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

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

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

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

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

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

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HMSAS Southern Floe

The fall of Tobruk

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

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

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HMSAS Parktown

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

It is generally understood that by this stage Tobruk’s defences were in a poor shape with much of the armour and artillery taken away to the new frontier, the Western and Southern sides of the port were well defended by the South Africans, but the East side was weak, and it proved to be fatal.

As usual, Rommel had devised a ruse for capturing Tobruk. Only his infantry approached the western perimeter, while his mobile forces swept on past, to give the impression that the German and Italian armour was heading straight for the Egyptian border (sending radio messages to that effect to complete the ruse).  He then swung his mobile armoured forces around and attacked Tobruk from its weak point – the eastern perimeter.

Rommel’s zero hour was 05h20 on 20 June 1942. As dawn broke long black lines of tanks, trucks and infantry slowly started to move forward. As it grew louder and closer to Tobruk waves of German Stukas and Ju 88’s aircraft appeared overhead (Rommel pressed every single Axis airplane in service in North Africa into taking Tobruk).

As the heavy artillery began to fire, the planes released their bombs and quickly got out of the way for the next wave, operating a shuttle service between the defence perimeter and El Adem airfield, 10 miles away. They pounded a gap open 600 yards wide. Behind them, under cover of artillery barrage and half-hidden by smoke and dust, German and Italian sappers raced forward to lift mines and bridge the tank traps with tanks and infantry racing through the gaps. As they move forward, they lit green, red and purple flares and the Stukas dropped their bombs just ahead of the advancing, multi-coloured smoke screen while the other planes and artillery blasted the South African rear (the seaward side of the port) with shells and bombs.

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Surrounded South African troops going into captivity as Tobruk falls

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

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

“It was like hell”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobruk, Rommel und Bayerlein, Hafen

Erwin Rommel surveys Tobruk after capturing it

Fighting their way out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awards and Citations for the crew of HMSAS Bever

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

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

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

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

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HMSAS Bever

After Tobruk

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

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

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Ships company HMSAS Seksern Benghazi 1943

The loss of the HMSAS Bever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inherit South Africa website

Inherit South Africa YouTube

Inherit South Africa Facebook

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

Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!



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

South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2

The commemoration of the South African Air Force sacrifice during the Warsaw uprising in Poland highlights another bit of “unknown” World War 2 history. During the war – Jan Smuts opened South Africa to care for Polish orphans and children traumatised and displaced by the war. Ouma Smuts also played a leading role in ensuring they were correctly tutored and continued to have high appreciation of their rich Polish cultural heritage.
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Military assistance to Poland was not the only contribution, the government of Jan Smuts also provided a home in Oudtshoorn to 500 Polish children who had been deported to Siberia in the early 1940s by the Soviets when their country was divided between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

On 17 September 1939, two weeks after the German invasion of Poland, Soviet troops swiftly occupied the eastern half of Poland and, after a plebiscite, annexed the area to Ukraine and Belorussia. Beginning in the winter of 1939-40 Soviet authorities deported over a million Poles, many of them children, to the various provinces in the Soviet Union. Almost one third of the deportees were Jewish.

In the summer of 1941 the Polish government in exile in London received permission from the Soviet Union to release several hundred thousand former Polish citizens from labor camps, prisons and forcible resettlement in the Soviet Union, to organize military units among the Polish deportees, and later to transfer Polish civilians to camps in the British-controlled Middle East and Africa. There the Polish children were able to attend Polish schools.

In 1942, the London government, acting through their Consul General Dr. Mi. Stanislaw Lepkowski, secured permission from General Jan Smuts to transport 500 children to the Union of South Africa In 1943, After they had been evacuated through the southern Soviet republics to Iran, the children were brought to South Africa.

Polish Orphans in South Africa

The Polish Children’s Home (Dom Polskich Dzieci) was organized in Oudtshoorn for their temporary accommodation, care and education. Under the supervision of the South African Department of Social Welfare, as well as Polish consular and ministry representatives, it remained in operation until 1947.

This remarkable piece of British Pathé newsreel film accounts the children’s home in Oudtshoorn and the “new life” afforded to these Polish children, it brings to light the character of South Africa at the time – especially the care and benevolence shown by South Africa and the “Oubaas and Ouma” to displaced war refugees in Europe at the time of their greatest need. Take the time to watch the film and know why, as South Africans, we can stand with pride in our country and the great deeds it has done.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens. Film copyright African Mirror and British Pathé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The death of Jan Smuts

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DF Malan

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The birth of South Africa

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

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

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

The League of Nations and United Nations

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

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

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

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Smuts signing the United Nations Charter

 

The British Commonwealth of Nations

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

The birth of Israel

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

World Wars and Military Milestones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Domestic acclaim

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Emily Hobhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

International acclaim

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

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

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

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

 

Charity

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

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

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

Academia

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

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

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

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

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

Vision

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

A humble man

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

Legacy

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

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

“Even the great thought he was great.”


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

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

This is arguably one of the most highest decorated and bravest South African characters you’ll ever meet, a man with a true warrior’s heart.

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Lt. Col John Sherwood Kelly VC, CMG, DSO.

Lieutenant Colonel John “Jack” Sherwood Kelly VC CMG DSO joined the Kings Own Scottish Borderers in July 1915 when he was a Major.  The entry into the Regimental history reflects an extraordinary character and neatly sums him up:

“A new Major has joined us. The new Major was a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

The four-times-wounded Kelly was not a Regular officer but a formidable and experienced commander with a combat record going back to the 1896 Matabele Revolt. During his military career he achieved fame and notoriety for his mixture of heroic exploits and explosive temperament.

His Story, the early years.

The twin sons John Sherwood Kelly and Hubert Henry Kelly were born on 13 January 1880 in Lady Frere in the Cape Colony in South Africa as the son of James Kelly of Irish decent. James Kelly was at one time mayor of Lady Frere and believed in justice for all and was himself a hero. On 08 December 1876 James Kelly saved the lives of 25 people when the Italian ship, SS Nova Bella, ran into trouble at the St John’s river mouth.

John (also called “Jack”) attended the Queenstown Grammar School, Dale College in King William’s Town and St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown. At school John was keener on the outdoor activities such as horse riding and boxing, in which he excelled, than school work. During this period John first lost his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, when he was only 12 and a year later in 1893 he lost his twin brother Hubert in a riding accident.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer War and the Matabele Revolt

In 1896, age 16, John enlisted in the British South Africa Police (BSAP) and saw action in the Matabele revolt in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). With the outbreak of the 2nd Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) he enlisted in the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers and saw action as a Trooper in the Relief of Mafeking as a Private in Colonel Plumer’s Column.

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Boer Forces with a 94 Pounder ‘Long Tom’ besieging Mafeking

On 08 January 1901 John was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Imperial Light Horse (ILH) and later joined Kitchener’s Fighting Scouts as a Lieutenant and saw action in Rhodesia, Orange Free State and Transvaal. He was twice mentioned in despatches during this time.

After the Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902) John returned to civilian life were he worked in his father’s store, but this was not what John had in mind, he was a warrior at heart  – and what he does next is an extraordinary journey which sees him take part in battles all over the world.

Somaliland 

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The ‘Mad’ Mullah

Having resigned his commission he volunteered to serve with the British forces again in Somaliland for the 3rd Expedition against Haji Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (known to the British as Mad Mullah) over the period November 1902 to July 1903.

South Africa sent a British Mounted Infantry Company (141 men) from the 4th Bn The King’s Royal Rifle Corps, commanded by Captain G.C. Shakerley, and a Boer Mounted Infantry Company, known as the Somaliland Burgher Corps (100 men) commanded by Captain W. Bonham DSO.   The men brought their own horses and 50% spares for remounts.  In a strange twist, John Sherwood-Kelly joined the Boer Corps. During the period he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

In 1904 he was reduced to a Trooper again and returned to South Africa where he worked at first as a trader and later as a recruiter of native labour in the Transkei. In 1905/6 he again saw action during the Zululand Bambatha Rebellion.

Over the period 1906 to 1912 John was involved in the family business in Butterworth which was involved in the recruiting labour for the mines.

The Irish ‘Home Rule’ Crisis 

Finding a lasting solution for the Irish crisis remained a challenge for the British and in 1910 another attempt failed. The situation deteriorated and by 1912/13 the call went out for “all unionists” to return to Ireland. Being from Irish descent John and another brother of his, Edward answered the call and travelled to Ireland where they both joined the Ulster Volunteer Force.

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Ulster Unionists gather during the Home Rule Crisis in 1910

With war clouds gathering over Europe late 1913 and early 1914 the Irish crisis dropped on the list of priorities and by July 1914 John and Edward travelled to London. John being a man that liked adventure saw the gathering of war clouds as an opportunity for him to become involved.

John soon joined the 2nd Battalion King Edward’s Horse as a Private. With a chest full of medals it was not long before John was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant. During this time John met Nellie Green and soon John and Nellie were active in the London social life.

Gallipoli Campaign and his DSO

During the Gallipoli campaign a Jack Sherwood-Kelly, would command the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and would be decorated with a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his actions.

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Kings Own Scottish Borderers on the offensive during the Gallipoli Campaign

On 21 October 1915 John’s lungs got badly burned by gas from the Turks and he was evacuated to the hospital, but returned to the frontline on 28 October. After his return John led his men to in a frontal attack to capture a Turkish trench that was threatening his own forces. Only 6 men returned and John was wounded three times. For this John was awarded the Distinguish Service Order (DSO). The first South African to be awarded the DSO during World War One.

During his leave to recover his wounds, John married Nellie on 22 April 1916. Early May 1916 saw John recalled to the front once again in command of a battalion, this time the 1st Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as part of the 29th Division preparing for the upcoming Battle of the Somme.

The Somme Offensive

In France, leading his Battalion from the front during the fighting in the Beaumont Hamel sector John was shot through the lung and he was saved by Jack Johnson until he could be evacuated back to London.

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Officers of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers take a tea break during the Somme Offensive

During July 1916 John and his wife Nellie embarked on a recruiting tour to South Africa where John was received as hero. On his return to England in September 1916 John immediately reported for duty. John remained in England and on 29 November 1916 received his Distinguish Service Order (DSO) from King George V.

During November 1916 John was posted to the 3rd Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers as a Major. Very soon after arrival requested to be transferred to the 10th Norfolk Reserve Battalion

On 01 January 1917 John Sherwood Kelly was awarded the Distinguished Order of St Micheal and St George, Third Class or Companion, post nominal CMG. It is awarded for service to the Empire, partly for his recruiting drive in South Africa.

Ypres and Passchendaele

In February 1917 John was again posted to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers as Officer Commanding. Early part of 1917 saw a new British offensive in Vimmy and Arras which was followed by offensives in Ypres and Passchendaele. A smaller offensive was planned for November 1917 in the Cambrai sector, using the new weapon “the Mark 1 Tank”.

On 20 November 1917, the opening day of the first Battle of Cambrai, 87th Brigade advanced on Marcoing, three miles south-west of Cambrai. 1st Battalion, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, crossed the Canal de St Quentin by the lock east of Marcoing copse.

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Men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers advancing in the Cambrai sector 20th November 1917

For his gallantry during the crossing of the canal and in leading the attack against the enemy defences on the far side, Acting Lieutenant Colonel John Sherwood-Kelly was awarded the highest accolade for bravery – the Victoria Cross. (VC)

Two companies of 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment, crossed the canal by the railway bridge at Marcoing and one at the lock by the railway station at the north-eastern outskirts of the town. During the action Sergeant C. E .Spackman was awarded the VC for attacking a machine-gun which threatened this advance.

In the same action John was also awarded the Victoria Cross (VC). His citation reads as follows:

“For most conspicuous bravery and fearless leading when a party of men of another unit detailed to cover the passage of the canal by his battalion were held up on the near side of the canal by heavy rifle fire directed on the bridge. Lieutenant Colonel Sherwood-Kelly at once ordered covering fire, personally led the leading company of his battalion across the canal and, after crossing, reconnoitred under heavy rifle fire and machine gun fire the high ground held by the enemy.

The left flank of his battalion advancing to the assault of this objective was held up by a thick belt of wire, where upon he crossed to that flank, and with a Lewis gun team, forced his way under heavy fire through obstacles, got the gun into position on the far side, and covered the advance of his battalion through the wire, thereby enabling them to capture the position.

Later, he personally led a charge against some pits from which a heavy fire was being directed on his men, captured the pits, together with five machine guns and forty six prisoners, and killed a large number of the enemy.

The great gallantry displayed by this officer throughout the day inspired the greatest confidence in his men, and it was mainly due to his example and devotion to duty that his battalion was enabled to capture and hold their objective”.

The Germans launched a counter attack which was successfully repelled by the 29th Division during which time Acting Captain A. M. Lascelles, another South African hero, of the 14th Durham Light Infantry who was also awarded a Victoria Cross (VC). John returned to a hospital in London having been gassed again.

On 11 January 1918 the London Gazette reported that John had been awarded the Victoria Cross which he received from King George on 23 January 1918 at Buckingham Palace.

North Russia

After the end of World War 1, John Sherwood-Kelly took command of the second Battalion of the Hampsire Regiment in the North Russian Campaign in July 1919.  Here he came under criticism from the British Command in Russia, firstly for withdrawing his troops from an attack against the Bolsheviks at Trotsia, he cited improper terrain to attack (it was a mash), no communication and stiff resistance from the Bolsheviks.

But the criticism did not stop there, in 1919 the British developed a new and more effective gas, they chose to trial it on the Bolsheviks. John Sherwood-Kelly was now in command of a very mixed outfit on the railway front as part of the Vologda Force, and he was ordered to carry out the attack on the Bolsheviks under the cover of a large ground discharge of this new poisonous gas.  John objected, possibly because of his experience of gas and wounds he had sustained from it, but also because he felt the objects of the raid could be achieved by other means which did not put his men to overt risk.

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Troops of the Hampshire Regiment in Vladivostok 1919

The gas attack did not take place, and John was relieved of his command and returned to Britain.  On arrival, he promptly went to the press and publicly criticised the British campaign in North Russia in the Daily Express and Sunday Express.

Incensed that such a highly decorated officer should be so critical, Churchill wanted an example made, and against all advise not to , John Sherwood Kelly was court marshalled on the 6th October 1919 on the grounds of contravening The Kings Regulations (which restricted officers from dealing with the media on military matters).

John pleaded guilty, but also entered a plea in mitigation, which read:

“I plead with you to believe that the action I took was to protect my men’s lives against needless sacrifice and to save the country from squandering wealth it could ill afford.”

He was found guilty and severely reprimanded. A man of very strong principle he resigned from the Army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel just two weeks later and entered politics.

Politics

John Kelly-Sherwood stood for the Conservative Party and took part in two General Elections for the constituency of Clay Cross in Derbyshire. His controversial and outspoken style even struck a chord among hardened socialist supporters in this largely mining seat. He was defeated in the 1923 elections and again in 1924. However, true to his character, during the election rallies, Kelly again hit the national headlines having thrashed some hecklers at Langwith.

In later years, Kelly worked for Bolivia Concessions Limited building roads and railways across Bolivia and went big game hunting in Africa where he contracted malaria and died on the 18th August 1931.  He was granted a full military funeral and is buried at Brookwood Military cemetery in Surrey, England.

An incredibly brave man who stood head and shoulders above his peers, his military career and military exploits are nothing short of impressive, a proper leader of men and a pure South African warrior of the highest order. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg for anyone who wants to learn more about South Africa’s finest.


Researched by Peter Dickens with extract from The VC and the GC, The Complete History, published by Methuen, The VC and GC Association in 2013, Wikipedia and Charles Ross’ article for The South African Legion with grateful thanks. Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum.

 

Pretoria Regiment Sherman tanks in Italy – Operation Olive

Great ‘colourised’ image of Sherman Firefly tanks of ‘C’ Squadron, Pretoria Regiment somewhere in Italy in 1944 during Operation Olive. The Pretoria Regiment fought as part of 11th South African Armoured Brigade, 6th South African Armoured Division.

Operation Olive has been described as the biggest battle of materials ever fought in Italy. Over 1,200,000 men participated in the battle. The battle took the form of a pincer manoeuvre carried out by the British Eighth Army and the U.S Fifth Army against the German 10th Army (10. Armee) and German 14th Army (14. Armee).

In mid 1944 two Allied brigades took the Chianti highlands, Radda, Maione. The Guards took it by night, supported by the tanks of the Pretoria Regiment. By 20 July, General Kirkman insisted that the 6th South African Armoured Division lead the crossing of the Arno river but lost some tanks on the gravel due to heavy mining when supporting the 4th Infantry Division. Its flanks were guarded by the 8th Indian Infantry Division. Eventually, it crossed the river and captured Mercatale, defended by the German 356th Infantry Division who were supported by Tiger tanks.

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South African 6th Armoured Division crossing the River Arno

Despite delaying actions by the German Parachute Division, the South Africans reached the Paula line on 28 July. Eventually, by Alexander’s decision, Florence was to be bypassed by the spearhead which constituted the South African and New Zealand Divisions. The Imperial Light Horse/Kimberley Regiment was the first to enter the city. Afterwards, the 6th South African Armoured Division was withdrawn into Eighth Army reserve near Siena. There it was resupplied, completed, and waited for a possible reinforcement of the U.S. Seventh Army for the assault of southern France in August, but was replaced at the last minute by the British 6th Armoured Division and resumed its operations in Italy.

The war was certainly not over for the South African 6th Armoured Division. It took part in the consolidation of the Arno bridgehead in September and prepared to assault the Gothic line. In the process, the Division was ordered to advance along Route 64 leading to Vertago and Bologna and to capture the twin peaks of Sole and Capara. Meanwhile, the Guard brigade met heavy resistance from the well dug-in German Lehr Brigade and two battalions of the German 362nd Infantry Division.

The 11th Armored Brigade was forced to fight dismounted due to the terrain. Finally, the German forces retreated to the Green line, and Operation Olive officially ended on 21 September 1944.


Caption courtesy WW2 Colourised Images and Wikipedia. Colourised Image copyright “Color by Doug”

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


Sometimes you come across gems, and occasionally more information on The Torch Commando surfaces.  This is more very rare footage showing South Africa’s first mass protests against Apartheid, led by Sailor Malan, a World War 2 fighter Ace and Battle of Britain hero.

The inconvenient truth to the modern African National Congress driven narrative of what and who qualify ‘struggle heroes’ is that this movement was the first really significant ‘mass’ protest movement against Apartheid, and it was made up of mainly of white war veterans, led by a white Afrikaner – that’s a fact.  By no means was The Torch Commando small either, at its peak it boasted 250 000 members and their protests attracted between 30 000 to 75 000 people.

Since publishing the first video and articles on The Torch Commando, a number of people have fed back to The Observation Post to dispute this above basic fact.  To see a fuller article on The Torch Commando and other footage, follow this link:

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

They highlight the following:

The Torch Commando concerned itself only with the Coloured Franchise – This is incorrect.

The Torch Commando Manifesto called for Liberty, Freedom of Speech, Liberty from Tyranny and Freedom of Religion. Sailor Malan’s personal politics which he brought into the Torch revolved around addressing poverty in the black community and economic empowerment. Franchise and political reform is actually something Sailor Malan saw as secondary.  Funnily, Sailor Malan was years ahead of time in this regard, as it is only now that politics in South Africa is focusing on freedom from economic emancipation ahead of political emancipation.

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Torch Commando Manifesto

The Torch Commando focussed on protesting against DF Malan’s National Party’s 1948 election win with its proposals of Apartheid.  It saw itself as a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and regarded the National Party’s policies as ‘anti-democratic’.  The Cape Coloured franchise removal was the first action of the National Party to implement the edicts of Apartheid, so it stood to reason that this was the first issue to protest against.

The Torch Commando in Natal was particularly focussed on the cessation of Natal from the Union of South Africa in 1950, now that Afrikaner nationalists were in absolute power in controlling the Union.  Natal had a predominately English speaking voting public who were very loyal to their British origins.  This issue of cessation in Natal brought The Torch Commando into direct conflict with the United Party (Smuts’ old party and by then it was now the official party in opposition) and The National Party in that province.

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

Other issues also sat at the core of the Torch, one issue was the Nationalist’s headstrong policy to make South Africa a Republic, whereas the ‘servicemen’ had fought alongside the British commonwealth – and they wanted South Africa to retain its Dominion status, remain a ‘Union’ and remain part of the Commonwealth of Nations.

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It is also incorrect to assume that The Torch Commando did not feel the sting of repressive and violent government counter actions.  There is a recorded case of a clash of Torch Commando protestors in Cape Town and the Police, who were sent to break up a secondary march onto Parliament, it was also met with further threats of violent repression by the Nationalist government after that incident.

The 1780 Xhosa Rebellions and other tribal uprisings precede The Torch Commando as the first mass uprisings against Apartheid – This is incorrect.

With regard the Xhosa wars, South Africa was not a country in 1780.  The South African Union was established in 1910.  Preceding that the various British Colonies and Boer Republics that would ultimately become a Union had different policies on race relations and the conflicts against these policies need to be viewed in relation to the Colony or Republic concerned, as they all differ very much from one another in both policy and historical context (even between the two British colonies of the Cape and Natal).

Movements like the 1913 Women’s Anti-Pass movement, the founding of the ANC in 1912, the 1946 African Miners Strike, Mahatma Ghandi’s civil dissonance campaign – all precede the Torch Commando as the first Anti Apartheid mass movements.  This is incorrect.

13450028_10154250644792329_4746410985414422490_nThe is a very big separation between race politics in the Smuts epoch and the Apartheid epoch. Race politics existed in South Africa during the Smuts era, of that there is no doubt.  However Smuts was addressing it and political resistance on a really ‘mass’ basis from from these communities did not really exist at the time.  Smuts and his politics are complex, he initiated violent counter action to any dissonance by striking miners or Afrikaner rebellions (whether Black or White, it mattered not a jot to him) but more often than not used dialogue, and a lot can be said to the fact that the ANC in fact supported Smuts’ decision to take the country to war in 1939/40.

The fact is that prior to 1948 ‘resistance’ on a mass level to Smuts’ policies came from the white sector, and it came from fierce Afrikaner nationalists who had joined organisations like the Ossewabrandwag and Nazi grey shirts, whose objective was to topple the Smuts’ government by force of arms.  The Ossewabrandwag had about 200 000 supporters, these were the true resistance and mass movements facing the Smuts epoch.  They were the biggest threat to the Union of South Africa and Smuts’ biggest political headache.

The 1946 miners strike, was a one week mass strike action which ended in violence with government forces, the underpinning problem was a wage dispute, it was settled with a 10 shilling per day minimum wage (an increase from 2 shillings), and improved working conditions as the basis of the strikers demands.  This action needs to be viewed as dispute on wages and conditions of miners with the mine companies primarily.  It was not really a political protest against an entire system of government.

The 1912 Anti Pass Women’s movement needs to be viewed in context with the British Suffrage Movement which they chose to follow, and revolved around a worldwide problem of female political representation (in Europe as in Africa). Gandhi’s Satyagraha campaign against pass laws eventually succeeded in 1914.  Smuts’ and Gandhi actually became friends over the process and admired each other greatly till the day they died.

Post World War 2, Smut’s approached the 1948 elections with the idea of giving franchise to South Africa’s Black population on a phased and qualification basis.  He had promised Black Community leaders to give more political representation to the Black community if they supported the war effort – which they did.  It was these proposals and policies which went up against the National Party’s Apartheid policies in the 1948 elections.  It was Smuts’ willingness to address the African franchise issue that led to his failure in the elections, with the Nationalists playing into ‘white fears’ of Black African political empowerment which swung the vote to them.

Apartheid as an institutionalised policy started in 1948.  The first mass protests against this institution started in 1951.  The people who led this mass protest action were The Torch Commando, and not the ANC, their ‘Defiance Campaign’ came later.  Prior to this the proper ‘mass action’ against the Smuts’ government came primarily from disaffected and militant Afrikaner nationalists in their hundreds of thousands wanting an Apartheid state. That’s a fact.

The Observation Post is re-writing history.  This is incorrect

The intention of highlighting The Torch Commando is that it was ‘written out of history’ by The National Party and remains ‘written out’ for political expedience by the current government.  It is a ‘inconvenient truth’ as it highlights a mass movement of pro-democratic white people not in alignment with Apartheid.  It challenges the prevailing malaise of thinking in South Africa – that everything prior to 1994 was ‘evil’ and white South Africans must therefore share a collective ‘guilt’.  The purpose is to highlight great men like Sailor Malan and movements like the Torch Commando, uncover their hidden history and enter their contributions into the annuals of progressive South Africans who sought change and universal franchise and honour them as such.

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Sailor Malan at a Torch Commando Rally in Cape Town


Written by Peter Dickens.  Video footage Associated Press copyright.