Comrades legend, Springbok and war veteran – the remarkable Bill Payn

So, which Springbok rugby player and war veteran also has a top ten Comrades finish running in his rugby boots and then went on to play a game of rugby the next day?  This is one very remarkable man and he comes from a time when men were cut from a different cloth, read on for the story of the legendary Cecil “Bill” Payn.

Bill Payn was born on 9 Aug 1893 in Harding, South Africa, he was christened Cecil, the son of James Herbert Payn. He was a very well known personality, a much loved teacher, and a sportsman. He taught at Durban High School for boys for 40 years or more, only having a break during his army service in the First and Second World Wars. He was particularly well known in Natal and Rhodesia and was described as big hearted and kindly “Big Bill” and stood 6 ft 3 in in his socks. He was a battle-field hero and an ex PoW.

His life was dedicated to helping others, whether his fellow prisoners of war, team mates, school pupils or every day friends and acquaintances. He was a Springbok rugby player and at cricket bowled with distinction. He was a boxer, an athlete and shone at baseball. He was truly a great and kindly man, he died suddenly at age 66 on the 31st Oct 1959.  Ever generous he even left money for his friends to have a drink after his funeral.

Top 10 Comrades finisher in his rugby boots

In summary of his Comrades achievement, Bill came 8th in the 1922 Comrades Marathon. A Springbok rugby player, he ran one of the most famous races in the history of the Comrades.  Bill Payn hosted Arthur Newton the evening before the race, and after a number of stiff drinks, was persuaded by Arthur to enter (Arthur went on to win the race).

Bill arrived on time for the start, wearing his rugby boots. At Hillcrest he stopped for the first time to take in a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Not much further a fellow runner, “Zulu” Wade, invited Payn for a chicken curry. This they consumed and then continued on to Drummond, where they celebrated reaching the halfway mark by drinking a beer at the hotel. Wade didn’t continue, but Payn did. A lady spectator en route helped him keep his energy levels up by providing him with oranges, peach-brandy, water and tea. He finished eighth. On the next day Payn took part in a club rugby match, but because his feet were blistered from the long run in rugby boots, he elected to play the match in his running shoes.

The first Comrades Marathon race was a down run from Pietermaritzburg whilst the first up run from Durban to the provincial capital took place in 1922 and consisted of a field of just over 100 athletes.  In those days the Comrades took place on mainly sand and gravel roads (which in part was more conducive to wearing studded rugby boots).

World War 1

Bill Payn played provincial rugby over a period of eighteen seasons losing four years whilst serving overseas in the First World War. He did have the opportunity then of representing South Africa in the Imperial Services Tournament held in Britain before returning home. In all, he represented Natal in fifty nine matches.

An “all rounder”

Bill had a natural affinity for all sports, a true “all-rounder,” attaining provincial colours in five sports, he represented Natal at cricket, boxing, baseball and athletics in addition to his main sport of rugby. However sport was but one of his interests, he was an outstanding English scholar and a leading South African expert in the science of Etymology.

Bill Payn also received Springbok colours and played in two tests on the flank in the 1924 series but later after his own playing days were over he was to have an important role in the development of a post World War Two Springbok rugby legend.

The 1922 Comrades Marathon in Bill’s own words

Bill Payn’s own words on the 1922 Comrades Marathon are now legendary and well worth the read, an abridged version of that day by Bill goes as follows:

`On a bleak May morning I toe’d the line at the start when some civic dignitary fired a pistol and then very sensibly buggared off back to his warm bed. When the shot rent the air, off we sped – like a crowd of Armenian refugees fleeing from the wrath of the Turkish army. Shall I ever forget that infernal run. It was not very long before I realised that I was prey to an all consuming thirst, so clamant indeed, that I could not refuse any man who offered me a drink. At Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugby boots and found a mass of blisters had formed on the soles of both feet, some kind follower provided me with brilliantine with which I anointed my feet and then repaired to the hotel for a huge plate of bacon and eggs. This done and much refreshed I ran up Botha’s Hill where at the top I found a friend who was also taking part, but he was in a very bad state so we sat down next to the road and exchanged notes and took stock of ourselves and the situation we were in. I fear that we did not move with the freedom of young athletes but rather resembled two old ducks, suffering from some distressing gynaecological disorder.

Fortunately at that stage my friend’s supporter arrived on the scene with a wicker basket which contained a delicious curried chicken set on a huge bed of rice. This we shared equally and then set off together in happy companionship for Drummond and here we bent our steps to a pleasant oasis – the pub – where I lined a dozen beers up on the counter determined not so much to celebrate a victory but rather to drown our sorrows. Whilst we were busy at this, one of the camp followers arrived on the scene and urged us both to continue as there were only five runners in front of us. My friend could not continue so I set off alone for Pietermaritzburg.

Somewhere along Harrison Flats I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks standing at the side of the road. She held up in one hand a bottle and in the other a glass. I stopped, and with old world courtesy bowed low saying `Madame your servant to command’. `Tis peach brandy’, she volunteered, `and I made it myself’. I gulped down a full tumbler of this home-made brew and in a second realised that I had swallowed a near-lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am still convinced that to this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines. Fortunately I was facing Maritzburg and I was propelled along the way. I was too far gone in my cups even to ponder on whether this assistance did not breach the prescribed laws of amateur marathon running.

On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg I was hailed by my wife’s family who were taking tea on the veranda. I went off the road and joined them in their tea and cakes. While we were thus happily engaged, two of my ‘hated’ rivals went past and so it was that I ended the course number eight. In the changing rooms I discovered that the soles of my feet were now two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law then arrived and he had the uncanny insight to my most immediate needs, for he gave me a bottle of champagne, for which I was most grateful. Shortly thereafter a rugby friend arrived and chided me as to whether I had forgotten that I was due to play a first league rugby match the next day and that our team needed me. Cadging a lift on the back of his motorbike we went back down to Durban and on the following day I played full back in a pair of old `tackies’.

This account by Bill Payn does not appear possible but it has been vouched for in every detail by Arthur Newton, the friend who persuaded Bill to enter the race in the first place and who was himself destined to become a legend in the world of marathon running.

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Arthur F. H. Newton, winner of the first “up” version of the Comrades in 1922 in a time of 8:40:00.

Bill Payn’s description of the race is filled with humour which so characterised his outlook on life. To illustrate this aspect there is a classic story told of Bill when he was captaining his club’s first cricket side in the premier league and they were not having a very good season with the bat. He placed an advertisement in the local Natal newspaper which read,

“Join Stanford Hill and bat twice on a Saturday afternoon”

His Passion for Rugby

Of all his sporting interests, rugby was his greatest love and he devoted many years of his life to the administration of the sport and coaching young players in the enjoyment of the game. He was the founder of Natal schools rugby and became a father figure to organisation serving on its executive from 1933 – with a gap for the war years – right through until he passed away in 1959. It is interesting to note his thoughts on the game of rugby and why people are keen to play the game.

Quoting him again `Why do men love to play rugby, is I feel sure, that it is the simulacrum – in simple terms it means an image of – of war as waged in the medieval days when battles were marked by the two cardinal virtues of courtesy and courage’.

His very close friend and fellow schoolmaster, Isak Van Heerden, who was to become the Springbok coach in the 1960’s, when commenting on Bills outlook on the game said

“He looked upon the game as a friendly and controlled war, feeling that man still has his primitive instincts and one of the strongest is the love of a good fight, which no amount of civilisation has been able to eradicate. Bill saw the game merely as a natural desire of a healthy man to pit his strength and skill against that of another and that rugby was the best possible outlet. He worshipped the game for the companionship amongst friends and for the opportunities that it allowed for comaradieship with opponents after the match was over”.

Cecil “Bill” Payn’s Test summary: Tests: 2 Tries: 0
First Test: 16 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Kingsmead, Durban
Last Test: 23 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Wanderers, Johannesburg

World War 2

Bill Payn was very much a man of Natal being educated at Maritzburg College and after qualifying as a teacher spent much of his working career teaching at Durban High School for Boys, but in 1939 ,at the age of forty six he once again set off for war serving as a gunner in North Africa.

Whilst in action in the Western Desert he was awarded the Military Medal, receiving a personally signed letter of commendation from the Commander-in- Chief of the Allied Forces, General Alexander.

General Harold Alexander (right), pictured here in 1942 as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, surveys the battlefront from an open car and the Military Medal warded Payne (left).

Taken as a Prisoner of War (POW)

Later in the campaign the Allied troops were forced to retreat from Gazala back towards El Alamein. With the German Army closing in around them Bill made two desperate efforts to escape but was captured on each occasion, imprisoned first at Benghazi in Libya, he was struck down with acute dysentery and lost substantial weight, he eventually recovered and was transferred to a POW camp near Rome.

Bill’s strength of character was such that he looked on prison life as a challenge refusing to be restricted and to quote him again

“Life is always life if one can laugh and that captivity is what your heart makes of it.”

He accepted the conditions of imprisonment refusing to acknowledge their limitations, preferring to see in them an opportunity for fulfilment, the enrichment of character and to be of service to his fellow prisoners.

Using his ability in developing mental pursuits he kept many of his fellow inmates highly amused and was in great demand as a speaker with a range of subjects stretching from discussing the complete works of Shakespeare, a set of which he had with him in camp, to his talk on whales and their habits which was also a great favourite. He continued to teach, and was again in demand, conducting classes for those Prisoner’s of War who were taking correspondence courses.

A fellow prisoner wrote of him that his most outstanding characteristic was his unquestionable spirit which knew no bounds. Although he was no longer a young man, when the Italian war effort collapsed, Bill and two companions managed to escape into the mountains of Italy and were on the run for over two weeks, diverting enemy troops from the front, to search for them. Eventually they were recaptured by German troops and sent to prison camps first in Austria, then Poland and eventually to Germany itself.

Whilst he was busy keeping the spirits of his fellow prisoners up intellectually, his love of sport also played an important role in their well being with Bill forever arranging rugby and cricket matches, even teaching the prisoners from the other Allied nations the art of jukskei!.

Informal “Tests” between “Springbok” and “All Blacks” POW

It was while they were in Stalag XX-A near Thorn (Toruń) in occupied Poland which contained an equal number of young New Zealanders and South Africans crazy about their rugby that Bill Payn’s organisational ability was shown off at its very best.

A rugby ball was received through the Red Cross and Bill proposed a series of `test’ matches between the rugby worlds greatest rugby rivals. He roped in two able assistants, Peter Pienaar, the son of the 1921 Springbok captain to New Zealand and Billy Millar Jnr, whose father led the 1912/13 Springboks to the United Kingdom.

With Bill Payn as the driving force, they arranged practices and made up the jerseys, and served on the `Springbok’ selection panel. The making Springbok jerseys is a story in itself, with Red Cross vests being boiled together with the olive green Russian battle dress which were freely available, to obtain the green. The gold was more problematical but an ingenious solution was found, the S.A. Medical staff boiled up a solution of anti-malaria tablets to achieve the right result. It was important to look the part. The rugby field was marked off with yellow clay lines on the vast sandy parade ground and with army boots considered too lethal, the players played with bare feet in the middle of the Polish winter.

Aaron “Okey” Geffin

It was during this period that Bill came across another young South African who had been playing for the Pirates Rugby Football Club in Johannesburg before the war, and he had been captured at Tobruk. He was a strong, talented prop forward who also had a useful boot on him.

Bill encouraged him to work hard at this aspect of his game whilst stuck in the POW camp and to concentrate on his accuracy with his place kicking. The young soldier was none other than `Okey Geffin’ who five years later was to become a legend in the annals of South African rugby as well as an immense thorn in the flesh of the 1949 All Black side under Fred Allen.

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Aaron “Okey” Geffin (28 May 1921 – 16 October 2004), considered the greatest Jewish rugby player of all time,nd he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

While in Stalag XX-A Okey Greffin said of Bill Payn,

“We used to scrum for hours on end, and he coached me. Payn arranged rugby games in camp: South Africa against the New Zealanders. Our gear was dyed underpants and vests, but no boots. We played barefoot. Payn encouraged my development and told me I would be a Springbok if I continued to play after the war.”

He spent three years in POW camps in Italy and Germany, as well as Poland, where he practised his kicking barefoot near a mass grave of Polish victims of the Nazis.

Geffin was one of the few prop forwards in the game to kick for goal. The Springboks won ten matches in a row, including a 4–0 whitewash of New Zealand on their 1949 tour to South Africa. Prop Okey Geffin helped kick the Springboks to victory—they won all four Tests despite the All Blacks scoring more tries in three of them.

Back to Bill Payn’s story, and his personal account of the Comrades Marathon which reflected both his humour and his tenacity. It was his friend, Izak van Heerden who perhaps summed Bill up best of all when he said, `

He was always seeing a humorous situation and playing upon it. He was a merry companion, a real friend and a great champion of the game of rugby‘.

Related work and links

Comrades Marathon; A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon; Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

Living War Memorials; A war memorial in Cape Town which saves children’s lives


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. References:  Maritzburg College Old Boys Association, wikipedia.  Main reference article – author unknown.

South African “Springboks” and Australian “Diggers” in WW1 – the origin of nicknames.

Few (if any) World War One images are available which show the unique bond shared by South African and Australian/New Zealand troops, celebrating our common camaraderie during the World War but this in one – Paris, France. September 1918. A group of Anzac “Diggers” and South African “Springboks” enjoying eating fresh fruit.

The South African soldiers where known universally as “Springboks” because of their cap badges which featured a Springbok and the motto “Union is Strength” and in Dutch “Eendracht Maakt Macht”.

The motto was that of the newly formed Union of South Africa and referred to the strength that can be obtained by combining the Boer Republics (Transvaal and Orange Free State) with the two British Colonies (Cape and Natal) – it also signified the Union of Afrikaans and English speaking South Africans in a common South African identity. The nickname “Springboks” stayed with South African servicemen and women throughout the First and Second World Wars.

This tradition was however gradually discouraged when the SADF was formed in the 1950’s and the affectionate name for South African soldiers was changed to “Troopies” (Afrikaans for Trooper) instead – the prevailing Afrikaner Nationalist politics of the day wanted to downplay South African service to the British crown in WW1 and WW2 due to prevailing anger felt by nationalists over harsh British tactics used during the Boer War.

CAP_BADGE_1ST_SA_INFANTRY_BRIGADE

Funnily, the Australian soldiers  (called “Diggers”), using typical army humour, dubbed the South African cap badge – “Goat in a Porthole”.  The Australian nickname – “Diggers” also comes from the First World War and stems from their reputation of digging trenches – General William Birdwood, the commander of the ANZAC Corps adding in postscript: “You have got through the difficult business, now you have only to dig, dig, dig, until you are safe” – and the nickname stuck.

“Digger” remains the nickname of an Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) soldier to this day and Australians have adopted it as part of their national value system to mean “mateship” and “pride”.

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However due to more political changes in South Africa, the erosion of the nickname in the SADF was one thing – the use of the “Springbok” in sport and other institutions was quite another and many South Africans came to associate it to Apartheid.

For this reason it’s very unlikely that modern South African soldiers will carry the nickname ever again – which is quite sad when you really think about it – as it was never intended to turn out that way and we’ve lost a nugget of heritage forged in camaraderie and war.

400 shells/min fell on the Springboks … “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

With the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme offensive and the Battle of Delville Wood coming around every year, we remind ourselves once again of the hell endured by the South Africans fighting in the wood, known at the time as “Springboks” – and nothing says it more than seeing the mountainous piles of artillery shells fired at them.  In all during the battle 400 shells per minute were being fired into the South African positions no more than a square mile in size – and that went on day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute 400 explosions at a time – now imagine that sort of ‘hellfire’ and ‘sheer terror’ for a moment, and you’ll be in the mind of a Springbok soldier at Delville Wood witnessing it in 1916.

This World War 1 feature photo from the Herr Woerner Eugen Collection, shows the German side opposite the South African offensive at Delville Wood, this German soldier is overseeing the shell case dump nearby the wood.  That’s just the spent ammunition, so let’s have a look at the South Africans who took the brunt of this intense barrage and how they came to be there.

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“Hold it at all costs”

As part of the initial Somme offensive, the British under Major-General Furse of the 9th Division, had to secure the advance on Longueval, but to do this, Delville Wood (a small wood directly next to Longuval) had to be taken first.  Major General Furse had no option but to commit his last reserve—the 1st South African Brigade to do it.

The 1st South African Brigade under Brigadier General Henry Lukin was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July 1916 and “hold it at all costs”.

The first attack progressed smoothly and by 07:00 the South Africans had secured the southern half of the wood,  by 14:40 the whole wood had been secured, with the exception of a strong German position in the north west adjoining Longueval.  The South African troops where now spread along the entire perimeter in groups forming strong–points supported by machine–guns.

But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, occupying a salient with only the south-western base being in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the perimeter of the wood was made difficult by roots and remnants of tree trunks from the previous day’s artillery fire, making the preparation of proper trenches impossible, with the South Africans having to make do with shallow shell-holes and burrows. With unprepared trenches, a narrow base to their salient and facing over 7,000 German troops, holding the wood was going to be extremely difficult!

The Germans launched one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war in an effort to dislodge the South Africans in the wood. It has been estimated that at its peak the rate of firing exceeded 500 shells per minute – even at one stage some references say 600 shells per minute were fired at the South African positions. To think this relentless volley of shelling was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometre in size.

The South Africans began to dig in beating off counter attacks as they did so. The roots and remnants of tree trunks made the preparation of proper trenches impossible and the South Africans had to make do with shallow ones.

The bloodiest battle hell of 1916

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. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood  – 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.

“…Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair….”

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The battle is of particular importance to South Africa, as it was the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The casualties sustained by this Brigade were of catastrophic proportions, comparable to those encountered by Allied battalions on the first day of the Somme. On the Western Front, units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualties had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “…the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”

It was this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic and cultural divides – fighting as one in union and strength, that the newly formed Union of South Africa’s national identity was forged for the years come.

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


Researched by Peter Dickens.

Image copyright: Herr Woerner Eugen Collection – Imperial War Museum, Images of the wood copyright to the Imperial War Museum. Feature Illustration – The Battle of Delville Wood Illustrated London News Lithograph by the Spanish artist – José Simont Guillén (1875-1968).  Block images copyright Imperial War Museum.