“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

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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.

 

South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2

The commemoration of the South African Air Force sacrifice during the Warsaw uprising in Poland highlights another bit of “unknown” World War 2 history. During the 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.
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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 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. 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 remarkable piece of 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.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens. Film copyright African Mirror and British Pathé

“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

 

Britain never ‘stood alone’!

It’s widely reported now that Britain “stood alone” at the beginning World War 2, especially after the Battle at Dunkirk. However this is not strictly true (for a short while after the fall of Dunkirk, it may have felt like it, but it was not the case) very quickly coming to aid Britain “in her hour of need” and reinforce her troops, airman and seamen were the armed forces of the British Commonwealth – and not only the armed forces but also the raw materials and industry of the likes of Australia, India, South Africa and Canada – an all in effort to aid the United Kingdom, push back the advances of Fascist and Nazi thinking and change the course of European history.

It’s generally misunderstood – but within a day of the United Kingdom and France declaring war on Germany on 3 September 1939, New Zealand, Rhodesia and Australia had declared war on Germany as well. It was just 3 short days later that an independent parliament in South Africa declared war on Germany on the 6th September 1939 (very early on if you think about it – the sixth country to declare war on Nazism). Quickly followed by Canada’s independent parliament who just four days after South Africa’s declaration also declared war on Germany – 10th September 1939.

ec870169d927bce4a8e213eb015ec886On the eve of World War II the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. Though closely allied with Great Britain as a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with the British king as its head of state, South Africa had as its Prime Minister on 1 September 1939 Barry Hertzog, the leader of the pro-Afrikaner anti-British National party that had joined in a unity government as the United Party.

Herzog faced a problem: South Africa had a constitutional obligation to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. The Polish-British Common Defence Pact obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if attacked by the Nazis.

After Hitler’s forces attacked Poland on the night of 31 August 1939, Britain declared war on Germany (3 September). A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the halls of power in the Parliament of South Africa, that pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain’s side led by the pro-Allied, Afrikaner, ex-Boer War General, and former Prime Minister Jan Smuts, against then-current Prime Minister Barry Hertzog, who wished to keep South Africa “neutral”, if not even pro Nazi Germany in the hopes Germany would win (as Germany had sided with the Boer Republics during the Boer war there was a groundswell in the Afrikaner right politics in support of Nazi Germany).

On 4 September 1939, Hertzog’s motion to remain out of the war was defeated in Parliament by a vote of 80 to 67, he resigned, and Smuts became Prime Minister of South Africa and declared South Africa officially at war with Nazi Germany and the Axis.

12509723_536128123223591_2929433976375636116_nTo celebrate Smut’s victory in Parliament that day a special button/lapel badge was made inscribed with 4-9-1939 for the party faithful.

Smuts immediately set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa’s global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.

RhodesianPostcard001A very interesting part of the sequences of declarations of war against Germany, was that of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and it stands out as a unique one.  The Southern Rhodesian government almost immediately followed the British declaration of war with their own.  They can even be said to hold the mantle as the very first of the British Dominions and Colonies to stand by Britain in their hour of need.  Steadfast and swift in support of their ‘motherland’ – The United Kingdom, no quibble about it either, as there was no long parliamentary debate over the issue – it came without even a second thought on the matter. In all 26 000 Rhodesians volunteered to fight during World War 2.

The irony is that when Rhodesia ‘stood alone’ in an armed onslaught in the 60’s the country to abandon them was in fact the United Kingdom, forcing them to declare unilateral independence of Britain.  A fact not missed on the rather cynical ‘old Rhodesians’ today who remember their WW2 sacrifices with a very real sense of treachery, and it’s a fact missed on the British public today.

Today, some South Africans often point to Britain ‘abandoning’ South Africa when its armed insurrection started in the mid 1960’s as well.  However they are quick to forget that the very ‘anti-British’ National Party took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961 and strained all ties.  South Africa ‘stood alone’ on the Nationalists policy of Apartheid and there was nothing the British could really do about it. However to the Rhodesians there is deep cause for unhappiness as they never wanted to abandon any of their British ties whatsoever.

1551745_243308472505559_1055161002_nIn terms of the semantics of the ‘term ‘standing alone’ after Dunkirk, in many cases the Commonwealth countries did not have immediate operational readiness to come alongside the UK in the summer of 1940.  However we must remember that the Battle of Britain (when Britain really ‘stood alone’) was an air battle, where a ‘few’ pilots held off the German assault – and alongside the 2353 British pilots stood 574 pilots from other countries – 24%, – a quarter of the combat force.  Most of them came from the Commonwealth countries (342 pilots in total including Rhodesians and South Africans). So Britain never really ‘stood alone’ in that context either.

So, in conclusion, the idea that following Dunkirk, Britain stood alone against a tidal Nazi onslaught is quite incorrect.  However due to changing geo-politics, what is dissapointing now is that memory of the sacrifice of men and women from countries like India, Kenya, South Africa and Rhodesia are fading fast in the general populations – in their own countries and in the United Kingdom.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens


Source – wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica

Connecting Zeppelins, Marlene Dietrich and South Africa’s favourite biscuit – Romany Creams!

Grab your packet of Romany Creams from the pantry, bite into South Africa’s top-selling chocolate biscuit then settle down and to read some very rich South African World War 1 history.  History is often connected by remarkable ‘golden threads’ and this one takes you on a wonderful journey – all the way from shooting down Zeppelin’s bombing England to your favourite tea time ‘choccy biccy’.

Our story starts with a young South African, Ian Vernon Pyott.  Ian was the son of a Scotsman named John Pyott. John, was born in Dundee, Scotland and was a baker’s apprentice at aged 10.  Due to ill-health, John was advised to move to a better climate – so he packed off to Cape Town, South Africa and in 1880 he moved to Port Elizabeth where he manufactured sweets, cakes and jams before later moving into bread and biscuits. On 1 December 1900, Pyott converted his business into a limited liability company and named it “Pyott Limited”.  Highly successful, between 1898 and 1924, the Company was to receive no fewer than 70 medals at various exhibitions across the country

Captain Ian Vernon Pyott DSO

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Capt. Ian Pyott DSO

Ian Pyott was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on August 31, 1895. He grew up in Port Elizabeth. He was educated at Grey High School, South Africa and Watson’s College in Edinburgh, Scotland, returning to South Africa after completing his education here he trained as a miller in the family owned ‘Pyott Limited’ business.

At the outbreak of hostilities which was to become World War 1, Ian Pyott returned to England in February 1916, enlisting in the Machine Gun Corps ‘MGC (Tanks)’. He transferred into the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) three months later in June, after attending flying school, he was posted to 36 Squadron’s ‘A’ Flight, based at Seaton Carew and assigned to fly a two-seater Royal Aircraft Factory BE 2c, No 2738 biplane.

Little did he know that in a couple of months he was about to become one of the heroes of the war.  He was about to meet a German Zeppelin airship on a high altitude night bombing raid, November 27, 1916, designated number L-34.

Two groups of Zeppelin airships set out from Germany to bomb England that fateful night, with the first group of five ships crossed into England near Scarborough while the second group of four flew toward the Tyne River mouth.

Zeppelin L-34 was massive, 148 metres long and a diameter of about 15 meters (on average).

Lt. Ian Pyott was flying out of Seaton Carew aerodrome, he was on his second patrol of the night. Tasked with looking for Zeppelin airships and destroying them, he took off at 10.30pm and although his BE 2C normally carried an observer he flew solo this time, this  weight saving allowed him more fuel and therefore more flying time.

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L34 Caught in Search-Lights

L-34 crossed the coastline into England in the neighbourhood of Blackhalls, a handful of miles north of Hartlepool.  Turning Southwards towards Tees it was spotted and searchlights brought to bear on it.  Once spotted L-34 immediately started dropping bombs in an attempt to neutralise the search-lights.   In all it dropped 13 bombs near Elwick – a little village just west from West Hartlepool.  The bombing proved ineffectual with minimum damage on the ground (two cows were injured).

Now under attack from anti-aircraft fire L-34 turned seawards ​passing over the thickly populated area of West Hartlepool. At this stage Lt. Pyott had been in the air for 1 hour when he saw the Zeppelin heading in his direction.

He reported that he was at 9800 feet and the Zeppelin was a couple of hundred feet below him, he attacked the Zeppelin at right angles to the middle of the airship, firing all the way and then flying underneath it. The airship turned east and Pyott and the Zepplin’s machine gunners dueled for about 5 more miles.  Eventually Pyott got some tracer rounds into left side of the Zepplin’s envelope and the Zepplin was rapidly engulfed in frames.  On fire, it continued east over Hartlepool, broke in half and plunged nose first into the Trees river mouth.

The virtually instantaneous combustion of 45,000 cubic metres of hydrogen on board used to inflate the airship ensured there were no survivors, only two bodies were found, the rest sadly incinerated or lost.

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Death of L 34

Shooting down a Zeppelin was a very big deal in World War 1, they were heavily armed, flew at incredibly high altitudes for the day and very formidable.  When Pyott landed, all the members of his base ran out to cheer him, he promptly collapsed, not due to injury, but because he was frozen stiff from fighting at such a high altitude.  They took him from the cockpit and carried him aloft on their shoulders in victory, taking him off to warm up no doubt.

Following the victory Ian Pyott was to become a national hero, wined and dined by the British elite.

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Lt. Ian Pyott besides the BE 2c he was piloting when he shot down Zeppelin L34

Just over a week later, 15th December 1916, it was announced in the press that Pyott had been awarded a ‘Companion of the Distinguished Service Order’ (DSO), in part his citation read “in recognition of conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty connection with the destruction of an Enemy Airship”.

Pyott was also promptly promoted to Captain. His proud father, the Bakery owner of Pyotts Limited in Port Elizabeth, sailed from South Africa to be present when King George V presented Capt. I.V. Pyott his DSO at Buckingham Palace.

488658_c201ce2a008c406ca35dc5c7993f99d3~mv2Such a big deal was made of this victory, that a special commemorative coin was even stamped to celebrate Capt. Pyott’s actions and resultant DSO.  Zeppelins were so feared by the British public they were branded ‘Baby Killers’ as the bombing of civilians carried with it such a public outrage. The commemorative medal carried Capt Ian Pyott’s profile, the year and the letters DSO, it was presented to him at Hendon Aerodrome in England by none other than General Jan Smuts.

But there was more to come from this very brave South African. He was again Mentioned in Despatches (London Gazette 25 January 1917), whilst subsequently serving with No 55 Squadron on the Western Front. He also claimed another air victory on 23 April 1917 while returning from a bombing raid, a formation from No 55 Squadron was attacked by nine hostile aircraft that dived upon them. Pyott and his observer, 2nd Lt A D Taylor, in DH4 A2147, claimed an German Albatros scout plane over Boue.

Marlene Dietrich

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Marlene Dietrich

So where does the Hollywood Superstar actress and singer, Marlene Dietrich, fit into all of this?  Simply put the Commander of Zeppelin L-34 on that fateful night in September 1916, was Marlene’s uncle.

Kapitanleutnant Max Dietrich commanded Zeppelins in his short career, and was regarded as a particularly experienced commander, in all he had a total of 41 sorties in Zeppelins.  Because only two bodies were recovered from L-34, Marlene and her family lived for a little time in the hope that Max Dietrich could somehow have survived.

She said of the incident,

“We knew the Zeppelins had gone out on an errand of war, but we did not know their destination. My uncle never came back. My aunt was broken-hearted, but she would not believe her husband had really gone. She insisted that he would come back. But the years passed, and there was no news. At last she lost hope and bowed to the hand of fate. It is very sad but of course, in Ger­many my Uncle Max was mourned as a hero. He gave his life for his country”.

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Max Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich, was born in Berlin and came from a strong military family. She was a Hollywood superstar actress and singer who held both German and American citizenship.  Her performance as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) brought her international fame. Marlene Dietrich starred in many Hollywood films, significantly Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Desire (1936).

During World War 2, she became the ‘darling’ for both British and German troops, whilst holding this rather unique position she recorded a popular German love song by Lale Andersen called ‘Lili Marleen’ in English, it was done as a morale boost for American, British and Commonwealth troops and it became an instant hit.

marlylyEspecially for the South Africans, The song was published in South Africa in a wartime leaflet, with an anonymous English translation, as ‘Lili Marleen: The Theme Song of the Eighth Army and the South African 6th Armoured Division’ (quite ironically).

In a wonderful turn of fate, it was not unusual in the Second World War for British, American and South African troops to be heard singing along to the English version of Lili Marleen on a record player and for German troops to be singing along to her German version on the opposite lines within hearing distance of one another.

Romany Creams

So how do Romany creams fit into this story?  Well, after the war our hero Capt. Ian Pyott returned to South Africa and took up a position in his Dad’s bakery business.

John Pyott died in 1947. His other son, Robert, became Chairman and held this position until his death in 1964. During this period, the decision was made to concentrate solely on biscuits and from October 1949, Pyott Limited thus specialised, enabling it to increase its biscuit range even further. Following Robert Pyott’s death, his brother, our Zeppelin shooting hero, Ian Pyott, was appointed to the position of Chairman and Managing Director.

The early 50s saw the beginning of the fight for market share between the three major competitors in the biscuit industry – Bakers, Baumanns and Pyotts.

Under Ian Pyott, in mid 1965, Pyott Limited collaborated with Cadbury’s Chocolates in Port Elizabeth to produce a chocolate variation of a traditional English treat known as “Gypsy creams”, which consisted of two round-topped biscuits sandwiched together with a creamy white filling. Gypsy Creams were not a very big seller for any of the British manufacturers.

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 18.20.47Innovative as ever, the biscuit part was shaped the same as for “Gypsy Creams”, but the biscuit part (referred to as the shell) was improved and it was sandwiched with a chocolate filling instead, no doubt provided by Cadbury’s Chocolates.

The line immediately proved a winner.  They chose the name “Romany” to carry the ‘Gypsy’ connotation across from Gypsy Creams (named after the Romany travelling community).

Bakers Ltd then made a competitive product and called it Tuscany Creams, but it was Pyott’s Romany Creams that really held the market.

In 1969, Ian Pyott, was now getting old and he resigned from the position of Managing Director of Pyott Limited. He died shortly afterward in 1972 whilst the company was been sold to Nabisco Inc.  Many buy-outs and takeovers later, what was Pyott Limited found itself part of the Anglovaal Industries Group.

In 1994 Bakers, Pyotts and Baumanns were regrouped under the collective title of “Associated Biscuits”. In 1996, the member companies of National Brands Ltd. (NBL) were combined into a single company. This transformation included combining Willards with Associated Biscuits to form the Biscuit and Snack Division of National Brands.

Romany_Creams_Classic_Choc

Today, the familiar Pyott’s logo on Romany Creams has been replaced with their old competitor’s logo – the Baker’s logo. The range of flavours has expanded and the packaging design has changed, but the ‘original’ flavour chocolate Romany Creams developed by one dapper, Zeppelin shooting South African fighter pilot and war hero, Capt. Ian Pyott DSO, are still the best seller.

In Conclusion

I’ll bet the modern Marketing Managers at National Brands have little to no idea of the heritage this product has. Wouldn’t it be nice, if in the centenary of the end of WW1, that a special commemorative packaging be designed to Capt. Ian Pyott DSO and his legacy re-presented to a South African public largely unaware of the WW1 heroes this country has, and what they have given to the country.

I hope you have munched your way through the entire packet of Romany Creams by now and richer in chocolate and sugar no doubt, but you also are much richer in the knowledge now that you bitten into the type of fantastic journey South African military history has to offer. History that often lies so hidden away because seismic political events in South Africa have over-taken it.  Think of it as a ‘secret filling’ that will make for an interesting titbit to impress your friends with, next time the Romany Creams appear on a coffee table.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens

Enjoyed this, have a look at another famous South African military history treat, the Hertzoggie vs. the Smutsie.

‘Bake-off’ South African style!


My sincere thanks to Sandy Evan Hanes for pointing out this interesting golden thread to me.  References: Wikipedia, Shooting Down of Zeppelin L-34 by Ivor Markman.   On-line discussion forums.  South African Legion Facebook group forum.

‘Waffen SS’ uses the Boer War to recruit the Dutch

An interesting Nazi propaganda poster from the Second World War, with a South African spin.

Waffen SS Propaganda and the Netherlands

At the beginning of the war, the idea of the 3rd Reich and Nazism was not central to Germany, furthermore the idea of a united Europe under the discipline and economic policies of Fascist ideologies and concepts like the 3rd Reich was widely accepted by large communities in countries like France (mainly in the South), Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands (including ‘Holland’), Hungary, Croatia, Italy, Romania and Bulgaria.

This poster, with the clever use of propaganda and imagery is a recruitment poster for the Waffen SS, aimed at Dutch Nationals (Netherlands Legion). It forms part of a propaganda poster campaign which asks Dutch nationals to question themselves on who exactly is a true Dutch patriot, implying the ones that join Germany in the fight against Bolshevism (“Communism” and Russia) are the true Dutchmen.


It pulls at a strong emotional trigger amongst the Dutch which was still very prevalent at the beginning of World War 2, which was the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902). Dutch sentiment during the Boer War sided with the Boer Republics (driven by historical, language and cultural bonds) and many in the Netherlands where quite appalled by the way the British had conducted the war and the atrocities committed against Boer women and children. 

Thus the clever use of Paul Kruger, “speaking” a well-known phrase in Afrikaans (and Dutch) ‘Everything Will Be All Right” and this leads into a call to action in Dutch “Fight Bolshevism with the Waffen-SS”. At the time Paul Kruger (the last State President of the ‘Transvaal Republic’ i.e South African Republic) was internationally known as the face of Boer resistance against British occupation during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

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Johannes Brand

The phrase “alles sal reg kom” (everything will be all right) is also clever as it was coined by another Boer Republic State President – this time the Orange Free State, Johannes Brand who said in “Cape” Dutch – “alles zal recht komen als elkeen zijn plicht doet” (all will be well if everyone does his duty) and this entered popular culture as “ALLES SAL REG KOM” – both in the Netherlands and South Africa.

Subtle, but implied in the Poster by the use of Paul Kruger is the call to action to fight not only Bolshevism (Russia) but also their “allies” in the war which was the United Kingdom – so hated by many Dutch for their treatment of their “brother nation” – the Boer nation.

To really understand the Waffen-SS, it needs to be known that it was not really part of the German Army, instead it was a “political” armed wing of the German Nazi Party’s Schutzstaffel (SS, “Protective Squadron”).  The ‘SS’ and ‘Waffen SS’ are two separate entities joined at the hip.  The Waffen SS comprised military formations which were formed to include men from Nazi Germany and volunteers (and later conscripts in some cases) from both occupied and un-occupied lands.

Waffen SS Foreign Divisions

The Waffen-SS targeted occupied countries for man-power. Reason being the SS itself was limited in Germany to a very small percentage of the yearly German call up and outside of Germany they had no such restrictions on them if recruiting for the ‘Waffen’ SS.

To this end the Waffen SS initiated very strong propaganda campaigns calling members of the occupied countries to fight with them, essentially against the ‘Communist or Bolshevist Onslaught’ of Soviet Communism.  The Dutch proved the most fertile ground for this campaign, in total 25 000 Dutchmen volunteered to serve in the Waffen SS.

The Dutch by percentage of population made up the biggest number of volunteers in Europe to join the Waffen-SS. Many volunteering within six weeks of the occupation of their country by Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler resisted integrating the Waffen-SS into the army, as it was intended to remain the armed wing of the Nazi Party and his plan was for it to become an elite police force once the war was won.

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Dutch and French Waffen SS

Initially, in keeping with the racial policy of Nazi Germany, membership was only open to people of Germanic origin (so-called Aryan ancestry). The rules were partially relaxed in 1940, although groups considered by Nazis to be “sub-human” like ethnic Poles or Jews remained excluded.

Hitler authorised the formation of units within The Waffen-SS largely or solely compiled of foreign volunteers and conscripts. Foreign SS units were made up of men from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium (both Wallonia and Flanders), Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Galicia, Georgia, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Russia (including Cossack and Tatar, Turkic SSR Republics), Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Asian Regiment, Arab Regiment, the United States (15–20 volunteers) and British (27 volunteers – which included Commonwealth members and even included 5 South Africans).

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Waffen SS foreign unit badges

The Waffen SS grew from initially 3 Regiments to over 38 Divisions in World War 2, serving alongside the ‘Heer’ (regular German Army) and the Ordnungspolizie (uniformed Police) and other security units.

Images show French and Flanders (Belgium) Waffen SS

Although having a fierce reputation in conventional fighting alongside the German army all over Europe – East and West fronts, at the post-war Nuremberg trials the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation due to its connection to the Nazi Party and involvement in numerous war crimes.

Waffen-SS veterans were denied many of the rights afforded to veterans who had served in the Heer (army), Luftwaffe (air force) or Kriegsmarine (navy). An exception was made for the Waffen SS conscripts sworn in after 1943, who were exempted because they were not volunteers.


To read up a little more on South Africans involved in the Waffen SS, please feel free to follow this link to a previous Observation Post article.

South African Nazi in the Waffen SS

Researched by Peter Dickens with added research from Sandy Evan Hanes – reference Wikipedia.  Images – colourised Waffen SS, ‘Colour by Doug’ copyright.

One of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of WW2 was a little known South African! Meet Pat Pattle.

1972284_264945320341874_456274533_nMeet the all time highest scoring British and Commonwealth forces WW2 fighter ACE, a South African named  – Marmaduke ‘Pat’ Pattle DFC & Bar.

There are great South Africans, and then there are ones who stand on the shoulders of great men, and this man is one of them. Arguably the best Western Allied Forces fighter ace of WW2, this South African stands heads and shoulders above other British, British Commonwealth and American fighter aces of the war, however he remains a rather unsung hero. Precious little is known of him by many of his countrymen today, no significant war memorials exist in South Africa that even bear his name – but he is indeed one of South Africa’s greatest sons and one of the greatest heroes of WW2.

Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St. John “Pat” Pattle DFC & Bar (3 July 1914—20 April 1941) was a South African-born Second World War fighter pilot and flying ace— believed to be the most successful Western Allied fighter pilot of the war.

Pat Pattle was born in Butterworth, Cape Province, South Africa, on 3 July 1914, the son of South African-born parents of English descent, Sergeant-Major Cecil William John “Jack” Pattle (b. 5 September 1884) and Edith Brailsford (1881–1962). Marmaduke was named after his maternal grandfather, Captain Thomas Marmaduke Pattle, who resigned his commission in the Royal Horse Artillery and emigrated to South Africa from England in 1875.

Pattle was academically intelligent. He considered a degree and career in Mining engineering before developing an interest in aviation. He travelled to the United Kingdom and joined the RAF in 1936 on a Short Service Commission (SSC). Pattle negotiated the training programs with ease and qualified as a pilot in the spring, 1937.

Assigned to No. 80 Squadron RAF, he was sent to Egypt before the war in 1938. He remained there upon the outbreak of war in September 1939. In June 1940 Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis Powers and he began combat operations against the Regia Aeronautica (Italian Air Force) gaining his first successes during the Italian invasion of Egypt. By November 1940 had gained 4 aerial victories but had been shot down once himself.

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In November 1940 his Squadron was redeployed to Greece after the Italian invasion. Pattle achieved most of his success in the campaign. In subsequent operations he claimed around 20 Italian aircraft shot down. In April 1941 he faced German opposition after their intervention.

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Here is a Messerschmitt Bf 109E of III/JG 77 which crash-landed on the airfield at Larrissa, Greece, possibly one of two claimed shot down by the South African Squadron Leader “Pat” Pattle, the Officer Commanding No. 33 Squadron RAF on 20 April 1941.

During the 14 days of operations against the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) Pattle claimed his 24—50th aerial victories; all but 3 were German. Pattle claimed 5 or more aircraft destroyed in one day on three occasions, which qualified him for “Ace in a day” status. Pattle achieved his greatest success on 19 April 1941, claiming six air victories.

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Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St John “Pat” Pattle, Officer Commanding No. 33 Squadron RAF (left) , and the Squadron Adjutant, Flight Lieutenant George Rumsey (right), standing by a Hawker Hurricane at Larissa, Thessaly, Greece.

The very next day, having claimed more aerial victories than any other Western Allied pilot, he took off against orders, and suffering from a high temperature to engage German aircraft near the Greek capital Athens. He was last seen battling Messerschmitt Bf 110 heavy fighters. His fighter crashed into the sea during this dogfight, killing Pattle.

Pattle’s death was equally heroic as he had dived down to rescue a fellow pilot who had a Bf-110 on his tail, Pattle managed to save him but at the loss of his own life, as he was also been attacked by Bf-110’s during the rescue – and he chose to ignore them to save his buddy.

Pattle was a fighter ace with a very high score, and is noted as being the highest-scoring British and Commonwealth pilot of the war. If all claims made for him were in fact correct, his total could be in excess of 51. It can be stated with confidence that his final total was at least 40 and could exceed this value. Log-books and semi-official records suggest this figure while personnel attached to his Squadron suspect the figure to be closer to 60. A total of 26 of Pattle’s victims were Italian; 15 were downed with Gloster Gladiators, the rest with Hawker Hurricanes. He is considered to be the highest-scoring ace on both Gladiator (15 victories) and Hurricane (35 victories) fighters.

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Pattle is however regarded as the ‘unofficial’ Highest scoring Western Allied Fighter pilot for WWII. Unfortunately the squadron war dairy and his log books were lost in the retreat from Greece.

Pattle’s medals are on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg.  However little other recognition is given to him in South Africa.  Pat Pattle, like so many other great South Africans of WW2 serving in the Royal Air Force – Roger Bushell, Sailor Malan, Zulu Lewis, JJ Le Roux, Stapme Stapleton, Geoffrey Haysom, Dutch Hugo, John Nettleton VC and many more, suffered from the incoming race politics of the Nationalists in 1948, their memory ridiculed and branded as ‘traitors’ for siding with the British, their legacy subject to systematic erosion during the years of Apartheid. To the extent that today, in the changed politics of South Africa, we find them almost completely forgotten.

To think that we have in our midst in South Africa, some of the greatest men of the war to liberate the world of Fascism and Nazism, we have so much to be proud about as a nation, we even hold the honour of having the greatest Western Allied fighter pilot of the war … and nobody knows.

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Pilots of No. 33 Squadron RAF, at Larissa, Greece, with Hawker Hurricane Mark I, V7419, in background. from left to right, Pat Pattle stands at the centre.


Thank you to Tinus Le Roux for the use of this rather rare feature photo of Pat Pattle, copyright and use to Tinus Le Roux. Content thanks to Wikipedia and Sandy Evan Hanes.  Insert photographs – copyright Imperial War Museum