minefield by intense German machine gun and artillery fire. The South African infantrymen suffered very severe casualties.

Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield.  Amongst these Black Native Military Corps (NMC) non-combatant medics rescuing their White combatant counterparts was Lucas Majozi who went on to win a DCM for gallantry. See “With bullets in his body he returned … into a veritable hell of machine gun fire”; Lucas Majozi DCM

By 08:00, the following morning on 24th October the South African objective, Miteiriya Ridge was finally secured, after a very long night of fighting and a very high rate of attrition by way of casualties.

The South African sacrifice in taking Miteiriya Ridge, spurred General Montgomery to send his now famous congratulatory signal on the 24th October 1942 to General Dan Pienaar acknowledging that the 1 SA Division had met all its objectives set for the Battle of Alamein.

Crumbling Operations

By the 25th October the Battle of El Alamein moved into the ‘crumbling actions/operations’ phase.  British Command on the 26th October ordered the South African 1st Division to “side-step” north and occupy the area initially held by the New Zealand Division and the 9th Armoured Brigade.

The South Africans were now stretched on a wider front, between the Australians and 51st Division in the north and the Indian 4th Division on Ruweisat Ridge, with 5th SA Brigade on the right, 3rd SA Brigade on its left and 1st SA Brigade being pulled back as the divisional reserve.

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El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle.

All in by the evening of 26 October (as from the H-Hour on the 23rd), the South Africans had suffered 600 casualties (the British had 2000 casualties as well as 1,000 Australians and 1000 New Zealanders).

Operation Supercharge – Break Out

By the 2nd November 1942, contrary to Hitler’s instructions – Rommel had started to withdraw. The final plan to destroy the Axis forces, code-named “Supercharge” was put into action. The 1st SA Division played no role in this phase of the operation – but the South African armoured cars attached to XXX Corps were actively involved in the attempted destruction and subsequent pursuit.

On the 4 November, after repeated attempts at breaking through the Axis lines – Lt-Col Reeves-Moore lead the South African armoured cars into the rear of the Axis positions, “….the eager children of any mechanized pursuit… scampered at dawn into the open desert beyond the mines and trenches and guns, to make their exuberant mischief amid the disintegrating enemy”.

They soon started causing the havoc for which they had been intended – A Sqn capturing two German 88 mm guns, two 105 mm guns, two 110mm guns, a Breda portee, six trucks and 130 prisoners; while B Sqn captured five trucks, a staff car, one 105 mm and one 150 mm gun and 100 prisoners within a matter of hours.

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A German Panzer III tank crewman surrenders to an advancing Allied soldier during the Battle of El Alamein, 1942

While the South African armoured cars were dashing west, the remaining elements of 1st South African Division had moved further north and over the previous two nights had relieved the 51st Highland Division 51st Highland Division.  During the night of 3/4 November, the last unit to move into its new position was the 1st Cape Town Highlanders who moved during a major artillery barrage in support of an attack by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. The regiment awoke on the 4th November to silence and the absence of gunfire, save for the sound of Allied vehicles advancing west in pursuit of the retreating enemy.

For the 1st South African Division, the war in North Africa had ended.

The loss of General Dan Pienaar

25626160_885298981647845_7204091414452226149_oThe Division returned to South Africa and General Pienaar and eleven other officers boarded a South African Air Force (SAAF) Lockheed Lodestar on 17 December to fly the final command structure back to South Africa.

The SAAF aircraft stopped to re-fuel at Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.  It was reputed that General Pienaar was in a hurry to get going and this may have pushed the pilot into taking risks, on takeoff on 19 December, the aircraft plunged into the lake, killing all on board.

With that came the sad ending of the very popular General Dan Pienaar, he was described in an obituary in the Chicago Tribune as being acknowledged by all military authorities as “one of the best fighting leaders the British have found in this war”.

The End of the Beginning

After the 1st South African Infantry Division’s job was done in North Africa it was disbanded and the 6th South African Armoured Division was formed to continue with South Africa’s World War 2 contribution.   The British Command, still relatively unhappy with the Tobruk incident 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 – for the rest of the war.

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Memorial to South Africans at El Alamein Commonwealth Cemetery

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 – taking with it the recovered country pride so hard for by the 1st South African Division at Tobruk, to an even higher accolade.

The Battle of El Alamein plays such a significant in the outcome of World War 2, Winston Churchill once remarked; “before Alamein, we never had a victory – after Alamein we never had a defeat” and more famously that Alamein marked the ‘end of the beginning‘ of World War 2.

In Conclusion

That South Africa played such a critical part in this pivot moment of history is often overlooked, it’s not something most South Africans are even aware of and it really is something which needs to be redressed by the time the centenary of this battle comes around.  Hopefully by this time it’s not confined to a couple of South African Legion branches and few MOTH shell-holes dotted around South Africa to remember it.

Lest we forget this Battle and path of sacrifice taken by some of the finest South Africans we have ever known, people to whom we as a nation owe a massive debt of gratitude.  Also, it really is not for politicians to remember the war dead, it really isn’t their job and given the nature of politics to ask them to do so is to dishonour both the sacrifice and the dead.  Let’s face it, the African National Congress (ANC) government are not up for it nor are they the proper people to do it in the first place (and to be honest nor were the old National Party government the right people either).

It is up to the veterans fraternity and each and every person that has served in a South African military uniform to carry this flame of remembrance on behalf of those who have come before them – as is the generally accepted practice in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  When we as South Africans veterans snap out of our collective apathy and get that part together, sharing in our most honoured history and stand in a unified cause in our thousands, only then will we get our remembrance occasions aligned and honour these men and women properly.

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Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extracts and references taken from The Military History Journal, Vol 9 No 2 – December 1992 ‘GENERAL PIENAAR, TELL YOUR SOUTH AFRICAN DIVISION THEY HAVE DONE WELL’ – General Montgomery; 24 October 1942. By A B Theunissen.  Other references include The Imperial War Museum (with photo copyrights were shown), Wikipedia and a Biography of Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) By Beat Lenel.

 

Jan Smuts and South Africa’s sanctuary for Polish refugee children

Not many South African’s know this, but during the Second World War – Jan Smuts opened South Africa to care for Polish orphans and children traumatised and displaced by the war. Ouma Smuts also played a leading role in ensuring they were correctly tutored and continued to have high appreciation of their rich Polish cultural heritage.

Many in the Polish community in South Africa to this day can trace their roots to event and this very orphanage.  It is part of South Africa’s history on which we can all stand very proud.

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This remarkable British Pathé newsreel film accounts the children’s home in Oudtshoorn and the “new life” afforded to these Polish children, it brings to light the character of South Africa at the time – especially the care and benevolence shown by South Africa and the “Oubaas and Ouma” to displaced war refugees in Europe at the time of their greatest need.

Take the time to watch the film and know why, as South Africans, we can stand with pride in our country and the great deeds it has done.

Military assistance to Poland was not the only contribution, the government of Jan Smuts also provided a home in Oudtshoorn to 500 Polish children who had been deported to Siberia in the early 1940s by the Soviets when their country was divided between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

On 17 September 1939, two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, Soviet troops swiftly occupied the eastern half of Poland and, after a plebiscite, annexed the area to Ukraine and Belorussia. Beginning in the winter of 1939-40 Soviet authorities deported over a million Poles, many of them children, to the various provinces in the Soviet Union. Almost one-third of the deportees were Jewish.

In the summer of 1941 the Polish government in exile in London received permission from the Soviet Union to release several hundred thousand former Polish citizens from labor camps, prisons and forcible resettlement in the Soviet Union, to organize military units among the Polish deportees, and later to transfer Polish civilians to camps in the British-controlled Middle East and Africa. There the Polish children were able to attend Polish schools.

In 1942, the London government, acting through their Consul General Dr. Mi. Stanislaw Lepkowski, secured permission from General Jan Smuts to transport 500 children to the Union of South Africa In 1943, After they had been evacuated through the southern Soviet republics to Iran, the children were then brought to South Africa.

Polish Orphans in South Africa

The Polish Children’s Home (Dom Polskich Dzieci) was organized in Oudtshoorn for their temporary accommodation, care and education (located on what is now South Africa’s ‘Infantry School’ Army base(. It was run under the supervision of the South African Department of Social Welfare, as well as Polish consular and ministry representatives, it remained in operation until 1947.

This story can be seen at Ditsong Museum of Military History in an exhibit.  The story is outlined in this document Kindly provided by Stefan Szewczuk who is the President of the Polish Association of Siberian Deportees in South Africa. Follow this link  Oudtshoorn Polish Children poster 17 September 2012

Jan Smuts Polish Display

The Polish connection and story displayed at the Ditsong Museum of Military History in Johannesburg

Related work and links:

Jan Smuts and Jewish Orphans; 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

Jan Smuts; “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

National Party Orphans; The Nat’s Nazi German orphan adoption program .. some good results, some very bad!


Written and researched by Peter Dickens. Film copyright African Mirror and British Pathé, Colourised image of Jan Smuts by Marianne Jerome Kristal.

“The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

smutsThere are still a handful of conservative ‘Afrikaner nationalist’ white people in South Africa who would still toe the old Nationalist line on Smuts, that he was a ‘verraaier’ – a traitor to his people, his death welcomed.  However, little do they know that many of the old Nationalist architects of Apartheid held Smuts in very high regard.

DF Malan, on the day of Smuts’ death, 11th September 1950, was the Prime Minister of South Africa, his Nationalist party had defeated Smuts’ United party two years earlier in 1948 whilst pushing the Nationalist proposals to further entrench racial segregation with a concept they called Apartheid.  Smuts on the other hand, foresaw the need to extend the ideas of ‘Union’ which had brought Afrikaner and Briton together to include Black South Africans. On voting rights, he had made his views clear to Hertzog as early as 1920 when in a private meeting he proposed a Qualification Franchise (not a Universal one though) for black South Africans (Hertzog was an ardent Nationalist and rejected the idea outright).

Smuts was born into a system of ‘Empire’ and that was the socio-political sphere everyone understood, including Smuts.  Over time Smuts’ views on racial segregation gradually evolved from the generally understood divided evolution edicts of his day (based on where nations stood on the ‘civilisation’ continuum).  On the international stage by the mid 1940’s, when Smuts was outside of the pressures of South Africa’s race politics (even from inside of his own political party) and not toeing his party’s line, here his views started to really shape up.

By the middle of World War 2 he had taken on a deep sense of individual liberty for all mankind, emancipation and freedom from any sort of oppression (including State).  These views, based on what he termed man’s universal “spirit” for freedom forged by two world wars, they were consolidated in his work on the United Nations and exposed on an international stage in a number of speeches.

Back in South Africa after the war, as a precursor to these views on universal liberty, Smuts had already changed from his old positions on segregation and proposed ‘integration’ instead of ‘separation’ and he had also already promised black community leaders greater political representation if they supported his war effort, voting rights under Smuts were already secure for South Africans of Indian origin and the Cape Coloured community.  On the Nationalists proposals of Apartheid he once said:

“The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own Kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard”.

The nationalists touted a fear of ‘black danger’ under this more democratically minded Smuts if he won, and it struck a cautionary chord with many white voters and the Nationalists won the day, surprisingly and against the odds, and not by a majority mind – but on a constitutional seat basis.

On losing the election Smuts made one of his greatest speeches in 1949 at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument to a largely Afrikaner crowd, it says everything of where he stood on integration and the future of South Africa, he said:

“Only on the basis of taking from the past what was beautiful could ‘fruitful co-operation and brotherhood’ between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis could a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations”. He went on to say, that this was “the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.’

Simply put, the country’s white community at Smuts’ death was very split down the middle on the issue of ‘Apartheid’ and what it would bring, the majority of South Africans did not favour it and they had heeded Smuts’ warnings of what entrenched race politics would bring to South Africa’s future.

The death of Jan Smuts

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DF Malan

DF Malan was attending a National Party political rally to the party faithful and whipping up support for the edicts of Apartheid when Smuts’ died.   An aide walked up to him and handed him a note with the news of Smuts’ death, what he does next would surprise even the hardest right-wing Afrikaner Nationalist.

Instead of gleeful celebration of the demise of this most hated enemy of the Apartheid cause, the man repeatedly called a ‘traitor’ by the Nationalists, a man who had the ‘blood’ of Jopie Fourie on his hands, the ‘hansopper’ and ‘joiner’ turncoat who favoured the union of the Afrikaner with the hated British to heal South Africa over and above separationist Afrikaner rule, the King’s ‘hanskakie’ puppet, old ‘slim Jannie’ who put global interests and governance ahead of his ‘volk’ (white Afrikaner peoples) – no Dr. Malan’s reaction to the news was somewhat different to what most people now would even think.

DF Malan immediately turned pale, he slowly sat down, slumped over and cupped his hands to his face. He had lost a lifelong and very close friend.  Their political positions aside, Malan had a deep sense of admiration for his old friend.

He had to be helped up to stand at the microphone, where he announced that “a great figure of our time” has just died, he called the Nationalists to silence and then cancelled the rally.  His colleagues reporting that they had never seen Malan so distressed.

DF Malan’s reaction says a lot about Smuts, the importance he had in the formation of South Africa, he was the original ‘reconciler’ of the warring nations in South Africa, his idea of union based his philosophy of holism – all parts of the sphere make the whole, made the state of South Africa as we know it, he was quite literally the ‘father’ of the South African nation, and now he was lost.

 

The universal appreciation of Smuts at the time, both by his supporters and his detractors, would see a nationwide and even worldwide outpouring of grief, Smuts’ funeral was something else, a funeral not seen since in South Africa and only seen again when Nelson Mandela died.

To even begin to contemplate Smuts’ importance to not only South Africa, but to the free world consider what Winston Churchill wrote to Isie (Ouma Smuts), his wife, expressing his condolences, and what he wrote sums up the loss perfectly.

“There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior-statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch.”

In his lifetime, Smuts had advanced to a level of greatness that is more substantive and more far-reaching to the modern human race than any South African before and even after him (with all respect to Nelson Mandela and his legacy).

Add to this what King George VI wrote Ouma Smuts and you start to see a pattern.  He wrote:

“the force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”.

To understand his impact to humankind by way of an obituary to his milestone accolades, consider the following:

The birth of South Africa

The establishment of the state of South Africa in 1910. His proposal of ‘Union’ with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal brought South Africa out of the devastation of the Boer War and the resultant decimation of the Boer nation. Despite winning the war, in just four years of Colonising everything, Britain had handed all control of her colonies in South Africa to an independent parliament to Westminster, able to make its own laws to forge its own destiny, headed up by two Boer Generals of which Smuts was one.

The Boers had lost their two small Republics to war and now, thanks to Smuts’ skill and British confidence in his vision and him, the Boer commanders were very quickly back in governance of both their ‘old’ Republics and in addition, both the British Colonies as well – without a shot been fired.  To quote Smuts ‘they gave our country back’.  He reflected that at no time in Britain’s long history had such a ‘miracle of trust and magnanimity’ ever happened.

British ‘meddling’ and ‘warmongering’ in South Africa would never happen on the same scale again, and in fact they were making reparations for the damage they had caused by way of economic support.

The League of Nations and United Nations

He played a key role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the exact design and implementation of which relied upon Smuts, he even drafted the outlines for the The Treaty of Versailles. His outline was not fully followed and he warned the League of a future calamity with Germany – how prophetic he was.

With the demise of the League of Nations (the USA left it), Smuts still held the view that a more robust world peace body was required involving all nations holding each other to account.  He later urged the formation of a new international organisation for peace: The United Nations (UN).

Smuts wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person in history to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations (see earlier Observation Post link Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).

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Smuts signing the United Nations Charter

 

The British Commonwealth of Nations

He sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, he helped establish the concept of a ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ based on devolved British authority instead of a ‘British Empire’ and by doing so he served to end Britain’s ‘Empire. He in fact came up with the term ‘Commonwealth’ and it was to his recommendations that the King listened.

The birth of Israel

In 1932, the kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in Israel was named after him. Smuts was a vocal proponent of the creation of a Jewish state, and spoke out against the rising anti-Semitism of the 1930s.  His relationship with the Jews and Israel did not stop there, he was one of the driving forces behind the Balfour Declaration which established the state of Israel (see earlier Observation Post A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts.)

World Wars and Military Milestones

He became South Africa’s only Field Marshal, having taken South Africa to both World Wars on the side of democracy and freedom.  The Second World War alone launched the manufacturing might of South Africa largely due to the support of the war effort.  By the end of WW2, South Africa, a muddle of small colonies and republics just 40 years earlier, now stood as a key contributing world player.

He was the only person with in-depth military experience to join The British War Cabinet, at the insistence of the King, during World War 1 (the rest were Politicians) and in so played a key role in guiding the outcome of World War 1.

He gave birth to the idea of an independent Air Force free from Navy or Army control in 1917, that saw the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the oldest independent air arm in the world and in addition carried this over to form The South African Air Force, the second oldest. Modern military construct now still follows The Smuts Report on the use of air power (see earlier Observation Post link Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force).

Smuts had a long string of successful military command, notwithstanding his Command of a Boer Commando during the Anglo-Boer war, evading defeat for the entire duration of the war.  He founded the South African Defence Force after Union, commanded UDF forces alongside Botha in taking German South West Africa during WW1, the first ‘Allied’ victory of the war.  He went on to command all the British and Commonwealth Forces in the East African campaign during WW1, chasing General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces all over East Africa, and in so doing he captured Dar-es-Salaam, the German East Africa capital. However, to really put Smuts in perspective, when he heard that his old enemy, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had fallen into destitution after WW2, it was Smuts who personally extended aid and food to him (to Smuts war was not a personal thing amongst soldiers).

During the Second World War he was appointed to the British King’s Privy Council.   The King was even warm to an idea proposed by Jock Colville (Churchill’s Private Secretary) that should Prime Minister Winston Churchill die during the war, Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have need to have been made a peer and constitutional issues would have prevented it.  Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become.

Again, as a member of the British War Council, he played a key role in the outcome of World War 2 and the Allied Victory.  He even accompanied Winston Churchill shoulder to shoulder to oversee Operation Overlord (D Day) and the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe.

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Smuts and Churchill in France overseeing Operation Overlord (D Day)

 

Many historians would now even point to the notion that Churchill regarded Smuts’ advice above anyone else’s advice on his war effort and strategy (see related Observation Post story Smuts’ keen sense of smell detects Germans hiding nearby).

Domestic acclaim

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Emily Hobhouse

The deep-seated pain of the Boer War concentration camps and how it affected Afrikaner identity was also something that Smuts actively addressed (Ouma Smuts was herself interned in a concentration camp, and Smuts had also tragically lost family to the system).  He became a friend and confidant of Emily Hobhouse in addressing the issue with the British over many years. The Magnolia seeds she gave him in friendship now stand as a full botanical statement to this outside his house in Irene.

He brought the government to take measures to bring the treatment of Indians in South Africa into line with the provisions of the United Nations, putting them to the same equality and status of the ‘Cape Colourds’ who already enjoyed an equal universal franchise in South Africa at the time.  In doing so he became a life-long admirer of Mahatma Ghandi, who in turn also regarded Smuts as one of the greatest statesmen of his time.

To illustrate this admiration, Before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he presented General Smuts with a pair of sandals made by Gandhi himself. In 1939, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals with the following message:

“I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

(see earlier Observation Post story “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”).

In domestic policy, Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to ‘Indians’ and ‘Africans’ respectively (although there were still differences in the level of grants paid out). He also instituted the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946.

International acclaim

55bfc5b0ef884389cd7a9bddf3645bd8Smuts was honoured by many countries and on many occasions, as a standout Smuts was the first Prime Minister of a Commonwealth country (any country for that matter) to address both sitting Houses of the British Parliament – the Commons and the Lords during World War 2.  To which he received a standing ovation from both houses.

Such was the admiration of Smuts that his statue stands outside Westminster on Parliament Square in London for his contribution to world politics and as a great reformer.

Now he stands alongside the likes of Ghandi, Mandela and Abraham Lincoln as the only other ‘foreign’ statesmen honoured in the square.  Whilst, ironically, in South Africa his legacy has taken an absolute battering and his statues removed.

Take the time to listen to Smuts’ speech to both houses of Parliament, note his views on all mankind’s basic freedoms and what he envisions as the future by way of fundamental reforms.  Also note the short praise by Winston Churchill when Smuts concludes his speech and the reaction of the British Parliament, a reaction that has not been seen in British politics since, it is very unique.

 

Charity

In 1921 Smuts, along with Field Marshal Haig, established The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) in Cape Town.  The RCEL sought to consolidate war veteran’s charities all over the world to care for the returning military service personnel in the Commonwealth.  It saw the establishment or re-purposed institutions which now play a significant role in care for servicemen worldwide, The Royal British Legion, The Royal Canadian Legion, The Returned Services League Australia and The South African Legion to name a few.

He also made South Africa available to Jewish orphans escaping the Pogroms of Eastern Europe (despite resistance from South African nationalists).  For a full story on this remarkable chapter, see an earlier Observation Post 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

He again made South Africa available to Polish orphan children escaping the Nazi German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, establishing a grateful and thriving small Polish community in South Africa (see earlier Observation Post South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2 ).

Academia

Smuts was also an accredited philosopher, his work on Holism brought him high acclaim from his Philosopher peers.  Holism can be defined as “the fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” and was published in 1926.  For Smuts it formed the grounding behind his concepts of the League of Nations and United Nations.

Smuts was also an accredited Botanist, his books and illustrations on South African grasses (veld) are still regarded as the definitive work.

21731360_2020995841462737_816238144166127637_nWhilst studying law at Christ’s College at Cambridge University, he was rated as one of the top three students they have ever had (Christ’s College is nearly 600-year-old).  The other two were John Milton and Charles Darwin.

His intellect was unsurpassed, to pass an exam at Cambridge he learnt Greek (fluently) in just 6 days. His wife was no intellectual slouch either, later in life Jan Smuts and Ouma Smuts used to tease one another when one would recite a Bible verse and the other would be expected to recite the following one, from memory, in Greek!

In 1948, Smuts was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the first real non-Briton outside of British Royalty to be elected to the position in the 800 year-old history of Cambridge University.

Vision

Smuts’ idea of ‘Union’ and vision for South Africa was that of a ‘United States of South Africa’ including countries like Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the Union.  It was to be a significant player on the world stage drawing on Africa’s vast resources to see it as a leading political and economic power block (much like the USA is now).  Can you imagine if Botswana and Rhodesia voted to join the Union (they chose not to at the time), what a different history we would have seen in Southern Africa – ‘Apartheid’ may never have happened just for starters.

A humble man

Personally, Smuts was a God-fearing, frugal and humble man. He chose as his house an old rickety, uninsulated, fully corrugated iron, transportable military head office.  He preferred to sleep outside on the ‘stoup’ (veranda) on a small single hard wood bed, his garden was the natural veld. There were no stately mansions or ‘Nkandla’ with ‘fire pools’ for Smuts and he would not have had it anyway.

Legacy

The National Party in a sinister move, gradually and over the long period of Apartheid insidiously smeared Smuts and his legacy, erasing from the general consciousness of just what a great South African Smuts had become. Modern South Africans grew up with almost no regard for Smuts, and if you had to ask a young Black South African today who Smuts was he’ll probably say he was one of the white Apartheid monsters, the white English children will have no idea and the White Afrikaans ones may remember something about him been traitor to Afrikaners.  A student in Canada studying world politics would have a better grip on Smuts than a South African student.

Luckily this is beginning to change, and landmark Biographies are being written now which start to fully explore who and what Jan Smuts was, and it is both fascinating and eye-opening.  It is very hard to sum up all the greatness Smuts was to attain, and certainly for his time his deeds set him well apart from any of the other Statesmen South Africa has produced, certainly if you consider all the subsequent South African Premiers other than Mandela. We have a wonderful story in Smuts, and what we have a character of force – a polyglot, philosopher, botanist, intellectual, lawyer, politician, statesmen, reformer and warrior –  a story and a man who is best summed up by Alan Paton who said:

“Even the great thought he was great.”


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References: Jan Smuts reconsidered Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  Video footage copyright Associated Press.  My deep thanks to Philip Weyers for the Smuts family insight and access.

This article serves to highlights Smuts’ achievements by way of an Obituary.  There are other issues any national leader faces that highlight decisive but ‘unpopular’ action depending on the affected party’s point of view.  For more related articles in The Observation Post on  Jan Smuts please have a look at this link:

South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922