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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.