This is a very rare audio clip of a SADF crew in a Ratel ZT3 Infantry Fighting Vehicle converted into a anti-tank role taking out Cuban/FAPLA coalition soviet T55 tanks during the Battle on the Lomba River in Angola – Operation Modular in 1987.
Please excuse a little of the “blue” language but this is a ratel crew at the height of combat, listen out for the sounds of the Ratel’s missiles been fired and finding their targets and for the crew members yelps of jubilation and frustrations, also listen to the Ratel manoeuvre itself in an out of danger as it takes up firing positions – and the co-ordination and teamwork of crew members to do so. Also listen out for the intense sounds of explosions in and around the Ratel as they engage the FAPLA/Cuban tanks (click play on the link below).
This is combat at its fiercest in what was arguably one of the most decisive mechanised battles fought on African soil since the Second World War and one which turned the fortunes of the “Cold War” coalition of Cuban and Soviet interests in Southern Africa for the worse.
These men – fighting in inferiorly armoured Infantry fighting vehicles against heavily armoured tanks knew that victory would boil down to strategy, innovation, decisiveness, leadership, teamwork, discipline and training – and not superior equipment or numbers, all of this becomes very apparent in this audio clip.
Burning FAPLA armour as seen from the South African position on the Lomba
The backdrop to this battle was the Cuban/FAPLA advance on Mavinga – a UNITA stronghold, in what was to become a manoeuvre called the ‘Battle of the Lomba’ the SADF 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, supported by other formations and SAAF fighter aircraft literally destroyed the entire FAPLA/Cuban 47 Armoured Brigade and stopped the advance in its tracks.
The Operation was Modular, the battle ground was the Lomba River in Angola and Commandant Kobus Smit was the Operational Commander in charge of the SADF’s 61 Mechanised Battle Group. Three combat groups – Alpha under the Command of Cmdt Kobus Smit himself, Bravo under the command of Cmdt Robbie Hartslief, Charlie, under command of Maj Dawid Lotter. All supported by 20 Artillery Regiment (Cmdt Jan van der Westhuizen) – Papa battery from 32 Battalion, Quebec battery from 4 SAI and Sierra battery from 61 Mech Battalion Group.
Fapla crosses the Lomba River
On the 9 September 1987, Fapla’s 21 Brigade began to cross the Lomba River about twelve kilometres east of its confluence with the Cunzumbia. They were engaged by the South African mechanised armour of Combat Group Bravo with 101 Battalion of the South West African territorial force, destroying a FALPA BTR-60, but they were forced back by a FAPLA artillery counter-attack.
A detached unit of Combat Group Bravo returned on 10 September to the fording site on the Lomba River and again attacked elements of 21 Brigade, but the Angolans’ counter-attacked sending in three tanks. The SADF Ratel-90 Infantry Fighting Vehicles failed to stop the tanks’ advance, so the South Africans brought in their new Ratel ZT3s into the battle.
The ZT3 and it’s launch system was developed under the codename ‘Project Raleigh’ in the 1980s as a “long-range indigenous antitank guided missile”. Essentially a highly manoeuvrable Ratel (honey badger) IFV with anti-tank capabilities, these were untested pre-production models which mounted a triple launcher on top of the Ratel IFV – at the time they were considered state of the art in anti-tank warfare, and their first combat engagement delivered battlefield success to a staggering effect.
Concealed ZT3 during Ops Modular
The ZT3’s firing seven missiles in total at 21 Brigades armour with four successful strikes on the tanks. Soviet built MiG aircraft then arrived over the battle site and forced the South African units to withdraw but, it was game over for the Cuban/Fapla coalition – they had stopped 21 Brigade’s advances, it would be downhill for the Cubans and Angolans from that point out.
Major Hannes Nortman and 12A
Major Hannes Nortman from 32 Battalion arrived on the battle scene at the Lomba on the morning of 10 September, the ZT3 Ratel, code 1-2, one of 32 Battalion’s ZT3’s had taken up position under the initial command of Lt Ian Robertson, Lt Robertson was injured when he jumping out of the ratel to give fire guidance to the 90mm Ratel next to his ZT3 Ratel. Unfortunately, he landed at the same spot as one of the incoming mortars and took a large piece of shrapnel in his head. The crew of the ZT3 were busy with the casevac of their injured commander, when three T55 Soviet made, heavily armoured enemy tanks rolled up. Major Hannes Nortman came running up, taking charge of the ZT3 Ratel 1-2 and the attack.
The newly developed Ratel ZT3 had a ‘black box’ which recorded crew actions when the missile system was selected – and this stunning bit of history of South African servicemen in action was forever recorded.
Ratel combat during the Battle of the Lomba
The SADF’s ZT3”s were positioned in a tree-line just short of the Lomba River’s adjacent ‘shona’. The first two missiles fired by 1-2 where fired by a young and very over excited gunner, Darryn Richard Nelson – whose commentary is heard throughout the recording. The first missiles pulled up vertically at around 200 meters. The third did not fire.
The gunner now fired his fourth missile which hit the lead tank in its tracks, stopping it dead. A fifth missile finally destroyed Tank 1 and the gunner his jubilant “I got him! I got him! I got him! Now very excited the young gunner focussed on the second tank, which was retreating back towards the river, his first shot at tank 2 missed as the missile hit the ground just in front of the tank.
Here’s where Major Nortman demonstrated years of senior military experience in combat, he quickly brought the excitement into focus in a time-honoured way – by giving the young gunner a sharp crack to the back of his head. This calmed him down and the sixth missile hit the tank on the rear plate blowing the turret about 25 meters away. Maj Nortman ordered the ZT3 to withdraw and reload, he then maneuverer into a new firing position to fire at the last tank which was still advancing. the Ratel hit tank 3 with two missiles.
The destroyed Soviet FAPLA T55 Tanks – from left to right Tank 1, Tank 2 and Tank 3
With that the crew of 1-2 march into history, a South African ‘light’ armoured fighting vehicle made by Sandock Austral (now Denel), taking out heavy armour T55 Soviet made ‘heavy’ battle tanks. The only Ratel IFV to ever achieve his – before or since.
The action of this motley crew of English and Afrikaner, senior and junior, permanent force and conscripts, all in a single Ratel, had now played a decisive role in the outcome of the entire battle to come.
Major Nortman and the crew, Johan Jacobs, Neels Claasen, Darren Nelson, 32 Battalion September 1987
The Battle heats up
According to Cmdt Smit, “21 Brigade utilized all forces at its disposal and its T54 tanks and D 30 used several tons of ammunition to support its forces in crossing the river initially, and later in the day to cover the withdrawal of its forces to the northern side of the river.”
“21 Brigade was forced to abandon its efforts to cross the river and was in need of re-supply before another attempt could be made to cross the river.”
47 Brigade re-deployed it’s tactical group to attack a nearby UNITA base, this was met by the SADF’s Combat Group Bravo on the 13th September 1987, however the terrain was crisscrossed with the UNITA bases’ trenches making manoeuvrability difficult Combat Group Bravo and Cmdt Hartslief withdrew his forces for replenishment and repair, Col Ferreira ordered combat group Charlie to move forward and prevent further movement of 47 Brigade’s 1 Tactical Group to the east.
Missiles been loaded onto a ZT3 during Operation Modular
Major Dawid Lotter moved to the west and hit contact with FAPLA forces the same evening, destroying a number of FAPLA vehicles, contact was broken the next day.
Combat group Alpha was deployed to making contact with 47 Brigade on the 16 September. At the same time Charlie squadron made contact with FAPLA infantry and tanks, even as close as 50 meters. After a fierce firefight the SADF withdrew to consolidate, leaving UNITA to hold the positions.
47 Brigade was now under threat from two flanks and all The FAPLA brigades were ordered back to consolidate their positions on the northern banks of the Lomba.
47 Brigade was ordered to advance over the Lomba River again and established a bridgehead. The South African 61 Mechanised Battle Group assembled to attack them again on the 3rd October, this time Charlie Squadron took the lead commanded by Major Philip van Wyk. Making contact later the same day with 47 Brigade. A tank battle ensued; the largest tank battle ever fought on southern African soil.
The FAPLA infantry soldiers were observed fleeing the battlefield and to keep momentum 61 Mechanised ordered in the reserve squadrons and combat groups, with fresh forces FAPLA’s resistance finally crumbled and the remaining forces fled the battlefield. The South African’s had won the day with the loss of only 3 SADF personnel and a further 6 wounded, one Ratel was lost.
47 Brigade destroyed
47 Brigade was decimated with the majority of its equipment either captured or destroyed, amongst which were 18 x T55 and T54 tanks, 22 x BTR60 and 85 trucks. 47 Brigade for all practical purposes had ceased to exist. The remaining Cuban and FAPLA forces withdrew to their initial positions and The South African objective for Operation Modular – to halt the FAPLA advance and prevent the capture of Mavinga – was decisively achieved.
Ratel 1-2, now marked 12A taken after Operation Modular – note the ‘kill’ markings on the turret.
The remarkable efforts of Major Nortman and the crew of ZT3 Ratel 1-2 are now to be seen at the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg (later marked 23), the ratel on display is updated composite of various demobilised ratels when upgrades were made, however a part of it comes from Ratel 1-2, therefore the tank ‘kill’ markings were retained on this version and are clearly painted on the side of its missile system.
Researched by Peter Dickens and published with much thanks to Johannes “Hannes” Noortman and the crew of this Ratel – and to the 61 Mechanised Veterans Fraternity, with special thanks again to Dawid Lotter and Kobus Smit
There is something deeply disturbing when you read about the ‘last soldier to die’ in a war, it’s a complete sense of futility, a young life that is snuffed out for this or that political conflict. The South African Border War (1966 – 1989) along the now Namibian border with Angola carries with it the same sense of pointlessness when you read about the first soldier lost and the last soldier lost as it was with the 1st World War.
Pvt Parr (Left) and Pvt Ellison (Right)
During World War 1, the first British soldier to die was Private John Henry Parr on 21st August 1914, Killed in Action near Mons – Belgium. The last British serviceman to die in WW1 was Private George Edwin Ellison, killed in action near Mons – Belgium on Armistice Day itself – 11 November 1918. The irony, both died in a foreign country and they are buried in the same graveyard in Belgium facing one another – a few meters separate them. The futility, for 4 years millions of more casualties separate them, in the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.
One cannot avoid thinking whether this same sense of waste of young life has a parallel in the South Africa’s Border War on the Namibian/Angola border. The sad truth is that it does.
Lieutenant Freddie Zeelie from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment is regarded as the first SADF combat casualty of The Namibian Border War. Killed in Action on 23 June 1974 while engaged on anti-insurgent operations in Southern Angola. On hitting contact with insurgents he bravely stormed their machine gun position regrettably losing his life in the process. He was only 22 years old.
The last soldier to die in combat in this Border War was Corporal Hermann Carstens, also from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment, Killed in Action on 04 April 1989 during fierce close-quarter fighting with a numerically superior force of heavily armed SWAPO PLAN insurgents near Eenhana. He was only 20 years old.
The irony, Lt Zeelie and Cpl Carstens both died in a foreign country – defending the same stretch of border between the same two countries – South West Africa (Namibia) and Angola, both fighting the same insurgents. The futility, for 15 years separating their respective deaths there would be thousands of casualties. In the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.
Lt Zeelie (Left) and Cpl Carstens (Right)
It’s a sad thought indeed, however their actions and losses are not entirely futile, as with the First World War, the Border War resulted in changed ideologies – changes which were necessary to attain peace, and our modern freedoms as we have them now is because of their sacrifice.
So let’s have a look at the ‘last’ soldier to die during the Namibian Border War’, and I must thank both Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout whose work this is, and who have shared it with us:
The last soldier to die in the Namibian Border War- Corporal Hermann Carstens, 1 Reconnaissance Regiment.
Written by Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout
Corporal Hermann Carstens, 1RR, Operators Badge and Wings on his chest
A short background: Introduction to 23 years of war, 1966–1989
South Africa administered the former German colony of German South West Africa since 1920 after the First World War (1914–1918). Initially, South Africa wanted to incorporate the territory as a fifth province of the country. The incorporation into South Africa never materialised, however, and since the 1960s more and more states wanted to declare the then South West Africa (SWA) an independent state, Namibia.
In 1966 the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) started an armed insurgency against the South African administrators through its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). The war would last for 23 years, and eventually it would also escalate into Angola and, for some time, into Zambia.
In essence, the Namibian Border War (also known as the South African Border War) became a cold war by proxy. By the early 1970s, the United Nations (UN) adopted Resolution 435 to lay the foundation for Namibian independence. By 1988 the Cold War drew to a close and the South Africans, Cubans and Angolans were ready to engage in negotiations to withdraw their troops from the SWA/Angolan border. These negotiations opened the way for Namibian independence.
One of the issues agreed upon in the trilateral negotiations was that the South African troops would be reduced to 1 500 men and would be confined to base. SWAPO would withdraw to 150 km north of the border. Resolution 435 made it clear, however, that with its implementation (which would be on 1 April 1989), SWAPO would also remain at their bases. If they therefore had established bases on SWA soil, they would also be confined to these bases. SWAPO saw this as a loophole, and secretly planned a massive invasion for 31 March/1 April 1989. The sole intention was to establish bases in northern SWA.
The South Africans, however, did not trust SWAPO, and even less so the influx of foreign troops of the United Nation’s Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). This force would supervise the transition period and comprised peacekeepers from several UN states, including Finland, Britain, Australia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Kenya. South Africa continued operating their intelligence sources. The South West African Police (SWAPOL) and its Security Branch were tasked to keep up their system of informers and spies.
To help monitor the situation and assist in gathering information, about 30 men from the South African Special Forces (colloquially known as the Recces) and several South African Military Intelligence operators were placed in SWAPOL. As part of the Recce contingent, several Swahili-speaking operators were also included to monitor the Kenyan soldiers of UNTAG. This military operation was known as Operation Saga. The deployed Special Forces contingent would only use the Police as cover and still send their information directly to the Senior Operational Special Forces Officer in Windhoek.
The man: Hermann Carstens
Hermann as band major, Hoërskool Voortrekkerhoogte
Hermann Carstens was born on 30 September 1968. He was the son of a South African military officer and went to Laerskool Uniefees (English: Uniefees Primary School), 25 km north of Pretoria. He later attended Voortrekkerhoogte Hoërskool (English: Voortrekkerhoogte High School), which mainly comprised children of military personnel.
It was in this environment that the young Carstens soon proved himself as a man destined for a bright military career. Among other, he was the band major of the school’s military band; as an athlete, he excelled in field and track events, and was a very good long jumper.
After completing his school career in 1986, he joined the South African Defence Force (SADF), like all young white men of that age. But he would not remain an ordinary soldier. He had a vision. He was driven. He wanted to be with the best. He volunteered for selection to the elite South African Parachute Battalion and passed the course. But even that was not good enough, and when the Recces visited, he volunteered again.
This time he was among the big fish. Special Forces all over the world usually comprise older soldiers; not 18- or 19-year-olds. But he was one of the exceptions. Hermann passed the selection, continued with the course and passed the course. He was not even 20 years old.
When the teams from the reconnaissance regiments were selected for Operation Saga, it was decided that all of them would first complete an advanced medical course, as this would be their cover: They would be medical personnel. Hermann was too late, however, and did not partake in the medical course. He was later sent to join those who had already been selected for the operation. This was fate – and he would be destined to be behind the exposed guns of a Casspir on 4 April 1989. The other Recce in the ambush that day was inside another Casspir – as the operational medical orderly (“ops medic”).
Hermann during Recce training
Operation Saga: Corporal Hermann Carstens
Operation Saga, an independent Special Forces operation, was planned as a long-term intelligence-gathering operation in northern SWA. This operation and other combined operations were aimed at painting a real-time intelligence picture of events that were unfolding as UNTAG and the SWAPO exiles started arriving. Their cover was also changed from medical personnel to members of the SWAPOL Security Police, as this would ensure more freedom of movement without raising suspicion.
At the start of February 1989, the operators from the Special Forces contingent arrived in Oshakati after spending a week preparing at the SWAPOL Security Police farm on the outskirts of Windhoek. They used the cover of the Security Police and also received police ranks. Another few days of preparation followed in Oshakati at the Security Police Headquarters before they were deployed. The 4 Reconnaissance (“Recce”) Regiment (4RR) was deployed to the Kavango and Caprivi regions, while the 1 “Recce” Regiment (1RR), supported by some operators and intelligence personnel from 5 “Recce” Regiment (5RR), was deployed in the central and eastern areas. The 1RR and 5RR area of operations stretched from Nkongo in eastern Ovamboland and west to Opuwa in the Kaokoland. The operators were posted at Security Police bases. Constables (Corporals) Pieter du Plessis and Hermann Carstens were deployed to the Security Police base at Okatope in Ovamboland.
Throughout March, in terms of the agreed-upon UN Resolution 435, UNTAG soldiers arrived in dribs and drabs to become the interim authority on 1 April 1989.
On Friday 31 March 1989, Koevoet (the SWAPOL Counter-Insurgency Unit, or SWAPOL TIN) and SWAPOL Security Police patrols were placed on high alert along the border in anticipation of a possible SWAPO invasion. Earlier, police informers had brought information regarding the execution of a SWAPO invasion plan on 31 March 1989.
On the Saturday morning of 1 April 1989 events took a turn for the worse as heavily-armed SWAPO insurgents began to invade SWA. The police were under pressure as heavy fighting broke out. Koevoet bore the brunt, as all the South African Defence Force (SADF) units had either been disbanded or were confined to base.
For the time, before the army could be mobilised, SWAPOL used everyone at its disposal. Security Police teams also deployed on 1 April 1989. Over the next four days, the bloodiest fighting of the war took place on SWA soil. The SWAPO groups were large, with up to 250 insurgents in a group. As the groups were attacked, they scattered and splintered off into smaller units.
On 4 April 1989 near Eenhana, Call Sign 21C – the Okatope Security Police team of which Pieter and Hermann were members – left their temporary base near the SADF’s Okankolo base just after 08:00 to patrol the area. Because he had not been on the advanced medic course, Hermann was appointed as one of the vehicle commanders, which entailed manning the mounted machine guns. Pieter, in the absence of the team medic who was on leave, acted as the Ops Medic in the other Casspir.
At approximately 11:45 four sets of tracks, about three hours old, were discovered. After following the tracks for a while, they noticed that more SWAPOs had joined, bringing the total number to more than 10.
Hermann in the Operational Area, Northern Namibia 1988
The Security Police team entered a belt of thick vegetation, followed by grassland and then a mahango field and a kraal. About 3 km south of Eenhana, SWAPO initiated an ambush with AK-74 and RPG7 rocket grenade launchers. At this stage, Hermann’s Casspir was ahead of the rest of the team, busy with voorsny[English: tracking ahead]. Voorsnyis a term used when some of the vehicles drive ahead to see whether they can perhaps pick up the tracks further ahead. When they can identify indeed tracks further ahead, the rest of the team is informed per radio to also come to the newer tracks. This means that a part of the tracking can be avoided, and the insurgents be caught up with quicker.
It was during this voorsny that Hermann’s Casspir entered the ambush. Standing up, he shot back with the twin Three Os Brownings from the machine gun turret at an angle behind the driver. It was possibly just after the start of the ambush that an insurgent fired a projectile at the Casspir with a RPG7 rocket grenade launcher. The projectile entered the Casspir on the left, about 800 mm above the gear box, in line with the firing holes below the front side window of the passenger compartment. The red-hot metal shrapnel caused devastation inside and hit Hermann from behind where he was firing the guns. His back was littered with shrapnel. A large piece of shrapnel hit him in the back of his head, and he died instantly.
The rest of the team fought through the ambush and started to maal[English: to mill]. This is a tactical move used and perfected by Koevoet, and was also used by the SWAPOL Security Teams and 101 Battalion. It entails all the vehicles fighting through the ambush and thereafter driving in different directions through the contact area to confuse the enemy, thus presenting a difficult target and engaging the enemy from every direction. Sometimes it even happened that the insurgents were overrun and killed with the Casspir’s wheels.
Pieter still remembers when his Casspir drove past Hermann’s Casspir; he saw Hermann slumped forward in the machine gun turret. The right rear wheel of Hermann’s Casspir had been shot out and the vehicle came to a standstill. In the ensuing contact 12 SWAPO’s were killed (one perished under a Casspir’s wheels during the maal, while two blew themselves up). More than 20 insurgents were part of the ambush.
About three minutes later when the contact had died down, Pieter made his way over to Hermann, and saw he had a wound behind his ear; all his vital signs indicated that he was dead. Hermann’s body and a wounded yet walking Special Constable Matheus Gabriel was casevaced by helicopter. Gabriel had shrapnel in his throat. A Koevoet team arrived, reported (and by doing so effectively claimed) the deaths and followed the tracks of the remaining SWAPOs who had escaped and later that afternoon killed another seven of them.
The legacy: The last man to die
It took nine days to stop the treacherous SWAPO incursion. When the last shot was fired, more than 300 of the estimated 1 500 insurgents had been killed. Between the SADF, which had since been released from their bases, and the initially under-gunned and under-strength police force, 31 people from the Security Forces died. Lt. Els of the Special Service Battalion was wounded on 3 April. He died of his wounds on 4 April. Several SWAPOL and South African Counter-Insurgency policemen would also be killed in action on 4 April 1989; however, the last soldier to be killed in action was the brave Corporal Hermann Carstens. He was, like most South Africans who had died in that war, a very young 19 or 20 years old. But this young man was destined to be there. As a young man he set high standards, and against all odds became the Recce he wanted to be. Hermann Carstens was a man who pursued his dream, and then started to live it.
After his death, Hermann’s fellow operators sent his boots, covered in gold, back to his parents.One of the boots is now in Duxford, England, with Renier Jansen, his close friend from high school. The bond between the two young men always remained. The other boot is with Hermann’s father in Pretoria
Hermann was buried with full military honours in April 1989, in the Heroes Acre at the Warmbad Cemetery. The town is now known as Bela-Bela. His bravery will be remembered forever by a special stone on his grave.
On 23 June 1974, Lt. Fred Zeelie became the first South African soldier to die in action in the Namibian Border War. He was from 1RR. On 4 April 1989, Corporal Hermann Carstens of 1RR became the last South African soldier to die in action during the Border War. Between the deaths of Fred Zeelie and Hermann Carstens, 61 more members of the South African Special Forces made the ultimate sacrifice. The contribution of the South African Special Forces in this war, and the cost in lives that they paid, is significantly higher than the average casualties of any other unit.
Freddie Zeelie (left) and Hermann Carstens (right)
Hermann Carstens will be remembered during the 13thAfriforum Springbok Vasbyt 10 & 25 km Road Race in 2019, and his name will be given a special place among the previously-unknown soldiers honoured by this event.
Published with the kind permission of Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout
Copyright: Tinus de Klerk & Leon Bezuidenhout
THIS ARTICLE IS NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE, OR TO BE SOLD IN ANY FORM Renier Jansen reserves the copyright of all photos
One piece of kit all the SADF veterans will instantly recognise – and it will send instant shivers down their collective spines. The infamous ‘Rooi Doiby’ or ‘Rooi Staaldak’ was a bright red helmet and it meant the member wearing it was in deep trouble.
This headgear was usually a M1963 SADF steel helmet, known as a ‘staaldak’ painted red or the helmet’s plastic detachable ‘inner’ called a ‘doiby’ or ‘dooibie’ also painted red. It was issued to anyone whose behaviour or actions were deemed undisciplined in the old South African Defence Force (SADF) system and they were ‘Confined to Barracks’ (CB) or given ‘CB Drills’.
CB drills was a sort of mini prison sentence, the member been confined to the barracks perimeter and not allowed to leave the base. Whilst confined they were subject to intense military drills and exercises designed to break anyones spirit.
During training all SADF recruits received ‘corrective physical training’ known as a ‘Oppie’ meaning Opfok (literally to get ‘fucked up’), the British Armed forces would know it as ‘Beasting’. This form of training is common to many militaries world over and usually involves a lot of running, push-ups, stress exercises etc but it has a relatively manageable beginning and end. In effect it’s an ‘add-on’ to physical training (PT) and very intense.
Being ‘confined to barracks’ ramped the simple ‘Oppie’ onto an entirely new level and it meant these intense physical exercises became extremely punitive, in effect the person was subjected to an endless cycle of one Oppie on top of another – morning to night until the end of the specified CB punishment period. Punishment would also often involve ‘water’ PT were offenders wearing the red helmet were pushed to physical excess and vomiting.
For anyone receiving this item of kit i.e the ‘Rooi Doiby’ and subject to CB Drills, then this Afrikaans term seemed apt … “dit was nag” (darkness would descend) and you would simply ‘Afkak’ (to have your spirit relentlessly broken).
SADF Troops on a full kit march show two members who are also on ‘CB’ drills wearing ‘rooi staaldaks’
As said ‘Confined to Barracks’ drills are a sort of prison sentence, the difference been that it was designed for minor infractions like going AWOL (absence without leave), ‘indiscipline’ or ‘insubordination’ which if elevated into the strict definitions of military law and a military tribunal would carry an actual prison sentence which often did not really fit the ‘crime’ (the SADF would have had a heck of time if every case of a conscript going AWOL landed up in court and subsequently in a Detention Barracks (DB) – a military jail).
CB sentences were solved ‘internally’ at a Regiment or Unit level, sometimes by the Commanding Officer and his leader element, but often also by the Regimental Sergeant Major and his leader element – or both.
A CB sentence sometimes meant been handed over to the Regimental Police known as RP’s for the period of sentance. The RP’s are a sub-strata of Military Policing made up of specially trained members of the regiment or unit itself and not members of the Military Police (provost) corps. Sometimes it meant that the offender was incarcerated in the Regimental Police holding cells (usually located at or near the guardroom), and when taken out given repeated ‘Oppies’ (punishment exercises) overseen by RP non-commissioned officers (NCO’s).
Sometimes a CB sentence simply meant been confined to the barracks, issued a red helmet and given repeated punishment PT by the Regiment or Unit’s instructors, usually instructor NCO’s were given the task. Where ‘instructor’ qualified NCO’s did not exist, company or platoon leaders NCO’s were sometimes allocated the task of dishing out the PT punishment to the poor sod/s issued with this infamous ‘red helmet’.
There was however a flaw to the CB system, whilst many offenders subjected to it were a little relieved they had been excluded a formal legal case and sentence and just had to ‘vastbyt’ (hang in there) during the intense Oppies until it was all over. Others found themselves at the disadvantage of subjectivity and ‘interpretation’ of the law by regiment or unit leader elements. A CB sentence could be given to a troop who simply arrived late from leave (deemed as AWOL), or having mistakenly broken an expensive bit of kit.
The CB sentence was also a ‘punitive’ system used to bring ‘subversion’ under control and very often this was targeted to specific individuals who repeatedly questioned SADF policy, methods or even the politics of the day – regarded as the ‘Communists’ or ‘Liberals’ in opposition to the Nationalist cause. In the military veteran community today there are many who would say that this system was frequently abused by over zealous PTI corporals with defined political views and quite a number of these SADF conscript veterans were very traumatised by it.
SADF Troop boarding a transport, his ‘Rooi Staaldak’ in his right hand – he was likely to be subjected to extra drilling and PT – the wry mile shows he’s taking it in his stride.
Some who were often given the ‘Rooi Doiby’ were just habitually ‘naughty’ or ‘stoutgat’ (hard arse) conscript troops and wore the helmet as a ‘badge of honour’ to their insubordination of the system and giving it the middle finger. Some even kept their own personalised ‘rooi doiby’ or ‘rooi staaldak’ having been issued it so often.
In either event, this distinctive helmet brings about mixed feelings, usually dread and many veterans would enjoy a wry and knowing smile remembering a tough time when they were super fit and could handle just about anything life could throw at them.
Written by Peter Dickens
Photo source – internet search, should the owners come forward please accept my thanks and we will credit accordingly.
Many readers of The Observation Post have asked for the follow-up story by Steve De Witt of their humorous encounter with the Soviet made T34 tank in their SADF made ‘Buffel’ APC and what happened to Christo their Buffel driver?
Original story, Part 1 – Kak vraag sit (follow this link Kak vraag sit)
So here goes .. Part 2 of ‘Kak vraag sit’ … ‘Ballasbak with the Stars’
By Steve de Witt
Christo our driver – he who successfully retreated from a Russian T-34 tank – was the most reluctant soldier in the Border War. The army didn’t want him to fight as he couldn’t handle pressure, and he didn’t want to fight anyway. Why? – because Jesus said turn the other cheek.
Once we stole his Old Brown Sherry and quickly owned up. Then tried to make him open us another bottle, on religious principle. Instead he cocked his rifle and gave us some Old Testament vengeance.
The bunker after sunset was our preferred drinking hole. Here we’d open the first bottle next to the machine gun. And open the last in darkness long after the generator had killed the power.
Sherry had the effect of converting Christo to other faiths. After one bottle he suddenly believed in Buddhism, and told you so. After a second bottle he became an Atheist, and told the Dominee. Most times he couldn’t find where the Dominee was hiding.
As punishment for this wavering religiosity, fate led Christo towards that Russian tank. Later he drove our troop carrier over a landmine. Christo the pacifist survived both encounters but he’d had enough.
Back at Base, he drank himself through Atheism into a new phase, Bravery. This helped him steal ratpacks from the store, pack them in his Buffel and attempt to drive home from the Border.
He hit another landmine.
For these colourful adventures and many more, our mate Christo was much liked. When he transgressed, Christo’s older brother gave our Captain bottles of brandy to drop the disciplinary charges. So the rank looked forward to Christo’s antics.
Yes, Christo’s GrootBoet had a Milky Way of pips on his shoulders. He was so important he only moved by Helicopter. Christo said he even flew to the GoCarts on the other side of his Base. And he would swoop in regularly to haul KleinBoet out of our Kas, and then fly back to wherever again. Wherever was very far away. I know that because, where we were, I never saw GrootBoet Brigadier fighting the enemy.
I suppose that’s not unusual because Brigadiers aren’t allowed in combat. Even the enemy went to primary school. Brigadiers worry wearing so many gold stars.
Anyway, it wasn’t GrootBoet Brigadier’s job to get Kills on the Operations Board. That was our task. Problem is, we weren’t getting enough kills, as he often told us.
It wasn’t through lack of trying. These were SWAPO guerrillas we were hunting in Owamboland, real insurgency specialists. We wanted to fight them. They wanted to hide.
Mao Tse-Tung taught them that. Sleep during the day somewhere in the thick bush. It’s such a big country they’ll never find you. Then at night let the army sleep in the bush – while you drink beer and talk freedom in the kraals.
They won a country like that, those freedom fighters.
Not that we lost – don’t dare suggest that! We just had nothing more to fight for. In ’89 the Berlin Wall came down and the Communists suddenly wanted Democracy. It was such a shock that PW Botha had a stroke. And gave them one man one vote, just like that.
Or maybe he had his stroke later – after realising he’d given away the country we fought and died for. I forget which came first.
Anyhow, back to the Border War. None of us could have predicted it’s outcome. In the days of GrootBoet Brigadier, we were too busy looking for sleeping guerrillas to worry about winning or losing.
Winning was everything, for sure, but that was the Brigadiers’ problem. They saw the big picture and designed strategies for our victory. They had massive responsibility considering all the planning, logistics and execution involved.
Then they still had to criss-cross Owamboland by Chopper to wherever their brothers were in DB, or hunt ivory.
One time GrootBoet Brigadier flew in, unlocked the DB and stayed the night with us, drinking with the officers. But he had to leave early the next morning, he said. 32Bn was on Ops in Cuvelai and he needed to organise fuel columns.
I guess Zambia was far away which meant much more aviation fuel. During heavy fighting up north the elephants always fled there.
Before leaving the next morning he inspected us on Parade which was nerve-wracking for all, especially the Sergeant Major.
Not for Christo. GrootBoet Brigadier spent a long time looking through KleinBoet’s barrel for that elusive speck of dust. Eventually Christo smirked and offered him some advice.
“You’ll see the sun come up through that barrel, Brigadier”
The Sergeant Major exploded and threw him back into DB for insubordination “and you stay there until you klaar out, Troep!”
GrootBoet Brigadier sighed and climbed into his helicopter. My faith in military discipline was restored. You can’t just chirp a Brigadier like that on the parade ground.
After supper the Captain ordered a bottle of brandy delivered to the Sergeant Major’s tent. He was so happy he reached into his kas for a short glass and downed two doubles, straight.
I always respected our Sergeant Major. You could rely on him to uphold military discipline regardless of a man’s rank or family connection. In the army you can’t let the Christo’s get away with murder.
Hell he could drink, that Sergeant Major. And get angry too, especially after downing doubles. I remember how shocked the MP Sergeant was when confronted in the bar. He stood rigidly to attention as the Sergeant Major shouted obscenities into his face.“Who the (NuweVloekerei) do you think you are, locking up the Brigadier’s brother!”
Editor – Sometimes we get another gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border, thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story and photos in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post. Copyright – Steve De Witt, with many thanks to Dave Bosman and Steve’s brothers in arms for the use of thier images.
Colin Eglin, the long-time anti-apartheid campaigner and long-time leader of the opposition Democrats in South Africa has recently had a road named after him … but so what! Many streets and roads are named after various politicians in South Africa, especially the anti-apartheid campaigners in recent times … however, this one is different, very different.
Why? Because Colin Eglin Road is not in South Africa, it’s in Italy.
Most modern South Africans who can even recall him, just know him as part of the last vestige of ‘white liberals’ in a ‘whites only’ Parliament trying to hold the juggernaut of the National Party and its Apartheid policy to account. A tiny voice calling for full democracy in a sea of National Party (NP) rural ‘afrikaner-bloc’ gerrymandering which overtook him and pushed the ‘official opposition’ i.e. the PFP (now the DA) and the more liberal ‘english-bloc’ urban voters calling for an end to Apartheid into complete political irrelevance.
Note – this gerrymandering (the weighting and re-drawing of constituency boundaries to create a favourable political bias) which the NP used to destroy Colin Eglin and the PFP using the ‘rural bias’ is now happily used by the ANC and this last significant footprint of Apartheid has been put to good effect keeping the DA’s ‘urban’ vote ineffectual.
So, gerrymandering has resulted in well-regarded South African politicians been side-lined – what it did to the ‘democrat’ opposition bench then, it also does to them now. You may now even have to ask ‘Who is Colin Eglin anyway?’ and how is it that Colin Eglin became so revered that the Italians have named one of their roads after him?
That bit has a lot to do with Colin Eglin’s status as a military veteran and his tireless campaigning for South African military veteran recognition and the causes they fought so hard for in the mountains of Italy.
Now, who even knew Colin Eglin was a 2nd World War veteran? Let’s examine what drove this most complex war veteran turned political campaigner.
Colin Wells Eglin was born on 14th April 1925 in Sea Point, Cape Town, at a young age he moved to live with his aunt, outside Hobhouse, Eastern Free State when his father died after a long illness. Colin attended the Hobhouse School where he was the only English–speaking pupil – “I found myself the only rooinek (red neck, or English-speaker) in the village school.” he later lamented and he very quickly came to learn of the ‘Afrikaner politics’ and tension between the National Party supporters of DF Malan and those of Barry Hertzog – politics which began to deeply affect him. It also him the rare advantage of being fully fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
Colin was a bright and highly intelligent pupil and he left the Orange Free State and attended the De Villiers Graaf High School in Villiersdorp where he matriculated in 1939 at the very young age for a matriculant – only 14 years old.
Colin Eglin during WW2
South Africa had gone to war when Colin matriculated, at 14 years old he was too young to join the army, so in 1940 (now aged just 15) Colin Eglin registered for a Bachelor of Science degree in quantity surveying at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In 1943, now finally at the recruitment age of 18 he interrupted his studies at UCT to fulfil Jan Smuts’ call to go to war, and he voluntarily joined the army.
World War 2
Colin initially became a full-time instructor in the anti-aircraft unit in Cape Town. He was then sent to a similar unit in Egypt and transferred to Italy in 1944 joining the 6th South African Armoured Division fighting in the Italian Apennines around Florence. Now a 19-year-old ‘rookie’ soldier, he was to be baptised in the last significant combat operations of the war and was front and forward in the South African assault on Monte Sole.
Colin Eglin had joined ‘D Company’ of an amalgamated Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC) from Grahamstown unit which had formed a combined regiment for service in the 6th South African Armoured Division.
The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC), known collectively as ‘FC/CTH’ had just previously acquitted themselves very well under the command of Lt Col. Angus Duncan in the taking of Monte Stanco from strong German positions and at this stage the war had entered a static winter period before the next big push onto Monte Sole.
As Colin had completed four years university study at UCT in quantity surveying it was felt that he had sufficient qualification for ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and he was put on a course to become ‘D’ Company’s intelligence corporal (the military – then and now – often displays this odd logic for placing individuals civilian qualifications for military needs).
Colin was taken to the ‘Pink House’ near Grizzana, a farm building that was also the operational HQ of ‘C’ Company for a crash course of two weeks training in ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and then back to D Company.
‘D’ Company had its headquarters in a cluster of farmhouses, named the ‘Foxhole’, on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Grizzana. As it was in the line of fire of enemy positions, ‘Foxhole’ was a tough, cold and miserable posting. Colin found himself in a forward observation post (OP) located at the cemetery at Campiaro. The OP overlooked the town of Vergato which was the centre of the German defences in the area.
In the freezing weather, snow and mud guard duty and patrols by D company in the area were a miserable affair. Patrols were sent out at night, and they almost always hit fierce and lethal contacts with the German defenders. In these patrols and observations Cpl Colin Elgin became adept at map reading and at recognising, and noting, the sounds and sights of warfare.
Much needed ‘Rest and Recuperation’ (R&R) came around every two weeks when ‘D Company’ members would go to nearby Castiglione dei Pepoli, the South African 6th Division HQ was located there and they could shower, get fresh supplies and spend some time relaxing. Known to the South African soldiers as ‘Castig’ the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli was to become a central feature in Colin Eglin’s life for years to come.
The South African 6th Division in the town square of Castiglione dei Pepoli – 1945.
In the valleys around Monte Sole, between the 29th September and 5 October 1944 the Italian resistance kicked into action, this then spurred the defending German forces into an extreme action to control the area. They embarked on massacre, and proceeded to try to wipe out all Italian civilians around Monte Sole – resistance, men, women and children (all of them – it mattered not a jot). The town of Marzabotto alone commemorates the massacre of 770 individuals, mostly the elderly, women and children.
With the static winter period over, by the spring of 1945 the South African 6th Division could advance on Monte Sole. In April 1945 Colin Eglin joined a CTH/FC forward party for a briefing on the assault on Monte Sole by Colonel Angus Duncan.
Colin noted “In a few weeks’ time the Allied spring offensive would commence. The Sixth Armoured Division had been given the task of opening the road to Bologna. To do this, the Twelfth Brigade would have to capture the mountain massif formed by Monte Sole, Caprara and Abelle. The Highlanders had been assigned to capture Monte Sole. Suddenly that mountain we had gazed at all winter from a safe distance was in front of us. Forbidding, frightening, challenging. Casualties were likely to be heavy. Yet there was a sense of pride that our regiment had been chosen for this pivotal battle task, and quiet determination to show we could do it”.
The South African 6th Division attack in Spring 1945 was a two-pronged affair, the Cape Town Highlanders and First City (FC/CTH) were to take Monte Sole – regarded as the most formidable of the German Army defences, and Witwatersrand Rifles/Regiment de la Rey (another amalgamated unit) i.e. WR/DLR were to take Monte Caprara. The idea was to eventually push through and capture the crossings of the River Po and break out into the vallies and plains beyond the mountains.
Looking more like partisans than regulars, a First City/Cape Town Highlanders patrol sets out in the italian Apennines – 1945. SANDF Archive
To prepare for the attack on 15th April 1945, the German defensive positions were bombed from the air and shelled by artillery. In taking Caprara, the WR/DLR suffered heavy casualties right from the start and in desperate fighting which at time even involved hand-to-hand combat, they took the mountain. Counter-attacks by German forces were effectively fought off by the South African tenaciously holding on to their win.
Colin Eglin was assembled at the start-line for FC/CTH attack on Monte Sole at Casa Belvedere (two kilometers from the peak of Monte Sole). He had just celebrated his 20th birthday the day before.
Both ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies of FC/CTH advanced along two farm tracks leading up to the summit on Monte Sole. They re-assembled 800 meters from the crest of Monte Sole. The area was heavily mined by Germans, but despite this the South Africans of C and D company advanced under the command a 20-year-old rookie officer with only 12 days front line combat exposure. 2nd Lt. Gordon Mollett led the charge up the approach with only five men and ‘with total disregard for his life’ wiped out the machine gun posts on the crest of Monte Sole with the loss of one of his men.
So swift was the assault on the German’s position that they were completely unprepared for proper defence or the bayonet charge, and with that 2nd Lt Mollett walked into South African history with a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for his actions and the rest of C and D companies of the FC/CTH took the crest and won the day.
Preceding the final attack on Monte Sole, Colin Eglin had been tasked to install telephone lines as far up the route as possible. Highly dangerous work, on his way up to Monte Sole the soldier walking just behind him stood on a German anti-personnel Schützenmine 42 mine. Also known as a Schuh mine (shoe mine) it is a simple wooden box with a hinged lid containing a 200-gram block of cast TNT and a ZZ-42 type detonator, and it blew off part of the South African soldiers foot.
Colin applied an emergency field dressing to his wounded comrades foot, administered first aid and called for a stretcher-bearer. Even with the threat of mines now highly apparent Colin and couple of ‘D’ Company platoons continued to press forward to the summit. Colin was able to get to the top and rigged up his field radio under fire, only to have its aerial cut in two by all the shrapnel and bullets flying around, thus rendering it useless. So he scrambled down the mountain to the HQ, it was here that he took in the news of the tragic death of his Commander – Lt Col Angus Duncan. He was killed the foot of Monte Sole when his jeep was blown up.
It is thought that the jeep carrying Lt. Col Duncan hit a mine, while other witness accounts suggest an artillery round fired from a German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun across the valley hit the vehicle.
Officer Commanding First City/Cape Town Highlanders, Lt Col Angus Duncan, addressing his men before the assault on Monte Sole. He was killed shortly after this photograph was taken, while driving to his brigade’s position. SANDF Archive
Many years later in Peter Elliott’s interview with Colin Eglin (then Colin was 88 years old and this was his last visit to Italy), whilst the two of them re-traced the steps of FC/CTH at Monte Sole, Colin recalled how the strain of war impacted two completely different soldiers and comrades, Jan and Peter. Jan was a tough outdoors man, an extrovert and he relished army life prior to the battle. Peter was a indoors man, an introvert who just endured army life out of a sense of duty. During the battle for Monte Sole it was Jan, the extrovert whose nerves snapped, and he had to be withdrawn from battlefield. Colin found Peter, the introvert some time later still in his slit trench. He had been under intense mortar fire during a number of German counter-attacks, but remained resolute. He was exhausted but even cheerful and shouted across at Colin triumphantly, ‘Corporal, we made it!’
Even though the taking of the crest had been swift, the Battle for Monte Sole was heavy and hard going, in all FC/CTH suffered heavy losses – a total of 31 men killed and 78 men wounded. The extent of contribution of the two Regiments to the battle and victory can be seen in the bravery – in all twelve gallantry medals and awards were won.
The capture of Monte Sole by FC/CTH opened up the road to Bologna and beyond the Po Valley, within two short weeks on 2 May 1945, the Germans formally surrendered in Italy. For the South Africans it was effectively war over!
‘D’ Company FC/CTH HQ Melzo, Italy, a week after war ended in May 1945. Colin Eglin is fourth from right, back row.
But a new struggle was emerging for these newly minted war veterans, certainly for Colin Eglin. After the War Colin remained in Italy for nine months, he was stationed at Castiglione dei Pepoli, the town located near Monte Sole remained the South African 6th Armoured Division’s headquarters and it now became a depot and clearing station for the entire division (in fact the main South African military burial ground in Italy is located there). During this period, whilst waiting to be demobilised he undertook extra-mural courses in Archaeology and Town Planning.
The entire event had made an indelible impression on Colin’s soul, it was the Italian Campaign that was to deepen his commitment to democracy and liberty. Monte Sole was a shrine for him as he returned there on many occasions during the next sixty-eight years to stand gazing at the mountain where, as a young man, he quickly became an adult. During these trips he was also to build a lasting relationship with the towns-people of Castiglione dei Pepoli.
A military veteran’s legacy
In his autobiography, “Crossing the Borders of Power – The Memoirs of Colin Eglin,” Colin mentions the discussions that took place among the South African soldiers in 1945, whilst in Italy waiting to be repatriated to South Africa. Colin noted:
“The dominant view was that there should be a memorial, but that this should be a ‘living’ one that served the community, not merely a monumental structure. The servicemen, in overwhelming numbers, volunteered to donate two days’ pay towards what was to become the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”
The children’s hospital was to be built as a memorial to those who had contributed by sacrifice, suffering and service in the Second World War, the soldiers felt that children had been the innocent victims of the war and the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital was devoted to the relief of the suffering of children.
The building of the Children’s Hospital in Cape Town commenced in 1953 under the guidance of the South African Red Cross Society and remains a ‘living war memorial’ helping the most vulnerable of the community – our children – and Colin Eglin was to play a leading role in making it happen.
Colin Eglin speaking at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town on Remembrance Day
During his life-time Colin returned to the Italian Apennines and Castiglione dei Pepoli over ten times. For his work on Remembrance and maintaining the links of this part of Italy with their liberators – South Africa – he was even made an honorary citizen of the town of Grizzana Morandi.
But why was an opposition party leader elevated to such a significant position in Italy and not a government one? We all know the answer to that, as the Nationalist Party had no really sincere intentions on commemorating South Africa’s war against Nazism and Fascism in Italy, before and during the war they had supported the ideals of Nazism and Fascism. They were not going to change their stance on Britain, British Allies, Smuts, World War 2 or even Fascism. So this key task on building on the South African sacrifice in Europe, lest it all be in vain, was left to that part of the South African mainstream party political spectrum which supported Smuts and all the ‘liberals’ who went to war against Nazi Germany – and that part of the party political spectrum in 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was Colin Eglin’s turf.
The political path for Post War veterans
In 1946 Colin returned from the Italian theatre of Military Operations to South Africa, here he picked up where he left off and continued with his studies, graduating the same year with a B.Sc in Quantity Surveying from UCT.
He became involved in civic affairs and started the Pinelands Young People’s Club which helped set up a sister organization in the neighbouring Coloured village of Maitland. In 1951 he became chairman of the Pinelands Civic Association and was elected to the Pinelands town council.
The electoral loss of the Jan Smuts’ United Party in 1948 to the National Party and their Apartheid proposals sent shock waves into South Africa’s war veteran community. The war for liberty and democracy they had conducted overseas in places like Italy, against the same forces of fascism which had now come home to roost in South Africa. This spurred The Torch Commando in the early 1950’s led by Sailor Malan and Colin Eglin as a returning war veteran joined The Torch Commando and started to become very politicised.
The Torch Commando was the first anti-Apartheid mass protest movement, and it was made up of returning war veterans. It was primarily a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and was crushed by the National Party because of the military threat it posed – and it was done by using ‘anti-communist’ legislation designed to curtail any ideology in opposition to Apartheid.
The Torch Commando was linked to the United Party, who tried to leverage it for the ‘service vote’ and wrestle power back from the National Party. In 1953 Colin decided to enter in formal political party opposition to Apartheid in addition to protesting with The Torch Commando – and he joined Smuts’ United Party (Smuts had just passed away in 1950). Almost immediately he became the political campaign manager for his friend Zach de Beer who was the United Party (UP) candidate for the parliamentary seat of Maitland. Colin Eglin and Zach de Beer were to form a friendship and political bond which would transform itself into what is now the modern “Democratic Alliance’, of the two Helen Suzman would say “Zach was clever, but Colin was sounder”.
In 1954 Colin himself was elected unopposed as the UP provincial councillor for Pinelands. In addition to that, he became chairman of the UP’s Cape Peninsula Council and then in 1958 Eglin became the Peninsula MP.
By August 1959, following the United Party’s congress in Bloemfontein, Colin broke from the UP ranks, the new guard in the UP instead of following Smuts’ vision of universal suffrage and holistic reconciliation in South Africa, still humoured the more conservative elements of the party who wanted a limited franchise and some restrictive movements for South Africa’s black migrant working population – a sort of ‘Apartheid Lite’ if you will.
In 1959 this was clearly no longer the direction needed or in any way relevant for liberal and democratic opposition parties in South Africa. Colin was one of UP rebels who issued a declaration of dissent (the others included Zach de Beer and Helen Suzman).
Helen Suzman at a Progressive Party meeting
In November that year he was one of the 11 members of parliament who formed the nucleus of the new Progressive Party (PP). It was a bold move, it would ultimately spell the end of the United Party and the conservative element within it, also by fractionating the official opposition (the UP) it certainly bolstered the National Party. What it did however also do was draw the line in the sand of ‘white politics’ – on the one side, the whites who supported Apartheid and a whites only vote and on the other side whites who did not support Apartheid and wanted a democratic vote for all.
All through this Colin Eglin never wavered from his adherence to liberal, democratic values, he aimed to reform the system from the inside; and by balancing criticism of race discrimination with political pragmatism he sometimes found himself the subject of attack from both black and white communities.
The ANC would argue that by participating in the apartheid political system, no matter what his stance, Eglin helped perpetuate it. Yet by participating Eglin was also able to work against the Apartheid government machine and make important political gestures – such as his visit to the black activist Steve Biko, or sending ‘official government opposition’ delegations to promote the dismantling of Apartheid in the so-called ‘independent’ Bantustan ‘homelands’ and promoted dialogue with urbanised black leadership.
By 1966 Colin Eglin became chairman on the National Executive of the Progressive Party (PP) and in 1971 he became the party leader succeeding Jan Steytler. In an attempt to attract Afrikaners to the PP, he initiated ‘Deurbraak’, the first journal of verligte (enlightened) opinion in South Africa. Colin Eglin also initiated a dialogue between the PP and Black homeland and urban leaders. He was also instrumental in establishing Synthesis, a non-party political study and discussion group, which became an important tool for information and contact across the colour bar. He also held a symposium of 50 Afrikaner academics in 1971, from which a non-party-political movement, Verligte Aksie, was formed.
In 1974 the PP won six seats in the general election with the seventh coming from a by-election a few months later. In 1975 Eglin negotiated the merger with members of the Reform Party, which led to the formation of the Progressive Reform Party (PRP). In 1976 he called an Extraordinary Parliamentary session to discuss the Soweto Uprising and call for the resignation of the Minister of Bantu Affairs, M.C. Botha.
A combination of gerrymandering by the National Party and totalitarian crack-down by the Apartheid State of South Africa’s liberal ‘democratic’ politicians, gagging many of them by way of banning and sending many into exile after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, saw liberal politics in a racially segregated and conservative Afrikaner biased voting sphere become absolutely irrelevant – and the PP would eventually lose all its seats, except one – Helen Suzman – who remained a lone voice of official opposition to Apartheid in Parliament for many years.
Also for many years, while she was the Progressive’s sole MP, Colin Eglin acted as Helen Suzman’s link with extra-parliamentary activities. He travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, America and even China. During visits to 15 African countries, as official government ‘opposition’ to the National Party he met many heads of state to drive international opposition to Apartheid – and he did this using official and politically legal channels – without having to resort his party to violent opposition.
Criticism of the PRP by the National Party as they tried to brand then as a “Tool of Communist agitators.” was swiftly put in place by Suzman who said .. “it’s really a joke, isn’t it? Because, quite clearly, we are a party of real moderates. It just shows how little they understand.”
In 1977, following a merger with the Committee for United Opposition that had also broken away from the United Party the PRP became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). By 1979 Colin stepped down as leader in favour of Dr F van Zyl Slabbert and became Shadow Foreign Minister, a post he would hold until 1986.
In 1986 Colin Eglin found himself at the reigns of his party again following the shock resignation of Van Zyl Slabbert from the PFP. Ironically van Zyl Slabbert had one crucial deficiency, which Eglin had in spades – staying power. Eglin, on one occasion described the pursuit of the liberal cause on the stony soil of South Africa as “the politics of the long haul”. And when Slabbert, despairing of making any change to the Apartheid machine quit the leadership in a fiery act of self-implosion it was again to Eglin that his shell-shocked colleagues turned to give the lead.
He remained party leader until 1988, however he didn’t have the best people skills to sustain this type of leadership. Affectionately known as ‘the Egg’, Colin Eglin had a sharp tongue and bit off many heads. His long-time colleague Helen Suzman admitted that his manner “put off a lot of people. Yet we all came back to “the Egg”, not only because he was a role model for progressives, or because of his intelligence and measured political judgment, but because he was a decent, very warm-hearted man, whom we held in great affection.
In 1988 his old UP friend, a veteran of democratic politics – Zach de Beer, took over from Colin as the newly elected party leader of the PFP. With seismic political changes on the horizon, in 1989 Colin Eglin focused on preparing his party enter into a meaningful role in South Africa’s democratic evolution, to do this he knew he needed other democratic bodies in coalition with the PFP – so he negotiated with the Independent Party and National Democratic Movement to bring together a new opposition to the National Party in parliament.
This resulted in the formation of the Democratic Party (DP) in 1989 and the dissolution of PFP. Colin was subsequently elected chairperson of the DP’s parliamentary caucus, and Zac de Beer took control of the reigns of the DP as leader.
Building Democratic opposition in a new epoch
In 1991, as the Democratic Party (DP) stalwart, Colin participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and served in its working group. Described by Nelson Mandela as “one of the architects of (South Africa’s) democracy”, Colin Eglin played a leading role in the drafting of the country’s post-apartheid constitution.
It was in CODESA at Kempton Park that Colin came into his own. It has been said that it was as though his life to then had been preparation for just this moment. Much of South Africa’s much praised liberal constitution is due to Colin’s clear grasp of the principles of liberal democracy and the constraints and provisions of those institutions charged with protecting and advancing these.
Colin’s negotiating prowess was recognised by Joe Slovo in particular and, when an impasse was reached, the two would get together and generally find a way forward and eventually, a worthy constitution was to emerge. His intellect, presence and engaging manner were recognised and respected by all in those crafting the new democratic Constitution and Bill of Rights in the tumultuous years of 1990 to April 1994.
Colin Eglin continued to serve in the segregated House of Assembly until it was abolished in 1994 after the historic democratic transition and vote in South Africa, and Colin then served in the multi-racial National Assembly as a DP Parliamentarian.
In November 1994, at the end of the first session of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament, a small group of Democratic Party MPs had lunch in Pretoria with President Nelson Mandela to discuss some challenges affecting the new legislature.
On arrival, in the dining room at the official residence, Mandela arranged the seating with this instruction: “Colin, you sit at the head of the table – you are the senior man here in terms of service.”
Mandela was giving recognition to a veteran anti-Apartheid stalwart, a person who had first been elected to Parliament fighting Apartheid tooth and nail some 36 years before this luncheon and a person whose Parliamentarian career would even outlive Nelson Mandela’s own after the luncheon was over. It was some acknowledgement to ‘the Egg’ and South Africa’s democrats and Mandela knew it.
In 2000, the DP merged with other groups to become the Democratic Alliance (DA), which survives as the current official ‘democratic’ opposition to an African National Congress (ANC) government.
Whilst in the DA, Colin turned his attention on the new ‘Nationalists’ in Parliament, where the Afrikaner Nationalists (NP) were his previous foe, the African Nationalists (ANC) were his next. To Eglin – nationalism almost always meant one-upmanship of one nation over that of another, he had learned a bitter lesson in nationalism and all its inherent evils in the freezing hills of Italy in WW2.
His foresight to NP politics then were as applicable to his foresight on ANC politics now. Colin felt that the ANC government should focus almost entirely on decreasing the poverty gap in South Africa – and in so do two things – unleash the forces of enterprise to reduce unemployment and focus government spending on housing and education … and not on self-enrichment – here he felt the flawed ANC driven BEE ‘transformation’ programs only served to transform a ANC political elite to a ‘super-class’ and the ‘under-class’ and poverty-stricken would simply be left behind. He also fought the ANC’s bills and amendments to press freedoms believing them to be “a cover up of corruption, incompetence and nepotism”.
In one his final speeches, Colin Eglin is nothing short of pure prophesy – consider this when he said “Ironically the (ANC) government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy has contributed to the widening of the (poverty) gap, by creating a new rich elite, often of persons with strong political connections, and by leaving the millions of impoverished out of the empowerment process. These factors are having an impact, turning people away from the values that underpin our constitutional system, and eroding confidence in our democratic institutions. They are driving people towards populism as a cure for their problems. In short, they are undermining our new democracy.”
Colin Eglin retired from the DA and opposition democratic politics in 2004 and in the same year was made an Officer of the Order of the Disa, conferred on him by the Western Cape Provincial Government.
In April 2013, the South African Government conferred the Order of the Baobab, Category II (Silver) on Eglin for serving the country with excellence and for his dedication and courage in standing up for the principles of equality for all South Africans against the unjust laws of the past.
Colin died at 88 years old on the 30 November 2013, his long time wife Joyce had died some years before of cancer in 1997 and he left his new partner Raili, three daughters and five grandsons.
As a leading politician and WW2 veteran of The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH), he was afforded a military funeral with draped coffin and the Guard of Honour was provided by the CTH. This short video captures his life and death and the respect he gained in opposition to the National Party and the ANC alike.
The peaceful road to democracy
Today, there seems to exist an opinion in the new political class in South Africa, that if you did not take up arms to fight ‘the crime of humanity’ that was Apartheid you were somehow derelict in your duty as a South African and somehow complicit in upholding Apartheid instead. This rhetoric is aimed at blaming white people for all of South Africa’s ills and demanding financial reparations from them. It’s an ANC and ECC narrative devised to whip up Populism and cover up their own inadequacies, crime and corruption – and its a narrative which is entirely misplaced.
The truth is that many ‘struggle’ organisations other than the ANC alliance fought against Apartheid, and not all of them had to resort to armed conflict to do so, Desmond Tutu and the Council of Churches, The Black Sash, the Progressive Federal Party, The Torch Commando, The Liberal Party, The National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the United Democratic Front (UDF), the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), the Council of South African Students (COSAS), Jews for Social Justice, The South African Congress of Democrats, The Federation of South African Women. Temple Israel, The Boycott Movement, The Natal Indian Congress and many many more all worked within the confines of the Republic’s constitution and the law to bring Apartheid to an end.
This included South Africa’s white progressives and democrats – starting with the United Party in 1948 and ending with the Democratic Party in 1994 who felt that the system in the long run could be changed from within if they stuck to it and fought it tooth and nail. Here’s the inconvenient truth – they were correct, in the long haul their work was as effective in removing Apartheid as any armed struggle, if not more so. Bold statement but its the real truth.
The truth of the matter is that an armed struggle did not really end Apartheid, the ballot did. There was no MK led ‘military victory parade’ over defeated SADF/SAP forces – and that’s because there was no military victory. The victory in the end was a moral one, and it was one in which democracy loving white South African’s played a key role – the first time white people were given a proper representative vote since 1948 (without National Party gerrymandering of proportional representation playing any factor whatsoever) occurred in 1992. The ‘white’ electorate calmly, with no overt pressure whatsoever voted Apartheid OUT and voted a full and representative democracy for all South Africans IN – and the did that in the Yes/No referendum of 1992 – two years before the so-called ’94 miracle’ – and they voted for Colin Eglin’s ‘democrats’ and enlightened National Party ‘progressives’ who backed the ‘Yes’ vote by a majority of 70% – that is a truth.
Without this ‘YES’ vote the CODESA negotiations would have been scrapped and South Africa would have continued on its ‘Apartheid’ trajectory – fact. It was white people using the peaceful means of the ballot which ended Apartheid and not the ‘armed struggle’, and they used it within the Apartheid ‘whites only’ parliamentary process – fact. Colin Eglin, Zach de Beer, Helen Suzman and the DP played a key role in this referendum and their life’s work ultimately ended Apartheid – without firing a shot – fact.
Who do you think you are!
If you had to play a game of heritage along the lines of the BBC’s ‘who do you think you are’, the DA’s political pedigree starts with Smuts’ United Party and the war veterans like Colin Eglin who fought for liberty and freedom and returned to South Africa only to become politicised when the National Party came to power in 1948. This is the epicentre of the DA’s beginning, a proud cocktail of the ‘democratic’ fight against Nazism, Fascism Apartheid and Nationalism. Colin Eglin is the ‘golden thread’ that links the DA to its wartime beginning and its modern values.
In July 2018, the townspeople of four villages in the mountains Italian Apennines acknowledged Colin Eglin, for his work in keeping the sacrifice of South African in Italy alive and relevant in South Africa. For his work in creating a living war memorial to the children in South Africa, for his ties and diplomacy with the Italy authorities looking after the South African war dead and keeping their legacy alive in the years of Apartheid’s isolation and for his tireless political work to bring peace and democracy to South Africa.
The unveiling ceremony was attended by Mayors of the surrounding Italian towns in the Apennines where the South Africans fought, Italian Military and Police officials, the South African Ambassador to Italy, and the South African National Defence Force Military Attaché to Italy all attended. In addition, 73 years on, the extreme gratitude of the Italian people (including their modern-day children) to the South Africans is still palatable – and it is all in honour of South African sacrifice and the values of the men who brought liberty to this far-flung part of Italy.
In addition to the named road, the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli has a war museum dedicated to the South African 6th Armoured Division, and a special display is in the museum to Colin Eglin and his long-time association with the town’s remembrance and historical preservation of South Africa’s fight against Nazism and Fascism – in his capacity of a long time South African MP and as a veteran of the Battle of Monte Sole himself.
Display dedicated to Colin Eglin at the war museum in Castiglione dei Pepoli, Italy.
The ‘Egg’ literally epitomised the road to democracy in South Africa. A road is anything that connects two points and Colin Eglin Road in Italy connects South Africa with Castiglione dei Pepoli in Italy, and under the title ‘Colin Eglin’ is a description in Italian ‘uomo di pace’ meaning ‘a man of peace’ – and nothing could be more descriptive of Colin Eglin and his politics.
He was a man who had seen war and chose to use peaceful means to fight Afrikaner Nationalism and Apartheid and won, eventually becoming a founding father of South Africa’s democratic constitution – a true democrat in every sense. South Africa now has a strong set of multi-racial democrats in the form of the DA still holding African Nationalism (now in a state of racial reverse) in South Africa to account, and it’s all a result of the road Colin took.
It’s highly appropriate that a road is now named after him where his political journey started, in the midst of the mud, death and misery of Smuts’ war against despot nationalism and the South African sacrifice to rid the world of it – and it really is a very long road which begins in the mountains of Italy and continues to South Africa, even to this very day.
Large reference and thanks to Peter Elliott and his article and photographs in the Military History Journal, Vol 16 No 2 – December 2013 ‘FOREVER A PIECE OF SOUTH AFRICA’ A return to the area of Monte Sole in the Italian Apennines By Peter Elliott.
References also include ‘Tony Leon remembers great soldier Colin Eglin’ by Tony Leon Colin Eglin’s speech Presented to the Cape Town Press Club A TRIBUTE TO COLIN EGLIN – HELEN SUZMAN FOUNDATION – Peter Soal , December 2013
My sincere thanks to the curators of the South African Military Museum at Castiglione dei Pepoli for the personal tour, insights and assistance, especially to Mauro Fogacci.
According to a report in the Sunday Independent, a troop of 200 baboons is conducting a reign of terror on Beit Bridge. They live on the catwalk below. From there they stage ambushes on cars and travellers, eating and thieving and taking their loot back to the catwalk.
I find this gut-wrenchingly hilarious. It’s amazing how history turns full circle. The last group of baboons terrorizing the catwalk on Beit Bridge was our army platoon. It may only be a footnote in the history of old South Africa, but it was us – little ol’ us – who unintentionally declared war on Zimbabwe in the early 80’s.
Beit Bridge was a sensitive posting. ‘Daaie fokkin communis en terroris’ Robert Mugabe had come to power only a few months before. At the last outpost on the frontier, standing face to face with the enemy half-way across the bridge, our platoon was instructed to defend South Africa against the swart gevaar.
Our company commander, an Infantry captain, took this mission as a personal honour bestowed by PW Botha, Constant Viljoen (Chief of the Defence Force), Jannie Geldenhuys (Chief of the Army) and God, in that order.
On the sandy, blisteringly hot parade ground of Beit Bridge he stood us at ease, not stand easy, for two hours in the sun. We were lambasted about the massive responsibility of our task. We were not under any circumstances to communicate with the Zimbabwean soldiers.
We were to be perfectly turned out, representing the whole SA army in appearance and discipline. We were the gate-keepers between SA and Communist Africa. The smallest indiscretion could flare into an international incident. “En julle fokkin Engelsmanne,” he said, referring to the minority five of us in Platoon 1, “Ek watch julle – Pasop!”
Thus entrusted with the safe-keeping of all SA, we were dispatched to the very same catwalk under the Bridge inherited today by our successors, 200 large monkeys.
And thus the Alfred Beit Bridge (1952) over the Limpopo River was once our possession, our kingdom. Amazing how the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Actually, the bridge is a beautiful place on the Limpopo, especially at sunset. Strong legs brace into the flowing waters, and in the early 80‘s all manner of wildlife would come down to drink, including hippos. A resident crocodile patrolled the waters below, and we had endless hours of reflection from our bunker, now hidden behind overgrown foliage at the red circle (see picture below).
Now our Captain may have been a drunken, Soutie-hating messiah but he knew his men. Leave low-ranking troops idle for too long and something untoward will happen. Leave five Souties in a bunker with a machine gun on an international border and you’re asking for a career-ending incident.
So we never told him that we’d smuggled cases of Castle Lager into the bunker. Nor that we’d chatted to the cautious Zim soldiers on the catwalk. He also never found out that we’d snatched a camouflage cap off one’s head. And that both sides had cocked rifles, resulting in a tense stand-off, before we threw the cap back to them. Such small indiscretions were relatively easy to hide.
But when one drunken Soutie, feet up on the sandbagged wall, cocked the machine gun in a routine way to check the supposedly empty chamber, then pulled the trigger, we didn’t expect a clip of twenty odd rounds to fire across the water at the Zimbabwean bunker.
Consternation and chaos broke out in the bunker. We all hit the floor, beer bottles scattering.
“What the hell…!” we yelled at Trevor.
Crack! Crack! came AK47 bullets back across the water. “They started it!” yelled Trevor. “They didn’t start it! You started it!” “Are you fuckin mad?” he yelled, wide-eyed – “We’ll all go to DB if we started it. They fuckin started it!”
Thus the story was born.
Within seconds an apoplectic, drunken Captain raged into the bunker ducking AK 47 bullets. “Julle fokkin Soutpiele!” “They started it!” we yelled in unison. “Almal in die bunkers!” he yelled into the radio.
A hundred men stumbled out the bar and fell into trenches, and stayed there all night as the odd bullet continued to crack across our heads. In the morning the border post was closed, reinforcements sent and the Captain summoned to Messina HQ, some 20 km away.
Weeks later we were at that landmark Oasis of the North, the Messina Hotel, getting pissed after a rugby game. The Captain, dronk verdriet, was there too, staring into his Brannewyn. It was safe to ask what happened when he got called to Messina HQ that day.
He sukkeled to stay upright on the barstool as he revealed the biggest uitkak in the history of the SADF.
A Colonel had grilled him, asking – “who fired first”? “They started it,” he said.
The Colonel then reported to Jannie Geldenhuys, Chief of the Army.
He in turn told Constant Viljoen, Head of the Defence Force.
Who spoke to Pik Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Who called in the Zimbabwean Ambassador…
Who said “the SA Army started it”.
(Here our Captain paused, and downed his Brannewyn)
…Pik stared at him, not knowing what to believe.
But had to inform PW Botha, who crapped him out.
PW also kakked out General Viljoen.
Who shat out Jannie Geldenhuys.
Who got bedonnered with the Colonel.
Who went bevok at the Captain…
… who got five lying Soutpiele on orders in front of him, and in an unparalleled fit of drunken rage, demanded the truth.
There was only one truth, and we stuck to it. “They started it”.
In matters of unresolved blame, the army falls back on an old tactic – the opvok. Sandbags were dished out, a killer sergeant instructed to break us physically and mentally, and down to the fence by the river we were sent.
It was the most brutal of PT sessions. We were drilled all day firstly into cramp, then heat stroke and finally semi-consciousness. The fences are still there today but Zimbabweans cutting holes in them care little about us Souties who nearly died there thirty years ago.
Ah well, it’s all water under the bridge now, so to speak. Beit Bridge now has a new set of problems with millions of refugees, cholera, traffic congestion and a shortage of toilet paper.
I’m glad all this nonsense is not happening on my beat. It seems appropriate that baboons are the new custodians of the bridge – their intellectual capacity suits the chaos there, and at least they won’t accidentally declare war on Zimbabwe.
Still, I get nostalgic for the bridge we once defended, and which God made our kingdom for two short months. It was beautiful and calm there when the Captain had passed out. I sometimes wish I could return to that bunker at sunset, if only for a beer and a banana with the new guard.
Editor’s Note; Sometimes we get a gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border (and the Border on Zimbabwe), thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post. Copyright – Steve De Witt.
Lance Corporal William Henry Hewitt VC, (aged 33) of 2nd South African Infantry Regiment is a very special South African, seen here he maintains his traditional wry smile, he had lost some teeth in heroic actions which earned him the Victoria Cross and he figured women wouldn’t think him attractive if he smiled. All we can say is smile, you of all people really earned it!
L/Cpl William Hewitt VC – Note his two ‘wound stripes’ on his sleeve
William was an exceptionally brave man, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for action near Ypres, Belgium, on September 20, 1917. These extracts from “The Comprehensive Guide to Victoria Crosses” and “How I won the Victoria Cross” the story of Major William Hewitt from the Hermanus historical society outline a very colourful life and the depth of character that was William Hewitt VC, read on and learn about one very remarkable South African.
Consider his own recollection of the action that earned him the Victoria Cross and you’ll have the measure of the man and his off the cuff ‘dark’ military humour:
William Hewitt’s platoon was ordered to demolish a German pillbox, manned by 15 enemy soldiers. Within a minute of advancing his entire platoon was killed by an artillery shell, William was luckily the sole survivor. He advanced alone and threw a grenade into the pillbox. A “jampot” (Improvised Explosive Device) was thrown at him and hit him in the face. Of the resulting explosion he said:
‘Apart from blowing off my gasmask and half my clothes, knocking out four teeth, breaking my nose, giving me a couple of black eyes, with a lot of little cuts here and there and knocking me backwards into a convenient shell-hole, it didn’t really do any damage – only made me damn mad’.
William Hewitt went round the back of the pillbox and pushed his last grenade though a breathing hole. It exploded inside, killing all the occupants. He ran around the front to deal with any survivors, only to hear a Sergeant of a relieving platoon say: ‘There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it.’
The “jampot” is what would now be regarded as a IED – an improvised explosive device in a modern context, back in World War 1, it was exactly that. Literally, it was a jam pot (or tin), taken out of the rubbish dump, filled with nuts and bolts, with an explosive device and then thrown at the enemy if all else had failed.
A wounded South African soldier is given a hot drink by a padre after the attack on ‘Potsdam’, a German stronghold near Zonnebeke, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge near Potijze, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).
Now that is some account to earn a Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at this man and how he came to taking out a pillbox single-handedly.
William Henry Hewitt (1884-1966) was born on 19th June 1884 at Copdock, near Ipswich, Suffolk. His father, also William Henry Hewitt, was born in London, and was a farmer of 80 acres at Preston Farm, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex. William (junior) had six siblings, including a brother George, who was killed serving in the Boer War in South Africa in 1900.
William Hewitt (junior) emigrated to South Africa in 1905 and served in the South Africa Constabulary and later the Natal Police, including during the Zulu Rebellion in 1906. He later became a farmer in Natal.
World War 1
William volunteered to take part in World War 1 and enlisted in the Union of South Africa Defence Force on 24th November 1915. He went to France on 12th July 1916 and joined the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment on 15th July.
He fought at the very deadly Battle of Delville Wood were he was very lucky to survive and later he also fought at the Butte de Warlencourt as a Lewis Gunner in 2 Platoon, B Company. Having been wounded in the leg on 12th October, he was evacuated to England on 24th October, where he was treated at Tooting Military Hospital. He returned to France in April 1917 and was promoted to Lance Corporal the following month.
On 20th September 1917 east of Ypres, the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (2nd SAI) had to ‘leapfrog’ the 4th South African Infantry Regiment and advanced towards Bremen Redoubt. The 2nd SAI came under enfilading fire from Hill 37 and Tulip Cottages. In the meantime, the terrain became a quagmire, with men struggling waist deep in the mud. It was during this second stage in the battle that L/Cpl William Henry Hewitt captured a pillbox single-handedly.
Destroyed strong concrete redoubt, in the Ypres sector in Belgium, during the battle on 20 September 1917. Same day and same attack that William Hewitt won his VC.
He threw a grenade into a doorway, but the Germans threw a improvised bomb back at him that blew off Hewitt’s gas-mask and knocked out four of his teeth. He was furious because he was engaged to be married and now feared that his fiancée might no longer find him attractive, Hewitt reached the rear of the pillbox. He tried to lob a bomb through a loophole, but missed and had to dive for cover. With only one bomb remaining, Hewitt crept right up to the loophole and, from beneath it, pushed the grenade through, receiving a shot in his hand as he did so. He eventually succeeded in arresting a number of Germans. Fifteen others lay dead in the pillbox. William, a simple farmer from Natal had earned the Victoria Cross.
William Hewitt was evacuated due to his wounds on 1st October, and was presented with the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 16th January 1918 and was appointed Acting Sergeant on 1st April. His Victoria Cross Citation reads:
“For most conspicuous bravery during operations. Lance Corporal Hewitt attacked a pill-box with his section and tried to rush the doorway. The enemy garrison, however, proved very stubborn, and in the attempt this non-commissioned officer received a severe wound. Nevertheless, he proceeded to the loophole of the pill-box where, in his attempts to put a bomb into it, he was again wounded in the arm. Undeterred, however, he eventually managed to get a bomb inside, which caused the occupants to dislodge, and they were successfully and speedily dealt with by the remainder of section.”
Three German prisoners, one wounded, captured in the attack on Vampire Farm near Potijze by South African and British forces, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).
A life less ordinary
William married Lily Ollett in October 1918. She was a shorthand typist. They had met when he was a patient at Tooting Military Hospital in October 1916. William returned to South Africa on RMS Durham Castle on 22nd April 1919 and was discharged the following day. He continued farming until 1925, when they moved to East Africa. He ran a coffee farm there until he sold it in 1939 to rejoin The South African Union Defence Force as a Commissioned Officer at the on-set of World War 2.
During World War II, William Hewitt VC, now promoted to a Major fought the next World War in Mombasa, East Africa were he acted as a liaison officer and later as an assistant provost-marshal.
William and Lily were living in Nairobi in 1952. When his health started to fail in 1950, he retired to Hermanus on the Cape Coast and finally became a South African citizen in 1955. He returned to Britain to attend the 1956 VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park, London. In the late 1950s, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and had to have his larynx removed in Cape Town. In the operation, they found shrapnel embedded there. Shortly after the operation, he developed Parkinson’s Disease
Lily brought him back to Britain in 1961 in an attempt to find a cure with a Parkinson’s specialist in Edinburgh. He fell badly twice in his later years and had two severe bouts of pneumonia. Although crippled, unable to speak and almost helpless, he continued the best he could.
William died at Delancey Hospital, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 7th December 1966. He was cremated at Cheltenham Crematorium on 10th December and his ashes were returned to South Africa where they were scattered at sea off the beautiful Hermanus Cliffs in South Africa on 2nd January 1974, this scenic location is famous for whale-wacthing and annually South Africa’s migrating Southern Right Whales are seen close to the cliffs as they calve. It is also the appropriate location for Hermanus’ war memorial.
What a fitting place for one of South Africa’s bravest to laid to rest.
William Hewitt VC – medals
In addition to his Victoria Cross (VC) , William was also awarded the Natal Rebellion Medal 1906, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. The VC was presented to Framlingham College by his widow in May 1967. It was held in the Chapel until the College loaned it indefinitely to the Imperial War Museum on 23rd April 2004. It is displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery. The Castle Military Museum in Cape Town owns four of his campaign medals. The other medals’ location are unknown.”
Extracts from “How I won the Victoria Cross – Story of Major William Hewitt” – Hermanus Historical Society and Dr Robert Lee. Image of L/Cpl Hewitt copyright IWM Colour Image Colourised by Doug UK. Extracts and later images of William Hewitt taken from ‘The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross’ on-line. Images as shown copyright Imperial War Museum.
There is a poignant and very mystical annual occurrence in South Africa that reminds us every year of the blood sacrifice of South Africans during The Battle of Delville Wood. Every year, in July on the anniversary of the battle itself, a cross made from wood recovered from the shattered tress of the battlefield inexplicably ‘weeps blood’
In Pietermaritzburg there is Christian cross that becomes tacky with red resin just a few days before the anniversary of the massacre of thousands of South African soldiers at the Battle of Delville Wood during the Somme offensive of 1916.
The ‘weeping’ cross has wept these resin “tears” almost every single year, and this phenomenon only coincides with the anniversary of the bloody battle that started it in the first place on July 14, 1916.
At the end of World War 1, on return to South Africa, the Commanding officer of the South African Infantry Brigade in France, General Lukin brought back some timber cut from surviving Pinus Sylvester Pine tree (Scots pine) which had grown in abundance at the Delville Wood battleground before much of it was shattered and razed. This wood was to be used to make three crosses to serve as war memorials located in Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town and Durban to commemorate the Battle of Delville Wood (other Christian crosses commemorating the battle are also found in Pretoria at the Union Buildings and Johannesburg and St John’s High School). The ‘Pietermaritzburg’ cross is the only one on the three crosses that “weeps” and this phenomenon has baffled experts for years.
The sticky red resin makes its usual annual appearance from a crack near the inscription and knots in the wood on both sides of the crossbar, and over 100 years after the battle, scientists still find it difficult to come up with explanations for the leaking resin.
Known as the “Weeping Cross of Delville”, this cross became a sensation in Natal over many years. The weeping of ‘blood’ came to symbolise the tremendous bloodletting of World War 1 and the Battle of Delville Wood. A legend developed, with people believing that the wood ‘weeps for all the lost soldiers.’ For many years folklore and legend also stated that it would weep until the last survivor of Delville Wood answered the ‘Sunset Call’; however when the last survivor died some years back the cross continued to weep ‘blood’.
In the opening weeks of the Somme Offensive in July 1916. On the 14th July 1916 the South African Infantry on the Somme were ordered to protect British troops who had just taken the village of Langueval and hold the adjacent wood about a square mile in size (dubbed ‘devils wood’), and hold it against German attack “at all costs”.
Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out only six days later on the 20th July 1916. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood when the endless barrages of German artillery file abated – artillery fire rained down on the South African positions at 500 shells/minute razing the wood to just shattered tree stumps (in fact only one original tree survives to this day) – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.
Of the dead and missing, only 142 were given a proper burial and only 77 of those were able to be identified. Most the dead still lie unmarked and unidentified in the wood to this day, exactly where they fell, it is this that makes a visit to Delville wood such a solemn and heart-breaking experience.
Major-General Sir H T Lukin, commanding 5th Division, presenting decorations at the South African Brigade’s memorial service at Delville Wood, 17 February 1918.
Pietermaritzburg’s cross originally stood at the intersection of Durban and Alexandra Roads but was seen to be a traffic hazard and was moved to the Natal Carbineers Garden. In July 1956 it was moved to the MOTH Remembrance Garden in Pietermaritzburg, where it has been ever since. The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) ‘Allan Wilson’ shell-hole oversees its good keeping in conjunction with The South African Legion’s Pietermaritzburg branch.
In terms of the two other Delville Wood crosses, one is located at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the other is located at The Castle in Cape Town, as said – neither of them “weep”.
Some explanations have been offered for the mysterious ‘weeping’ of the Pietermaritzburg Delville Wood Cross, Chemists who analysed samples of the substance in the past found traces of lower linseed oil fragments and pine resin. This was expected as the carpenter, William Olive, soaked the cross in linseed oil before he worked on it. However, the phenomenon baffles forestry experts as it is unusual for wood to continue producing resin for such a long time – especially considering it has now been doing this for over 100 years.
What adds significantly to the mystery of the weeping cross is that Pietermaritzburg’s cross is the only one of the three that weeps at this exact time every year.
Also adding to the mystery is the fact that existing Pine trees in France ooze this resin during the heat of summer, while the cross situated in Pietermaritzburg does so only in winter and specifically over the period of the anniversary of the Delville Wood battle.
“Devil’s Trench” in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield photographed on 3 July 1917, a year after the fighting.
One suggestion offers the opposite to the ‘expansion’ only experienced by the Pine in France in summer-time and puts forward that is the dry, cold weather experienced around Pietermaritzburg in winter-time, which would cause the wood to shrink and hence forces the resin out.
However, all these suggestions aside, experts like Dr Ashley Nicholas from the school of Biology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville campus have maintained that it still remains an absolute scientific mystery and all theories put forward to date are sheer guess-work. His position has also been backed up by the Forestry Department’s scientific research council who maintain that no one has yet been able to provide concrete insight into it.
As long as the legend of the weeping cross continues, it will continue to keep us mindful of the sacrifice at Delville Wood, and the forge it stamped on our young nation’s identity as a ‘South African’ one in 1916. When it will stop nobody knows, and here is where the cross’ current caretakers i.e. the war veterans in the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) and South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) are possibly right – perhaps it will only stop ‘weeping’ when true peace is found and all wars end.
Chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg branch of the SA Legion Peter Willson (right) and vice chairperson Dean Arnold view the refurbished Garden of Remembrance that houses the Delville Wood weeping cross.
Here’s an extraordinary tale of someone who started out as a Johannesburg ‘boytjie’ and attained the heady heights of not only a very senior Commander of forces during World War 2 and the Cold War but also became a Knight of the realm.
In South Africa many of our military heroes are lost to time or politics, especially those who found their way into the British Armed Forces during World War 2. In fact to our Grandparent’s or even parent’s generation taking part in the war there were a number of significant and highly decorated men from South Africa who eventually went to very senior positions of command of His Majesty’s Armed Forces (British) during WW2, let alone South African forces – and this is one of them – Air Chief Marshal Sir H.W.L. “Dingbat” Saunders GCB, KBE, MC, DFC & Bar, MM
Now, a ‘Air Chief Marshal’ and a ‘Knight’ of the British Realm – a ‘Marshal’ and a ‘Sir’, that’s something significant for some kid from Johannesburg with the nickname of ‘Dingbat’, not withstanding the gallantry decorations of a Military Cross, two Distinguished Flying Cross’ and a Military Medal. So who the heck is ‘Dingbat’ and how did he get there?
A true blue South African
Hugh “Dingbat” Saunders was born in Johannesburg South Africa on the 24th August 1894 – the son of Fred Saunders, in fact he came from Germiston (now not too many people in Germiston today know that their humble city has spawned a Knight), Dingbat was educated at the Marist Brothers college in Johannesburg. How he got the nickname ‘Dingbat’ is lost to time, by English definition a ‘Dingbat’ is someone who is a little ‘odd’ a little out of the ordinary. As an odd or off-set kind of person Dingbat was destined to live up to the nickname certainly for a kid from Germiston.
Like many South Africans graduating he was just in time to answer the call when World War 1 broke out, joining up in August 1914.
Initially he joined the South African Army starting off as a simple private, serving with the Witwatersrand rifles and then found his way to the South African Horse, he took part in ground action even winning the Military Medal (MM) for bravery whilst a soldier in the Union of South Africa’s Armed Forces.
However his love and passion was the whole new world of flying, as South Africa did not have an Air Force in World War 1 (it was very early days for idea of flying let alone using it for combat), Dingbat had no choice but to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, (as did a number of other South Africans choosing this new field of combat). The Royal Flying Corps was the ‘Army’s’ air-force and it was the beginning of what was to become The Royal Air Force towards the end of World War 1.
Starting at the bottom rung commissioned officer rank of an Officer Cadet, Dingbat Saunders was promoted to temporary 2nd Lieutenant (on probation) on 2 August 1917 and posted to 84 Squadron in November 1917. Here’s his military career started to really ‘take flight’. He was posted to fly SE5a’s with No 84 Squadron during the German offensive of March 1918 when their aircraft were fitted with bombs as well as machine guns. They operated throughout the day in pairs harrying the Germans at any and every opportunity – incidentally 84 Squadron was also the home of a South African Victoria Cross recipient – and South Africa’s most highest decorated person, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC & Bar, DFC.
By the time he left 84 Squadron in August 1918 he had been credited with 15 victories and was the senior flight commander on the squadron.
RAF SE5a of 84 Squadron
During his time he picked up the Military Cross in 1918, a gallantry decoration and his citation cementing his reputation as an ‘Ace’ says just about everything:
T./2nd Lt. Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M.M., Gen. List, attd. R.A.F.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During recent operations he destroyed five enemy machines and shot down four out of control. He showed great courage and skill in engaging enemy aircraft, and did splendid service.
Now promoted to Captain, he was at it again towards the end of World War 1 displaying an unbelievable degree of boldness and bravery, picking up the Distinguished Flying Cross along the way, again his citation for his DFC says everything:
Lieut. (T./Capt.) Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M,C., M.M.
An officer of exceptional courage, who, since he was awarded the M.C., has destroyed five enemy aircraft and shot down two balloons in flames. While on patrol he observed a formation of seven hostile scouts below him. Diving to attack he engaged the leader and firing shoot bursts at close range shot him down nose foremost; the remainder of the formation scattered in all directions.
Group photograph of No. 84 Squadron RAF, Germany. British Army of the Rhine
During the period between World War 1 and World War 2, Hugh Saunders decided to remain with the fledgling Royal Air Force and make a career of it. He had attained a formidable reputation as a combat aviator, so he begun more formal training at the RAF Staff College in 1928 attaining his first command of RAF 45 Squadron in 1932. After more staff officer training at the Imperial Defence College in 1938, Dingbat found his way to New Zealand as the Chief of Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and was holding this post at the on-set of World War 2.
World War 2
When the Second World War had moved into full swing, Hugh Saunders made his way back to the United Kingdom and into the thick of commanding RAF operations in Europe. In February 1942 he joined Fighter Command HQ as a AOA (Air Officer Administration), but was soon in a leading post during the war in Europe as the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, Fighter Command.
No small task for Dingbat, No. 11 Group Fighter Command had been the epicentre of fighter operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and was responsible for the defence of London and the English South East, and operated from famous ‘Battle of Britain Bunker’.
Senor Montero de Bustamante, Uruguayan Charge d’Affaires, speaking at the ceremony to name a Spitfire (“Uruguay XVI”) sponsored by the people of Uruguay. Air Vice Marshal H W L Saunders, Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group of Fighter Command, is on the extreme left.
By the time Dingbat Saunders joined No. 11 Group Fighter Command as AOC on the 28th November 1942 the Battle of Britain was over, but Britain was no means out of the woods. Prior to 1942, Air Vice Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, had overseen a thorough overhaul of the Operations Room within the Battle of Britain Bunker.
The old ‘Battle of Britain’ plotting system of wooden markers and wooden croupier-style pushing sticks were replaced with metal plotting markers and magnetic sticks, and the old tote system of light-indicators was replaced with a slat-board system with hanging information.
No.11 Group was by now largely occupied with air operations over occupied Europe (although defensive operations over British airspace continued also). It conducted fighter sweeps over enemy territory and these would continue throughout the war along with bomber escort missions. In August 1942 fighter operations during the Dieppe Raid were controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker. Dingbat Saunders was still holding the position of Air Officer Commanding No.11 Group Fighter Command in June 1944, and oversaw RAF fighter operations during Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings), which were also controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker.
Air Vice Marshal Hugh Saunders, the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group RAF, decorating Squadron Leader Wacław Król, the CO of No. 302 Polish Fighter Squadron, with the Distinguished Flying Cross.
By late 1944 Hugh Saunders had advanced to the position of Director-General of Personnel in the Air Ministry, but with the war in Europe nearing an end a new appointment back in the thick of things in Burma fighting the Japanese awaited him. On the 1 August 1945 he attained the rank of Air Marshal Commanding the Royal Air Force in Burma.
Burma was relatively straightforward to deal with, much of the colony had been re-conquered several months before the end of the war in the big British offensive against the Japanese in the summer of 1945. That gave ACSEA crucial breathing space to start getting the colony back on its feet before the massive increase in occupation duties postwar occurred.
Air Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders (right), stands with Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, South East Asia, shortly after arriving in Rangoon to take up his appointment as Air Marshal Commanding RAF Burma.
RAF Burma was well established under Air Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders. At the end of the war, it had 28 squadrons under its control. This quickly reduced as the demobilisation of all fighting forces in Asia really kicked in. The transport squadrons saw the largest amount of work, evacuating POWs and internees and supplying garrisons and the civilian population. Second to the transport squadrons in workload were the photo reconnaissance aircraft. The opportunity was taken to complete the process of surveying South East Asia from the air, and using the survey to bring maps up to date.
After the war and his South East Asia appointment, Hugh Saunders was sent back to the United Kingdom when in January 1947 he became the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for Bomber Command.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders – Signed Operations map used during August 1994 RAF European Operations.
He went on to become Inspector-General of the Royal Air Force (1949-1950), being promoted Air Chief Marshal in 1950. In February 1951, Saunders was again in the thick of it during the Cold War, and here he played a significant role in NATO, he assumed the mantle of Commander-in-Chief of the Air Forces in Western Europe (all of them, not just the RAF). By April 1951 he was the Air Deputy to the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR), none other than the famous Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders bid farewell to his astounding military career on the 27th July 1953, having attained what is arguably one of the highest ranking positions in world military aviation, and he is certainly the only South African to reach such a high level of aviation command.
Following a series of fatal accidents in the newly established Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF), Hugh Saunders was invited to serve as a special advisor to the Minister of Defence of Denmark in 1954, in order to reorganise and, it was envisioned, bring the number of accidents in RDAF down. Saunders indeed reorganised the RDAF and, realising that most of the equipment/planes were of a tactical nature, established Tactical Air Command Denmark as the supreme HQ of RDAF. In addition, a number of specialist commands were established, training improved and gradually the accident rate fell. He served in Denmark until 1956 and received the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog for his service
The Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog aside – in the ‘Order of Bath’, our Johannesburg lad racked up a Knight Grand Cross (GCB) on 1 June 1953 (having already attained his Knight Commander KCB on 2 Jan 1950, and Companion to the order CB obtained in June 1943).
Order of the Bath, G.C.B. (Military) Knight Grand Cross set of insignia
Also knighthoods go, under the Order of the British Empire ‘Dingbat’ was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) on 14 June 1945 (having already obtained his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire officer CBE in July 1941).
In addition he also received Commander’s Cross with Star from Poland, a Commander of the Legion of Merit from the United States and an Officer of the Legion of Honour in France.
Not bad for a Boytjie called ‘Dingbat’ from with a humble beginning in Johannesburg South Africa, you have to admit to that. Dingbat died in the United Kingdom after a very long life aged 92.
Yet, in South Africa today he is an enigma, not known and unappreciated, the victim of political one-upmanship to bury all our World War 1 and World War 2 heroes in a Nationalistic fervour to rid our military identity and history of its British heritage starting in 1948 by Afrikaner Nationalists and continuing from 1994 by African Nationalists – even at the expense of South Africans who have risen to some of the most commanding positions in military history and who have played such pivot roles in the outcome of not only World War 1, but World War 2 and even in the case of ‘Dingbat’ here – in moulding the modern Western European defence landscape.
Not too many people are fully aware of the story behind the bombing of the Koeberg nuclear plant in 1982, it made the news alright, big news, but who really knows the real story behind it? Now, if you’re not familiar, you are going to need a stiff drink and sit down, this story is guaranteed to make you laugh and cry all at the same time.
It’s actually a very comical and random sequence of events which led to the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) getting this one right, and it’s one that will leave you simply astounded. It’s also an inconvenient story to the general narrative, as the bomber is in the same category as Hein Grosskopf, who bombed Witwatersrand Command – he was also ‘white’.
It gets better, not only was he ‘white’ he was also a serving Citizen Force Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the South African Defence Force (now that’s very inconvenient news to many SADF veterans). However, it gets even better than that, unlike Grosskopf he was a ‘English South African’ in origin, a South African national sporting champion and a free-thinking liberal soul, a little like the archetypal ‘hippy’.
He’s was not your typical MK cadre at all, in fact nowhere close. MK didn’t even need to train him (the SADF did) and he randomly arrived on their doorstep in Zimbabwe with Koeberg blue-prints under his arm, his proposition was so ‘out there’ MK thought he was a spy and initially laughed him off.
Koeberg Nuclear Plant
The bombing of Koeberg is now posted by MK as one of their ‘Top Achievements’ on their website, but the inconvenient truth is that it was not really theirs to start off with, it was more about the bombers own politics in resistance to Apartheid than the African National Congress’ (ANC) politics and the ‘operator’ was pretty much in his own ‘cell’ with his equally free-spirited girlfriend who in reality was a speech therapist. MK just provided some very ‘unstable’ limpet mines and helped pin-point the placement targets.
So audacious was the attack that the South African security forces at the time suspected the operation was the work of a ‘group’ of highly trained saboteurs. But in fact, and here’s a military truism, never under-estimate the ability of a ‘single’ corporal in the South African Defence Force (SADF) to wreak havoc.
The bombing of Koeberg Nuclear Plant reads like the ‘Incidental Tourist’, stuff just randomly falls in place with loads of luck and even though it is a very serious matter it even comes across as comical at times, you just could not make it up – so let’s have a look at a pair of ‘hippies’ Rodney Wilkinson, South Africa’s fencing sword fighting national champion and his side-kick, his girlfriend, Heather Gray, the speech therapist.
‘Planning’ the Koeberg bombing
Rodney Wilkinson taken in 1995
The Koeberg operation was born of sheer chance in 1978. Rodney Wilkinson was living in a ‘hippy’ commune near Koeberg. The commune ran out of money and Rodney, a student of building science and UCT drop-out, rather reluctantly mind, had to take a job at the nearby nuclear plant which was under construction.
Whist working at the plant for nearly two years he was privy to the building plans and blue-prints. With a strong anti-Apartheid sentiment and liberal conviction he was encouraged by his girlfriend Heather to steal a set of them. But what to do with them?
They came up with an idea, give them to the African National Congress (ANC) so they might find them handy and conduct an attack on the nuclear station. Buoyed up with this idea they both trekked off to the newly independent Zimbabwe to hand over the plans to the ANC in exile there, job done.
Not really. Rodney pitched up randomly on the doorstep of the ANC office and told them he was in possession of plans to one of the most secure and secret facilities in South Africa. The ANC took one look at the hapless hippy in front of them and dismissed him out of hand as a government spy.
The ANC were very circumspect of him, but Rodney was persistent so they agreed to take the plans from him and have them authenticated first. After many delays with Rodney hanging about, during which time the stolen plans were shown to Soviet nuclear scientists and an investigation into Rodney Wilkinson himself was done. Eventually the ANC reverted. Great news – all vetted, job done, they’ll take the plans, Rodney and Heather figured they now could head off home.
Not so fast snowflakes! The ANC then threw a curveball at Rodney and told him that the only way the job could really be done is if he carried out the attack himself. By his own admission he was initially taken aback by all this, as becoming a MK operative really wasn’t in his plans, however he pondered their proposal and eventually agreed. The operation was code-named Operation Mac (named after Mac Maharaj).
SADF Koeberg Commando flash
No military training required, luckily the South African Defence Force (SADF) had already provided all that when he was called up as National Servicemen conscript, completed his two years of training and deployment and he was now serving out his Citizen Force commitments with the rank of Corporal.
In fact he had even served duty on the Angolan border and at one stage wrecked a truck going AWOL and landed up in hospital, he was not prosecuted by the SADF and not demoted.
Therein lies the hazard of conscription, not everyone agreed with the government of the day and moreover many didn’t buy into the ‘whites only’ Afrikaner Nationalist government’s program of conscription at all, especially many of the ‘English’ conscripts and certainly not Rodney, but it did produce very proficient soldiers in any event.
‘Dirty weekends’ in Swaziland
To Rodney’s own surprise, more luck, Koeberg Nuclear station wanted him back at work on mapping emergency pipes and valves at the plant.
The ANC appointed a ‘Dolphin’ MK commander in Swaziland as Wilkinson’s ‘handler’, he was Aboobaker Ismail. So once a month Rodney and his girlfriend trekked off to Swaziland, the small independent kingdom which allowed gambling (banned under Apartheid South Africa), before Sun City was built, this was the premier destination for thousands of white South Africans to go gambling on weekend getaways and not unusual ‘movement’ of white people over a border at all.
Whilst in Swaziland, Rodney and his handler thrashed out the strategy, it was designed to maximise embarrassment to the South African government while minimising the risk to human life – this after all was a nuclear facility and required ‘careful’ thinking.
Aboobaker and Rodney then drilled down the targets onto which limpid mines would be placed. It was suspected at the time that Koeberg Nuclear plant would be used to produce plutonium for the construction of atomic bombs, so to avoid a radioactive fall-out, the attack had to happen before the plant went on-line.
Soviet era SPM Limpet mine commonly used by MK
Limpet mines were to be placed on the two reactor heads, yup – read that again, the reactor heads – they figured as these were made of 110 tones of steel the limpet mines were not really going to really harm them, also they figured there would be fantastic PR and media value in it for the ANC. Other mines were planned for the control room and a containment building, designed to do as much damage as possible.
The date for the attack was deliberate and designed to humiliate the government – it was set for 16th December, the National Party’s ‘Day of the Covenant’ – ‘Dingaan Day’ to others and ‘MK Day’ to members of the ANC. That the attack happened on the 17th December is another event of haplessness and chance.
The arms ‘cache’
To anyone with a military background, the arms ‘cache’ is where the story gets comically scary, as if blowing up a plutonium nuclear plant is not scary enough. Rodney and Heather were directed to the arms cache, and it was not where you would expect, nope this cache consisted of four very old and unstable limpet mines left next to a road side in the middle of the remote Karoo. Makes you think what else is still ‘out there’ in this quirky part of South Africa.
SADF Corporal holding a Soviet era SPM limpet mine
So, how to smuggle them unnoticed?, No problem to Rodney and Heather, they dug them up and simply hid them in decanted wine boxes – the good old box wine ‘doos’ now makes another unusual entry into South African history folklore. They jump into their little Renault 5 and head to their home in the tranquil up-market, very ‘white’ suburb of Claremont in Cape Town. If you have not yet reached for your stiff drink now is a good time.
Now enter the worst co-conspirator ever! Their puppy dog, Gaby. Gaby had been pretty efficient digging holes all over their garden, so thanks to her labours they buried these old and unstable limpet mines in the holes.
From there Rodney smuggled the mines one by one in a hidden compartment of the Renault through the perimeter security fence at the nuclear installation. But were to hide them in order that nobody would dare to look? No problem Rodney simply put them in his desk drawer in his prefabricated office. Now, to get them into the main building and past all the heavy security, no problem again he simply walked in carrying one at a time hidden in his overalls – so much for the ‘heavy’ impenetrable security on South Africa’s most vital, most prized and most secretive Nuclear Plant.
A series of mishaps
So on to the attack itself and it’s marred by a series of mishaps. It started with an unrelated accidental short-circuit which started a cable fire. The incident was reported in the local press. Now enter the ANC’s President-in-exile, Oliver Tambo, who had been made aware of the operation but not really the details of it, like timing. So he released a statement immediately claiming the fire as an ANC victory. All this did was prompt a security scare and clamp down at the plant and gave the National Party some ammo to ridicule the ANC for unsubstantiated claims.
Then, in November the firm hiring Rodney informed him that they were laying him off at the end of the month, so much for timing. Luckily for Rodney they changed their minds and asked him to stay on for another month. As fortune would also have it, he turned the security scare to his advantage and told them he would stay on, but only till the 17th December, thereby obtaining an official alibi and cover for his planned disappearance.
Here is where he missed the deadline of the 16th December, as previously stated the limpet mines were old and unstable. Rodney placed the mines in the pre-determined targets setting 24 hour fuses on the 15th December (a Friday) so they would blow on the public holiday (a Saturday), thereby assuring minimal casualties to his fellow contractors as nobody would be there.
Here’s the kicker, as his contract was ending, his fellow contractors and engineers liked this young man and decided to throw Rodney a farewell party at the plant on the Friday evening just after he had been busy planting the bombs. Rodney had to sit through his impromptu ‘going-away’ party stressing endlessly that the bombs would not go off prematurely.
He had no real need to worry, as said these limpet mines were old and they would not go off on the Saturday either in fact they eventually went off a day after the target date on the Sunday. The springs on the firing mechanism proved to have been brittle and the devices also exploded over a period of several hours instead of simultaneously.
Rodney’s ‘Great Escape’
Reach for that stiff drink again, you’ll need it for this next part of the story. Instead of bolting it out the country with a keen sense of urgency, as the other ‘white’ lone wolf MK cadre did – Hein Grosskopf who high-tailed it directly into Botswana after bombing of Wit Command on his motorbike, not even looking back for a nano-second. No, not our ‘hippy’ would casually, get this, ‘cycle’ out of South Africa on a bicycle, yup you heard right … a bicycle.
He took a domestic flight to Johannesburg and was driven with a borrowed bicycle to a point near the Swaziland border where he jumped on the bicycle and then casually cycled through the border post into exile.
Oliver Tambo at a news conference in exile (left) Gallo Image
A few days beforehand South African special forces had attacked ANC targets in the kingdom of Lesotho, Oliver Tambo claimed the Koeberg attack was an act of retaliation carried out by a MK ‘unit’ (one chap in reality and as propaganda goes his efforts had nothing to do with the Lesotho raid at all).
How close to nuclear fall-out did we come? Take a big sip that stiff drink again. Not part of Rodney’s plan but unbeknown to him enriched uranium fuel had been moved into to the plant when the attack took place and was due to come on-line in the reactors. Luckily for all of us (and here we include the entire planet) it was in dormant storage.
The attack delayed the commissioning of the plant by about 18 months and cost the Apartheid government millions of rand. This is why this attack sits as No. 2 on their all time greatest achievements (No. 1 is the Sasol bombing and No.3 is the rather controversial and bloody Church Street Bombing). Although there were no deaths attributed to the bombing, that it nearly cost thousands of lives in the entire city of Cape Town is lost on this particular MK ‘highlight’.
Rodney flew on to Maputo where he met Oliver Tambo, the two exchanged a warm and tearful embrace. Rodney’s girlfriend Heather was already in Maputo having flown out a week beforehand. The two jumped on a flight to the United Kingdom and further into exile.
They married one another in Woodbridge, Suffolk, before returning home to South Africa following the general amnesty and unbanning of all ‘liberation’ movements. The TRC rewarded the Wilkinsons and Aboobaker Ismail full amnesty in April 1999. Given the nature of this MK ‘cell’ it seemed a little unlikely that the ANC and its brand of politics is quite Rodney and Heathers bag, anti-apartheid, yes but unlike Carl Niehaus we don’t find him regularly wheeled out in a PEP store set of camos with the other ‘struggle heroes’ and he lives a life in relative obscurity.
A happy ending to our ‘Incidental terrorist’ and an equally and far more happy ending to just about every Cape Town and Western Cape resident, South Africa as a whole, the entire South African tourist trade, the local bio-sphere and the green planet in general. We can now all universally breathe a sigh of relief that the entire Cape Peninsula is not a radioactive ‘Chernobyl’ no-go zone thanks to the African National Congress.
If you chose not to have a stiff drink reading this article, nows a good time to really start.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Primary source, an interview with Rodney Wilkinson by a daily mail staff reporter in December 1995 and photograph. Published news snippets, MK official web-page. TRC references. Image references – general net search. Nuclear terrorism in Africa: The ANC’s Operation Mac and the attack on the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in South Africa. Jo-Ansie van Wyk