The last South African Navy ship to be lost in action; HMSAS Treern

It is not known now to many modern South Africans, but the South African Navy lost four ships in total during WW2, all of them minesweepers.  Hardly recognised today all these ships carried with them tales of great bravery,

The first ship lost in the Mediterranean near Tobruk was the HMSAS Southern Floe with its remarkable tale of a single survivor (see The HMSAS Southern Floe was the SA Navy’s first ship loss & it carries with it a remarkable tale of survival.).

The second ship lost was the HMSAS Parktown, which went down fighting during the Fall of Tobruk in Libya, with the HMSAS Bever fighting at her side out the port (see The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown).

The third ship to be lost was the HMSAS Parktown’s sister ship, the HMSAS Bever which went down later in the war during the liberation of Greece when it struck a mine, and carries with its story a tale of miraculous survivors (see “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever).

The final minesweeper to be lost was the HMSAS Treern, it was tragically lost right at the end of the war, and it remains the last South African vessel to be lost in action, even to this day, yet hardly anyone is aware of her history.

So lets examine this last combat loss, and why it is that we tend to overlook all this sacrifice at sea in the South African Navy’s vessels during the Second World War.

The second minesweeping flotilla prepares for the Mediterranean 

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HMSAS Treern

On the 12 May 1941, the HMSAS Treern (under the command of Lt. H H Cook) is commissioned, she is a whaler now converted for wartime service.  Now a magnetic minesweeper she is given her number T451 and allocated the pennant number 94.

By the beginning of November 1941, there is a small flotilla of South African minesweepers ready for deployment in the Mediterranean in support of Allied combat operations there.  The HMSA Ships, Bever, Gribb, Seksern, Imhoff, Treern, Parktown and Langlaagte, all are former whale catchers of about 260 tons and built between 1926 and 1930, and all are ready to go as part of the 166th Minesweeping Group in the Mediterranean.   Each minesweeper is fitted with one 3 inch gun plus smaller QF guns, depth charges and LL sweeps.  They are the second group of South African minesweepers to sail from Durban for the Mediterranean.

The liberation of Greece 

The Treern has a long record of service conducting duties alongside Allied shipping, she spends almost the entire war in the combat zone, towards the end of the war she finds herself under the command of Lt. P Byrne assisting in the liberation of Greece sailing in the Aegean Sea – the end of the war in Europe and surrender of Germany is a tantalising four months away.

By January 1945 the situation in the Greek Islands was somewhat confused. Initially the task of the Allies appeared to be a straightforward one; simply the supply and distribution of food and other essentials and the opening up of communications which, from the nature of the country, was largely by sea. However, internal dissension (which the retreating German forces had done their best to promote) considerably complicated and delayed the Allied take over.

ELAS

The Greek People’s Liberation Army or ELAS was the military arm of the left-wing National Liberation Front (EAM) during the period of the Greek Resistance until February 1945, then during the Greek Civil War.

HMSAS Treern, with orders to relieve HMSAS Seksern at Volo, arrived there at noon on 27 December 1944 only to find the harbour deserted and therefore anchored in the bay whilst radioing for instructions. Soon afterwards an emissary from ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) arrived, ELAS was one of the factions in the internal dissension in Greece caused by the vacuum created by the German occupiers retreating from Greece.

The ELAS emissary informed the HMSAS Treern that Volo was under ELAS control and then asked the Captain what his intentions were.

The ELAS emissary eventually agreed to let the ship remain there for the night. Next morning Treern left for Skiathos where she met up with the British destroyer, HMS Musketeer, considerably to the relief of both captains, and came under the orders of the Musketeer.

In the town of Volo a somewhat lukewarm ELAS control prevailed – political fervour being influenced by the presence of the destroyer and her 4.7-inch guns, under cover of which all local craft, arriving and leaving, were interrogated and searched for arms.

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Treern assisted in this duty for the next few days before being attached to a small naval force then operating against the ELAS in the Gulf of Volo and along the north-east coast of Euboea.

The loss of the HMSAS Treern

On the morning of 12 January whilst off the northern shore of the Trikiri Channel and towing a caique laden with fuel for motor launches then lying off Volo. At about 08:30 there is a huge explosion, presumably caused by a mine, which destroys Treern almost immediately with a very heavy loss of life.

Only one man survives 

The only survivor, Stoker J.J. Bosch, later states that he was in the port waist, while most of the other men off duty were watching a pig being slaughtered on the boat-deck above him. Suddenly he felt a tremendous concussion and found himself somersaulting through the air into the water. On coming to the surface he found a life buoy floating near him and saw the last few feet of the ship’s bows disappear below the surface.

At the same time another mine exploded about 100 yards away, presumably a sympathetic detonation caused by the first explosion. One of his legs had been injured, but the caique picked him up and about an hour later transferred him to HMS Musketeer.

Honour Roll

MPK means ‘Missing Presumed Killed’.  SANF stands for ‘South African Naval Forces’.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nANDERSON, Robert D, Engine Room Artificer 2c, 71067 V (SANF), MPK
BARKER, Ronald E, Sub Lieutenant, SANF, MPK
BLAKE, Robert E, Petty Officer, P 6572 (SANF), MPK
BROWN, Ian H, Able Seaman, 71719 V (SANF), MPK
BYRNE, Patrick, Lieutenant, SANF, MPK
DAVIE, William, Stoker 1c, 70681 V (SANF), MPK
ENGELBEEN, Leslie C, Able Seaman, 562235 V (SANF), MPK
JACOBZ, Frank H, Stoker 1c, 70374 V (SANF), MPK
MATTHEWS, George A, Stoker 1c, 70728 V (SANF), MPK
MCINTYRE, William G, Cook (S), 585360 (SANF), MPK
MCLARTY, William D, Leading Stoker, 562246 V (SANF), MPK
MCLEAN, Godfrey, Able Seaman, 562455 V (SANF), MPK
NILAND, St John E, Able Seaman, 209905 (SANF), MPK
PERRY, Desmond A, Petty Officer, 71211 (SANF), MPK
REID, Kenneth H, Signalman, 562143 V (SANF), MPK
SALCOMBE, Francis R, Stoker 1c, 58589 V (SANF), MPK
STAPELBERG, Willem J, Steward, 562221 V (SANF), MPK
SUTTON, Donald A, Able Seaman, 70426 (SANF), MPK
SUTTON, George A M, Leading Seaman, 586403 V (SANF), MPK
TRAFFORD, William O, Able Seaman, 71222 V (SANF), MPK
VILJOEN, Dennis A, Telegraphist, 70984 V (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Charles W, Petty Officer, 562200 V (SANF), MPK
WULFF, Emil F, Leading Seaman, 562466 V (SANF), MPK

In Conclusion

Successive generations of South Africans have not been exposed to the gallantry of South African servicemen at sea, many remain blissfully unaware of all the heroic actions of South African fighting ships during World War 2.

Little remains of this history, and it now has to ‘dug up’ from recent research conducted by Chris Bennet and Allan du Toit, very little to nothing is available in public on-line records such as Wikipedia, such is the degree to which it has been wiped from the South African national consciousness.

The reason for this is political, the incoming Nationalist government after the war in 1948 regarded all of South Africa’s and Smuts’ exploits during World War 2 as one of treachery (siding with the ‘hated’ British), so no large-scale Naval commemorations or recognition ceremonies were ever undertaken by the South African Navy to maintain this memory.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference: Large extracts taken from Day by Day SA Naval History by Chris Bennett. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell. Images of South African vessels courtesy Allan du Toit and reference from his book ‘South African Fighting Ships’.

Rorke’s drift and the last South African medal to be issued by a British monarch!

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Queen Elizabeth II

Here’s something on the SADF/SANDF’s John Chard Decoration and Medal series for long service in the Citizen Force, many who even hold the medal may not even know.  But did you know, the John Chard Decoration and John Chard Medal Series was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 (just two short months after she became Queen) and it is the last medal to issued by a British monarch and worn by members in all four South African military formations – Army, Navy, Air Force and Medical Service.

The John Chard Medal was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II on 6 April 1952, during the Tercentenary Jan van Riebeeck Festival, to replace the South African Union Defence Force’s Efficiency Medal and the Air Efficiency Award which had been awarded to members of the Citizen Force between 1939 and 1952.  The John Chard medal series is a ‘service medal’ awarded for pre-determined tenure of service to the statuate South African defence forces.

So why ‘Rorke’s Drift’?

The John Chard medal and decoration was named after John Chard VC, the lieutenant in command of the supply depot at Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War, when it was attacked by Zulus on the 22nd of January 1879.  

For anyone whose seen the landmark movie ‘Zulu’, Lt. John Chard is played by Stanley Baker.  Baker stars alongside Michael Caine who plays Lt. Gonville Bromhead.

The two officers, John Chard and Gonville Bromhead both earned Victoria Crosses’ along with nine others in defending Rorke’s Drift against a Zulu army attack.  This is the largest tally of Victoria Crosses (the ultimate British award for Valour) from one single engagement, per head this battle has the highest concentration of bravery awards and decorations ever received (11 Victoria Crosses, one VC Mentioned in Dispatches and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals).  There were only just over 150 British and colonial troops who successfully defended the missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift against an intense assault by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. It is an act that has never been repeated, and likely never to happen again in future.

So why so many Victoria Crosses for so few defenders?  Well, simply put , a significant part of the British expeditionary force had been annihilated at the Battle of Isandlwana on the same day 22 January 1879, and the little missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift was the last line of defence should the Zulu Army have built on its victory at Isandlwana and invaded the British colony.  The Natal Colony would have been for the most part left defenceless whilst Lord Chemsford and the remaining bulk of British forces searched for the Zulu army in the Zulu Kingdom itself.  The action of these ‘few’ at Rorke’s Drift literally saved an entire British colony.

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The Battle of Isandlwana was an embarrassing defeat for the British. The British Empire suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous foe with vastly inferior military technology. The site today is most interesting, because of the hard ground the British were unable to bury their dead, so they built stone cairns where they fell to cover them instead. These cairns, painted white – are a grizzly reminder of the calamity which took place there and literally map and bring the battlefield into perspective.

So why is John Chard singled out?

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John Chard VC

John Chard was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers who was busy building a pontoon bridge across the river, when he received the news that Isandlwana was under fierce attack.

Leaving his work, Chard rushed to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, here he calmly set about building defensive walls around the hospital using bags of grain and biscuit tins.  Chard took up overall Command to defend the missionary buildings and it was his strategy and tactics during the battle that literally saved the day and helped to avoid complete annihilation of his small force of wounded and sick men, and a sprinkling of some very scared and bewildered Natal Native Continent soldiers.  The redoubt he ordered be built was key to the British success on the day.

For his role in the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift, Queen Victoria awarded the Victoria Cross to him, he also received a promotion to captain (he would retire a Colonel).  To get a modern perspective on this in living image, this compilation from the movie ‘Zulu’ captures the destruction at Isandlwana and the fierce fighting in defending Rorke’s Drift, take the short time to watch it – look out for the concentrated volley fire and the use of the redoubt – a tactic missing from the Battle of Isaldlwana but used to absolute effect at Rorke’s Drift.

Citation 

medalThe citation for Chard’s and Bromhead’s Victoria Crosses says everything:

THE Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention to confer the decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned Officers and Soldiers of Her Majesty’s Army, whose claims have been submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, for their gallant conduct in the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus, as recorded against their names, viz.:—

For their gallant conduct at the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus on the 22nd and 23rd  January, 1879.

Royal Engineers Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) J. R. M. Chard

2nd Battalion 24th Regiment Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) G. Bromhead

The Lieutenant-General commanding the troops reports that, had it not been for the fine example and excellent behaviour of these two Officers under the most trying circumstances, the defence of Rorke’s Drift post would not have been conducted with that intelligence and tenacity which so essentially characterised it.

The Lieutenant-General adds, that its success must, in a great degree, be attributable to the two young Officers who exercised the Chief Command on the occasion in question.

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Painting by Alphonse de Neuville – The defence of Rorke’s Drift

The John Chard Medal set

Even we learn something new everyday, what makes this surprising is that a medal issued by a British Monarch remained in the service of The South African Defence Force for so long, especially after it was reformatted after the National Party took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth and they embarked on a campaign to change the South African military emblems, insignia and medals and rid the SADF of anything “British” (especially the Queen’s crown which now had to go).

In many instances these changes where resisted and a number of civilian force “Regiments” where able to hold onto some of their British heritage – however the medal sets where all changed and new medals instituted, except the John Chard Service medal series which survived the changes.

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John Chard 10 year service medal

The medal was awarded to all ranks of the Citizen Force for twelve years efficient service, not necessarily continuous. After a further eight years a recipient could qualify for the award of the John Chard Decoration (JCD).

This was later changed in 1986 to allow Citizen Force members to earn the John Chard Medal after ten years service, not necessarily continuous and the John Chard Decoration after twenty years.

The John Chard medal comes in heavy brass and the John Chard  Decoration comes in heavy silver, and is not only beautiful to handle, but also fairly valuable. The early medals and awards bore the royal cypher on the rear, while the later ones bore the coat of arms of the Republic of South Africa.

The ribbon also carries the arm of service, crossed swords for the South African Army, a spread eagle for the South African Air Force, an anchor for the South African Navy and a Rod of Asclepius for the South African Medical Service.  A ‘bar’ also existed for The John Chard Decoration, which signified 30 years service.

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John Chard Decoration for 20 years service

The John Chard decoration/medal series continued in the SANDF from 1994, but was finally discontinued in 2003 and replaced by the SANDF’s new long service medals. This was done when the new African National Congress (ANC) political dispensation did a sweeping change to all military emblems and insignia to rid it of anything the ‘nationalists’ or ‘colonialists’ instituted (and lets not pull any politically correct punches – to the Zulu nation Rorke’s Drift is symbolic of British imperialist aggression, land grabbing and expansion into an independent Zulu Kingdom).

The John Chard medal is now superseded by the SANDF’s Medaljie sir Troue Diens and the Emblem for Reserve Force Service.  The John Chard medal (and decoration) is still recognised as an ‘official’ medal issued for a statutory force member, and is still worn very proudly in the South African Reserve by those who have received it.

We can’t but think that each time a new political dispensation brings in its particular sweeping changes into the defence force, something by way of tradition gets lost.

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Photo of General Roy Andersen, the head of The South African Reserve by Cornelius Bezuidenhout, notice the John Chard decoration (with bar) and John Chard medal at the far right hand end of his medal set when looking left to right.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Clip of Zulu taken from YouTube, original movie copyright Paramount Pictures, released 1964 Directed by Cy Enfield and Produced by Stanley Baker.

Jackie; The South African Baboon soldier of World War One

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

An odd choice of Mascot

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Commemorative Postcard with Pvt Marr and Jackie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At War

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wounded in Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demobilised 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Recently military institutions and veteran organisations have been marking a landmark in world history, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, as usual there has been much fanfare to celebrate this in the United Kingdom – it’s a definitive battle which for the first time gave the British and Commonwealth a glimmer of hope – this battle was to the British and Commonwealth forces what the Battle of Kursk was to the Russians.  It’s a big deal.

South Africa played a key role in the Battle of El Alamein, in fact it was a battle on which much South African life was sacrificed on the crucible of war, after the fall of Tobruk South African honour was at stake and this battle went a long way to redeem it. However, as usual, there was a low-key reaction in South Africa marking this anniversary – it was very much contained to the odd South African Legion of military veterans branch and MOTH shell-hole to remember it.

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Original colour photo taken of a South African position in the North African theatre of operations in 1942 – note the bleak and hard landscape

To the older generation in South Africa, terms such as the ‘Knightsbridge Box’, the ‘Desert  Fox’, the ‘Cauldron’ and the ‘Gazala Gallop’ were common knowledge, as were these words by General Montgomery “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”, in fact these words were a sensation at the time and seen as a national redemption.  But they are now lost completely to the new generation of South Africans.

So, lets give a little recognition to South African sacrifice in this tide turning battle, understand why it is so important and understand why this understated signal sent from General Bernard Montgomery to General Dan Pienaar meant so very much to the generation which came before us.

Prelude to The Battle of El Alamein

For the South Africans the 2nd battle of El Alamein needs to be looked in context of these events – The  Battle of Sidi Rezegh, the Battle of Gazala, the Surrender of Tobruk and the 1st Battle of El Alamein.

The Battle of Sidi Rezegh; (see Sidi Rezegh – South African blood helps turn the tide in North Africa), in November 1941 saw the 1st South African Division’s 5th Brigade fight themselves down, literally to the last man in an outstanding degree of bravery, their sacrifice – to lessen the impact of Rommel’s drive and help save the day for the British to fight another day.

For the 1st South African Division this outstanding action in the field was added to by The Battle of Gazala; By March 1942 the 1st South African Division was deployed along the Gazala line (they made up the Northern sector).  The Gazala line was to the west of Tobruk, the task of defending Tobruk was also left up the South Africans, this time the 2nd South African Infantry Division under General Klopper.

Energised and re-armed General Erwin Rommel – the ‘Desert Fox’, advanced on Egypt (and Tobruk) in May 1942, their mission was to take the Suez Canal and cut Britain from her vast empire (and resources) in the Middle East, India and the Far East.

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General Erwin Rommel (centre) with his staff

Rommel’s armoured advance with at least 10,000 vehicles hit the Allied’s ‘Gazala line’ and then headed south, to make a long sweeping right-hook around the southern end of the line.  They swept past the British 7th Armoured Division in the south and headed back north behind the Gazala line.  The Allied forces reeled and re-deployed catching up with Rommel’s forces in an area known as “The Cauldron” situated between Bir Hakeim and Tobruk. Three days of armoured fighting ensued in the area of ‘the Cauldron’ and Rommel applied pressure in ‘the Cauldron’ ultimately destroying the Allied defenders.

Rommel’s Axis forces then continued to push east to Egypt and forced the British Guards Brigade to withdraw from the Knightsbridge Box on the Gazala Line back to the Tobruk perimeter.  Now on the back-foot, on the 14th June, the British command authorised the withdraw of all units from the Gazala line, and thus began the ‘Gazala Gallop,’ a very hasty retreat.

The Gazala Gallop The 1st South African Division was ordered by British Command to withdraw along the coastal road back towards Tobruk.  They withdrew to series of defensive boxes and actions at Williams Post, Best Post, “Point 187,” Commonwealth Keep and then Acroma. The 21st and 15th Panzer attacks forced the 1st SA Division to fight a rearguard action and to withdraw through each of the respective boxes. Chased by Rommel’s tanks and driving east, the 1st South African division was now spread out between the original Gazala defences and Tobruk trying to make their way east.

By 15 June 1942, the British and Commonwealth forces had started the ‘Gazala Gallop’ in earnest (sarcastically referred because of the rapid nature of the retreat) and withdrew to a new defensive line – set up further east on the Egyptian border at an insignificant railway siding called El Alamein.  This was to be the ‘Last Stand’ by the British and Commonwealth Forces, behind El Alamein lay Rommel’s prize – Egypt.  However this left Tobruk, and the 2nd South African Division defending it isolated and highly vulnerable to Rommel’s advance.

The Fall of Tobruk;  It should have come as no surprise that the South African 2nd Division defending Tobruk would eventually be overtaken by Rommel’s rapid advance, the defences were in a poor state when the South Africans were tasked with defending it and they were ‘on their own’ without air support given the rapid withdrawal of British and Commonwealth forces from the Gazala line.  But this did not stop searing criticism from the British Command and especially Churchill who would go on to refer as South Africa’s capitulation at Tobruk as a ‘disgrace’ and his ‘lowest moment’ in the war.  See “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

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General Erwin Rommel inspects South African and British POW after the fall of Tobruk

In a nutshell, Tobruk was the largest loss of arms in South African military history, Rommel ‘bagged’ 32,000 British and South African defenders, using a Axis force half the size of the defenders’ force and he took just one day to do it.  The Fall of Tobruk opened Rommel to the Suez and therefore left Britain’s war and her entire empire in the balance.  It also left the proud South African military command and fighting reputation in absolute shreds.

It would now be up to South Africa’s remaining division, the 1st SA Division, to recover South Africa’s pride – the opportunity would come in the Battle of El Alamein.

The 1st Battle of El Alamein

Having arrived back from the Gazala Line, the 1st South African division spent two weeks improving their defences at El Alamein in what was known as the “Alamein Box”.

The Battle of El Alamein would be fought over a simple railway siding on the Egyptian border, in the middle of ‘nowhere’. But it was more than a railway siding, it was the gateway to the Axis forces invasion of Egypt and of significant strategic importance, a loss at El Alamein for the British and Commonwealth forces would mean the loss of  what Churchill referred to as the ‘second front’ – in effect it would have been the end of the British and commonwealth forces in the war – the outcome and future of the war (with future American involvement) would have looked very different should El Alamein have been lost – a lot depended on winning it.

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A rare wartime original colour photo of El Alamein railway station, taken October1942. It looks somewhat dilapidated now.

For Hitler the invasion of Russia, now in full swing was more important, and the action in North Africa for the German ‘Afrika Korps’ had been to appease and assist their key ally – Italy and Mussolini’s African colonial ambitions and conquests.  Although of lessor importance the North African campaign drew key resources, equipment – planes, tanks and personnel as well as critical leadership away from the Russian campaign to deal with an ambition to take Egypt and the Suez Canal, knock Britain out the war completely and support Italy’s ambitions.  It was to a degree the ‘second front’ Hitler had wanted to avoid.

General Auchenlik – the British Commander of the 8th Army at the time then issued an order instructing all surplus personnel to be sent back to the Egyptian Delta for rest, re-supply and training, a moved which greatly displeased General Dan Pienaar.

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General Dan Pienaar

The 1st South African Division, under General Dan Pienaar had been deployed with two brigades of infantry, each accompanied by a battery of artillery to protect the areas west and south of the El Alamein defensive box. Auchinlecks order effectively meant that Pienaar could only hold the box with one under-strength brigade.

It did not take long for Rommel to advance on the El Alamein ‘Box’, At 06:05am on the 30 June 1942 Axis transports were seen advancing to within 2,000 yards of the South African 3rd Brigade positions and they were engaged with machine and anti-tank gun fire by British units.

The South Africans were soon in the fight alongside their British and Commonwealth counter-parts and the Rand Light Infantry drove off German towed artillery, whilst the South African Air Force bombed Rommel’s supply columns. An hour later, by 07:30am the Germans had been halted and were pinned down by the South Africans, determined to avenge Gazala and the surrender of Tobruk.

For three days, 30 June to 3 July Brigadier Bobby Palmer’s 3 SA Brigade Group courageously and successfully halted the Afrika Korps’ continuous attacks on the parts of the El-Alamein Box held by the South Africans.  He held a line some 10 km long with only 1 000 infantrymen.

Counter-attacks by the South Africans found them stretched into untenable positions and the British command resolved to remove the South Africans to the rear to rest them citing they had been under too much combat stress and should they capitulate, as had been the case with the 2nd SA Div at Tobruk, it would be a political nightmare.  Both South African Divisions in the war would have been captured and it would surely spell the end of South Africa’s war effort and the Smuts government.

The intension was to replace them with an Australian division, however General Pienaar would have none of it, he famously stated to an American war correspondent  “Here I stop, I’ve retreated far enough, whether we hold the damn thing or not!”

Mussolini had flown to a nearby enemy held airfield so as not to miss out on a triumphal Roman entry into Cairo. He had not anticipated a very defiant thin line of red-tabbed Springboks and other British and Commonwealth soldiers literally stopping him in his tracks.

The Axis advance had been stopped all along the Allied line of defence at El Alamein by the 27th July and a stalemate ensued giving the British time to make changes and prepare to go on the counter-attack, this was to be the upcoming decisive battle – the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.

A Change in British Command

Outraged by the conduct of the war in the Middle East, especially the loss on the Gazala line, the surrender of the Tobruk and the hasty ‘Gallop’ retreat,  Churchill headed off to Egypt in August 1942 to make some sweeping changes to British Command.  When adding the surrender of Singapore to the mix just previously to Tobruk, it was clear to Churchill that the British Empire needed to be saved and his direct intervention in command inevitable.

South Africa played a role in advising Churchill on changes to be made to Command and the entire strategy of the war going forward, in August 1942 General Smuts was requested to meet Churchill in Cairo, here they decided on a new war strategy.

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Winston Churchill with Jan Smuts at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.

On the 5th August 1942, Winston Churchill even paid a surprise and informal visit to the South African Division. He remarked: ‘It is a long time since I was in South Africa.’  to a group of South Africans and one of the men humorously replied: ‘Yes Sir, you were in the bag then, weren’t you?’ (referring to Winston Churchill’s time spent as a Prisoner of War during the 2nd Anglo Boer War courtesy of the Boers).

General Auchenlik and his Eighth Army staff, were all given the boot (a little unfairly as Auchenlik had stabilised the Allied position after the First Battle of El Alamein). Churchill’s preferred replacement was initially not General Bernard Montgomery, he was Churchill’s second choice, General William Gott was appointed to head up the 8th Army.  Unfortunately General Gott was killed in action on 7 August 1942 when his aircraft was shot down.

General Montgomery was duly appointed to lead the 8th Army, and a decisive and very popular decision that proved to be (despite a terse relationship between Montgomery and Churchill – and notwithstanding that the two of them were polar opposite in character).

The 2nd Battle of El Alamein 

General ‘Monty’ Montgomery then set about on a massive troop and equipment build-up and extensive training and moral boosting speeches had the British forces ready.  He knew the first part of the offensive would require breaching a massive German/Italian mine-field which separated the two forces, he also knew that the headlong offensive was 1st World War in thinking, only with the use of an incredible amount of armour – as such ‘attrition’ (a battle of casualties by numbers) would play a major factor and Monty needed a vast force to overcome it.

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South African engineers training with mine detection equipment in North Africa. British and Commonwealth forces trained intensively in minefield clearance in preparation for the Second Battle of El Alamein.

In the interim South African engineers and sappers set themselves up training for the very large and very important mine clearing job to come.

Operation Lightfoot – Break-in

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Start Line Deployments for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein

The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role on the opening of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. It had to breach the German minefield which had been sown with more than half a million mines – with a dab of military humour this part of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein was called ‘Operation Lightfoot’.  South African sappers were to play a significant role opening up the minefield to allow the Allied and South African forces to push through.

General Montgomery’s basic idea was that the Australians and Highlanders were to force a northern corridor through the Axis (German/Italian) minefields while the New Zealanders and South Africans were to do the same in the southern sector.

The 1st Infantry Division (South Africa), was tasked to attack on a two-brigade front to secure the southern end of Mieiriya Ridge. The Indian 4th and Northumbrian 50th Divisions were deployed to their south and to the north was the 2nd New Zealand Division.

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A 25-pdr gun firing during the British night artillery barrage which opened Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October 1942.

The South Africans were to attack towards the south-west with 2nd SA Infantry Brigade (under the command of Brig. W.H.E. Poole) on the right and the 3rd SA Infantry Brigade (under the Command of Brig. R. Palmer) on the left. The 1st SA Infantry Brigade was deployed further south and was responsible for creating an anti-tank screen to protect the left flank of the South African attack.

Operation Lightfoot started at 2140 on 23rd October 1942 with a five-hour artillery barrage fire plan, the start of which signified H-Hour for the infantry assault.  General Pienaar had deployed each of the lead brigades, with on battalion leading for the first phase to the “red line”  – after a pause of an hour and a quarter, the two trailing battalions would pass though to the final objective on Miteiriya Ridge.

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Lucas Majozi DCM

The South African 1st and 2nd Field Force Brigades (FFB), as soon after the battle began, became pinned down in the German Axis forces minefield by intense German machine gun and artillery fire. The South African infantrymen suffered very severe casualties.

Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield.  Amongst these Black Native Military Corps (NMC) non-combatant medics rescuing their White combatant counterparts was Lucas Majozi who went on to win a DCM for gallantry. See “With bullets in his body he returned … into a veritable hell of machine gun fire”; Lucas Majozi DCM

By 08:00, the following morning on 24th October the South African objective, Miteiriya Ridge was finally secured, after a very long night of fighting and a very high rate of attrition by way of casualties.

The South African sacrifice in taking Miteiriya Ridge, spurred General Montgomery to send his now famous congratulatory signal on the 24th October 1942 to General Dan Pienaar acknowledging that the 1 SA Division had met all its objectives set for the Battle of Alamein.

Crumbling Operations

By the 25th October the Battle of El Alamein moved into the ‘crumbling actions/operations’ phase.  British Command on the 26th October ordered the South African 1st Division to “side-step” north and occupy the area initially held by the New Zealand Division and the 9th Armoured Brigade.

The South Africans were now stretched on a wider front, between the Australians and 51st Division in the north and the Indian 4th Division on Ruweisat Ridge, with 5th SA Brigade on the right, 3rd SA Brigade on its left and 1st SA Brigade being pulled back as the divisional reserve.

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El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle.

All in by the evening of 26 October (as from the H-Hour on the 23rd), the South Africans had suffered 600 casualties (the British had 2000 casualties as well as 1,000 Australians and 1000 New Zealanders).

Operation Supercharge – Break Out

By the 2nd November 1942, contrary to Hitler’s instructions – Rommel had started to withdraw. The final plan to destroy the Axis forces, code-named “Supercharge” was put into action. The 1st SA Division played no role in this phase of the operation – but the South African armoured cars attached to XXX Corps were actively involved in the attempted destruction and subsequent pursuit.

On the 4 November, after repeated attempts at breaking through the Axis lines – Lt-Col Reeves-Moore lead the South African armoured cars into the rear of the Axis positions, “….the eager children of any mechanized pursuit… scampered at dawn into the open desert beyond the mines and trenches and guns, to make their exuberant mischief amid the disintegrating enemy”.

They soon started causing the havoc for which they had been intended – A Sqn capturing two German 88 mm guns, two 105 mm guns, two 110mm guns, a Breda portee, six trucks and 130 prisoners; while B Sqn captured five trucks, a staff car, one 105 mm and one 150 mm gun and 100 prisoners within a matter of hours.

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A German Panzer III tank crewman surrenders to an advancing Allied soldier during the Battle of El Alamein, 1942

While the South African armoured cars were dashing west, the remaining elements of 1st South African Division had moved further north and over the previous two nights had relieved the 51st Highland Division 51st Highland Division.  During the night of 3/4 November, the last unit to move into its new position was the 1st Cape Town Highlanders who moved during a major artillery barrage in support of an attack by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. The regiment awoke on the 4th November to silence and the absence of gunfire, save for the sound of Allied vehicles advancing west in pursuit of the retreating enemy.

For the 1st South African Division, the war in North Africa had ended.

The loss of General Dan Pienaar

25626160_885298981647845_7204091414452226149_oThe Division returned to South Africa and General Pienaar and eleven other officers boarded a South African Air Force (SAAF) Lockheed Lodestar on 17 December to fly the final command structure back to South Africa.

The SAAF aircraft stopped to re-fuel at Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.  It was reputed that General Pienaar was in a hurry to get going and this may have pushed the pilot into taking risks, on takeoff on 19 December, the aircraft plunged into the lake, killing all on board.

With that came the sad ending of the very popular General Dan Pienaar, he was described in an obituary in the Chicago Tribune as being acknowledged by all military authorities as “one of the best fighting leaders the British have found in this war”.

The End of the Beginning

After the 1st South African Infantry Division’s job was done in North Africa it was disbanded and the 6th South African Armoured Division was formed to continue with South Africa’s World War 2 contribution.   The British Command, still relatively unhappy with the Tobruk incident 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 – for the rest of the war.

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Memorial to South Africans at El Alamein Commonwealth Cemetery

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 – taking with it the recovered country pride so hard for by the 1st South African Division at Tobruk, to an even higher accolade.

The Battle of El Alamein plays such a significant in the outcome of World War 2, Winston Churchill once remarked; “before Alamein, we never had a victory – after Alamein we never had a defeat” and more famously that Alamein marked the ‘end of the beginning‘ of World War 2.

In Conclusion

That South Africa played such a critical part in this pivot moment of history is often overlooked, it’s not something most South Africans are even aware of and it really is something which needs to be redressed by the time the centenary of this battle comes around.  Hopefully by this time it’s not confined to a couple of South African Legion branches and few MOTH shell-holes dotted around South Africa to remember it.

Lest we forget this Battle and path of sacrifice taken by some of the finest South Africans we have ever known, people to whom we as a nation owe a massive debt of gratitude.  Also, it really is not for politicians to remember the war dead, it really isn’t their job and given the nature of politics to ask them to do so is to dishonour both the sacrifice and the dead.  Let’s face it, the African National Congress (ANC) government are not up for it nor are they the proper people to do it in the first place (and to be honest nor were the old National Party government the right people either).

It is up to the veterans fraternity and each and every person that has served in a South African military uniform to carry this flame of remembrance on behalf of those who have come before them – as is the generally accepted practice in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  When we as South Africans veterans snap out of our collective apathy and get that part together, sharing in our most honoured history and stand in a unified cause in our thousands, only then will we get our remembrance occasions aligned and honour these men and women properly.

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Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extracts and references taken from The Military History Journal, Vol 9 No 2 – December 1992 ‘GENERAL PIENAAR, TELL YOUR SOUTH AFRICAN DIVISION THEY HAVE DONE WELL’ – General Montgomery; 24 October 1942. By A B Theunissen.  Other references include The Imperial War Museum (with photo copyrights were shown), Wikipedia and a Biography of Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) By Beat Lenel.

 

The Torch’s impact on the South African military veteran diaspora!

To really understand who and what ‘The Torch Commando’ military veterans movement was and its anti-apartheid stance, we need to profile the military veteran organisations in South Africa as they stood in 1950, and how they contributed to The Torch Commando and what the ramifications were for each them in the future.

In the South African Legion’s official history ‘not for ourselves’, there is a period described as the “fateful 50’s”, that is because it is in this period South Africa’s World War 1 and World War 2 veterans and their respective veteran associations were drawn into a headlong confrontation with the then newly elected National Party government and it’s policies of Apartheid.

This period, the early 1950’s saw the first mass protests and the first open resistance against Apartheid – and ironically, it did not come from Black, Indian and Cape Coloured communities – it came from the mainly “White” military veterans community.

In a sense it was the South African veterans who spearheaded the protesting to come, and it made the government sit up and take notice as it came from a sector that the government really feared and wanted reformed – the military and its associated veteran associations.

This part of South Africa’s community in 1950 was strong with tens of thousands of freshly demobilised trained combatants. Men and women, who in the main, where ardent supporters of General Jan Smuts and who had just been victorious in the “war for freedom” (as World War 2 was known) – fighting against the very policies and ideologies the new Nationalist government was now proposing for South Africa.

Their actions in the 1950’s against the National Party win of 1948 still shapes the politics of the veterans associations in South Africa even to this day, as the net result was not only the first radical changes in the make-up of the military, it also resulted in the marginalisation of South Africa’s Veteran Associations and community to a large degree and a strained relationship with the Nationalist government down the years.

The Veterans Community in South Africa post WW2

Central to this story were the three primary War Veterans associations in South Africa at the end of World War 2 – The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), The South African Legion of the British Empire Services League BESL (The South African Legion as we know it today) and The Springbok Legion.

Politically speaking the MOTH and South African Legion were “apolitical”, the MOTH taking the position of a “order” (along masonic styled rituals) outlining a ‘brotherhood’ for veterans who had seen combat only.   The South African Legion was the “primo” (first) veterans association of South Africa which worked very closely with government as a charity – The South African Legion was open to all veterans whether they had seen combat or not and was by far the largest veterans association in South Africa with 52000 veterans and 224 branches.

The South African Legion, Springbok Legion and General van der Spuy

The South African Legion (BESL), founded by Jan Smuts in 1921 as part of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) was the ‘official’ national body for all South African veterans, and it took a formal approach when dealing with the now ‘new’ Nationalist government and its policies as they impacted Black, Indian and Cape Coloured veterans – choosing to try and negotiate with the government via the formal and non-confrontational channels made available to it as the national body for veterans.

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Gen. van der Spuy

However it was the smallest veterans association of the three – The “Springbok Legion” which took a direct “political” role against the Nationalists – this body was founded in part by a very senior South African Legion national executive member – General van der Spuy (a pioneer of the SAAF), and he used The Springbok Legion to go where the South African Legion could not – into direct confrontational politics.

General van der Spuy, a South African Legion national executive member, became increasingly frustrated with The South African Legion position of ‘quietly’ supporting the anti-apartheid causes in the veterans community simply by opening their branches up to them, and of trying to ‘negotiate’ with the Nationalists as to South Africa’s Black, Indian and Cape Coloured veterans rights via formal channels.  

So, in addition to his position in The South African Legion he also took over The Springbok Legion.  He then took the Springbok Legion from what he referred to as the South African Legion’s “painfully correct whisper of polite protestto become a “shout” of protest instead.

The Springbok Legion

23472831_2045180902377564_421488839758622360_nThe history of the Springbok Legion as a political entity is fascinating – initially formed in 1941 by members of the 9th Recce Battalion of the South African Tank Corps, along with the Soldiers Interests Committee formed by members of the First South African Brigade in Addis Ababa, and the Union of Soldiers formed by the same brigade in Egypt.

The aims and objectives of the Springbok Legion were enunciated in its ‘Soldiers Manifesto’. The Springbok Legion was open to all servicemen regardless of race or gender and was avowedly anti-fascist and anti-racist.

The Springbok Legion was mainly led by a group of both white and black war veterans, many of whom embraced Communism and it was already very actively campaigning against Apartheid legislation and highly politically motivated.

The Springbok Legion decided to very vocally take the fight against Apartheid legislation into the mainstream media and then into the streets in mass protests, and it became the main driving force behind a new and more strident organisation called “The Torch Commando”, headed up by the famous war hero “Sailor” Malan.

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Sailor Malan addressing a Springbok Legion Rally

The Torch Commando

23244351_2045180895710898_7895375157337321647_nIn reality, the Torch Commando constituted the first real mass “anti-Apartheid” protests and Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan can be counted as one of the very first anti-apartheid ‘struggle’ heroes.  Sailor Malan, a Battle of Britain hero and flying ace (one of the best pilots the Royal Air Force had during the war)  returned to his homeland – South Africa in 1946.

Sailor Malan was surprised by the unexpected win of the National Party over Smuts’ United Party in the General Election of 1948 on their proposal of ‘Apartheid’ as this was in direct opposition to the freedom values he and nearly all the South African veterans in World War 2 had been fighting for.  This new political disposition in South Africa was also rammed full of Afrikaner Nationalists who had declared themselves as either in support of Nazi Germany during the war or even having joined robust pro-Nazi organisations during the war years and declaring themselves as full-blown Nazi styled National Socialists.   This was simply unacceptable to just about every returning war veteran.

To get a full sense of Sailor Malan and his motivations behind the Torch please follow this link to a previous Observation. Post Article Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

To get a full appraisal of how the National Party looked just post World War 2 and what it had been up to during the war, do follow this link to a previous Observation Post article “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

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The Torch Commando can best be described as a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and in its manifesto it called for Liberty, Freedom of Speech, Liberty from Tyranny and Freedom of Religion. Sailor Malan’s personal politics (which he brought into the Torch) revolved around universal franchise and addressing poverty in the black community and economic empowerment as a priority to political reform. Ironically, Sailor Malan was years ahead of time in this regard, as it is only now that politics in South Africa is focusing on economic emancipation ahead of political emancipation.

The Torch Commando strategy was to bring the considerable mass of “moderate’ South African war veterans from apolitical organisations such as the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) and South African Legion (BESL) into allegiance with the more ‘leftist’ politicised veterans of  The Springbok Legion.

The Torch Commando held out that it was NOT a radical leftist organisation but rather a centre line ‘Pro Democracy” movement.  This moderate ‘democratic’ centre had high appeal across the entire veteran’s community, as a result the members of the MOTH, The South African Legion (BESL) and the Springbok Legion joined them in their tens of thousands.

Nearly one in four South African white males took up Smuts’ call to volunteer to fight for Britain and her Commonwealth in World War 2 against Nazi German ideology and aggression.  As a result after the war this veterans community made up 200,000 votes of the white voting community in a voting base of about 1,000,000 white voters.

This portion of voters could significantly impact the next General Elections if spurred into stronger political representation, and the Torch Commando targeted it with a pledge to remove the nationalists by demanding an early election due to unconstitutional and illegal breaches by the National Party of South Africa’s constitution.

To further position itself as ‘pro-democracy’ movement and appeal to the ‘ex-service’ vote  The Torch Commando aligned itself with the United Party (Smuts’ party which was now in opposition) which in 1948 had still commanded a majority support (the Nationalist win had been a constitutional one and not a popular one) and after Smuts’ death the United Party was headed up by Koos Strauss (who was eventually replaced by the more popular war veteran – Sir David Pieter de Villiers Graaf).  The United Party was hoping that the Torch would be the catalyst for them to take back the narrow margins that brought the National Party into power earlier in 1948.

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Kmdt. de la Rey at the Cape Town Torch

The Torch Commando, armed with broader appeal to the majority of moderate veterans and under the leadership of very dynamic duo consisting of both Sailor Malan and Kmdt. Dolf de la Rey, now reached out to the wider veteran diaspora.

Kmdt. de la Rey is also interesting – he was himself an Anglo-Boer War Burger Commando veteran and he famously captured Winston Churchill during the Boer War – another one of the rich tapestry of Afrikaner war heroes in conflict with National Party politics and philosophy.

The Torch Commando almost immediately drew massive support – and it saw anti-Apartheid and anti-government protests on a scale previously unseen in South Africa (with all due respect to the African Miners Strike in 1946) .  It all began with torchlight protest marches at night. In all The Torch Commando boasted 250,000 members.  Its torch-light rallies and protests in Durban and Cape Town attracted tens of thousands of veterans – mainly white, and mainly from the middle class and professional strata of white South African society.

In a speech at a massive Torch Commando rally outside City Hall in Johannesburg – to  75,000 people on protest, “Sailor” Malan made reference to the ideals for which the Second World War was fought:

“The strength of this gathering is evidence that the men and women who fought in the war for freedom still cherish what they fought for. We are determined not to be denied the fruits of that victory.”

During the Cape Town “Torch” 50,000 civilians joined the 10,000 veterans when the protest moved to hand over a petition at the Parliament buildings in Cape Town. The police barred the way and a scuffle broke out. 160 Protesters where injured along with 15 Policemen. At this Torch demonstration Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government of:

depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.

As tensions grew over the protest the National Party MP Johannes Streydom finally warned The Torch Commando that he would use the South African security forces against “those who are playing with fire and speaking of civil war and rebellion”.

The Decline of The Torch Commando

DF Malan’s government was so alarmed by the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining The Torch Commando that those within the public service or military were prohibited from enlisting, lest they lose their jobs – this pressure quickly led to the erosion of the organisation’s “moderate” members, many of whom still had association to the armed forces, with reputations and livelihoods to keep.

The newly governing National Party at that time also could not afford to have the white voter base split over its narrow hold on power and the idea that the country’s armed forces community was standing in direct opposition to their policies of Apartheid posed a real and significant problem – not only as a significant ‘block’ of ‘white’ voters, but also because many of these anti-government veterans were battle hardened with extensive military training, and as such posed a real threat should they decide to overthrow the government by force of arms.

Also the National Party government was extremely concerned about the influence this movement might generate over Afrikaner youth, especially under the leadership of the war heroes, and they acted ‘decisively’ (as was its usual modus operandi) and went about discrediting the Torch Commando and its leaders through means of constant negative propaganda.

For the rest of his life, Sailor Malan would be completely ridiculed by the Nationalist government. The National Party press caricatured him  ‘a flying poodle’, dressed in his leathers and flying goggles, in the service of Jan Smuts and the Jewish mine-bosses, who were referred to as the “Hochenheimers”.  The National Party openly branded him as an Afrikaner of a ‘different’ and ‘unpatriotic’ kind, a traitor to his country and ‘Volk’ (people).

In addition to the National Party’s efforts, the Torch Commando also ultimately failed because it could not distance itself as a political arm of the United Party and establish itself as independent mass action movement. It found itself severely curtailed by mainstream party politics of the United Party (especially on issues such as Natal’s possible cessation from the Union, manifesto freedoms, positions on franchise and addressing Black poverty, actions of the ‘steel commando’ (which was a more militant sect within the Torch Commando) etc. One political cartoon of the time lampoons The Torch Commando as a hindrance to the United Party.

There was also the issue of the Torch Commando’s “Achilles Heel” – The Springbok Legion and its firebrand, highly political and militant anti-apartheid veterans.  The National government took to destroying this veterans association completely and here’s how that happened.

The Springbok Legion’s Rise and Decline

The Springbok Legion, buoyed by the political actions of The Torch Commando gradually became a fully blown political entity in its own right, and the inevitable happened, as with any political party, The Springbok Legion gradually became politically radicalised. This was spearheaded by veterans who were also members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) and who joined The Springbok Legion and served in its upper and lower structures.

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The targeting of the Springbok Legion by the Communist Party was the result of the South African Communist Party believing that it could use the veterans to re-order “white” political thinking in South Africa along communist lines.

Emblem_of_the_South_African_Communist_PartyThis eventually resulted in the fracturing of the Springbok Legion as a whole as moderate “white” members, who made up the majority of its supporters became disenchanted with its increasingly militant leftist rhetoric.

Notable South African Communist Party (SACP) veterans to join the Springbok Legion in a leading capacity where none other than ex-servicemen such as Joe Slovo, Lionel Bernstein, Wolfie Kodesh, Jock Isacowitz, Jack Hodgson and Fred Carneso.

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Joe Slovo (right of picture) in WW2

Aside from the Communists, Key members included future political and anti-apartheid leaders, such as Peter Kaya Selepe, an organiser of the African National Congress (ANC) in Orlando (he also served in WW2). Harry Heinz Schwarz, also a WW2 veteran eventually became a statesman and long-time political opposition leader against apartheid in South Africa and served as the South African ambassador to the United States during South Africa’s “transition” in the 90’s.

The National Party – which even as part of it’s pre-war make up had a fierce anti-communist stance was becoming increasingly alarmed by the rise of veterans against their policies and began seeking was of suppressing it. One of the mechanisms was to pass the Suppression of Communism Act.

The combined effect of the ‘Suppression of Communism Act’, and the broadening and deepening of the Communist rhetoric and politics was alienating the majority of Springbok Legion members rang a death knell for the Springbok Legion and the inevitable happened, the organisation folded as thousands of its “moderate” members left, returning to the either the apolitical MOTH movement or the South African Legion (or both).

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Rica and Jack Hodgson wearing Springbok Legion badges in the 1940s

The Communist Party members of The Springbok Legion who had played a pivot in its rise and its demise i.e. Joe Slovo, Lionel Bernstein, Wolfie Kodesh, Jack Hodgson and Fred Carneso all then joined the African National Congress and, given their experience as combat veterans, they also all joined its military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe under the command of Nelson Mandela.

Once clear that Springbok Legion was at an end as an organisation – part of its branch infrastructure and a great many of their “moderate” members where then absorbed into the South African Legion (BESL).

It was however very clear that the veterans community had shown their colours – and the relationship between the Nationalist government and the ‘apolitical’ national body i.e. South African Legion was to remain strained for some time come.

Sailor Malan returns to his ‘shell-hole’

23316645_2045180912377563_1947893965526734465_nSailor Malan’s political career was effectively ended and the “Torch” effectively suppressed by the National Party, so he returned to his hometown of Kimberley.  Sailor then joined his local Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) shell-hole (branch) in Kimberley and withdrew from politics, choosing instead the social and camaraderie of his like-minded colleagues in his ‘shell-hole’ and the ‘good life’ (he had a reputation as the ‘life of a party’).

Sadly, Sailor Malan succumbed on 17 September 1963 aged 53 to Parkinson’s Disease about which little was known at the time. Some research now supports the notion that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can bring on an early onset of Parkinson’s Disease, and it is now thought that Sailor Malan’s high exposure to combat stress may have played a part in his death at such a relatively young age.

It is to the embarrassment now as to his treatment as a South African WW2 military hero that all enlisted South African military personnel who attended his funeral where instructed not to wear their uniforms by the newly formatted SADF. The government did not want a Afrikaner, as Malan was, idealised as a military hero in death in the fear that he would become a role model to future Afrikaner youth.

The “official” obituary issued for Sailor Malan published in all national newspapers made no mention of his role as National President of The Torch Commando or referenced his political career. The idea was that The Torch Commando would die with Sailor Malan.

All requests to give him a full military funeral were turned down and even the South African Air Force were instructed not to give him any tribute. Ironically this action now stands as testimony to just how fearful the government had become of him as a political fighter.

moth-logo1The campaign to purge the national consciousness of The Torch Commando, The Springbok Legion and Sailor Malan was highly effective as by the 1970’s and 1980’s the emergent generation of South Africans have little to no knowledge of The Torch or The Springbok Legion, it is highly unlikely that anyone today remembers Sailor Malan’s speech to 75,000 Torch Commando protesters in the centre of Johannesburg.  The veterans community today, albeit very small, have kept his memory alive, Sailor’s MOTH shell-hole in Kimberley still remember this outstanding war hero very fondly to this day,

The marginalising of The South African Legion

23316506_2045181059044215_5913293740943393863_nMany older people will remember a time in the 50’s, 60’s and early 70’s, when on “Poppy Day” thousands of South African Legion members with their supporters would ‘sell’ paper red poppies raising funds for veterans in need in just about every major shopping centre all over South Africa.  Some may even remember the South African Legion visiting their schools and explaining the meaning of the Poppy.

However, by the 1980’s the South African Legion and its Poppy legacy was all but gone from the national consciousness – so what happened?

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextSimply put, even though the South African Legion (BESL) had taken an apolitical stance and chosen a cordial approach in dealing with the Nationalists, it still found itself coming into headlong confrontation with the National Party government, both in terms of its individual members’ politics but also in terms of the mandate given to it as the national body to look after Cape Coloured, Indian and Black South African veterans in need.

To a degree the MOTH were spared this confrontation as their joining criteria in the 1950’s and 1960’s specified the MOTH order for “combat veterans only” – and as ‘combat’ veterans were defined by race politics in South Africa as ‘whites and cape coloureds only’ during World War 2 the MOTH by default did not attract many Black members of The Native Military Corps who were deemed ‘non-combative’ by the definitions of the time.  The South African Legion on the other hand was a viable veterans association for Black veterans during these years – and to this very day The South African Legion still has many of these old veterans on its books.

From the beginning of 1948 the South African Legion’s relations with the Nationalists were starting to strain via the actions of The Torch Commando and South African Legion (BESL) members joining it, but a major clash was to come when the South African Legion reacted strongly in 1956 to the Government’s move to ban Black and Coloured veterans from Remembrance Day Services.

Another confrontation occurred when the South African Legion requested the Nationalist government to waive pass laws for Black military veterans who had served South Africa (not some ‘Bantustan’) and therefore should be treated differently, however this request unfortunately worked for a limited time and the juggernaut of Apartheid law and policy implementation eventually simply over-ran it.

The South African Legion was again at loggerheads with the National Party government over the lack of parity with regard to pensions paid out to Black and Coloured veterans.  The fight to obtain parity of pensions for all – white, coloured and black veterans was finally won in 1986/87. It had been a very long battle for the South African Legion.

The old World War 2 veterans sitting in their MOTH Shell-Holes and South African Legion branches (and even those still serving) were again at serious loggerheads with the newly formatted SADF and the Nationalists – when in a very sinister move the government decreed that all their highest bravery decorations (military cross, DSO etc) along with campaign medals and Stars – all won in the Second World War were for a ‘foreign’ country in their estimation (Britain – and not South Africa) and therefore these decorations and medals had to take the junior position after even the most lowly SADF service medal on their medal racks.

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WW2 South African veterans rack – note the very senior WW2 campaign stars and campaign medals in secondary position (left to right) to more junior SADF Service medals

To add insult to injury, amongst many other changes to remove ‘British’ and ‘English’ heritage,  they also went about introducing German styled NCO rank insignia and reformatting many of their infantry and regiment formations which resulted in new insignia and hard-earned Battle honours laid up and new colours initiated instead.

The net result of all of this was a ‘them and us’ mentality, where the old veterans in the South African Legion branches and MOTH shell-holes looked at the SADF in disdain – some refusing to alter their medal orders and The Nationalists (and many Afrikaners in the SADF officer class) also began to brand The South African Legion (BESL) and The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH), as ‘British’ and ‘unpatriotic ‘ whilst they maintained their ‘British’ links, insignia and heritage.

The government also started to gradually turn off the taps of the supply of veterans to the South African Legion and the MOTH from the newly formatted ‘South African Defence Force’ (SADF), when SADF personnel completed their service.  Whereas under the old South African Union’ Defence Force (UDF) such a transition when demobilising was the norm.

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Certificate granting Life Membership of the SA Legion given to Union Defence Force members demobilising after WW2

By the mid 1980’s the SADF simply would not actively promote the South African Legion (or the MOTH) to the thousands of SADF permanent force members and conscripts as a veterans association option and ‘home’ available to them post service.

The National Party also took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961, and along with sanctions and International isolation, the South African Legion – as a Commonwealth inspired and linked association, found itself floundering in a country whose government had no time for the British and the Commonwealth and its affiliations at all.

Faced with an ageing membership, a divergent view to that of the Apartheid government of the day, and no ‘new blood’ from the Alma Mater – the South African Defence Force (SADF) – for nearly four decades on end, the South African Legion (and the MOTH) gradually started to slip into long-term decline.

A major casualty of all of this was the gradual removal of the ‘Poppy’ as an icon of Remembrance from the general population’s mass consciousness.  Embroiled in race politics where black servicemen were marginalised and events as to Apartheid took greater national precedence, the Poppy took a back seat to the seismic events of the day – and where the movement flourished in other countries, it declined in South Africa.

1994 

1994 was a significant year in many respects, South Africa re-joined the Commonwealth of Nations and was invited back into the International world.  Almost instantly Queen Elizabeth II visited South Africa to re-kindle the links and in a landmark move, The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Service League (RCEL) decreed that its 75th international convention would again take place in Cape Town (the city where it was founded). Nelson Mandela even opened the RCEL’s Cape Town convention on the 26th February 1996 with an upbeat message to re-kindle the purpose of South Africa’s primo veterans association – The South African Legion (a founding member of the RCEL) and re-establish South Africa’s place in the international veterans community (for more of this history see Observation Post Legions and Poppies … and their South African root).

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Nelson Mandela opening the 75th Convention of The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League in Cape Town – 1996

Not so fast!

So, in the mid 90’s – the surviving veteran’s bodies reconciling and extending olive branches, the SADF now reformatted into the SANDF and the legacy of the Torch Commando and its political influence to split the surviving veterans associations (The South African Legion and MOTH) away from their ‘Alma Mater‘ –  the South African Defence Force, long-buried and a thing of past … right?

Wrong!  Typical to a South Africa personality – put two of us in the same the room and we’ll come up with three political parties.

Where are we now?

The fracturing nature of South African politics which played such a significant role in forming The Torch Commando in the first place, still plays out in South Africa.  Still not unified in a singular mission the veterans community remains as fractious as ever.  Race politics, party politics and political one-upmanship has dictated that the ‘non statutory forces’ veterans associations (APLA, MK etc) have a separate umbrella association to the ‘statutory forces’ veterans associations.

1185958_516504791764854_16020334_nThe ‘statutory’ associations i.e. the Infantry Association, Armour Association, Naval Officers Association, Gunners Association, Caledonian Regiments Association etc. etc. are combined and lumped with more newly sprung ‘broader’ veterans associations – the SADF Veterans Association, the South African Military Veterans Organisation ‘International’ (a spin-off from a Australia based SA veterans association) and more, each targeting the same veteran – all of whom exist under their own umbrella organisation – The Council of Military Veterans Organisations (CMVO).

If you’re confused now – there’s more!  They all fall under another reformatted umbrella body – The South African National Military Veterans Association (SANMVA), which is designed to bring about reconciliation and common value.

23472242_2045680692327585_4594319913114114412_nThis all in turn falls under the ‘Department of Military Veterans’ (DMV) a government department under the Minister of Defence which toes a very African National Congress (ANC) party political line in its media either shaming or ignoring the statutory veterans (especially the old ‘SADF’ members who make up the majority of the Department’s mandate and membership) and highlighting the deeds of the non statutory political party veterans, primarily ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) veterans as noble ones instead (and these veterans are contentious at best).

So, there are no surprises here then – the government of the day, behaving exactly like the old Apartheid nationalists, now dictate who they regard as military heroes whilst ignoring or vanquishing others for political expediency – same, same approach, new epoch – the nobility of Nelson Mandela’s reconciliations, honour, respect, remembrance and understanding of all of South Africa’s veterans from all the ethnic groupings of South Africa … now a long lost and conveniently ignored memory.

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Add to this the advent of social media which has seen a raft of pseudo South African veteran organisations, clubs, orders, charities etc spring up on various on-line social media platforms (Facebook, Whats-app etc.) over the past ten years. All purposefully not aligned to any official veterans body or department (citing the political climate and separation from having to deal with ‘ex-terrorists’).

These digital groupings and their spin-offs are not recognised by the law of the land or their peers in the properly constituted veterans associations – but they are promising the world to some disillusioned South African military veterans, and in many instances these veterans are preyed upon by opportunists trying to make a fast buck and false Messiah’s promising things that can never be delivered on, as they are simply not ‘recognised’ as legitimate associations.  They cannot draw benefits for their members and have no formal representation of their members needs or ‘voice’ when dealing with government, non-government organisations, the public at large and international veterans federations – like the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) and UN’s World Veterans Federation (WVF).

What this shows up is the continued divisiveness of South African race politics and instead of consolidating as veterans many of these digital gatherings have headed off to ‘do their own thing’ (usually by way of their political convictions) and create more division (more often than not).  Generally they are ignored by the DMV and the CMVO and without official recognition they really are on a highway to nowhere.  What they do manage to do however is divert much-needed Human Resources from South Africa’s long-standing veterans bodies like The South African Legion and MOTH, and that’s not helpful to anyone.

So where do surviving organisations like The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) and especially – The South African Legion – as the country’s primo veterans organisation sit now?

Safe to say they are just cracking on and hoping everyone will come round to their senses, stop re-imaging themselves after this or that dying political epoch, stop politicising what is essentially a charitable cause and join their infrastructures – which for decades have been in place to serve South African veterans only (In the case of the South African Legion – for nearly 100 years), not only in terms of physical buildings but also in terms of Camaraderie and Remembrance – and infrastructures which are now badly in need of new blood (and money) to see them into the future.

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In some respects they wait until the usual political course becomes its calamitous self and the inevitable implosions start to happen (as they have been doing in South Africa for decades now, starting with veterans groups like the Springbok Legion and the Torch Commando politicising themselves) – and they just bide their time and focus on the real life issues at hand and championing the one relevant person in all of this – the person who signed up to serve his or her country in uniform – the veteran!


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. 

References Lazerson, Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid. Neil Roos. Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961. Wikipedia and “Not for ourselves” – a history of the South African Legion by Arthur Blake.  South African History On-Line – a History of the Springbok Legion.  Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum and Associated Press.

“Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever

The third South African ship to be lost in the Mediterranean during the Second World War was the HMSAS Bever.  She was the brave little minesweeper who had earlier fought her way out of Tobruk with her sister ship – the  HMSAS Parktown.  She had a very proud legacy from her actions in Tobruk and her loss later in the war was deeply felt, so let’s have a look at another brave South African whaler, converted to a fighting ship, punching way above her weight.

On the 10 October 1941, the little whaler ‘Hektor 10’ was commissioned in South Africa as His Majesty’s South African Ship (HMSAS) Bever for wartime service as a minesweeper.

Barely a month later, on the 1 November 1941, she joined the small flotilla of South African minesweepers sailing from Durban for the war in North Africa.  This flotilla was made up of the HMSAS Bever, HMSAS Gribb, HMSAS Seksern, HMSAS Imhoff, HMSAS Treern, HMSAS Parktown and HMSAS Langlaagte.

All were former whale catchers of about 260 tons built between 1926 and 1930 and each was fitted with one 3 inch gun plus smaller QF guns, depth charges and LL sweeps.  They are the second group of South African minesweepers to sail from Durban for the Mediterranean.

Little would they know that all of them would make a significant difference to the war effort – and sadly, three of the four ships South Africa would lose during the war would come from this flotilla – the HMSAS Parktown, the HMSAS Bever and the HMSAS Treern.  The first South African minesweeper had already been lost in the combat zone by this stage – the HMSAS Southern Floe (see The Southern Floe was the SA Navy’s first ship loss, but it also carries a remarkable tale of survival.)

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HMSAS Southern Floe

The fall of Tobruk

The HMSAS Bever and HMSAS Parktown sailed from Alexandria, Egypt on the 9 June 1942 as part of a escort for a convoy bound for Tobruk. During the passage they see combat for the first time when the convoy is attacked and the HMSAS Parktown is involved in the gallant rescue of 28 survivors from a ship that had been sunk, many of whom are badly burnt.

After their arrival in Tobruk on 12 June 1942, the HMSAS Parktown and her consort, HMSAS Bever (at this stage under the command of Lt P A North), are tasked with keeping the approaches to Tobruk clear of mines.

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HMSAS Parktown

In 1941 the Australians had held Tobruk for 9 months, until Rommel’s withdrawal of his Axis forces to the west.  Tobruk secured, by 1942 the Allied Middle East Command decided to leave a smaller ‘temporary’ force to hold Tobruk while a new strike force was built up near the frontier.  The task of defending Tobruk was left to the South Africans. The new  garrison was to be formed by the 2nd South African Infantry Division with General Klopper, a major general of 1 month’s standing, given command of Tobruk.  In addition, units of British and Indian detachments fell under South Arican command defending Tobruk.

It is generally understood that by this stage Tobruk’s defences were in a poor shape with much of the armour and artillery taken away to the new frontier, 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.

As usual, Rommel had 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.

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Surrounded South African troops going into captivity as Tobruk falls

Inside Tobruk the situation was chaotic. General Klopper – his HQ’s bombed out, his radio and telephone wrecked and his code booked destroyed, lost the last vestige of control.  It became clear that a crisis was imminent. Late that same afternoon HMSAS Parktown and HMSAS Bever were ordered to enter harbour to embark evacuation parties and get as many Allied troops out as they can.

By 20:00 that evening the two minesweepers watch the Axis forces entering the town and then reach the harbour shortly afterwards. The rapidity of the attack causes great confusion, however, the two brave little South African minesweepers still manage to embark most of the men allocated to them before they sail under a hail of artillery and gunfire.

“It was like hell”

The account is best described by an ordinary South African, Stoker Petty Officer (SPO) Turner who was on the HMSAS Bever (‘Jerry’ means the Germans).

“At the end of the fifth week we had been there, Jerry started a terrific push which carried him through almost to Tobruk. We had some very nasty air raids, but the warning came one night when a shell whistled over us and landed behind the town. We knew then that they had brought up big guns and were going to shell us out of the place.

Our ship (HMSAS Bever) and our partner ship (the HMSAS Parktown) continued their work through a week of this shelling and I can assure you it was very uncomfortable.

Then we were informed that Tobruk was besieged, as Jerry had completely surrounded us. On Saturday, June 2O, it happened, and that date will be impressed on my memory as long as I live. It was early morning and we were just pulling away to start our daily job, when the shells started coming over with a vengeance.

They had found their range and planted their shots just where they wanted them, in the town, on the quay, round the wrecks, at the oil berth – and we were sailing along with this lot falling around us:

Then bombers appeared on the scene. We went out, did our job, and returned to our anchorage. This went on until about three clock in the afternoon. The target area was mostly the quay and wharfs.

Then Stukas appeared over the hill and started giving our troops the works. It was like hell. Shells, level bombing and dive-bombing – and there we were at anchor in the centre of it all, expecting any moment to stop something and be blown sky high.

At about four o’cock Jerry broke through our lines and our lads had to retire. This was all done in an orderly manner, and they burned everything they had to abandon. Then we received orders to go to the quay, which all the available ships did and picked up what men we could under a hail of shells. As we pulled away, a shell got us in the funnel. The quay was blown up and Jerry tanks entered the town.

Sandy and I, down in the engine room, gave her all she had and she never travelled faster in her life. Meanwhile a motor launch laid smoke screen for us. Jerry tanks opened up on us from the shore and in all we received four hits by explosive shells.

It was a miracle that we were not blown to bits, because the tanks along the shore were following us with their fire. At the harbour entrance the fire was even more concentrated and only God Himself took us past that. We lost the steward in our dash. As he tried to help a man out of the water into the boat, an exploding shell killed him.

The last I saw of Tobruk” concludes Stoker Petty-Officer Turner “was flashes and flames and a great pall of smoke on the horizon, as the troops continued giving Jerry everything they had till the end.”

Tobruk, Rommel und Bayerlein, Hafen

Erwin Rommel surveys Tobruk after capturing it

Fighting their way out

Fighting bravely next to the HMSAS Bever was the HMSAS Parktown, both these South African vessels received order to embark as many men as possible from shore and to await sailing orders. Late that afternoon Bever was instructed to sail.  Parktown would follow later.

Heavily laden with men clinging to all parts of ship, HMSAS Bever put to sea. By that stage at least six German tanks had taken up a position on shore with their guns covering the harbour. The minute HMSAS Bever began to move out of the harbour she was heavily engaged by the tanks and received several direct hits.

The Bever’s commander, Lt Peter Allan North was later awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry as he decided to take the ship out himself and ordered all men below decks. One man disobeyed the order, a steward who came up on deck to help a soldier who was trying to climb aboard, the two of them were killed instantly by an incoming tank shell.

The Bever cleared the harbour but the attack did not stop there as German bombers swooped in on her, with all her guns blazing the Bever beat off the air assault.

The HMSAS Parktown was the next to leave Tobruk with hundreds of the men from the garrison aboard.  Her fight out the harbour however met with tragedy.  During the night just off Tobruk port the Parktown and Bever became separated as the Parktown goes to the assistance of a disabled tug, also crowded with men.

After taking the tug in tow the HMSAS Parktown’s speed is slowed.  At daybreak on the 21 June the Parktown came under attack by Italian “MAS” torpedo boats (E-Boats), directed to the slow-moving vessel by a German reconnaissance aircraft.  Fighting all the way with all guns blazing the Parktown was eventually overwhelmed by the faster E-Boats and sunk with the loss of many lives.

For a full account of this brave action by the HMSAS Parktown please feel free to read the Observation Post  The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown)

The HMSAS Bever eventually safely reached Mersa Matruh with holes through her funnels, with mast rigging shot away and riddled with splinter holes.

Awards and Citations for the crew of HMSAS Bever

The following awards and decorations to officers and men of HMSAS Bever were bestowed by King George VI.

Distinguished Service Cross. Lieutenant Peter Allan North (H.M.S.A.S. Bever). Comes from Amanzimtoti. Natal. Age 28. Before the war employed in Geduld Mine. Rand. Served in Training Ship General Botha.

Distinguished Service Medal. No. 69628. Petty Officer Alan Sidney Hargreaves (H.M.S.A.S. Bever). Home address, 8. Worcester-road. Sea Point. Age 26. Served in Training Ship General Botha.

Mentioned in Dispatches. No. 132522. Engine-room Artificer Alexander James McCall (H.M.S.A.S. Bever) Home address, 7, Antrim-road Three Anchor Bay. Engineer in private life.

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HMSAS Bever

After Tobruk

By November 1944 HMSAS Bever had been in the Mediterranean for nearly two years, by now the war in the Mediterranean had over to the European mainland and the liberation of Greece and conquest of Italy were underway.

Accompanied by another South African minesweeper HMSAS Seksern and a flotilla of other converted trawlers, the Bever arrives in the Gulf of Nauplia (south of the Gulf of Athens) late on 29 November 1944 from Herakleon in Crete, about 160 miles to the south-east.  On that first evening, two motor launches carrying out a skimming sweep destroy several mines and clear a narrow channel enabling the flotilla to anchor for the night.

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Ships company HMSAS Seksern Benghazi 1943

The loss of the HMSAS Bever

Next morning (30 November) the clearance continued, with HMSAS Seksern being used as a mark-ship owing to the low visibility (mist and rain-squalls). So many mines now explode in the sweeps that progress soon slowed down and finally halted at about 14:00 whilst four of the ships hove to in order to repair their gear. HMSAS Bever, stationed astern of the trawlers to deal with unexploded mines, also stopped.

At 14:30, while manoeuvring her engines to keep in position, the HMSAS Bever struck a mine with the inevitable result for so small a ship: the bridge collapsed while the after-part disintegrated, its fragments mingling with a huge discoloured geyser which shot up many times higher than the ship’s masthead; and by the time the spray and steam had blown clear, nothing remained but the fore-part which turned over and sank a few seconds later.

Although the normal practice had been followed of making all hands not actually on duty below, remain on deck, considering the rapidity of Bever’s destruction, it is remarkable that eight men were to survive and be picked up alive. The captain and second-in-command were literally blown off the bridge, ending up in the water some distance away. The other survivors appear to have left the ship in much the same manner. One man died of his injuries soon after but the remainder, after receiving first-aid treatment, all recovered satisfactorily.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nThe brave men of the HMSAS Bever sacrificed that day are outlined on the honour roll below (MPK means “Missing Presumed Killed”):

ARMERANTIS, Sideris, Stoker 1c, 282953 V (SANF), MPK
DE PACE, Luigi S, Petty Officer, 66539 V (SANF), MPK
DE REUCK, Leslie B, Telegraphist, 75320 V (SANF), MPK
DREYER, Peter, Leading Cook (S), 585236 V (SANF), MPK
HIGGS, George E, Stoker 1c, 562712 V (SANF), MPK
HUSBAND, Charles A, Stoker 1c, 280098 V (SANF), MPK
KETTLES, John D, Engine Room Artificer 3c, 562458 (SANF), MPK
LAWLOR, Robert J, Act/Chief Motor Mechanic 4c, P/KX 127225, MPK
LINDE, Carl M, Able Seaman, 71194 V (SANF), MPK
LYALL, John D R, Stoker 1c, 562179 V (SANF), MPK
MATTHEWS, William R, Leading Wireman, 562794 V (SANF), killed
PHILLIPSON, Joseph H, Signalman, 181160 V (SANF), MPK
RODDA, Harold J, Stoker 1c, 70451 V (SANF), (served as Harold J Andresen), MPK
SCRIMGEOUR, Quintin, Petty Officer, 69691 (SANF), MPK
TRUSCOTT, E (initial only) W, Able Seaman, 585184 V (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Claude, Leading Seaman, 586420 V (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMS, Desmond, Able Seaman, 70433 V (SANF), killed

The end of a very gallant South African fighting ship. May they all Rest In Peace.

supporting-poppy-appeal


Researched by Peter Dickens, extracts taken from the Military History Journal, Volume 9, Number 1 – June 1992  THE STORY OF A WARSHIP’S CREST by F V Demartinis. Extracts also taken from Day by Day SA Naval History by Chris Bennett. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell. Images of South African vessels courtesy Allan du Toit and reference from his book ‘South African Fighting Ships’.

“The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

smutsThere are still a handful of conservative ‘Afrikaner nationalist’ white people in South Africa who would still toe the old Nationalist line on Smuts, that he was a ‘verraaier’ – a traitor to his people, his death welcomed.  However, little do they know that many of the old Nationalist architects of Apartheid held Smuts in very high regard.

DF Malan, on the day of Smuts’ death, 11th September 1950, was the Prime Minister of South Africa, his Nationalist party had defeated Smuts’ United party two years earlier in 1948 whilst pushing the Nationalist proposals to further entrench racial segregation with a concept they called Apartheid.  Smuts on the other hand, foresaw the need to extend the ideas of ‘Union’ which had brought Afrikaner and Briton together to include Black South Africans. On voting rights, he had made his views clear to Hertzog as early as 1920 when in a private meeting he proposed a Qualification Franchise (not a Universal one though) for black South Africans (Hertzog was an ardent Nationalist and rejected the idea outright).

Smuts was born into a system of ‘Empire’ and that was the socio-political sphere everyone understood, including Smuts.  Over time Smuts’ views on racial segregation gradually evolved from the generally understood divided evolution edicts of his day (based on where nations stood on the ‘civilisation’ continuum).  On the international stage by the mid 1940’s, when Smuts was outside of the pressures of South Africa’s race politics (even from inside of his own political party) and not toeing his party’s line, here his views started to really shape up.

By the middle of World War 2 he had taken on a deep sense of individual liberty for all mankind, emancipation and freedom from any sort of oppression (including State).  These views, based on what he termed man’s universal “spirit” for freedom forged by two world wars, they were consolidated in his work on the United Nations and exposed on an international stage in a number of speeches.

Back in South Africa after the war, as a precursor to these views on universal liberty, Smuts had already changed from his old positions on segregation and proposed ‘integration’ instead of ‘separation’ and he had also already promised black community leaders greater political representation if they supported his war effort, voting rights under Smuts were already secure for South Africans of Indian origin and the Cape Coloured community.  On the Nationalists proposals of Apartheid he once said:

“The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own Kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard”.

The nationalists touted a fear of ‘black danger’ under this more democratically minded Smuts if he won, and it struck a cautionary chord with many white voters and the Nationalists won the day, surprisingly and against the odds, and not by a majority mind – but on a constitutional seat basis.

On losing the election Smuts made one of his greatest speeches in 1949 at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument to a largely Afrikaner crowd, it says everything of where he stood on integration and the future of South Africa, he said:

“Only on the basis of taking from the past what was beautiful could ‘fruitful co-operation and brotherhood’ between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis could a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations”. He went on to say, that this was “the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.’

Simply put, the country’s white community at Smuts’ death was very split down the middle on the issue of ‘Apartheid’ and what it would bring, the majority of South Africans did not favour it and they had heeded Smuts’ warnings of what entrenched race politics would bring to South Africa’s future.

The death of Jan Smuts

240px-DFMalanPortret

DF Malan

DF Malan was attending a National Party political rally to the party faithful and whipping up support for the edicts of Apartheid when Smuts’ died.   An aide walked up to him and handed him a note with the news of Smuts’ death, what he does next would surprise even the hardest right-wing Afrikaner Nationalist.

Instead of gleeful celebration of the demise of this most hated enemy of the Apartheid cause, the man repeatedly called a ‘traitor’ by the Nationalists, a man who had the ‘blood’ of Jopie Fourie on his hands, the ‘hansopper’ and ‘joiner’ turncoat who favoured the union of the Afrikaner with the hated British to heal South Africa over and above separationist Afrikaner rule, the King’s ‘hanskakie’ puppet, old ‘slim Jannie’ who put global interests and governance ahead of his ‘volk’ (white Afrikaner peoples) – no Dr. Malan’s reaction to the news was somewhat different to what most people now would even think.

DF Malan immediately turned pale, he slowly sat down, slumped over and cupped his hands to his face. He had lost a lifelong and very close friend.  Their political positions aside, Malan had a deep sense of admiration for his old friend.

He had to be helped up to stand at the microphone, where he announced that “a great figure of our time” has just died, he called the Nationalists to silence and then cancelled the rally.  His colleagues reporting that they had never seen Malan so distressed.

DF Malan’s reaction says a lot about Smuts, the importance he had in the formation of South Africa, he was the original ‘reconciler’ of the warring nations in South Africa, his idea of union based his philosophy of holism – all parts of the sphere make the whole, made the state of South Africa as we know it, he was quite literally the ‘father’ of the South African nation, and now he was lost.

 

The universal appreciation of Smuts at the time, both by his supporters and his detractors, would see a nationwide and even worldwide outpouring of grief, Smuts’ funeral was something else, a funeral not seen since in South Africa and only seen again when Nelson Mandela died.

To even begin to contemplate Smuts’ importance to not only South Africa, but to the free world consider what Winston Churchill wrote to Isie (Ouma Smuts), his wife, expressing his condolences, and what he wrote sums up the loss perfectly.

“There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior-statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch.”

In his lifetime, Smuts had advanced to a level of greatness that is more substantive and more far-reaching to the modern human race than any South African before and even after him (with all respect to Nelson Mandela and his legacy).

Add to this what King George VI wrote Ouma Smuts and you start to see a pattern.  He wrote:

“the force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”.

To understand his impact to humankind by way of an obituary to his milestone accolades, consider the following:

The birth of South Africa

The establishment of the state of South Africa in 1910. His proposal of ‘Union’ with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal brought South Africa out of the devastation of the Boer War and the resultant decimation of the Boer nation. Despite winning the war, in just four years of Colonising everything, Britain had handed all control of her colonies in South Africa to an independent parliament to Westminster, able to make its own laws to forge its own destiny, headed up by two Boer Generals of which Smuts was one.

The Boers had lost their two small Republics to war and now, thanks to Smuts’ skill and British confidence in his vision and him, the Boer commanders were very quickly back in governance of both their ‘old’ Republics and in addition, both the British Colonies as well – without a shot been fired.  To quote Smuts ‘they gave our country back’.  He reflected that at no time in Britain’s long history had such a ‘miracle of trust and magnanimity’ ever happened.

British ‘meddling’ and ‘warmongering’ in South Africa would never happen on the same scale again, and in fact they were making reparations for the damage they had caused by way of economic support.

The League of Nations and United Nations

He played a key role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the exact design and implementation of which relied upon Smuts, he even drafted the outlines for the The Treaty of Versailles. His outline was not fully followed and he warned the League of a future calamity with Germany – how prophetic he was.

With the demise of the League of Nations (the USA left it), Smuts still held the view that a more robust world peace body was required involving all nations holding each other to account.  He later urged the formation of a new international organisation for peace: The United Nations (UN).

Smuts wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person in history to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations (see earlier Observation Post link Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).

21731730_2020994458129542_6028296406653483655_o

Smuts signing the United Nations Charter

 

The British Commonwealth of Nations

He sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, he helped establish the concept of a ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ based on devolved British authority instead of a ‘British Empire’ and by doing so he served to end Britain’s ‘Empire. He in fact came up with the term ‘Commonwealth’ and it was to his recommendations that the King listened.

The birth of Israel

In 1932, the kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in Israel was named after him. Smuts was a vocal proponent of the creation of a Jewish state, and spoke out against the rising anti-Semitism of the 1930s.  His relationship with the Jews and Israel did not stop there, he was one of the driving forces behind the Balfour Declaration which established the state of Israel (see earlier Observation Post A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts.)

World Wars and Military Milestones

He became South Africa’s only Field Marshal, having taken South Africa to both World Wars on the side of democracy and freedom.  The Second World War alone launched the manufacturing might of South Africa largely due to the support of the war effort.  By the end of WW2, South Africa, a muddle of small colonies and republics just 40 years earlier, now stood as a key contributing world player.

He was the only person with in-depth military experience to join The British War Cabinet, at the insistence of the King, during World War 1 (the rest were Politicians) and in so played a key role in guiding the outcome of World War 1.

He gave birth to the idea of an independent Air Force free from Navy or Army control in 1917, that saw the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the oldest independent air arm in the world and in addition carried this over to form The South African Air Force, the second oldest. Modern military construct now still follows The Smuts Report on the use of air power (see earlier Observation Post link Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force).

Smuts had a long string of successful military command, notwithstanding his Command of a Boer Commando during the Anglo-Boer war, evading defeat for the entire duration of the war.  He founded the South African Defence Force after Union, commanded UDF forces alongside Botha in taking German South West Africa during WW1, the first ‘Allied’ victory of the war.  He went on to command all the British and Commonwealth Forces in the East African campaign during WW1, chasing General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces all over East Africa, and in so doing he captured Dar-es-Salaam, the German East Africa capital. However, to really put Smuts in perspective, when he heard that his old enemy, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had fallen into destitution after WW2, it was Smuts who personally extended aid and food to him (to Smuts war was not a personal thing amongst soldiers).

During the Second World War he was appointed to the British King’s Privy Council.   The King was even warm to an idea proposed by Jock Colville (Churchill’s Private Secretary) that should Prime Minister Winston Churchill die during the war, Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have need to have been made a peer and constitutional issues would have prevented it.  Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become.

Again, as a member of the British War Council, he played a key role in the outcome of World War 2 and the Allied Victory.  He even accompanied Winston Churchill shoulder to shoulder to oversee Operation Overlord (D Day) and the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe.

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Smuts and Churchill in France overseeing Operation Overlord (D Day)

 

Many historians would now even point to the notion that Churchill regarded Smuts’ advice above anyone else’s advice on his war effort and strategy (see related Observation Post story Smuts’ keen sense of smell detects Germans hiding nearby).

Domestic acclaim

hobhouse

Emily Hobhouse

The deep-seated pain of the Boer War concentration camps and how it affected Afrikaner identity was also something that Smuts actively addressed (Ouma Smuts was herself interned in a concentration camp, and Smuts had also tragically lost family to the system).  He became a friend and confidant of Emily Hobhouse in addressing the issue with the British over many years. The Magnolia seeds she gave him in friendship now stand as a full botanical statement to this outside his house in Irene.

He brought the government to take measures to bring the treatment of Indians in South Africa into line with the provisions of the United Nations, putting them to the same equality and status of the ‘Cape Colourds’ who already enjoyed an equal universal franchise in South Africa at the time.  In doing so he became a life-long admirer of Mahatma Ghandi, who in turn also regarded Smuts as one of the greatest statesmen of his time.

To illustrate this admiration, Before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he presented General Smuts with a pair of sandals made by Gandhi himself. In 1939, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals with the following message:

“I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

(see earlier Observation Post story “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”).

In domestic policy, Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to ‘Indians’ and ‘Africans’ respectively (although there were still differences in the level of grants paid out). He also instituted the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946.

International acclaim

55bfc5b0ef884389cd7a9bddf3645bd8Smuts was honoured by many countries and on many occasions, as a standout Smuts was the first Prime Minister of a Commonwealth country (any country for that matter) to address both sitting Houses of the British Parliament – the Commons and the Lords during World War 2.  To which he received a standing ovation from both houses.

Such was the admiration of Smuts that his statue stands outside Westminster on Parliament Square in London for his contribution to world politics and as a great reformer.

Now he stands alongside the likes of Ghandi, Mandela and Abraham Lincoln as the only other ‘foreign’ statesmen honoured in the square.  Whilst, ironically, in South Africa his legacy has taken an absolute battering and his statues removed.

Take the time to listen to Smuts’ speech to both houses of Parliament, note his views on all mankind’s basic freedoms and what he envisions as the future by way of fundamental reforms.  Also note the short praise by Winston Churchill when Smuts concludes his speech and the reaction of the British Parliament, a reaction that has not been seen in British politics since, it is very unique.

 

Charity

In 1921 Smuts, along with Field Marshal Haig, established The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) in Cape Town.  The RCEL sought to consolidate war veteran’s charities all over the world to care for the returning military service personnel in the Commonwealth.  It saw the establishment or re-purposed institutions which now play a significant role in care for servicemen worldwide, The Royal British Legion, The Royal Canadian Legion, The Returned Services League Australia and The South African Legion to name a few.

He also made South Africa available to Jewish orphans escaping the Pogroms of Eastern Europe (despite resistance from South African nationalists).  For a full story on this remarkable chapter, see an earlier Observation Post 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

He again made South Africa available to Polish orphan children escaping the Nazi German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, establishing a grateful and thriving small Polish community in South Africa (see earlier Observation Post South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2 ).

Academia

Smuts was also an accredited philosopher, his work on Holism brought him high acclaim from his Philosopher peers.  Holism can be defined as “the fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” and was published in 1926.  For Smuts it formed the grounding behind his concepts of the League of Nations and United Nations.

Smuts was also an accredited Botanist, his books and illustrations on South African grasses (veld) are still regarded as the definitive work.

21731360_2020995841462737_816238144166127637_nWhilst studying law at Christ’s College at Cambridge University, he was rated as one of the top three students they have ever had (Christ’s College is nearly 600-year-old).  The other two were John Milton and Charles Darwin.

His intellect was unsurpassed, to pass an exam at Cambridge he learnt Greek (fluently) in just 6 days. His wife was no intellectual slouch either, later in life Jan Smuts and Ouma Smuts used to tease one another when one would recite a Bible verse and the other would be expected to recite the following one, from memory, in Greek!

In 1948, Smuts was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the first real non-Briton outside of British Royalty to be elected to the position in the 800 year-old history of Cambridge University.

Vision

Smuts’ idea of ‘Union’ and vision for South Africa was that of a ‘United States of South Africa’ including countries like Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the Union.  It was to be a significant player on the world stage drawing on Africa’s vast resources to see it as a leading political and economic power block (much like the USA is now).  Can you imagine if Botswana and Rhodesia voted to join the Union (they chose not to at the time), what a different history we would have seen in Southern Africa – ‘Apartheid’ may never have happened just for starters.

A humble man

Personally, Smuts was a God-fearing, frugal and humble man. He chose as his house an old rickety, uninsulated, fully corrugated iron, transportable military head office.  He preferred to sleep outside on the ‘stoup’ (veranda) on a small single hard wood bed, his garden was the natural veld. There were no stately mansions or ‘Nkandla’ with ‘fire pools’ for Smuts and he would not have had it anyway.

Legacy

The National Party in a sinister move, gradually and over the long period of Apartheid insidiously smeared Smuts and his legacy, erasing from the general consciousness of just what a great South African Smuts had become. Modern South Africans grew up with almost no regard for Smuts, and if you had to ask a young Black South African today who Smuts was he’ll probably say he was one of the white Apartheid monsters, the white English children will have no idea and the White Afrikaans ones may remember something about him been traitor to Afrikaners.  A student in Canada studying world politics would have a better grip on Smuts than a South African student.

Luckily this is beginning to change, and landmark Biographies are being written now which start to fully explore who and what Jan Smuts was, and it is both fascinating and eye-opening.  It is very hard to sum up all the greatness Smuts was to attain, and certainly for his time his deeds set him well apart from any of the other Statesmen South Africa has produced, certainly if you consider all the subsequent South African Premiers other than Mandela. We have a wonderful story in Smuts, and what we have a character of force – a polyglot, philosopher, botanist, intellectual, lawyer, politician, statesmen, reformer and warrior –  a story and a man who is best summed up by Alan Paton who said:

“Even the great thought he was great.”


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References: Jan Smuts reconsidered Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  Video footage copyright Associated Press.  My deep thanks to Philip Weyers for the Smuts family insight and access.

This article serves to highlights Smuts’ achievements by way of an Obituary.  There are other issues any national leader faces that highlight decisive but ‘unpopular’ action depending on the affected party’s point of view.  For more related articles in The Observation Post on  Jan Smuts please have a look at this link:

South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922