VE – Day’s flags of honour

8th May 1945 – Victory In Europe Day, also known as VE – Day – the war in Europe is declared over. VE Day is a day to mark the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces.

Just a few days before the designated ‘VE-Day’ on 4 May 1945 just east of Hamburg, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, Commander of the 21st Army Group accepted the unconditional surrender of key German forces in Western Europe.

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The surrender preceded the end of World War 2 in Europe, which was later signed in a tent at Montgomery’s HQ on the Timeloberg hill at Wendisch Evern. A second German Instrument of Surrender ahead of the official ending World War 2 in Europe was signed on 7 May at Reims in France and signed again on 8 May with the Supreme High Command of the Red Army (Soviet Union), French and United States representatives in Berlin.

The 8th of May was declared as VE – Day, and an intensely proud day celebrated by the Allies the world over followed, including South Africa (Russia celebrates it the day after on the 9th).  The ‘V for Victory’ sign used to drive support for the Allied cause throughout the war made a full appearance everywhere, and so did the great nation’s flags who had fought so hard, and with such sacrifice to get to this day.

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If you examine the picture of Whitehall closely, all the key nations in support and Allied with Great Britain, massive flags proudly flown from Whitehall next to one another – they included the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the Soviet Union.

In sequence the flags of the key commonwealth countries who had committed so much in resources, people and lives are also seen, these included Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa, and you can see it here, the ‘Orange, White and Blue’ flag of the Union.

Winston Churchill appeared in Whitehall on he Ministry of Heath balcony to address the masses of people assembling there, in part be said;

11050253_445187798984291_7988015998947365041_n“I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle-a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.”

His views were echoed by King George VI when Winston Churchill appeared alongside him,  the Queen mother and a young Princess Elizabeth (soon to be Queen Elizabeth II) in her uniform.  She had joined the war effort as a subaltern in the women’s Women’s Auxiliary Territorial ServiceKing George said;

“I thank with a full heart those who bore arms so valiantly on land and sea, or in the air; and all civilians who, shouldering their many burdens, have carried them unflinchingly without complaint.”

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What followed was two solid days of partying in central London and the world over.  It had been South Africa’s war too, and South Africans were right at the centre of this massive party in London  – and rightly so. This still from colour film footage shows the street party and general revelling at Piccadilly Circus in London – and it’s marked by some South Africans in the centre proudly waving the South African Union national flag and rejoicing the end of the war in Europe.

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Some people (in fact many) in South Africa would say, oh no not THAT flag (referring the Orange, White and Blue or ‘OBB’)!  But that is to completely misunderstand what this flag meant to the world in 1945 and not 1994.

The South African Union flag was the flag of Smuts’ Union and not really the preferred flag of Malan’s Republic, in fact between Verwoed and Vorster both had proposed re-designing the South African Union flag in line with their ideologies and those of the ‘Republic’ state they created and not Smuts’ despised ‘Union’ (many in Nationalist caucus literally hated the British Union “Jack’ on the flag, they called it the ‘blood-vlek’ as it reminded them of the sufferings of the Boer nation under the British in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War and wanted it removed); for more on this rather ‘inconvenient’ history of South Africa’s national flags see the link at the end of this article.

In fact it’s a great pity the Apartheid government didn’t follow through with their endeavours to change the flag in 1961 and 1971 respectively, when they drove at issue of the Republic they created.  In 1945, South Africa was a Union and a Dominion in the British Commonwealth and this flag, along with Smuts as Head of State was honoured and highly respected the world over, especially at the end of World War 2.

At the time the South African Union flag stood for the almighty sacrifice of South Africans and Jan Smuts’ call to fall behind the Allied nations to rid the world of Nazi and Fascist tyranny. A war against what Smuts referred to as Hitler’s ‘Crooked Cross’ (swastika) an unchristian ideology and heinous symbology.

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The South African Union Flag in 1945 also stood for freedom and victory over ‘violence and tyranny’ as Churchill had aptly referred to in his speech on VE Day, at the time it stood firmly behind this ideal and was flown proudly. That the flag was to be carried over and soiled by the Nationalists and their Apartheid ideology after the war from 1948 and now stands as a symbol of ‘hate’ is unfortunate history.

Old flags have their place, and the South African Union flag should have ended with the Union in 1961 as it symbolised that time, with all its own ups and downs and its own forms of ‘race’ politics, but also its greatest achievement which won it high acclaim – and that was ‘VE-Day’, the Union epoch was in fact very different to the Apartheid epoch in just about every respect.  Also lets face it the Nationalists didn’t bathe themselves in glory with a pinnacle of achievement anywhere close to ‘VE – Day’.

Also,  South Africa is also not alone in this line-up at Whitehall in VE Day of having its flag changed – the flags of the Soviet Union, India and Canada all changed in the wake of new politics and social orders after World War 2.

In any event, we stand on the 8th May and remember Smuts’ South African Union and the lofty role it performed in bringing peace and freedom to the world in 1945, a ‘little country’ by comparison standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest men and super-powers in the world, on an occasion that changed the destiny of almost every country around the world.  A day many South Africans stood with their heads held high and applauded the world over.

12549123_10153755844686480_5840912786017399781_nA beacon of fire symbolising this freedom was lit in Trafalgar Square on VE – Day, by a bunch of very happy and inebriated Canadian servicemen burning war bond advertising boards, it burned so bright, so strong and was so hot it cracked a part of the granite base of Nelson’s Column, a subtle reminder to this day, if you look carefully, to the sheer magnitude of the occasion and what it meant to a relieved and ecstatic British public, Commonwealth and Allied nations and the world at large.

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In conclusion, this short Associated Press news reel captures VE-Day perfectly:

Related Work

The South African National Flag; The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags

Churchill’s Heroes; Churchill’s Desk


Written by Peter Dickens.  Reference and thanks to the ‘British and Commonwealth Forces’ Facebook page.  Image of Churchill at Whitehall from the Imperial War Museum. Video commercial copyright Associated Press.

Smuts Barracks; Berlin

Not only did Jan Smuts have a Kibbutz named after him in Israel, as well as pub named after him in London, the famous ‘Smuts Barracks’ in Berlin was also named after him.  The barracks were the home to an SS Panzer Division during the Second World War and was occupied by the British after the war, the barracks is particularly well-known because it was on constant high alert during the Cold War and Berlin Wall divide.

Smuts Barracks was situated on Wilhelmstraße, a street in the Spandau district of Berlin, and the base of the British armoured contingent to Germany, it’s located next to what was the famous ‘Spandau Prison’ . Also in Wilhelmstraße, Spandau Prison was completed in 1881. It was occupied by seven Nazi war criminals, convicted in the Nuremberg Trials after World War 2, including Rudolf Hess, who remained its only prisoner there for many years until he committed suicide. After Hess’ death the prison was demolished and replaced by a shopping centre.

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Smuts Barracks (above and below), taken during 1 RTR’s tour of duty between Feb 67 and Jan 69.

The British armoured squadron based at Smuts Barracks consisted of 18 modified Chieftain tanks, painted in their renown urban camouflage, and were at a constant state of readiness. This “bombed up” state, ensured a speedy counter attack should the Soviet Union (Russia and East Germany mainly) breach the Berlin wall.

The last unit/squadron to be based here was C Squadron, The 14th/20th Royal King’s Hussars (1989-1993), a Cavalry Regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps. The squadron bar was known as the “Lion and Bear”.

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RTR at Smuts Barracks

Between 1948 and 1952, the Smuts Barracks was used by the following Regiments stationed in Germany:

Feb 1948 Sqn, 11 Hussars (armoured cars)
May 1949 ‘A’ Sqn, Royal Dragoons (armoured cars)
Mar 1950 ‘A’ Sqn, Royal Horse Guards (armoured cars)
Feb 1951 Sqn, 3rd Hussars

In Feb 1952 a permanent unit was formed, designated 1st Independent Sqn Royal Tank Regt. It was disbanded December 1957. Between December  1957 and Aug 1962, the squadron came from the APC (Armoured Personnel Carrier) regiment in BAOR:

Dec 1957 ‘B’ Sqn, l4lh/20th Hussars
Nov 1960 ‘C’ Sqn, 4th Royal Tank Regt

Another permanent unit was established in March 1963, designated Independent Sqn Royal Tank Regt; it was disbanded November 1965.

After that date, the squadron normally came from the training regiment at Catterick:

Feb 1965 Sqn, Queens Own Hussars
Feb 1967 A Sqn, 1st Royal Tank Regt
Jan 1969 Sqn, 9th/l2th Lancers
Dec 1970 Sqn, 1st Queen’s DG
Dec 1972 ‘A’ Sqn, 4th Royal Tank Regt
Dec 1974 ‘B’ Sqn, 5th Royal Inniskilling DG
Dec 1976 ‘B’ Sqn, Royal Scots DG
Apr 1979 ‘D’ Sqn, Royal Hussars
Feb 1981 ‘D’ Sqn, 4th/7th DG
Apr 1983 ‘D’ Sqn, Queens Own Hussars
May 1985 ‘B’ Sqn, 14th/20th Hussars

From 1985, the squadron came from the 14th/20th Hussars who were based at Münster:
Jan 1988 ‘C’ Sqn took over. The squadron was withdrawn in 1991.

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Jan Smuts

Also based at Smuts Barracks  were 38 (Berlin) Field Squadron RE. 38 Field Company was stationed in West Germany as part of 23 Field Engineer Regiment when in 1957 it was amalgamated with the RE Troops Berlin to become 38 (Berlin) Field Squadron Royal Engineers. The Squadron remained in Berlin providing engineer support to the Berlin Brigade until 1994 when it was disbanded as part of options for change.

Smuts Barracks was also the home of the Sapper Berlin Field Squadron (38 Fd Sqn RE).

So there you have it, another legacy of Jan Smuts and an island of South Africa’s contribution to the Second World War and the Cold War after it.  The Barracks is now closed and under private ownership.

Related work and links

Jan Smuts: A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts

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


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Large reference, photos and extract from BAOR Locations – Smuts Barracks on-line.

South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

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FAA pilot standing on the wing of a Seafire (adapted Spitfire with arrest capability). Note the “beard”  and his wings on his sleeve above his rank.

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) is a lessor known service in the bigger picture of World War 2, but no less important.  In essence the Fleet Air Arm is the Royal Navy’s own Air Force, designed solely to be launched either at sea from aircraft carriers and ships or from shore bases on maritime based operations and in defence of the Royal Navy specifically.

The Royal Air Force was an independent arm of service from the Navy, it worked in conjunction with the Navy and the Army in joint commands, however it also worked in conjunction with the Navy’s own Air Force – the Fleet Air Arm.

The Fleet Air Arm is interesting as it flew a wide variety of very unique fixed wing aircraft in World War 2, and rotary wing aircraft post war (helicopters).  The FAA aircraft in World War 2 were usually a little different to the ‘landed’ cousins as they to be specially adapted for operating at sea, they also had to be a lot more robust and made to ‘fold-up’ to store them on deck.  They were even given different names, for the same equivalent Royal Air Force and US Air Force aircraft, an example is the famous ‘Spitfire’ had its named changed to ‘Seafire’ when serving with the FAA along with its special additions (like assesting or catapult hooks).

Even lessor known is the fact that the Fleet Arm has had a number of South Africans serve in it, and it all ties back to the strong Naval ties Britain – and the Royal Navy specifically – had with South Africa, especially as the Naval Base at Simonstown is near Cape Town, South Africa, and it was British sovereign territory during the war (a status that existed well in the 1960’s).

Like the South African Naval Forces personnel (SANF) finding themselves seconded to the Royal Navy or South Africans joining the Royal Navy directly as Royal Navy volunteer reserve – South African branch (RNVR), so too did many South Africans find themselves in the Royal Navy’s FAA either as SANF personnel or RNVR personnel.

It also unfortunately follows that when tragedy strikes the Royal Navy and its Air Force, there are South African losses.  So, lets look at each of the South African men specifically lost serving the Fleet Air Arm, honour them by telling a little about their story, the squadrons they belonged and the unique FAA aircraft they flew.  By looking at the sacrifice it will also give us a small insight into this very unique history of the FAA.

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A unique book was written and illustrated by Derrick Dickens called ‘Stringbag to Shah’ on the history of the Fleet Air Arm, illustrated because many of the aircraft used by the FAA were not recorded in colour, or at best obscure with no record of paint schemes etc – and he wanted to bring these unique aircraft to living in vivid colour using his artwork.  We’ll be using this unique catalog with the permission of the copyright owner.

In all there were 9 men according to current records (this can change as more research has been done on the honour roll) who were South African and died serving in the Fleet Air Arm.  So lets start with the first South African man lost.

HMS Ark Royal

BOSTOCK, R S, Lieutenant, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 800 Squadron, HMS Ark Royal died 13 June 1940

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Blackburn Skua during Norway Operations by Derrick Dickens

At the time of Lt. Robert Bostock’s death, the HMS Ark Royal (a massive aircraft carrier), operated a number of FAA squadrons from its flight deck.  In June 1940, FAA 800 Squadron was operating as part of the reaction force to the German invasion of Norway, 800 and 803 had dive-bombed the German Cruiser Königsberg on 10 April 1940 and sank it, flying the ‘Skua’.

800 squadron embarked on Ark Royal later that month, with the carrier providing air cover to the fleet and to Allied troops. 800 Squadron’s Skua’s claimed six Heinkel He 111  bombers shot down.  On 13 June 1940, Ark Royal launched a dive bomber attack against the German Battleship Scharnhorst with 800 Squadron losing four Skuas out of six, along with Lt Bostock (our South African) and the Squadron’s Commanding Officer, Captain R.T. Partridge.

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FAA Blackburn Skua B-24 by Derrick Dickens

“Too big too slow. too late, this was the Blackburn Skua and the reputation that followed it. Slow and big it certainly was by the standards of the day, It towered above the ground on a spindly under carriage, and was indeed a large piece of ironmongery to expect the under powered Perseus engine to hoist into the air. But considering the radical nature of its design by British standards at the time of its conception the Skua was competent enough, maintaining Blackburn’s name for rugged naval aircraft, and adequately fulfilling the demands of the specifications that had given it birth, but as a combat aircraft it was not very successful” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost was not a FAA pilot or navigator, he was a FAA aircraft mechanic;

HMS Hermes 

RILEY, H, Air Mechanic, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Hermes, died 9 April 1942

At the time of Air Mechanics Riley’s death the HMS Hermes (also an aircraft carrier) was searching for the Japanese Imperial Fleet off Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during the infamous Japanese ‘Easter Sunday Raid’ on Colombo – the Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’ and the South African Navy’s ‘Darkest Hour’ because of all the ships were lost with large South African Naval personnel on board – see this Observation Post link for the full story by clicking this link; The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated).

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, HMS Hermes and its accompanying flotilla was by Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes which became an inferno and sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs.

At the time of her sinking the HMS Hermes was the home to No. 814 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm flying the famous ‘Fairey Swordfish’ torpedo bomber, and these were the aircraft that Air Mechanic Harry Riley son of Alfred and Mary Ellen Riley, of Springs, Transvaal, South Africa, would have worked on.

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FAA Fairey Swordfish ‘Stringbags’ by Derrick Dickens

“Stringbag’ so named because of all the wires and stays. Archaic in appearance even when it first flew, the venerable Swordfish was the Fleet Air Arm’s premier torpedo-bomber at the outbreak of World War II and was destined to become a naval legend.

 Having arrived at a stage of World War II when a biplane, was a very rare sight, despite appearances, this beautifully ugly aircraft was no anachronism, for the Fairey Swordfish, as it was named, had then a still vital role to play in World War II. The Swordfish had the distinction in fighting the Axis from the very first days of the war until victory for the Allies in Europe had been assured.

Swordfish first saw action in the Norwegian campaign, and went on to see service in the Mediterranean, the Western desert, Iraq, the Battle of the Atlantic, and in support of convoys bound for Russia, attacks on the French fleet at Oran in July 1940 following the D-Day evacu­ation, and attacks on the Italian fleet at Taranto, and the German battleship Bismarck. The Swordfish is credited with the destruction of a greater tonnage of enemy shipping than any other allied aircraft during World War II. In so doing, the Swordfish outlived and outfought aircraft which had been designed to replace it in service, and during this period created a record of the machine achievement in association with human courage that makes pages of the Fleet Air Arm’s history a veritable saga.” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost with FAA was lost from HMS Formidable.

HMS Formidable

CHRISTELIS, C, Sub/Lieutenant, Royal Navy Reserve FAA 803 Squadron, HMS Formidable, died 1 August 1942

FAA 803 squadron at the time of Sub/Lt. Christelis’ death was equipped with the Fairey Fulmar II and operated from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) against the Japanese (also participating in the infamous sea battles surrounding Japanese Imperial Navy’s Easter Sunday raid against the Royal Navy), joining the HMS Formidable from April 1942. Sub/Lt. Cornelius Christelis was the son of Christos and Eleni Christelis, of Germiston, Transvaal, South Africa.

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FAA Fairey Fulmar Mark II

“The first eight-gun fighter to enter service with the Fleet Air Arm, the Fulmar two-seat shipboard general-purpose fighter was designed at a time when the Admiralty held the view that navigational aids were inadequate to ensure the safe return of a single-seat fighter to its carrier in inclement weather, and that a navigator was, therefore, indispensable”.(Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost with FAA was also lost from HMS Formidable from FAA No. 888 Squadron around the same time as Sub/Lt. Christelis.

HMS Formidable

BROKENSHA, G W, Lieutenant, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 888 Squadron, HMS Formidable, died 11 August 1942

Lt Brokensha had an extensive career with the Fleet Air Arm, he flew Skua II with FAA 803 Squadron, taking part in Operation “Duck” on 17th April 1940 in defence of HMS Suffolk returning from Norway and from HMS Glorious he took part in numerous operations over Norway were he was even Mentioned in Despatches.  From HMS Ark Royal he took part in numerous operations including attack on Scharnhorst in Trondheim Harbour on the 13 June 1940, for which he earned DSC.  By 1942 he was posted to 888 Squadron flying Martlets as Senior Pilot, joining HMS Formidable on 1st February 1942.  His death is a little mysterious, he is recorded as  missing overboard from HMS Formidable, at night on the 11th August 1942.

FAA 888 squadron’s Marlet Mk II aircraft are an interesting addition to the Fleet Air Arms rich history, as they are essentially American Grumman Wildcats with a Royal Navy spin.

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FAA Martlet Mk II by Derrick Dickens

“The Royal Navy’s effect upon the F4F Wildcat was considerable. The Fleet Air Arm introduced it to combat a year before Pearl Harbor, and exerted influence in its armament fit which ran con­trary to opinion in US Navy squadrons. The Wildcat was the first truly modern fighter flown from British carriers, and represented an enormous leap forward in Royal Naval aviation” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost with the FAA was a very senior officer, a Lieutenant Commander on the HMS Indomitable.

HMS Indomitable

JUDD, F E C, Lieutenant Cmdr, Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 880 Squadron, HMS Indomitable, died 12 August 1942

At the time of Lt Cmdr Judd’s death, the HMS Indomitable and its fleet of 880 Sea Hurricanes was involved with Operation Pedestal which revolved around securing supplies to Malta in the central Mediterranean.  In early August the Royal Navy were engaged in heavy combat with German and Italian aircraft bombing their ships securing these vital supplies to the besieged island of Malta.  The date Lt. Cmdr Judd died was a particularly heavy day of combat when 4 waves of German and Italian aircraft attacked the British Fleet, on 12th August the HMS Indomitable’s 880 Squadron FAA Sea Hurricane fighters had been in heavy aerial combat with Axis forces, with crew losses and in the evening the HMS Indomitable’s defensive screen was breached and she was hit by two 500 kg bombs; a 500 kg bomb penetrated the un-armoured portion of the flight deck, killing 50 and wounding 59 men causing damage that required her to withdraw from the fight.

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Sea Hurricane Mk II by Derrick Dickens

“That the Hawker Hurricane occupied a vital place in Britain’s history cannot be denied. Put simply, the Hurricane saved Great Britain in 1940; it was the right aircraft, at the right time, and flown by the right pilots. No one can deny the excel­lence of the Spitfire, nor that it one of the great fighting aircraft of World War II. Yet, outdated though the Hurricane may have appeared by comparison, its simplicity of concept and opera­tion was such that it could be — and was – dispatched to any of the danger spots that spread like cancer during those first three years of the war when events threatened to engulf the Allied nations with disaster.

Overshadowed by the Spitfire, the Hurricane was slower, less manoeuvrable and half a generation older in terms of technology. What mattered was that it was available in numbers and could be adapted to a variety of roles. One of which was a carrier-based fighter version which the Navy dubbed the ‘Sea Hurricane’ (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost was from the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 762  Squadron on the HMS Heron

HMS Heron

O’BRYEN, W S, Sub/Lt Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm 762 Squadron, HMS Heron, died 26 November 1942

At the time of S/Lt O’ Bryen’s death the HMS Heron and 762 Squadron were raining units.  The HMS Heron is not a ship or carrier, it’s a shore base and one of the last of the Fleet Air Arm’s bases still in Operation now re-named Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, England. It was used primarily during World War 2 as the home of No1. Naval Air Fighter School and later the Aircraft Direction Centre. The 700-series squadrons are generally experimental or training squadrons, which produce trained aircrew for the operational 800-series squadrons.

S/Lt William Stanislaus O’Bryen, the son of John and Ivy O’Breyen of Fynnland, Natal, South Africa is buried at the Fleet Air Arm’s Church in Yeovilton which contains a small number of FAA members killed in aviation accidents whilst training at HMS Heron.

It is unclear from records what aircraft S/Lt O’Bryen was involved with, however one of the more famous aircraft flown at HMS Heron used to train young pilots by the middle of the war was the famous Seafire, a naval adaption of the iconic Spitfire.

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FAA Seafire MK 1B by Derrick Dickens

“The Seafire which in fact was little more than a “navalised” Spitfire, it was without any doubt the most effective British built naval fighter of World War 2, even though it had the reputation of not being suitable for the rigours of carrier operations. To some degree, this reputation was deserved for the Spitfire was of lightweight design, never intended for naval service, but it filled a gap till the specialist naval types in the shape of the Corsair and Hellcat arrived, in the mean time serving in major campaigns in the Far East, Africa and Europe” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The next South African man lost was from the Fleet Air Arm’s No. 851 Squadron on the HMS Shah, and he in fact was a member of the South African Navy, having been seconded to the FAA.

HMS Shah

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nMACWHIRTER, Cecil J, Ty/Sub Lieutenant (A), Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy) 851 Squadron HMS Shah, air crash, SANF, MPK 14 April 1944

At the time of S/Lt Macwhirter’s death the HMS Shah had just completed an operation to the United States to collect equipment and airframes for twelve Avenger aircraft allocated to 851 Naval Air Squadron (FAA) on the 14th.  The Shah sailed for Melbourne, departing Australia on 8th February 1944 for Cochin.  On the 23rd February she disembarked her ferry load of American fighters; this included the Avenger airframes earmarked for 851 squadron.

851 squadron was to remain ashore until 6th March before rejoining the ship. The next two weeks would be spent working up her air department and flight deck parties; this was the first opportunity for flying operations to be carried out.  HMS Shah arrived in Colombo on February 19th and 851 was flown off to RNAS Colombo Racecourse. Aircraft were embarked as required when further training; it was on such training that 851 suffered its first operational loss when Avenger FN813 stalled and ditched in the sea off the West coast of Ceylon while conducting a night anti submarine exercise on April 14th killing all three crew members, including S/Lt Cecil John Macwhirter, our South African son of Samuel and Elizabeth MacWhirter.

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FAA Tarpon (Avenger) Mk 1 by Derrick Dickens

“When the Grumman Avenger first joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1943 it was very aptly named after a big ugly bird, the Tarpon. No 832 was the first Tarpon squadron to be formed and  in December 1942 they  sailed on HMS Victorious to America to commence training on the new torpedo bomber at the US Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia They were equipped with US navy aircraft as the British machines were not ready Their first embarkation was on USS Saratoga and they landed up in the Pacific theater in April 1943. A month later they re-embarked on HMS Victorious for a period of operations in the Solomons. The FAA retained the name Tarpon until January 1944, when the name was changed back to the original American Avenger and  became known as Avenger 1s” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The second last South African to be lost fighting in Fleet Air Arm was with 1772 Squadron (FAA) on the HMS Indefatigable, he was also a member of the South African Navy and seconded to the Fleet Air Arm.

HMS Indefatigable 

LA GRANGE, Antony M, Sub Lieutenant (A), SANF, Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy)1772 Sqn HMS Indefatigable, air operations, MPK 28 July 1945

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FAA Firefly Mk 1 by Derrick Dickens

In July 1945 1772 Naval Air Squadron, flying Fireflies, boarded HMS Indefatigable and joined the British Task Force 37 which then joined the US Task Force 38 in the northern Pacific for the final assault on the Japanese Mainland. The combined Task force comprised 14 Fleet Carriers, 25 Cruisers , at least five battleships, 75 Destroyers, and many other craft…. and 1300 aircraft. This was the largest naval force ever gathered in one area in history. The American Fleet comprised at least three-quarters of that combined fleet.

Many raids and bombardments took place in these last days of the war and losses were considerable despite the fact that the Japanese forces were very depleted by this time. The previous engagement had been largely American again and of course the European war had ended. This was the final massive battle against the remaining island possession occupied by the Japanese, Okinawa. Noteworthy in this engagement, which cost many American lives, was the Kamikaze and the Indefatigable received one Kamiikaze strike on its deck, killing several personnel.

The HMS Indefatigable went on to join the Americans in Tokyo Bay for the Peace Treaty signing.  S/Lt. Antony Michael La Grange, the son of Mrs. I. B. La Grange, of Albertinia, Cape Province, South Africa is remembered on the Plymouth Memorial.

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FAA Firefly Mk IV by Derrick Dickens

“The Fairy was conceived in the late “thirties”, blooded on the mid “Forties” withdrawn from production in the mid “Fifties” and finally retired in the mid sixties such was the 25 year lifespan of one of the most versatile aircraft to lift off a carrier deck. Combining performance, handling, maneuverability, and firepower never before displayed by a previous ship board aircraft, it wrote its own history due to its adaptability for roles and weapon loads unforeseen at the time of the creation of this handsome fighter – reconnaissance aircraft. The Firefly saw relatively limited action during World War Two, never the less it earned for itself a place in naval aviation history, for although the longevity of the Firefly was to be superceded, and its remarkable versatility was to remain peerless.  1,702 Fireflies were built over a period of 14 years, the most of them in post world war two guise which differed greatly in role and different in appearance from the original aircraft which made its operational debut on HMS Indefatigable, taking part on the attacks on the German battleship Tirpitz” (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

The final South African to be lost in World War 2 flying for the Fleet Air Arm was also a member of the South African Navy seconded to the FAA on HMS Landrail.

HMS Landrail

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nWAKE, Vivian H, Ty/Lieutenant (A), FAA Fleet Air Arm (Royal Navy) 815 Squadron HMS Landrail, air crash, SANF, MPK 28 March 1945

By the time of Ty/Lt. Wake’s death, 815 Squadron had been reformatted in November 1944 at HMS Landrail, a shore base now called RNAS Machrihanish located 5 km west of Campbeltown on the western side of the Kintyre Peninsula in Scotland.

FAA 815 Squadron by this stage was flying Barracudas on anti-submarine operations, and doing DLT (deck landing training) on HMS Campania in preparation for the final operations in the Far East against Imperial Japan.

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FAA Barracuda Mk V

“The Barracuda was a large ugly beast of an aeroplane, when its wings were folded it looked like some prehistoric bird straight out of Jurassic Park. Un-pretty, big bulky, solid and generally disliked by the aircrew, they were used to good effect in 1944 during attacks on the Tirpitz, which was lying crippled in Kaafjord, North Norway, after being damaged in an attack by midget submarines. From April 1944 Nos. 810 and 847 began operations in the pacific theatre on board HMS Illustrious. Barracudas were also heavily involved in dive bombing attacks on Japanese land and maritime targets, as well as raids against Japanese targets in Sumatra. They continued to support the Allies advance until the end of the war

Towards the end of the war a major redesign of the Barracuda was undertaken to provide an interim aircraft for use in the war against Japan, until the Fairey Spearfish became available. This development resulted in the Barracuda TR Mk V”. (Stringbag to Shah by Derrick Dickens).

In Conclusion

HRH Prince PhilipThe best way to summarise the Fleet Air Arm, its commitment and sacrifice is in fact found in the forward of Derrick Dickens’ Stringbag to Shar’ written by none other than the Admiral of the Fleet, HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh K.G., K.T., O.M., G.B.E.

“When you look at the difficulties experienced by the pioneers of aviation Lord Cayley, the Wright brothers, Hiram Maxim and Colonel ‘Buffalo’ Bill; Cody – to get a machine to take off from mother earth and to fly through the air, it is not surprising that many people considered them to be extremely foolhardy, if not actually insane. To the far-sighted, the use of aircraft in war may have seemed obvious, it really needed the conviction of a saint to visualise the practical use of aircraft in a war at sea.

This splendid book traces the chequered history of naval aviation, and the extraordinary vision and determination of the designers, builders and pilots of naval aircraft against every sort of discouragement. It also illustrates the remarkable imagination of those who helped to develop all the ancillary equipment, such as aircraft carriers, catapults, arrestor wires, angled decks, ‘ski-jumps’, and all other gimmicks that enabled naval aviation to make a solid impact on the war at sea.

Looking through the illustrations in this book, it seems almost unbelievable that men could be found, not just to fly them, but to inflict damage on the enemy, and return to tell the tale.

The contribution of naval aviation to the war at sea during WW1 and WW2, may not have made the headlines in quite the same way as land-based aircraft, but, as the final days of the war against Japan demonstrated, the participation of naval aircraft was crucial to the ultimate allied victory”.

Related Work and Links

Related work of South Africans serving in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

HMS Hermes “Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

Dick Lord Dick Lord – the combat legend who took learnings from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to the SAAF

Easter Raid The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens, references from Wikipedia, The Commonwealth War Graves Commissioned, SAAF and RAF Honour Roll compiled by Graham du Toit, BBC People’s War, Fly Navy – HMS Shah, Fleet Air Arm Officers Association, CASUALTIES BY DATE and SHIP Compiled by Don Kindell sourced on the Royal Naval History Homepage.

Large extracts and paintings taken from “Stringbag to Shar 1938 to 2006” Compiled by Derrick Dickens. All the images used in this book are photographs of original paintings
by the author. These images may not be used anywhere else without the
specific permission of the copyright owner – Mr Peter Dickens. Images © Derrick Dickens 2008. (All original paintings).

“A terrific explosion lifted the ship out of the water”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall

This is an image of the HMS Cornwall under attack just prior to her sinking, it was taken by the Japanese attack aircraft. A number of South African Navy personnel were lost with this ship whilst seconded to the Royal Navy during World War 2.

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As Simonstown in South Africa was a British Naval base thousands of South Africans in WW2 served in the Royal Navy as well as in the South African Naval Forces (SANF). The loss of a heavy Cruiser the size of the HMS Cornwall is bound to include a South African honour roll and unfortunately this one does. Read on for their story.

HMS Cornwall Short History

hms_cornwall_F99_emb_n12997HMS Cornwall was a heavy cruiser of the Kent-subclass of the County-class. When World War 2 began in September 1939,  Cornwall was transferred from her pre-war China Seas operations to the Indian Ocean and joined Force I at Ceylon.

On 5th October 1939, she was involved in the search for the German pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee. Between the 8th  and 14th February 1940, she was docked at the Selborne dry dock at Simonstown, South Africa.  Its was here that she would have taken onboard a large contingent of South Africans either volunteering for the Royal Navy or seconded to the Royal Navy as members of The South African Naval Forces stationed there.

In September 1940, together with HMS Delhi, she intercepted Vichy-French light cruiser Primauguet and tanker Tarn, forcing them to return to Casablanca, Morocco. By January 1941, HMS Cornwall returned to the Selborne dry dock in South Africa for refitting, at the same time taking on more South African personnel.

Sinking of the German Auxiliary Ship Pinguin

The HMS Cornwall was on patrol in the Indian Ocean of Seychelles when she engaged and sank the German ship ‘Pinguin’ on the 8th May 1941, Pinguin was known to the German Navy as Schiff 33, and designated HSK 5. The most successful commerce raider of the war, she was known to the British Royal Navy as Raider F.

Unfortunately, without the knowledge of Cornwall’s crew, Pinguin sank along with 200 Allied prisoners of war in addition to 232 Germans lost (60 German crew members and 22 Allied prisoners were rescued). She returned to Durban, South Africa to repair her stern, which was damaged during the battle against Pinguin; the repairs lasted until 10th  June 1941.

HK Pinguin

HK Pinguin

On the 25th November 1941, Cornwall intercepted the Vichy-French merchant vessel Surcouf in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Somalia. Surcouf was originally en route to Djibouti with food, but was forced to sail to Djibouti instead.

Between January and March 1942, Cornwall escorted convoys between Ceylon and the Sunda Strait in the Dutch East Indies. In March 1942, she was sent to Colombo, Ceylon in preparation for a possible Japanese attack into the Indian Ocean.

The Easter Sunday Raid

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (Sri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class corvette, the HMS Hollyhock.

The Royal Navy’s own ‘Pearl Harbour’

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour against the American fleet planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo (the commercial capital of modern-day Sri Lanka).

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,

However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday 5th April 1942 they did manage to achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance (another parallel with the attack on Peal Harbour).

Easter Raid

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida

The first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles south of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave of 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers, and 90 level bombers was led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida the same officer who led the air attack on Pearl Harbour.

The Heavy Cruisers, HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon. A wave of  Japanese dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, to sink the two ships.

In the attack, the Japanese airman flying Japanese  D3A-1 ‘VAL’ dive bombers, then dropped 9 bombs on the HMS Cornwall itself ( 250- and 550-pound bombs) and six near misses, the HMS Cornwall becoming dead in the water within minutes, the HMS Cornwall sank in about 12 minutes after the first hit (and Dorsetshire suffered the same fate).

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An eye-witness account from a South African officer on board the Cornwall recounts the ferocity and speed of the attack:

Sub-Lieutenant R. Ellis Brown, son of the mayor of Durban, said he was down below in the control room of the high angle guns when the warning was flashed that aircraft were attacking.

“Almost immediately afterwards there was a terrific explosion and the ship lifted out of the water and listed to port, “ he said. “This was followed almost immediately by another hit. The lights went out and I continued on to the sick bay. I went forward from there to contact the control officer and shortly after I left, a bomb dropped on the sick bay, killing most of the men there. I could not get through on account of the flames, so went to the aft deck. Here we managed to get a whaler and also five or six floats. We got the men off and I looked up and saw a dive-bomber coming down at me. I saw the bomb released at about 700 feet and it appeared to be coming straight at me. Although I knew that if a bomb appeared to be coming straight at you it would actually fall far beyond. I must say I did not like it one bit. The men jumped into the water and finally the two other officers and myself left on this deck followed them.”

Sub-Lieutenant Ellis Brown said that the men were in the water for about 30 hours. The wounded were placed in a motor boat which had floated off when Cornwall sank. The remainder stayed in the water, hanging on to debris and floats. To the discomforts the men suffered in the water was added the horror of knowing they were in shark-infested waters.  He recalls, “We saw several fins cutting the water but as soon as they came near, the men would kick and shout and they would make off.”

 

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Japanese combat photograph showing the Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on fire and sinking

 

HMS Cornwall was sunk in position 01º54’N, 77º45’E. All boiler and engine rooms were out of action within minutes, thereby resulting in a lack of power to the pumps and fire fighting equipment. In all the men spent 30 hours in the water, before a combined rescue of the HMS Dorsetshire men (also in the water) and HMS Cornwall’s men by the HMS Enterprise, HMS Paladin and HMS Panther. In total 192 of Cornwall’s men were lost, of a very high proportion – 23, were South African.  Here is the South African Naval Forces honour roll (MPK means ‘Missing Presumed Killed’) from the sinking;.

HMS Cornwall – South African Navy Personnel Lost, Honour Roll

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nBESWETHERICK, Hedley C, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 86671 (SANF), MPK
BOTES, John S, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68924 (SANF), MPK
COMMERFORD, Noel P, Able Seaman RNVR, 66493 (SANF), MPK
CRAWFORD, Cecil E, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 67922 (SANF), MPK
DU PREEZ, Charles P H, Able Seaman, 68175 (SANF), MPK
DUTTON, Charles C, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68949 (SANF), MPK
HANSLO, Raymond F, Able Seaman RNVR, 68295 (SANF), MPK
KEITH, Kenneth I B, Able Seaman RNVR, 66742 (SANF), MPK
KENYON, Graeme A B, Able Seaman RNVR, 68002 (SANF), MPK
KIRSTEN, Monty G W, Able Seaman RNVR, 68917 (SANF), MPK
LAW, Edward, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 66760 (SANF), MPK
MCDAVID, William K, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69138 (SANF), MPK
MITCHELL, William A, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68796 (SANF), MPK
PALMER, Walter A, Able Seaman RNVR, 68344 (SANF), (rescued, aboard HMS Enterprise), Died of Wounds
SPENCE, Noel W, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68732 (SANF), MPK
SQUIRES, John E, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68728 (SANF), MPK
STEPHEN, Eric B, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68861 (SANF), MPK
SWANN, Lawrence T, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68710 (SANF), MPK
THORPE, Maurice, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69140 (SANF), MPK
VERSFELD, Peter H S, Able Seaman RNVR, 68859 (SANF), MPK
VINK, Benjamin F, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68860 (SANF), MPK
WILLSON, Gerald F, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69006 (SANF), MPK
WRIGHT, Thomas H, Able Seaman RNVR, 68039 (SANF), MPK

In earlier incidents on HMS Cornwall two South Africans lost their lives they are also remembered here:

AINSLIE, Roy, Petty Officer, 66382 (SANF), died on 5 September 1940
HAWKINS, Reginald D, Able Seaman, 66700 (SANF), died of illness 4 March 1942

Some South Africans may not accounted in the above list as they may have been Royal Navy personnel having volunteered to serve in the Royal Navy, there is a long list of South Africans not accounted on the Navy’s honour rolls because of the complication of citizenship, the position of the South African Union in supporting the war and the nature of Simonstown as British territory.

Related work 

The Japanese Easter raid was to bring a terrible toll on not only the Royal Navy, but also on the South African Navy whose personnel were involved.  It remains the South African Navy’s darkest days, as not only were the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire full of SANF personnel, so too were the other two ships sunk later in this engagement on the 9th April 1942 by the same Japanese raiders – the HMS Hermes, see related article by clicking this link (“Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes) and HMS Hollyhock, see related article by clicking this link ( “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock).

The HMS Dorsetshire is featured in a full Observation Post article, follow by clicking this link (“They machine gunned us in the water”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Dorsetshire).

In Conclusion

This history is lost to most South Africans, however good work is now been done to try and correct and up-date these honour rolls and recount the full depth of South Africa’s involvement in warfare at sea during World War 2.  We, as South Africans, do however have an excellent tradition at the Selborne Graving Dock, the dry docks in Simonstown, allowing visiting crews to paint their ships emblems on the docks walls, it is an excellent record of many of the proud Royal Navy fighting ships who visited our shores in World War 2 and on whom many South Africans served.  Next time you are there look out them, including the HMS Cornwall.

Their names have not been forgotten.

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Written and researched by Peter Dickens, with extracts taken from Wikipedia, Force-z survivors official webpage, the British Broadcast Corporation account on the war (BBC)  WW2 The Peoples War. Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2 by Don Kindell.

The last South African Navy ship to be lost in action; HMSAS Treern

It is not known now to many modern South Africans, but the South African Navy lost four ships in total during WW2, all of them minesweepers.  Hardly recognised today all these ships carried with them tales of great bravery,

The first ship lost in the Mediterranean near Tobruk was the HMSAS Southern Floe with its remarkable tale of a single survivor (see The HMSAS Southern Floe was the SA Navy’s first ship loss & it carries with it a remarkable tale of survival.).

The second ship lost was the HMSAS Parktown, which went down fighting during the Fall of Tobruk in Libya, with the HMSAS Bever fighting at her side out the port (see The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown).

The third ship to be lost was the HMSAS Parktown’s sister ship, the HMSAS Bever which went down later in the war during the liberation of Greece when it struck a mine, and carries with its story a tale of miraculous survivors (see “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever).

The final minesweeper to be lost was the HMSAS Treern, it was tragically lost right at the end of the war, and it remains the last South African vessel to be lost in action, even to this day, yet hardly anyone is aware of her history.

So lets examine this last combat loss, and why it is that we tend to overlook all this sacrifice at sea in the South African Navy’s vessels during the Second World War.

The second minesweeping flotilla prepares for the Mediterranean 

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HMSAS Treern

On the 12 May 1941, the HMSAS Treern (under the command of Lt. H H Cook) is commissioned, she is a whaler now converted for wartime service.  Now a magnetic minesweeper she is given her number T451 and allocated the pennant number 94.

By the beginning of November 1941, there is a small flotilla of South African minesweepers ready for deployment in the Mediterranean in support of Allied combat operations there.  The HMSA Ships, Bever, Gribb, Seksern, Imhoff, Treern, Parktown and Langlaagte, all are former whale catchers of about 260 tons and built between 1926 and 1930, and all are ready to go as part of the 166th Minesweeping Group in the Mediterranean.   Each minesweeper is 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.

The liberation of Greece 

The Treern has a long record of service conducting duties alongside Allied shipping, she spends almost the entire war in the combat zone, towards the end of the war she finds herself under the command of Lt. P Byrne assisting in the liberation of Greece sailing in the Aegean Sea – the end of the war in Europe and surrender of Germany is a tantalising four months away.

Treern

HMSAS Treern

By January 1945 the situation in the Greek Islands was somewhat confused. Initially the task of the Allies appeared to be a straightforward one; simply the supply and distribution of food and other essentials and the opening up of communications which, from the nature of the country, was largely by sea. However, internal dissension (which the retreating German forces had done their best to promote) considerably complicated and delayed the Allied take over.

ELAS

The Greek People’s Liberation Army or ELAS was the military arm of the left-wing National Liberation Front (EAM) during the period of the Greek Resistance until February 1945, then during the Greek Civil War.

HMSAS Treern, with orders to relieve HMSAS Seksern at Volo, arrived there at noon on 27 December 1944 only to find the harbour deserted and therefore anchored in the bay whilst radioing for instructions. Soon afterwards an emissary from ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) arrived, ELAS was one of the factions in the internal dissension in Greece caused by the vacuum created by the German occupiers retreating from Greece.

The ELAS emissary informed the HMSAS Treern that Volo was under ELAS control and then asked the Captain what his intentions were.

The ELAS emissary eventually agreed to let the ship remain there for the night. Next morning Treern left for Skiathos where she met up with the British destroyer, HMS Musketeer, considerably to the relief of both captains, and came under the orders of the Musketeer.

In the town of Volo a somewhat lukewarm ELAS control prevailed – political fervour being influenced by the presence of the destroyer and her 4.7-inch guns, under cover of which all local craft, arriving and leaving, were interrogated and searched for arms.

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Treern assisted in this duty for the next few days before being attached to a small naval force then operating against the ELAS in the Gulf of Volo and along the north-east coast of Euboea.

The loss of the HMSAS Treern

On the morning of 12 January whilst off the northern shore of the Trikiri Channel and towing a caique laden with fuel for motor launches then lying off Volo. At about 08:30 there is a huge explosion, presumably caused by a mine, which destroys Treern almost immediately with a very heavy loss of life.

Only one man survives 

The only survivor, Stoker J.J. Bosch, later states that he was in the port waist, while most of the other men off duty were watching a pig being slaughtered on the boat-deck above him. Suddenly he felt a tremendous concussion and found himself somersaulting through the air into the water. On coming to the surface he found a life buoy floating near him and saw the last few feet of the ship’s bows disappear below the surface.

At the same time another mine exploded about 100 yards away, presumably a sympathetic detonation caused by the first explosion. One of his legs had been injured, but the caique picked him up and about an hour later transferred him to HMS Musketeer.

Honour Roll

MPK means ‘Missing Presumed Killed’.  SANF stands for ‘South African Naval Forces’.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nANDERSON, Robert D, Engine Room Artificer 2c, 71067 V (SANF), MPK
BARKER, Ronald E, Sub Lieutenant, SANF, MPK
BLAKE, Robert E, Petty Officer, P 6572 (SANF), MPK
BROWN, Ian H, Able Seaman, 71719 V (SANF), MPK
BYRNE, Patrick, Lieutenant, SANF, MPK
DAVIE, William, Stoker 1c, 70681 V (SANF), MPK
ENGELBEEN, Leslie C, Able Seaman, 562235 V (SANF), MPK
JACOBZ, Frank H, Stoker 1c, 70374 V (SANF), MPK
MATTHEWS, George A, Stoker 1c, 70728 V (SANF), MPK
MCINTYRE, William G, Cook (S), 585360 (SANF), MPK
MCLARTY, William D, Leading Stoker, 562246 V (SANF), MPK
MCLEAN, Godfrey, Able Seaman, 562455 V (SANF), MPK
NILAND, St John E, Able Seaman, 209905 (SANF), MPK
PERRY, Desmond A, Petty Officer, 71211 (SANF), MPK
REID, Kenneth H, Signalman, 562143 V (SANF), MPK
SALCOMBE, Francis R, Stoker 1c, 58589 V (SANF), MPK
STAPELBERG, Willem J, Steward, 562221 V (SANF), MPK
SUTTON, Donald A, Able Seaman, 70426 (SANF), MPK
SUTTON, George A M, Leading Seaman, 586403 V (SANF), MPK
TRAFFORD, William O, Able Seaman, 71222 V (SANF), MPK
VILJOEN, Dennis A, Telegraphist, 70984 V (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Charles W, Petty Officer, 562200 V (SANF), MPK
WULFF, Emil F, Leading Seaman, 562466 V (SANF), MPK

In Conclusion

Successive generations of South Africans have not been exposed to the gallantry of South African servicemen at sea, many remain blissfully unaware of all the heroic actions of South African fighting ships during World War 2.

Little remains of this history, and it now has to ‘dug up’ from recent research conducted by Chris Bennet and Allan du Toit, very little to nothing is available in public on-line records such as Wikipedia, such is the degree to which it has been wiped from the South African national consciousness.

The reason for this is political, the incoming Nationalist government after the war in 1948 regarded all of South Africa’s and Smuts’ exploits during World War 2 as one of treachery (siding with the ‘hated’ British), so no large-scale Naval commemorations or recognition ceremonies were ever undertaken by the South African Navy to maintain this memory.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference: Large extracts 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’.

“The first test of a truly great man is in his humility”.

John Ruskin, the great Victorian social thinker once said: “I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility” and it’s a truism or a trait found in all great leaders, and it is also found in Jan Smuts.

A visit today to the Smuts House Museum in Irene as a guest of Philip Weyers (Jan Smuts’ great grandson) revealed a small personal insight into Jan Smuts, and it reinforces the frugal and humble person Smuts was – a God-fearing  man of simple needs.

In the modern context, it also reveals the massive divide between the modern African leaders in Southern Africa with their excessive appetite for hedonism and wealthy trappings from those of yesteryear’s leaders in South Africa.

Jan Smuts’ personal room in the museum has been left almost as is from the day he sat on his bed and keeled over from a heart attack aged 80 – the only thing missing are some small paintings of his children which are in the museum’s trust.

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Jan Smuts’ bedroom at Smuts House in Irene

To think, a small wooden single bed and a wooden cabinet taken from a SAAF Lodestar transport aeroplane made up his personal private possessions – in a house that is made completely of corrugated iron (walls and roof) and was a transportable officers mess and military headquarters (with no insulation whatsoever).

But that’s not where Smuts’ frugality stopped, he didn’t even like sleeping in his ‘comfy’ bedroom – no, in summer he preferred to sleep on the ‘stoep’ (Porch) just outside his bedroom on an even smaller iron camp bed, with even less trappings.

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Jan Smuts’ preferred bed on the ‘stoep’

He enjoyed the smell of the ‘veld,’ an outdoorsman who saw the greater beauty in the natural South African bush and enjoyed being at ‘whole’ with it, it was also here that he was closest with his God  – and it was here, that as an Afrikaner he demonstrated what a true African he was.

Now, compare that to the ‘golden handshakes’ in the millions of Dollars to a recently disposed Zimbabwean African despot so he can live in comfort.

Compare it even to the ‘golden handshakes’ given to the outgoing National Party ministers in 1994 as they ran for the hills with ‘immunity’ cards and set up multi million Rand retirement homes on the Garden Route (the National Party was Smuts’ nemesis – and for good reason).

Compare it even to South Africa’s current political elite who have raided the state coffers and commissioned homes with ‘fire-pools’ and multi-million Rand ‘security’ accommodations, or shuffled taxpayers money overseas to buy multi-million dollar mansions in ‘tax free’ Dubai.

It is fantastic to take perspective and history offers us some wonderful hindsight, and the opportunity to praise from our heroes those attributes attributed to great men – like humility.  To read more of Jan Smuts an understand just what a truly remarkable man and South African he was – please visit this Observation Post by clicking the link:  “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

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General Jan Smuts


Written and researched by Peter Dickens, photo copyright Karen Dickens – with special thanks to Philip Weyers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Veterans Community in South Africa post WW2

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

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

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

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

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Gen. van der Spuy

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

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

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

The Springbok Legion

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

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

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

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

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Sailor Malan addressing a Springbok Legion Rally

The Torch Commando

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kmdt. de la Rey at the Cape Town Torch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Decline of The Torch Commando

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Springbok Legion’s Rise and Decline

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

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

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

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

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Joe Slovo (right of picture) in WW2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sailor Malan returns to his ‘shell-hole’

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

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

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

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

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

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

The marginalising of The South African Legion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1994 

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

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

Not so fast!

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

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

Where are we now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. 

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