Winning Afrikaner Hearts and Minds

Ox Wagons to Steel Commandos

So what does the 1938 Great Trek Centenary have in common with Sailor Malan’s returning war veterans anti-apartheid movement – The Torch Commando?

Well, it’s all in the name – ‘Steel Commando’ – so what is a Steel Commando and what the heck does it have to do with the famous 1938 Great Trek Centenary defining Afrikanerdom and Sailor Malan’s later ’Torch Commando’ in 1951.

So here’s the backdrop:

The 1938 Great Trek Centenary 

In 1938, the Broederbond under the directive of its Chairman, Henning Klopper sought to use the centenary of Great Trek to unite the ‘Cape Afrikaners’ and the ‘Boere Afrikaners’ under the symbology of the Great trek. In this endeavour artificially creating a shared heritage. He started a Great Trek re-enactment with two Ox-Wagons in Cape Town and addressed the large crowd of 20,000 spectators by saying;

“We ask the entire Afrikanerdom to take part in the festival celebration in this spirit. We long that nothing shall hinder the Afrikaner people as a whole from taking part. This movement is born from the People; may the People carry it in their hearts all the way to Pretoria and Blood River. Let us build up a monument for Afrikaner hearts. May this simple trek bind together in love those Afrikaner hearts which do not yet beat together. We dedicate these wagons to our People and to our God.”

By that he hoped to combine the ‘Cape white Afrikaners’ with the ‘Boer white Afrikaners’ in the symbology of the Great Trek under a fabricated Nationalist ideal of Christian Nationalism – and only meant ‘White’ Afrikaners in the Broederbond’s definition of what constituted ‘Afrikanerdom’ and not really the Afrikaans speaking peoples as a ‘whole’ – certainly not the Coloured and Black Afrikaners. The Trek celebration would be pitched as an assertion of Afrikaner white power in South Africa and the Trek as the true path to a overall South African nationhood and identity and ignore the histories of everyone else – black and white – in creating a future South African identity. 

In any event the trek re-enactment was very successful in re-aligning white Afrikaner identity under the Christian Nationalist ideal.  In the end eight wagons from all around the country threaded their way to Pretoria to lay the cornerstone of the Voortrekker monument – in front of a crowd of 200,000 people. Whilst at the same time, four ox-wagons went to the site of the battle at Blood River for a commemoration service on the 16th December. The wagons stopping in countless towns and villages all around the country along the way to re-name street after street after one or another Voortrekker hero, and laying imprints of the wagons wheels in freshly laid cement at many halts (there are still ‘imprints’ at my hometown in Hermanus).

Images: Henning Klopper’s Ox-Wagons named – The ‘Piet Retief’ and the ‘Andries Pretorius, leave Cape Town from the foot of Jan van Riebeeck’s statue to commence the 1938 Centenary of The Great Trek.

The Broederbond had staggered onto the ideal way to ‘unify’ the Afrikaner – a round the country travelling carnival  – from the cities to the platteland, on to far flung corners and everything in between. Henning Klopper himself amazed at the reaction and the success of it all – so much so he turned to divine intervention and called it a “sacred happening”

The Ossewabrandwag

A mere two short years after the Centenary Trek, South Africa was at war with Nazi Germany. Leading up to the war, the South African government was a ‘Fusion’ coalition party between the National Party under Prime Minister Barry Hertzog and General Jan Smuts’ South African Party as his deputy – in an entity called The United Party. The decision to go to war was won by Smuts and a majority vote. Hertzog, whose National Party was already splitting along more radical right lines with the advent of the ‘Pure’ National Party resigned and Smuts became the wartime Prime Minister.

Another one of the primary reasons for the National Party gravitating to radical right-wing lines was the Ox-wagon Great Trek Centennial of 1938.  One of the wagon group’s leaders during the trek was Dr Johannes Van Rensburg, a lawyer who had served previously as National Party ‘Secretary of Justice’ in 1933 and was a part-time Union Defence Force officer – he had been to Germany in his capacity as Secretary and met both Hitler and Göring as well as other Nazi officials, he was deeply impressed with both the leadership and discipline offered by Nazism and became an admirer.  

So, from the Centenary event in celebration of this coming together of Afrikaner identity under a white-only Afrikaner Nationalism came a cultural movement called the Ossewabrandwag (meaning Ox Wagon Sentinel or ‘Fire Watch’) – abbreviated OB – eventually led by Dr Johannes van Rensberg. Formed in 1938, the ‘Fire’ part of the OB name referred to the rapidly spreading “wildfire” of Christian Nationalism and ‘white’ Afrikanerdom set off by the 1938 Ox-Wagon Centenary Trek, eventually gaining about 250,000 – 300,000 members in total.

The Ossewabrandwag at the on-set was loosely associated to Dr D.F. Malan’s ‘Pure’ National Party. However so as not to tread on one another’s feet, the relationship between the Ossewabrandwag and National Party needed to be formalised. So Dr D.F. Malan met with OB leaders on the 29th October 1940 which resulted in declaration known as the ‘Cradock Protocol’. It specified the two operating spheres of the two respective organisations. They undertook not to meddle in each others affairs and the National Party endeavoured to work for white Afrikanerdom and Christian Nationalism in the “political” sphere while the OB would operate on the “cultural” front. 

Images: Ossewabrandwag members on parade and taking a Nazi styled salute

Resigning from the Union Defence Force, when war was declared, Dr Johannes Van Rensburg moved to promote the edicts of Nazism in the OB and even directly support the Nazi Germany war effort-ordinating espionage activities for German submarines, the OB under his leadership also evolved away from being a mere ‘cultural movement’ forwarding Nationalist Afrikaner identity, to an active domestic para-military movement with strong Nazi convictions.

Dr Van Rensburg, having resigned as an officer in the Union Defence Force at the start of the war, had always professed been a National Socialist, and as an open admirer of Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler, the ideas and rituals of membership of the OB had a distinctive Nazi leaning as a result.

Officially, the National Party – when under Hertzog and then under Dr D.F. Malan took the position of ‘neutrality’ as to South Africa’s wartime involvement, but in reality hundreds of thousands of Afrikaner Nationalists were joining openly pro-Nazi Germany movements like the Ossewabrandwag (OB) and its ‘Stormjaers’ (Storm Troopers) military wing, the Nazi Party of South Africa – the South African Christian National Socialist Movement (SANP), the National Socialist Rebels under Robey Leibbrandt, a Nazi Germany insurgent and the Nazi world expansionist order in South Africa – The New Order (NO) under Oswald Pirow who had served as a National Party Defence Minister under Hertzog.

The Steel Commando

The recruitment of white Afrikaners to volunteer for war service became paramount to Union’s Defence Force wartime objectives. On the other side of the Afrikaner coin stood Afrikaners like General Jan Smuts and Dr Ernest Malherbe, who had also been swept up in the enthusiasm of 1938 Great Trek Centenary and the establishment of a unified Afrikaner identity, but not buying into its underpinning Christian Nationalism ideology. 

The Malherbe family, for example, being descendants of a French Huguenot and Afrikaners to their core had nothing in common with the Broederbond but had been caught up with all the Afrikanerdom of the 1938 Centenary Trek. At Blood River on 15 December, in the shade of one of the Centenary trek wagons, Dr Ernie Malherbe’s father-in-law, Dominee Paul Nel, baptised their daughter Betty-Jane with water from the Blood River. 

When South Africa declared war, Dr Ernie Malherbe and a group of academics, notably Alfred Hoernle and Leo Marquard, persuaded General Smuts to set up, under Malherbe, a corps of information officers to counter subversion in the armed forces generated by the likes of the Ossewabrandwag and the Broederbond and to stimulate the Afrikaner troops and potential white Afrikaner recruits to consider what they were fighting for. Smuts then made Malherbe Director of Military Intelligence with the rank of Colonel. Henceforward South African propaganda which had just been focused on countering Nazi propaganda became much more positive and more South African in its orientation.

Images; World War 2 recruitment posters targeted at white Afrikaners – note the poster drawing on the ‘the road to South Africa’ commencing from The Battle of Blood River to the Boer War Commandos to the South African Union Army – the title “Still loyal to the path of South Africa” is a direct play on the 1938 Centennial Trek which the Broederbond pitched as “Die Pad van Suid-Afrika,” a symbolic ‘path’ to South Africa’s nationhood taken by the Voortrekkers. This poster attests that joining the Smuts appeal to war is the true path to nationhood.

Critical to Smuts’ call for volunteers to serve in combat regiments was the white Afrikaner nation (as ‘whites’ and ‘coloureds’ were only deemed eligible to carry firearms in the military per segregationist policies and not ‘blacks’). The Union’s Defence Force at the beginning of the war was woefully under strength. Simply put, without the white Afrikaners volunteering for war-time service, South Africa’s wartime commitments for combatants would be ineffectual.

Colonel Malherbe would take a leaf out of the Broederbond’s 1938 Centenary Trek used to ‘unify’ the Afrikaner – a round the country travelling carnival covering just about every town and village in the remotest areas. Only this time Colonel Malherbe intended that the travelling carnival ‘unify’ the Afrikaner behind Smuts’ call to arms to fight with Britain and France on the side of the Allies. He would use armoured cars instead of ox-wagons and his message was almost diametrically opposite to that of the Broederbonds’.

Colonel Malherbe would call his countrywide travelling carnival – The Steel Commando, added to this would be a propaganda and recruitment pamphlet dropping campaign from SAAF aircraft called the Air Commando.  The Steel Commando would consist of vehicle to carry a full military band, various armoured cars and a truck converted into a mobile recruitment station. Critical to the Steel Commando would be a contingent of old Republican Boer War veterans (South African War 1899-1902) to give it a sense of ‘Afrikanerdom’ and ‘duty’ to South Africa. The term ‘Commando’ would be given to the convoy – solely because it resonated with old Republics ‘Kommandos’ of the Boer war and as a result had Afrikaner appeal. Isie Smuts (called ‘Ouma’), Jan Smuts’ wife and very popular amongst Afrikaners, young and old, was also positioned as a volksmoeder (people’s mother) a term originated in the Boer War and was initially drawn upon by Afrikaner nationalists to represent ‘the mother of the nation’ connected to the concentration camps – Isie Smuts would become a volksmoeder for the Union’s wartime cause comforting the Afrikaner men and women in uniform and the country’s ‘First Lady.’

This convoy would enter small rural and farming towns with the fanfare of the marching band ahead of it, flanked by the Boer War Republican veterans and the recruiting station behind.

Was it effective in capturing the Afrikaner hearts and minds as the Centenary Trek had been?  The truthful answer is – yes. In all the South African standing forces in WW2 comprised 334,000 full-time and voluntary service personnel, 211,000 were White, 77,000 were Blacks and 46,000 were Coloureds and Indians. Of the 211,000 whites, 60% were estimated by Malherbe as being white ‘Afrikaners’ – 126,600 – the majority ethnic group in the South African Union’s Defence Force during World War 2. 

To see the effect of a Steel Commando parade, this video outlines one addressed by Smuts as a demonstration of the achievements of recruitment is very telling – note the extensive use of Boer Commando veterans.

What the Steel Commando and Colonel Malherbe’s recruitment drive also did was literally spit the Afrikaner ‘hearts and minds’ in two, one half supporting the National Party’s call to neutrality or the Ossewabrandwag’s call to directly support Nazi Germany – and the other half of white ‘Afrikanerdom’ – supporting the ideals of Union between English and Afrikaans, General Smuts’ policies and the Allied war against Nazi Germany. 

Post 1948

The dynamics behind the National Party’s accent to power without a majority vote in 1948 have been vastly researched but suffice it to say that for returning War Veterans from WW2, fighting against Nazism, the advent of a political party with numerous leaders who had been directly and/or indirectly flirting with Nazism during the war as a net result of organisations like the Ox Wagon Sentinel (Ossewabrandwag) and other Neo Nazi factions merging with The National Party was an abhorrent idea and an insult to the sacrifice of their comrades in arms.

The War Veteran’s Action Committee

The outrage to this and the implementation of the first Acts and Bills that would become ‘Apartheid’ would result in a merger of war veteran members of the Springbok Legion veteran’s association and war veterans predominant in the United Party’s political structures in April 1951 – the ‘War Veteran’s Action Committee WVAC (the WVAC was to eventually evolve into The Torch Commando) under the leadership of the charismatic war-time fighter ace – Sailor Malan, a veteran with Afrikaans heritage. Pains were taken to ensure the make-up of the WVAC was 50/50 English/Afrikaans.  

The WVAC kicked off their mission with a protest at the Johannesburg Cenotaph on 21st April 1951 during a commemoration service – laying a coffin draped in the national flag as a symbol to depict the death of the Constitution. They ramped their protests up with three torchlight protests in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Durban. At these protests, comprising over 30,000 people in total, a set of resolutions were ratified to take to Cape Town and present to Parliament. The resolutions basically were a warning to the government that the military veteran community would embark on a political struggle unless the National Party government resigns.

Steel Commando (version 2)

But how to whip up support for their cause, and how to whip up the planned mega-torchlight rally in Cape Town to hand over the demands? Here the WVAC took a leaf out of Colonel Malherbe’s Union Defence Force ‘Steel Commando’ recruitment drive. They would not even change the name, the WVAC’s ‘Steel Commando’ would be run along the same lines with military precision. All around the country from far flung places vehicles would converge with the Steel Commando and the Commando itself would drive through multiple towns and villages whipping up publicity and support. 

The Steel Commando of the WVAC (Torch Commando) would, as a primary objective also look to recruit, all the Afrikaans war veterans who in their minds may have erroneously voted for the National Party in 1948 and call them back to Smuts’ more moderate politics. To this end, as Colonel Malherbe had done using Republican Boer War veterans, the WVAC would do exactly the same with their version of the Steel Commando and use the old Boer War Veterans. Kommandant Dolf de la Rey, a Boer War veteran whose Commando had been involved in capturing Winston Churchill and national hero was appointed to lead The Steel Commando with Sailor Malan as his 2nd in Command – two Afrikaner war heroes leading the convoy. They would also keep the term Commando when the WVAC formed ‘The Torch Commando’ later as a nod to Afrikaner heritage. Kommandant de la Rey was also affectionally given the term ‘Oom’ by the publicity machine to conjure up respect from the Afrikaner community.  This sentiment can be seen in the newspaper reporting outlined as follows:

Of the Steel Commando trip to Cape Town, wrote one newspaper correspondent: “Cape Town staged a fantastic welcome” for Kmdt de la Rey and Group Captain Malan, he related the enthusiasm of the crowd to the same that liberation armies received in Europe. The Johannesburg Star said: “The Commando formed the most democratic contingent ever to march together in the Union. Civil servants found themselves alongside the colored men who swept the streets they were marching so proudly upon.”

“In the front jeep rode Oom Dolf de la Rey, a white-haired old Boer of seventy-four, who looked so startlingly like the late General Jan Smuts that people looked twice at him and then cheered wildly. Oom (Uncle Dolf) was the man who, as a young burgher on commando fifty years before, had captured Winston Churchill, then a war correspondent with the Imperial forces in South Africa.In the second jeep stood a younger man with tousled brown hair, his hazel eyes cold and angry, the man who had been the most famed fighter pilot in all the RAF — Adolph Gysbert Malan, known all over the world as Sailor. He was the real hero of the hour. The people tried to mob him. Men and women, white as well as brown, crowded round his jeep and stretched out their hands to touch him.”

Video: The Steel Commando on-route to Cape Town – note the use of Boer War Kommando veterans.

The ‘Steel Commando’ convoy gathered media attention and grew in size as it converged on Cape Town on the 28th May, a crowd of 4,000 greeted it as it converged in Somerset West before heading to Cape Town that evening. In Cape Town, the Steel Commando arrived to a packed crowd of protesters on The Grand Parade outside the City Hall of between 55,000 to 65,000 people – consisting of whites and coloureds, supporters and veterans alike (veterans were estimated at 10,000). Many holding burning torches as had now become the trademark of the movement. Spooked by it all the National Party were convinced that a military coup was on and as a precautionary measure placed manned machine gun positions around the rooftop of the nearby Houses of Parliament.

Sailor Malan was literally carried on shoulders by cheering crowds to give his speech. Joined by Dolf de la Rey and even future Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist and fellow war veteran Mattheus Uys Krige as well as the English speaking South African war-time soprano and heroine who led them in song – Perla Gibson. In Sailor Malan’s speech to the crowd 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”.

Images: Kommandant Dolf de la Rey and Group Captain Sailor Malan addressing crowds at the Steel Commando in Cape Town

Buoyed by the success of The Steel Commando, The Torch Commando would officially form and would in the course of time rise to 250,000 plus members – so if one asks – was The Steel Commando as successful as its original concept – the pre-war 1938 Ox-Wagon centennial staged by the Broederbond, and whose idea was drawn on by Colonel Malherbe for the Defence Forces’ Steel Commando’ wartime recruitment drive, the answer is yes, and here’s why;

In Conclusion

The white population voting base in 1951 was estimated about 1,000,000 whites. 250,000 whites had polarised to Ossewabrandwag radically politically right on the back of the 1938 Great Trek ‘Ox Wagon’ Centennial .. and 250,000 whites had gravitated radically politically left on the back of The Torch Commando. Literally driving a dividing line between the white voting base (English and Afrikaans) – half in support of Apartheid and half against Apartheid.

It would also splinter the white Afrikaner voter base and the Broederbond’s attempt at a shared Afrikaner National identity, the majority would be swayed by Christian Nationalism as an ideology and keep the National Party in government on a slim margin, becoming more entrenched as the National Party engaged gerrymandering and jack-boot totalitarian politics going into the future – however a significant portion of white Afrikaners would remain ‘Smuts-men’ and resist Christian Nationalism for many years to come – they simply would not buy into the Broederbond’s initial tenants of bringing ‘Afrikanerdom’ under the singular banner of ‘white’ Afrikaner Nationalism and saw it for what it was – a corruption of Afrikaner history, exclusive, hateful and divisive.

The irony, all this fracturing would be caused by the same vehicle to ‘unify’ the white Afrikaner – a travelling carnival appealing directly to the hearts and minds of far flung rural white Afrikaners, initially conceived by the Broederbond to drive an Apartheid agenda starting in Cape Town and picked up in the end, a tad over a decade later, by the Torch Commando to drive an anti-Apartheid agenda – to the same far flung rural white Afrikaners and in a twist of fate ending up back where it all started – Cape Town.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Bomber Harris’ bugle

Some hidden history – ‘Did you know?’- back of the Chappie gum wrapper facts. Did you know Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris – the famous Commander of RAF Bomber Command during WW2 was in fact a Rhodesian and he also had a very strong South African connection, here’s an interesting story and it involves a bugle, a bombing and a baronet.

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At the commencement of World War 1, a unit called the 1st Rhodesia Regiment was formed in August 1914. In October it consisted of 500 volunteers. In November the Unit went to Bloemfontein and on to Cape Town by train. On Christmas Day 1914 the Regiment landed in Walvis Bay to join the 4th South African Brigade. After that there were marches and skirmishes against the German troops. One young man in this Regiment was the bugler.

After one skirmish, he got fed up and buried his bugle. They had marched and marched in blazing desert sun in German South West Africa (modern day Namibia), from January to June 1915, when the campaign finally ended. He swore he would never march another step into battle. The young man was Arthur Travers (Bomber) Harris and with this act he gave up foot soldiering into battle and took up flying into battle instead.

We have all heard about his exploits and management of RAF Bomber Command during World War 2, but few know of his lifelong connection with South Africa. In fact, he was even a founder member and General Manager of SAFMARINE.

First World War

Rhodesia_Regiment_in_Cape_Town_1914
1st Rhodesia Regiment in Cape Town on their way to German South West Africa (Namibia) December 1914

Born in the Gloucestershire, England, Harris emigrated to Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) in 1910 when he was 17. When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Harris did not learn of it for nearly a month, being out in the bush at the time. Despite his previous reluctance to follow the path his father had in mind for him in the army, and his desire to set up his own ranch in Rhodesia, Harris felt patriotically compelled to join the war effort.

He quickly attempted to join the 1st Rhodesia Regiment, which had been raised by the British South Africa Company administration to help put down the Maritz Rebellion in South Africa, but he found that only two places were available; that of a machine-gunner or that of a bugler. Having learnt to bugle at Allhallows School in Devon, he successfully applied for the bugler slot and was sworn in on the 20th October 1914.

The 1st Rhodesia Regiment briefly garrisoned Bloemfontein, then served alongside the South African forces in South-West Africa under South African command during the first half of 1915. The campaign made a strong impression on Harris, particularly the long desert marches—some three decades later, he wrote that “to this day I never walk a step if I can get any sort of vehicle to carry me”. South-West Africa also provided Harris with his first experience of aerial bombing: the sole German aircraft in South-West Africa attempted to drop artillery shells on his unit, but failed to do any damage. How prophetic that his next idea of a “vehicle” to carry him into battle would be an aeroplane.

When the South-West African Campaign ended in July 1915, the 1st Rhodesia Regiment was withdrawn to Cape Town, where it was disbanded; Harris was formally discharged on 31 July.

He felt initially that he had done his part for the Empire, and went back to Rhodesia to resume work at Lowdale, but he and many of his former comrades soon reconsidered when it became clear that the war in Europe was going to last much longer than they had expected. They were reluctant to join the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, which was being raised to serve in East Africa, perceiving the “bush whacking” of the war’s African theatre as inferior to the “real war” in Europe. Harris sailed for England from Beira at the Company administration’s expense in August, a member of a 300-man party of white Southern Rhodesian war volunteers.

He arrived in October 1915, moved in with his parents in London and, after unsuccessfully attempting to find spaces in first the cavalry, then the Royal Artillery, he finally joined the Royal Flying Corps as a Second Lieutenant in November 1915.

He served with distinction on the home front and in France during 1917 as a Flight Commander and ultimately CO of No. 45 Squadron, before he returned to Britain to command No. 44 Squadron on Home Defence duties, Harris claimed five enemy aircraft destroyed and was awarded the Air Force Cross (AFC) on 2 November 1918.

He finished the 1st World War a Major and remained in the RAF as a career choice. Although born British, he identified himself as a Rhodesian Intending to return to Rhodesia one day, to this sentiment Harris wore a “Rhodesia” shoulder flash on his RAF uniform.

Second World War

Much is written about ‘Bomber’ Harris in the Second World War and a lot of it very controversial. At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Harris took command of No. 5 Group RAF in England, and in February 1942 was appointed head of Bomber Command. He retained that position for the rest of the war.

In 1942, a seminal paper was put to the British Cabinet advocating the idea of area bombing of German cities in a strategic bombing campaign. It was accepted by Cabinet and Harris was directed to carry out the task. It became an important part of the ‘Total War’ strategy waged against Nazi Germany.

At the start of the bombing campaign, ‘Bomber’ Harris famously justified the idea of area bombing by quoting the Old Testament:

“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

Images: Colourised images by DB Colour and RJM of Bomber Command Lancaster and crew.

Winston Churchill regarded the idea of area bombing strategy with distaste, official public statements maintained that Bomber Command was attacking only specific industrial targets, any civilian casualties were unavoidable and were unintentional. By 1943, Harris urged the government to be honest with the public regarding the purpose of area bombing and said:

“The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany … the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.”

Harris pressed for raids on a much larger scale and launched the first RAF “thousand bomber raid” against Cologne in May 1942, his successes using this method of aerial warfare saw him promoted to Air Marshal and even acting Air Chief Marshal by March 1943. 

The Butcher’s Bill

Leading up to and after D-Day, 6 June 1944, the bombing campaign continued to attract controversy, but the most controversial was the bombing of Dresden on the night of 13 February 1945. More than 1,200 heavy bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city in four successive raids. An estimated 25,000 people were killed in the bombings and the firestorm that raged afterward. More than 75,000 dwellings were destroyed, along with unique monuments of Baroque architecture in the historic city centre. The scale of the death and destruction, coming so late in the war, along with significant questions about the legitimacy of the targets destroyed have led to years of debate about whether the attack was justified.

Image: Colourised Royston Colour image of Dresden post bombing.

This issue on whether Dresden qualified a military target or not and in fact may have been an unnecessary bombing continues to this day, with evidence even pointing to targeting the ‘old city’ for a firestorm rather than the industrial sector as was the officially stated objective. In either event, what is known is that area bombing by nature was very inaccurate and indiscriminate and the death toll extreme, and the RAF and Bomber Command would admit that the entire area bombing campaign including Dresden was ‘somewhat overdone,’ but this sentiment was wrapped in secrecy for many years after the war.

To see this Butcher’s bill in total, consider these estimates. Civilian deaths in Germany from Allied bombing was more recently estimated at 380,000. Bomber Command dropped 53 per cent of all the ordnance sent to Germany. Firestorms caused by Bomber Command’s incendiaries killed over 34,000 civilians in Hamburg in July 1943, 5,600 in Kassel in October 1943, at least 7,500 in Darmstadt in September 1944, 25,000 in Dresden and 17,600 in Pforzheim in February 1945 and 4,000-5,000 in Würzburg in March 1945: nearly 100,000 dead for the half-dozen deadliest raids.

The attitudes to this style bombing of Nazi Germany populace at the time were becoming very ‘hard’, an attitude exhibited by nearly all the Allied combatants involved in it, as the war had rung out an alarming butchers bill on civilians in all the countries of Western and Eastern Europe. Notwithstanding the Nazi Blitz campaign of British cities at the start of the war and Nazi ‘wonder weapons’ indiscriminately bombing London’s civilians towards the end of the war. This hard attitude was best surmised by a British Bomber Command air-crewman when he said this during a World at War interview:

“If you couldn’t get the Kraut in his factory, it was just as easy to knock him off in his bed, and (if) Granny Schicklgruber in the seat next door got the chop that’s hard luck!” (The sarcastic reference to Schicklgruber was Maria Schicklgruber, Adolph Hitler’s paternal Grandmother).

Image: Avro Lancaster Bomber ‘B’ MkI ‘Victorious Virgin’ crew showing the attitude of the day, this 4000 pound ‘cookie’ bomb was dropped on an Oil Refinery in Hemmingstedt in March 1945, near Heide in Germany. Colourised by Tom Thounaojam.

The culmination of Bomber Command’s offensive occurred in March 1945 when the RAF dropped the highest monthly weight of ordnance in the entire war, mainly on Berlin to support the Russian offensive to take the city. In all Harris was asked if strategic area bombing would work in winning the war at the beginning of the campaign and his reaction was “we shall see”. In hindsight, the campaign went a very long to way to ultimately break resolve and bring Germany to its knees economically, but it happened at a tremendous cost in human lives, not only civilian, lets examine the butcher’s bill on Bomber Command:

Of every 100 airmen who joined Bomber Command, 45 were killed, 6 were seriously wounded, 8 became Prisoners of War, and only 41 escaped unscathed (at least physically). Of the 120,000 who served, 55,573 were killed. Of those who were flying at the beginning of the war, only ten percent survived. It is a loss rate comparable only to the worst slaughter of the First World War trenches. Only the Nazi U-Boat force suffered a higher casualty rate. On a single night, Bomber Command suffered more losses than did Fighter Command during the entire Battle of Britain.

One must also caution here, whilst the figures on both sides of the Butcher’s Bill are high for British and American combined Bomber Command Ops, Germany by no means comes through smelling of roses – their campaigns and targeting of civilians is staggering – in all about 90,500 British civilians were killed and that’s nothing compared to the estimated civilian deaths in Yugoslavia of 1.2 million, Poland 5.7 million and USSR 7.0 million. To say that attitudes had hardened when it came to the combatants would be an understatement.

In Conclusion

It would be unfair with a modern day sense of sensibility to look at Bomber Harris and the men of Bomber Command as a war criminals, one has to look them him in the context of their time and the great struggle surrounding them, especially the extreme choices taken to bring about an end to a war of this nature.

However, in his ‘Butcher’s Bill,’ one cannot help but note there is a ‘World War 1’ mind in Bomber Harris, but it’s not an uncommon one for a Commander in his time, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery can also be accused of the same. It is one whereby ‘attrition’ is used to gradually overwhelm using overwhelming odds, it rings true to the WW1 Battle of Verdun, a meat grinding approach to who runs out of resources, especially human resources first. It eventually wins wars, no doubt, but at a tremendous cost in human lives.

After the war Harris moved to South Africa where he founded and managed SAFMARINE, short for the South African Marine Corporation. Safmarine, is a South African business success story involved in international container shipping and break-bulk shipping services worldwide. It is now owned by its parent company, the Maersk Line.

In 1953 he returned to the United Kingdom to accept a Baronetcy, which strangely, Winston Churchill insisted he receive, and here he lived out the rest of his long life in Goring-on-Thames passing away at 91 years old in 1984. He even managed to see the creation of his much loved Rhodesia into Zimbabwe as a nation state.

In all, it’s a fact that Southern Africa in its harshest form would fashion the man into what Arthur Harris was to become, it’s also clear that the German South West African Campaign in World War 1 would fashion a steel willed and uncompromising attitude of endurance and perseverance in a world of hardships, and one in which he would look to aviation instead of marching into battle to ultimately win wars. With all the modern day accusations of Harris been a ‘war criminal’ for his actions against civilians I wonder sometimes if someone may eventually dig up his buried bugle in Namibia and what that would come to symbolise.

Images: Sir Arthur Harris GCB, OBE, AFC and the Green Park Bomber Command Memorial

To the opening statement, I hear some colleagues say “everyone knows he was a Rhodesian”, well nope- the reason I say his South African and Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) heritage and history is relatively unknown, and for that matter this includes a great many other Rhodesians and South Africans (including two Victoria Cross recipients – Wing Commander John Nettleton VC and Captain Edwin Swales VC) who were sacrificed whilst taking part in Bomber Command operations, is that when the Bomber Command War Memorial was finally unveiled in Green Park in London in 2012, not one South African or Rhodesian military veteran association member and not one dignitary from South Africa or Zimbabwe took part in it. From the Commonwealth, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, even West Indians – all got a nod, I watched the entire unveiling ceremony on BBC and not even a mention of a South African, not even the Victoria Crosses and numerous other decorations for valour won by them whist in Bomber Command.

Some may even say, given all the controversy, better not to have been there anyway. But that would be to dishonour a generation that sacrificed so much, physically and mentally, for our modern freedoms. Especially our countrymen in Bomber Command who found themselves in this most extraordinary and very tragic period of our wartime history, these are men who had to face hard and very fateful decisions, the world at times has forgotten our WW2 contributions, lest we forget them too.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  

Large content and additional research with much thanks to Buskruit Burger.

Large extracts from wikipedia and Bomber Command Museum on line. Statistics referenced from Andrew Knapp: The Horror and the Glory: Bomber Command in British Memories since 1945 and the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

Education Whiteout! The Broederbond

So often, when posting anything on Jan Smuts we get a tirade of slander, often masked as some sort of ‘truth’, certainly to the belligerent group who find themselves in a vortex of anger whenever Smuts is mentioned, or for that matter the same belligerence occurs whenever there is a move to strike at the old National Party and call them out for what they where .. Nazis.

So where does this all stem from? I’ve interviewed people who recall the onset of all this Afrikaner Nationalist inspired history in the past decades under Apartheid. The general opinion .. whose making this stuff up? .. what the heck! Ideas like an empty hinterland rich for the Boer nations taking a legitimate claim to it, migrating black tribes from the north meeting a white tribe migrating from the south in the middle having never met before, small clans of brave Voortrekkers beating back entire armies of treasonous blacks with a holy bible and powder shot, a British inspired Nazi styled extermination camp system in South Africa, an evil traitorous Jan Smuts arranging the British firing squad for Jopie Fourie – where did all this rubbish come from?

In case someone thinks I’m being insensitive at this stage, I’m not, I’m not saying the concentration camp system as was outlined in the South African War 1899 to 1902 did not exist, nor am I saying that it was not painful and tragic – it did exist and its a very painful past, what I am saying is that the education that lies behind it has been shrouded in a very false and flawed package of Nationalist thinking. Here’s why – here’s ‘the smoking gun’:

The Broederbond

The 1st executive council of the Afrikaner Broederbond in 1918.

The culprit for all of this is the Broederbond. There I said it, and I’m not trying to be some conspiracy theory nut job pointing towards a secret society for the world’s problems. No, this is a truth, based on a fact and a real life secret organisation with sinister goals. Here’s how the Broederbond ‘pulled the wool’ over everyones eyes in South Africa and manipulated the entire South African education system to their vicarious objectives, and in the long run successfully implemented ‘National Christian Education’ as the go-to framework for millions of South Africans, of all colours, then and to come in the future.

During Jan Smuts’ time as Prime Minister and the United Party in the pound seats, Smuts proposed the ‘dual medium’ education system – simple really in its idea, he wanted to bring Afrikaans speaking and English speaking coming together, sharing a common humanity and understanding each others cultures. The idea would be that certain subjects for English kids would be taught and written in Afrikaans and certain subjects for Afrikaans kids would be taught in English and examined in English. The classes and education would remain ‘separate’ but the playground would be a common area. The idea was that a natural cultural assimilation would eventually take root. The idea found favour in the thousands of Afrikaner and English service personnel during the war years with a 80% plus approval rating. At that stage in South Africa even in the old British ‘Regiments’ of the Union Defence Force it was becoming ‘good form’ for officers to be commanding and conversing in Afrikaans. Things were generally on the ‘up’.

Then, all of a sudden, the South African Military Intelligence Services started to pick up chatter, kids were returning home from school with concocted slander on Jan Smuts and the ruling party, false senses of national identity and incorrect historical interpretations, sheer hatred of all things British and extreme pro views on Nazism and the nobility of the German war effort, added to this were worrying views on Jewish capital and the Jewish exploitation in South Africa of ‘poor white Afrikaners’. It started up almost everywhere at once and it was ‘taught to them’.

Military intelligence swung into action in an attempt to find the root of all of this, this potentially posed a danger to South Africa’s war efforts. Early in the morning on the 13th December 1943 a small group of military intelligence officers infiltrated the Afrikaner Teachers Training College in Bloemfontein. They placed microphones and eavesdropped on an Afrikaner educationalists congress taking place in Bloemfontein – intelligence revealed it was a front for a Broederbond meeting intent on mapping South Africa’s future in the world of education. They traced vehicle registrations of many in attendance to known Broederbond members and highlighted Albert Hertzog, Nico Diederichs, Hendrick Verwoerd and Henning Klopper as the ringleaders (a line up of some significant heavy-weight National Party leaders).

Field Marshal Jan Smuts

What they took down whilst surveilling the meeting was nothing short of mind blowing, there was an intensive focus by the Broederbond on the country’s educators to dispel with Smuts’ policy and build both educators and the education system along Nationalist lines, to hit Smuts’ policy at the very basic and very weakest link – the children .. anti-Smuts and nationalist ideals would begin at a early developmental stage, such that the ‘education’ in National Christian dogma was ingrained by adulthood, an undeniable ‘fact’ would be fostered – people would simply know no better.

The investigation, led by the head of intelligence Colonel E.G. Malherbe, opened up more evidence over the years, a massive reservoir of intelligence, papers, transcripts, photographs began to grow – showing especially the Broederbond’s grip on the education systems and the reformed dutch churches. Netted in all this intelligence was also all the secret discussions, transcripts and alliances with Nazi Germany and the use of Nazi dogma in National Christian ideology.

Colonel Ernst G. Malherbe

They intercepted Broederbond correspondence calling for the infiltration on the Union Defence Force with aligned brothers from the Dutch Reformed Church to bolster the number of chaplains and start to undermine the war effort at the vulnerable point of dealing with soldiers religious frameworks

It was all presented to General Smuts by Colonel Malherbe with the recommendation to stamp out the Broederbond with immediate effect, cut it away before it really took root. Smuts , as was his nature, took a cautionary route when dealing with this Afrikaner faction. Malherbe asked Smuts to ‘name and shame’ publicly all the members of the Broederbond, warn the public on the influenced education their kids were receiving – issue a public notice in the press. Smuts decided instead to try and round up the ring-leaders and ring-fence them in Koffiefontein, he did not want all the reputable Dominees of the Afrikaans churches named and shamed as well as honourable men in the education and school board systems unduly battered in the media. He felt, much to Maherbe’s disillusionment with him, that a negotiated and moral influence on the matter would be best. He would however ‘ban’ any Brother working in a government job if he did not resign from the Broederbond – many did, and a handful stood firm. He had after all, what Malherbe would later say was “a soft spot for the church”.

The Broederbond in an unprecedented first came out in public and immediately started with the smoke and mirrors, the then Chair of the Bond Professor J.C. van Rooy declared in selected media that Smuts’ attack on the Broederbond as an unjust, unsubstantiated, unGodly attack on honest people in a simple ‘cultural society’ – nothing more. We now all know the aims of this ‘cultural society’ and it was State Capture .. on an epic level, it made the ANC’s attempt in recent years look like a child’s play .. why, the Nats got away with it, the ANC is yet to.

Broederbond Chairman – Prof J.C van Rooy

And if you think this program of Nationalist influence on our education small, think again. From the on-set of the historical discourse of the Afrikaner in Africa is a bias – at the very root of the Nationalist mythology, the simple fact that on the curriculum was the ‘discovery’ of a largely empty land and settlement of the Cape by the Dutch, a kind of ‘first rights’ to the country with Jan van Riebeeck nobly leading it. It begins with the famous painting of a benevolent bunch of Dutch settles carrying a Dutch Prinsenvlag (Prince Flag) coming in peace and trade – with a stoic religion and a civilising mind. Now, the fact is the British colonised the Cape BEFORE the Dutch, in fact 30 odd years before – huh! You Lie! Comes the chorus. So here’s some rather inconvenient truth.

The first flag to fly over the Cape was NOT the Prinsenvlag, the first flag was King James the 1st of England and Scotland – the Union Jack (known then as the British Flag without the Ireland inclusion). The flag was planted on Signal Hill in 1620 – long before the Dutch did it in 1652. That’s how insanely biased the National party narrative has become. If you think I’m telling ‘Porkies’, look it up for yourself, 27 March 1620 – The Unitie one of three British ships arrives in Table Bay from England, a small settlement had already existed there to furnish passing Spanish, British, Portuguese and Dutch traders. Two of the Commanders of these ships, Captain Humphrey Fitzherbert and Captain Andrew Shilling hoist the Union Jack on the slopes of Signal Hill calling it King James Mount and take possession of the entire countryside in the name of the British Monarch. Here they planned a plantation similar to that established by the Virginia Company at Jamestown. The settlement would have provided a revitalising stop on the way to the East but nothing came of the plan .. so what happens next? As historians we don’t really know, there is a conflicting account, we do however know it’s been ‘written out’ of the narrative – I can assure you there are now some serious historians ‘on the case’ now.

But the long and short is that the Cape was obviously left to the Dutch to also settle on the 6th April 1652, and even that is nothing but a footnote, it was neither the Dutch or the British that settled the Cape, it was the Khoi and San and as inconvenience goes there is proof of their farming and permanent settlements here which date back 2000 years … to the time of Christ – the Colonial period is but a ‘blip’ in the original peoples account of things. Bottom line, our understanding of our conjoint history of South Africa – white, black, Afrikaans, Coloured, Indian etc etc was off to a very bad start – the absolute beginning chapter 1 is so flawed you can drive a truck through it – the funny bit, this nationalist folklore made it onto our banknotes, into monuments, into textbooks and net net into our shared psyche as South Africans .. and its all not worth the paper its written on.

Left to their devises with their hatreds, bias and convoluted history, the Broerderbond carried on with influencing key institutions moving ‘brothers’ into key positions and pivots and pockets of power. Their activities given a massive boost in 1948 when the Nationalists unexpectedly won a General Election. Snapping up the opportunity to cover all their tracks, and distance the new government and many of its elected officials from their nazi ideologies and alignments during the war – they sprung into immediate action.

In July 1948, mere months after the National Party won the election, Colonel Malherbe’s successor Colonel Charles Powell (Colonel Malherbe was by the time the Vice Chancellor of the University of Natal), was sitting in the National Intelligence archive and in came none other than the National Party’s new head of Defence – F.C. Erasmus – who promptly dismissed Colonel Powell on the spot with a 24 hours notice. He then proceeded to remove “two lorries” worth of Broederbond documentation from the archive – never to be seen again. Formal complaints to the new Minister of Justice to reinstate the military intelligence archive were just ignored. Luckily and I mean luckily for us much of this was recorded in Malherbe’s book ‘Education in South Africa’.

Later, to the continued amazement of all, whenever there was a press conference and B.J Vorster taken to task on any of his Nazi or Broederbond past he would often smugly turn around to any young whippersnapper trying to set a record straight and simply say “prove it”.

Conclusion

Nothing like the art of deniability and the art of deception, the tragedy now is a ever growing and ever more deceived Afrikaner sub-culture, forever set to grind an imaginary sword against an imaginary injustice, and to forever come out and yell ‘veraaier’ and ‘Kings puppet’ at arguably the best of the Afrikaner nation – from Jan Smuts to Sailor Malan. Tragic, because its in these men, Smuts et al that the salvation of modern white Afrikaners lie, in the pro-democratic forward thinking Afrikaner ‘liberals’, the ones that fought Apartheid with every bone in their bodies – not their detractors, this little band of radical right wing nationalists and their ‘point of view’ on history needs to be left in the dust – or there is no moving on and all that white Afrikaners hold dear to their culture, language and heritage will ultimately be decimated in the march of time and the symbolism of Apartheid becomes intrinsically transfixed to Afrikaaners and Afrikanerdom as a whole.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens

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References

Malherbe, Earnest G ‘Education in South Africa’ 1977 and ‘The Bilingual School’ 1945. The ‘White tribe of Africa’ David Harrison 1987. Day to Day history of the South African Navy – Chris Bennett.

South Africans destroy 101 Enemy Aircraft in East Africa

This is an interesting photograph of South African Airforce personnel celebrating a significant milestone.

The photo was taken during the East Africa campaign in 1941. Pilots and ground crew of No 3 Squadron, South African Air Force, chalk up their 101st enemy aircraft destroyed on the fuselage of a captured Italian CR 42 fighter.

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It must however be noted that this milestone was not 101 aircraft destroyed in air combat, and would be inclusive of aircraft destroyed whilst on the ground.  Nonetheless it provided for good propaganda and moral.  “Tiny” South Africa and a bunch of very brave airmen, in conjunction with The Royal Air Force and other Commonwealth Air Forces, decimated a European ‘superpower’s’ Air Force.

The East African Campaign – also known as the Abyssinian Campaign, started on 13 June 1940, with an Italian air raid on the base of 1 Squadron Southern Rhodesian Air Force (237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF) at Wajir in Kenya.

The campaign  continued until Italian forces had been pushed back from Kenya and Sudan, through Somaliland, Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1940 and early-1941.

The SAAF No.3 Squadron campaign began on 14 January 1941 the squadron was equipped with the Hawker Hurricane. It was used to support the invasion of Italian Somaliland, then after the fall of Mogadishu (25 February) took part in the advance into Ethiopa, moving to Jigigga on 24 March.In late October 1941.

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SAAF No.3 Squadron gained a second flight. This formation had originally been formed as No.41 Squadron Fighter Detachment, and was equipped with the Curtis Mohawk. This detachment was moved from Nairobi to the border town of Aiscia, where on 5 October 1941 it achieved the only Mohawk victory in Africa, shooting down a supply plane attempting to reach the isolated Italian garrison of Djibouti. Only after this did the detachment become ‘B’ Flight, No.3 Squadron.

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At the end of 1941 the squadron returned to South Africa before been redeployed to North Africa.


Feature image copyright IWM Collection. Reference, Wikipedia and the historyofwar.org.

War in Eritrea heats up with the SAAF in the front!

The Allied invasion of Eritrea began on 17 January 1941. No.1 Squadron (SAAF) was used to escort RAF Wellesley bombers, and became one of the first Allied units to move into Eritrea, moving to Tessebei airfield during January.

No. 1 Squadron SAAF The squadron took part in the fighting around the key Italian fortress at Keren, which fell on 27 March, and then in the advance on Asmara, which surrendered on 1 April.

Within days of the surrender of Asmara the squadron moved from the “East African” theatre of conflict to the “North African” theatre in Egypt, arriving just in time to take part in Operation Brevity (15 May 1941), the first attempt to lift the siege of Tobruk.

Typical of the East African campaign during World War 2 was the unrelenting heat.  Clearly seen in the featured image is a South African Air Force pilot of No. 1 Squadron SAAF is doing a pre-flight check as he prepares for a sortie in his SAAF Hawker Hurricane Mark I. The picture was taken at a forward landing ground close to the front line in Eritrea, circa 1941.

Note the crew shelter in the foreground, taking some prime shade on offer under the stark thorn tree, it is situated there so the crew can stay out of the relenting heat and its complete with all the comforts and “mod cons” you would expect on a front line – furniture made from petrol cans and duckboards.

Image copyright: Imperial War Museum

Proper South African Gladiators

Wonderful colourised image by Tinus Le Roux of South African Air Force pilots during the East Africa campaign in WW2.

Here are No. 2 Squadron pilots in East Africa 1940-’41 (Gladiator aircraft in the background). From left to right: Lt. Pieter Fritz, Lt. Adrian “Coley” Colenbrander, Lt. Basil Guest. Only Lt. Guest will survive the war.

Lt. Colenbrander was a popular member of the squadron and was shot down and killed in 1942 just after the El Alamein break-through as 2 squadron’s Officer Commanding.

The Gloster Gladiator’s combat record  in East Africa

In Eastern Africa, it was determined that Italian forces based on Ethiopia posed a threat to the British Aden Protectorate, thus it was decided that an offensive would be necessary, under which the Gladiator would face off against the Italian biplane fighters: Fiat CR.32s and CR.42s. On 6 November 1940, in the first hour of the British offensive against Ethiopia, the Fiat CR.42 fighters of the 412a Squadriglia led by Capt. Antonio Raffi shot down five Gloster Gladiators of 1 SAAF Sqn; among the Italian pilots was the ace Mario Visintini. Tactically, the SAAF aircraft erred by engaging the CR.42’s in a piecemeal fashion and not en masse, and were anyway heavily outnumbered.

Early on in the action, Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron performed various offensive actions against the Italian forces; typical targets included airfields, supply depots, and aircraft. They were also assigned the mission of defending Aden airspace at day and night, as well as to protect Allied shipping operating in the vicinity. It was in the latter role that saw a single No. 94 Gladiator, piloted by Gordon Haywood, be responsible for the surrender and capture of the Italian Archimede-class submarine Galilei Galileo

On 6 June 1941, the Regia Aeronautica had only two serviceable aircraft remaining: a CR.32 and a CR.42, therefore air superiority was finally achieved by Gladiators and the Hurricanes. The Gladiator’s last air combat with an Italian fighter was on 24 October 1941, with the CR.42 of Tenente Malavolti (or, according to historian Håkan Gustavsson, sottotenente Malavolta). The Italian pilot took off to strafe British airfields at Dabat and Adi Arcai. According to the Italian historian Nico Sgarlato, the CR.42 was intercepted by three Gladiators and managed to shoot down two of them, but was then itself shot down and the pilot killed.  Other authors state that Malavolti managed to fire only on the two Gladiators before being shot down.

According to Gustavsson, SAAF pilot (no. 47484V) Lieutenant Lancelot Charles Henry “Paddy” Hope, at Dabat airfield, scrambled to intercept the CR.42 (MM7117). Diving on it, he opened fire at 300 yards. Although the CR.42 pilot took violent evasive action, Hope pursued, closing to 20 yards and firing as it tried to dive away. There was a brief flicker of flame and the last Italian aircraft to be shot down over East Africa spun into the ground and burst into flames near Ambazzo. The next day the wreckage was found, the dead pilot still in the cockpit. Hope dropped a message on Italian positions at Ambazzo:

“Tribute to the pilot of the Fiat. He was a brave man. South African Air Force.”

But operational record books of the Commonwealth units in the area state that they did not suffer any losses on this date. The dedication of the posthumous Medaglia d’oro al valor militare states that Malavolti shot down a Gladiator and forced another to crash land, but was himself shot down by a third Gladiator. This was the last air-to-air victory in the East African campaign.

Original black and white Photograph from the SAAF museum Colourised photo copyright and courtesy of Tinus Le Roux, and my thanks to Tinus for the caption reference.  Reference – wikipedia

Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

On 21 February 1917, during World War I, this chartered troopship – the SS Mendi – containing a full battalion of South African Native Labour Corps men and officers on its way to the western front was rammed in fog conditions in the English Channel. The SS Mendi sank in 25 minutes with the loss of 616 South Africans and 30 British.

mendi-image-courtesy-of-john-gribble-collection

The greatest tragedy was yet to come as due to racial prejudice this event was somewhat down-played through the years and not enough recognition given to these men, something the South African Legion and the South African National Defence Force is now working very hard at redressing.

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Darro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

ss_darro

SS Daro

Darro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge.

They were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha who called them together to die like warriors and brothers – what he said is now legendary.

He said “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

They took off their boots, picked up imaginary spears and shields and performed an African war dance, a dance of death.

Thus, together, as brothers they chanted and danced on the tilting deck, facing death with unparalleled bravery until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

Mendi

British officers going aboard the Mendi in Calabar, November 1916.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water. A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived. The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

The sinking was described first hand by Captain Lewes Hertslet of the Royal Army Medical Corps who survived the sinking when he was pulled out of the water by black South African troops and gave his account of the incident in 1940.

“I remember the jump into the bitter cold sea, the sinking below the surface, and the coming up again, the swimming to the boat that had been let down from our ship, and then cut adrift,  I felt my hands gripping the side as the rowers drew alongside us.” Hertslet remembers himself saying “Goodbye, my strength has gone” and then feeling the strong hands of a black trooper gripping his wrists and holding him up. “Then several others caught me around the chest and shoulders and dragged me, nearly dead, into the boat and so I am saved. Nearly 200 others were also saved, and all of us who are still alive remember the Bantu and Europeans who went bravely to their deaths on that black day of the last war.”

Although the then Prime Minister Louis Botha brought the South African Parliament to attention in remembrance of the tragedy and the impact to the community, convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom. South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable.

Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decades.

After World War 1, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal or a ribbon. Their white officers did (i.e. commissioned and non commissioned South African Labour Corps officers – whites only).

The War Medal was issued by the British to all who participated in World War 1 fighting for Britain and her Empire. The decision not to award it to Black South African servicemen was a South African government decision and South African government alone. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive medals, as the government in these territories approved the issue.

Initial approaches are now been made to the British government by the SANDF Attache in London to see if this issue can be redressed and medals struck (this initiative and continuous drive must come from the South African government, time will tell whether they will achieve this), a memorial “commemorative” medal have also been struck for surviving family members and will make up part of the Centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.


The British War Medal with King George V bust, the medal in question and King George V who is seen here inspecting N.C.O.’s of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, 10 July 1917.

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

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Rev. Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha (1852-1917) – see insert picture, our hero who called all to the death dance on the SS Mendi was a rather remarkable man – he was a prominent member of the Eastern Cape African elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Congregational minister, political activist, historian, poet and ultimately the legendary hero in the Mendi disaster.

As a Lovedale student he joined a missionary party to Malawi, he was instrumental in founding one of the first political organisations for Africans, a staunch ally of John Tengo Jabavu and an enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. For over 40 years, from 1874 to 1916, he was a prodigious contributor to newspapers, submitting news, comments, announcements, poetry, hymns, history and biography, travelogues, sermons, translations, explications of proverbs and royal praise poems. He used nom de plume Silwangangubo, Dyoba wo Daka and Ngingi and published The Natives and their Missionaries in 1908.

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This is a recent picture of a diver on the wreck of he SS Mendi and an artefact recovered from the wreck.

The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.

For South Africans this is especially important as there are very few physical reminders of this tragedy, such as this photograph BASNC plate courtesy of David Wendes.

Some small things can be seen on the wreck, such as some of the plates that the men would have eaten off. It was the crest of the British and African Steam Navigation Company on some of these plates that allowed divers to identify the wreck as the Mendi.

For many years in South Africa the only memorial to these men was a life ring with the words “SS Mendi” on it on a railing in Simonstown, South Africa and the Hollybrook Cemetery Memorial which listed all the names of the SS Mendi missing in Southampton, England.

Happily this suppression of Black South African contribution to WW1 is no-longer the case, after 1994 memorial statues to the SS Mendi memorials now exist in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Memorial services are held countrywide and form part of the SANDF’s Armed Forces Day (Mendi Day).  Awards and decorations for Bravery in the name of the Mendi have been issued, and the South African Navy has named two ships – the SAS Mendi (a Valour class Frigate) and the SAS Isaac Dyobha (a Warrior class Strike-craft).  Memorial services are also regularly held overseas in Southampton England and Noordwijk Netherlands.  A dedicated exhibit now also takes up place at Delville Wood in France.

The image to the left of the Atteridgeville memorial is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson Mandela unveiling the memorial to the SS Mendi in Soweto, South Africa.

The immediate recognition of this event by the British government in 1995 was one of the first acts by the Queen on her return to South Africa – she had last been in South Africa in 1947 and was prevented from visiting again as South Africa had “resigned” from the Commonwealth in the intervening years of Apartheid.

Once South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994, such was the importance and urgent need to recognise this tragic event as a fundamental building block to nation building it took centre stage of Royal visit not seen in South Africa for 47 years.

The Centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi passed in February 2017, and after all was said and done by way of ceremonies aboard the SAS Amatola and at Hollybrook in England and all the speeches and praises by visiting politicians to the United Kingdom completed, it was the military veterans (who were largely left out of the fanfare), who continue to carry this flame of remembrance for their ‘brothers’.

This point was most poignantly expressed by The South African Legion of Military Veterans in deed, after the SANDF and fanfare returned home, the SA Legion performed a most subtle but very striking dedication when the wreck was dived in an official dedication ceremony held in August 2017 by the SA Legion; England Branch Chairman – Claudio Chistè (a ex SA Navy Diver) doing the honours.  They then placed a plaque on the wreck itself in dedication and in permanent memory of their ‘brothers’.

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Wartime beach defences and legendary hospitality

During the Second World War South Africa became a central destination for British, South African as well as other Commonwealth nurses, soldiers, sailors and airmen for a little ‘R&R” (Rest and Recuperation) – especially Durban and Cape Town. Seen here in this famous LIFE magazine image are servicemen on South Africa’s beaches enjoying some of the prettier sights and sun that South Africa has to offer.

In fact many veterans fondly remember South Africa’s hospitality during the war years as the country really opened their arms and welcomed them.

Note during wartime even both the strategic ports of Cape Town and Durban’s beaches were heavily guarded against invasion with barbed wire beach obstacles.

Image copyright – LIFE Magazine

 

German Fighter Ace befriends a Black South African POW & defies the Nazi status quo!

This is an extraordinary featured photograph for a variety of reasons. This is Hauptmann (Captain) Hans-Joachim Marseille, the German WW2 Fighter Ace known to the Axis Forces as “The Star of Africa” on the extreme left and Corporal Mathew ‘Mathias’ Letulu, a South African Prisoner of War who was pressed into becoming his ‘batman’ (personal assistant to an officer) in 1942 but eventually became his close and personal friend, is seen on the extreme right of the photograph.

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It’s quite intriguing that Hans-Joachim Marseille had a South African assistant on the one hand when on the other hand he was the most feared of the German Pilots in the North African campaign, arguably one of the best combat pilots the world has ever seen,  he clocked up quite a number of South African Air Force “kills” in his enormous tally of destroying well over 100 Allied aircraft – consisting mainly of aircraft from the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the South African Air Force (SAAF).

It’s equally a measure of Hans-Joachim Marseille as a man in that he directly baulked against the Nazi policies of racial segregation and openly befriended a Black man, especially amazing considering his role as a senior commissioned officer in the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and hero of the Reich.

Over time, Marseille and “Mathias” Letulu became inseparable. Marseille was concerned how Letulu would be treated by other units of the Wehrmacht and once remarked

“Where I go, Mathias goes.”

Marseille secured promises from his senior commander, Neumann, that if anything should happen to him (Marseille) Cpl “Mathias” Letulu  was to be kept with the unit. Unusual behaviour for a German officer in the Third Reich, but Marsaille was no card carrying member of the Nazi party, in fact he despised them.

No ardent Nazi

In terms of personality Hans-Joachim Marseille was the opposite of highly disciplined German officer, he was “the funny guy” and almost kicked out of Luftwaffe several times for his antics. The only reason he wasn’t was because his father was a high ranking WW I veteran and an army officer and Hans-Joachim Marseille tested how far this protection would go.

If you look “misbehaving scoundrel” in dictionary there should be an image of Hans’ smirking face next to it. On one occasion he actually strafed the ground in front of his superior officer’s tent. He could have been court marshalled for that alone, but by  then he was starting to demonstrate his superior pilot skills as an upcoming Fighter Ace.

He hated Nazis and he despised authority in general and always had strained relations with his authoritarian father who was the model of a strict Prussian officer. Hans was truly the opposite of his father.

His American biographers Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis recall in ‘The Star of Africa’ that he once landed on the autobahn simply to relieve himself. Tired of his undisciplined behaviour, a superior officer had him transferred to North Africa in 1941. Here he thrived, his dazzling record earned him the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, and acclaim at home. But the record suggests he was no ardent Nazi.

He listened to banned Jazz music openly, drank a lot and sometimes showed up to service smelling of booze and in hangover, he was a known womanizer, going against Nazi ideology in every possible manner – and getting away with it.

An incident happened which really shows the metal and attitude of the man. It occurred when Hans-Joachim Marseille was summoned to Berlin as Hitler wanted to present him with decorations.  As a gifted pianist Marseille was invited to play a piece at the home of Willy Messerschmitt, an industrialist and the designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter Marseille had achieved so much success in.

Guests at the party included Adolf Hitler, party chairman Martin Borman, Hitler’s deputy and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. After impressing them with a display of piano play for over an hour, including Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, Marseille proceeded to play American Jazz, which was considered degenerate in Nazi ideology. Hitler stood, raised his hand, and said “I think we’ve heard enough” and left the room.

Magda Goebbels found the prank amusing and Artur Axmann recalled how his “blood froze” when he heard this “Ragtime” music being played in front of the Führer.

But a more telling incident of his attitude to Nazism was to come. On one occasion when he was summoned to Germany, he noted that Jewish people had been removed from his neighbourhood (including his Jewish family Doctor who delivered him) and grilled his fellow officers as to what happened to them – what he then heard were the plans for the Final Solution – the extermination of the Jews of Europe. This shocked him to the core and he actually went AWOL (Absent without Leave), he became a de facto deserter and went to Italy were he went into hiding ‘underground’.

The Nazi German Gestapo (Secret Police) however managed to track him down and forced him to return to his unit where other pilots noticed that he appeared severely depressed, concerned and wasn’t anything like his normal happy self that they were used to.

Friendship with Corporal Mathew Letulu

Marseille’s friendship with his ‘batman’ (personal helper) is also used to show his anti-Nazi character. In 1942 Marseille befriended a South African Army prisoner of war, Corporal Mathew Letulu. Marseille took him as a personal helper rather than allow him to be sent to a prisoner of war camp in Europe.

“Mathias” was the nickname given Corporal Mathew Letulu by his captors. Cpl Letulu was part of the South African Native Military Corps and was taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) by the Germans on the morning of 21 June 1942 when Tobruk and the defending South Africans under General Klopper were overrun by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

‘Black’ POW where treated differently to White ‘POW’ by Nazi Germany, instead of mere confinement under the conventions, Black POW were but to unpaid ‘labour’ assisting the Nazi cause, resistance to which was a grim outcome.  Letulu was put to work by the Germans – initially as a driver. The vehicle belonged to 3 Squadron of Jagdgeschwader – or Fighter Wing – 27 (JG 27) based at Gazala, 80km west of Tobruk. Here, Letulu came to the attention of the reckless and romantic Hans-Joachim Marseille.

By this time Letulu had advanced a little in his lot to a helper in 3 Squadrons club casino, where he took a particular liking to Marseille.  In need of personal assistants for officers (known in the military as a “batman”) some POW’s where snapped up by German Officers, Hans-Joachim Marseille was no different and Cpl Letulu was taken on initially as his batman, but very quickly became a close friend.

Marseille knew that as his kill score grew, the chance of him being pulled from the front lines increased every day, and if he was to be taken away, Cpl “Mathias” Letulu, who because he was a black man, might be in danger given the Nazi racial philosophy. With utmost seriousness, he had his fellow pilot Ludwig Franzisket promise to become Mathias’ protector should Marseille lose the capability to be in that role.

Corporal Letulu also knew that by sticking with Marseille he stood a better chance of surviving the war and eventually escaping, and because they viewed each other in an extremely positive light, Letulu made Marseille’s life in the combat zone as comfortable as possible.

The following on their unique bond comes from “German Fighter Ace – Hans-Joachim Marseille, The life story of the Star of Africa” by Franz Kurowksi.

“Through few odd twists of fate Hans had Mathew assigned to his personal assistant but he treated him in every way like a friend, having long talks with him and possibly even sharing alcohol and listening to music together, just hanging out like a couple of friends who happened to be in a war and on different sides.

Besides Mathew, Hans would often see other captured Allied pilots and talk to them in English and socialise. Hans would also violate a direct order not to notify the enemy of the fate of their pilots – he would take off solo with a parachute note explaining the names of the captured pilots and that they were alive and well.  As he flew over enemy airfields to drop these notes he would be attacked by AA fire, so he was risking his life to let the families of his enemy pilots know that the pilots were alive and well – or dead, removing their MIA (Missing in Action) status.  According to various sources he was like that. Person who believed in chivalry who’s country was taken over by Nazis.

Eventually Hans would become even protective of Mathew especially against the Nazis”

The “Star of Africa”

Hans-Joachim Marseille’s record of 151 kills in North Africa where nothing short of staggering – he destroyed Allied (RAF, SAAF and RAAF) squadrons shooting down One Hundred and One (101) Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk/Kittyhawk fighters, 30 Hawker Hurricane fighters, 16 Supermarine Spitfire fighters, Two Martin A-30 Baltimore bombers, One Bristol Blenheim bomber; and One Martin Maryland bomber.

color Hans-Joachim Marseille with Hawker Hurricane MkIIB of 274. Squadron RAF, North Afrika - 30.3.42 (coloured)

Hans-Joachim Marseille with Hawker Hurricane MkIIB of 274. Squadron RAF, North Afrika – 30 March 1942 (coloured)

As a fighter pilot Marseille always strove to improve his abilities. He worked to strengthen his legs and abdominal muscles, to help him tolerate the extreme ‘G forces’ of air combat. Marseille also drank an abnormal amount of milk and shunned sunglasses, to improve his eyesight.

To counter German fighter attacks, the Allied pilots flew “Lufbery circles” (in which each aircraft’s tail was covered by the friendly aircraft behind). The tactic was effective and dangerous as a pilot attacking this formation could find himself constantly in the sights of the opposing pilots. Marseille often dived at high-speed into the middle of these defensive formations from either above or below, executing a tight turn and firing a two-second deflection shot to destroy an enemy aircraft.

Marseille attacked under conditions many considered unfavourable, but his marksmanship allowed him to make an approach fast enough to escape the return fire of the two aircraft flying on either flank of the target. Marseille’s excellent eyesight made it possible for him to spot the opponent before he was spotted, allowing him to take the appropriate action and manoeuvre into position for an attack.

In combat, Marseille’s unorthodox methods led him to operate in a small leader/wingman unit, which he believed to be the safest and most effective way of fighting in the high-visibility conditions of the North African skies. Marseille “worked” alone in combat keeping his wingman at a safe distance so he would not collide or fire on him in error.

In a dogfight, particularly when attacking Allied aircraft in a Lufbery circle, Marseille would often favour dramatically reducing the throttle and even lowering the flaps to reduce speed and shorten his turn radius, rather than the standard procedure of using full throttle throughout. Emil Clade said that none of the other pilots could do this effectively, preferring instead to dive on single opponents at speed so as to escape if anything went wrong.

Marseille’s  South African associations went beyond his bond with Cpl “Mathias” Letulu and was far more lethal in respect to South African pilots.  In the weeks before the two met, Marseille is credited with shooting down three SA Air Force pilots west of Bir-el Harmat on May 31, including Bishops’ old boy Major Andrew Duncan (who was killed), and three days later, another six South African Air Force “kills” in just 11 minutes, three of whom were high-scoring aces. One of them, Robin Pare, was killed in the combat.

Death of Hauptmann Hans-Joachim Marseille

On 30 Sep 1942, Marseille’s brilliant total record of 158 career-kills came to an end (151 of them with JG 27 in North Africa).

After the engine of his Bf 109G fighter developed serious trouble, he bailed out of the aircraft close to friendly territory under the watchful eyes of his squadron mates. To their horror, Marseille’s fighter unexpectedly fell at a steep angle as he bailed out, the vertical stabilizer striking him across the chest and hip. He was either killed instantly or was knocked unconscious; in either case, his parachute did not deploy, and he struck the ground about 7 kilometers south of Sidi Abdel Rahman, Egypt.

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Messerschmitt Bf 109F-4 , Hans Joachim Marseille, colorised picture.

His friend and fellow JG 27 pilot and Knights Cross recipient Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket along with the squadron surgeon Dr. Winkelmann, were the first two to arrive on the scene, bringing Marseille’s remains back to the base.

Mathias was the first to greet them, and the following is accounted from a memoir by Wilhelm Ratuszynski.

Although the heat didn’t encourage any activity, something told Mathias to wash Hans’ clothes. Hans liked to change into a fresh uniform after the flight. He always liked to look presentable. Mathias opted to use gasoline this time. They wash would dry in just few minutes.

Usually, this was done by scrubbing uniforms with sand to rid it of salt, oil and grime. Everything was in short supply. Being a personal batman for Hans-Joachim Marseille, the most famous Luftwaffe pilot, had its advantages. For instance he was given a little of aircraft fuel for washing. Mathias liked being Jochens servant and he liked Jochen himself.

They were friends. Mathias had barely started his chore, when the sound of approaching aircraft signaled to ground personnel to change torpidness for activness. Mathias put the lid on the soaking uniforms and started to walk towards the landing aircraft. He was looking for familiar plane which supposed to have number 14 painted in visible yellow on fuselage. It was supposed to land last. He noticed that three planes were missing, and last one to touch down had different number on it.

Unalarmed, he turned toward Rudi who had already jumped on the ground from wing of his 109. He saw Mathias coming and cut short his conversation with his mechanic. His face was somber when he looked at Mathias and slowly shook his head. And Mathias understood immediately. He kept looking straight into Rudi’s face for few more seconds, slowly turned and walked away. He noticed a strange sensation. No anger, sorrow, grief, nor resignation. He was calm yet something gripped his throat. Muscles on his neck tightened and he found it hard to swallow. He walked for few minutes without noticing others who were staring at him. He came to Jochen’s colorful Volks (volkswagen car) called “Otto” and sat behind steering wheel. For a moment he looked like he wanted to go somewhere, but climbed out and approached the soaking uniforms.

He looked at the canvas bag with initial H-J.M laying right beside it. He reached into his breast pocket for matches. Slowly but without any hesitation he struck a match and threw it on the laundry. Flames that burst out added to the already scourging heat. At that moment last rotte was flying in. Mathias intuitively lifted his head, following them. The lump in his throat got bigger.

While the entire squadron was devastated at the loss of such a great fighter ace, Mathias, despite having known Marseille only for a short time, was deeply depressed at the loss of a dear friend.

Marseille was initially buried in a German military cemetery in Derna, Libya during a ceremony which was attended by leaders such as Albert Kesselring and Eduard Neumann. He was later re-interned at Tobruk, Libya.

 Ludwig Franzisket

After Marseille’s death,  as promised to his friend, Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket took Cpl Letulu in, and in turn he became his personal servant. Cpl Letulu remained with the Squadron even after Franzisket was forced to bail out whereby he too struck the vertical stabilizer, shattering a leg in the process. After been nursed to health, Franzisket returned to his Squadron and Cpl Letulu continued serving him in Tunisia, Sicily, and finally Greece.

By the summer of 1944 the situation there had grown critical with a British invasion of the Greek continent imminent. The chance had come to “smuggle” Cpl. “Mathias” Letulu into one of the hastily established POW camps, where he could then be “liberated” by the British. Franzisket planned this coup together with Hauptmann Buchholz. “Mathias “became “Mathew” again and was a corporal in the South African Division. Everything went off without a hitch. He was set free by British troops in September of 1944 and allowed to return home at the end of hostilities.

Reunion 

By coincidence, after the war, former members of JG 27 learned that Cpl “Mathias” Letulu was still alive. They immediately sent him an invitation, paid for the journey and other expenses, and finally, at the tenth reunion of the Deutsches Afrikakorps in the fall of 1984, they were once again reunited with their old South African friend.

The former pilots were elated to see him and invitations rained from all around. The following words, spoken in German as a tribute to Hans-Joachim Marseille by “Mathias” Letulu at the happy conclusion of his odyssey, and it gives some insight into the bond which had united Letulu with his German friend:

“Hauptmann Marseille was a great man and a person always willing to lend a helping hand. He was always full of humor and friendly. And he was very good to me.

In 1989, a new grave marker and a new plaque was placed at his grave site; Marseille’s surviving Luftwaffe comrades attended the event, including his Allied friend – Mathew “Mathias” Letulu who flew out specifically from South Africa to attend the ceremony.

Related work and links:

Rommel’s aide-de-camp;  Rommel’s aide-de-camp was a South African

Jack Frost, The South African Air Force’s highest scoring Ace – Jack Frost


Researched by Peter Dickens

Skin colour is irrelevant in a foxhole!

The culture of owing a debt of gratitude to South Africa’s military veterans is sorely lacking – for all of them, then and now.  But especially to these very forgotten South African “Black, Indian and Coloured” WW1 and WW2 heroes of which the current generation really does have little or no understanding.  It’s truly a tale of the suppression of history and the fight for recognition.

The featured image is a very rare photograph of South African medics in combat in WW2 during the Italian Campaign, dramatically caught running stooped under intense fire to stretcher bear a wounded man out of the combat zone. What is even more interesting is the make-up of these South African 6th Armoured Division medics. Here we have men from the South African Cape Corps, the South African Native Military Corps and the South African Indian Service Corps all involved in this casualty evacuation.

The politics of the day had an odd philosophy underpinning it. During the Second War the South African Union Defence Force still differentiated and segregated Corps according to race. However such was the odd politics of the time that men drawn from the Cape Coloured and Indian communities into their respective corps could function in combatant roles and carry firearms – as well as non combatant roles – such as a medic. However Black men drawn into the Native Military Corps (NMC) could not function in a combatant role and where not allowed to carry firearms – although they could carry a spear when on guard duty. They could however step into harms way in combat and put their lives on the line, as is seen here doing stretcher bearing as a medic.

All this politically driven segregation mattered not a jot when the bullets started flying around. This picture stands in stark testimony to this.

The separation of these men became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances combat units quite quickly also “unofficially” issued firearms to their NMC members

As is often the case in combat, and many veterans will attest to this, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

There is certainly no such thing as segregation when it comes to your fellow countrymen from across the racial spectrum risking their lives to save one of their own countrymen in a full blown firefight – as is so demonstrably shown here. These are all South African heroes – it’s that simple.

During the Second World War Black, Coloured and Indian South African community and political leaders, agreed to support the South African Union government’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany and send members of their community into the fight. The hope was that it would buy them more political currency and leverage at the negotiation table after the war for extended rights and political representation. Initially it looked like this would pay off as Jan Smuts and his United Party proposed giving qualified franchise votes to Black citizens whose service in the military was also deemed as such a qualification.

Unfortunately this very progressive way of thinking did not sit well with the National Party and their supporters and they used it as a Political “race” card in their campaigning in the 1948 elections. So much s that they rather unexpectedly and very narrowly won the elections and ousted Jan Smuts and the United Party.

The true tragedy was yet to come.  Not only was all this sacrifice and valour in vain – the National Party went to great lengths to further marginalise these soldiers – denying them medical aid, reduced pensions and excluding them as veterans from Remembrance and Military Parades, as well as denying them access to veterans facilities and organisations.

It was not unusual to find a small grouping of Native Military Corps veterans sitting under a tree away from the national parade with their medals proudly flickering in the sunlight, telling their war stories to anyone prepared to take the time to listen to them.  Excluded, forgotten and vanquished as traitors for serving “Britain” by the reigning Nationalists.

The political philosophy of the time substantially down-played the contribution of “non white” servicemen lest heroes be made of them. History in South Africa would record both the First and Second World War’s as a white man’s one – when nothing can be further from the truth.

It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published – which was that 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”. In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.

This forgotten and “lost” valour is something South Africa’s oldest and most prestigious veterans organisation – The South African Legion of Military Veterans, has been fighting for from day one; at times the Legion went to serious loggerheads with the government of the day over pensions and representation for these men. The South African Legion eventually won the fight on pensions by the late 1980’s, when equal pensions where finally awarded these men.

We as South Africans need to work to address the historic void created by political posturing at the detriment of the country’s forgotten WW1 and WW2 heroes. This is why the recognition of the sinking of the Mendi and other commemorations becomes so important – it’s our duty as South African veterans to uphold honour where honour is well due. Not only to these men, but to anyone who has served in South Africa’s defence forces.

Image – SANDF Archive, Researched by Peter Dickens