“General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”; The Battle of El Alamein

Recently military institutions and veteran organisations have been marking a landmark in world history, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein, as usual there has been much fanfare to celebrate this in the United Kingdom – it’s a definitive battle which for the first time gave the British and Commonwealth a glimmer of hope – this battle was to the British and Commonwealth forces what the Battle of Kursk was to the Russians.  It’s a big deal.

South Africa played a key role in the Battle of El Alamein, in fact it was a battle on which much South African life was sacrificed on the crucible of war, after the fall of Tobruk South African honour was at stake and this battle went a long way to redeem it. However, as usual, there was a low-key reaction in South Africa marking this anniversary – it was very much contained to the odd South African Legion of military veterans branch and MOTH shell-hole to remember it.


Original colour photo taken of a South African position in the North African theatre of operations in 1942 – note the bleak and hard landscape

To the older generation in South Africa, terms such as the ‘Knightsbridge Box’, the ‘Desert  Fox’, the ‘Cauldron’ and the ‘Gazala Gallop’ were common knowledge, as were these words by General Montgomery “General Pienaar, tell your South African Division they have done well”, in fact these words were a sensation at the time and seen as a national redemption.  But they are now lost completely to the new generation of South Africans.

So, lets give a little recognition to South African sacrifice in this tide turning battle, understand why it is so important and understand why this understated signal sent from General Bernard Montgomery to General Dan Pienaar meant so very much to the generation which came before us.

Prelude to The Battle of El Alamein

For the South Africans the 2nd battle of El Alamein needs to be looked in context of these events – The  Battle of Sidi Rezegh, the Battle of Gazala, the Surrender of Tobruk and the 1st Battle of El Alamein.

The Battle of Sidi Rezegh; (see Sidi Rezegh – South African blood helps turn the tide in North Africa), in November 1941 saw the 1st South African Division’s 5th Brigade fight themselves down, literally to the last man in an outstanding degree of bravery, their sacrifice – to lessen the impact of Rommel’s drive and help save the day for the British to fight another day.

For the 1st South African Division this outstanding action in the field was added to by The Battle of Gazala; By March 1942 the 1st South African Division was deployed along the Gazala line (they made up the Northern sector).  The Gazala line was to the west of Tobruk, the task of defending Tobruk was also left up the South Africans, this time the 2nd South African Infantry Division under General Klopper.

Energised and re-armed General Erwin Rommel – the ‘Desert Fox’, advanced on Egypt (and Tobruk) in May 1942, their mission was to take the Suez Canal and cut Britain from her vast empire (and resources) in the Middle East, India and the Far East.

Nordafrika, Erwin Rommel mit Offizieren

General Erwin Rommel (centre) with his staff

Rommel’s armoured advance with at least 10,000 vehicles hit the Allied’s ‘Gazala line’ and then headed south, to make a long sweeping right-hook around the southern end of the line.  They swept past the British 7th Armoured Division in the south and headed back north behind the Gazala line.  The Allied forces reeled and re-deployed catching up with Rommel’s forces in an area known as “The Cauldron” situated between Bir Hakeim and Tobruk. Three days of armoured fighting ensued in the area of ‘the Cauldron’ and Rommel applied pressure in ‘the Cauldron’ ultimately destroying the Allied defenders.

Rommel’s Axis forces then continued to push east to Egypt and forced the British Guards Brigade to withdraw from the Knightsbridge Box on the Gazala Line back to the Tobruk perimeter.  Now on the back-foot, on the 14th June, the British command authorised the withdraw of all units from the Gazala line, and thus began the ‘Gazala Gallop,’ a very hasty retreat.

The Gazala Gallop The 1st South African Division was ordered by British Command to withdraw along the coastal road back towards Tobruk.  They withdrew to series of defensive boxes and actions at Williams Post, Best Post, “Point 187,” Commonwealth Keep and then Acroma. The 21st and 15th Panzer attacks forced the 1st SA Division to fight a rearguard action and to withdraw through each of the respective boxes. Chased by Rommel’s tanks and driving east, the 1st South African division was now spread out between the original Gazala defences and Tobruk trying to make their way east.

By 15 June 1942, the British and Commonwealth forces had started the ‘Gazala Gallop’ in earnest (sarcastically referred because of the rapid nature of the retreat) and withdrew to a new defensive line – set up further east on the Egyptian border at an insignificant railway siding called El Alamein.  This was to be the ‘Last Stand’ by the British and Commonwealth Forces, behind El Alamein lay Rommel’s prize – Egypt.  However this left Tobruk, and the 2nd South African Division defending it isolated and highly vulnerable to Rommel’s advance.

The Fall of Tobruk;  It should have come as no surprise that the South African 2nd Division defending Tobruk would eventually be overtaken by Rommel’s rapid advance, the defences were in a poor state when the South Africans were tasked with defending it and they were ‘on their own’ without air support given the rapid withdrawal of British and Commonwealth forces from the Gazala line.  But this did not stop searing criticism from the British Command and especially Churchill who would go on to refer as South Africa’s capitulation at Tobruk as a ‘disgrace’ and his ‘lowest moment’ in the war.  See “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Tobruk, Rommel, Bayerlein, englische Kriegsgefangene

General Erwin Rommel inspects South African and British POW after the fall of Tobruk

In a nutshell, Tobruk was the largest loss of arms in South African military history, Rommel ‘bagged’ 32,000 British and South African defenders, using a Axis force half the size of the defenders’ force and he took just one day to do it.  The Fall of Tobruk opened Rommel to the Suez and therefore left Britain’s war and her entire empire in the balance.  It also left the proud South African military command and fighting reputation in absolute shreds.

It would now be up to South Africa’s remaining division, the 1st SA Division, to recover South Africa’s pride – the opportunity would come in the Battle of El Alamein.

The 1st Battle of El Alamein

Having arrived back from the Gazala Line, the 1st South African division spent two weeks improving their defences at El Alamein in what was known as the “Alamein Box”.

The Battle of El Alamein would be fought over a simple railway siding on the Egyptian border, in the middle of ‘nowhere’. But it was more than a railway siding, it was the gateway to the Axis forces invasion of Egypt and of significant strategic importance, a loss at El Alamein for the British and Commonwealth forces would mean the loss of  what Churchill referred to as the ‘second front’ – in effect it would have been the end of the British and commonwealth forces in the war – the outcome and future of the war (with future American involvement) would have looked very different should El Alamein have been lost – a lot depended on winning it.


A rare wartime original colour photo of El Alamein railway station, taken October1942. It looks somewhat dilapidated now.

For Hitler the invasion of Russia, now in full swing was more important, and the action in North Africa for the German ‘Afrika Korps’ had been to appease and assist their key ally – Italy and Mussolini’s African colonial ambitions and conquests.  Although of lessor importance the North African campaign drew key resources, equipment – planes, tanks and personnel as well as critical leadership away from the Russian campaign to deal with an ambition to take Egypt and the Suez Canal, knock Britain out the war completely and support Italy’s ambitions.  It was to a degree the ‘second front’ Hitler had wanted to avoid.

General Auchenlik – the British Commander of the 8th Army at the time then issued an order instructing all surplus personnel to be sent back to the Egyptian Delta for rest, re-supply and training, a moved which greatly displeased General Dan Pienaar.


General Dan Pienaar

The 1st South African Division, under General Dan Pienaar had been deployed with two brigades of infantry, each accompanied by a battery of artillery to protect the areas west and south of the El Alamein defensive box. Auchinlecks order effectively meant that Pienaar could only hold the box with one under-strength brigade.

It did not take long for Rommel to advance on the El Alamein ‘Box’, At 06:05am on the 30 June 1942 Axis transports were seen advancing to within 2,000 yards of the South African 3rd Brigade positions and they were engaged with machine and anti-tank gun fire by British units.

The South Africans were soon in the fight alongside their British and Commonwealth counter-parts and the Rand Light Infantry drove off German towed artillery, whilst the South African Air Force bombed Rommel’s supply columns. An hour later, by 07:30am the Germans had been halted and were pinned down by the South Africans, determined to avenge Gazala and the surrender of Tobruk.

For three days, 30 June to 3 July Brigadier Bobby Palmer’s 3 SA Brigade Group courageously and successfully halted the Afrika Korps’ continuous attacks on the parts of the El-Alamein Box held by the South Africans.  He held a line some 10 km long with only 1 000 infantrymen.

Counter-attacks by the South Africans found them stretched into untenable positions and the British command resolved to remove the South Africans to the rear to rest them citing they had been under too much combat stress and should they capitulate, as had been the case with the 2nd SA Div at Tobruk, it would be a political nightmare.  Both South African Divisions in the war would have been captured and it would surely spell the end of South Africa’s war effort and the Smuts government.

The intension was to replace them with an Australian division, however General Pienaar would have none of it, he famously stated to an American war correspondent  “Here I stop, I’ve retreated far enough, whether we hold the damn thing or not!”

Mussolini had flown to a nearby enemy held airfield so as not to miss out on a triumphal Roman entry into Cairo. He had not anticipated a very defiant thin line of red-tabbed Springboks and other British and Commonwealth soldiers literally stopping him in his tracks.

The Axis advance had been stopped all along the Allied line of defence at El Alamein by the 27th July and a stalemate ensued giving the British time to make changes and prepare to go on the counter-attack, this was to be the upcoming decisive battle – the 2nd Battle of El Alamein.

A Change in British Command

Outraged by the conduct of the war in the Middle East, especially the loss on the Gazala line, the surrender of the Tobruk and the hasty ‘Gallop’ retreat,  Churchill headed off to Egypt in August 1942 to make some sweeping changes to British Command.  When adding the surrender of Singapore to the mix just previously to Tobruk, it was clear to Churchill that the British Empire needed to be saved and his direct intervention in command inevitable.

South Africa played a role in advising Churchill on changes to be made to Command and the entire strategy of the war going forward, in August 1942 General Smuts was requested to meet Churchill in Cairo, here they decided on a new war strategy.

Smuts and Churchill

Winston Churchill with Jan Smuts at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.

On the 5th August 1942, Winston Churchill even paid a surprise and informal visit to the South African Division. He remarked: ‘It is a long time since I was in South Africa.’  to a group of South Africans and one of the men humorously replied: ‘Yes Sir, you were in the bag then, weren’t you?’ (referring to Winston Churchill’s time spent as a Prisoner of War during the 2nd Anglo Boer War courtesy of the Boers).

General Auchenlik and his Eighth Army staff, were all given the boot (a little unfairly as Auchenlik had stabilised the Allied position after the First Battle of El Alamein). Churchill’s preferred replacement was initially not General Bernard Montgomery, he was Churchill’s second choice, General William Gott was appointed to head up the 8th Army.  Unfortunately General Gott was killed in action on 7 August 1942 when his aircraft was shot down.

General Montgomery was duly appointed to lead the 8th Army, and a decisive and very popular decision that proved to be (despite a terse relationship between Montgomery and Churchill – and notwithstanding that the two of them were polar opposite in character).

The 2nd Battle of El Alamein 

General ‘Monty’ Montgomery then set about on a massive troop and equipment build-up and extensive training and moral boosting speeches had the British forces ready.  He knew the first part of the offensive would require breaching a massive German/Italian mine-field which separated the two forces, he also knew that the headlong offensive was 1st World War in thinking, only with the use of an incredible amount of armour – as such ‘attrition’ (a battle of casualties by numbers) would play a major factor and Monty needed a vast force to overcome it.


South African engineers training with mine detection equipment in North Africa. British and Commonwealth forces trained intensively in minefield clearance in preparation for the Second Battle of El Alamein.

In the interim South African engineers and sappers set themselves up training for the very large and very important mine clearing job to come.

Operation Lightfoot – Break-in


Start Line Deployments for the 2nd Battle of El Alamein

The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role on the opening of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. It had to breach the German minefield which had been sown with more than half a million mines – with a dab of military humour this part of the 2nd Battle of El Alamein was called ‘Operation Lightfoot’.  South African sappers were to play a significant role opening up the minefield to allow the Allied and South African forces to push through.

General Montgomery’s basic idea was that the Australians and Highlanders were to force a northern corridor through the Axis (German/Italian) minefields while the New Zealanders and South Africans were to do the same in the southern sector.

The 1st Infantry Division (South Africa), was tasked to attack on a two-brigade front to secure the southern end of Mieiriya Ridge. The Indian 4th and Northumbrian 50th Divisions were deployed to their south and to the north was the 2nd New Zealand Division.

Al Alamein

A 25-pdr gun firing during the British night artillery barrage which opened Second Battle of El Alamein, 23 October 1942.

The South Africans were to attack towards the south-west with 2nd SA Infantry Brigade (under the command of Brig. W.H.E. Poole) on the right and the 3rd SA Infantry Brigade (under the Command of Brig. R. Palmer) on the left. The 1st SA Infantry Brigade was deployed further south and was responsible for creating an anti-tank screen to protect the left flank of the South African attack.

Operation Lightfoot started at 2140 on 23rd October 1942 with a five-hour artillery barrage fire plan, the start of which signified H-Hour for the infantry assault.  General Pienaar had deployed each of the lead brigades, with on battalion leading for the first phase to the “red line”  – after a pause of an hour and a quarter, the two trailing battalions would pass though to the final objective on Miteiriya Ridge.


Lucas Majozi DCM

The South African 1st and 2nd Field Force Brigades (FFB), as soon after the battle began, became pinned down in the German Axis forces minefield by intense German machine gun and artillery fire. The South African infantrymen suffered very severe casualties.

Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield.  Amongst these Black Native Military Corps (NMC) non-combatant medics rescuing their White combatant counterparts was Lucas Majozi who went on to win a DCM for gallantry. See “With bullets in his body he returned … into a veritable hell of machine gun fire”; Lucas Majozi DCM

By 08:00, the following morning on 24th October the South African objective, Miteiriya Ridge was finally secured, after a very long night of fighting and a very high rate of attrition by way of casualties.

The South African sacrifice in taking Miteiriya Ridge, spurred General Montgomery to send his now famous congratulatory signal on the 24th October 1942 to General Dan Pienaar acknowledging that the 1 SA Division had met all its objectives set for the Battle of Alamein.

Crumbling Operations

By the 25th October the Battle of El Alamein moved into the ‘crumbling actions/operations’ phase.  British Command on the 26th October ordered the South African 1st Division to “side-step” north and occupy the area initially held by the New Zealand Division and the 9th Armoured Brigade.

The South Africans were now stretched on a wider front, between the Australians and 51st Division in the north and the Indian 4th Division on Ruweisat Ridge, with 5th SA Brigade on the right, 3rd SA Brigade on its left and 1st SA Brigade being pulled back as the divisional reserve.

El Alamein 2

El Alamein 1942: British infantry advances through the dust and smoke of the battle.

All in by the evening of 26 October (as from the H-Hour on the 23rd), the South Africans had suffered 600 casualties (the British had 2000 casualties as well as 1,000 Australians and 1000 New Zealanders).

Operation Supercharge – Break Out

By the 2nd November 1942, contrary to Hitler’s instructions – Rommel had started to withdraw. The final plan to destroy the Axis forces, code-named “Supercharge” was put into action. The 1st SA Division played no role in this phase of the operation – but the South African armoured cars attached to XXX Corps were actively involved in the attempted destruction and subsequent pursuit.

On the 4 November, after repeated attempts at breaking through the Axis lines – Lt-Col Reeves-Moore lead the South African armoured cars into the rear of the Axis positions, “….the eager children of any mechanized pursuit… scampered at dawn into the open desert beyond the mines and trenches and guns, to make their exuberant mischief amid the disintegrating enemy”.

They soon started causing the havoc for which they had been intended – A Sqn capturing two German 88 mm guns, two 105 mm guns, two 110mm guns, a Breda portee, six trucks and 130 prisoners; while B Sqn captured five trucks, a staff car, one 105 mm and one 150 mm gun and 100 prisoners within a matter of hours.


A German Panzer III tank crewman surrenders to an advancing Allied soldier during the Battle of El Alamein, 1942

While the South African armoured cars were dashing west, the remaining elements of 1st South African Division had moved further north and over the previous two nights had relieved the 51st Highland Division 51st Highland Division.  During the night of 3/4 November, the last unit to move into its new position was the 1st Cape Town Highlanders who moved during a major artillery barrage in support of an attack by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. The regiment awoke on the 4th November to silence and the absence of gunfire, save for the sound of Allied vehicles advancing west in pursuit of the retreating enemy.

For the 1st South African Division, the war in North Africa had ended.

The loss of General Dan Pienaar

25626160_885298981647845_7204091414452226149_oThe Division returned to South Africa and General Pienaar and eleven other officers boarded a South African Air Force (SAAF) Lockheed Lodestar on 17 December to fly the final command structure back to South Africa.

The SAAF aircraft stopped to re-fuel at Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.  It was reputed that General Pienaar was in a hurry to get going and this may have pushed the pilot into taking risks, on takeoff on 19 December, the aircraft plunged into the lake, killing all on board.

With that came the sad ending of the very popular General Dan Pienaar, he was described in an obituary in the Chicago Tribune as being acknowledged by all military authorities as “one of the best fighting leaders the British have found in this war”.

The End of the Beginning

After the 1st South African Infantry Division’s job was done in North Africa it was disbanded and the 6th South African Armoured Division was formed to continue with South Africa’s World War 2 contribution.   The British Command, still relatively unhappy with the Tobruk incident 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 – for the rest of the war.

Memorial to South Africans at El Alamein Commonwealth Cemetery

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 – taking with it the recovered country pride so hard for by the 1st South African Division at Tobruk, to an even higher accolade.

The Battle of El Alamein plays such a significant in the outcome of World War 2, Winston Churchill once remarked; “before Alamein, we never had a victory – after Alamein we never had a defeat” and more famously that Alamein marked the ‘end of the beginning‘ of World War 2.

In Conclusion

That South Africa played such a critical part in this pivot moment of history is often overlooked, it’s not something most South Africans are even aware of and it really is something which needs to be redressed by the time the centenary of this battle comes around.  Hopefully by this time it’s not confined to a couple of South African Legion branches and few MOTH shell-holes dotted around South Africa to remember it.

Lest we forget this Battle and path of sacrifice taken by some of the finest South Africans we have ever known, people to whom we as a nation owe a massive debt of gratitude.  Also, it really is not for politicians to remember the war dead, it really isn’t their job and given the nature of politics to ask them to do so is to dishonour both the sacrifice and the dead.  Let’s face it, the African National Congress (ANC) government are not up for it nor are they the proper people to do it in the first place (and to be honest nor were the old National Party government the right people either).

It is up to the veterans fraternity and each and every person that has served in a South African military uniform to carry this flame of remembrance on behalf of those who have come before them – as is the generally accepted practice in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  When we as South Africans veterans snap out of our collective apathy and get that part together, sharing in our most honoured history and stand in a unified cause in our thousands, only then will we get our remembrance occasions aligned and honour these men and women properly.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extracts and references taken from The Military History Journal, Vol 9 No 2 – December 1992 ‘GENERAL PIENAAR, TELL YOUR SOUTH AFRICAN DIVISION THEY HAVE DONE WELL’ – General Montgomery; 24 October 1942. By A B Theunissen.  Other references include The Imperial War Museum (with photo copyrights were shown), Wikipedia and a Biography of Jan Christian Smuts (1870-1950) By Beat Lenel.


“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The death of Jan Smuts


DF Malan

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The birth of South Africa

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

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

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

The League of Nations and United Nations

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

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

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


Smuts signing the United Nations Charter


The British Commonwealth of Nations

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

The birth of Israel

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

World Wars and Military Milestones

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Domestic acclaim


Emily Hobhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

International acclaim

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

A humble man

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


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

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

“Even the great thought he was great.”

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

This article serves to highlights Smuts’ achievements by way of an Obituary.  There are other issues any national leader faces that highlight decisive but ‘unpopular’ action depending on the affected party’s point of view.  For more related articles in The Observation Post on  Jan Smuts please have a look at this link:

South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922


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 on the 21st October1942. 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.  This speech is well worth viewing and here it is, in full.

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 an 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.

smuts 5

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.


Visit of Field Marshal Jan Smuts, to the House of Commons 21 Oct 1942. The Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, calls on the assembly in the House of Commons to acclaim Field Marshal Smuts, after his address. IWM Copyright.

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.

To read more about Smuts and some of his lifetime achievements and body of work, click on this link “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Written  by Peter Dickens.  Footage copyright – British Pathé. Image/s copyright – The Imperial War Museum

Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The interesting part of digging up all the “hidden” history of the South African veteran movements after World War 2, is that occasionally you come across some hidden history about the military veterans organisation which you belong to. Did you know that both Jan Smuts AND Winston Churchill are both members of the South African Legion of Military Veterans?

Well – they are. Field Marshal Jan Smuts was awarded the “Gold Life Membership Badge of the South African Legion of the BESL” in November 1945, and Sir Winston Churchill recieved the same Gold Life Membership Badge to the South African Legion in July 1948.

And here they are – two fellow Legionnaires, the two great prime ministers of Great Britain and South Africa, Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts, at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.


Above is a standard South African Legion lapel Badge with “Kings crown” from the 2nd World War period.  Note BESL – which stands for the “British Empire Services League” – the South African Legion along with the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion and Returned Services League Australia are all founder members of it.  Today it is called the “Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League” (RCEL) having received recognition by the Britain’s Royal family for its work all over the world supporting destitute military veterans who have rendered service to the “crown” – including South Africa.


Modern South African Legion badge – note the use of modern BESL the RCEL “Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League” and Queen’s Crown” for Queen Elizabeth II who is a Patron.


Image copyright – The Imperial War Museum. Reference “Not For Ourselves” – a history of the South African Legion by Arthur Blake.


Smuts’ sixth sense

Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts accompanied one another just after the D Day landings to General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s headquarters, 12 June 1944.

Left to right: Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor, commanding VIII Corps; Churchill; Field Marshal Jan Smuts; Montgomery; Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Here these Allied commanders are seen looking up at aircraft activity overhead.

An interesting snippet of history happened during this visit by Smuts and Churchill to Monty’s headquarters. While visiting the headquarters and as senior officers stood outside with the Prime Minister (Churchill), Field Marshal Smuts sniffed the air and said, ‘There are some Germans near us now…I can always tell!’” and low and behold, just two days later, “two fully armed German paratroopers emerged from a nearby Rhododendron bush, where they had been hiding all along (they had become isolated from their unit, seeing that they were unable to rejoin they chose to surrender). Had they used their guns and grenades on Churchill (and Smuts), everything would have changed.

There you have it, Smuts’ keen sense of smell and intuition is another attribute you can add to the very very long list of honours attributed to this great South African.

Reference: Nicholas Rankin “Churchill’s Wizards”. Image copyright – The Imperial War Museum.