Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day

It was D-Day+6 when South African statesman, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, was also to cross over to Normandy, accompanying the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by his side.  To this point Smuts had played a pivot role in not only the planning and strategy behind Operation Overlord and the Normandy campaign, he also played a central role as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor and using his considerable political skill, Jan Smuts was to keep Churchill in line with the wishes and objects of not only Overlord’s military commanders (mainly British and American), but also those of the King of Great Britain – George VI.

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Churchill in the lead up to the Normandy campaign was not in favour of the entire operation, he felt that the focus should remain on the Italian campaign and maintained that any available resources should be concentrated to winning it by entering Germany and Austria via what he termed ‘the soft under-belly of Europe’ and not France. The truth of the matter was that the ‘soft-underbelly’ had turned into a slow and costly grind through mountainous terrain, and instead had become a ‘tough old gut’.  Allied military planners now looked to open a third front to stretch the Axis the forces across an Eastern, Western and Southern front.

Operation Overlord

Smuts was to bring considerable expertise to win Churchill over to backing Operation Overlord and opening the third front via France, but he had another challenge, once won over Churchill insisted on meddling in just about everything to do with the invasion plans, bringing him into direct conflict with General Montgomery specifically. General Montgomery was assigned to command the 21st Army Group which consisted of all Allied ground forces that would take part in Operation Overlord, under the overall direction of the Supreme Commander, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Smuts was to stick to Churchill like glue, never leaving his side, not for a moment – he was to arbitrate and advise not only Churchill, but the entire supreme command, lending a guiding and experienced hand – before and during the campaign itself.  In doing so Smuts was to cement a formidable international reputation as not only a sought after military strategist but also a very skilful politician in forming the vision for a post D-Day invasion Europe and the world at large post war.

Typically Churchill had insisted on personally hitting the beach-heads on D-Day itself (undoubtably Smuts, who was no stranger to danger, would have had no option but to be at his side).  Churchill felt it important that as Prime Minister that he should be ashore with the assault forces leading from the front. His peers, the commanders and the King thought him quite mad and it eventually took an intervention from the King George VI to Churchill to insist he was too valuable to be risking his life on what would have amounted to a Public Relations antic.  Ignoring this, as D-Day approached it took a further letter from King George to literally order Churchill to stand down at the last-minute.

Not to be outdone, Churchill did the next best thing, and with Jan Smuts at his side the two of them on D-Day itself – 6th June 1944 went to the port with journalists in toe to wish Godspeed to British and Canadian troops embarking for the liberation of Europe. The troops waiting on the quayside gave the two Prime Ministers (Smuts and Churchill) a hearty cheer as they went up the gangway.

This Pathé newsreel called ‘over there’ captures D-Day and the beach-head breakout (if you watch to the end you’ll see Churchill and Smuts).

In addition, prior to the departing troops on June 6th, the newspapers of the time noted the following as to Smuts and his involvement in the planning;

“General Smuts also accompanied King George V, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on a visit to General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters on ‘D-Day’ and went to the operations room to follow the progress of the battle. Throughout the day General Smuts received independent reports from the highest quarters, of the progress of the invasion operations.”

It was at Eisenhower’s headquarters that, a few days earlier, that Smuts had met the French soldier and statesman General De Gaulle at “a quiet, tree-shaded spot” and that “General Eisenhower, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden were there as well.” The group had spent “nearly two hours together, largely in the war room tent of the Allied Supreme Commander, where the walls are hung with detailed maps and the planned liberation of France.”

Not able to keep Churchill and Smuts away from the action for too long, it was a short 6 days into the landing operations (D-Day +6) on 12 June 1944, that the two of them bordered a destroyer, the HMS Kelvin crossing over to France and into the teeth of the fighting.

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12 June 1944,  The boarding party with Field Marshal Jan Smuts (right), Prime Minister Winston Churchill (centre) and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Rear Admiral W E Parry (bottom right).” Crossing to France D-Day +6

The K-Class destroyer is the HMS Kelvin which reached the French coast at 9.30 a.m. and had steamed through the battle fleet during a bombardment and later joined in the shelling of the German north-east flank. Churchill and Smuts were then conveyed to the beach via a “DUKW” amphibious vehicle where they then met Field Marshal Montgomery, where-after they departed in a jeep for Montgomery’s headquarters for a de-briefing of the progress and offer him advise on the next phases.

Whilst at Montgomery’s head quarters, General Smuts took up the role of photographer (the reason he’s not in the picture) and he was to take this world-famous photograph. From left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery’s mobile headquarters in Normandy.

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Smuts was rather lucky to survive his visit to Normandy, as both he and Churchill could very well have been killed while visiting Monty’s headquarters at Cruelly.

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 lo 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 Monty as well as 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 long list of honours attributed to this great South African.

The below mage shows Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts with  General Sir Bernard Montgomery at his headquarters, 12 June 1944 looking at aircraft activity overhead.

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It is also really amazing when one considers that Smuts, an erstwhile enemy of the British empire during the South African War (1899-1906), was not only to reconcile himself to his former enemy over the succeeding years, but was also to be greatly respected by two British prime ministers: Lloyd George and Winston Churchill during the First and Second World Wars respectively and served on the appointed war councils in both.  During the Second World War he was even appointed to the British King’s Privy Council – finding himself at the epicentre on how the war was to be conducted and fought.

Notwithstanding the fact that South Africa, with Smuts as head of state, played a very key role in the liberation of Europe, Smuts also represented the large contingent of South African Union Defence Force personnel taking part in Operation Overlord seconded to the Royal Air Force, flying all manner of fighters, transports and gliders and the South Africans seconded to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and serving on the many vessels used in the landings and in the ground invasion forces.

In conclusion

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 (which very nearly happened in Normandy), Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have to be a peer and British Parliamentary process would have prevented it. Smuts had also already refused a peerage and South Africa’s constitution would not have allowed him to do anyway as he was already the Prime Minister of South Africa – and politics was such with his National Party opposition accusing him of being a ‘traitor’ at every turn, that Smuts in all likelihood would have refused outright lest he alienate his own very split Afrikaner community completely.

Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become to the war effort – strategically, tactically and politically, he was South Africa’s greatest military export – without any doubt – his council sought by Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Field Marshals and Generals. His role in Overlord would rid the world of Nazism and pave the way to the ‘new’ western democratic order and United Nations order that we know today. Simply put Smuts can easily take up the same mantle as Churchill and can stand the very epicentre of our modern values of liberty and western democratic freedoms.

Related Work and Links

Churchill’s desk and Smuts; Churchill’s Desk

Jan Smuts; South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

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


Written by Peter Dickens.

Photo copyright Imperial War Museum – caption thanks to The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek. Nicholas Rankin,“Churchill’s Wizards, British Genius for Deception 1914-1945”

South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

What would be a surprise to many is that aside from the key-note planners of Operation Overlord (D-Day), three key Commonwealth Prime Ministers were included in the final planning sessions for D-Day – Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa, and it all took place in a secret railway siding in the middle of the quaint English countryside.

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On the 2 June 1944, a quiet little railway siding in Hampshire – Doxford, became the location for a highly secret meeting in a specially converted train carriage. The special train was Sir Winston Churchill’s train and temporary Operational HQ called ‘rugged’, the meeting was to agree this next most critical stage of the war.

On this day, in this unassuming train station the “Council of War” convened to decide the outcome of the war for the Western Allies. The Allied Supreme Commander General D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, the Allied High Command General Staff and the Prime Ministers of South Africa – Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Canada – William Lyon Mackenzie King, New Zealand – Peter Fraser, Southern Rhodesia – Sir Godfrey Huggins and the Free French Army – General De Gualle – all assembled for the only time during the war to make their most momentous decision, and “D day was on”.

The occasion was commemorated by paperweights cut from the line (called ‘the Churchill line’ after the war) and issued by the Sadler Rail Coach Limited for Droxford Station.

10930895_456531221183282_6814879340665934426_nSo there you have it, both South Africa and even Rhodesia played a key role in agreeing Operation Overlord plans and signing off on this most critical date – D-Day, 6th June 1944 – the date which changed the course of Western Europe’s modern history.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. A big thanks you to Colin Ashby whose grandfather made the commemorative paperweights and provided the images.

VE – Day’s flags of honour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Work

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

Churchill’s Heroes; Churchill’s Desk


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

Churchill’s Desk

Walk into the average teenager’s room and it would be adorned with posters of people they are fans of.  People, usually music stars, that they look up and admire, and more importantly people to which they role model.  These people are powerful icons which shape them psychologically.

ChurchillTo an adult, after a more experienced life, the icons who have moulded them – their role models, the people they admire most usually end up in picture frames or as small statues on mantels, desks and tables, very often family but very often also great thinkers, leaders who have step-changed their world and great sportsmen and women (even the odd music star from their teens might even make an appearance).

It’s no different with Winston Churchill, his desk at Chartwell is the most telling of who shaped him as a person, who he admired the most, who he loved and who he looked to for inspiration when writing his accounts of history, his epoch changing speeches and his great works on shaping the future of Great Britain.

Churchill suffered from great bouts of depression, which he called his ‘black dog’ and it is  in these people represented on his desk that he would also find light and drive, these are very important individuals to him.

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In and amongst his family portraits on his desk, he positioned three non-family members in the middle of his desk – his ‘heroes’ looking strait back at him for inspiration – Napoleon, Nelson and, believe it or not, Jan Smuts.

One Englishman, one Frenchman and one Afrikaner … now that’s a strange combination for someone who epitomised everything British and her Imperial Empire.  Horatio Nelson you can understand, but two great former enemies of Britain, that’s odd.

So let’s understand why Churchill was such a big fan of Nelson, Napoleon and Smuts and examine why these specific people shaped him as a leader, a man who was to be voted by the British in 2002  as the greatest Briton in their history ahead of a nomination of 100 others in a BBC survey.  A man, whether some like it or not, who is one of the most influential men to have shaped our 21st Century’s social, political and economic landscapes.

Horatio Nelson

horatio-nelson-george-baxterPerhaps owing to Churchill’s role as First Lord of the Admiralty (a position which he held twice) Churchill developed a serious love of Nelson. A bust of Nelson sat on his desk at Chartwell and Churchill had a grey cat which accompanied him on trips to Chequers during the war which he named for the great Napoleonic Wars admiral.

One of Churchill’s favourite movies was Lady Hamilton, a film about Nelson’s mistress. Churchill also wrote about Nelson in History of the English Speaking Peoples.  Lets face it he was a fan.

But not just Churchill, in the BBC vote for the greatest Briton, Horacio Nelson also made the short-list.  The British we such fans of Nelson they went further than a small busts of him, they erected a column (which extends the full length of the HMS Victory’s mast) in the middle of their most famous square in the centre of London and put him on the top.  Nelson still towers over London on his ‘column’ to this day.

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What Nelson did to get all this admiration is he ‘saved Britain’ whilst at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Navy by destroying the French Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and this is really why Churchill found inspiration in him.  Churchill was to emulate his hero exactly when he too ‘saved Britain’ at the ‘helm’ of the Royal Air Force by destroying the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

That is why Nelson sits on Churchill’s desk.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Churchill had a fascination and an immense respect for Napoleon. His bust also sat on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, but was slightly larger and more prominently placed than Nelson’s – in fact it sits dead centre and dominates his desk.

Churchill enjoyed reflecting on Napoleon’s military genius, perhaps wanting to emulate the French emperor. After all, like Churchill after the Dardanelles, Napoleon made a significant comeback. Churchill even hoped to write a biography of Napoleon but never found the time.

More than that, he hated it when people would compare Hitler to Napoleon. “It seems an insult to the great Emperor and warrior,” he said, “to connect him in any way with a squalid caucus boss and butcher”.

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But most of all, during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) it was Napoleon’s quote that came to his mind when he surrendered to Boer forces once he found him isolated from an armoured train which the Boer’s attacked.  Of the incident when a Boer horseman pointed a rifle at his head and waved it to signal he should come out, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer’s signal to surrender or die and walked out. Napoleon had literally saved his life.

However, Churchill’s admiration of Napoleon is a lot deeper, what Churchill saw in Napoleon was a reformer. Napoleons influence on the modern world brought liberal reforms to the numerous territories that he conquered and controlled. His Napoleonic Code has influenced the legal systems of more than 70 nations around the world. British historian Andrew Roberts summed up Napoleon very well;

“The ideas that underpin our modern world—meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on—were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire”

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With France capitulating to Nazi Germany early in World War 2, Europe’s great bastion of liberty forged by Napoleon was no longer in contention, and Churchill saw Britain as the last hope to carry this flame and become the next great reformer of Europe, and it has manifested itself in the creation of the European Union, the roots of its creation and thinking can be traced to none other than Churchill when after the 2nd World War he called for the creation of a ‘United States of Europe’.

That is why Napoleon sits on Churchill’s desk.

Jan Smuts

Jan Smuts’ portrait sits to the left of Napoleon’s bust on Churchill’s desk at Chartwell, sitting alongside what is arguably the two greatest military strategists known – Nelson and Napoleon. Here Churchill viewed Smuts as an equal to two of the biggest hitters in European history. But why this lessor known Afrikaner General, why Smuts?

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Some would say it was Churchill’s close personal relationship with Smuts as his advisor during World War 2, that he was simply Churchill’s ‘friend’ with loads in common.  But that too would be incorrect, Smuts was the extreme opposite of Churchill, Smuts was a near teetotaler whereas Churchill was seldom sober, Smuts was an early to bed early riser, Churchill was a night-owl, Smuts maintained a stringent diet whereas Churchill was a glutton, Smuts enjoyed exercise and long walking and climbing treks and Churchill hated the very idea of it.

So, nothing in common as friends go then.

Less informed people in South Africa would venture it’s because Smuts turned ‘traitor’ on his people and turned ‘British’.  But that’s both grossly ignorant and entirely wrong as the rather inconvenient truth to these detractors is that Winston Churchill admired Jan Smuts precisely because he was a ‘Boer’.

Churchill emulated and admired Smuts, because Smuts had been his great adversary during the South African War (1899-1902).  He was a fan of Smuts’ strategic and tactical military capability and leadership in the field.  Churchill, like many of his peers and the general population in England, admired Smuts preciously because he epitomised the legacy of a great Boer fighter.

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There is credit in the arguments which expose certain officers and South African based British politicians for ‘Boer hatred’ during The South African War (1899 to 1902), it’s true in some cases and there is no denying that – but it is not generally true of the whole, in fact it’s entirely the opposite.  Across the English-speaking world, in Britain and America particularly the Boer fighter would take an on almost legendary and mythical status.

Consider this famous influential Briton’s admiration of the Boer nation.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, said of the Boers after the South African war;

“Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots, who gave up their name and left their country forever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes . The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon the face of the earth. Take these formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances in which no weakling could survive; place them so that they acquire skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman and the rider. Then, finally, put a fine temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual and you have the modern White Boer.”

IMG_104Smuts found thousands admirers for his speeches, in the general public, political circles and even in the British Parliament who received him with a resounding ovation, all of them within living knowledge of the South African War and the extremely hard time tenacious Boers, including Smuts, had given the British during the war.

The value of the ‘little guy’ standing up to the giant and giving it a bloody nose resounds very well in the English-speaking world.  So too the very British value of ‘pluckiness’ which the British saw in a tiny Republic taking on a Superpower, you just had to admire it.  Again, the Boer cause strikes the British value of ‘fortitude’, the ‘stiff upper lip’ required for supreme perseverance against intense adversary – and the Boer fighter amplified this value in buckets.

The 2nd Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) was the single biggest event to ‘shape’ the young Churchill as a character, it forged him into who he became and his exploits in South Africa directly contributed to his success as leader.  He was time and again to encounter the Boer fighting spirit and strategic and tactical capability, the Boers made a POW of him, shot his horse out from under him and so narrowly killed him on so many occasions that Churchill would describe the sonic wakes of Boer bullets so close to blowing his head off they ‘kissed his cheeks’, his survival of Boer military assaults and marksmanship he puts down to his own sheer luck and nothing else.

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General Jan Smuts in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War

What’s not to admire about these ‘pesky’ Boers made up of small groups of simple farming folk in their thousands using skilful military manoeuvrability and marksmanship to keep an entire professional army expeditionary force in their hundreds of thousands at bay with their heads down.

But not in his home country, Smuts would not find hordes of adoring fans, instead the nationalists spin-doctored this fame and admiration to further reinforce their argument that Smuts had turned ‘British’ and split him from his voter base and people. Not that this mattered a jot for Churchill in his worship of Smuts and the Boers, to him the ‘National Party’ was nothing more than a relatively small bunch of misled Nazi sympathising politicians, their brand of politics in countenance to just about every fibre in this body and they had nothing at all to do with the values he so admired in the Boers and Afrikaners in general.

It’s precisely because Churchill considered Smuts an ‘enemy’ and not a ‘friend’, that he was ‘Boer’ and not a ‘Brit’ that he found so much admiration in Smuts, that he thought himself an equal military strategist to wrestle his ideas with his old foe, to grapple with this formidable ‘Boer’ General for strategic perspective and in so not make the kind of mistake he made with the Dardanelles operation and the resultant, rather disastrous, Gallipoli campaign in World War 1.  Smuts tempered Churchill throughout World War 2 advising against his intrinsic disposition for impulsiveness with sheer reason.  Smuts ‘balanced’ Churchill perfectly.

It was the sheer fortitude of the Boer fighter that Churchill admired so much, the little guy giving the big guy the old two-fingered ‘Agincourt’ up-yours ‘mate’ salute the English archers gave the superior French forces in 1514 in defiance of them, a salute which Churchill (and even Smuts) would later turn around in a double-entendre of the gesture to indicate ‘Victory’ without losing its actual meaning.

Simply put – he admired all the ‘Boer’ traits of fortitude, versatility and mental toughness in Smuts, and it manifests itself in Churchill in just about every speech he made and work he did.

Richard Steyn in ‘Unafraid of Greatness’ sums this up very well;

“Yet the great paradox of (Smuts’) life was that – as Leif Egeland pointed out – it is precisely because Smuts was a Afrikaner and a Boer soldier that he built up such a formidable reputation world-wide.  On his many visits abroad and in his personal life, he kept the image of the Boer general, ‘one of the most romantic and bravest figures in history’. Whilst many of his countrymen described him for being an Englishman at heart, in Britain and around the world ‘General Smuts’ was respected and revered for being a true and patriotic Afrikaner – the finest example of his tribe”.

That’s why Smuts sits on Churchill’s desk.

Related work and Links

Churchill and The South African War; Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

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

Smuts’ speech to the Houses of Parliament; A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

References include ‘The National Trust Collections’ Chartwell, Jan Smuts reconsidered by Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  ‘Who were Churchill’s heroes’ by Warren Dockter, historian 2015.  Horatio Nelson portait by George Baxter,  Image of Smuts and Churchill – Imperial War Museum

 

Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

Winston Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’ from Boer captivity during the ‘South African War’ (1899 to 1902) – also referred to as the ‘2nd Anglo-Boer War’ is the stuff of a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure book. Boy’s Own was a Victorian period magazine featuring great fictional adventures and deeds of Empire.

Boys_Own_Magazine_Feb_1855Because Churchill’s exploits in the South African War were marketed as a grand adventure, it vaulted this failing politician into the annuals of British heroism and resuscitated his career in a manner that can only be described as ‘stellar’.

It was this escape from a POW holding pen in Pretoria during the South African War that set up and ultimately forged Churchill into the juggernaut politician and statesman he was to become, without it Great Britain may never have had its great wartime leader and ‘saviour’ during World War 2 and by the same token the disaster at Gallipoli during World War 1 may even have never taken place.

So, let’s have a look at why South Africa is the epicentre of Churchill’s revived career and why by association this country gave the world a man who in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’ placing him at the top of the most influential people in British history.

Let’s also examine why a lot of people would frankly have been very happy if the Boers had shot and killed him on the fateful day he was caught in Natal (an outcome which very nearly may have happened).  On the way we’ll also unravel some truths and myths.

Churchill’s South African ‘Adventure’

Young Churchill

Known as ‘Copperknob’ a colourised young Churchill at Harrow

To say Winston Churchill was an ambitious young man would be a classic example of English understatement. By the age of 25, the freckled-faced redhead had already written three books, run unsuccessfully for Parliament and participated in four wars on three continents. He was even nicknamed “Pushful, the Younger” because of his ambition, Churchill hungered for fame and glory unwavering in his belief that he would one day become Prime Minister. “I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother.  Unknown to him at this stage his ‘star’ was to align and bring him fame in South Africa.

Winston Churchill initially took part in the South African War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  Some war correspondents (like Churchill) tended to be retired commissioned officers with military experience attached to British Regiments or Formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.

Churchill as a war correspondent was generally disliked by the British upper officer class, they found him highly critical of their strategy, tactics and actions, they also found him impertinent, arrogant and nothing more than a meddling glory monger.  His ‘upper class elite’ and ‘political class’ heritage presented him as a double-edged sword to any Regiment or Division’s officer elite and they had no choice, simply put they had to just put up with him.

True to form, Churchill’s activities in South Africa literally read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel. Within two days of the Boer Republics declaring war on Great Britain on 11th October 1899, Britain started to mobilise their forces at home, in the Cape Colony and Natal their forces were relatively small frontier garrison forces supplemented by citizen force members (which they began to muster anticipating the coming hostilities), and they were hopelessly under-strength.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nIt a ‘myth’ that Britain had built up large forces to invade the Boer Republics before the start of the war.  The ‘truth’ is they were relatively unprepared and much weaker than the well equipped Boer forces – ‘Black November’ illustrates this perfectly.  The Boers had banked on a swift victory whilst Britain was weak, hence their ultimatum was followed immediately with a surprise Boer invasion of the British colonies – Natal and the Cape Colony.

The British decided to initially send General Sir Redvers Henry Buller and a small contingent of officers, a detachment of troops and a gaggle of journalists off to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to gauge troop strength ahead of sending any major expeditionary force requirements, they left on the Dunottar Castle on 14th October 1899.

Churchill had planned to publish his magnum opus in October 1899, “but when the middle of October came, we all had other things to think about”. He said, “the Boer ultimatum had not ticked out on the tape machines for an hour” and he was on his way to the Cape Colony, appointed as the principal War Correspondent of the Morning Post. He was to be paid £250 per month for four months (£ 1000 was a small fortune at the time), all expenses paid and he retained the copyright on his articles.

Churchill was first in with Buller’s fact-finding mission anticipating his big ‘scoop’.  Sailing with great haste and at high-speed, Churchill called the voyage with Buller as “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” The passage aside, in typical form Churchill even took his valet with him and a vast liquor cabinet that included 18 bottles of Scotch Whiskey also went in tow.

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Illustration of General Sir Redvers Buller on the Dunottar Castle, steaming at haste to Cape Town departing Britain on 14 Oct 1899

In those days before radio, they were completely cut off from the world while at sea. Approaching the Cape, a passing ship held up a blackboard on which was written: BOERS DEFEATED, THREE BATTLES, PENN SYMONS KILLED. A staff officer ventured to address Buller. “It looks as if it will all be over, sir.” Buller only said,“I dare say there will be enough left to give us a fight outside Pretoria.”

Churchill arrived with Buller in Cape Town on 31 Oct 1899, by this stage the siege of the British frontier town of Ladysmith was well underway, and the initial message of Boer ‘defeat’ was very incorrect.  Churchill could not believe his good fortune and endeavoured to be become the first British journalist to get to Ladysmith – against all odds – ahead of Buller’s fact-finding mission and way ahead of any sizeable expeditionary force (which only was to start landing in Cape Town from 10 November 1899).  In effect he was going to be the first to ‘ascertain’ the situation for the very apprehensive Britons back home, not Buller.

Churchill immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so.

They took a 700-mile undefended train ride up north to the Cape Colony’s frontier near Port Elizabeth, then they boarded a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of a violent Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days in very high seas, the pair arrived at Durban.  This ‘adventure’ had started to play out in an extraordinary way.

Capture 

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of any advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range of the artillery fire from the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armoured train.

The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899 using field artillery and heavy rifle fire, whilst trying to manoeuvre out of fire, the front truck hit an obstruction which was placed by the Boers on the track and it was tossed from the tracks. The Boers then opened up on the stalled train with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position. With the front truck overturned, the engine and rear trucks remained on the tracks, still coupled to them.

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The wrecked part of the armoured train Churchill was travelling in

As shells roared around him and bullets pinged the sides of the armoured train, Churchill’s instincts as a trained military officer took over from his ‘journalist’ side, possibly even more in self-preservation. Acting like a decorated commander, Churchill braved the line of fire for more than an hour as he directed the soldiers to free the train. He also instructed the train driver, a civilian, who was injured and hiding to return to his post (he lied and convinced him that odds are it was not possible to get wounded twice in one day).  He became involved in un-coupling the section of the train which was not completely de-railed, the idea was to use this part of the train still on the tracks as a shield for the soldiers as they retreated to safety.

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Colourised image of Churchill next to the ambushed train – taken later in the war. Colourised by Tinus Le Roux

After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside, Churchill by this time had become separated from the part of the train on the tracks as it retreated. A number of men were taken prisoner, but a large section of the train, now loaded with men, had escaped.

Churchill made for cover to try to escape and found himself alone in a gully near the track. A Boer rode up and seated on his horse raised his rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for a Mauser pistol he was carrying in his belt but it wasn’t there, whilst clearing the train he had taken it off and left it on the train, it was now safely making its way back without him and Churchill was unarmed.  So, as myths go Churchill was not simply an ‘unarmed’ journalist and as other myths go he also did not fire the pistol during the attack, but he certainly had every intension of shooting the Boer horseman (at his own admission).

In a flat dilemma, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer to surrender and walked out.  Whilst walking into captivity next to the Boer horseman Churchill suddenly realised he had two magazine clips on his person for the Mauser Pistol, which were loaded with ‘soft-nosed’ ammunition. Figuring this may get him into a lot of trouble (soft-nose ammunition makes a bigger striking wound than hard-nosed ammunition and was generally not thought of Kindly by soldiers – it still isn’t), he realised he had to get rid of them fast.

Churchill silently got rid of one magazine, whilst trying to dispose of the second the Boer caught him in the act and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’.  Quick thinking, Churchill gave a whopping lie and replied, “What is it?’ I picked it up”.  The Boer took the pistol magazine and threw it away.

With that Churchill went into captivity, protesting that he was just a civilian war correspondent and therefore not subject to a Prisoner of War status and should be released immediately.  The Boers would have none of it, they had captured a ‘great prize’ who had not behaved under fire in characteristically ‘civilian’ manner.

Passing Majuba 

Whilst his POW train passed Majuba hill on its way to Pretoria Churchill had time to think.  Majuba was the site of the British defeat in the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) twenty years earlier, to understand the deep causes of The South African War (2nd Anglo-Boer War), we need to understand the 1st Anglo-Boer War (like the 2nd World War is World War 1 Part 2, so too the case with the two Anglo-Boer Wars).

As inconvenient truths go the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1881 at the invitation of the Boers to save them from an African revolt, the Boers did not take to British administration, especially as to how they dealt with the Black African’s claims and taxes and so kicked them out, this cumulated in the Battle at Majuba – and all this happened long before Gold was discovered in the Transvaal – think about that.

Mjuba

Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Imperial War Museum image

This act of defeat and subsequent ceasefire agreement from the battle at Majuba was described by Churchill as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” as he pondered it whilst passing Majuba hill in his POW train going into captivity.  The general sentiment at the time amongst the British was that the South African War i.e. 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) was going to settle the disgrace and tentative ‘ceasefire’ of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) once and for all.

How history twists 

In one of the most ironic twists in history, after The South African War (1899 to 1902), when Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, Churchill was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Louis Botha.  Churchill began with his story of his capture, Botha replied ‘Don’t you recognise me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’

Churchill highly respected and valued Louis Botha after the war, he found the Union of South Africa’s first Prime Minister as “an acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude”.

In another strange twist of history, Kmdt Dolf De la Rey was in command of forces attacking the train is also credited with capturing Churchill (amongst others), much later on De la Rey in 1950’s, as an ageing Boer veteran of The South African War, joined Sailor Malan in his Torch protests against the National Party, such is the rich tapestry of Afrikaners against Apartheid.

Prisoner of War

Although the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer, the future British Prime Minister despised his imprisonment “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life”. What frustrated Churchill even more than the loss of control was the possibility that he was missing out on further opportunities for glory. “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement,” he lamented.

Winston Churchill POW

Group of British Prisoners of War, with Churchill on the right. Imperial War Museum image

So, he decided to do something about it and escape, and the ramification of doing so would have massive historical consequence.  Here Winston Churchill himself sums up the randomness and sheer ‘luck’ this would all bring him.

“I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff”.

Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’

In December 1899 Churchill’s plan to escape took shape.  He was held in a prison dedicated to British officers, it was a State Model school in central Pretoria converted to hold Prisoners of War.

He wrote.“The State Model Schools stood in the midst  of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated-iron fence about ten feet high, these boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier” he then adds “No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls”.

In cohorts with two officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Brockie (who was in fact a Sergeant Major who passed himself off as a Lieutenant in order to get better quarters).  They had noticed a ‘blank spot’ in the movements of Boer guards behind the latrines.  After a first attempt at escape was aborted, they had another go the next day.  Churchill was to go first followed by the other two.

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Churchill’s departing note

On the night of his escape, December 12, 1899 Churchill even had the gumption and cheek to leave a ‘Dear John’ departing note on his pillow thanking the Boer Republic for its hospitality, it read in part:

 “… I wish in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown me and the other prisoners by you, the Commandant and Dr Gunning and my admiration of the chivalrous and humane character of the Republican forces.”

‘Churchill entered the small circular lavatory, waited some time monitoring the guards from the lavatory, he waited until the guards had turned their backs and this was his moment, he hesitated twice and then went for it, he scaled the wall and jumped, initially snagging himself on the ornamental metal spikes on top of the wall.

Once free he hid himself in a nearby shrub in the adjacent garden and waited for his partners, who did not arrive, he lay here for an hour with great impatience.  He overheard them speaking in Latin gibberish and mentioning his name, he risked a cough and they told him the game was up on the guard movements and they were not able to join him.

So, there he was, he considered going back and instead undertook to press on with his escape.  The escape was very poorly planned, he had only figured out how to get out of the prison, no real further thought had been given other than to head east. Churchill the ‘fugitive’ had no map, no compass, no intimate local knowledge, no ability to speak the local languages and just “four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pocket for food.  The compass and food had been with his colleagues, but he still possessed a seemingly superhuman level of self-belief that he could safely navigate the 300-mile journey through enemy territory.

On the ‘run’

Contrary to many myths, Churchill did not scarper out of Pretoria as a running fugitive only to ‘forge the mighty Apies’ river to freedom (that was all media hype).  In fact, he casually walked out of Pretoria.  He figured so as not to draw attention to himself he would just amble along in the middle of the road, in full view, humming a tune, pretending to be just a regular ‘Burgher’ on his way home.  He would later joke with Jan Smuts that there was a good chance he just walked straight past him.

Without ‘forging’ any river, he eventually found himself strolling along looking for a railway line, he figured he would follow the easterly tracks, the idea was to get to neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).  When he reached the eastern suburbs of Pretoria he sat down on a small bridge and for a little while contemplated as to how his ‘adventure’ was now panning out.

He resolved to turn South and eventually he struck a railway heading in an easterly direction, following it, all the while reasoning with himself that he would jump aboard a train and hide.  A coal train passed and he jumped aboard hiding amongst the sacks, and promptly went to sleep.  He awoke hungry and thirsty and needed sustenance, and to get a bearing (he was not sure the coal train had in fact run east) so he disembarked by jumping off.

His next effort to find another train proved entire futile, hungry, tired and thirsty he marched on with increasing hopelessness. By now he was desperate, that night he spotted a fire, thought it a Black African hamlet and hoped to fall on their tender mercy.  On approaching the fire, it turned out to be a railway siding and he overheard Dutch-Afrikaans been spoken.  But desperate and miserable he then resolved to ‘give up the game’ and approach a nearby house.  Chuck it all in, whatever comes, he hoped against hope there would be a sympathetic owner to his plight.

Winstons Wanted Poster

Churchill’s ‘Wanted’ Poster

Meanwhile back in Pretoria and in the United Kingdom, news of his escape broke.  The British public and media shifted into a mode that can only be described as ecstatic, news stories broke on the ‘bravery’ of Winston Churchill giving the Boers the old ‘Agincourt salute’!

Good old stiff upper lip resistance stuff – in a sea of negative news on the heavy British battle losses over November and December this made for the only media ‘great news’ and positive propaganda for a public desperately keen on anything good coming from the war to date – and all thanks to only one man – Winston Churchill. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (The South African Republic) , also known as the ‘Transvaal’ Republic (abbreviated ‘ZAR’), went on the man-hunt and immediately put a bounty on Churchill’s head – £25 for the return of Churchill ‘Dead or Alive’.

The Transvaal Police (ZARP) circulated a telegram after Churchill escaped from prison and it gives a very accurate description of Churchill demeanour, it is also very telling of the saga unfolding for Churchill.  It read:

“Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.”

Throwing the dice 

Churchill, now in sheer desperation, cautiously approached the house and knocked on the door.  His odds were really 50/50 and he knew it, to dispel another myth, The South African War was not a clean-cut affair between the British and Afrikaners facing each other.

The South African Republic (ZAR) was rammed full of tens of thousands of mainly British mine workers and managers, who also worked the mining support infrastructure – like rail (they were the cause Britain cited as the Casus Belli for war in the first place), there were more Britons living along the Transvaal gold reef’s towns in the Republic than Boers.  Equally there were more Afrikaners with British Cape Colony citizenship in the Cape Colony than Britons.

At the beginning of the war, English and Afrikaners with citizenships on either side of the fence, if caught siding with one or other cause were generally executed for treason by either the British or Boers – this kept most of them at bay and non-hostile one way or the other. Also, there were many Afrikaners living in the two Boer Republics and most in the Cape Colony who were in fact sympathetic to the British cause, as there were also many English ZAR citizens sympathetic with the Boer cause.  The next phase of Churchill’s ‘adventure’ illustrates this perfectly.

On knocking on the door, a light came on and a man asked in Dutch-Afrikaans “Wie is daar (Whose there)”. Winston went into shock, the game was up, so he immediately lied and said; “I want help; I have had an accident”. The door opened, and the man said in English this time “What do you want?” Not sure of the status of things Winston carried on lying and said; “I am a burgher, I have had an accident. I was going to join my commando at Komati Poort. I have fallen off the train. We were skylarking. I have been unconscious for hours. I think I have dislocated my shoulder”.  He had in all honestly no clue what to say next.

The stranger regarded Winston intently and ushered him in pointing to a room with one hand whilst holding a revolver in the other.  Winston Churchill half expected to be shot in the back of the head there and then.  He chose to come clean and said; “I am Winston Churchill, War Correspondent of the Morning Post. I escaped last night from Pretoria. I am making my way to the frontier. I have plenty of money. Will you help me?”

Now here’s where Winston just got lucky, his host responded; ‘Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Brave words from the host, and here’s why, it turns out that Churchill’s new host was John Howard, an Englishman managing Transvaal Collieries. He had become a naturalised citizen of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and he had bribed the local Boer Field Cornet, so he would not be called up to his Commando and fight the British.  His team was all of British heritage and had been allowed to stay if they remained ‘neutral’.

‘Verraaiers’ (traitors) everywhere!

John Howard and some of his compatriots resolved to hide Churchill under-ground in a nearby coal mine whilst they figured out the next move.  They ran a tremendous risk, had they been caught they would have been shot as traitors and collaborators, especially John Howard who would have been shot outright.

Churchill sat it out in a mine shaft with food provisions given to him, his only company the many rats.  On the fifth day of his escape, John Howard hatched an escape plan for Churchill.  In the neighbourhood of the mine there lived an Afrikaner named Burgener, who was sending a consignment of wool by rail to Delagoa Bay on the 19th December.  Burgener was an Afrikaner ZAR citizen sympathetic to the British cause.

Howard had secretly met with Burgener, told him of Churchill and they agreed to smuggle Churchill into a specially adapted wool bale on the train and take him to safety.  Phew, supreme treason this, had this Boer ‘turncoat’ been caught he would surly have faced a ZAR firing squad or noose.  Burgener was also to accompany Churchill all the way to Portuguese East Arica and safely see him through – now not many people know this part of the narrative, it’s inconvenient to highlight a ‘Afrikaner’ collaborator in all of this.

What all this skullduggery means, the idea of broad partisan loyalty to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’s cause is simply a myth – thousands of ZAR citizens, English and even some Afrikaans were not behind Kruger’s politics or his cabal.

Do you know who I am?

In the middle of the night on the 19th December, Churchill was taken the train loaded with wool bales, Howard pointed the spot made available for Churchill to hide and Winston snuck away into the centre of the specially modified wool bale (with enough space to sit up in), he was given a revolver and food (chicken, meat and bottles of cold tea) – a small space enabled him to see out.  Off the train trekked, final stop, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

Once safely over the border into neutral Portuguese territory, he emerged from his wool bale sang and shouted in jubilation whilst firing his revolver into the air.

Once in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), he carefully disembarked the train and saw Mr Burgener (the Afrikaner who had helped him), Burgener then pointed him to the British Consulate.  He marched in expecting a rousing reception – he got none of it.  Instead a terse British civil servant told him to ‘Be off,‘ the Consulate was closed, he added; ‘The Consul cannot see you to-day. Come to his office at nine tomorrow, if you want anything.’

At this point Churchill spat his dummy in the reception area, in a typical ‘do you know who I am’ rant he demanded to see the Consular who was duly called, happily the weekly streamer to Durban was leaving that night, he embarked immediately and arrived in Durban to the jubilant reception he was expecting.

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Churchill addresses the crowd at Durban following his escape from Pretoria and return via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)

Becoming a ‘Caesar’

In Durban, Sir Redvers Buller was preparing his next push to relieve the siege at Ladysmith, Winston decided he wanted to re-engage his military commission and get into the fight properly as a British Army officer.  His problem, his contract with the Morning Post,which did not allow him as a correspondent to take part in soldering, and Buller who had a strict military only doctrine.  So, he struck a unique agreement with Buller, he would do both jobs, the Morning Post would pay him and the British Army would not.  In another first, Churchill became the world’s first ’embedded’ journalist.

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Colourised portrait of Winston Churchill as part of the South African Light Horse

With that he eagerly found himself back in uniform and off to war, with a lieutenant’s commission in the South African Light Horse.  In his words; “I stitched my badges of rank to my khaki coat and stuck the long plume of feathers from the tail of the sakabulu bird in my hat, and lived from day-to-day in perfect happiness”.

Churchill took part in the famous battle of Spionkop outside Ladysmith from 23-24 January 1900, he acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spionkop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene:“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

He fought a number of skirmishes and battles to relieve Ladysmith, watching the final attack on the Boer position by the Irish Brigade, a desperate affair and out of twelve hundred Irish who assaulted, both colonels, three majors, twenty officers and six hundred soldiers had fallen killed or wounded.  The path to Ladysmith was clear, and Churchill was front and forward riding into Ladysmith in triumph, he said; “We all rode together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out, Ladysmith. It was a thrilling moment”.

This highlights another inconveniently overlooked fact of The South African War (especially in context of Boer and Black concentration camps later in the war), British civilians, women and children included, suffered heavily under Boer siege tactics, they were forced to live in nearby caves and bunkers (in Ladysmith) and in mine shafts (Kimberley) to avoid the indiscriminate shelling of their cities, many died of shrapnel and disease brought about from the ravages of war.  At near starvation they were emancipated.  They were described by their liberators as ‘ghosts’. Churchill’s account of entering Ladysmith recalls; “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome”.

Besides his harrowing images at Ladysmith, in Churchill’s writings during the campaign, he chastised British hatred for the Boer, calling for them to be treated with “generosity and tolerance” and urging a “speedy peace”.  His call was to fall on deaf ears, especially Kitchener’s who only got he ‘speedy peace’ part.

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British dead in their tench on top of Spionkop, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Fighting on into the Orange Free State Republic, he was nearly captured again when he found himself well forward and isolated observing Boer movements, they attacked his position and his horse bolted under fire, Winston ran for his life under heavy fire with bullets whizzing around him, his savour came when another officer rode up to him, gave him a stirrup, hoisted him up, the horse was wounded but they still rode with Winston in tandem out of immediate danger.

He was front and forward again when the British eventually marched on Pretoria in June 1900.  He watched the last Boer fighting forces leaving Pretoria on a train and he and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, took the opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the troops and he rode into Pretoria like a conquering Caesar.  He immediately found his way to the State Model School POW prison, the very prison he had escaped from at the beginning of the war, here he demanded and received the surrender of 52 Boer prison camp guards.  The relieved British officers in the prison produced a British Union Jack (flag), they took down the Transvaal ‘Vierkleur’ and hosted the British Union flag – the first time a British flag re-appeared flying over Pretoria since Pretoria was annexed by Britain as a colony at the invitation of the Boers (see 1st Anglo-Boer War) in 1880, twenty years earlier.

14516334_10154528497944476_6692268421857196301_nAfter the victory in Pretoria, Winston returned to Cape Town and sailed for Britain in July 1900, on the very same ship he had arrived on, the Dunottar Castle. While he had still been in South Africa, his Morning Post despatches had been published as London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and they sold like wildfire.  He arrived a national hero, nearly god-like, adored by millions.

A future fan base

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Portrait of a young Winston Churchill during his MP days, 1904

There’s a lot not to like about Churchill, his warmongering nature and ability to lie at will, dithering between politician, journalist and army officer all for personal advancement for starters.  But there’s a lot to like in addition when you consider this.

What a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure! Think about it; the story starts with bang! The hero heads off to war on an urgent sea passage to the Cape Colony, braving high seas and a tropical storm to get to Durban.  In Natal he then single-handedly saves an entire British armoured train and its troop from certain death.

Captured by a skilful and determined enemy, he then escapes a POW prison in Pretoria with a ‘dead or alive’ bounty on his head, the subject of an extensive man-hunt for 300 miles and eventually – intrigue, he’s smuggled out the country to freedom by a group of traitors.

He promptly then re-joins the fight and takes part in the epic Battle of Spoinkop, then he’s on to relieve the starved and besieged British folk in Ladysmith riding in triumph. He then fights his way up Africa to take the enemies ‘prize,’ the capital city of Pretoria.

In a perfect ending to the adventure our hero races in to relieve imprisoned British comrades from the same prison he escaped from, and it all ends with the raising the first British Union Flag of the war flying high above the conquered capital.

In all the hero risks being shot in the head on more than five separate occasions, bravery on an almost unsurpassed level – all for Queen and Empire.

You could not make this stuff up! How Churchill did not earn a Victoria Cross is a matter of conjecture (and a topic of many discussions). To the average Victorian prepubescent boy this was an epic ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, the difference with fiction, it was all true – and a generation of Churchill fans was born.

A fall from Grace

With a stellar career in front of him, as World War 1 churned on Churchill found himself as the 1st Lord of Admiralty, he asked the Prime Minister “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Churchill, believed he had the solution for breaking the impasse—a second front.

Churchill fancied himself a military strategist, he said. “I have it in me to be a successful soldier. I can visualize great movements and combinations,” He proposed attacking the Dardanelles in Turkey and opening a second front.  This was Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ theory – and ironically he made the same mistake with the Italy Campaign of the Second World War, and like Italy later, Turkey proved a ‘tough old gut’ in World War One.

The Gallipoli campaign was an outright failure, the Battle of Gallipoli became a slaughter and quickly morphed into a stalemate just as bloody, just as pointless as that on the Western Front.

In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post. “I am the victim of a political intrigue,” he cried to a close friend. “I am finished!”

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Churchill (right), back from the trenches in WW1 wearing a French Adrian helmet; the officer to his left is Maj. Archibald Sinclair

Displaying his typical dogmatic determination, he resigned to make good his character, and he did this is a most remarkable way, he joined the Army again and chose to spend his time in his ‘political wilderness’ fighting in front line trenches in France, slogging in the blood and mud as a Lt. Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. After several brushes with death, he returned to politics in 1917 as the Munitions Minister, from his experiences in the front lines he wrote of the urgent need for the armoured ‘tracked caterpillars’ to traverse the mud and ‘no-mans land’ – his involvement with a group of innovators to resolve the problem led to the development of the battle tank and warfare was forever changed.

Destiny 

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon re-joining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germany’s re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged, and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.

It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s Nazi forces at the on-set of the Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern European democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact), and here’s another obscure fact – South Africa had a big role in shaping Churchill, his ‘adventure’ in South Africa took him from a minor politician to a political giant with a near demigod status, even failures like Gallipoli could not unseat his destiny – South Africa both directly and indirectly shaped this future.

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Winston Churchill (Colorised by Mads Madsen)

Related Works and Links

Winston Churchill and Louis Botha: The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

The 1st Boer War; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942

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

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

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

The Transvaal; Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts

My Early Life. A Roving Commission. Author: Churchill, Winston S, published October 1930. The Daring Escape That Forged Winston Churchill by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel, November 2016. Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel. Churchill’s capture and escape – November-December 1899, blog by Robin Smith. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.

“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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Captivity

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.