A South African invented the mine flail

The mine-flail became a critical anti-land mine device during D-Day (Operation Overlord), it helped open the way for troops and armoured vehicles over the extensive minefields laid by Hitler’s forces to form ‘the western wall’ and prevent invasion.  But did you know the mine flail was invented by a South African?

Inventing the Mine Flail

Technically a mine-flail is a vehicle-mounted device that makes a safe path through a mine-field by deliberately detonating land-mines in front of the vehicle that carries it.  It was usually mounted in front of a tank hull to offer the operators the armoured protection they needed, use of its weaponry and the tracked system to deal with terrain.

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Sherman Crab Mark II minesweeping flail tank, one of Hobart’s ‘funnies’, used to clear already identified minefields.

The mine flail consists of a number of heavy chains ending in fist-sized steel balls (flails) that are attached to a horizontal, rapidly rotating rotor mounted on two arms in front of the vehicle. The rotor’s rotation makes the flails spin wildly and violently pound the ground. The force of a flail strike above a buried mine mimics the weight of a person or vehicle and causes the mine to detonate, but in a safe manner that does little damage to the flails or the vehicle.

0aayzhghjgfjhf9999777_7The idea is commonly attributed to a South African soldier – Captain Abraham du Toit. A test rig was constructed in South Africa and results were so encouraging that du Toit was promoted and sent to England to develop the idea.

Before Capt. du Toit left for England, he described his idea to Captain Norman Berry, a mechanical engineer who had been sent to South Africa in 1941 to evaluate the system.

North Africa

Captain Berry later served in the British Eight Army during the North African Campaign. He had become an enthusiast for the mine flail idea; he lobbied senior officers to commission the development of a flail and carried out his own experiments with mine flails in the spring of 1942 to deal with the extensive minefields laid by Rommel’s forces in the desert campaign.

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A Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 2 November 1942.

Later Major L. A. Girling was given the task of developing a similar device after it had been independently re-invented by another South African officer. When Berry heard of this, he handed over his work to Girling (who had no idea he was duplicating Captain du Toit’s current work in England, as that was still highly secret).

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Captain du Toit (as unaware of developments in North Africa as they were of his), working with AEC Limited developed the Matilda Baron mine flail, using a Matilda tank and a frail for demonstrations and training.

Hobart’s Funnies 

Captain du Toit’s work fell under a program known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, which were a variety of unusually modified tanks operated during the by the 79th Armoured Division  of the British Army or by specialists from the Royal Engineers.

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A Sherman Crab flail tank coming ashore from an LCT during the invasion of Walcheren Island, 1 November 1944.

They were designed to overcome the problems that more standard tanks experienced during the amphibious landings and focussed on the problems of the Normandy D-Day landings. These tanks played a major part on the British and Commonwealth beaches during the landings. They were forerunners of the modern combat engineering vehicle and were named after their commander,  Major General Percy Hobart.

A number of experimental flail tanks were produced, including the Valentine Tank, the M4 Sherman – the Sherman Mark IV and Mark V Scorpions and the “Sherman Lobster”. Eventually one of these, the Sherman Crab, went into full production and saw active service.

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Sherman Crab flail tanks in front of burning buildings in Arnhem, 14 April 1945.

Captain du Toit himself had become a strong advocate of a concept called the parambulator mine flail – a self-contained device with its own engine, that could be pushed ahead of any tank that was available. However, the consensus of opinion favoured special-purpose tanks with a permanently mounted flail system and he returned to South Africa in 1943.

In Conclusion 

After the war ended, so vital was this contribution to the Allied victory and the war effort, that in 1948, Capt. Abraham du Toit would receive an award of £13,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors for his work on the mine flail (a sizeable award in its day). Nine others (including four South Africans) would share a further £7,000.

And there you have it in truth – South Africa led the way on this most critical device for D-Day, and an old adage stands – faced with a problem like a mine-field – a South African makes a plan!

South Africans continued to ‘make a plan’ in developing and leading anti-mine vehicles which continued well into the Angolan Border War.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

Donald Gray South African D-Day hero (and one-armed movie star): Donald Gray

Albie Gotze “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

Tommy Thomas South African D Day Hero: Lt. D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC

Cecil Bircher South African D Day Hero: Lt. Cecil Bircher MC

Royston Turnball Supreme South African heroism on Omaha Beach, Lt. Royston Turnbull DSC

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

Jan Smuts South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

Jan Smuts and Churchill Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day


Reference

Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia.  Images copyright Imperial War Museum

“Bravery in the face of desperate circumstances” Oswald Reid VC

Honouring a son of South Africa and one of our greatest and bravest World War 1 heroes, receiving his Victoria Cross for valour holding out against all odds in a part of the war often overlooked – Mesopotamia (now modern-day Iraq), in a war against the Ottomans (Turks)  – Captain Oswald Austin Reid VC. This is his story.

Early Life

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Captain Oswald Reid VC

Oswald Reid was the third child in a family of seven, he was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on 2nd November 1893. He was the eldest of three sons, the others being Victor and Clifford, and he also had four sisters. His father, Harry Austin Reid, was a pioneer architect of Johannesburg and formerly a captain in the commander in chief’s bodyguard regiment (Lord Roberts’ Regiment), having fought in the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

Oswald’s mother, Alice Gertrude Reid, was also well-connected, being a pioneer of both Johannesburg and Kimberley. She was the daughter of George Bottomley JP, Mayor of Kimberley, Cape Colony and member of Legislative Council for Griqualand West.

Oswald was educated at the Diocesan College, Cape Town, and later at St John’s College, Johannesburg and at Radley College, England. He arrived at Radley in 1910, and although he was only 17, he could be mistaken for 21. He soon earned the nickname “Kaffir Reid” (because of his South African origins, now considered a derogatory term), and was captain of the rugby and cricket teams, and was a senior prefect. He was also a Colour Sergeant in the college Officer Training Corps.

Oswald became an agricultural student and in 1913 he went to the Netherlands to learn Dutch and study law with a view to working in the Transvaal, thereafter was later given a position in the Agricultural Department in South Africa.

Western Front – World War 1 

The outbreak of war interrupted Oswald’s career in Agriculture in South Africa, he shipped out at the start of the war and volunteered to join the British Army on 14th August 1914 as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion King’s Liverpool Regiment.

Oswald Reid was promoted to Full Lieutenant on 5th March 1915 when his battalion left for Le Havre, arriving the next day, and he began his service as a bombing officer. His battalion was part of Sirhind Brigade, and saw action at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

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The King’s Liverpool Regiment moving along a communication trench leading to the front line; near Blairville Wood, 16th April 1916.

A month later he was wounded by a gunshot to the scalp and in the left cheek from a grenade during the Second Battle of Ypres on 27th April.

Lt Oswald Reid initially suffered from headaches from his injury, but they gradually relented and he appeared before medical boards. On 28th August he was back in France, this time with 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division, he was again wounded in face again when serving with the 1st Battalion at Arras, he left France on 6th May 1916 to recover from his wounds.

Once fit again, and now promoted to Captain he was transferred to Peshawar (modern-day Pakistan), India on 21st August. He took part in the Mohmand campaign until November 1916, when he embarked for Mesopotamia, (modern day Iraq) take part in the operations at Kut-el-Amara, Baghdad, and Samarrah fighting against the Ottomans (modern day Turks).

The Mesopotamian Campaign

The Mesopotamian campaign was a campaign fought in the Middle East theatre of World War 1, between the ‘Allies’ represented by Britain and Empire troops from Australia and India and the Ottoman Empire troops, mainly Turkish and Arab troops which had aligned themselves with Germany and the ‘Central Powers’.

The Ottoman Empire had conquered the most of the Middle East in the early 16th century, and ruled through local proxy rulers.  As with the later modern-day Gulf Wars, the central cause of the Mesopotamian campaign revolved around the same ‘black gold’ – oil, with the same urgency to secure oil supply to nations depending on it for their economies and war effort.

Also like the later Gun Wars in Iraq, the operational area of the Mesopotamian campaign for the British was limited to the lands and areas watered by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.  The prize, as was the prize in previous wars in the region was the capital – Baghdad.

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As other soldiers run for the cover of slit trenches, an Indian Lewis gun team engage an enemy aircraft, Mesopotamia 1918. During the long and arduous campaign along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, from Basra to Baghdad and beyond, over 29,000 Indian soldiers perished in what was their most significant contribution to the British war effort of WW1.

Victoria Cross

Captain Oswald Reid received his Victoria Cross fighting on the Diyala River, south-east of Baghdad, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) – between the 8th to the 10th of March 1917

In the push to take the City of Baghdad from the Ottoman Turks, under heavy fire from the defending Turks the British experienced a costly set-back trying to cross the Diyala River just south-east of Baghdad, on the night of 7th March 1917 – using pontoons to ferry their troops they failed to cross.

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Turkish infantry launching a counter-attack. Mesopotamian Campaign

The British made a second attempt to cross the river the following night on the 8th March. The pontoons again came under very heavy Turkish fire and of nearly 1,000 British troops trying to cross the river, only 110 got across.

Captain Reid was the only surviving senior officer to make it, now attached to the 6th Battalion, The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, Captain Reid succeeded in gathering together the three separate pockets of troops on the far side of the river opposite the main body of British still unable to cross the river.

After Captain Reid’s lines of communication had been cut by the sinking of the pontoons. He maintained this position for 30 hours against constant attacks by bombs, machine-guns and rifle fire, with the full knowledge that repeated attempts at relief had failed and that his ammunition was all but exhausted. It was greatly due to his tenacity that the crossing of the river was effected the next night. During the operations he was wounded (this was the third time in his military career).

Captain Reid and the men with him held out until the third and successful crossing of the Diyala by British troops early in the morning of 10 March. By then Reid’s force had been reduced to about thirty men.  Captain Reid had literally held his position at all costs under the most perilous of circumstances, his actions had turned the tide of the battle in favour of the British, the road to Baghdad was now open.

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A British artillery battery crossing a pontoon bridge over the River Diyala near Baghdad in March 1917. This bridge was completed by the 71st Field Company, Royal Engineers, at 11am on 10 March, following a night river crossing by the 5th Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment, 88th Field Company, Royal Engineers, and the 8th Welch Pioneers to secure a bridgehead on the Turkish held side of the river.

Realising that Baghdad could not now be defended against the British Expeditionary Force, the Turkish army evacuated the city on the 10th March and retreated northwards. The British entered the city the following day on the 11th.

For his leadership and bravery in the most extreme of circumstances, Captain Reid was Mentioned in Dispatches by General Maude on capture of Baghdad and subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for Valour. With this he walked into history as the first Johannesburg born VC recipient.

Victoria Cross Citation:

For most conspicuous bravery in the face of desperate circumstances.

By his dauntless courage and gallant leadership he was able to consolidate a small post with the advanced troops, on the opposite side of a river to the main body, after his line of communications had been cut by the sinking of the pontoons.

He maintained this position for thirty hours against constant attacks by bombs, machine gun and shell fire, with the full knowledge that repeated attempts at relief had failed, and that his ammunition was all but exhausted. It was greatly due to his tenacity that the passage of the river was effected on the following night.

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British soldier signalling (by means of heliograph) across Baghdad from the roof of the old Turkish artillery barracks.

Whipping up Support

Oswald Reid was promoted to Acting Major, and on in October 1917 he was back in action and was wounded again (4th time in his career). Whilst on the mend and on leave from all his wounds he returned to South Africa to drum up support for the war effort.  Whilst in Johannesburg he attended a civic reception and visited St John’s College, where he talked to the boys about the Mesopotamian campaign.

His war not yet done, Acting Major Reid VC returned to Mesopotamia and in December 1917 he was again ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.

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British ‘Tommy’ gives one of the starving Turks a bit of his biscuit. Mesopotamian Campaign.

Fighting Bolsheviks

After the First World War, Captain Reid received his Victoria Cross by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 22nd February 1919 and was accompanied by Victor, one of his younger brothers, who was training as a pilot with the Royal Air Force.

With more soldering to come for this South African, in April 1919 he left for Russia as part of General Allenby’s Allied intervention force in north Russia. He was to take part in the Russian campaign on as a member of the Slavo-British Legion Force sent to relieve the White Russians in their struggle against the Bolsheviks.

Discharge 

On 6th February 1920 he was finally discharged of his duties from the military and Oswald returned to Johannesburg. On the 1st April 1920 he resigned his commission with the British Forces and obtained a substantive commission as a Captain serving with Transvaal Scottish in The Union of South Africa’s forces.

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Early South African Legion (BESL) badge

Oswald Reid VC became the Secretary of the Comrades of the Great War League – a veterans association to assist returning WW1 veterans (the ‘Comrades’ marathon is named after this organisation).  In 1921, under the guidance of General Jan Smuts, the ‘Comrades of the Great War ‘was amalgamated with other veteran associations to form The British Empire Services League – South Africa (BESL), this organisation is now known as The South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) and continues the work of Remembrance and veteran assist.

Later on Oswald Reid VC decided to take up politics and in March stood unsuccessfully for the Troyeville constituency in Johannesburg.  Then, at the very young age of 26 tragedy struck.

Death

There is little doubt that his many wounds and service in the First World War had undermined his health, and in the autumn he became ill with gastroenteritis and pneumonia. He was unable to fight it off and died in hospital on 27th October 1920. He was buried in Braamfontein Cemetery, and two years later, a VC memorial was unveiled in the cemetery.

In addition to the VC, he was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, Medaglia Al Valore Militaire and was Mentioned in Despatches. His medals are held by the Ditsong National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg, South Africa.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related work and Links

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clement Robertson VC Under deadly fire he directed his tanks to their objective … on foot! Clement Robertson VC

References

Large extracts published with the kind permission of The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen and The VC and GC Association in 2013. with sincere thanks to Charles Ross from The South African Legion. Additional Reference and extracts – The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria Cross and George Cross – on-line.  Images copyright Imperial War Museum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins

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

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

World War 1

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

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

Victoria Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

A life less ordinary

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Hewitt VC – medals

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

Related Work and Links:

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

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

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

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

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


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

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

 

Delville Wood’s ‘Weeping Cross’

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

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

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

The Legend

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

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

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

The legacy

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Some explanations 

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

Related links and work

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

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

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

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

Mascots at Delville Wood: Nancy the Springbok Nancy the Springbok

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

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


Researched by Peter Dickens.

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

An ‘unsung’ icon of Liberty … the ‘Lady in White’

When researching wartime memories of British and Commonwealth servicemen and women during World War 2, a couple of significant memories will stick out for them, the first time in combat, the loss of a friend or comrade, even where they were the day the war ended.

Perla-Siedle-GibsonBut more often than not only one iconic South African makes it into the distinctive personal memories of tens of thousands of British, South African and other commonwealth soldiers and sailors taking part in the war – and it’s not Jan Smuts, it’s a relatively little known soprano known only as the ‘Lady in White’.

The ‘lady in white’ in her day was a living legend, she had ‘sung’ her way into the hearts of thousands, but there is a very ‘unsung’ part of Perla Siedle Gibson’s legacy, and it includes her legacy as an anti-apartheid campaigner for democracy and political freedom in South Africa alongside Sailor Malan and his ‘Torch Commando’ – now not many people know that.

So who is this South African who is emblazoned on the narrative of World War 2 in a more memorable manner than just about any politician or military leader could ever hope for, who is this prima Anti-Apartheid campaigner and why is she not appropriately recognised as one of South Africa’s most significant women in our modern history?

Perla Gibson

Perla Gibson was a wartime national South African treasure – the famous ‘Lady in White’, Perla Gibson would sing to convoys of troopships, merchant ships and fighting vessels visiting Durban harbour during the Second World War – and her memory would sink into the hearts of servicemen and women the world over.

Perla Siedle Gibson was a South African soprano and artist, she was born in Durban in 1888 at the height of the Victorian era, the daughter of Otto Siedle, a prominent local shipping agent, businessman and musician of German extraction. Her two brothers Karl and Jack were well-known cricketers in South Africa. Karl was killed in the First World War and Jack went on to international fame as one of South Africa’s greatest test cricketers.

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As a young woman in the early twentieth century she studied music and art in Europe and the United States and gave recitals in London for Granville Bantock (a British composer) and Henry Wood (a conductor) and gave a rectitude in New York before returning to Durban and raising a family.

By the start of the Second World War, she was 50 years old, with her performance life well behind her and considerable worry ahead of her, for she had reared a military family. Her husband, Air Sergeant Jack Gibson was in the South African Air Force; her two sons, and only daughter, were in the army.

A really ‘Big’ audience and a ‘Big’ heart 

During World War 2 Durban was an extremely busy station for convoys of ships en route to the fronts in North Africa and the Far East. Of the tens of thousands of Allied men and women convoyed over vast distances at sea to these battlefronts most would often round the Cape of Good Hope and then work northeast along the coast to Durban as a final refreshing stop-over before finally reaching the ports servicing battle-fronts.

Durban would quickly become the busiest seaport on the South African coast and a way station on the ocean highway to the war. Through Durban came Commonwealth soldiers and airmen en route from New Zealand, Australia and training bases throughout South Africa and Rhodesia bound for Europe and points far to the east; American servicemen bound for the jungles of Papua New Guinea, Buna and Gona; wounded soldiers on hospital ships; British and American naval ships by the hundreds and thousands of battered merchantmen and not to mention tens of thousands of South African military service men and women off to and returning from war.

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These were the stories of hundreds of thousands of men and women converging at some point on Durban and many would remember Durban as a place of not just bustling energy, but warmth and welcome.  But one person in their Durban experience really shines above all else – a short, stout woman all dressed in white, standing on the edge of the pier holding a megaphone and singing her heart out.

As each convoy of Allied ships passed through the narrow Durban harbour entrance, there she was, standing alone on North Pier, singing a welcome to them in her rich soprano voice. From April 1940 to August 1945, whether in the early dawn, wind, rain or the blazing sun, she never missed one convoy. Not even the one that sailed out on the day when she learned that her eldest son had been killed in action.

So how did this type of conviction and devotion to duty come about?

When Irish Eyes are Smiling

Gibson’s custom arose in April 1940 when she was seeing off a young Irish merchant seaman her family had entertained the day before. As his ship was departing he was said to have called across the water asking her to sing something Irish, and Gibson responded with a rendition of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” a song made popular around the time Perla was studying in Europe.

After this she decided to sing to every ship connected with the war which entered or left the harbour.  In effect she became South Africa’s own ‘Vera Lyn’ – and in a twist she was even to meet and befriend Vera Lynn after the war.

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Two famed women for singing to troops on quaysides. Dame Vera Lynn (known to the troops as “The Forces Sweetheart”) on the left and Perla Siedle Gibson (Known to the troops as “The Lady In White”) on the right whilst Vera Lynn was on tour in South Africa in the 1950’s.

Perla realised she could make a meaningful personal contrition to the war effort by boosting troop morale and it was the start of a ritual which she would continue doing as long as there were troopships to sing to.

From her small home on a hillside overlooking the harbour, she could see the daily comings and goings in the harbour—ships rounding the point, working up steam at the dock, or preparing to cast off. She would immediately get into her big Buick sedan and drive down the dockside. While security would not allow her to know in advance of ship movements, she was given a special entertainer pass that allowed her access to the secure docks. She took to wearing a sort of uniform—a plain white dress, a wide brimmed red hat and a red necklace. Whether this was a deliberate choice to allow sailors and servicemen to see her from far away as she sang them off, or was simply a wise choice to stay comfortable in hot African weather, we will never know. Soon however, her singing, her joyous personality and her great white and red presence earned her the admiration of everyone, worldwide fame and the title “The Lady in White.”

Never missing a beat

Perla Gibson would go on to sing to every ship that sailed into or out of Durban from April 1940 to August 1945.  She went on to sing to more than 5,000 ships and a total of about a quarter of a million Allied servicemen. Clad in her distinctive white with a red hat and necklace, standng on a spot where ships entering and leaving the harbour pass quite close, and singing patriotic and sentimental songs through a megaphone – which came from a torpedoed ship, and which grateful British soldiers had given her so she could be heard with more ease.

As the crowded ships passed into the harbour, men lining the landward rails saw ‘the lady in white’ singing powerfully through the gifted megaphone such popular songs as “There’ll Always be an England!”,”Land of Hope and Glory”,“It’s a long way to Tippereray”, “Home, Sweet Home”, “When the Lights Go On Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”.

Soldiers’ talk led to the fame of the Lady in White spreading around the world. A British army newspaper called Parade, dated 3 March 1945, described Gibson as a highlight of troops’ visits to Durban.

Life Magazine in 1944 recorded a “52-year-old Perla Siedle is South Africa’s No. 1 dockside morale-builder. Yanks call her “Kate Smith” and “Ma”; Poles have named her the “South African Nightingale”; and to Britishers she is the “Soldier’s Sweetheart” and the “Lady in White.”   The ship’s Captain “usually stands on the bridge and salute her as the ship glides by. Czechs and Poles aboard ship click their heels and stand at rigid attention”.  When welcoming American troops Perla “would sing The Star Spangled Banner”.

Life Magazine goes further to record:

The Yanks never ask for hymns although the British sometimes do. Australians always want Waltzing Matilda. South Africans like their own Afrikaans folksongs like Sarie Marais. Czechs, Poles, Greeks and other Continentals prefer opera, so for them she does arias from Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. For hospital ships, Perla gives extra long performances.

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It was not uncommon for troops on board a troop ship to goad Perla to sing more. “Hey Ma, sing us a song… Ma, come on, be a sport. Ma, give us Land of Hope and Glory Ma…” Perla was not perturbed, singing came easily and she would break into song. There would be a silence and then the troops joined in, their voices being heard above the hustle and bustle of wartime Durban.

For South Africans off to war she sang popular South African and Afrikaner songs, – like Bokkie and Sarie Marais. But her all time favourites were singing to the British servicemen the ‘Tommies’ Perla said of them “I adore British Tommies. They make you sing and sing and never let you stop. I once sang six hours at a stretch for them.”

Consider her impact from this memoir by a Merchant Seaman Gordon Sollors:

“The next thing I observed was one of those enduring memories, which we all have. As we sailed (majestically I thought) into the harbour, I had a vague idea that “something was happening” on the quayside. When I finally looked down and took notice of what was going on, I could see a person standing there, holding what appeared to be a megaphone (no such thing as loud hailers then!) The person was a “large” lady, dressed in a long, flowing white dress, and wearing an ENORMOUS wide brimmed red hat. Although she looked quite out of place among all the cranes, railway trucks, and all the other things that generally litter a quayside, she looked absolutely stunning.

She stood on the dock side calling “Hello there” through the megaphone to the soldiers as the ship came nearer to the quay. Once the soldiers heard her, and called back, she started singing the “patriotic” music hall type songs popular in those days such as Tipperary, Roll Out The Barrel, Pack Up Your Troubles and Bless ’em All.

She did all this in a superb voice through her megaphone. Had there been a roof, I’m sure she would have brought it down as the soldiers enthusiastically joined in. Not only was it a diversion from the very boring day to day life of the last four or five weeks on board the ship, it was somebody going out of her way to entertain them. There was also a nostalgic touch of “Old England” in the content of the songs. Such a performance would never have taken place in England, not only because of the secrecy, which necessarily shrouded troop movements there, but also because in general, the public was absolutely barred from dockside areas. It was a very moving occasion indeed”.

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Two wonderful photos by an unknown photographer show Perla standing next to a bollard and singing

R.H. Nicklin recounts in his book ‘Civilian to Sailor’ the importance of ‘The Lady in White’:

The thing that makes Durban stand out above all other places, and the thing that will always be remembered by me and every sailor that enters this harbour is “The Lady in White” and why? As Dorsetshire sailed into the harbour for the first time though the entrance I could see people standing on the jetty, but what stood out from all these people is a figure standing on something higher than the rest and dressed all in white. As we closed into our berth on the jetty I could see distinctly that the figure is that of a woman and she could be plainly heard singing through a microphone [sic] loud and clear “Land of Hope and Glory.” I can tell you that there wasn’t many sailors who didn’t have a tear in their eyes or a lump in their throat” …  “I know one thing she certainly gave my moral a boost and I only hope that I hear her a lot more times

Perla would never miss a beat she would even sing her husband, two sons and daughter off to the war from the harbour. When she got a telegram that her 26-year-old son Second Lieutenant Clement Roy Gibson was killed on 14 March 1944 while serving with the Black Watch, she put away the telegram and drove to the harbour and sang to the departing ships, such was her devotion to duty and emotional strength.

13450028_10154250644792329_4746410985414422490_nAn unsung icon of Liberty 

Perla’s strength, her sense of ‘duty’ and ‘conviction’ did not stop after the war either.  A little known part of Perla Gibson history is that she even took an active stand against the National Party’s plans to implement their policies of Apartheid after 1948.

In the early 1950’s she backed the returning war veterans’ mass protests against Apartheid.  As a high profile and recognisable personality of the war, Perla Gibson was standing shoulder to shoulder with Sailor Malan and participating and singing in Torch Commando rallies in defiance of the National Party and Apartheid.

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Torch Commando rally in Caps Town. Protestors carrying thousands of oil soaked ‘torches’ of Liberty in defiance of Apartheid

She was present next to Sailor Malan during the Torch Commando anti-apartheid rally in Cape Town during March 1952 in front of 10,000 South African World War 2 veterans and 50,000 civilians on protest, it was at this rally when 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”.

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Rare photograph of Perla Gibson accompanying Sailor Malan and speaking out at a Torch Commando rally in March 1952, Cape Town – Image LIFE magazine

Not afraid of the dangers which came with her political convictions, during the Cape Town “Torch” veterans carrying oil lit ‘torches’ of ‘liberty’ 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. As tensions grew over the protest the National Party MP Johannes Streydom finally warned them that he would use the South African security forces against “those who are playing with fire and speaking of civil war and rebellion”.

DF Malan’s Apartheid government was so alarmed by the activities and broad-based support of The Torch Commando they acted as was their custom – decisively and crushed the movement with both legislation and direct threats to veterans livelihoods, whilst at the same time painting people like Sailor Malan and his supporters like Perla Gibson as ‘traitors’ because of their wartime support for Great Britain and their ‘unpatriotic’ stance to Apartheid.

The Torch Commando, South Africa’s first mass mobilisation protest movement against Apartheid (not the ANC) was eventually very effectively buried in an unrelenting smear campaign.  It was written completely out of South Africa’s school history books and national consciousness by a Nationalist government fearful of heroes been made out iconic military veterans in countenance to their grand plans of Apartheid. As a result ‘The Torch’ remains obscure and even inconvenient to the current narrative of the ‘Apartheid Struggle’ as it was primarily a ‘white’ movement and not a ‘black’ one.

A legacy to be remembered 

The National Party’s opinion aside, Perla Gibson’s value was sincerely felt by Allied and South African servicemen and women both in South Africa and the world over.  Perla Gibson sang at the quayside at Maydon Wharf for the very last time to a departing ship in February 1971. Very fittingly that ship was a British frigate with a South African legacy – the HMS Zulu. Her very last song, ‘wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’. She passed away just a week later on 6 March 1971, shortly before her 83rd birthday.

A year later a bronze plaque donated by men of the Royal Navy was erected to her memory on Durban’s North Pier on the spot where she used to sing.  It read: Royal Navy Memorial

To the Memory of Perla Gibson “The Lady in White” who sang to countless thousands of British Commonwealth and Allied Servicemen as they passed through Durban over the years 1940 to 1971. This tablet was presented by the Officers and Men of the Royal Navy.

When the North Pier was redeveloped the plaque and plinth was moved. In 1995 a statue to Perla was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II, it was commissioned in 1995 by Sam Morley who wrote the book “Durban’s Lady in White“. The statue was created by local artist Barbara Siedle, who is the niece of the ‘Perla Siedle Gbson, and it was originally placed in a prominent place next to the Emtateni Centre (which was part of the Ocean Terminal Building on the T-Jetty).  In June 2016 it was announced that the statue would be relocated to the Port Natal Maritime Museum as it was no longer accessible due to changes in the Ocean Terminal.  The statue was relocated next to the Britannia Room, but still within the harbour area.

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The Perla Siedle Gibson Mobile Library was also founded to  serve British seamen on all ship and a 5 room unit at the Highway Hospice was created with funds raised in her memory.  The boarding establishment at Glenwood High School was named Gibson House after Roy and its colour is white in her honour.

In Conclusion

The memory of Perla Siedle Gibson left an indelible mark on those servicemen who experienced her performance, and her dedication to her task was legendary,  However her legacy is largely fading into memory in South Africa as greater socio-political events have gripped the country since the implementation of Apartheid, and the Nobel deeds of South African’s who went to war during World War 2 fall to the wayside and out of the national consciousness.

A real pity, considering Perla Gibson is one of South Africa’s most predominant women from our history, arguably one of the most well-known artists we have ever produced, and she is both a ‘wartime’ icon and even a ‘struggle’ icon.  She is at the moment a very ‘unsung’ heroine of liberty.

However, the nature of  modern media as to what it is, the truth will eventually ‘out’  – especially when it comes to our WW2 heroes and heroines like Sailor Malan and Perla Gibson, sons and daughters of South Africa who not only stood against tyranny of Nazism but also stood against the injustices of Apartheid.

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Related Works and Links

Vera Lynn and Perla Gibson The Forces Sweetheart & The Lady in White, two iconic women of WW2

Sailor Malan Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Torch Commando The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!

SA Naval Sacrifice WW2 The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Information sources – Wikipedia Durban’s Lady in White: Perla Siedle Gibson by Durban Local History Museums, 30 January 2017 By Dave O’Malley. Gibson, P.S., The Lady in White, Purnell & Sons, 1964. Durban’s Lady in White. An autobiography.  Perla Siedle Gibson. Aedificamus Press, 1991.  Photos Richard Mallory Allnutt Collection and Wikipedia.  Dockside Diva by John Barkham — First published in LIFE magazine in 1944. Sailor Malan’s Revolt’ in Cape Town a war hero speaks up for freedom – LIFE magazine 25 June 1951.

Shooting down enemy FW 190 at “point blank range” – SAAF hero; Albert Sachs

Here is a another fantastic colourised photograph of a South African WW2 hero with an extraordinary tale of heroism. Lieutenant Albert Sachs – a member of the South African Air Force (SAAF) who was seconded to No. 92 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.  Here he is seen sitting on his Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII at Canne in Italy.

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This very heroic South African, known as ‘Bertie’ to his friends is best explained in his own Sortie Reports and Squadron Reports:

30 November 1943

‘I was flying Yellow 3. At 0935 I saw 10+ 109s and 190s which we had been warned of by Control, bombing along the secondary road parallel with the Sangro River towards the River mouth.

I dived on them and as I approached they turned and began straffing the road towards the mountains. I closed in on a 190 and fired several bursts from quarter astern and astern from 250 – 50 yds. He dived N.W. along the side of the mountain and after seeing strikes on the cockpit I saw the A/C (aircraft) half roll and it crashed in the vicinity of H.1898.

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German FW 190

I then broke slightly up as a Warhawk was on the (Me) 190s No 2s tail. The Warhawk fired several shots none of which hit the E/A. He then broke up and I closed in on the 190 and fired a burst at quarter astern from 100 yds. getting strikes on the wing roots, as I was firing the Warhawk flew through my sights so I broke away and then lost sight of the 190. I then rejoined the Patrol.

I claim One F.W 190 destroyed. One F.W 190 damaged.’

Editors Note: the Warhawk referred to here is another Allied aircraft – the Curtiss P-40 – see below, the variants flown by the RAF and Commonwealth forces knew it as a ‘Kittyhawk’ (some variants also became knows as ‘Tomahawks’), the United States Air Force and other US armed forces called it a ‘Warhawk’ – see below.

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American Curtiss P40 Warhawk

5 December 1943

On the 5th of December 1943 Lt. Albert Sachs scored the 99th and 100th victories for his Squadron when he shot down two Focke Wulf Fw 190s near Pescara, before colliding with a third Fw 190 and being forced to bale out.

The Officer Record Brief entry for 92 Squadron provides the following, detailed insight into this engagement:

‘Lt. Sachs destroyed two FW 190s and probably destroyed another. His story is an epic. He positioned himself behind the twelve-plus fighter-bombers while two others attacked the fighter cover. After destroying an FW 190 with a one-second burst, Lt. Sachs saw another on the tail of a Spitfire, so he turned into it, firing a 30-degree deflection shot, then fired again from point-blank range astern.

The aircraft blew up, and portions hit Sachs’ windscreen, smashing it, while another large piece struck his starboard wing.

FW 190s were then diving on him from both sides and one shell exploded on his tail plane, blowing off his starboard elevator. He turned toward another FW 190 which as attacking him at point-blank range on his port side, and felt a jar as he collided with it. The enemy aircraft dived away out of control minus its fin and rudder.

The attack continued and finally, after his elevator and aileron control were useless, Lt. Sachs was forced to bail out. He landed safely in his own lines within 60 yards of the wreckage of his Spitfire.’

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Royal Air Force Spitfire Mk VIII

He was discovered by ‘friendly’ Italians and was able to return to his Squadron to fight another day.  After a period as a flying instructor in the United Kingdom, Sachs, now a Major, returned to Italy to command No. 93 Squadron RAF from September 1944 to February 1945.

In September 1944 No.93 Squadron was moved from operations covering the D-Day (Operation Overlord) forces and moved to Italy, where it operated as a fighter-bomber squadron until the end of the war. At the end of the war the squadron took part in the occupation of Austria, before being disbanded in September 1945.  Albert Sachs was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

Here pilots from No. 93 Squadron RAF Detachment under Albert Sachs command leave their dugout for a scramble at Nettuno, Italy. Leading the way, from left to right, are: Flying Officer E Stewart of Ipswich, Suffolk; Lieutenant J Marais SAAF of Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sergeant D Karck of Cockerham, Lancashire.

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Salute to ‘Bertie’ Sachs, another very notable, brave and successful South African Air Force pilot of World War 2.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Photographer: Flying Officer B. Bridge B, Royal Air Force official photographer. Image and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, image and affectional caption work obtained from Colourising World War 2.

Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day

It was D-Day+6 when South African statesman, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, was also to cross over to Normandy, accompanying the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by his side.  To this point Smuts had played a pivot role in not only the planning and strategy behind Operation Overlord and the Normandy campaign, he also played a central role as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor and using his considerable political skill, Jan Smuts was to keep Churchill in line with the wishes and objects of not only Overlord’s military commanders (mainly British and American), but also those of the King of Great Britain – George VI.

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Churchill in the lead up to the Normandy campaign was not in favour of the entire operation, he felt that the focus should remain on the Italian campaign and maintained that any available resources should be concentrated to winning it by entering Germany and Austria via what he termed ‘the soft under-belly of Europe’ and not France. The truth of the matter was that the ‘soft-underbelly’ had turned into a slow and costly grind through mountainous terrain, and instead had become a ‘tough old gut’.  Allied military planners now looked to open a third front to stretch the Axis the forces across an Eastern, Western and Southern front.

Operation Overlord

Smuts was to bring considerable expertise to win Churchill over to backing Operation Overlord and opening the third front via France, but he had another challenge, once won over Churchill insisted on meddling in just about everything to do with the invasion plans, bringing him into direct conflict with General Montgomery specifically. General Montgomery was assigned to command the 21st Army Group which consisted of all Allied ground forces that would take part in Operation Overlord, under the overall direction of the Supreme Commander, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Smuts was to stick to Churchill like glue, never leaving his side, not for a moment – he was to arbitrate and advise not only Churchill, but the entire supreme command, lending a guiding and experienced hand – before and during the campaign itself.  In doing so Smuts was to cement a formidable international reputation as not only a sought after military strategist but also a very skilful politician in forming the vision for a post D-Day invasion Europe and the world at large post war.

Typically Churchill had insisted on personally hitting the beach-heads on D-Day itself (undoubtably Smuts, who was no stranger to danger, would have had no option but to be at his side).  Churchill felt it important that as Prime Minister that he should be ashore with the assault forces leading from the front. His peers, the commanders and the King thought him quite mad and it eventually took an intervention from the King George VI to Churchill to insist he was too valuable to be risking his life on what would have amounted to a Public Relations antic.  Ignoring this, as D-Day approached it took a further letter from King George to literally order Churchill to stand down at the last-minute.

Not to be outdone, Churchill did the next best thing, and with Jan Smuts at his side the two of them on D-Day itself – 6th June 1944 went to the port with journalists in toe to wish Godspeed to British and Canadian troops embarking for the liberation of Europe. The troops waiting on the quayside gave the two Prime Ministers (Smuts and Churchill) a hearty cheer as they went up the gangway.

This Pathé newsreel called ‘over there’ captures D-Day and the beach-head breakout (if you watch to the end you’ll see Churchill and Smuts).

In addition, prior to the departing troops on June 6th, the newspapers of the time noted the following as to Smuts and his involvement in the planning;

“General Smuts also accompanied King George V, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on a visit to General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters on ‘D-Day’ and went to the operations room to follow the progress of the battle. Throughout the day General Smuts received independent reports from the highest quarters, of the progress of the invasion operations.”

It was at Eisenhower’s headquarters that, a few days earlier, that Smuts had met the French soldier and statesman General De Gaulle at “a quiet, tree-shaded spot” and that “General Eisenhower, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden were there as well.” The group had spent “nearly two hours together, largely in the war room tent of the Allied Supreme Commander, where the walls are hung with detailed maps and the planned liberation of France.”

Not able to keep Churchill and Smuts away from the action for too long, it was a short 6 days into the landing operations (D-Day +6) on 12 June 1944, that the two of them bordered a destroyer, the HMS Kelvin crossing over to France and into the teeth of the fighting.

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12 June 1944,  The boarding party with Field Marshal Jan Smuts (right), Prime Minister Winston Churchill (centre) and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Rear Admiral W E Parry (bottom right).” Crossing to France D-Day +6

The K-Class destroyer is the HMS Kelvin which reached the French coast at 9.30 a.m. and had steamed through the battle fleet during a bombardment and later joined in the shelling of the German north-east flank. Churchill and Smuts were then conveyed to the beach via a “DUKW” amphibious vehicle where they then met Field Marshal Montgomery, where-after they departed in a jeep for Montgomery’s headquarters for a de-briefing of the progress and offer him advise on the next phases.

Whilst at Montgomery’s head quarters, General Smuts took up the role of photographer (the reason he’s not in the picture) and he was to take this world-famous photograph. From left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery’s mobile headquarters in Normandy.

Churchill:Smuts D-Day

Smuts was rather lucky to survive his visit to Normandy, as both he and Churchill could very well have been killed while visiting Monty’s headquarters at Cruelly.

While visiting the headquarters and as senior officers stood outside with the Prime Minister (Churchill), Field Marshal Smuts sniffed the air and said, “There are some Germans near us now…I can always tell!”

And lo and behold, just two days later, two fully armed German paratroopers emerged from a nearby Rhododendron bush, where they had been hiding all along (they had become isolated from their unit, seeing that they were unable to rejoin they chose to surrender). Had they used their guns and grenades on Churchill (and Monty as well as Smuts), everything would have changed.

There you have it, Smuts’ keen sense of smell and intuition is another attribute you can add to the very long list of honours attributed to this great South African.

The below mage shows Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts with  General Sir Bernard Montgomery at his headquarters, 12 June 1944 looking at aircraft activity overhead.

smuts

It is also really amazing when one considers that Smuts, an erstwhile enemy of the British empire during the South African War (1899-1906), was not only to reconcile himself to his former enemy over the succeeding years, but was also to be greatly respected by two British prime ministers: Lloyd George and Winston Churchill during the First and Second World Wars respectively and served on the appointed war councils in both.  During the Second World War he was even appointed to the British King’s Privy Council – finding himself at the epicentre on how the war was to be conducted and fought.

Notwithstanding the fact that South Africa, with Smuts as head of state, played a very key role in the liberation of Europe, Smuts also represented the large contingent of South African Union Defence Force personnel taking part in Operation Overlord seconded to the Royal Air Force, flying all manner of fighters, transports and gliders and the South Africans seconded to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and serving on the many vessels used in the landings and in the ground invasion forces.

In conclusion

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 (which very nearly happened in Normandy), Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have to be a peer and British Parliamentary process would have prevented it. Smuts had also already refused a peerage and South Africa’s constitution would not have allowed him to do anyway as he was already the Prime Minister of South Africa – and politics was such with his National Party opposition accusing him of being a ‘traitor’ at every turn, that Smuts in all likelihood would have refused outright lest he alienate his own very split Afrikaner community completely.

Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become to the war effort – strategically, tactically and politically, he was South Africa’s greatest military export – without any doubt – his council sought by Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Field Marshals and Generals. His role in Overlord would rid the world of Nazism and pave the way to the ‘new’ western democratic order and United Nations order that we know today. Simply put Smuts can easily take up the same mantle as Churchill and can stand the very epicentre of our modern values of liberty and western democratic freedoms.

Related Work and Links

Churchill’s desk and Smuts; Churchill’s Desk

Jan Smuts; South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

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


Written by Peter Dickens.

Photo copyright Imperial War Museum – caption thanks to The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek. Nicholas Rankin,“Churchill’s Wizards, British Genius for Deception 1914-1945”