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

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

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

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

church

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

The Rats of Tobruk

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

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

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

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

aus 2

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

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

South African Honour to defend Tobruk

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

1024px-MajGenHBKlopper

General Klopper

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

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

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

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

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

The fatal flaw

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

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

14-d32580d27e

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

The Desert Fox Attacks 

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

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

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

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

Tobruk, Rommel, Bayerlein, Panzer III

German armour and Rommel encicling Tobruk

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

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

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

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

Tobruk, beschädigte Häuser, Soldaten

South African troops in disarray as Tobruk capitulates

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

Surrender and shame

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

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

Tobruk, Rommel, Bayerlein, englische Kriegsgefangene

Erwin Rommel inspects South African POW in Tobruk

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

Captivity

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

Tobruk, englische Kriegsgefangene

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

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

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

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

Rommel’s Success  

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

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

Tobruk, Rommel und Bayerlein, Hafen

Rommel surveying Tobruk after he captures it

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

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

Consequences for the British and South Africans

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

monty

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

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

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

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

General Klopper’s career post Tobruk

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

0aayzhghjgfjhf9999777_7


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

‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’

The featured informal ‘happy snap’ of Magnus Malan, PW Botha and Jonas Savimbi on the Angolan border speaks volumes – it most certainly highlights the political edict “the enemy of enemy is my friend” and carries with it the typical sort of politics which involves ‘odd bedfellows’; the kind of story which involves intrigue, betrayal and political assassination.

South Africa’s relationship with Savimbi and UNITA the ‘National Union for the Total Independence of Angola’ was indeed an odd pairing, it started with UNITA as an ‘enemy’ of the South African Defence Force in their commitments to help Portugal in the Angolan War.  Once Portugal left Angola, an ‘ally’ was made of UNITA when it was in South Africa’s interests in destabilising Angola to stop SWAPO (PLAN) armed insurgencies entering into South West Africa (now Namibia) from Angola.  The ‘alliance’ was made stronger when ramped up Cuban military presence entered the frame in the Angolan conflict, and UNITA was made a pawn in South Africa’s ‘total war’ against communist expansionism in Southern Africa.  In the ultimate betrayal South Africa then hung UNITA out to dry when Cuban troops left Angola.

It really is a case of South Africa ‘shooting at UNITA’ which changed to a case of ‘shooting alongside UNITA’ and then became a case of ‘shooting UNITA dead’.

To be fair, the United States of America was also as compliant in the betrayal.  So how did it all begin?

Shooting at UNITA

In the 1960s, during the armed struggle against Portuguese colonial rule, Savimbi founded UNITA, and along with the two other ‘anti-colonial liberation movements’ – the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) and the ‘Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola’ (MPLA) – they all started to fight Portugal for an independent Angola.  UNITA and the FNLA were also against MPLA rule but that inconvenient difference was put aside to fight Portugal. Aggression between the MPLA and UNITA started in earnest again when the Portuguese ultimately left and a power vacuum ensued.

UNITA carried out its first attack against Portuguese forces on 25 December 1966 by derailing railways.  At that time, beleaguered by three anti-colonial movements Portugal turned to South Africa and Rhodesia for military help.  Both South African and Rhodesia governments were concerned about their own future in the case of a Portuguese defeat in neighbouring Angola and Mozambique.

Rhodesia and South Africa initially limited their participation to shipments of arms and supplies. However, by 1968 the South Africans began providing Alouette III helicopters with crews to the Portuguese Air Force (FAP), and finally there were reports of several companies of South African Defence Force (SADF) infantry who were deployed in southern and central Angola (primarily to defend iron mines in Cassinga).

1185359_195709377265469_1936079429_n

SAAF Puma in support of Portuguese troops in Angola

When the first Portuguese unit was equipped with South African Air Force Puma helicopters in 1969, the crews were almost exclusively South African.  In all the SADF had pilots and helicopters operating out of the Centro Conjunto de Apoio Aéreo (CCAA – Joint Air Support Centre) in support of Portuguese military actions against the MPLA and UNITA alike.  The SADF set up its joint operations in Cuito Cuanavale during 1968.  In an iconic sense the small town of Cuito Cuanavale in the South East of Angola was to be the beginning the South African military involvement in Angola and almost exactly two decades later this small town would signal the end of South African involvement in Angola – having now come full circle.

So far in the war, none of the three nationalist groups (UNITA, MPLA and FNLA) had posed a serious threat to Portuguese rule in Angola. But in 1974, a Left-wing coup in Portugal brought to power a regime which pledged to end all wars in the country’s African colonies – Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau – and to introduce democracy at home.  This seismic change in Portuguese politics and foreign rule became known as the ‘Carnation Revolution’.

Shooting alongside UNITA

By the time the Portuguese military (and its South African help) left Angola in 1975, the country was in political chaos. Savimbi was soon leading the fight against the future government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

In July 1975, the Soviet Union and Cuban Communist backed MPLA forces attacked and swept UNITA and FNLA forces out of the capital, Luanda. This resulted in a international refugee crisis, made worse by thousands of Portuguese nationals streaming into South African territories in fear of their lives.  The United States of America (USA) then entered the fray by supplying arms to both UNITA and the FNLA to hold back this onslaught of Communist backed guerrillas in the MPLA.  The USA saw UNITA as an ally in the fight against Communist domination in Africa, the Americans also turned to South Africa for help, South Africa also held a fierce anti-Communist stance and was taking the brunt of Portuguese refugees fleeing Angola.

South Africa’s fight by this time had also turned to the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO), who had commenced an armed insurrection campaign for South West African (Namibian) independence – at the time a South African protectorate bordering Angola, SWAPO began using bases in Angola and was been supported by the MPLA.

With both the Soviet Union and the USA arming major factions in the Angolan Civil War, the conflict escalated into a major Cold War battleground.  Coming the assistance of the Americans was South Africa, in many ways positioning itself as a ‘Ally’ of the NATO western states in their Cold War with Communism, as it had been in WW2.  Conversely it also aided the South African government’s need to soften the ‘West’s’ stance on the National Party’s policies of Apartheid.

By August 1975 BJ Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, along with his Defence Minister PW Botha, struck an extraordinary deal. Vorster authorised the provision of limited military training, advice and logistical assistance to UNITA and the FNLA. In turn FNLA and UNITA would help the South Africans fight SWAPO.  The ‘enemy of his enemy – became his friend’.

This kicked off Operation “Sausage II”, a major raid against SWAPO in southern Angola and on 4 September 1975.  This was immediately followed by Operation Savannah and then by many more large scale armed incursions and small scale raids into Angola in support of UNITA and against SWAPO bases in Angola – from 1975 all the way to 1989.  SADF South African soldiers literally found themselves fighting ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with UNITA Angolan soldiers for the next 14 years.  Jonus Savimbi himself was even given the code-name ‘Spyker’ (Spike) by the SADF members working with UNITA.

13475099_1788272211401769_6240474511538624427_o

SADF Troops and UNITA troops in Angola

The ‘Odd Couple’ Alliance 

Thus began a two decade long Alliance with UNITA in a proxy Cold War fight against International Communism, and strange bedfellow alliance between an anti-colonial freedom movement and ‘Apartheid’ South Africa.

With continuing aid from South Africa, Savimbi was able to fight on. By 1977, UNITA was becoming a powerful threat to the Luanda government, carrying out operations without apparent difficulty.

In the early 1980s, Savimbi further increased his power. South African “hot pursuit” attacks against SWAPO rebels in southern Angola forced the Luanda government to concentrate its forces in that part of the country, leaving Unita a free hand to consolidate bases throughout the rest of Angola.

Yet, although strengthened by heavy Soviet weapons captured by South African troops and American weapons, Savimbi was well aware that he could never take Luanda against the combined Cuban and MPLA government armies with Soviet support.  He based his hopes on forcing the MPLA to agree to a coalition government and to free elections.

jonas-savimbi

UNITA, SADF and National Party members

However, by 1986 he was under intense pressure from Luanda’s combined forces, which had seized large areas of his territory. Pretoria had informed Washington that UNITA would need more arms to meet continued attacks, and Savimbi decided to go to America to appeal for help in person.

In Washington, he succeeded in putting his case to President Reagan; and Congress proposed a programme of covert aid which enabled the first American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to reach UNITA within a few months.

Savimbi continued to enjoy military successes, however by the late 80’s the Soviet Union had commenced political reform, Cuban involvement in Angola had met with repeated defeats, limited success, high loss of life and an economic and military drain, and domestically South Africa was preparing for domestic political reform against growing international pressure and sanctions against Apartheid.

It all came to a head with a military stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 (where it had all oddly started in the mid 1960’s).  South Africa intervened to block a large-scale MPLA attack with Soviet and Cuban assistance against UNITA’s primary operating bases at Jamba and Mavinga. The campaign culminated in the largest battle on African soil since World War 2 and the second largest clash of African armed forces in history. The MPLA offensive was halted and a stalemate ensued.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is credited with ushering in the first round of trilateral negotiations mediated by the USA.  The Tripartite Accord involved Angola’s MPLA government, South Africa and Cuba (without UNITA).  While the hostilities in Angola continued at Cuito Cuanavale, negotiations initially reached a deadlock.

It was broken by the South African negotiator, Pik Botha, who convinced the delegates that “…We can both be losers and we can both be winners…” Pik Botha offered a compromise that would appear to be palatable to both sides while emphasising that the alternative would be detrimental to both sides.

His proposal, South Africa could claim ‘Victory’ with the removal of Communist military aggression from Southern Africa (including Angola), and Cuba could claim ‘Victory’ with the withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia (South West Africa) in accordance with United Nations Resolution 435 (tabled 10 years earlier in Sep. 1978).

The middle-ground was struck on that simple premise and was to be known as the Tripartite Accord, Three Powers Accord or New York Accords, South Africa, Angola (MPLA government) and Cuba all signed the bottom line on 22 December 1988.

Shooting UNITA dead

Savimbi refused to accept the Tripartite Accord, which also forbade further military aid being supplied to any rebel groups – which included UNITA in the definition of ‘rebel group’; then, in January 1989, President Bush (Snr) reassured Savimbi that American arms would continue to be sent to UNITA for as long as Cuban forces remained in Angola.

With a phased timetable for the withdrawal of Cuban forces to be completed by June 1991, Savimbi was ready to fight on. Almost immediately in the beginning of 1989 Angola accused South Africa of breaking the agreement by supplying arms to Savimbi.

Pretoria denied aiding UNITA. Savimbi then approached the South African government to size up the situation with an ailing and politically beleaguered President P.W. Botha, who told him very bluntly that all South African aid to UNITA was to be cut off.

In plain language, UNITA was no longer South Africa’s ‘friend’. Jonas Savimbi was for 20 years, a figure as important in Southern African politics as Nelson Mandela, and he was now officially out in the cold, UNITA had become an embarrassment and hindrance to the seismic global geo-politics between the Soviet Union, Cuba, Namibia, Angola, South Africa and the United States of America in 1989.

The ceasefire between South Africa and Cuba/MPLA Angola and the path to independence for Namibia had been the last acts of PW Botha’s legacy as President, later in 1989 (August 14th), F.W. De Klerk took control of Presidency due primarily to P.W. Botha’s failing health.

Betrayal

If the American betrayal of Savimbi was not bad enough, this last dismissal by PW Botha was the final betrayal of UNITA, it was the ‘nail in the coffin’; with the loss of South Africa as an ally (in addition to the USA), UNITA literally stood no hope at all. Jonus Savimbi’s fate was sealed, along with that of UNITA.

17103592_10154636267172862_2137630330946939084_nSavimbi’s international isolation was further increased when, after a peace deal had been struck and elections held in 1992 in Angola, he refused to accept either his defeat at the polls or a role in a power-sharing government. He withdrew to Huambo in his country’s central highlands, and from there he fought on.

UNITA continued to fight on unsupplied and rather vainly on their own till 2002, until Jonus Savimbi was finally shot dead on the 22nd February by advancing MPLA troops.

Jonus Savimbi was a highly educated and charismatic leader. A burly man, 6ft tall and with a bearded face that could as easily convey an expression of menace as break into a dazzling smile, Jonas Savimbi was usually photographed wearing well-pressed camouflage fatigues and a jaunty beret. At his hip there was often a pearl-handled revolver; and he had a favourite ivory-topped cane.

Jonus Savimbi once gave PW Botha an AK47 assault rifle made out of ivory as a gift of friendship, a gift that remained on display at the George Museum in South Africa for some years until 1998 (when all of PW Botha’s gifted artefacts were removed).

The ivory AK-47 now stands as an unusual reminder of how history can be unkind and the absurdity of getting into bed with ‘strange political bedfellows’.  It really is a symbol of the type of betrayal which so often comes with the political edict; “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Source – various obituaries, including the Daily Telegraph of Jonus Savimbi and Wikipedia

Ops Savannah fashion statement; East German Helmets

One distinctive thing about the Angola/South West Africa Border war was the vast array of ‘Soviet’ and Communist ‘East Bloc’ military equipment, materials and canned food.  Much of which became ‘war booty’ and prized by South African Defence Force personnel fighting in the conflict as a memento. To them, it all represented the very distinctive difference between ‘Western’ styled materials and those produced in Communist bloc countries at the time, in a sense it very much brought home just what the war in Angola was to them – part of the ‘Cold’ War of the ‘West’ against Communism.

SADF Helmet

During Ops Savannah in 1975, whilst in Angola some South African Defence Force (SADF) personnel came across a huge stash of East German Steel Helmets.  For some reason the SADF Artillery Gunners took an instant liking to these helmets and it became an instant ‘bush’ fashion. A prized possession, many Gunners sought out this helmet and whilst on Operation Savannah replaced their SADF issue ‘Staaldak’ M1963 helmets with it – it’s was a ‘gunners thing’ to look a little different and develop a distinctive combat zone ‘esprit de cour’. The feature image shows a SADF 140mm Medium Gun Crew somewhere in Central

The East German M-56 helmet was originally designed in 1942 as a replacement for the M1935/M1940 model WW2 German ‘Stahlhelm’.  The helmet had seen trials since 1943, but was not adopted during World War II.

East German Helmet

The design was never progressed and was unused until the requirement for a distinct German helmet for the Volkspolizie (East German Police) and the National People’s Army (East German Army) arose after Germany was split down the middle into the ‘Democratic’ West Germany and ‘Soviet Communist’ East Germany after WW2 ended.

The East German leadership adopted the M-56 helmet so as not to cause offence to their new Soviet masters by using their iconic WW2 German ‘Stahlhelm’ so they switched to this new design as it also closely resembled another iconic WW2 helmet – the Soviet SSh-40.

The M-56 helmet came in three basic versions, Mod 1 or I/56, Mod 2 or I/57 and Mod 3 or I/71, and was widely sold, or in most cases given free of charge, to Third World armies.  As Angola was deemed a 3rd World conflict by the East Germans it proved a fruitful country to off-load stocks of this helmet to the MPLA’s FAPLA and other Communist aligned military support groups in Angola.

Although there is not much on East German involvement in the Angolan/South West African Border War. Most military advisors and support troops to the Angolan MPLA Forces were either Russian or Cuban. East Germany as it was a Soviet ‘ally’ did play a role in support, and these helmets would point to this fact.


Image and reflection thanks to Colonel Graham Du Toit.  Source Wikipedia – Researched by Peter Dickens

The ‘Fog of War’

The term ‘Fog of War’ is defined as ‘uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in a military operation’.  It can manifest itself at the time or even many years after the action has taken place.  This deeply tragic account of the loss of a SADF Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicle, containing two members of the same family’ illustrates this ‘fog’.

The incident

14 Feb 1988: Four Members from B Company, 1 SAI including two Cousins who acted as the MAG Machine Gunner team, were Killed in Action in South Eastern Angola during a contact with elements of the 59th FAPLA Brigade during Operation Hooper. The B Company, 1 SAI troops had not klaared out (demobilised) prior to deployment for Ops Hooper so they became 61 Mech Battalion Bravo Company Element. These troops swopped over with B Company 4 SAI and were operating as part of 4 SAI during this attack as part of 61 Mechanised Battalion.

Their Ratel (Honeybadger) Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), Callsign 22C was hit on the left hand side and knocked out by a ZU-23-2 Soviet 23mm Anti-aircraft gun deployed in the ground role. On the right hand side where the Groenewald Cousins had been sitting, a large hole was ripped out of the vehicle. It appeared that the Ratel had also been struck at some point by a South African 105mm discarding sabot anti-tank round, thought to be fired from an SADF Olifant tank.

The 105mm discarding sabot round’s entry can be seen on the top below the second rifle port with the distinctive “star” penetration.

The ‘blue on blue’ debate

There is much debate which surrounds this image and the ballistics in the veteran community, some thoughts are that the 105mm discarding Sabot round made the big hole on top left (the fins made the star pattern) and the three discarding pieces from the Sabot could have made the other three holes to the below right. Others maintain the additional holes came from the enemy 23mm AA gun. Whilst others have proposed that it was all enemy fire and possibly the distinctive ‘fin’ penetration came from a Soviet 100mm T55 6 wing sabot based on the ballistics.

SADF 105mm Discarding  Sabot (left) and ZU-23-2 Soviet 23mm Anti-aircraft Gun in a ground role (right)

At the time the SADF published this as enemy fire and did not make reference to a  “blue on blue” incident – a blue on blue is a term used for ‘friendly fire’ when forces mistakenly shoot, target or bomb their own forces (this may possibly have been in the interests of moral of both Olifant tank and Ratel IFV crews) and reported it as enemy 23mm fire only. Accounts from the 22C Ratel driver and members on site after the incident point to a SADF “blue on blue” from a SADF Olifant (Elephant) Tank involved in the formation attack on enemy armour and positions, a ‘V” formation in which Ratel 22C took part.

Such is the “Fog of War” and incidents like this leave a very big lump in veterans throats. In any event, whether enemy fire, friendly fire – or both, the brave men who fell in this  Ratel are honoured on the roll:

In Remembrance 

84269315BG Corporal Jan Hendrik Kleynhans. He was 19
85263262BG Rifleman Andre Schalk Groenewald. He was 18.
84358266BG Rifleman Pieter Henrich Groenewald. He was 19.
84477751BG Rifleman Vincent Vernon Nieuwenhuizen. He was 19.

May they rest in peace and never be forgotten.


Researched by Peter Dickens with references from a number of Border war forums and Graham Du Toit.

A failed SADF Operation; Ops Firewood – truths & myths!

In any military campaign there are always setbacks, and Ops Firewood qualifies one of the very few real setbacks that the SADF experienced during the Border War.  To view it as a resounding  victory of PLAN (SWAPO) over the SADF would however be an overstatement.

Currently in Namibia and South Africa there are overqualified claims that this operation points to PLAN superiority over the SADF, but that would also be a myth, these claims coming mainly from modern Namibians being fed a long stream of political propaganda.

However, to face up to a ‘truth’, Ops Firewood was a tactical ‘loss’ for the SADF, it was not widely circulated, and thus relatively unknown to many SADF servicemen (now veterans).  So let’s look at it and face the truths and debunk the myths.

On the 31 Oct 1987, a 101 Battalion Battle Group, supported by members of 5 Reconnaissance Regiment together with D Company, 1 Parachute Battalion, 2 Reconnaissance Regiment and other SADF support elements, attacked SWAPO/PLAN positions at Nindango in Southern Angola,  They used Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Armoured Personnel Carriers (Ratels, Casspirs and Buffels).

The Operation was known as Ops Firewood. The key objective was to destroy the Northern Front PLAN Head Quarter (HQ) base.

This PLAN base was set in a densely wooded area, and was attacked from the west by the Reconnaissance Regiment (recce) and Paratroopers (parabats) of the SADF (South African Forces), while 101 Battalion of the SWATF (South West African Forces) covered the base from north, east and south, the direction PLAN forces were expected to flee.

From the on-set of the Operation it became clear from the start that SWAPO/PLAN had been expecting such an attack as they were in well prepared defensive positions and supported by a Cuban Tank and Artillery element with a FAPLA Motorised Infantry Unit in support.

During the extremely heavy fighting that continued throughout the day, about 7 hours in total, a 101 Battalion Casspir was knocked out by a RPG-7 anti-tank rocket and burnt out. The Battle Group suffered 15 casualties with approximately 67 wounded before contact was finally broken off at nightfall.

The base was not successfully taken by the SADF forces, who withdrew when PLAN reinforcements were understood to be on their way.

The South African forces are said to have incurred 12 killed and 47 wounded (while other sources say it was as high as 19 killed and 64 wounded, but this is yet to be substantiated). On the SWAPO side, the casualties were said to be very high, with at least 150 PLAN soldiers killed (however, again there is controversy here as a source within PLAN command maintains that this figure posted on Wikipedia is inflated somewhat, however an actual figure from PLAN is still not forthcoming).

All the SADF dead and wounded were casevaced to AFB Ondangwa during the night of October 31/1 Nov 1987. The last Puma helicopter departed at about 03h30 the following morning and ferried the remaining dead and lightly wounded. The 101 Battalion casualties were taken directly to their Unit and not to AFB Ondangwa.

The featured image is a SADF Buffel Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) captured by SWAPO/PLAN combatants during Ops Firewood.  To put this ‘capture’ into perspective only four Buffel APC’s were captured fully intact in different battles during the entire period of the Border War.   Before we stand up and claim a great military prize, lets take perspective, the Buffel was a personnel carrier, nothing more, there were over a thousand of them deployed during the entire period of the war.

The picture was taken between September 1987 and March 1988 by Col K.A. Satenov, the Soviet military advisor to the 1st and 20th PLAN Brigade commanders (seen in the picture on the left). The Buffel APC captured belonged to 2 Reconnaissance, it was lost fully intact in that battle, three 101 Battalion Casspirs were also lost.

In the aftermath, Honoris Crux (South Africa’s highest bravery decoration) decorations were awarded to five 101 Battalion members for gallantry in action.

So, was it a demonstration of superior PLAN fighting prowess over that of the SADF?  Judging by the death toll to PLAN versus that of the SADF/SWATF the simple answer is – no.  Was it a PLAN victory, the answer is yes (by many accounts one of only a handful). Was it a ‘tactical’ defeat for the SADF in not meeting its objective? The answer is – ‘yes’.  Did it affect the overall military dominance of the SADF on the South West African (Namibian) Border and change any thinking or modus operandi behind the large scale (and small scale) operations into Angola? The answer is ‘no’ – not really, learnings were however taken on over-confidence in using special and elite forces for full front armour assaults, a role not specific to their brand of battle order.  Was it a ‘great decisive battle’ on African soil?  The answer is ‘no’. It was part of a broader campaign, to the SADF commanders it qualified a tactical set-back, nothing more – part and parcel of waging war.

As such the SADF sought no reason to highlight it as a ‘devastating loss’, it remains relatively unknown to many ex-SADF personnel (especially those not involved in Operations into Angola and those not in elite forces circles) as it would have affected morale, and for the wrong reasons entirely.

It is however remembered by veterans of the SADF special forces and elite forces, so too the PLAN combatants, and if you asked either of them for the ‘truth’ of the battle, they would both agree that the real ‘truth’ is to be found in their dead, for only they who have seen the end of war.

The Battle Group casualties who we remember as South Africans were:

“D” COMPANY, 1 PARACHUTE BATTALION

82513110BG Rifleman Hughes Norbert De Rose. He was 21.
82437369BG Rifleman Wayne Valentine Ewels. He was 21.
81033292BG Lance Corporal Raymond Mark Light. He was 21.
83219139BG Corporal Nico Smith Olivier. He was 19.
83247502BG Rifleman Dirk Willem van Rooyen. He was 20.
83271031BG Rifleman Jean Marc Schuurman. Critically wounded and evacuated from the battlefield to AFB Ondangwa where he underwent emergency surgery. He was evacuated back to the RSA the following day on 1 November 1987 but he succumbed to his wounds before the aircraft landed in Pretoria. He was 20.

5 RECONNAISSANCE REGIMENT

83561928BG 2/Lieutenant Dylan Chevalier Cobbalt. He was 20.

101 BATTALION ROMEO MIKE

76330893PE Captain Andries Hercules Du Bruyn Rademeyer. He was 27.
83587345BG 2/Lieutenant Deon Botes. He was 20.
84533793BG Sapper Erasmus Albertus Steyn. He was 19.
Rifleman W. Abraham
Rifleman P. Epafu
Rifleman V.Petrus
Rifleman T. Sheepo
Rifleman M. Uusshona

NOTE from the custodians recording SADF losses during the Border War.  “The Roll of Honour for this engagement has been debated at length. To date, not one individual has supplied any official proof to substantiate their claims or come forward with the names of the four individuals that are supposedly missing from this Roll. Until such time as this happens, we continue to pay homage to these 15 Brothers and accept this list as the official Ops Firewood Roll of Honour”. Their names and Sacrifice have not been forgotten.

Sources that point to the ’19’ dead maintain that 4 members of 101 Battalion are unaccounted for.

Colonel Satenov wrote a book called “Army is my Destiny” and currently lives in Kazakhstan (the former Soviet Republic) – this picture is also in his book.

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens


Photo, thanks and caption courtesy and copyright to Igor Ignatovich who was also a Soviet military advisor to SWAPO.  Reference wikipedia, Igor Igantovich, Maj. Du Toit’s daily honour roll, SADF veteran on-line forums.

The truth behind the bombing of Witwatersrand Command

Not many people today are aware that Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) insurgents actually attacked some bone-fide South African Defence Force (SADF) military installations, but only a handful of occasions and this story covers one of them – the bombing of the Witwatersrand Command’s building – the Drill Hall (known as Wit Command).

Other than the very effective bombing of Wit Command and the Nedbank Plaza in Church Street, Pretoria (which also housed the target – a SAAF command office), the only other standout ANC MK attacks on actual SADF installations were low key and completely ineffectual.

These included the rocketing of the Personnel Services army base in Voortrekker Hoogte (with minor injuries to one civilian and no substantive building damage). The faulted attempt at bombing a Wits Command medic centre in Hillbrow (no injuries). The speculative bombing of some cars in the car-park of the Kaffarian Rifles (no injuries, and no information either), the bombing of a dustbin outside Natal Command (no injuries or building damage). Finally, the bombing of two SADF recruitment offices and an SADF radio installation – some building damage and no injuries or deaths.

Information on the bombing at Wit Command itself is really difficult to come by, at best it is presented as a resounding victory by MK claiming 58 injuries and 1 death of SADF personnel and at worst there is little to almost no information, video or photographs in both the military and media records of showing any deaths.  There is certainly no death of a SADF serviceman recorded on the honour roll. So where does the truth lie?

There are two key reasons why ‘in-depth’ knowledge of this incident remains obscured.  Firstly, although a bomb had gone off in down-town Johannesburg (no hiding that), the grip of the National Party over South African media limited it and ensured the incident would be carefully managed (attacks on SADF military installations would affect morale) and, more importantly, it was very carefully managed because of the profile of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) attacker who committed it.  The outcry, profile and ‘hunt’ for him was somewhat muted, angry announcements identifying him for the purposes of the ‘hunt’ were made, yes – but in-depth media analysis on the attack or investigative journalists seeking an exposé on the attacker’s profile and motivation – no – there’s nothing of this sort.  

Simply put, this ‘managed’ outcry was because this particular MK operative was from an upper class, ‘white’ Afrikaner, well to do and influential family.  He grew up in an up market ‘white’s only’ conservative suburb in Johannesburg and attended a prestigious Afrikaans High School  – he didn’t fit the National Party’s ‘swart-gevaar’ (Black danger)/’rooi-gevaar’ (Communist danger) terrorist narrative of the time, he was in fact embarrassing enough ‘one of their own’.

So, lets get to the ‘truth’ of matter in all of this, what was the actual damage caused, what actually happened?

Background 

The treason trials started off like an action-packed cowboy filmOn 30 July 1987, a bomb exploded at the Witwatersrand Command’s Drill Hall injuring 26 people (no deaths), the injured were made up of a mix of both military personnel and by-standing civilians. The Drill Hall was targeted because not only was it a military installation, it was also the same historic Hall in which the 1956 Treason Trial took place and significant to ‘struggle’ politics.

The ‘Treason Trial’ had lasted from 1956 to 1961 (not to be confused with the ‘Rivonia Trial in 1964) and revolved around 156 people arrested on charges of treason – it was overseen by Oswald Pirow and it included a mix racial bag of South African political party leaders from across the spectrum, notably Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Stanely Lollan, Helen Joseph, Joe and Ruth Slovo and Leon Levy to name a few.  They were all found ‘not guilty’ but the trial did force Oliver Tambo into exile.

Treason trialists inside the Drill

Treason Trial in the Drill Hall

So, like the mixed racial bag of the Treason Trial itself, the actual attack on the Drill Hall (by then a SADF command centre and military building) did not come from an angry disenfranchised ‘Black’ ANC MK operative, rather, this attack came from very “blue blooded” ‘White’ Afrikaner – Heinrick (Hein) Grosskopf.

The Bombing

As part of the Amnesty Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings Hein Grosskopf, by that stage a former MK operative, revealed how he detonated a car bomb at the Witwatersrand Command military base.

Grosskopf, a graduate of Linden Hoërskool (High School) and the son of Johannes Grosskopf, a former editor of the Beeld newspaper, said he joined the African National Congress in exile in 1986 after concluding that apartheid was reprehensible.

14199181_632802120222857_9099825329936225113_n

Johannes Grosskopf

He linked up with the ANC in Lusaka, where he volunteered for MK military service and after undergoing training in Angola, he returned to Lusaka at the end of 1986.

Six months of planning then went into the attack, which was to be a “one-man” operation. An attack on the Braamfontein gas works in Johannesburg had also been considered, but it was rejected as too dangerous for civilians in the area. Witwatersrand (“Wits”) Command was chosen after much deliberation and according to Grosskopf;

“Because the state had so clearly politicised the role of the SA Defence Force by deploying troops in townships, SADF personnel and installations were by definition justifiable targets.”

The explosion was planned to go off by 9.45am, when the morning rush-hour was over, children would be in school and restaurants around the site were still closed. A car with an automatic gearbox would be used and by lashing the steering wheel in a fixed position, the car could be made to move without a driver towards the target.

In June 1987, Grosskopf entered South Africa on a motorcycle from Botswana, along the way he bought an old Valiant pickup ‘bakkie’ in De Deur and travelled to Johannesburg with the motorcycle in the back of the ‘bakkie’.

After booking in at the Holiday Inn in Pretoria, under the name if JR Evans, Grosskopf rented a small flat in Linden, Johannesburg (a suburb he was highly familiar with and near his old High School).

Between the 5th and 10th of July 1987, Grosskolf carried out reconnaissance at Wits Command and found it would be possible to park in Quartz Street, opposite the target. He also measured the height of the pavement the attack vehicle would have to mount before reaching the wall of Wits Command.

After concluding that the operation was feasible, Grosskopf returned to Botswana and requested 120kg of explosives from his support group. The load was hidden behind the seats of the bakkie, and steel plate was welded over it.

On July 17, Grosskopf rented a house in Ventersdorp, intending to use it as an operational base, believing that a single Afrikaner would be under less scrutiny in a small town than in Johannesburg’s suburbs, but as he was moving in, two policemen arrived and asked why his bakkie was registered in a name different from the one he used when renting the house. Thinking his cover might be blown Grosskopf spent only one night in the house before returning to Johannesburg.

Early on the day of the attack, he rode into Johannesburg on his motorbike and left it two street blocks from the target. He returned to the Linden flat by taxi. Around 9am he left for Johannesburg after loading the explosives into the bakkie. The vehicle was parked in Quartz Street. With the car idling, he lashed the steering wheel in the required position and threw three switches to arm the vehicle and bomb, got out the vehicle, locked it and walked towards Sterland (a cinema complex) next to Wits Command.

Just before reaching the inside of the Sterland complex proper, the Valiant’s engine revved very fast and loudly, with the explosion that followed. He jumped on the motorcycle and rode back to Linden, collected some belongings and then headed for Botswana on the motorcycle.

Aletta Klaasen was 17 years old when she lost her left eye in the explosion. Minutes before the blast she had been talking to two SADF soldiers in front of the building, Cpl. Paul Duncan and his army chum Stoffel, when Grosskopf parked his vehicle close by to where they where standing.

She noted Grosskopf looking in her direction and called out to him “What are you looking at – I’m not for sale” (the area around Wit Command was a notorious ‘red light’ district known for prostitution). He turned around and walked off and shortly after that the bomb went off.

When she recovered from the blast she noted that one of the SADF troops, Cpl. Paul Duncan, who she was chatting to, was blown off his feet and found in the guardhouse, bleeding from the head and unconscious – he later fully recovered from his injuries.

An unassuming, quiet and reserved person, Grosskopf built up his resentment of the status quo whilst a student at Linden Hoērskool, were he had been bullied and teased by the vastly conservative white Afrikaans students for his “liberal” views. On matriculating from Linden Hoërskool, Hein Grosskolf, although openly stating he would never join the South African Defence Force (SADF), did in fact attend to his national service military call up and was discharged from his SADF conscription commitment on medical grounds. Highly politicised, he then went on to join the ANC and its military wing MK.

Aftermath

The Drill Hall after the bombing was deemed by the SADF to be an ‘unsafe’ building due to structural damage caused it and the Command moved into a high-rise building adjacent to the Drill Hall. On occasion the Drill Hall would be used by Citizen Force units and Regiments for mustering (in the very famous hall in which the Treason Trial took place) but more often than not it remained empty but guarded during the early 1990’s.

Once the command relocated from the high-rise building to Doornkop military base in the mid 1990’s, the drill hall building was taken over by vagrants and became an informal settlement – it eventually became derelict, caught fire and burned down. Today, the façade and some perimeter buildings is all that remains of the complex.  The façade has been restored as a monument to Johannesburg’s history and the significant historical events which took place in the building – including it’s bombing.

Truth and Reconciliation

Aletta Klaasen and Hein Grosskopf were both at the TRC Hearing in November 2000, Grosskopf apologised to Aletta in person and regretted the injuries caused to civilians. Grosskopf concluded the meeting by saying that he was proud of the small role he had played in the struggle for freedom.  He said,

“Taking a life is never easy. I believe all life, even that of my enemies is sacrosanct. Violence can never be good; it can only be necessary. I am truly sorry for the injuries and suffering I caused”

14225369_632870203549382_188786347975450644_nAt her request Klaasen and Grosskopf met for a few minutes in private after the hearing and then they both posed briefly and rather awkwardly for this photograph (note the body language). Neither of them elaborated on their meeting, Klaasen was only prepared to say that it had been good.

Heinrich Grosskopf, was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on 13th December 2000 whilst he was resident in the United Kingdom, it is thought he may still be there, and there is an irony here.  One of the SADF victims of the bombing – Paul Duncan, also lives in the United Kingdom now.  Paul was kind enough to recount his eye-witness account (both as a casualty and the fact that he was very near the epicentre of the blast). ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘apologies’ aside, I have it on good authority that it’s very unlikely Hein will be attending one of Paul’s famous ‘braai’s’ (a South African barbecue) in England anytime soon.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens


Reference: News 24 Archives.  Interview with Paul Duncan.  South African History On-line. Wikipedia.

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

In the company of one of extremely brave men of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, tasked with holding a wood ‘against all odds’ in what was the ‘fire hell battle on the Somme’ – the Battle of Delville Wood, it is quite something to stand out as the “bravest of the brave”.

1911905_370191666483905_473364888597967759_nWilliam Faulds, a young man who won a Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry, at Delville Wood is quite literally a case of a normal young South African placed in an extraordinary circumstance, only to emerge with that “X” factor which sets him apart, and that’s quite something considering everyone around him can in their own right can take the mantle of the ‘bravest of the brave’, such was the nature of the battle.

To put his action into context, the South Africans holding Delville Wood on the Somme in 1916 were shelled by the Germans at a rate of 500 rounds per minute, into their positions which occupied a small wood only a square kilometer in size.  In inadequate trenches (the wood’s roots prevented digging them deeply enough), when shelling stopped long enough they were faced with German Imperial troop attacks of such ferocity that the bayonet and hand to hand fighting became the only means to survive.

When the South Africans were relieved on 20th July 1916, just 5 days after entering the wood, of the 1,500 South African infantry men initially sent in, there were only 142 survivors still holding the wood.

So what does this young man, who had worked at Midland Motor Garage in Craddock and who had only just turned 21, have to make him react differently in the midst of universal gallantry and carnage on an epic level?  Here is his story:

Young William ‘Mannie” Faulds from Craddock, together with his brother, Paisley and some school chums joined up with the South African forces to fight during World War One.  Arthur Schooling (his best friend), and William both enlisted together and went everywhere together. Together they even fought under the command of General Louis Botha during the South West African Campaign and then again in Egypt, before the two of them shipped out to fight in the Battle of the Somme in France.

During the Battle of Delville Wood (part of the Somme Campaign), on 16th July 1916, Arthur Schooling was shot dead in no-man’s land (the ‘killing zone’ between the South African and German lines), leaving a very distraught and shocked William Faulds feeling utterly helpless.  On the same day, 16th July, Lt. Arthur Craig (1st Battalion Bravo Company) was also shot and lay wounded close to the body of Arthur Schooling in the killing zone (no-man’s land).

Pte. William Faulds dug deep to find the bravery for this, and along with Pte. Clifford Baker and Pte. Alexander Estment, all three took matters into their own hands to rescue their officer. In broad daylight at 10:30am, they climbed out from behind the relative safety of the defences and crawled to their severely wounded Lieutenant, then they ‘piggy-backed’ him back to safety.  Pte. Baker was badly wounded in the attempt. Lt. Craig survived thanks to these three brave ‘Springboks’ and recovered his wounds later in the Richmond Hospital, London.

William Faulds and Alexander Estment returned to their positions in the wood and continued fighting in what can only be described as combat in the extreme.  The initial act of gallantry alone was quite something, but there was still more in young Faulds, and it’s here that we start to see ‘X’ factor that makes a Victoria Cross recipient different from the rest.  

Because just two short days later, he was faced with exactly the same situation again – a critically wounded comrade in no-man’s land, but this time William Faulds was alone, and once again he put his life on the line, exposed himself by leaving the relative safety of the trenches (such as it was) and entered no-man’s land (the ‘killing zone’) under intense incoming artillery fire, to rescue another yet another of his comrades and alone carried him from certain death, for nearly half a mile, to a medical station.

Victoria Cross

His citation for his Victoria Cross says everything:

“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. A bombing party under Lieut. Craig attempted to rush across 40 yards of ground which lay between the British and enemy trenches. Coming under very heavy rifle and machine gun fire the officer and the majority of the party were killed or wounded. Unable to move, Lieut. Craig lay midway between the two lines of trench, the ground being quite open. In full daylight Pte. Faulds, accompanied by two other men, climbed over the parapet, ran out, and picked up the officer, and carried him back, one man being severely wounded in so doing.

Two days later, Private Faulds again showed most conspicuous bravery in going out alone to bring in a wounded man, and carrying him nearly half a mile to a dressing station, subsequently rejoining his platoon. The artillery fire was at the time so intense that stretcher-bearers and others considered that any attempt to bring in the wounded man meant certain death. This risk Private Faulds faced unflinchingly, and his bravery was crowned with success (London Gazette 9 September 1916)”.

10922597_393363950833343_6005614638364482408_n

With that, William Faulds became the first South African born recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) during World War 1.  It was this extra rescue, the repetition of bravery in the extreme which set him apart from his two comrades involved in the first rescue of Lt. Craig, no doubt equally extraordinary – both Clifford Baker and Alexander Estment were awarded the Military Medal (MM) for bravery.

William Faulds continued to fight, and again showed bravery and leadership in the extreme, and was later awarded the Military Cross (MC), a lessor award to the Victoria Cross, but no less important. He received it for leading men during German attacks at Heudecourt, enabling rest of Battalion to withdraw with only slight losses.

Military Cross

His second citation for the Military Cross says everything and reads:

“In the retirement from the line east of Hendicourt, 22 March 1918, he was commanding one of the platoons which formed the rear-guard. He handled his men most ably, and exposed himself freely. Though the enemy pressed hard, he, by his fearless and able leadership, checked them, and enabled the remainder of the battalion to withdraw with slight loss”.

large_000000

He was eventually wounded and captured by the German Forces on 24th March 1918 at the Battle of Marrieres Wood. He was released as a prisoner-of-war after the Armistice on 11 November 1918 and returned to South Africa.

Post War

On his return he was promoted to a Lieutenant and took up a civilian job as a mechanic with De Beers Diamond Mine. In 1922 he re-enlisted with the Kimberley Regiment and was made a Captain. Later he moved to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and in 1937 he was member of Southern Rhodesia contingent at the King’s Coronation.

Not without a sense of humour, when his daughter was born he expressed the wish of having her named Victoria Faulds (falls).  His wife objected strongly to what would have stacked up to become potential ridicule for the young girl and she was christened “Joy” instead.

William Faulds died on the 16th August 1950 in Salisbury (now Harare) and is buried in the Salisbury Pioneer Cemetery.  His Victoria Cross was held by the Museum of Military History in Saxonwald, South Africa, and such is the nature of our disregard for national heroes and treasures, it was stolen from the museum in October 1994.


References: The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. Three of South Africa’s WW1 Delville Wood heroes – by Miss Joan Abrahams.

The painting is an artist`s impression of the action at Deville Wood for which William Faulds was awarded the Victoria Cross. From the book “Deeds that thrill the Empire” Vol 5. Insert Artwork: Men in the Trenches, near Hendicourt by Adrian Hill, Imperial War Museum copyright