They started it!

By Steve De Witt

The day we declared war on Zimbabwe

According to a report in the Sunday Independent, a troop of 200 baboons is conducting a reign of terror on Beit Bridge. They live on the catwalk below. From there they stage ambushes on cars and travellers, eating and thieving and taking their loot back to the catwalk.

39755130_10156497723659976_7188637117235331072_nI find this gut-wrenchingly hilarious. It’s amazing how history turns full circle. The last group of baboons terrorizing the catwalk on Beit Bridge was our army platoon. It may only be a footnote in the history of old South Africa, but it was us – little ol’ us – who unintentionally declared war on Zimbabwe in the early 80’s.

Beit Bridge was a sensitive posting. ‘Daaie fokkin communis en terroris’ Robert Mugabe had come to power only a few months before. At the last outpost on the frontier, standing face to face with the enemy half-way across the bridge, our platoon was instructed to defend South Africa against the swart gevaar.

Our company commander, an Infantry captain, took this mission as a personal honour bestowed by PW Botha, Constant Viljoen (Chief of the Defence Force), Jannie Geldenhuys (Chief of the Army) and God, in that order.

On the sandy, blisteringly hot parade ground of Beit Bridge he stood us at ease, not stand easy, for two hours in the sun. We were lambasted about the massive responsibility of our task. We were not under any circumstances to communicate with the Zimbabwean soldiers.

We were to be perfectly turned out, representing the whole SA army in appearance and discipline. We were the gate-keepers between SA and Communist Africa. The smallest indiscretion could flare into an international incident. “En julle fokkin Engelsmanne,” he said, referring to the minority five of us in Platoon 1, “Ek watch julle – Pasop!”

Thus entrusted with the safe-keeping of all SA, we were dispatched to the very same catwalk under the Bridge inherited today by our successors, 200 large monkeys.

And thus the Alfred Beit Bridge (1952) over the Limpopo River was once our possession, our kingdom. Amazing how the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

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Actually, the bridge is a beautiful place on the Limpopo, especially at sunset. Strong legs brace into the flowing waters, and in the early 80‘s all manner of wildlife would come down to drink, including hippos. A resident crocodile patrolled the waters below, and we had endless hours of reflection from our bunker, now hidden behind overgrown foliage at the red circle (see picture below).

Now our Captain may have been a drunken, Soutie-hating messiah but he knew his men. Leave low-ranking troops idle for too long and something untoward will happen. Leave five Souties in a bunker with a machine gun on an international border and you’re asking for a career-ending incident.

So we never told him that we’d smuggled cases of Castle Lager into the bunker. Nor that we’d chatted to the cautious Zim soldiers on the catwalk. He also never found out that we’d snatched a camouflage cap off one’s head. And that both sides had cocked rifles, resulting in a tense stand-off, before we threw the cap back to them. Such small indiscretions were relatively easy to hide.

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But when one drunken Soutie, feet up on the sandbagged wall, cocked the machine gun in a routine way to check the supposedly empty chamber, then pulled the trigger, we didn’t expect a clip of twenty odd rounds to fire across the water at the Zimbabwean bunker.

Consternation and chaos broke out in the bunker. We all hit the floor, beer bottles scattering.

“What the hell…!”
we yelled at Trevor.
Crack! Crack! came AK47 bullets back across the water.
“They started it!” yelled Trevor.
“They didn’t start it! You started it!”
“Are you fuckin mad?” he yelled, wide-eyed – “We’ll all go to DB if we started it. They fuckin started it!”
Thus the story was born.
Within seconds an apoplectic, drunken Captain raged into the bunker ducking AK 47 bullets.
“Julle fokkin Soutpiele!”
“They started it!” we yelled in unison.
“Almal in die bunkers!” he yelled into the radio.

A hundred men stumbled out the bar and fell into trenches, and stayed there all night as the odd bullet continued to crack across our heads. In the morning the border post was closed, reinforcements sent and the Captain summoned to Messina HQ, some 20 km away.

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Weeks later we were at that landmark Oasis of the North, the Messina Hotel, getting pissed after a rugby game. The Captain, dronk verdriet, was there too, staring into his Brannewyn. It was safe to ask what happened when he got called to Messina HQ that day.

He sukkeled to stay upright on the barstool as he revealed the biggest uitkak in the history of the SADF.

39883804_10156497724024976_2389294176530333696_nA Colonel had grilled him, asking – “who fired first”?
“They started it,” he said.
The Colonel then reported to Jannie Geldenhuys, Chief of the Army.
He in turn told Constant Viljoen, Head of the Defence Force.
Who spoke to Pik Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Who called in the Zimbabwean Ambassador…
Who said “the SA Army started it”.
(Here our Captain paused, and downed his Brannewyn)
…Pik stared at him, not knowing what to believe.
But had to inform PW Botha, who crapped him out.
PW also kakked out General Viljoen.
Who shat out Jannie Geldenhuys.
Who got bedonnered with the Colonel.
Who went bevok at the Captain…
… who got five lying Soutpiele on orders in front of him, and in an unparalleled fit of drunken rage, demanded the truth.

There was only one truth, and we stuck to it. “They started it”.

In matters of unresolved blame, the army falls back on an old tactic – the opvok. Sandbags were dished out, a killer sergeant instructed to break us physically and mentally, and down to the fence by the river we were sent.

It was the most brutal of PT sessions. We were drilled all day firstly into cramp, then heat stroke and finally semi-consciousness. The fences are still there today but Zimbabweans cutting holes in them care little about us Souties who nearly died there thirty years ago.

Ah well, it’s all water under the bridge now, so to speak. Beit Bridge now has a new set of problems with millions of refugees, cholera, traffic congestion and a shortage of toilet paper.

I’m glad all this nonsense is not happening on my beat. It seems appropriate that baboons are the new custodians of the bridge – their intellectual capacity suits the chaos there, and at least they won’t accidentally declare war on Zimbabwe.

Still, I get nostalgic for the bridge we once defended, and which God made our kingdom for two short months. It was beautiful and calm there when the Captain had passed out. I sometimes wish I could return to that bunker at sunset, if only for a beer and a banana with the new guard.


Editor’s Note; Sometimes we get a gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border (and the Border on Zimbabwe), thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post.  Copyright  – Steve De Witt.

Other Stories by Steve de Witt

Kak Vraag Sit – click this link;  Kak vraag sit


Mast picture of Steve de Witt’s Platoon guarding Beit Bridge in 1982 copyright and courtesy Carel Pretorius.  Steve’s article was originally published in 2008 by News 24

“There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it” destroying a German Pillbox single-handedly – William Hewitt VC

Lance Corporal William Henry Hewitt VC, (aged 33) of 2nd South African Infantry Regiment is a very special South African, seen here he maintains his traditional wry smile, he had lost some teeth in heroic actions which earned him the Victoria Cross and he figured women wouldn’t think him attractive if he smiled. All we can say is smile, you of all people really earned it!

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L/Cpl William Hewitt VC – Note his two ‘wound stripes’ on his sleeve

William was an exceptionally brave man, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for action near Ypres, Belgium, on September 20, 1917.  These extracts from “The Comprehensive Guide to Victoria Crosses” and “How I won the Victoria Cross” the story of Major William Hewitt from the Hermanus historical society outline a very colourful life and the depth of character that was William Hewitt VC, read on and learn about one very remarkable South African.

Consider his own recollection of the action that earned him the Victoria Cross and you’ll have the measure of the man and his off the cuff ‘dark’ military humour:

William Hewitt’s platoon was ordered to demolish a German pillbox, manned by 15 enemy soldiers. Within a minute of advancing his entire platoon was killed by an artillery shell, William was luckily the sole survivor. He advanced alone and threw a grenade into the pillbox. A “jampot” (Improvised Explosive Device) was thrown at him and hit him in the face. Of the resulting explosion he said:

‘Apart from blowing off my gasmask and half my clothes, knocking out four teeth, breaking my nose, giving me a couple of black eyes, with a lot of little cuts here and there and knocking me backwards into a convenient shell-hole, it didn’t really do any damage – only made me damn mad’.

William Hewitt went round the back of the pillbox and pushed his last grenade though a breathing hole. It exploded inside, killing all the occupants. He ran around the front to deal with any survivors, only to hear a Sergeant of a relieving platoon say: ‘There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it.’

The “jampot” is what would now be regarded as a IED – an improvised explosive device in a modern context, back in World War 1, it was exactly that. Literally, it was a jam pot (or tin), taken out of the rubbish dump, filled with nuts and bolts, with an explosive device and then thrown at the enemy if all else had failed.

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A wounded South African soldier is given a hot drink by a padre after the attack on ‘Potsdam’, a German stronghold near Zonnebeke, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge near Potijze, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).

Now that is some account to earn a Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at this man and how he came to taking out a pillbox single-handedly.

Origins

William Henry Hewitt (1884-1966) was born on 19th June 1884 at Copdock, near Ipswich, Suffolk. His father, also William Henry Hewitt, was born in London, and was a farmer of 80 acres at Preston Farm, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex. William (junior) had six siblings, including a brother George, who was killed serving in the Boer War in South Africa in 1900.

 William Hewitt (junior) emigrated to South Africa in 1905 and served in the South Africa Constabulary and later the Natal Police, including during the Zulu Rebellion in 1906. He later became a farmer in Natal.

World War 1

William volunteered to take part in World War 1 and enlisted in the Union of South Africa Defence Force on 24th November 1915. He went to France on 12th July 1916 and joined the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment on 15th July.

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He fought at the very deadly Battle of Delville Wood were he was very lucky to survive and later he also fought at the Butte de Warlencourt as a Lewis Gunner in 2 Platoon, B Company. Having been wounded in the leg on 12th October, he was evacuated to England on 24th October, where he was treated at Tooting Military Hospital. He returned to France in April 1917 and was promoted to Lance Corporal the following month.

Victoria Cross

On 20th September 1917 east of Ypres, the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (2nd SAI) had to ‘leapfrog’ the 4th South African Infantry Regiment and advanced towards Bremen Redoubt. The 2nd SAI came under enfilading fire from Hill 37 and Tulip Cottages. In the meantime, the terrain became a quagmire, with men struggling waist deep in the mud. It was during this second stage in the battle that L/Cpl William Henry Hewitt captured a pillbox single-handedly.

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Destroyed strong concrete redoubt, in the Ypres sector in Belgium, during the battle on 20 September 1917. Same day and same attack that William Hewitt won his VC.

He threw a grenade into a doorway, but the Germans threw a improvised bomb back at him that blew off Hewitt’s gas-mask and knocked out four of his teeth. He was furious because he was engaged to be married and now feared that his fiancée might no longer find him attractive, Hewitt reached the rear of the pillbox. He tried to lob a bomb through a loophole, but missed and had to dive for cover. With only one bomb remaining, Hewitt crept right up to the loophole and, from beneath it, pushed the grenade through, receiving a shot in his hand as he did so. He eventually succeeded in arresting a number of Germans. Fifteen others lay dead in the pillbox.  William, a simple farmer from Natal had earned the Victoria Cross.

William Hewitt was evacuated due to his wounds on 1st October, and was presented with the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 16th January 1918 and was appointed Acting Sergeant on 1st April.  His Victoria Cross Citation reads:

“For most conspicuous bravery during operations. Lance Corporal Hewitt attacked a pill-box with his section and tried to rush the doorway. The enemy garrison, however, proved very stubborn, and in the attempt this non-commissioned officer received a severe wound. Nevertheless, he proceeded to the loophole of the pill-box where, in his attempts to put a bomb into it, he was again wounded in the arm. Undeterred, however, he eventually managed to get a bomb inside, which caused the occupants to dislodge, and they were successfully and speedily dealt with by the remainder of section.”

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Three German prisoners, one wounded, captured in the attack on Vampire Farm near Potijze by South African and British forces, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).

A life less ordinary

William married Lily Ollett in October 1918. She was a shorthand typist. They had met when he was a patient at Tooting Military Hospital in October 1916. William returned to South Africa on RMS Durham Castle on 22nd April 1919 and was discharged the following day. He continued farming until 1925, when they moved to East Africa. He ran a coffee farm there until he sold it in 1939 to rejoin The South African Union Defence Force as a Commissioned Officer at the on-set of World War 2. 

During World War II, William Hewitt VC, now promoted to a Major fought the next World War in Mombasa, East Africa were he acted as a liaison officer and later as an assistant provost-marshal.

William and Lily were living in Nairobi in 1952. When his health started to fail in 1950, he retired to Hermanus on the Cape Coast and finally became a South African citizen in 1955. He returned to Britain to attend the 1956 VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park, London. In the late 1950s, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and had to have his larynx removed in Cape Town. In the operation, they found shrapnel embedded there. Shortly after the operation, he developed Parkinson’s Disease

Lily brought him back to Britain in 1961 in an attempt to find a cure with a Parkinson’s specialist in Edinburgh. He fell badly twice in his later years and had two severe bouts of pneumonia. Although crippled, unable to speak and almost helpless, he continued the best he could.

William died at Delancey Hospital, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 7th December 1966. He was cremated at Cheltenham Crematorium on 10th December and his ashes were returned to South Africa where they were scattered at sea off the beautiful Hermanus Cliffs in South Africa on 2nd January 1974, this scenic location is famous for whale-wacthing and annually South Africa’s migrating Southern Right Whales are seen close to the cliffs as they calve.  It is also the appropriate location for Hermanus’ war memorial.

What a fitting place for one of South Africa’s bravest to laid to rest.

William Hewitt VC – medals

In addition to his Victoria Cross (VC) , William was also awarded the Natal Rebellion Medal 1906, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. The VC was presented to Framlingham College by his widow in May 1967. It was held in the Chapel until the College loaned it indefinitely to the Imperial War Museum on 23rd April 2004. It is displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery. The Castle Military Museum in Cape Town owns four of his campaign medals. The other medals’ location are unknown.”

Related Work and Links:

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

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

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Extracts from “How I won the Victoria Cross – Story of Major William Hewitt” – Hermanus Historical Society and Dr Robert Lee.  Image of L/Cpl Hewitt copyright IWM Colour Image Colourised by Doug UK. Extracts and later images of William Hewitt taken from ‘The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross’ on-line.  Images as shown copyright Imperial War Museum.

 

Delville Wood’s ‘Weeping Cross’

crossThere is a poignant and very mystical annual occurrence in South Africa that reminds us every year of the blood sacrifice of South Africans during The Battle of Delville Wood. Every year, in July on the anniversary of the battle itself, a cross made from wood recovered from the shattered tress of the battlefield inexplicably ‘weeps blood’

In Pietermaritzburg there is Christian cross that becomes tacky with red resin just a few days before the anniversary of the massacre of thousands of South African soldiers at the Battle of Delville Wood during the Somme offensive of 1916.

The ‘weeping’ cross has wept these resin “tears” almost every single year, and this phenomenon only coincides with the anniversary of the bloody battle that started it in the first place on July 14, 1916.

The Legend

At the end of World War 1, on return to South Africa, the Commanding officer of the South African Infantry Brigade in France, General Lukin brought back some timber cut from surviving Pinus Sylvester Pine tree (Scots pine) which had grown in abundance at the Delville Wood battleground before much of it was shattered and razed. This wood was to be used to make three crosses to serve as war memorials located in Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town and Durban to commemorate the Battle of Delville Wood (other Christian crosses commemorating the battle are also found in Pretoria at the Union Buildings and Johannesburg and St John’s High School). The ‘Pietermaritzburg’ cross is the only one on the three crosses that “weeps” and this phenomenon has baffled experts for years.

The sticky red resin makes its usual annual appearance from a crack near the inscription and knots in the wood on both sides of the crossbar, and over 100 years after the battle, scientists still find it difficult to come up with explanations for the leaking resin.

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Known as the “Weeping Cross of Delville”, this cross became a sensation in Natal over many years.  The weeping of ‘blood’ came to symbolise the tremendous bloodletting of World War 1 and the Battle of Delville Wood.  A legend developed, with people believing that the wood ‘weeps for all the lost soldiers.’   For many years folklore and legend also stated that it would weep until the last survivor of Delville Wood answered the ‘Sunset Call’; however when the last survivor died some years back the cross continued to weep ‘blood’.

The legacy

In the opening weeks of the Somme Offensive in July 1916.  On the 14th July 1916 the South African Infantry on the Somme were ordered to protect British troops who had just taken the village of Langueval and hold the adjacent wood about a square mile in size (dubbed ‘devils wood’), and hold it against German attack “at all costs”.

Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out only six days later on the 20th July 1916. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood   when the endless barrages of German artillery file abated – artillery fire rained down on the South African positions at 500 shells/minute razing the wood to just shattered tree stumps (in fact only one original tree survives to this day) – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.

Of the dead and missing, only 142 were given a proper burial and only 77 of those were able to be identified.  Most the dead still lie unmarked and unidentified in the wood to this day, exactly where they fell, it is this that makes a visit to Delville wood such a solemn and heart-breaking experience.

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Major-General Sir H T Lukin, commanding 5th Division, presenting decorations at the South African Brigade’s memorial service at Delville Wood, 17 February 1918.

Pietermaritzburg’s cross originally stood at the intersection of Durban and Alexandra Roads but was seen to be a traffic hazard and was moved to the Natal Carbineers Garden. In July 1956 it was moved to the MOTH Remembrance Garden in Pietermaritzburg, where it has been ever since.  The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) ‘Allan Wilson’ shell-hole oversees its good keeping in conjunction with The South African Legion’s Pietermaritzburg branch.

 

In terms of the two other Delville Wood crosses, one is located at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the other is located at The Castle in Cape Town, as said – neither of them “weep”.

Some explanations 

Some explanations have been offered for the mysterious ‘weeping’ of the Pietermaritzburg Delville Wood Cross, Chemists who analysed samples of the substance in the past found traces of lower linseed oil fragments and pine resin. This was expected as the carpenter, William Olive, soaked the cross in linseed oil before he worked on it. However, the phenomenon baffles forestry experts as it is unusual for wood to continue producing resin for such a long time – especially considering it has now been doing this for over 100 years.

What adds significantly to the mystery of the weeping cross is that Pietermaritzburg’s cross is the only one of the three that weeps at this exact time every year.

Also adding to the mystery is the fact that existing Pine trees in France ooze this resin during the heat of summer, while the cross situated in Pietermaritzburg does so only in winter and specifically over the period of the anniversary of the Delville Wood battle.

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“Devil’s Trench” in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield photographed on 3 July 1917, a year after the fighting.

One suggestion offers the opposite to the ‘expansion’ only experienced by the Pine in France in summer-time and puts forward that is the dry, cold weather experienced around Pietermaritzburg in winter-time, which would cause the wood to shrink and hence forces the resin out.

However, all these suggestions aside, experts like Dr Ashley Nicholas from the school of Biology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville campus have maintained that it still remains an absolute scientific mystery and all theories put forward to date are sheer guess-work.  His position has also been backed up by the Forestry Department’s scientific research council who maintain that no one has yet been able to provide concrete insight into it.

In Conclusion

As long as the legend of the weeping cross continues, it will continue to keep us mindful of the sacrifice at Delville Wood, and the forge it stamped on our young nation’s identity as a ‘South African’ one in 1916.  When it will stop nobody knows, and here is where the cross’ current caretakers i.e. the war veterans in the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) and South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) are possibly right – perhaps it will only stop ‘weeping’ when true peace is found and all wars end.

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Chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg branch of the SA Legion  Peter Willson (right) and vice chairperson Dean Arnold view the refurbished Garden of Remembrance that houses the Delville Wood weeping cross.

Related links and work

Springbok Valour – Battle of Delville Wood Centenary ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

In Flanders Fields (Afrikaans) ‘In Flanders Fields’ translated into Afrikaans for the Somme 100 commemoration, July 2016

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

A Diary from Delville Wood A South African soldier’s diary captures the horror of Delville Wood

Mascots at Delville Wood: Nancy the Springbok Nancy the Springbok

Mascots at Delville Wood: Jackie the Baboon Jackie; The South African Baboon soldier of World War One

The Battle of Delville Wood 500 shells/min fell on the Springboks … “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”


Researched by Peter Dickens.

Reference Maritzburg Sun, The Witness – Kwa Zulu Natal.  Image copyrights – The Witness and The Imperial War Museum.

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!

Other South Africans with 84 Squadron during WW1 ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’


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.