Sir ‘Dingbat’ the Knight

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.

500px-Royal_Air_Force_Fighter_Command,_1939-1945._CH7956In 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.

0aayzhghjgfjhf9999777_7Initially 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.

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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.

84 Squadron

Group photograph of No. 84 Squadron RAF, Germany. British Army of the Rhine

Inter-War period

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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Post War

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.

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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.

Post Retirement

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

Knighthoods 

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).

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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.

In Conclusion

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.

Related Links and work

Jan Smuts and the RAF:  The Royal Air Force’s 100th Birthday and its founder – Jan Smuts

South African WW1 Aces; Kimberley’s local baker was also a WW1 Flying Ace

South African’s in RAF 74 Squadron; Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference ‘Air of Authority’ – an on-line history of the Royal Air Force organisation.  Imperial War Museum.

 

The incidental ‘terrorist’

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.

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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

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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 

s-l300So 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.

Aftermath 

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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.

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Related Work and Links

Wit Command Bombing; The truth behind the bombing of Witwatersrand Command

Struggle ‘Heroes’; Tainted “Military Heroes” vs. Real Military Heroes

Rocketing of Voortrekkerhoogte; The not so ‘spectacular’ MK attack on Voortrekkerhoogte


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

 

Rommel’s aide-de-camp was a South African

It’s a little known fact, one of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s key officers, a person in his ‘Inner Circle’ and his personal advisor and aide was in fact a South African.  Very few South Africans joined the Nazi military forces during the Second World War, there are a number of South West Africans (now Namibia) who joined Nazi Germany’s armed forces whilst South West Africa was a South African Protectorate, which is understandable given South West Africa used to be a German colony prior to World War 1 and they were all of German heritage. A handful of South African Prisoners of War even joined or were coerced to join the Waffen SS during the war itself.

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General Rommel (centre) briefing fellow officers

However there are only three South African nationals from the Union itself (that we are aware of at least) who up-front joined the German Armed Forces proper.  Two of them were allowed to re-settle in South Africa after the war, and both of them enjoyed amnesty and prosperity under the National Party government. One remained in Germany.

One is well-known – Robey Leibbrandt, his story as a Nazi insurgent to destabilise the South African war effort by trying to ramp up Nationalist Afrikaner militarist opposition to the war and subsequent capture is well documented, so too his treason trial and subsequent release and amnesty by the National Party (who during the war supported the Nazi cause).  However little is known of this second Wehrmacht officer – Heinz Werner Schmidt.

Heinz Werner Schmidt

To be fair to Heinz Schmidt, he was born in South Africa to German parents, and at a very young age he moved around Africa with his family, classified as ‘volkdeutsche’ spending more of his formative years and completing his university education in Germany itself, becoming a dual national with a German citizenship in addition to his South African one.  Leaving South Africa at the age of 4 he regarded himself as German above all and was swept up with the rest of the country in the euphoria of Nazism.  When war broke out, he was in a unique position – he had a choice.  He could choose to fighting for either South Africa and the Allied cause or Germany (as his dual citizenship allowed), he even had the choice of sitting the war out in South Africa (service was voluntary), he chose to his convictions to support the Nazi cause and became a German Army officer.

At one point in the war he found himself in command of Wehrmacht units directly engaging South African Army units and then, more ironically, with Europe and Germany devastated he engaged his South African birthright which gave him sanctuary in South Africa itself after the war.   In fact he built two very successful South African companies and one is a well-known household brand.

So lets examine who Heinz Schmidt was and what he did. Born in South Africa, Lieutenant Heinz Schmidt served in North Africa as Erwin Rommel’s (“The Desert Fox”) personal aid and advisor – an aide-de-camp in military speak.  As he was “South African-born” he was therefore considered, in line with military logic, an expert on Africa. Already a veteran of the Polish Campaign, Schmidt joined Rommel’s staff in March 1941 from Eritrea and was subsequently present during a number of battles in Egypt and later Tunisia, and was later to write a bestseller depicting his years with Rommel, namely “With Rommel in the Desert”.

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Heinz Schmidt with General Rommel – Schmidt is third from the left.

Werner Schmidt by his own admission was surprised that General Rommel took him on as his advisor as he really did not have a depth knowledge of Africa, however been the only officer in Rommel’s inner circle of officers with a smattering of African heritage he found himself the only man for the job, and he happily took it on.

Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt also had a sound combat record, just days before he was appointed as the aide-de-camp to General Erwin Rommel, he was commanding a heavy weapons company.  In fact Schmidt played a key role in overrunning the South African positions on 23rd November 1941 during the Battle of Sidi Rezegh.  He found himself in the thick of things with the German Wehrmacht’s 115 Rifle Regiment which lined up to attack the South African’s flank and over ran them.

Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt described the scene as follows:

“We headed straight for the enemy tanks. I glanced back. Behind me was a fan of our vehicles—a curious assortment of all types—spread out as far as the eye could see. There were armoured troop carriers, cars of various kinds, caterpillars hauling mobile guns, heavy trucks with infantry, and motorized anti-aircraft units. Thus we roared on towards the enemy ‘barricade.’

“I stared at the front fascinated. Right ahead was the erect figure of the Colonel commanding the regiment. On the left close by and slightly to the rear of him was the Major’s car. Tank shells were whizzing through the air. The defenders (editors note: the South African Brigade) were firing from every muzzle of their 25-pounders and their little 2-pounder anti-tank guns. We raced on at a suicidal pace.”

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Battle scene at Sidi Rezegh November 1941

So, here we have a very unique instance in South African military history a ‘South African’ commanding enemy troops in direct combat against his ‘countrymen’.  In an action which devastated South African forces in defeat with the loss of many South African lives.

Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt went on to have a very successful stint as Rommel’s advisor for the balance of the North African campaign, and his book on Rommel is regarded as one the most insightful works on Field Marshal Rommel.

Post War

What happened to Heinz Schmidt and in what actions he took part after the North African campaign is unclear, we know that he lived with Rommel and was even present at his 50th birthday on 15 November 1941. Heinz ended his book with the end of the African campaign – it was about Rommel after all, he did not elaborate on his movements and units in which he served, what his units did or on which front he served (Eastern, Western or Italian) after the Afrika Korps was defeated, and even after Rommel death.

What is clear is that Heinz Schmidt survived the war and like many Wehrmacht officers sought sanctuary outside wore torn Germany.  Fortunately for Heinz the very Nazi sympathetic National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948, three short years after the end of World War 2.  Heinz now chose to embrace his South African citizenship and return to his birthplace, South Africa to re-start his life.

51F3EDR4KVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_He moved to a small German community in Natal called ‘New Germany’, located just inland from Durban.  ‘New Germany’ was established well before World War 2 in 1848 by a party of 183 German immigrants.  With the strong cultural ties to Germany, German social clubs and many German compatriots, this island of German heritage in South Africa proved ideal for Heinz Schmidt to start again, and he did so with great success.

He started two companies which are now household brands in South Africa, Pineware and Gedore tools, Pineware makes household appliances under its own brand, anyone who has bought a Pineware toaster, iron or electrical appliance will know it.  Gedore tools makes the Wera line of tools.  Pineware was sold to Lion Match.

By all accounts he was a friendly and charming man, he had many humorous stories of his time with Rommel and was regularly seen at Remembrance Parades in Durban. Heinz Schmidt died in Durban after a short illness, aged 90, in 2007. At the time his holding company business, H. W. Schmidt Industrials, was family owned.

In Conclusion

There you have it, another tale of a person highly sympathetic to the Nazi cause who found success in post 1948 Nationalist South Africa.  He unfortunately (rightly or wrongly) joins Robey Leibbrand, B.J. Vorster and others who enjoyed political or business success in full sanctuary under the National Party government and as a result he was never held account or even investigated as to his actions fighting against his own countrymen.

Had this happened under Smuts’ United Party he would surely have become a ‘person of interest’ to the state, especially given his actions directly led to South African deaths.  Treason is generally legally defined as citizen ‘taking up arms’ against the country of his of citizenship.  In the case of dual citizenship (as was the case with Heinz Schmidt), if the person did not renounce his citizenship of the country he went to war against (which he did not) the usual practice during and after the war was to convict the person of treason, in the other Allied nations – especially the UK, USA and Australia many people like Heinz faced the same situation after the war, especially in the cases where their dual nationals and even nationals had joined the Waffen SS and German Wehrmacht, most received very light sentences and fines, in exceptional cases those found guilty of High Treason were executed or handed life sentences.

This however did not happen in South Africa after the war and the tenets of the law on treason for a dual national were not tested.  The only case of a South African member of the German Wehrmacht which was tested was Robey Liebbrandt, it was during the war itself, and he narrowly escaped the death sentence (Jan Smuts intervened with clemency).

The North African campaign was regarded as the ‘gentlemen’s war’ by all forces fighting it, primarily because it was fought according to the conventions.  Whether Heinz would have been simply regarded defeated Wehrmacht officer at the end of the war holding a dual nationality, had no recored of war crime and had not violated his South African citizenship rights. And then subsequently allowed to get on with his life in South Africa as a simple veteran is a matter of conjecture – we will never know as it was never challenged.

The issue of treachery aside, his book is however a sentinel work on Field Marshal Erwin Rommel – the ‘Desert Fox’ and it gives a unique and valuable historic insight into someone who is arguably regarded as one of the best military commanders of the war. Heinz Schmidt lived with and went to war with Rommel, his story is both very interesting and very unique.

erwin-rommelTo give an idea of the value his book from an insight perspective, the famous Rommel quotable quote as to using captured ‘booty’ (enemy equipment) for personal use is thanks to Schmidt’s work. Rommel, whose signature British issue goggles often worn above his visor on his cap said “Booty is permissible I assume; even for a general“. A quote which now finds itself in use in military outfits the world over when reasoning the use of ‘booty’.

With that, as South Africans we find ourselves contributing again to a rich military heritage with our own very unique history highlighting of our lessor known past of ‘Nazi’ collaborators and World War 2 Wehrmacht veterans.

Related Work

Sidi RezeghSidi Rezegh – “The South African sacrifice resulted in the turning point of the battle”

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

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

Robey Leibbrandt; A South African traitor & ‘Operation Weissdorn’

The South African Nazi Party; South Africa’s Nazi Party; The ‘Gryshemde’

The Ossewabrandwag; “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

South Africans in the Waffen SS; South African Nazi in the Waffen SS ‘British Free Corps’

Oswald Pirow; South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference ‘With Rommel in the Desert’ by Heinz Werner Schmidt and Werner Schmidt’s published obituary.

Little known WW2 fact – the South Africans liberated Florence!

Did you know it was elements of South African armoured formations which were the first to enter the Italian city of Florence and given the honour of liberating it?  Chances are most people would not have a clue, the honour given to military formations of liberating capital and regional capital cities like Florence during World War 2 was a very big deal, but sadly in South Africa this very big feather in our military cap is lost to the majority.

The very fact that the iconic worldwide heritage bridge in central Florence – the Ponte Vecchio – still stands is thanks to South African armoured regiments who were the first to get to it and secure it, when all the other iconic historic bridges of Florence were blown into smithereens by the retreating German forces.

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Civilians clambering over the ruins of the Ponte Alle Grazia, one of the bridges over the River Arno destroyed by the Germans before evacuating Florence.

The latter half the Italian campaign during World War 2 was all about the race of various units and ‘nations’ to liberate a city, a great emphasis was placed on the ‘honour’ that a particular formation would receive for doing it, the American’s had the honour of liberating ‘Rome’ it was given to the American 5th Army who secured the centre, the American 1st Armored Division (old ironsides) liberated Milan and Bologna’s liberation is given to the Eighth Army’s Polish II Corps’ 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division.

So, unknown to many South African’s our military has the honour of liberating Tuscany’s regional capital – Florence, an honour simply not placed on the country’s ‘national christian’ education curriculum of the old national party (who regarded the whole episode of South Africa’s WW2 campaign as one of Smuts’ folly and treachery) and now not even on the radar for any young South African studying our history.

In setting the narrative straight and re-kindling this honour, let’s have a look at what happened and ‘whodunnit’.

The Liberation of Florence

In a nutshell, the South African 6th Armoured Division, fighting at the crucible of the Italian campaign against Nazi German forces, spearheaded the Allied advance into Florence in August 1944. They were followed closely by the New Zealanders and then the British forces – as this short news clip from United News at the time recalls.

On 20 July General Kirkman XIII Corps commander, issued orders for a “…powerful thrust to seize all crossings across the River Arno to the west of Florence.” This effort was to be concentrated on the 6th South African Armoured Division front. The advance was to be led by the South African Division with the 4th Infantry Division to its right, supported on the flanks by the 6th British Armoured Division and the 8th Indian Infantry Division.

The Allies advanced through Greve and were stopped by the German 4th Parachute Division on the River Greve on 24 July. The Allies had, however, outflanked the German Parachute Division, who then withdrew during the night of 24/25 July, allowing the South African, New Zealand and Indian Divisions to advance to the Paula Line which was reached on 28 July.

General Kirkman again placed the South African and New Zealand Divisions as the spearhead of his Corps advance, this time to break the Paula Line and to take Florence. By the 3rd of  August columns of South African, New Zealand and 4th Infantry Divisions were advancing towards Florence. By 4 August, advance parties of South Africans and New Zealanders were exploring the outskirts of Florence to find that all bridges across the Arno River viable for military transport had been destroyed by the retreating Germans.

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View of the damage to the Ponte Vecchio from the east. The German forces destroyed all of the bridges over the River Arno with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio before evacuating Florence.

A South African armoured patrol, made up of the South African Imperial Light Horse and the Kimberley Regiment raced into central Florence and found the smaller (and iconic) Ponte Vecchio bridge intact, they crossed it under heavy shelling, entering into the centre of the city at 4 am on the 4th August 1944, to be crowned as the first Allied troops to enter Florence.

This wonderful image captures the moment, here a Sherman artillery OP tank of the 22nd Field Regiment, South African 6th Armoured Division, enters Florence through the Porta Romano, 4 August 1944.

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South African 6th Armoured Division entering Florence through the Porta Romano, 4 August 1944.

In Conclusion 

Over the years New Zealand have laid the claim of liberating Florence, and in that country it is a very big deal, however not to detract the New Zealand sacrifice (they were shoulder to shoulder with the South Africans in this particular fight) but is a sad fact is that nobody has really challenged New Zealand on this claim such is general apathy and lack of national pride in South Africa for our World War 2 sacrifice and battle honours.

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South African tank crew in Florence, Italy on 7 August 1944 shakes the hands of cheering Italians welcoming liberation. From The Digital Collections of the National WWII Museum

The truth (and historic fact) is that it was a South African armoured regiment that secured the Ponte Vecchio bridge and entered the city first, it was the South Africans who were charged with the main spearhead and it is on both the historical record and media record at the time that the South Africans have the honour of liberating Florence.

So there you have it, another ‘Inside the Chappie wrapper’ interesting fact for the day and another reason to stand proud of South Africans.  The beautiful and historic city of Florence, the jewel of Tuscany and its central pride, the medieval Ponte Vecchio – all now enjoyed by a grateful nation and the world at large as an international heritage site, and it’s largely thanks to a heroic bunch of South Africans.

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Researched and written by Peter Dickens.  Primary sources – Wikipedia and the Imperial War Museum.  Images, Imperial War Museum copyright.

Movie Clip copyright.  National Archives and Records Administration – ARC 39132, LI 208-UN-1013 – Allies Liberate Florence (1945). Series: Motion Picture Films from “United News” Newsreels, compiled 1942 – 1945.

Jackie; The South African Baboon soldier of World War One

World War 1 and Jackie the Baboon is seen here on top of a carriage … here’s another famous South African mascot.  Jackie cut an odd figure amongst the British and Empire troops in Wold War 1, for only the South Africans could conjure up an African Baboon as a Regimental mascot, but this was no ordinary Baboon, intelligent and intuitive Jackie would achieve fame and become an iconic war hero in both South Africa and England, here is his story.

An odd choice of Mascot

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Commemorative Postcard with Pvt Marr and Jackie

The story starts in August 1915, just over 100 years ago, at the Marr’s family farm ‘Cheshire’ in Villeria just on the outskirts of Pretoria.  Albert Marr found a Chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) on the farm, named him Jackie and adopted his as a beloved family pet.

World War I broke out and along with many other young South African men Albert Marr volunteered for military service. He was mobilised on the 25th August 1915 at Potchefstroom, allocated the rank of Private (Pte), his service number was 4927 and he was allocated to the 3rd (Transvaal) Regiment of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, a Brigade which was earmarked to fight in France.

The 3rd South African Infantry Regiment, was under the Command of Lt Col E.F. Thackeray and raised mainly from the Transvaal (now Gauging) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  The Regiment was generally known as “The Transvaal Regiment.” B Company were mostly from the Witwatersrand Rifles while C Company were men from the Rand Light Infantry.

Distraught a leaving Jackie behind Pte. Marr figured it would be a great idea if his pet Baboon could come along with him, so he approached his superiors and (rather surprisingly) got their permission. At first Jackie’s presence was generally ignored, but he was so well-behaved and had such an impressive bearing that he was soon stuck out and the troops took notice of him.  In a short time Jackie was officially adopted by all as the mascot of the 3rd South African Infantry (Transvaal) Regiment,

Once officially enlisted Jackie was given the rank of ‘Private’ and a special uniform was made for him complete with buttons, a cap and regimental badges.  As with any enlisted soldier he also received a pay book and his own rations. He also drilled and marched with his company and would generally entertain the men – and such entertainment would prove invaluable in the months to come as a morale booster, especially to relieve the boredom caused by the stalemate of trench warfare once the 1st South African Infantry Brigade (and the Transvaal Regiment) reached France.

Jackie wore his uniform with some panache, he was also known to light up a cigarette or pipe for his ‘pals’.  He also had a sharp salute for any officer passing him. He would stand at ease when commanded to do so, placing his feet apart and hands behind his back in the military style. At the mess table he used a knife and fork as well as a tea-cup in the proper manner.

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At War

Albert Marr and Jackie became and odd pairing, absolutely inseparable and for all intents and purposes they became friends.  The two of them first saw action during the Senussi Campaign.

The Senussi were a religious sect resident in Libya and Egypt, who were allied to the Ottoman and German Empire.  In the summer of 1915, the Ottomans persuaded the Grand Senussi, Ahmed Sharif es Senussi to declare jihad and attack British-occupied Egypt.

The 1st South African Infantry Brigade along with other British forces was dispatched to Egypt to put an end to the Senussi Jihadi uprising.  At the battle of Agagia, on 26 February 1916, whist fighting the Senussi, Pte. Albert Marr was shot and wounded in the shoulder.

Whilst waiting for the stretcher bearers to arrive, a distraught Jackie became desperate to do something to comfort Pte. Marr as he lay on the ground, so he went about licking the wound. By this simple action of trying to comfort a fallen comrade, Jackie became more than just an animal mascot and pet in the eyes of the men in the Regiment, he had now become a fellow comrade.

Albert Marr recovered his wound and rejoined his Regiment.  Both Albert and Jackie then spent three years, on and off, in the front line that was the ‘western front’ in Europe fighting in the mud and blood of the trenches in France and Flanders.  Jackie was even reported to go “over the top” (advancing by breaking cover from the trenches) with the rest of the 3rd South African Infantry (Transvaal) Regiment during the heavy fighting in which they were engaged.

His sharper animal instincts proved highly valuable at night when on guard duty with Albert, he was particularly useful because of his keen eyesight and acute hearing. He would give an early warning of enemy movement or an impending attack by barking and tugging on Pte. Marr’s tunic.

Wounded in Action

Up to now he and Albert had come through the war in Europe relatively unscathed but in April 1918 that all changed, nearing the end of the war the 1st South African Infantry Brigade found itself been heavily shelled as they withdrew to Reninghelst in Belgium during the Battle of Passchendale.

To protect himself, Jackie was seen to be frantically trying to build a wall of stones about himself, as a rudimentary cover from shell fragments and shrapnel which were bursting all around him.

He never properly completed his protective wall and a jagged piece of shrapnel wounded him in the arm and another nearly severed his leg. At first Jackie refused to be evacuated by the stretcher-bearers; instead he tried vainly to continue building his protective wall, hobbling around in excruciating pain on what had once been his leg held in place by just sinew.

What happens next is best described in the words of Lt-Col R N Woodsend of the Royal Medical Corps who was the attending Doctor.

jackie-mascotIt was a pathetic sight; the little fellow, carried by his keeper, lay moaning in pain, the man crying his eyes out in sympathy, “You must do something for him, he saved my life in Egypt. He nursed me through dysentery”. The baboon was badly wounded, the left leg hanging with shreds of muscle, another jagged wound in the right arm.

We decided to give the patient chloroform and dress his wounds. If he died under the anaesthetic perhaps it would be the best thing; as I had never given an anaesthetic to such a patient before, I thought it would be the most likely result. However, he lapped up the chloroform as if it had been whiskey, and was well under in a remarkably short time. It was a simple matter to amputate the leg with scissors and I cleaned the wounds and dressed them as well as I could”.

He came around as quickly as he went under. The problem then was what to do with him. This was soon settled by his keeper: “He is on army strength”. So, duly labelled, number, name, ATS injection, nature of injuries, etc. he was taken to the road and sent by a passing ambulance to the Casualty Clearing Station.

It was unsure if the chloroform and the operation would kill Jackie, but funnily it was reported that when the Officer Commanding the Regiment went to check up on him at the Casualty Clearing Station, Jackie sat up in bed and saluted him.

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Jackie and Lt. Col R N Woodsend after his amputation.

Demobilised 

It was the end of active service for both Pte. Marr and Pte. Jackie, the war ended shortly afterward on the 11th November 1918. They were both shipped to England, where Jackie immediately became a media celebrity in the English newspapers.

Jackie’s proudest moment in London was to participate in the Lord Mayor’s Day Procession (the featured image at the top shows Jackie and Albert Marr in this parade). From early September to 14 February 1919, Jackie and Private Marr were lent to the Red Cross by the War Office and the South African Government for the purpose of collecting money for sick and wounded soldiers.

They managed to collect a huge amount of money for the Widows and Orphans Fund by allowing the public to pay half a crown to shake Jackie by the hand and five shillings to kiss the baboon.

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Back in South Africa, Jackie was officially discharged at Maitland Dispersal Camp in Cape Town on 26 April 1919.  A proper war veteran now, on his sleeve Jackie wore one gold ‘wound’ stripe and three blue service chevrons, indicating three years of frontline service.

At Maitland Jackie received his official discharge papers, a military pension, plus a Civil Employment Form for discharged soldiers. By the 5th May 1919, both Jackie and Albert were on their last leg of their journey home to their cherished family farm near Pretoria.

After their arrival home, Jackie was again feted over and became the centre of attention.  He was front and forward on his official welcome home parade, and again lead the homecoming victory parade of the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, and again he was present at the Peace Parade in Church Square, Pretoria on 31 July 1920, where he proudly received the Pretoria Citizen’s Service Medal.

Albert Marr and Jackie returned to their family farm to recover from ‘shell shock’ (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome PTSD), but the fragile state Jackie was in from the terrors of war tragically killed him on the 22nd May 1921. During an unusually intense highveld thunderstorm, he suffered a heart attack when an intense thunder-clap went off close by.

A sad end to one of South Africa’s most remarkable mascots.  He was mourned and much missed, especially by his friend, comrade and close companion, Albert Marr, who went on to live a long life and passed away at the age of 84 in Pretoria in August 1973.

Jackie now enters the annuals of some very remarkable South African military mascots, which amongst others include Nancy the Springbok (see. The story of Nancy the Springbok), Able Seaman Just Nuisance the Great Dane (see. Able Seaman “Just Nuisance”) and Teddy the Lion (see. Teddy the Recce).


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extracts and sources include Jackie: The South African baboon soldier by Wildlife TV, August 19th 2013 Military History Journal Vol 16, 2nd December 2013 JACKIE, THE BABOON MASCOT OF 3 SAI DURING THE GREAT WAR, 1914 – 1918 By Sarel Rossouw and Wikipedia.

Kak vraag sit

By Steve De Witt

“Decades ago we came barreling around a corner in Onjiva and drove into a T-34 tank. We were just a SAI section in a Buffel. This was a seriously unequal encounter. Like when Bismarck concussed himself bouncing off Eben Etzebeth.

You get two kinds of leopards, Oom Schalk Lourens said, one with more spots and one with fewer spots. But when you come across a leopard in the bush you only do one kind of running. And that’s the fastest kind.

The same applies to a T-34 tank. If you’re in a Ratel I guess it’s different. I hear they knocked out quite a few T-34s. If you’re an NSM BokKop in a Buffel, there’s nothing you learnt in bush-alley shooting that can help you.

You become acutely aware of your shortcomings when facing a Russian tank. A bunch of R4’s, an LMG and a shotgun don’t get you far. I suppose we could’ve used our pikstel knives as well but this wasn’t the time to check inventory.

They said don’t volunteer for anything in the army but in that moment your body commits treason against you. Your anus volunteers to open right there and then in the Buffel.

That’s a secondary and unimportant reaction. Your first response is to scream at the driver to Reverse! All of you, screaming the same thing simultaneously.

At the same time you duck down behind the steel plating. A T-34 cannon is pretty intimidating when you’re facing it from the front. And when it’s job is to erase you from the planet.

Not that ducking down helps much. There’s also that little round bubble on the T-34 with a short barrel poking out. You don’t know if it’s a 7.62 or a 20mm or even a 30mm cannon. Whatever, you suspect it can fire big chunks of Siberian lead right through your Buffel.

Christo, our driver, was now under severe pressure. He had a bunch of screaming, sh*tting maniacs behind him and a Russian tank in front.

Pressure wasn’t Christo’s thing. He was everyone’s buddy but had cracked in Basics. They were chasing us around with bed frames at 1am when Christo gave in. Sat down, lit a cigarette and told the Instructors to f-off. THAT was something to witness. Another story for another day.

Point is, he couldn’t take the punch, they said. Let’s keep him away from contacts. Make him a driver. So much for that theory. But now Christo had the chance to redeem himself. Pretty easy, you might think. Just hit reverse gear and back up around the corner.

Maybe his hesitation was influenced by 10 infantryman and a sergeant yelling at him in 3 languages – English, Afrikaans and NuweVloekerei. The last is when you spontaneously construct sentences consisting only of swear words. Bad ones that make you cry when confessing to the Dominee. He also cries.

Some of the swear words are old, the stock ones in your vocabulary. When they don’t work and Christo is grinding the gears trying to find Reverse, you spontaneously invent new words. These involve a combination of the driver’s, your own and everyone else’s mother, including the T-34’s.

The amazing thing is that this new language works. Christo hammered us into Reverse, popped the clutch and we shot backwards faster than a T-34 projectile goes forwards.

Straight into a line of Buffels behind us that veered left and right to avoid a crash. This caused Onjiva’s biggest traffic snarl-up since Antonio the Porto arrived with fresh veggies from Lubango.

On top of the skidding and sliding Buffels a company of BokKops jumped up shouting What’s Your <NuweVloekerei> Problem!?

Kak vraag sit. Go round the corner and see for yourself.

… So last month I walked around London’s Imperial War Museum looking at nice war things like Spitfires and bent steel girders from the World Trade Centre and suicide bomber vests and stuff. Relics from other people’s wars.

Then you walk around a corner straight into the barrel of a T-34 tank. Deja vu. Instinctively I ducked and shouted out the same NuweVloekerei I’d used many years ago. I didn’t know those words were still in my vocabulary.

A museum guide smiled and helped me off the floor. He told me the tank fought at Stalingrad where they defeated the Nazi Panzers. I told him I know this tank. And asked him to take the picture.

We don’t get many visitors who fought against a T-34, he said. I had to correct him. You don’t get many visitors who ran away from a T-34, I said.”

Written by Steve De Witt and published on The Observation Post with his kind permission.

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Editor – 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, 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.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.