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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Veterans Community in South Africa post WW2

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

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

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

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

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Gen. van der Spuy

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

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

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

The Springbok Legion

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

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

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

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

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Sailor Malan addressing a Springbok Legion Rally

The Torch Commando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kmdt. de la Rey at the Cape Town Torch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Decline of The Torch Commando

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Springbok Legion’s Rise and Decline

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

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

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

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

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Joe Slovo (right of picture) in WW2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sailor Malan returns to his ‘shell-hole’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The marginalising of The South African Legion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1994 

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

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

Not so fast!

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

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

Where are we now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. 

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

FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend.

We’re glad to see this highly unsung South African hero finally profiled by other historians. Sailor Malan’s legacy is coming to life through video and other mediums like this and in so back into the general consciousness, and it can only be a good thing. Once watching this you’ll want to hit that share button, and please feel free to do so.

14322420_1091043234297657_3731584281145428934_nThis time Sailor’s legacy has been carried forward by “Inherit South Africa” in this excellent short biography narrated and produced by Michael Charton as one of his Friday Stories – this one titled FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend.

Many people may know of the South African “Battle of Britain” Ace – Adolph “Sailor” Malan DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar – he is one of the most highly regarded fighter pilots of the Second World War, one of the best fighter pilots South Africa has ever produced and he stands as one of the “few” which turned back Nazi Germany from complete European dominance in the Battle of Britain – his rules of air combat helped keep Britain in the war, and as a result he, and a handful of others, changed the course of history. But not many people are aware of Sailor Malan as a political fighter, anti-apartheid campaigner and champion for racial equality.

Sailor Malan remains an inconvenient truth to the current political narrative of the “struggle” in South Africa, as the first mass anti-Apartheid and pro-Democracy protests were led by this highly decorated Afrikaner war hero and the mass protesters were not the ANC and its supporters, this very first mass mobilisation was made up of returning war veterans from the 2nd World War, in their hundreds of thousands – and this video footage and story captures some more fascinating “hidden” South African history.

The purposeful “scrubbing” by the National Party of South Africa’s “Torch Commando” and its President – Sailor Malan is in itself a travesty, and its made more tragic by the current government conveniently glancing over this glaring mass anti-apartheid and pro democracy movement starting in 1951 involving over 250 000 mainly “white” South Africans. Years before the ANC Defiance Campaign started in earnest and the mass “black” mobilisation against Apartheid stemming from the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Inconvenient as it does not fit the current political narrative of South African history and thus still remains relatively unknown to the majority of South Africans.

Inherit South Africa is the brainchild of Michael Charton and his short videos are platformed on youtube, packaged as great South African Stories, usually released on a Friday.  Feel free to visit his websites and social media platforms via the following links:

Inherit South Africa website

Inherit South Africa YouTube

Inherit South Africa Facebook

For more information on Sailor Malan, feel free to follow this link to The Observation Post’s story on him:

Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!



Written by Peter Dickens. Many thanks to Micheal for permission to post this video of his, Inherit South Africa copyright.

Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

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Sailor Malan

The featured image shows Group Captain Adolph Gysbert “Sailor” Malan DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar (24 March 1910 – 17 September 1963), the South African World War 2 flying ace in conversation here with Flight Sergeant Vincent Bunting at Biggin Hill in 1943 on the left, and it says a lot about Sailor Malan.

Vincent Bunting was one of a small group of ‘black’ British and Commonwealth pilots in full combat roles during the Second World War – he was born in Panama in June 1918 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He joined the RAF at No 1 Recruitment Centre, Uxbridge, on 26 July 1940. Selected for flying training he went on to become a fighter pilot mainly with RAF 611 Squadron.

An integrated Air Force

During the Battle of Britain, the British relied on pilots from the Commonwealth to make up a critical pilot shortage, Sailor Malan was one of these pilots and with him came pilots from all over the world, of all colours and of all cultures (there was no such thing as a ‘colour bar’ in the Royal Air Force) – from commonwealth countries like India, Burma, Rhodesia, Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, as well as pilots from Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and the USA.  They made up almost one-third of the RAF pilots involved in the Battle of Britain (to believe the image so often created of these men as a bunch of tea drinking ‘tally-ho’ young white English gentlemen is to completely misunderstand the Battle of Britain).

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Jamaican Pilots during  the Battle of Britain

The featured image of early racial recognition is testament to Sailor Malan as not only one of the most highly regarded fighter pilots of the war, but the future signs of Sailor Malan as a political fighter and champion for racial equality.

Fighter Ace

Much has been written on Sailor Malan as a Fighter Ace, his rules for combat and his command of 74 Squadron during the Battle of Britain which played such a pivot role in winning the Battle (see ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan) .  His combat record, promotions and decorations alone are simply astonishing.

He first took part in evacuation of Dunkirk.  During this battle he first exhibited his fearless and implacable fighting spirit. To demonstrate his nature, in one incident he was able to coolly change the light bulb in his gunsight while in combat and then quickly return to the fray.

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Sailor Malan’s gun camera showing the destruction of German Heinkel He 111 over Dunkirk

When the Battle of Britain begun, 74 Squadron (known as ‘The Tigers’) was to take the full heat of the battle in what was known as ‘hell’s corner’ over Kent, the squadron was eventually based at the now famous ‘Biggin Hill’ aerodrome in the thick of the battle.

Sailor Malan was given command of 74 Squadron, with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader at the height of the Battle of Britain on 8th August, 1940. Three days later the Squadron was in battle. The day became, for ever, “Sailor’s August the Eleventh”. The order was received at twenty minutes past seven to intercept a hostile raid approaching Dover. Little did the squadron know that they would participate in four seperate air battles that day. When the Squadron, weary, sweaty and oily, finally returned to base after the fourth sortie, they had downed an astounding 38 enemy aircraft.

Sailor Malan said later, in one of his masterly understatements: “Thus ended a very successful morning of combat”. For the first day of action under his command it was successful even by 74 Squadron standards.

Sailor Malan also worked on public relations to keep the British morale high.  Here is a rare radio interview (follow Observation post link Sailor Malan – “in his own words”)

By D Day (i.e. Operation Overlord, the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe), Sailor Malan was in command of 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing and was himself leading a section of the wing over the beaches during the landings in Normandy.

In all Sailor Malan scored 27 enemy aircraft kills, seven shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and 16 damaged. He was to receive the Distinguished Service Order decoration – not once, but twice and well as the Distinguished Flying Cross decoration, again not once – but twice.  The Citations for the DSO’s and DFC’s say everything about his combat prowess:

The London Gazette of the 11th June, 1940, read:

DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS

DFCLGFlight Lieutenant Adolph Gysbert Malan. (37604), Royal Air Force.

“During May 1940, this officer has led his flight, and on certain occasions his squadron, on ten offensive patrols in Northern France. He has personally shot down two enemy aircraft and, probably, three others. Flight Lieutenant Malan has displayed great skill, courage and relentless determination in his attacks upon the enemy.”

On Christmas Eve, 1940, the London Gazette had recorded:

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER

Distinguished_Service_Order_correctActing Squadron Leader Adolph Gysbert Malan, DFC (37604), Royal Air Force, No.74 Squadron.

“This officer has commanded his squadron with outstanding success over an intensive period of air operations and, by his brilliant leadership, skill and determination has contributed to the success obtained. Since early in August 1940, the squadron has destroyed at least 84 enemy aircraft and damaged many more. Squadron Leader Malan has himself destroyed at least eighteen hostile aircraft and possibly another six.”

And on 22nd July, 1941:

BAR TO DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER

Acting Wing Commander Adolph Gysbert Malan, DSO, DFC (37604) Royal Air Force.

“This officer has displayed the greatest courage and disdain of the enemy whilst leading his Wing on numerous recent operations over Northern France. His cool judgement, exceptional determination and ability have enabled him to increase his confirmed victories over enemy aircraft from 19 to 28, in addition to a further 20 damaged and probably destroyed. His record and behaviour have earned for him the greatest admiration and devotion of his comrades in the Wing. During the past fortnight the Wing has scored heavily against the enemy with 42 hostile aircraft destroyed, a further 15 probably destroyed and 11 damaged.”

Also awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In addition, “Sailor” was awarded the following decorations by Allied Governments:

The Belgian Croix de Guerre with bronze Palm, The Czecho-Slovakian Military Cross, The French Legion of Honour, in the degree of Officer and The French Croix de Guerre.

Bill Skinner DFC, with whom Sailor often flew, summed up Sailor Malan very well as to his leadership:

“He was a born leader and natural pilot of the first order. Complete absence of balderdash. As far as he was concerned, you either did your job properly, or you were on your way. He inspired his air crews by his dynamic and forceful personality, and by the fact that he set such a high standard in his flying.”

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Sailor Malan (centre) with pilots of 72 Squadron

He was the outstanding British Fighter Command fighter pilot of the 1939-45 war, and by the end of 1941 was the top scorer – a record which he held for three years. But he was much more than an individual performer. He had assimilated the fierce and fanatical “tiger spirit”, and this spirit he inspired in others so that he carried the Squadron to great deeds with him.

Freedom Fighter 

The Battle of Britain and D Day moulded Sailor Malan as a champion for freedom, he simply held the view that shooting down Nazi aircraft was good for humanity, and this translated into his personal politics.  Not much is known of Sailor’s political career post war, and it’s an equally fascinating to see him in the context of a ‘Freedom Fighter’ in addition to his fighter ace accolade.

Sailor Malan left the Royal Air Force and returned to South Africa in 1946. In the 1950’s he formed a mass protest group of ex-servicemen called the ” Torch Commando” to fight the National Party’s plans to implement Apartheid and call for an early election to remove what they regarded as ‘fascist’ government from power.

In Sailor Malan’s own words, The Torch Commando was: “established to oppose the police state, abuse of state power, censorship, racism, the removal of the coloured vote and other oppressive manifestations of the creeping fascism of the National Party regime”.

To understand why the returning war veterans felt this way about the National Party, consider that during the war the National Party had aligned itself with pro Nazi movements inside South Africa as well as taking a neutral stance on the Smuts’ declaration of war.  To understand the men now in power and the prevailing political mood of war veterans in 1950 follow these links to related Observation Posts:

“Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

South Africa’s Nazi Spy or “Struggle Hero”? – Robey Leibbrand

South African Pro Nazi movements – Oswald Pirow’s New Order

Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – the SANP “Greyshirts”

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

The key objective underpinning the Torch was to remove the National Party from power by calling for an early election, the 1948 ‘win’ by The National Party was not a ‘majority’ win, but a constitutional one, and the Torch wanted a groundswell to swing the ‘service’ vote (200,000 in a voting population of a 1,000,000).  The Torch at its core was absolutely against The National Party’s Apartheid ideology and viewed their government as  ‘unconstitutional’ when they started implementing policy.

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Torch Commando protest – note the slogans ‘this government must go’ and ‘they plan a fascist republic’.

Other issues also sat at the core of the Torch, one issue was the Nationalist’s headstrong policy to make South Africa a Republic, whereas the ‘servicemen’ had fought alongside the British commonwealth and the ‘Allies’ (mainly Britain, United States and Russia) in the Second World War – and they wanted South Africa to retain its Dominion status, remain a ‘Union’ and remain part of the Commonwealth of Nations.

As a pro-democracy’ movement it regarded the National Party’s policies as ‘anti-democratic’.  The Cape Coloured franchise removal was the first action of the National Party to implement the edicts of Apartheid, so it stood to reason that this was the first issue to protest against.

The Cape Coloured franchise was protected in the Union Act of 1910 by an entrenched clause stating there could be no change without a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament sitting together. The Nationalist government, with unparalleled cynicism, passed the High Court of Parliament Act, effectively removing the autonomy of the judiciary, packing the Senate with NP sympathisers and thus disenfranchising the Cape Coloureds.

Inserted is a picture of a rare manifesto artefact of Torch Commando manifesto (freedom been the central theme) and Sailor Malan at a Torch Commando Rally in Cape Town with 10,000 South African WW2 veterans on protest.

Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government at this rally of:

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

Wartime singing icon Perla Gibson also attended the Torch Commando anti apartheid rally in Cape Town and sang to the protesters in support. Perla was known as the ‘Lady in white” and sang to incoming and outgoing troops in Durban harbour during WW2 to beef up morale.

Insert – Kmdt Dolf de la Rey (left) and Perla Gibson (right) at the Cape Town Torch Rally

Of extreme interest was co-leader of the Torch Commando rally in Cape Town – Kmdt. Dolf de la Rey – he famously captured Winston Churchill during the Boer War fighting for the Boers and became an anti-apartheid activist after WW2, another one of the rich tapestry of Afrikaner war heroes in conflict with National Party politics and philosophy.

Follow the below two links to view film footage of The Torch Commando in action:

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

‘New’ rare footage of The Torch Commando in action, the first mass protests against Apartheid by WW2 veterans.

During the Cape Town “Torch” 50,000 civilians joined the 10,000 veterans when the protest moved to hand over a petition at the Parliament buildings in Cape Town. The police barred the way and a scuffle broke out. 160 Protesters where injured along with 15 Policemen.

In a speech at a massive Johannesburg Torch rally involving over 75,000 war veterans and civilians (try and envisage that – 75,000 people on an anti-apartheid protest in downtown Johannesburg – a protest that size had never been seen before), standing outside City Hall in Johannesburg,  Sailor Malan made reference to the ideals for which the Second World War was fought:

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

The Torch Commando fought the anti-apartheid legislation battle for more than five years. At its height the commando had 250 000 members, making it one of the largest protest movements in South African history.

DF Malan’s nationalist government was so alarmed by the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining the organisation that those within the public service or military were prohibited from enlisting, lest they lose their jobs – in the long-term this pressure led to the gradual erosion of the organisation.

Also the National Party government, being extremely concerned about the influence this movement might have, especially under the leadership of the war hero tried to discredit the Torch Commando and its leaders through means of negative propaganda. For the rest of his life, Sailor would be completely ignored by the government. The National Party press caricatured him as “a flying poodle”, dressed in his leathers and flying goggles, in the service of Jan Smuts and the Jewish mine-bosses, who were referred to as the “Hochenheimers”.

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Torch Pin

Despite this, Sailor continued to fight against the violation of human rights in South Africa with the same passion and moral fibre that allowed him to fight so vigorously against fascism and racism during the Battle of Britain. His dream of a better, democratic life for all in South Africa not only urged and carried him forward, but also caused him to be shunned by and isolated from his white National Afrikaner countrymen who were blinded by the short-sighted racial discrimination of their government.

He would become known to them as a traitor and an outsider of “another kind”. DF Malan, during his term as Prime Minister, would refer to him as “an imported British officer” and it was due to his own integrity that he would, towards the end of his life, turn his back on the oppression and immorality of the country he loved so much. His individual brilliance as the Spitfire fighter pilot during the heroic battle in the skies above London and the British Channel were not enough to bring victory in this struggle.

In 1963, Sailor Malan, one of the most famous fighter pilots in the history of the Royal Air Force, lost his fight against Parkinson’s Disease and died at the young age of 52. The funeral service was held at St. Cyprians Cathedral and he was laid to rest in his beloved Kimberley.

An inconvenient truth

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

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

In the national obituary issued to all newspapers by the government, no mention was made of his role as President of the Torch Commando and his very strong anti apartheid views.

This systematic removal of Sailor Malan’s legacy by the National Party and the education curriculum is also tragic in that Sailor’s role in the anti-apartheid movement is now lost to the current South African government.

It would be an inconvenient truth to know that the first really large mass action against Apartheid did not come from the ANC and the Black population of South Africa – it came from a ‘white’ Afrikaner and a mainly ‘white’ war veterans movement, which drew it members from the primary veterans organisations in South Africa – The Springbok Legion, the South African Legion and Memorable Order of Tin Hats (for its impact on these veteran organisations to this day see The Torch’s impact on the South African military veteran diaspora!).

The simple truth – the Torch Commando preceded the first ANC “Defiance Campaign” by a couple of years, an inconvenient truth for many now and very conveniently forgotten.

To those who served with the Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron anytime between 1936 and 1945 Sailor Malan was the greatest leader of them all. As a small token of their esteem, 28 of those remaining presented a ceremonial sword to the Squadron in July, 1966, at Headquarters Fighter Command, in proud memory of Sailor and in honour of his exceptional service to the Squadron.

It was intended that this Sword should serve as an inspiration to those coming after, so that his high standards of courage, determination and leadership shall live on.

To remember Sailor’s calm and heroic line going into battle “Let’s cut some cake. Let ’em have it!” is to remember a man of remarkable courage.  A man who in all honestly lived by  his beloved squadrons motto, and can say in all truth;

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A motto that holds true to him as one of the greatest ‘fighter pilots’ of the war, but equally so as a ‘freedom fighter’ standing up against a morally corrupt government for human rights.

Concluding video

To conclude Sailor Malan, visuals often better reflect words, and this is a landmark video on Sailor Malan which balances his fighting and political deeds.  This time Sailor’s legacy has been carried forward by “Inherit South Africa” in this excellent short biography narrated and produced by Michael Charton as one of his Friday Stories – this one titled FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend.


Story for The Observation Post, written and researched by Peter Dickens

References Wikipedia. South African History On-Line (SAHO), South African History Association, Wikipedia ,Neil Roos: Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961.  Kimberley Calls and Recalls. Life Magazine, 25 June 1951.  Video footage, Associated Press – source Youtube.  Images – Imperial War Museum copyright and Associated Press copyright.  Friday Story video copyright Inherit South Africa – Michael Charton.

South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow

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Oswald Pirow

So when is it right to re-name a national landmark road?  We’re all up in arms that Edwin Swales VC Drive, named after our famous Victoria Cross winner for gallantry in World War 2 was re-named as Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu Drive after a controversial Umkhonto we Sizwe operative.  But what of Oswald Pirow Street in Cape Town, is there a case to justify this street name change?

Read on for a little more on who Oswald Pirow really was, learn some more on South African “hidden” military history; the Pro Nazi paramilitary organisations who sought to destabilise South Africa and the Union during the Second World War and bring South Africa into a one party ‘Fuhrer’ state run along ‘national socialism’ lines.

In all there were three movements which supported Nazi Germany and embraced its ideology in South Africa, the Ossewabrandwag, the SANP Greyshirts (see Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – the SANP “Greyshirts”) and the ‘global’ Nazi movement – The ‘New Order’ – led by our subject for the day, the well-known South African Nationalist Politician and Public Prosecutor – Oswald Pirow.

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Oswald Pirow in Nazi Germany, November 1938  in Berlin inspecting a honour guard from the German Luftwaffe (Air Force), to his left is Wilhelm Canaris, to his right Ernst Seifert.

In a relatively little known part of South African history, Oswald Pirow was sent on ‘quasi-official’ visits on behalf of the Hertzog government to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  His mission was one of appeasement, to meet with Hitler, Ribbentrop and Goering and try to establish Anglo-German rapprochement as well as assure them of South Africa’s neutrality under the Hertzog government.

Pirow’s solution to easing British and German tention prior to tyhe war, which he proposed to Hitler, was for the British to agree with the Nazi policy of “Drang nach Osten” (meaning yearning or ‘thrust’ towards the East for ‘living space’ as Hitler put it in his book ‘Mein Kamph’) and in return Hitler should allow all the Jewish people living in Germany to leave.  In reality this offer would never have happened as it would have required Britain, by way of a parliamentary agreement, to renege on its commitment to Poland as an ally.  However, Pirow also had another mission, that of building a South African partnership for a post war Nazi world.

So how is it that these lessor known South African missions and special envoy on ‘quasi official’ visits come about, what was he doing and what made Oswald Pirow tick?

Background

Oswald Pirow was born in Aberdeen (Cape Province, South Africa) on 14th August 1890, and was the grandson of a German missionary and son of a Doctor. Pirow studied law in Potchefstroom, Germany and London, and then practised as an advocate in Pretoria.  Oswald spoke perfect German and was insistent that only German was spoken by his family at home in South Africa (it was said by those who knew them that the Pirow family was more German in identity than South African).

He came to fame as a lawyer defending the Communist ring-leaders and instigators of The Rand Revolt in 1922 (see South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922), an odd start for him as he became an ardent hater of anything Communist and would later come up with plans to ‘eradicate’ communism from the planet in its entirety (not just South Africa).

He made several unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament and finally in 1924 he was elected for Zoutpansberg. Smuts defeated him in 1929 in Standerton but he returned to Parliament and in the same year and he was appointed Minister of Justice in General Hertzog’s cabinet. The Hertzog government was in coalition, so it could not fully unleash Nationalist proposals for a Republic (of which Pirow was a keen supporter).

As Justice Minister, typical to form as a fierce anti-communist he passed the first anti-communist legislation in South Africa. In 1933 he was appointed Minister of Railways and Harbours, and from 1933 to 1939 he was Minister of Defence.

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Oswald Pirow (in civilian dress) on tour inspecting German military capability in 1938

Unofficial Envoy 

In 1936 Pirow attended the Olympic Games in National Socialist (Nazi) Germany and in 1938 again visited Europe, including Spain, Portugal and Germany. These visits confirmed his admiration for this new style of government in Europe and, in particular, for National Socialism (Nazism). A vehement anti-communist – Pirow vowed to legislate communism out of existence, he also became an admirer of Adolf Hitler – especially after meeting him in 1933.

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Oswald Pirow ( left) at a reception of the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in conversation with Erhard Milch (right) and Walter Hevel on November 19, 1938

During this tours he also met Benito Mussolini, António de Oliveira Salazar and Francisco Franco and became convinced that a European war was imminent, with a resounding Nazi victory assured.  The future Pirow predicted was one of global nazism and it was a future he liked.

The Nationalists were strongly in favour of Nazi Germany, primarily as the antagonists for war in their eyes were the British, and they simply hated the British.  This hatred stemmed from the punitive deportation and containment measures used by The British against Boer families along with the destruction of their farmsteads during The 2nd Anglo-Boer War.

Publicly the Nationalists declared neutrality as to Nazi Germany and to the impending war with Germany, whilst covertly their members (and even leaders) in the tens of thousands joined pro Nazi organisations like the Ossawabrandwag and the SANP Grey Shirts, which very publicly nailed their colours to mast strongly in support of Nazi Germany.

When General Jan Smuts committed South Africa to war against Nazi Germany, Pirow found his position in government as a Minister of Parliament and especially as Minister of Defence untenable. He had given his support in 1939 to Hertzog’s neutrality policy and had been on appeasement missions to Nazi Germany in support of them.  He then resigned along with Hertzog and took no part in Smuts’ reformatted war-time government.

South Africa’s ‘New Order’ 

By September 1940, with Nazi Germany on the ascendancy having invaded most of Western Europe, Pirow launched the South African version of the “New Order” within the breakaway National Party – the Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP), backing a Nazi style dictatorship.

His new political grouping took its name from his 1940 ‘New Order in South Africa’ pamphlet in which Pirow embraced the ideology of Nazi globalisation.

To understand what the concept of the “New Order” was – the New Order (German: Neuordnung) was the political order which Nazi Germany wanted to impose on the conquered areas under its dominion.

The establishment of the New Order was publicly proclaimed by Adolf Hitler and entailed the creation of a pan-German racial state structured according to Nazi ideology to ensure the supremacy of an Aryan-Nordic master race, massive territorial expansion into Eastern Europe through its colonization with German settlers, the physical annihilation of the Jews and others considered to be “unworthy of life”, and the extermination, expulsion, or enslavement of most of the Slavic peoples and others regarded as “racially inferior”.

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Hitler’s New Order for Africa

Hitler’s ‘New Order’ plan involved global expansion, it focussed primarily on Eastern Europe (‘living space’) however it also extend to Asia, India, South America and North America in ‘post war’ fascist dominated world. Like any plan for globalisation, Africa also played a role in the New Order.

Hitler’s overall intentions for the future organisation of Africa was based on a plan which divided the continent into three big parts. The northern third of Africa was to be assigned to Germany’s Axis partner – Italy. The central part of Africa would fall under German rule. The remaining southern sector would be controlled by a pro-Nazi Afrikaner state built along racial grounds.

Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had communicated this plan with South African leaders sympathetic to Nazism, and a key channel for this communication were his meetings with Oswald Pirow whilst he was on his ‘quasi official’ South African State visits to Nazi Germany on behalf of the Hertzog government.

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Oswald Pirow as a special South African envoy inspecting German Infantry and military capability in 1938

Ribbentrop informed the Afrikaner Nationalist leaders that once Germany had won the war, Germany was to reclaim its former colony of German South-West Africa (now Namibia), then a mandate would be given to an Afrikaner Nationalist led South Africa as a sort of ‘war compensation’ which would include the territorial acquisitions of the British protectorates of  Swaziland, Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and the colony of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

On the division of French African colonies between the Spanish and Italian governments Hitler refused to provide any official promises during the war, fearful of losing the support of Vichy France

Decline of Pirow’s New Order 

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Dr. DF Malan

DF Malan, leader of the National Party initially tolerated the actions of Oswald Pirow’s South African adaption of the 3rd Reich’s ‘New Order’ however very soon Malan came to realise what the extreme ideology of  The New Order was about and he immediately saw it as a divisive influence on the Afrikaner nationalist movement.

Fearful of a split in Afrikaner nationalism over support for extreme Nazism and for Hitler’s plans for the African ‘new order’, at the Nationalists Transvaal party congress of August 1941, DF Malan forced through a motion ending the New Order’s propaganda activities, particularly their insistence on a one-party state on a ‘Führer’ principle.

To understand more about the National Party and its associations to pro Nazi movements do follow this link “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

Although restricted by DF Malan, the New Order continued to exist and Pirow and 17 of his New Order supporters continued to be associated with the HNP and continued to attend their caucus meetings.

The New Order  finally broke from the HNP altogether in 1942 after both D.F. Malan and J.G. Strijdom publicly rejected the Nazis.

Partnership with Sir Oswald Mosley 

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Oswald Mosley

With the outcome of the war firmly against Nazi Germany, Oswald Pirow’s political career within the Afrikaner Nationalists was effectively over, he returned to legal practice, and during this time became a friend of Sir Oswald Mosley.

Mosley was ex-British MP and an infamous British Nazi, he led the British Union of Fascists (BUF), a Neo-nazi British organisation following the edicts of the ‘New Order’ in the United Kingdom.

Mosley was imprisoned at the outbreak of World War 2 in 1940 for his extreme views in support of the enemy (Nazi Germany) and the BUF was outlawed. He was released in 1943.

Oswald Pirow and Mosley, having similar political views decided to collaborate together and they developed an idea for the division of Africa into exclusively black and white areas.

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Oswald Pirow and Oswald Mosley

The two met after Pirow read a copy of Mosley’s book ‘The Alternative’ and by 1947 they were in discussion over founding an anti-communist group to be known as the “enemies of the Soviet Union” (although this plan never reached fruition).

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Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) Flag

The two Oswalds co-operation started in earnest when Pirow visited Mosley in London in April 1948 and spent the weekend at his house.  In collaboration with Mosley, Oswald Pirow started writing articles for the Union Movement journals and The European, some of which were reprinted in German magazine Nation Europa.

In addition to writing for far right wing publications, the two Oswalds came up with what were known as the Mosley-Pirow Proposals, which advocated the extension of the South African National Party’s Apartheid ideology and concept to include the entire continent of Africa.  The idea they came up with was that two-thirds of sub saharan Africa would be advocated for ‘Black States’ and one-third would be for ‘White states’.  Where the two of them differed on their concept of ‘Eurafrica’ (which they coined) is that Pirow felt that ‘sweated labour’ would need to be forced whereas Mosley felt that unskilled Labour, needed in the ‘white states,’ was to be traded for from the ‘black states’ in return for technical assistance at some ‘later stage’.

The relationship with Pirow and Mosley started to break down after their ‘Eurafrica proposals’ were launched. Pirow came to realise that virtually nobody took Mosley seriously, people generally dismissed both him and his economic and political treatise out of hand as an extreme oddity.

The Treason Trial

Nelson Mandela, treason trial, Pretoria, 1958

Nelson Mandela at The Treason Trial 1956

Very famously Pirow, now back in South Africa and back in his legal guise, acted as the public prosecutor during the Treason Trial of 1956. The Treason Trial was a trial in which 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested in a raid and accused of treason in South Africa in 1956. The main trial lasted until 1961, when all of the defendants were found not guilty. During the trials, Oliver Tambo left the country and was exiled. Some of the defendants, including Nelson Mandela were later convicted in the Rivonia Trial in 1964.

Following the Treason Trial Pirow largely lived in retirement, publishing several books, especially on JB Hertzog of who he was an admirer, he also wrote books on wildlife and adventure books for boys. He died of heart failure. He was cremated and his ashes are kept at his Valhalla Farm residence near Pilgrim’s Rest.

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Influence on Apartheid 

Oswald Pirow’s influence in South African politics and Apartheid is far-reaching. The Tomlinson Commission – which investigated the validity of the idea Apartheid was not a new creation, and its findings were based in part on findings made by the Native Economic Commission in 1932 and on preparatory work done by Oswald Pirow.

Very little is known in South Africa today of the frustration and disillusionment returning South African combatants from World War 2 felt and the motivation behind their eventual mass protests against Apartheid policies in the 1950’s (known as the ‘Torch’ Commando rallies – attracting  tens of thousands of war veterans – see The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!).

Effectively the returning South African statute force veterans had gone to war to rid the world of Nazism, only to come home and in a few short years find significant “home grown” Nazi’s in government or playing a key role in public prosecution (as was the case with Pirow) when the National Party narrowly beat Smuts’ United Party into power in 1948.

The likes of famous World War 2 heroes like Adolph “Sailor” Malan would have none of it and they took to the streets in the first mass protests against Apartheid and the Nationalist government who had only come into power a couple of years before hand and where already removing the cape coloured vote from the register – see Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!.

The Torch Commando and veteran protests where ultimately suppressed by The National Party (including Sailor Malan) and the Nationalists where free to promote their heroes – Oswald Pirow had the foreshore road in Cape Town named after him  as well as a South African navy strike craft – the SAS Oswald Pirow – much to the disillusionment of many of South Africa’s war veterans, the disenfranchised voters and the South African Jewish community.

Re-naming 

Since 1994, proposals were to put forward to re-name the strike craft and Cape Town’s foreshore road.

The SAS Oswald Pirow was re-named the SAS Rene Sethren after a famous Navy stocker Rene Sethren who was on board a South African minesweeper in World War 2. In June 1941 his ship was escorting a convoy to Tobruk when they came under heavy attack from enemy planes. He took over an anti-aircraft gun and did not stop firing until the attack was over. He was wounded 27 times during the attack and fortunately survived, he received his gallantry decoration from King George V.

It was also discovered that although Dr Christiaan Barnard had performed the world’s first heart transplant nothing in the way of Cape Town’s streets honoured this, since 2011 most Captonians now know this landmark road which was ‘Oswald Pirow Street’ as ‘Christiaan Barnard Street’.

Oswald Pirow

There is an argument that says we should not be re-naming things in the interests of preserving history, with all its spots, however world over institutions named after Nazis have been re-named and/or scrubbed of anything glorifying this history.  Munich – the birthplace of Nazism is virtually clean of any old references, such is its blight to the entire human race caused by this ideology, and in this respect South Africa has acted no differently.

What is surprising is that even during the 70’s and the 80’s, the National Party were unapologetic in the glorification of individuals so closely associated to National Socialist ideology and Nazism, no matter how hurtful to the vast majority of South Africans, well after the horrors of this ideology had been exposed and universally condemned (even in South Africa).

Pirow was allowed to continue as the State Prosecutor and advise Apartheid policy, his controversial plans for the Nazification of Southern Africa were just glazed over and conveniently swept under the rug – the modern South African generation would grow up fairly oblivious of Oswald Pirow’s really dark past.

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Display of the SAS Oswald Pirow at the SA Naval Museum, it was renamed the renamed SAS Rene Sethren on April 1, 1997


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

Feature photo copyright the German Federal Archives copyright. ‘Very Deeply Dyed in Black’ Sir Oswald Mosley  and the Resurrection of British Fascism After 1945 by Graham Macklin. NSDAP Office of Colonial Policy  Brian Bunting’s 1964 book, The Rise of the South African Reich.  Ribbontrop’s proposals to South Africa, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,  by William Shirer, 1974 edition.

Published by New York: Crest, 1962, New York (1962

Sailor Malan; in his own words!

Sailor Malan – a true South African WW2 flying ace and national hero “in his own words” – and here is a very rare recorded interview with him.

This is a fantastic historical record of a personal interview with the great WW2 South African fighter ace Adolph “Sailor” Malan, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar.

Note in this recording, clearly taken as a public relations exercise to install confidence in the British public in the Royal Air Force and it’s pilots by the public broadcaster (there were a series of these interviews involving other pilots).  Because of this, Sailor Malan comes across as a little over-confident and quite flippant.  Its intentional and designed to make killing Germans sterile and combat adventurous.

He also adopts a very plummy British ‘officers’ accent so common to the tone and manner of speaking of this particular officer class during the war, both in Britain and in the Commonwealth.  His ‘flat vowel’ South African accent sneaks in here and there, but in all Malan was a very well-educated and travelled man and his command of the English language was exemplary (as was his command of Afrikaans).

Also noteworthy is Sailor Malan’s WW2 era cultural expressions, delivery and sayings which were so typical to Allied Air Force officers at the time – terms like:

“Hun” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term insinuating barbarism dating to the First World War.
“Squirt” – meaning a short burst of gun or cannon fire.
“Jerry” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term pertinent to the Second World War.
“Pumping Lead” – meaning a high rate of machine gun or cannon fire ‘pumped’ into the enemy to kill him
“Tally Ho” – a British fox-hunting term meaning to spot a target and call to action.
“Cut yourself a slice of cake” – a favourite term used by Sailor Malan (and other pilots) meaning to get into the fight and have a piece of the action.

Related work on Sailor Malan:

Sailor Malan’s role in the Battle of Britain and the Torch Commando: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Sailor Malan’s Ten Rules of Air Combat: ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan

The Torch Commando – footage and history: The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!


Researched and written by Peter Dickens

Reference: YouTube.  Painting by Derrick Dickens, copyright Peter Dickens.  Photograph copyright – Imperial War Museum