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 


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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 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).


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.


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.

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.

“Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

The featured photograph of Field Marshal Rommel inspecting South African and British Prisoners of War (POW’s) after the fall of Tobruk is very telling of South Africa’s singular biggest capitulation of arms in its proud military history.  Sir Winston Churchill, who rather embarrassingly on his trip to Washington had to hear the news from President Roosevelt, was to famously later write on his feelings about the fall of Tobruk:

“This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were the military effects grim, but it affected the reputation of British arms ……. Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.”

So let’s have a look at why this loss of a small North African coastal port in World War 2 affected the British in this way, its ramifications for the British and South Africans, and why Churchill chose such a harsh rebuke of South African military prowess – which prior to Tobruk had been held in high regard and after Tobruk the South African military establishment literally had to fight an uphill battle in Italy to earn their respect again and recover their honour.  In effect we need to ask ourselves if this was indeed a fair comment, so let’s have a look at what actually happened.


The Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, chatting with British Army General Staff Officers during his tour of the Western Desert.

The Rats of Tobruk

The Rats of Tobruk was a nickname given to the soldiers who held the small Libyan port of Tobruk against Rommel’s German ‘Afrika Corps”and their Italian axis forces.  Rommel had laid siege to the port in his push to invade Egypt, these hardened, belligerent  soldiers effectively put Rommel’s plans on hold as they dogmatically dug in and resisted for 8 long months.  The siege started on 10 April 1941 and was only to end later in November 1941.

They consisted of  around 14,000 Australian soldiers from the 9th Australian Division commanded by Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, accompanied by regiments of British artillery, the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade and 3rd Indian Motor Brigade – reporting to Australian command.  In all they constituted about 30 000 troops – a very strong garrison.

At the time the port was surrounded by a strong line of defences, the garrison had air support, and Rommel had been at the end of his supply lines. Early Axis attacks were disorganised affairs that were easily fought off, and by the time Rommel was able to launch a stronger assault the defenders were really dug in ready to meet him. The defence of Tobruk became one of the iconic moments of the entire British war effort.

It dominated strategy in the desert in 1941, and the relief of Tobruk was the target of the unsuccessful Operation Brevity and Operation Battleaxe. The siege was finally lifted as a result of Operation Crusader and in the aftermath Rommel was forced to retreat west out of Cyrenaica, ending the year back at his starting point.

aus 2

The ‘Rats of Tobruk’ – some of the 15,000 men of General Morshead’s 9th Australian Division shelter in caves during an air raid during the siege of Tobruk. After six months besieged in the vital supply port the Australians were evacuated by sea and relieved by fresh troops. 823 men had been killed, 2214 wounded and 700 captured.

Tobruk was held in hero status and its defenders, the ‘rats’ went into the annuals of history as legends.

South African Honour to defend Tobruk

Tobruk secured, the Australians finally relieved and cycled out, by 1942 the Allied Middle East Command decided to leave a ‘temporary’ force to hold Tobruk while a new strike force was built up near the new frontier – on the Gazala line to the west.


General Klopper

The ‘honour’ of defending Tobruk was given to the South Africans. The new  garrison was to be formed by the 2nd South African Infantry Division with Major General Hendrik Balzazar Klopper in command.  General H.B. Klopper, was a school teacher before joining the South African Army. He was a Major General of one month’s standing when he was given overall command of Tobruk with limited combat experience.  In all the same number of troops, over 30 000 were given to him to defend Tobruk if attacked, as had been the troop strength with the Australians earlier.  Only with some relatively small but key differences.

Simply put, the defences of Tobruk weren’t as solid in 1942 as they had been in 1941. The main reason for this was that large numbers of mines had been lifted and moved to the Gazala line, as had a great deal of the barbed wire.  The tank traps and anti-tank ditch were also in a very poor state and had begun to silt up with sand.

On the plus side, Maj. General Klopper had at his disposal some fine fighting units and very good equipment, he had his own division, the second South African Infantry Division, as well as some British and Commonwealth detachments – 60 Infantry Tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, the 201st Guards Brigade, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, three regiments of field artillery and two of medium artillery. There were 35 000 men in total. Tobruk had also now become a major supply base for the Gazala Line, and as a result was also crammed full of stores, ammunition and equipment.

But, again on the down side, unlike the Australians, there was little chance of solid air support for the South Africans, as the Desert Air Force had been forced to retreat to Sidi Barrani, and there were only fifteen 6-pounder anti-tank guns in the fortress.

There was also another very important difference, this time some of the defending troops were exhausted, their morale was lower, and the garrison was filled with a feeling of insecurity and impermanence.  Something later historians would point it out as a failing as General Klopper had not inspired change or adequately dealt with it, other sources point to the relative inexperience of the South African troops, stating that although morale amoungst the South Africans specifically has high, their Commander himself was out of his depth.

The fatal flaw

In terms of the defence perimeter, the Western and Southern sides of the port were well defended by the South Africans, but the East side was weak, and it proved to be fatal.

The eastern perimeter defences were left in a very weak state, and now they were to be defended by mainly Indian regiments reporting to General Kloppers command located in the centre.   The 2/5th Mahrattas and the 2/7th Gurkas were great fighting units and till that point had been involved in the thick of fighting, so they had been pulled to rear to recuperate and these men were utterly exhausted.


An even more critical flaw in planning was an underestimate of German resolve, by both the Allied command and General Klopper. Erwin Rommel’s was utterly resolved to take Tobruk once and for all, his entire campaign to invade Egypt depended on it, and unlike the earlier siege of Tobruk with its Australian defenders, now he was going to throw just about everything at his disposal into the advance on Tobruk.  He replenished and reinvigorated his forces, consolidated his plans and began his advance east again.

The Desert Fox Attacks 

General Erwin Rommel had a fearsome reputation amongst the Allied Forces and was nicknamed ‘The Desert Fox’ by his enemy because of his skill in manoeuvre and deception, as usual for Rommel he also devised a ruse for capturing Tobruk.

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

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

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

Tobruk, Rommel, Bayerlein, Panzer III

German armour and Rommel encicling Tobruk

The situation inside Tobruk under this juggernaut attack very quickly became very desperate.  It literally became a fight for survival and into the fight went everyone,  including the ‘non combative’ members of The South African Native Military Corps who were given rifles and expected to fight on the front line with everyone else.  As the fight became more and more desperate, three small minesweepers, two of them South African – the HMSAS Bever and HMSAS Parktown were called into port to take on evacuation duties.

Both the Bever and the Parktown acquitted themselves in the highest order whilst under a hail of shelling and bombing – and please feel free to refer to two earlier Observation Posts’ links for an in-depth profile on their brave fight – “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever and The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

Inside Tobruk the situation was chaotic. General Klopper – his Head Quarters now bombed out, his radio and telephone wrecked and his code booked destroyed, lost the last vestige of control.

Left with no choice General Klopper and staff could do nothing but watch the German Panzers (tanks) race past their headquarters on their way to capture the fuel dumps in the harbour.

Tobruk, beschädigte Häuser, Soldaten

South African troops in disarray as Tobruk capitulates

Some British and South African troops managed to break out and make their way back to Allied lines, whilst most stayed and fought a lost cause as grimly and with as much determination as they could. By dawn on 21 June 1942, Tobruk was just a pile of ruins with a massive pall of smoke reaching up into the atmosphere.  The harbour riddled with the wrecks of destroyed ships.  General Klopper gave his compass and staff car to 7 young South African soldiers determined to escape, saying, ”I wish I was coming with you.”

Surrender and shame

Shortly afterwards a small party of officers set off in a truck with a little white flag of surrender fluttering over the hood to negotiate terms of surrender, and by 09h40 Tobruk was officially turned over to Rommel. Soon after, a large white flag was hoisted over the South African Head Quarters by South African Native Military Corps drivers.

And that was it. Major-General KIopper formally surrendered with 32,000 men, including 10,722 South Africans of the 2nd Infantry Division, of whom 1,200 were members of the Native Military Corps, and all the British and Commonwealth units under his command.  Of the two South African Infantry Divisions in the North African combat zone of operations, one entire division (literally half of the South African Army’s fighting force in North Africa) went into captivity.  This and thousands of tonnes of resources – the Germans captured 2,000 tons of fuel, 5,000 tons of provisions, 2,000 vehicles and large stockpiles of ammunition – the situation now for the Allies in North Africa was a very grim one indeed.

Tobruk, Rommel, Bayerlein, englische Kriegsgefangene

Erwin Rommel inspects South African POW in Tobruk

Britain’s entire war effort was now compromised and very much in the balance, the fight from here out would be a herculean one.  It was also the single biggest capitulation of South African forces in the country’s history – before or since.  Now you can begin to see Churchill’s point, as to him it seemed more than a ‘defeat’ and more of a ‘disgrace’ – as in the Battle of Britain in 1940, the British armed forces by 1942 found themselves again with their backs against a wall – largely due to the fall of Tobruk – and as a result South Africa was going to get the full blame for it by literally every single Commonwealth country, Allied country and the British themselves.


The South African, British and other Commonwealth units forced to march across the desert to an Italian POW camp.  The Italian treatment of South African and British prisoners of war was nothing short of diabolical, prisoners were murdered, punitive measures on food allocations and other atrocities became normative.

Tobruk, englische Kriegsgefangene

British and South African troops marching into captivity after Tobruk falls.

However an even worse treatment was reserved for Black members of the South African Native Military Corps and the Indian troops in captivity.  German and Italian forces displayed a complete disregard for the rights of the Indian or black POWs as they did not view them as regular troops due to Nazi and Facist doctrine and in-bred racism .

There are however accounts of bravery whilst in captivity, with a number of escape attempts and escapes.  Even that General Klopper himself managed to escape captivity in 1943.

One notable heroic deed in captivity at Tobruk was that of a South African Native Military Corps man – Job Maseko, who created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, cordite taken from bullets and an extremely long fuse to blow up a German freighter ship (F Type) in Tobruk harbour as a retaliation for his treatment as a black man and those of his colleagues by the Italians.  To learn more of his heroic tale please visit this Observation Post link Job Maseko; one very remarkable South African war hero

Rommel’s Success  

After 2 years in British hands Tobruk had fallen in 2 days, Rommel had captured enough supplies to carry him on his drive to invade Egypt. On 22 June 1942, Rommel received a message from the Fuhrer – Adolph Hitler, informing him that at the age 49 he had just been appointed Germany’s youngest Field Marshal.

Rommel celebrated that night with canned pineapple and a small glass of whisky, but after dinner he wrote his wife, ”Hitler has made me a Field Marshal. I would much rather he had given me one more division.

Tobruk, Rommel und Bayerlein, Hafen

Rommel surveying Tobruk after he captures it

But true to character, by the very next day he was on the advance again.  His order: ”Soldiers of the Panzer Army Africa! Now we must utterly destroy the enemy! During the coming days I shall be making great demands upon you once more, so that we may reach our goal.” The Nile.

Rommel would never get to the Nile and take Egypt.  For Winston Churchill the German advance in North Africa was the desperately needed ‘second front’ which would see the end of Nazi Germany, for the Germans however the North African campaign was nothing more than a side-show in support of Italian imperialism in Africa.  The bulk of their military effort was focussed on the invasion of Soviet Russia. Hitler discontinued the attack on Malta and refused to send Rommel adequate supplies, these actions would make defeat in the North African desert for Germany and Italy inevitable.

Consequences for the British and South Africans

Ironically there was an upside to the Fall of Tobruk, The defeat did have some positives.  It forced Churchill and the British to fundamentally re-appraise the Command and strategy in North Africa.  It led to a shake up of Command which would see General Bernard Montgomery take over overall Command of the British 8th Army (after Churchill’s original replacement, General William Gott was killed in action). Under ‘Monty’ the entire operation received a boost in resources, purpose and training (including much-needed American armour).  Monty and the 8th Army would then go on to victory at El Alamein and more successive victories for the British and Commonwealth forces followed (eventually with American assistance when they entered the war), and it would see the entire German Afrika Corps pushed back completely from North Africa and into captivity.  The issue of Tobruk and Britain ‘against the wall’ gradually became a distant memory.


Lieutenant General B L Montgomery, General Officer Commanding Eighth Army, watches the beginning of the German retreat from El Alamein from the turret of his Grant Tank. He is wearing his famous tank beret.

The remaining South African forces in North Africa i.e, The 1st South African Infantry Division would go on to recover their reputation somewhat in these strings of success under Montgomery, also starting with Battle of El Alamein.  However Tobruk continued to haunt them and the British still remained dubious of South Africa’s military prowess by the time the next phase i.e. the Italian campaign came around.

After the 1st South African Infantry Division’s job was done in North Africa, the 6th South African Armoured Division was formed to continue with South Africa’s World War 2 contribution.   The British initially wanted to side-line the 6th South African Armoured Division and allocated it just to go to Palestine – in what was really a side-show.

At this point it is actually Churchill who comes around to bat for the South Africans, despite his anger and lambasting of the South Africa military establishment as a ‘disgrace’ over Tobruk, it is Churchill (influenced by Jan Smuts) who insisted that the South African 6th Armoured Division join the main thrust of the war in Italy and not sit it out in Palestine.  The 6th South African Armoured Division then went on to serve in Italy with great gallantry and distinction – and ultimately recovered the country’s pride.

General Klopper’s career post Tobruk

The fall of Tobruk came as a shattering blow to the British public and British morale. General Klopper came in for most of the criticism, but was he entirely to blame?  The inquest into the Fall of Tobruk found fundamental short-falls in overall British Command and the decision to invest in Tobruk and concluded that General Klopper was placed in an extremely difficult position at Tobruk from which he had little hope of a proper defence – the circumstances he had faced were very different to those the Australians had faced before.  In conclusion to the inquest General Klopper was exonerated for the loss of Tobruk.

General Klopper however did come into a hail of controversy as to his command ability and experience subsequently to the inquest, and had South Africa remained a British Dominion after the war it would have been doubtful that his career would have advanced.

Luckily for General Klopper, the Afrikaner Nationalist government came into power in 1948, and he found more favour with them, when he was very controversially promoted to serve on the Army Chief of Staff from 1951 to 1953, after that a stellar career ensued as he was promoted to Inspector-General from 1953 to 1956, and as finally he took the most honoured position in the South African Defence force as Commandant-General, which is the head of the South African Defence Force, and he held this post from 1956 to 1958.

In conclusion

To answer the question of whether Churchill’s comment that South Africa’s capitulation at Tobruk was the difference between ‘defeat’ and ‘disgrace’ it can honestly be said that Churchill’s comment is somewhat unfair, however given the circumstances and the timing it is understandable that he was enraged, the consequences were very bleak for the British War effort.

But Churchill was equally vicious in his remarks as to his own forces when the British garrison at Singapore capitulated due to poor command earlier in February 1942 with an equal consequence in the Asian Pacific field of operations.  On Singapore’s fall Churchill asserted that the British commander General Percival’s decision to surrender was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

So we have to take Churchill and his comments in context of the man, his politics and the circumstances he found himself in. Also, in the end it is Churchill himself who plays a role in recovering South Africa’s pride by insisting the 6th Armoured Division take part in the  Italy campaign – even placing British Household Division Guards under South African 6th Armoured Division command as their Infantry support.  In the greater scheme of things South Africans can hold their heads very high in the role they played ridding the world of Nazism in what Smuts would call ‘the Great War for Liberty and man’s Freedom’ – Churchill’s need to alliterate one of his quotes aside.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  References – Wikipedia, Extracts and references from. THE GREATEST MILITARY REVERSALOF SOUTH AFRICAN ARMS: THE FALL OFTOBRUK 1942, AN AVOIDABLE BLUNDER OR ANINEVITABLE DISASTER? by David Katz. Extracts from Military History Journal Vol 7 No 6 – December 1988 TOBRUK – 1942 Compiled and translated from the official War Diary of the German Supreme Command by Jochen OEO Mahncke.  Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum. Narratives from North Africa: South African Prisoner of War experience following the fall of Tobruk, June 1942 by Karen Horn.

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

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

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

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

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

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


HMSAS Southern Floe

The fall of Tobruk

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

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


HMSAS Parktown

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

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

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

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

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

Tobruk, beschädigte Häuser, Soldaten

Surrounded South African troops going into captivity as Tobruk falls

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

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

“It was like hell”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobruk, Rommel und Bayerlein, Hafen

Erwin Rommel surveys Tobruk after capturing it

Fighting their way out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awards and Citations for the crew of HMSAS Bever

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

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

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

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



After Tobruk

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

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


Ships company HMSAS Seksern Benghazi 1943

The loss of the HMSAS Bever

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inherit South Africa website

Inherit South Africa YouTube

Inherit South Africa Facebook

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

Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

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

Jan Smuts and South Africa’s sanctuary for Polish refugee children

The commemoration of the South African Air Force sacrifice during the Warsaw uprising in Poland highlights another bit of “unknown” World War 2 history. During the war – Jan Smuts opened South Africa to care for Polish orphans and children traumatised and displaced by the war. Ouma Smuts also played a leading role in ensuring they were correctly tutored and continued to have high appreciation of their rich Polish cultural heritage.

Military assistance to Poland was not the only contribution, the government of Jan Smuts also provided a home in Oudtshoorn to 500 Polish children who had been deported to Siberia in the early 1940s by the Soviets when their country was divided between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

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

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

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

Polish Orphans in South Africa

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

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

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