“Wounded 27 times”; When re-naming a fighting ship makes sense!

We are usually up in arms when things get re-named in South Africa, as more often than not it’s usually a political motivation that underpins it ahead of actually honouring South Africans highly deserving of it.   But now and again we get it right, and the renaming of the SAS Oswald Pirow in 1997, a South African Navy fighting strike craft, to her new name the SAS René Sethren is a case in point.

So why was Oswald Pirow singled out to get his name taken down from an honour bestowed on him and who the heck is René Sethren?  It’s almost guaranteed that most modern South Africans would have no clue who Sethren was, most would properly just assume he was this or that ‘struggle hero’.

Far from it, Rene Sethren is a hero all South Africans can stand very proud of, but more of him later, what’s the issue with Oswald Pirow?

Oswald Pirow

In a nutshell Oswald Pirow was an Afrikaner Nationalist who served as a Minister of Parliament and Minister of Defence under the nationalist Hertzog coalition.  He was pivotal in creating South African Airways and famously prosecuted Nelson Mandela in the Treason Trial.

But he had a very dark side, he was also an ardent full-blown Nazi, prior to World War 2 he launched the Nazi New Order ideology in South Africa, he adored and met both Hitler and Mussolini, and his disposition to Nazism as an ideology did not end with the end of the war, in fact with the election of the National Party in 1948 he felt more empowered in his beliefs and it ramped up somewhat.

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Oswald Pirow (in civilian dress) inspecting Nazi German forces

After the war Pirow went into collaboration with the infamous British Fascist Party leader Oswald Mosley to write a joint paper on the separate development of white and black races in all of Africa along the lines of white supremacy and black subjugation – the idea to feed ‘white’ African southern states from ‘black’ North African states with exploited migrant labour.

So, naming a South African strike vessel after him was going to be very controversial, it applauded all the old South African Navy veterans and serving personnel who went to war against the very ideology Oswald Pirow followed.  They had watched thousands of South Africans make massive sacrifices including the ultimate one, fighting on British and South African vessels against Nazism, and now they watched an insular nationalist government name a fighting vessel after an ardent flag waving Nazi.

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Oswald Pirow and Oswald Mosley

Not a military man either, Pirow had never served in the military other than to be a Minister of Defence, he had no military credentials and he was hated by the South African jewish community, the war veteran community and South African black community – in fact ‘hated’ would be an understatement.

Hardly a ‘hero’, the naming of his SAN Strike Craft vessels after Ministers of Defence called ‘Minister Class’ would be controversial from the get-go, a simple case of political one-upmanship and the case of Oswald Pirow the nationalists would be seen as rubbing the South African navy veterans noses in it for supporting Britain in World War 2.

So, no surprise really as to why the ‘Minister Class’ of defining strike craft and Oswald Pirow’s name had to go. But thankfully, this time in a breath of fresh air, the South African Navy decided on a simple hero, and not political one-upmanship, when it came to re-naming the SAS Oswald Pirow.  They chose CPO (Stoker) René Sethren, but who the heck is he and what did he do?

René Sethren

sethrenChief Petty Officer (Stoker) René Sethren CGM has a story which is simply jaw dropping to say the least. René Sethren left school after Std 7, a keen boxer and highly astute he joined South Africa’s fledgling navy as a stoker in 1940, rising in rank eventually to Chief Petty Officer (Stoker).

On the 30th June 1941, a small flotilla of ships including South African mine-sweepers is on convoy from Mersa Matruh approaching Tobruk in the midst of the fighting around Tobruk between Rommel’s German and Italian Axis forces and the British and Commonwealth Forces, with South Africans right at the centre of it defending Tobruk and El Alamein.

As they close in on the coast the convoy comes under fire from German shore batteries and is also attacked by a number of German Stuka dive bombers, JU87’s and Messerschmidt 109’s.

Enter one small South African ship, HMSAS Southern Isles, a converted whaler, performing anti submarine, patrol and general support duties in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, and its stoker René Sethren.

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HMSAS Southern Isles

Five German JU-88’s attacked the HMSAS Southern Isles, luckily with no real damage, then came a little lull in the fighting, during which a single JU-87 which had been attacking a convoy merchant called the ‘Cricket’ nearby made a close pass to the HMSAS Southern Isles and was shot down by the Southern Isles’ rear gun.

But that was not the end of it, a bigger and more fierce attack was to come.  The convoy came under attack from 50 enemy aircraft, 8 of which were concentrated on any one ship in the convoy.   The commander of the HMSAS Southern Isles described it as “The sky appeared to rain bombs”.

As a result of this action there are by then a number of casualties on the upper deck. In order to assist those fighting off the attacking Stuka aircraft Chief Petty Officer (Stoker) René Sethren is sent up from his normal station shovelling coal in the engine room, he had been at this task for a 12 full hours.  René is also a qualified reserve machine gunner and he was urgently needed, his best friend who had been manning the ships’ twin Lewis anti-aircraft machine gun was dead lying next to gun. René immediately took over the gun, standing on ammunition boxes to train his gun he starts a non stop volley of fire against the attacking German aircraft.

At this stage a German JU88 aircraft joined the Stuka attack and strafed the ship’s upper deck with its machine guns. Sethren is seen to fall after he was hit by machine gun bullets from the JU88 (he had 8 separate bullet wounds  – read that again – shot 8 times).

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Junkers JU-88

Notwithstanding his wounds he muscles up some superhuman strength and stands up, and unbelievably he again engages the attacking aircraft with the Lewis gun. At the conclusion of the battle Rene Sethren is found to have more than just the eight bullet wounds, in fact medics count a total of 27 wounds in one arm, both legs and his side.

Conspicuous_Gallantry_Medal_(Flying)_(UK)For his actions he is awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal – the highest award won by a South African rating in World War 2, the only South African to be awarded this medal and one of only 243 men who had been awarded the medal prior to that day since its introduction in 1855.

Rene Sethren received his gallantry decoration from King George V. His wounds are so extensive he spends 18 months recovering in hospital, his boxing career over and because of his injuries he is unable to ever go to sea again.

In conclusion

Wow, now that is a man we can stand around of, that is the sort of person we can name a fighting ship after.  No politics, just pure gallantry from a simple rating, an engine stoker – an inspiration to any person serving in the navy.  In every respect the right person to re-name the SAS Oswald Pirow strike craft after.

The Warrior Class South African Ship René Sethren started on her final voyage in October 2001 leaving  Durban harbour for the South African Navy’s fleet headquarters in Simonstown to be finally decommissioned after 22 years of service, with a fitting name to a proud fighting legacy.

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SAS René Sethren

Related Work and Links

Oswald Pirow;  South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow

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

HMSAS Parktown; The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

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

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

HMSAS Southern Floe; ‘A sole survivor and a ship’s crest’; the South African Navy’s first loss – HMSAS Southern Floe

Military Heroes; Tainted “Military Heroes” vs. Real Military Heroes


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References, Day by Day SA Naval History by Chris Bennett. Allan du Toit’s  ‘South African Fighting Ships Past and Present’.

A war memorial in Cape Town which saves children’s lives

Today we look at a small miracle in South Africa which even has the attention of the Princes William and Harry, and it’s a miracle that really captures the imagination.  This miracle is a very special type of war memorial.

Over the years there has been many debates on how to commemorate those who have paid the supreme sacrifice for the country in war. Should a concrete or granite memorial be erected, a wall of remembrance be constructed, maybe a sport pavilion or a ‘living memorial’ that will continue to serve a community.

image3-300x294In South Africa we have two ‘living memorials’, one for the First World War, the annual running of the Comrades Marathon between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, and another for the Second World War, the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. Sadly commonly referred to as the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, so not many people know of its wartime origin and its true intention.

The story of this iconic Cape Town landmark originates from the final days of World War 2, when South African ex-servicemen were waiting to return home from Italy. They had been so moved by the plight of war-torn children, that they contemplated what could best serve as a living memorial to their fallen compatriots.

The idea of a children’s hospital – a place of healing – captured people’s imaginations and gained popularity. Many of the servicemen donated two days of their pay towards this ideal and these funds were held in trust by the South African Red Cross Society who began to champion its establishment.

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Since the Hospital first opened its doors, thousands of desperately sick children have been given back their childhood. Just as the returning World War 2 heroes fought for a better world, brave children at this incredible Hospital fight their own battles every day, to return home to their families and live the lives they were destined for.

The hospital is a beacon of hope and excellence in Cape Town, it is the largest, stand-alone tertiary hospital in sub-Saharan Africa dedicated entirely to the care of sick children. Children are referred from all over the African continent for medical intervention from the dedicated specialists who work tirelessly to heal and cure.

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Diana – a three-year old toddler, who pulled over boiling hot water on herself in 2010 and was hospitalised at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.

So how exactly did this miracle unfold?

The South African Red Cross Society started planning the building at a cost of £700 000. The building committee’s chairman, Vyvyan Watson, was the driving force behind its construction and fundraising. The first public appeal outside the war veterans contributions was launched and a generous response from the Cape Town public resulted in a contribution of £207,000. The rest of the funding was provided by the Cape Provincial Administration.

Building began late in 1953 and the Hospital officially opened its doors in June 1956 with a 90-bed capacity. By 1957 rapidly increasing patient loads necessitated the opening of all the remaining beds, bringing the total to 176 beds, with inpatient admissions at just over 1000 and 36 000 outpatients treated.  This expansion continued with the kind support of private initiative well through the 1980’s and 1990’s to the fine institution and beacon it has become today.

The hospital even has the attention of the Royal family in the United Kingdom, and hosted a visit by both Princes William and Harry on a visit to the hospital in June 2010.

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The hospital’s purpose is best summed up in a memorial plaque at the entrance, it states;

The Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital has been established by the Cape Region of the South African people in World War II 1939-1945. It is hoped that future generations, in their thankfulness for the benefits of this hospital, may be mindful of those in whose memory it has been erected.

In the forecourt of the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital stands a bronze statue of Peter Pan, and it is the location where war veterans annually lay wreaths in memory and appreciation.  The Peter Pan statue was commissioned by the parents of Peter Watson, a four year old who died of diphtheria at a time when there was no specialist children’s hospital in Cape Town.

Related Work and links

Comrades Marathon; A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Comrades Marathon; Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’


Researched by Peter Dickens with much thanks to Charles Ross, images of wreath laying thanks to Liz Linsell.

The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nSouth Africa lost four ships during WW2, all of them minesweepers.  The second one to be lost was the HMSAS Parktown and it has a truly extraordinary fighting legacy.

A small whaler converted to a minesweeper, the “tiny boat” HMSAS Parktown sailed into action in April 1942 in company of another “tiny boat” – the HMSAS Langlaagte, sailing  from Cape Town to the Mediterranean and joining the 167th Minesweeping Group working from Alexandria, Egypt.

Service in the Mediterranean

Parktown had arrived in the Mediterranean from South Africa during May and had sailed from Alexandria on 9 June as part of the escort for a convoy bound for Tobruk. During the passage the convoy is attacked and Parktown is involved in the gallant rescue of 28 survivors from a ship that had been sunk, many of whom are badly burnt. After their arrival in Tobruk on 12 June Parktown and her consort, a fellow South African ship the HMSAS Bever under the command of Lt P A North, are tasked to keep the approaches to Tobruk clear of mines.

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HMSAS Parktown

Fall of Tobruk 

At that time Tobruk was under siege and by 20 June it is clear that a crisis of some kind is imminent. Late that same afternoon Parktown and Bever are ordered to enter harbour to embark evacuation parties. At 20:00 that evening they watch the Axis forces entering the western end of town and then reach the harbour shortly afterwards.

These two South African minesweepers were to distinguish themselves during the Allied evacuation from Tobruk fighting their way out of the harbour.  The Bever and Parktown fought side by side as they were loading up with as many Allied and South African troops and equipment as they could take, all the time whilst Rommel’s German forces closed in around them. The rapidity of the attack caused great confusion, however, the ships still manage to embark most of the men allocated to them before they sail.

On 20 June 1942 General Rommel’s “Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee” (German and Italian Tank Army) attacked the Tobruk garrison from the south and south east. By 18:00, the German and Italian forces had overrun the main defence lines and were closing on the harbour and all Allied ships were ordered to embark personnel for evacuation.

The escape 

By 19:00 German tanks and armoured cars were within the town and started shelling the ships in the harbour. HMSAS Bever received a direct hit as she cast off.  Next is The Parktown and her escape is also quite remarkable.

Using her machine guns she checks the advance of the enemy land forces whilst embarking a further 60 men, even though hit by shell fire. As she is casting off, more men keep arriving and several try to swim to the ship. A few are hauled on board, some assisted by one of the ship’s company, Able Seaman P J Smithers, who swims to their assistance. However in the confusion of sailing A/B Smithers is left behind to be captured and placed in an Italian POW camp.

As the last Allied ship to leave Tobruk, Parktown attracts a tremendous concentration of fire as she steams out at full speed. Although she is hit several times, no hit causes fatal damage to the ship and only one man, an army NCO, is killed.

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Rommel and his Panzers enter Tobruk

The Fall of Tobruk

Under cover of a smoke screen laid by a motor torpedo boat, but still receiving shell-fire from the town, the two ships left the harbour for the open sea. During the night off Tobruk port the Parktown and Bever became separated and the Parktown goes to the assistance of a disabled tug, also crowded with men.

The sinking of the HMSAS Parktown

After taking it in tow Parktown is only able to make five knots (9.3 Km/h) and thus gets left behind by the rest of the fleet. At daybreak on the 21 June they are still only 50 miles from Tobruk and can see the coast 14 miles away with a heavy fog bank to seaward.  At 06:45 Parktown’s crew sighted what they described as an Italian “MAS” torpedo boat (E-Boat), which had been directed to the slow moving vessel by a German reconnaissance aircraft.  The Parktown then turns north towards the fog bank, only to be confronted by four more E-boats at close range. Fire is immediately opened by both sides.

The E-boats using their higher speed and longer range guns open the range and attack from different directions. Even though Parktown, having only one 20mm Oerlikon, was heavily out matched, one or two of the E-boats appear to be hit by her fire and end up temporarily out of control.

However, within 30 minutes, completely outnumbered and outgunned the Parktown suffers sufficient damage to put her completely out of action.  The Captain, Lieutenant Leslie James Jagger and the coxswain are killed by a direct hit to the Bridge as well as a Royal Navy officer on passage.  Within 15 minutes Parktown was stationary with a hole in the boiler, half of the crew and evacuated soldiers as casualties, out of ammunition and with the upper deck on fire. The only surviving officer, Sub-Lieutenant E R Francis, although himself severely wounded, takes charge and orders the ship to be abandoned as a fire is spreading rapidly and no guns remain in action.

In the aftermath it is noticed that the E-boats appear to be firing at the men in the water, however a plane, which was thought to be German, appears and heads towards the E-boats where it then circles over them and opens fire on them, after which they make off at high speed.

The remaining crew and soldiers abandoned ship and clung to carley floats. At this time, an aircraft drove off the hostile ships. The tug which had been in tow had not been engaged by the E-boats and managed to rescue some of the survivors and some of the remaining survivors were rescued by an Allied Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) which found them close to the burning minesweeper. The Allied MTB then sank the burning wreck of the Parktown with depth charges before returning to Mersa Matruh that evening.

Accounts on the final hour of the Parktown differ:

Orpen states that the Italian ships were driven off by a South African aircraft. He also records there being four Italian torpedo boats involved in the action.

Du Toit states that there were six Italian torpedo boats involved and that the aircraft was in fact a German aircraft which erroneously attacked the Italian ships.

Harris supports the fact that there were four torpedo boats and states that the German aircraft deliberately attacked the Italian vessels as they were firing on survivors in the water.

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Camouflaged Italian World War II MAS that sunk the HMSAS Parktown (Motoscafo Armato Silurante – Italian: “Torpedo Armed Motorboat”)

Out of her complement of 21, Parktown suffered 13 casualties; five killed and eight seriously wounded.

Decorations and awards won

In this action alone the HMSAS Parktown’s crew would amass the following decorations and awards (we will leave the account of the HMSAS Bever to another post on her and her loss in November 1944 specifically):

Distinguished Service Order, D.S.O 
Sub-Lieutenant Ernest Rowland Frances (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown).
Comes from Krugersdorp. Age 34. Was in Training Ship General
Botha, 1923-23. Badly wounded during Tobruk withdrawal.

Distinguished Service Medal, D.S.M.
No 66921. Leading-Stoker John Charles Rohlandt (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown).
Home. address, 12, Hillyard-street. Woodstock.
No 71431. Leading-Stoker Leslie Ronald Mitchell (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown).
Home address. 16, Wesley-street. Observatory. Before war was
employed by Customs Department, Cape Town
No. 71048. Able-Seaman George Kirkwood (H.M.SA.S. Parktown).
Comes from Maraisburg. Transvaal. Was a miner in peace time.

Mentioned in Dispatches (Posthumous)
Lieutenant Leslie James Jagger (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown) Came from Johannesburg, was killed during this operation.

No. 71464. Stoker Andrew Henry Jooste (H.M.S.A.S. Parktown). Comes from Vrededorp Johannesburg. Age 21. A gold miner before joining Seaward Defence.

The honour roll  – HMSAS Parktown (SANF),

The following South African men were lost with the sinking of the Parktown (MPK means “missing presumed killed”)

BROCKLEHURST, Peter S, Able Seaman, 70457 (SANF), MPK
COOK, John A, Stoker 1c, 70256 (SANF), MPK
JAGGER, Leslie J, Lieutenant SANF, 70016 (SANF), MPK
MCEWAN, William A, Steward, 69686 (SANF), MPK
TREAMER, Arthur P, Petty Officer, 71109 (SANF), MPK

May these brave South Africans Rest in Peace, their duty done.

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For more Observation Post stories on South African minesweepers lost in World War 2, please visit the following links:

HMSAS Southern Floe: The HMSAS Southern Floe was the SA Navy’s first ship loss & it carries with it a remarkable tale of survival.

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

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


Researched by Peter Dickens. References: Article essence copied from Wikipedia, Military History Journal Vol 9 No 1 – June 1992. THE STORY OF A WARSHIP’S CREST by F V Demartinis and Day-to-Day in the SA Navy by Chris Bennett (social media). SOUTH AFRICAN NAVAL FORCE
Ship Histories, Convoy Escort Movements, Casualty Lists 1939-1947

 

The ‘2 minutes silence’ is a South African gift to the Act of Remembrance

Many people do not know that the two minutes silence and its association to Armistice Day (11/11/11) or Remembrance Sunday has a South African origin.  It is one of our greatest gifts to humankind, yet most South Africans are completely oblivious of it.

The featured image taken in 1918 is a rare and unique one, it shows South African civilians stopping what they are doing in the middle of Cape Town and standing to attention for two minutes silence, signalled when the noon day gun was fired.  Not common today in Cape Town but a daily occurrence during war years.  So how did this unique practice become a worldwide standard for remembrance?

Read on and learn a little why South Africans should stand proud of what they have given the world; when on Remembrance Sunday and on Armistice day in November, the western world stands silent in remembrance for two minutes … and take heart that this entire ceremony has South African roots.

The end of Word War 1 – Armistice Day 11/11/11

BgtOUCICMAAvwfLAt 05.30 in the morning of 11 November 1918 the Germans signed the Armistice Agreement in a remote railway siding in the heart of the forest of Compiègne. Soon wires were humming with the message : ‘Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today November 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour…’.Thus, at 11.00 on 11 November 1918 the guns on the Western Front in France and Flanders fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare, warfare that had witnessed the most horrific casualties.World War One (then known as the Great War) had ended.

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South African troops in a support trench on the Western Front, Fresenberg Ridge, 22 September 1917

The time and date attained an important significance in the post war years and the moment that hostilities ceased became universally associated with the remembrance of those that died in that and subsequent wars and conflicts. The Two Minutes silence to remember all who paid the supreme sacrifice was a result of this expression… and it all began in Cape Town, South Africa.

Cape Town’s unique remembrance during WW1 

When the first casualty lists recording the horrific loss of life in the Battles of the Somme were announced in Cape Town, Mr JA Eagar, a Cape Town businessman, suggested that the congregation of the church he attended observe a special silent pause to remember those in the South African casualty list. It was the church also attended by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick the famous South African author of “Jock of the Bushveld”.

In May 1918, the Mayor of Cape Town, Councillor H. Hands (later Sir Harry Hands) at the suggestion made by Mr. RR Brydon, a Cape Town City Councillor, in a letter to the Cape Times initiated a period of silence to remember the events unfolding on the battlefields of Europe and the sacrifices being made there. Mr Brydon’s son, Maj Walter Brydon, three times wounded and once gassed, was killed on 12 April 1918.

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Cape Town’s noon day gun

The pause would follow the firing of the Noon Gun (a tradition instituted in 1902 and fired everyday at 12:00 from Signal Hill), simply put the gun was the most audible signal with which to co-ordinate the event across the city of Cape Town.

The boom of the gun signalling the midday pause of three minutes was heard for the first time on 14 May 1918.  It became the signal for all activity in the Mother City to come to a halt. Everything came to a dead stop while everyone bowed their heads in silent prayer for those in the trenches in Flanders.

As soon as the city fell silent, a trumpeter on the balcony of the Fletcher and Cartwright’s Building on the corner of Adderley and Darling Streets sounded the Last Post, the melancholy strains of which reverberated through the city. Reveille was played at the end of the midday pause.

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Rare photo of the midday pause in Cape Town – 1918

Articles in the newspapers described how trams, taxis and private vehicles stopped, pedestrians came to a halt and most men bared their heads. People stopped what they were doing at their places of work and sat or stood silently. The result of the Mayor’s appeal exceeded all expectations.

One journalist witnessing the midday pause described a young woman dressed in black, who came to a halt on the pavement and furtively dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “One could not but wonder what personal interest she had in the act of remembrance”, he wrote.

A few days later Sir Harry, whose son, Capt Richard Hands, a member of ‘Brydon’s Battery’, had been mortally wounded in the same battle in which Maj Brydon had been killed, decided to shorten the duration of the pause to two minutes, “in order to better retain its hold on the people”.

In terms of the meaning of “two minutes” it was also argued that the first minute is for thanksgiving for those that survived war and the second minute is to remember the fallen.

There is even an eye-witness account of the midday pause in 1918 which eloquently outlines the event – see the Observation Post story on it by following this link: The 2 minutes silence; an eye witness account of South Africa’s unique gift to Remembrance

The midday pause continued daily in Cape Town and was last observed on 17 January 1919, but was revived in Cape Town during the Second World War.  This is another rare photo of soldiers and civilians paused and standing at attention for two minutes of silence on Cape Town’s streets in 1942.

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Rare photo of the midday pause of Remembrance in Cape Town during World War 2 – 1942

Today, the tradition of the midday gun has continued, as any Capetonian can attest – regular as clockwork it goes off at 12:00, and although the pause is no longer part of the ritual in Cape Town, the idea of the ‘pause’ for two minutes remembrance has survived.

That this ritual survived is by no means in a small way either, but in such a way that it now concludes how we as modern human beings in the western world remember the war dead and sacrifice.  It started when it became the official two minute ‘pause’ throughout Britain and the British Commonwealth from 11 November 1919, and here is how that came about, and once again – surprise – we have a South African from Cape Town right at the centre of it.

Step in Sir Percy Fitzpatrick 

Now, back to Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.  He had been impressed by the period of silence kept in his local church after the horrific loss of life at Delville Wood became known and the casualty lists had been read out. He had a personal interest in the daily remembrance as his son, Maj Nugent Fitzpatrick, battery commander of 71st Siege Battery, was killed on 14 December 1917 by a chance shell fired at long range.

Sir Percy was understandably deeply affected by the loss of his favourite son and was also so moved by the dignity and effectiveness of the two minute pause in Cape Town that the date and time of the Armistice inspired him to an annual commemoration on an Imperial basis.

The King Decrees 

Sir Percy then wrote to Lord Milner and described the silence that fell on the city during this daily ritual. Taking into consideration that the guns of war finally fell silent at 11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month (November), Sir Percy felt that the idea of observing the two-minute silence at that time and on that date, would give the Act of Homage great impact, and proposed that this became an official part of the annual service on Armistice Day.

The meaning behind Sir Percy’s proposal was stated as:

It is due to the women, who have lost and suffered and borne so much, with whom the thought is ever present.
It is due to the children that they know to whom they owe their dear fought freedom.
It is due to the men, and from them, as men.
But far and away, above all else, it is due to those who gave their all, sought no recompense, and with whom we can never re-pay – our Glorious and Immortal Dead.

Sir Percy’s letter was received by Lord Milner on November 4, 1919, reviewed and accepted by the War Cabinet on November 5, and was immediately approved by King George V.

George V, then King of the United Kingdom, shortly afterwards on the 7th November 1919, proclaimed by decree.

“Tuesday next, November 11, is the first anniversary of the Armistice, which stayed the worldwide carnage of the four preceding years and the victory of Right and Freedom. I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the meaning of the Great Deliverance, and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.

To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of their feeling, it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice comes into force, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, there may be for a brief space of two minutes, a complete suspension of all our normal activitiy that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.

Sir Percy when he heard the news that his suggestion had reached the King stated: “I was so stunned by the news that I could not leave the hotel. An hour or two afterwards I received a cable from Lord Long of Wexhall: ‘Thank you. Walter Long.’ Only then did I know that my proposal had reached the King and had been accepted and that the Cabinet knew the source.”

Later, Sir Percy was thanked for his suggestion of the two minute silence by Lord Stamfordham, the King’s Private Secretary who wrote:

Dear Sir Percy,
The King, who learns that you are shortly to leave for South Africa, desires me to assure you that he ever gratefully remembers that the idea of the Two Minute Pause on Armistice Day was due to your initiation, a suggestion readily adopted and carried out with heartfelt sympathy throughout the Empire.
Signed – Stamfordham

And so the tradition of 2 minutes of silence during remembrance occasions was born, a unique South African gift to world, a simple peaceful gesture that in deep solitude remembers the end of all war – not the beginning.

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Story and images researched by Peter Dickens.

Image copyrights include The Imperial War Museum and “The Celebration of Peace” Booklet, issued in 1919 by the Cape Town Peace Celebrations committee for distribution throughout the Schools of the Cape Peninsula.

The Great Escape … was led by a South African!

Those watching ‘The Great Escape’ re-run on British television this long Christmas weekend – thinking it was an all American and British affair, here’s some more back of the Chappie gum wrapper trivia – the mastermind behind it was a South African, and the escape had very little to do with Americans.

ffdf05478514b3273afec71b503fc0f8Here is another great South African (seen here at Stalag Luft III). Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell RAF – AAF (30 August 1910 – 29 March 1944) was an Auxiliary Air Force pilot who organised and led the famous escape from the German prisoner of war camp, and also victim of the Stalag Luft III murders when participants in the famous escape were executed by the German Gestapo.

The escape was used as the basis for the film The Great Escape. The character played by Richard Attenborough, Roger Bartlett, is modelled on Roger Bushell. The story about the “Great Escape” was one of the most famous escape stories during WW2.  The Great Escape movie is now an institution in The United Kingdom and the United States.  Made famous by the swagger of Steve McQueen and his fictional attempted escape attempts culminating in a cross-country motorbike chase (McQueen’s preferred sport) with Nazi Germans in pursuit.

The backdrop of the movie is however a true story and it involves a South African as its leader and not a plucky Briton.

The Real Story of The Great Escape

In the spring of 1943, Roger Bushell masterminded a plot for a major escape of Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III. Being held in the north compound where British airmen were housed, Bushell as commander of the escape committee channelled the escape effort into probing for weaknesses and looking for opportunities. Falling back on his legal background to represent his scheme, Bushell called a meeting of the escape committee in the camp and not only shocked those present with its scope, but injected into every man a passionate determination to put every energy into the escape. He declared,

“Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

The simultaneous digging of these tunnels would become an advantage if any one of them were discovered by the Germans, because the guards would scarcely imagine that another two could be well under way. The most radical aspect of the plan was not merely the scale of the construction, but also the sheer number of men that Bushell intended to pass through these tunnels. Previous attempts had involved the escape of anything up to a dozen or twenty men, but Bushell was proposing to get over 200 out, all of whom would be wearing civilian clothes and possessing a complete range of forged papers and escape equipment. It was an unprecedented undertaking and would require unparalleled organisation. As the mastermind of the Great Escape, Bushell inherited the codename of “Big X”. The tunnel “Tom” began in a darkened corner of a hall in one of the buildings. “Harry”‘s entrance was carefully hidden under a Stove. The entrance to “Dick” had a very well concealed entrance in a drainage sump. More than 600 prisoners were involved in their construction.

Bushell also organised another mass break out, which occurred on 12 June 1943. This became known as the Delousing Break, when 26 officers escaped by leaving the camp under escort with two fake guards (POWs disguised as guards) supposedly to go to the showers for delousing in the neighbouring compound. All but two were later recaptured and returned to the camp, with the remaining two officers being sent to Oflag IV-C at Colditz for attempting to steal an aircraft.

After the discovery of Tom, construction on Harry was halted. but it resumed in January 1944. On the evening of 24 March, after months of preparation, 200 officers prepared to escape. But things did not go as planned, with only 76 officers managed to get clear of the camp. Among those left behind was 21-year-old RAF Flight Lieutenant Alan Bryett, who refers to Bushell as “the bravest man I ever knew”.

Roger and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer, among the first few to leave the tunnel, successfully boarded a train at Sagan railway station. They were caught the next day at Saarbrücken railway station, waiting for a train to Alsace, which had been annexed from France by Germany.

Bushell and Scheidhauer were murdered three days later by members of the Gestapo.  This was a breach of the Geneva Convention and so constituted a war crime. The perpetrators were later tried and executed by the Allies. Fifty of the 76 escapees were killed in the Stalag Luft III murders on Hitler’s direct orders.

In an ironic twist Bushell’s executioner was himself executed at the end of the war for his crime (see this story on the Observation Post As they like to say in the military “Karma is a Bitch!”).

It unfortunately was not just Roger Bushell as a South African to suffer this fate, three more South Africans participated and escaped with Roger Bushell in The Great Escape. Lieutenants Gouws, Stevens and McGarr (all South African Air Force) were also recaptured and executed illegally by the Gestapo.

Bushell was posthumously mentioned in Despatches on 8 June 1944 for his services as a POW.  This award was recorded in the London Gazette dated 13 June 1946. His name also appears on the war memorial in Hermanus, South Africa, where his parents spent their last years and where they were buried.

Roger Bushell was born in Springs South Africa on the 30th November 1910.  He was first schooled in Johannesburg at Park Town School but later moved to England, and in 1929 he spent his first year at Cambridge University where he studied law. His talents however extended far beyond a career in law, as an athlete he had the honour of representing the University, both as a skier and rugby player. He excelled at skiing and during the early 1930’s he was declared the fastest Briton in the downhill category.

In South Africa the memory of Roger Bushell lives on in Hermanus. His name is among those on the War Memorial above the Old Harbour, Roger’s parents were living in Hermanus at the time of his death and his parents also made a presentation to the Hermanus High School, in remembrance of their son who (incidentally) could speak nine languages. The two coveted Roger Bushell prizes for character are still awarded annually at the prize-giving of the school. One prize is awarded annually to the student who has shown the most exemplary signs of character during the year and second one is for the school boy chosen by his fellow students as the best leader.

Roger Bushell’s memorial plaque on the War Memorial in Hermanus, South Africa.


Researched by Peter Dickens, with reference and help from Buskruit Burger and Sandy Evan Hanes.

Sailor Malan; in his own words!

Sailor Malan – a true South African WW2 flying ace and national hero “in his own words” – and here is a very rare recorded interview with him.

This is a fantastic historical record of a personal interview with the great WW2 South African fighter ace Adolph “Sailor” Malan, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar.

Note in this recording, clearly taken as a public relations exercise to install confidence in the British public in the Royal Air Force and it’s pilots by the public broadcaster (there were a series of these interviews involving other pilots).  Because of this, Sailor Malan comes across as a little over-confident and quite flippant.  Its intentional and designed to make killing Germans sterile and combat adventurous.

He also adopts a very plummy British ‘officers’ accent so common to the tone and manner of speaking of this particular officer class during the war, both in Britain and in the Commonwealth.  His ‘flat vowel’ South African accent sneaks in here and there, but in all Malan was a very well-educated and travelled man and his command of the English language was exemplary (as was his command of Afrikaans).

Also noteworthy is Sailor Malan’s WW2 era cultural expressions, delivery and sayings which were so typical to Allied Air Force officers at the time – terms like:

“Hun” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term insinuating barbarism dating to the First World War.
“Squirt” – meaning a short burst of gun or cannon fire.
“Jerry” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term pertinent to the Second World War.
“Pumping Lead” – meaning a high rate of machine gun or cannon fire ‘pumped’ into the enemy to kill him
“Tally Ho” – a British fox-hunting term meaning to spot a target and call to action.
“Cut yourself a slice of cake” – a favourite term used by Sailor Malan (and other pilots) meaning to get into the fight and have a piece of the action.

Related work on Sailor Malan:

Sailor Malan’s role in the Battle of Britain and the Torch Commando: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Sailor Malan’s Ten Rules of Air Combat: ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan

The Torch Commando – footage and history: The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!


Researched and written by Peter Dickens

Reference: YouTube.  Painting by Derrick Dickens, copyright Peter Dickens.  Photograph copyright – Imperial War Museum