German POW’s hitch a ride on a South African armoured car

Amazing image taken at Fort Capuzzo in Libya during WW2 – December 1941. Two German Afrika Corps soldiers – now Prisoners of War (POW) – hitch a ride into captivity on the front of a 2nd South African Division Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car.

The Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car was a series of armoured vehicles produced in South Africa and adopted by the British Army, other Commonwealth Forces (India used them) and South African army during World War II.  Highly popular as they could be adapted into all sorts of roles and configurations, some captured examples even made their way into the German army and other Axis forces during the war.

 

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Marmon-Herrington Mk III

Featured image Copyright Australian War Memorial

 

Sergeant Major Gandhi’s military service in Natal

It is strange to think of Mahatma Gandhi as having served in the military, but in many ways his military service and witness to war in South Africa shaped the future icon of peace and tolerance which he was to become.

Gandhi is generally quite misunderstood, like Smuts and Churchill, he was a man born in a period of ‘Empire’, the ideals of that period – its systems of governance and politics was fundamentally different to what we understand in the context of modern politics and individual freedoms.  ‘Empire’ was the way the world worked then, literally – it dictated geo politics and trade.

48934-OGJmNDllZjVjOAIn this context rose a young, British educated lawyer – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi -who emigrated to the British Colonies in Southern Africa to make a name for himself and start a new life.  He was at the start of his life quite supportive of British policies in South Africa and those of British empire and expansion.

Historians and political pundits have forever struggled to explain why the apostle of peace and non-violence had rendered support to the British Empire in the Boer War, the 1906 Natal Rebellion and the First World War.

What is clear by his own writings was that his intensions in supporting the British Army in Southern Africa was to buy the Indian population in Southern Africa more political concession and representation based on endorsement and participation in British war efforts.

The Boer War

Gandhi actually played a pivotal role in the Boer War, forming  Natal Indian Ambulance Corps under the British Military.  He even raised the money to form the Corps from the local Indian Community.   It consisted of 300 “free” Indians and 800 indentured labourers (Indians were encouraged to emigrate to South Africa as labourers under contract, once the specified dates of the contract finished they were “free” to own land and make their own way as citizens).

The Boer War was officially declared by the Boers in October 1899 when they invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape.  This attack led to the Siege of Ladysmith and the Garrison stationed there.   In an urgent response the British authorities recruited the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps of about 1100 local White men. At the same time Gandhi pressed for his Indian stretcher-bearers to be allowed to serve.

Battle of Colenso

Dubbed “Black Week”, from 10–17 December 1899, the British Army, unprepared for the Boer invasion, completely outnumbered and outgunned suffered three devastating defeats by the Boer forces, starting at Stomberg, then Magerfontein and finally ending the black week at Colenso.  In all the British lost a total of 2,776 men killed, wounded and captured.

It was the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899, that the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps first saw action, removing the wounded from the front line and then transported them to the railhead.

Battle of Spion Kop 

After Colenso, the first full attempt to relieve Ladysmith by the British was met with absolute disaster at Spion Kop (or Spionkop) for the British. Spion Kop (Afrikaans: Spioenkop meaning “spy hill”) is a mountain located near the town of Ladysmith, 27 km to the South West.

On the 23rd January 1900, the British climbed up the Spion kop hill at night and in dense mist. They surprised the small Boer piquet there and drove them off the kop at bayonet point. The Boer piquet retreated down the hill to their camp waking up their fellow Boers by screaming “Die Engelse is op die kop.” (The English are on the hill.). At that time a half-company of British sappers began to entrench their position on the hill with a mere 20 picks and 20 shovels (oddly – while almost 1,000 soldiers stood around idle).

As dawn broke, the British discovered that they held only the smaller and lower part of the hilltop of Spion Kop, while the Boers occupied higher ground on three sides of the British position. The British had no direct knowledge of the topography of the summit and the darkness and fog had compounded the problem. Furthermore, the British trenches were inadequate for all defensive purposes. Because the summit of the kop was mostly hard rock, the trenches were at most 40 centimetres (16 in) deep and provided an exceptionally poor defensive position – the British infantry in the trenches could not see over the crest of the plateau and the Boers were able to fire down the length of the crescent-shaped trench from the adjacent peaks.

By the end of the battle, the British suffered 243 fatalities; many were buried in the trenches where they fell. Approximately 1,250 British were either wounded or captured. The Boers suffered 335 casualties of which 68 were dead.

During the battle, the Natal Volunteer Ambulance Corps (including Gandhi) moved into the frontline to collect the wounded.

There is an account of Ghandi’s bearing during the Battle of Spion-Kop. Vera Stent described the work of the Indians in the Illustrated Star of Johannesburg, July 1911, as follows:

ghandi7“My first meeting with Mr. M. Gandhi was under strange circumstances. It was on the road from Spion Kop, after the fateful retirement of the British troops in January 1900.

The previous afternoon I saw the Indian mule-train moved up the slopes of the Kop carrying water to the distressed soldiers who had lain powerless on the plateau. The mules carried the water in immense bags, one on each side, led by Indians at their heads. The galling rifle-fire, which heralded their arrival on the top, did not deter the strangely-looking cavalcade which moved slowly forward, and as an Indian fell, another quietly stepped forward to fill the vacant place. Afterwards the grim duty of bearer corps, which Mr. Gandhi organised in Natal, began.

It was on such occasions the Indians proved their fortitude, and the one with the greatest fortitude was the subject of this sketch [Mr. Gandhi]. After a night’s work, which had shattered men with much bigger frames I came across Gandhi in the early morning sitting by the roadside – eating a regulation Army biscuit. Everyman in Buller’s force was dull and depressed, and damnation was heartily invoked on everything. But Gandhi was stoical in his bearing, cheerful, and confident in his conversation, and had a kindly eye. He did one good… I saw the man and his small undisciplined corps on many a field during the Natal campaign. When succour was to be rendered they were there.”

34 Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal for actions in the Boer War. Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum in New Delhi.

1906 Natal Rebellion

The Zulu uprising in Natal during 1906 was the result of a series of culminating factors and misfortunes; an economic slump following the end of the Boer War, simmering discontent at the influx of White and Indian immigration causing demographic changes in the landscape, a devastating outbreaks of rinderpest among cattle and a rise in a quasi-religious separatist movement with a rallying call of ‘Africa for the Africans’.

The agricultural mainstay of the economy of Natal had been adversely affected by the depletion of the Black workforce to the more lucrative work in the mines of the Witwatersrand.  The imposition of Hut Tax was a further burden and then the introduction of a Poll Tax on each male over 18 years in Natal and Zululand by the cash-strapped government was to be the final straw turning discontent into open rebellion.

The enforced collection of this tax was deeply resented by many Blacks, it raised tensions considerably within Natal and resulted in a series of incidents and finally the murder of a farmer and the deaths of two Natal policemen in January 1906. This caused the Governor Sir Henry McCullum to declare Martial Law on the 9 February and the militia were called out.

By this time Gandhi had attained the rank of Seargent Major and encouraged the British to recruit Indians. He argued that Indians should support the war efforts to legitimise their claims to full citizenship. The British accepted Gandhi’s offer to let a detachment of 20 Indians volunteer as a stretcher-bearer corps to treat wounded British soldiers. This corps was commanded by Gandhi and operated for about two months.

For his action Gandhi was awarded another medal, the Natal Rebellion 1906 medal.

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Gandhi seated centre row 4th from the left

The experience however taught him it was hopeless to directly challenge the overwhelming military power of the British army, he decided it could only be resisted in a non-violent fashion, driven by the purity of heart.

Peaceful Resistance

In 1910, the same year the South African Union was established, Gandhi established an idealistic community called ‘Tolstoy Farm’ near Johannesburg.  It was here, based on his wartime experience and unsuccessful experiences of collaborative politics with the British, that he nurtured his policy of peaceful resistance.

In all Mahatma Gandhi spent 22 years of his life in South Africa, a significant period of time, and there is no doubt the region’s politics and violence forged the man he had become by the time he returned to India in 1915.  On arrival in India he brought with him an international reputation as a leading Indian nationalist, theorist and organiser. He joined the Indian National Congress and was introduced to Indian issues, the rest as they say … is history.

Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter

Imposing photograph of Jan Smuts at the San Francisco Conference in 1945 – the historic conference which founded the United Nations (UN).

One of Jan Smuts’ last acts as the Prime Minister for South Africa was the establishment of the United Nations. In fact he wrote the original opening lines of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter as …

“The High Contracting Parties, determined to prevent a recurrence of the fratricidal strife which twice in our generation has brought untold sorrow and loss upon mankind..”

Not only did Smuts do the first draft of the Preamble to the United Nations Charter, he also played a key role in putting together the United Nations Charter itself. Smuts even presided over the first meeting of Commission II, General Assembly of the United Nations on 30 May 1945, held at the San Francisco Opera House.

Jan Smuts was also present at the historic signing ceremony of the United Nations Charter on the 26th June 1945 and signed the Charter on behalf of South Africa.

 

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Subsequent to these historic meetings and ceremonies in San Francisco the Charter and United Nations as we know it came into full existence on the 24 October 1945.

Now, this was truly one of South Arica’s most philanthropic leaders, a man years ahead of his time, only to have his legacy tarnished by successive political posturing after his death five years later in 1950, which continues even to this day.

By the time of Smuts’ death in 1950, even the United Nations, which South Africa had played such a pivot role in establishing in 1945, was at loggerheads with the “new” South African Nationalist government which came to power over Smuts’ party in 1948.   From that date onward the United Nations started to pass resolution after resolution in damnation of the then newly elected National Party’s policy of Apartheid.

During the next 46 years in the United Nations, South Africa went from the heady heights of a founding signatory of The United Nations to the lows of a pariah state – and this forever diminished and damaged South Africa’s influence in the United Nations and as a leader in future global politics. Something Jan Smuts even foresaw in 1948 and warned the country against, but to no avail.

However, history is the ultimate decider and Jan Smut’s track record of achievements cements the simple fact that he remains one of the greatest men the country has ever produced.

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Jan Smuts’ signature 

Springboks and Diggers … part of the Anzac ‘mateship’ legacy

Iconic image of Commonwealth forces in North Africa during World War 2. Easily identified by their distinctive headgear, South African and Australian soldiers enjoy a game of cards in a gun pit. The South Africans where know as ‘Springboks’ and the Australians known as ‘Diggers’ – a nickname they both inherited during World War One.

The distinctive headgear as shown is quite interesting, so too the unique military bond and history of that exists between South Africa and the Anzac alliance, Australia and New Zealand.

SA PithSouth African.  The South Army (and Air Force) was issued with a “Polo” style “Pith” helmet.  Made from cork it was not intended to protect the head from flying bullets and shrapnel, that was the purpose of the British Mk 2 Brodie helmet (also issued to South Africans). The pith helmet was worn mainly as sun protection when not in combat.

slouch-hat-ww2Australia.  The Australian army wore the “slouch hat”, also intended for sun protection when not in combat, like the South Africans they where issued with the British “Brodie” Mk2 steel helmet when in combat.

The “slouch” hat also has a little South African history to it.  The word ‘slouch’ refers to the sloping brim. The brim is made from rabbit-fur felt or wool felt and is always worn with a puggaree.

History has it that the origins of the Slouch Hat began with the Victorian Mounted Rifles; a hat of similar design had been worn in South Africa by the Cape Mounted Rifles for many years before 1885. The design of the Victorian Mounted Rifle hat originated from headgear of native police in Burma where Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Price had recognised its value.

The Victorian hat was an ordinary bush felt hat turned up on the right side. The intention of turning up the right side of the hat was to ensure it would not be caught during the drill movement of “shoulder arms” from “order arms”.

sagaieIn addition to Australians, believe it or not some South African units also wore the “slouch hat”.  Most notable was the South African Native Military Corps members, who made up about 48% of the South African standing army albeit in non frontline combat roles during both WW1 and WW2.  The legacy of the “slouch” in the modern South African National Defence Force is however now on the decline and little remains now of its use, a pity as it would be a gracious nod to the very large “black” community contribution to both WW1 and WW2.

150281In an iconic Australian War Memorial photograph to demonstrate this unique association,  a Australian soldier working on the Beirut-Tripoli railway link is seen here chatting with two members of a South African Pioneer Unit (SA Native Military Corps) also working on the railway. The photo is designed to show off their similarities of dress and bearing and promote mutual purpose.

Of interest – The Gun in the pit

8493892_2Interestingly the gun in the pit is not South African standard issue.  Instead it is a British made Hotchkiss Portative MK 1, which was used by the Australians, dating back to World War 1, so it is probably their gun pit.  Of French design the MK I was a .303 caliber machine gun, used in ‘cavalry/infantry’ configuration, with removable steel buttstock and a light tripod. This gun is normally fed from either flexible “belts” or strips like you see in the featured image. Normal Hotchkiss Portative strips hold 30 rounds each.

Camaraderie 

Because of mutual historic, military, language, British Dominion and cultural ties here was certainly was plenty of camaraderie between the South Africans and the Anzac Australians and New Zealanders during the war. Lots of informal rugby and cricket matches were played at any good opportunity, games of cards (seen here), exchanging of “souvenirs” (especially badges, sun helmets and slouch hats), occasional punch ups in Cairo pubs fuelled by beer which were soon forgotten and forgiven.  Generally good old good old fashioned soldierly fun and “band of brothers” stuff.

Tobruk

Because the South Africans were responsible for the “fall of Tobruk” in World War 2, a city the Australians fought to hold with such tenacity before handing it over to the South Africans to defend, as a South African you might also come into some light hearted but pointed “sledging” from an Australian military veteran, even to this day.

ANZAC Remembrance

Modern South Africa does not extensively praise, idolise and remember her statutory armed forces and the origins of their fighting legacy anything near the Australians and New Zealanders do to their forces now.   This has manifested with the inclusion of hundreds of South African veterans residing in Australia in National Anzac Day parades held around Australia and New Zealand, and it is because of this unique bond forged by our forefathers in WW1 and WW2 that they are welcomed with open arms.

Featured image copyright IWM collection, insert image copyright Australian War Memorial photograph

Witnessing a true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942

Field Marshal Jan Smuts, at the invitation of Winston Churchill addressing both houses of the British Parliament in 1942. This speech is historic, never before was any Commonwealth Statesman given the privilege of addressing both houses of Parliament (the Commons and the Lords), and the results are astounding – not only was Smuts publicly praised by Winston Churchill at the end of his speech, the entire Parliament breaks into hoorays and sings “he’s a jolly good fellow” in praise of the man and his life’s work.

Two great South Africans have the privilege of statues outside the British Houses of Parliament in London, both having addressed this house at Westminster, and they stand in Westminster square for good reason. This was a period when Jan Smuts took his broken country from the Boer War, unified it and built it into a international powerhouse – at this occasion Smuts receives the praise due a visionary world leader.

The vast majority of both English and Afrikaans speaking South Africans backed Smuts at the time, however his legacy – like any great man’s legacy – is tainted by his opposition – The National Party, who, when they came into power served to demonise him over decades – so much so that he remains an enigma to many South Africans today. Except when you find gems like this film clip – which can bring him back into living memory.

Look out for Smut’s comments on the necessity to rid the world of Nazism, his insightful summary of Hitler’s policy in Europe and for his views on he formation of the United Nations – to which he is founding signatory.

To think that Smuts was a South African War Boer General, and both he and General Louis Botha understood that the salvation and re-building of their shattered people lay with their former enemy. Their vision of unity built South Africa from a fractious grouping of colonies and tiny states into a significant and unified nation – a regional economic power-house. The fact that his former enemy stood up in praise of this man and his achievement speaks volumes.

Jan Smuts is literally the “father of the nation” that is South Africa today and it’s a great pity he is so misunderstood. As anyone who watches this video will see, thanks to this remarkable man, South Africans by the end of World War 2 stood with heads held high, chests swollen with pride, praised by the free world and revered by great men.

History unfortunately would dramatically change course for South Africa a couple of years later, when in 1948 the National Party narrowly edged its way into power in the general elections with a proposal called Apartheid.  South Africa has swung from ‘Pariah State’ far right racial politics to ‘Junk Status’ economic leftist politics in response to the secular race politics – with very little regard for Smuts’ centralist or “centre ground” reconciliatory politics since.

Footage copyright – Pathe.

Comrades legend, Springbok and war veteran – the remarkable Bill Payn

So, which Springbok rugby player and war veteran also has a top ten Comrades finish running in his rugby boots and then went on to play a game of rugby the next day?  This is one very remarkable man and he comes from a time when men were cut from a different cloth, read on for the story of the legendary Cecil “Bill” Payn.

Bill Payn was born on 9 Aug 1893 in Harding, South Africa, he was christened Cecil, the son of James Herbert Payn. He was a very well known personality, a much loved teacher, and a sportsman. He taught at Durban High School for boys for 40 years or more, only having a break during his army service in the First and Second World Wars. He was particularly well known in Natal and Rhodesia and was described as big hearted and kindly “Big Bill” and stood 6 ft 3 in in his socks. He was a battle-field hero and an ex PoW.

His life was dedicated to helping others, whether his fellow prisoners of war, team mates, school pupils or every day friends and acquaintances. He was a Springbok rugby player and at cricket bowled with distinction. He was a boxer, an athlete and shone at baseball. He was truly a great and kindly man, he died suddenly at age 66 on the 31st Oct 1959.  Ever generous he even left money for his friends to have a drink after his funeral.

Top 10 Comrades finisher in his rugby boots

In summary of his Comrades achievement, Bill came 8th in the 1922 Comrades Marathon. A Springbok rugby player, he ran one of the most famous races in the history of the Comrades.  Bill Payn hosted Arthur Newton the evening before the race, and after a number of stiff drinks, was persuaded by Arthur to enter (Arthur went on to win the race).

Bill arrived on time for the start, wearing his rugby boots. At Hillcrest he stopped for the first time to take in a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Not much further a fellow runner, “Zulu” Wade, invited Payn for a chicken curry. This they consumed and then continued on to Drummond, where they celebrated reaching the halfway mark by drinking a beer at the hotel. Wade didn’t continue, but Payn did. A lady spectator en route helped him keep his energy levels up by providing him with oranges, peach-brandy, water and tea. He finished eighth. On the next day Payn took part in a club rugby match, but because his feet were blistered from the long run in rugby boots, he elected to play the match in his running shoes.

The first Comrades Marathon race was a down run from Pietermaritzburg whilst the first up run from Durban to the provincial capital took place in 1922 and consisted of a field of just over 100 athletes.  In those days the Comrades took place on mainly sand and gravel roads (which in part was more conducive to wearing studded rugby boots).

World War 1

Bill Payn played provincial rugby over a period of eighteen seasons losing four years whilst serving overseas in the First World War. He did have the opportunity then of representing South Africa in the Imperial Services Tournament held in Britain before returning home. In all, he represented Natal in fifty nine matches.

An “all rounder”

Bill had a natural affinity for all sports, a true “all-rounder,” attaining provincial colours in five sports, he represented Natal at cricket, boxing, baseball and athletics in addition to his main sport of rugby. However sport was but one of his interests, he was an outstanding English scholar and a leading South African expert in the science of Etymology.

Bill Payn also received Springbok colours and played in two tests on the flank in the 1924 series but later after his own playing days were over he was to have an important role in the development of a post World War Two Springbok rugby legend.

The 1922 Comrades Marathon in Bill’s own words

Bill Payn’s own words on the 1922 Comrades Marathon are now legendary and well worth the read, an abridged version of that day by Bill goes as follows:

`On a bleak May morning I toe’d the line at the start when some civic dignitary fired a pistol and then very sensibly buggared off back to his warm bed. When the shot rent the air, off we sped – like a crowd of Armenian refugees fleeing from the wrath of the Turkish army. Shall I ever forget that infernal run. It was not very long before I realised that I was prey to an all consuming thirst, so clamant indeed, that I could not refuse any man who offered me a drink. At Hillcrest my feet were giving me so much pain that I took off my rugby boots and found a mass of blisters had formed on the soles of both feet, some kind follower provided me with brilliantine with which I anointed my feet and then repaired to the hotel for a huge plate of bacon and eggs. This done and much refreshed I ran up Botha’s Hill where at the top I found a friend who was also taking part, but he was in a very bad state so we sat down next to the road and exchanged notes and took stock of ourselves and the situation we were in. I fear that we did not move with the freedom of young athletes but rather resembled two old ducks, suffering from some distressing gynaecological disorder.

Fortunately at that stage my friend’s supporter arrived on the scene with a wicker basket which contained a delicious curried chicken set on a huge bed of rice. This we shared equally and then set off together in happy companionship for Drummond and here we bent our steps to a pleasant oasis – the pub – where I lined a dozen beers up on the counter determined not so much to celebrate a victory but rather to drown our sorrows. Whilst we were busy at this, one of the camp followers arrived on the scene and urged us both to continue as there were only five runners in front of us. My friend could not continue so I set off alone for Pietermaritzburg.

Somewhere along Harrison Flats I noticed a frail little woman with pink cheeks standing at the side of the road. She held up in one hand a bottle and in the other a glass. I stopped, and with old world courtesy bowed low saying `Madame your servant to command’. `Tis peach brandy’, she volunteered, `and I made it myself’. I gulped down a full tumbler of this home-made brew and in a second realised that I had swallowed a near-lethal dose of the rawest liquid I had ever tasted. I am still convinced that to this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines. Fortunately I was facing Maritzburg and I was propelled along the way. I was too far gone in my cups even to ponder on whether this assistance did not breach the prescribed laws of amateur marathon running.

On the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg I was hailed by my wife’s family who were taking tea on the veranda. I went off the road and joined them in their tea and cakes. While we were thus happily engaged, two of my ‘hated’ rivals went past and so it was that I ended the course number eight. In the changing rooms I discovered that the soles of my feet were now two huge pads of blood blisters. My brother-in-law then arrived and he had the uncanny insight to my most immediate needs, for he gave me a bottle of champagne, for which I was most grateful. Shortly thereafter a rugby friend arrived and chided me as to whether I had forgotten that I was due to play a first league rugby match the next day and that our team needed me. Cadging a lift on the back of his motorbike we went back down to Durban and on the following day I played full back in a pair of old `tackies’.

This account by Bill Payn does not appear possible but it has been vouched for in every detail by Arthur Newton, the friend who persuaded Bill to enter the race in the first place and who was himself destined to become a legend in the world of marathon running.

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Arthur F. H. Newton, winner of the first “up” version of the Comrades in 1922 in a time of 8:40:00.

Bill Payn’s description of the race is filled with humour which so characterised his outlook on life. To illustrate this aspect there is a classic story told of Bill when he was captaining his club’s first cricket side in the premier league and they were not having a very good season with the bat. He placed an advertisement in the local Natal newspaper which read,

“Join Stanford Hill and bat twice on a Saturday afternoon”

His Passion for Rugby

Of all his sporting interests, rugby was his greatest love and he devoted many years of his life to the administration of the sport and coaching young players in the enjoyment of the game. He was the founder of Natal schools rugby and became a father figure to organisation serving on its executive from 1933 – with a gap for the war years – right through until he passed away in 1959. It is interesting to note his thoughts on the game of rugby and why people are keen to play the game.

Quoting him again `Why do men love to play rugby, is I feel sure, that it is the simulacrum – in simple terms it means an image of – of war as waged in the medieval days when battles were marked by the two cardinal virtues of courtesy and courage’.

His very close friend and fellow schoolmaster, Isak Van Heerden, who was to become the Springbok coach in the 1960’s, when commenting on Bills outlook on the game said

“He looked upon the game as a friendly and controlled war, feeling that man still has his primitive instincts and one of the strongest is the love of a good fight, which no amount of civilisation has been able to eradicate. Bill saw the game merely as a natural desire of a healthy man to pit his strength and skill against that of another and that rugby was the best possible outlet. He worshipped the game for the companionship amongst friends and for the opportunities that it allowed for comaradieship with opponents after the match was over”.

Cecil “Bill” Payn’s Test summary: Tests: 2 Tries: 0
First Test: 16 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Kingsmead, Durban
Last Test: 23 Aug 1924 Age:31 Flank against Britain at Wanderers, Johannesburg

World War 2

Bill Payn was very much a man of Natal being educated at Maritzburg College and after qualifying as a teacher spent much of his working career teaching at Durban High School for Boys, but in 1939 ,at the age of forty six he once again set off for war serving as a gunner in North Africa.

Whilst in action in the Western Desert he was awarded the Military Medal, receiving a personally signed letter of commendation from the Commander-in- Chief of the Allied Forces, General Alexander.

General Harold Alexander (right), pictured here in 1942 as Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, surveys the battlefront from an open car and the Military Medal warded Payne (left).

Taken as a Prisoner of War (POW)

Later in the campaign the Allied troops were forced to retreat from Gazala back towards El Alamein. With the German Army closing in around them Bill made two desperate efforts to escape but was captured on each occasion, imprisoned first at Benghazi in Libya, he was struck down with acute dysentery and lost substantial weight, he eventually recovered and was transferred to a POW camp near Rome.

Bill’s strength of character was such that he looked on prison life as a challenge refusing to be restricted and to quote him again

“Life is always life if one can laugh and that captivity is what your heart makes of it.”

He accepted the conditions of imprisonment refusing to acknowledge their limitations, preferring to see in them an opportunity for fulfilment, the enrichment of character and to be of service to his fellow prisoners.

Using his ability in developing mental pursuits he kept many of his fellow inmates highly amused and was in great demand as a speaker with a range of subjects stretching from discussing the complete works of Shakespeare, a set of which he had with him in camp, to his talk on whales and their habits which was also a great favourite. He continued to teach, and was again in demand, conducting classes for those Prisoner’s of War who were taking correspondence courses.

A fellow prisoner wrote of him that his most outstanding characteristic was his unquestionable spirit which knew no bounds. Although he was no longer a young man, when the Italian war effort collapsed, Bill and two companions managed to escape into the mountains of Italy and were on the run for over two weeks, diverting enemy troops from the front, to search for them. Eventually they were recaptured by German troops and sent to prison camps first in Austria, then Poland and eventually to Germany itself.

Whilst he was busy keeping the spirits of his fellow prisoners up intellectually, his love of sport also played an important role in their well being with Bill forever arranging rugby and cricket matches, even teaching the prisoners from the other Allied nations the art of jukskei!.

Informal “Tests” between “Springbok” and “All Blacks” POW

It was while they were in Stalag XX-A near Thorn (Toruń) in occupied Poland which contained an equal number of young New Zealanders and South Africans crazy about their rugby that Bill Payn’s organisational ability was shown off at its very best.

A rugby ball was received through the Red Cross and Bill proposed a series of `test’ matches between the rugby worlds greatest rugby rivals. He roped in two able assistants, Peter Pienaar, the son of the 1921 Springbok captain to New Zealand and Billy Millar Jnr, whose father led the 1912/13 Springboks to the United Kingdom.

With Bill Payn as the driving force, they arranged practices and made up the jerseys, and served on the `Springbok’ selection panel. The making Springbok jerseys is a story in itself, with Red Cross vests being boiled together with the olive green Russian battle dress which were freely available, to obtain the green. The gold was more problematical but an ingenious solution was found, the S.A. Medical staff boiled up a solution of anti-malaria tablets to achieve the right result. It was important to look the part. The rugby field was marked off with yellow clay lines on the vast sandy parade ground and with army boots considered too lethal, the players played with bare feet in the middle of the Polish winter.

Aaron “Okey” Geffin

It was during this period that Bill came across another young South African who had been playing for the Pirates Rugby Football Club in Johannesburg before the war, and he had been captured at Tobruk. He was a strong, talented prop forward who also had a useful boot on him.

Bill encouraged him to work hard at this aspect of his game whilst stuck in the POW camp and to concentrate on his accuracy with his place kicking. The young soldier was none other than `Okey Geffin’ who five years later was to become a legend in the annals of South African rugby as well as an immense thorn in the flesh of the 1949 All Black side under Fred Allen.

Ockey Geffin 49

Aaron “Okey” Geffin (28 May 1921 – 16 October 2004), considered the greatest Jewish rugby player of all time,nd he was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

While in Stalag XX-A Okey Greffin said of Bill Payn,

“We used to scrum for hours on end, and he coached me. Payn arranged rugby games in camp: South Africa against the New Zealanders. Our gear was dyed underpants and vests, but no boots. We played barefoot. Payn encouraged my development and told me I would be a Springbok if I continued to play after the war.”

He spent three years in POW camps in Italy and Germany, as well as Poland, where he practised his kicking barefoot near a mass grave of Polish victims of the Nazis.

Geffin was one of the few prop forwards in the game to kick for goal. The Springboks won ten matches in a row, including a 4–0 whitewash of New Zealand on their 1949 tour to South Africa. Prop Okey Geffin helped kick the Springboks to victory—they won all four Tests despite the All Blacks scoring more tries in three of them.

Back to Bill Payn’s story, and his personal account of the Comrades Marathon which reflected both his humour and his tenacity. It was his friend, Izak van Heerden who perhaps summed Bill up best of all when he said, `

He was always seeing a humorous situation and playing upon it. He was a merry companion, a real friend and a great champion of the game of rugby‘.

References:  Maritzburg College Old Boys Association, wikipedia.  Main reference article – author unknown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approaches are now been made to the British government by the SANDF Attache in London to see if this issue can be redressed and medals struck, a memorial “commemorative” medal have also been struck for surviving family members and will make up part of the Centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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