We remember those that gave the ultimate price, for the freedoms we have today by joining our fellow brothers in arms commemorating our combined histories. South Africa too have a very rich history during the two world wars, which is too many to mention on one page, but hopefully this article can touch an interest for further research.
The ‘Great War’, which began on 28 July 1914 lasted till 11 November 1918, produced a vast number of casualties and deaths – and similarly vast numbers of missing soldiers. South Africa entered WWI on 8 September 1914, on the side of the Allied Forces.
During this time South Africa was a Union, and many soldiers just 14 years previously fought against each other in the Anglo-Boer War. During the First World War many of these old enemies fought side by side in the trenches of the “Western Front”. South Africa sent both black and white soldiers of which all volunteered to fight. White soldiers did the fighting and black soldiers were used as logistic support.
One of the most famous battles was “Delville Wood” in France. On 15 July 1916, the S.A. Infantry Brigade under Major-General H.T. Lukin was ordered to clear the wood at d’Elville, north-east of the village of Longueal, France, of enemy soldiers, thereby covering the flanks of the British Brigade. The South Africans occupied the wood on that day, but the problem was not so much to take the wood, than to hold it. They were given the order to hold the forest at “all cost”. Despite fierce counterattacks and artillery bombardments from German divisions, the SA brigade refused to surrender. The brigade was relieved on 20 July after six days and five nights of ferocious fighting. There was nothing left of the forest other than tree trunks and mud as the shelling by the Germans were estimated at 400 shells a minute!
Only 750 soldiers remained of the Brigade’s 3 433 soldiers, the rest had either been killed or wounded.
The Battle of Delville Wood went down in the history of WWI as an example of supreme sacrifice and heroism and remained the most costly action the South African Brigade fought on the Western Front. The soldiers who fought there referred to it as ‘Devil’s Wood‘ as opposed to Delville Wood. A memorial site was erected in remembrance of those who died in the Battle and was unveiled by the widow of General Louis Botha on 10 October 1926.
146 000 Whites volunteered for service in WW1, while altogether 83 000 Blacks and 2 000 Coloureds did service in non-combatant capacity.
The Sinking of the SS Mendi – “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do … you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers … Swazis, Pondos, Basotho … so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”
– reputed to be the last words of Rev Wauchope Dyobha on the sinking ship SS Mendi
On 21 February 1917, at 05:00, the ship SS MENDI was struck and cut almost in half by the SS Darro, causing the SS MENDI to sink. A total of 607 Black South African soldiers and nine of their fellow countrymen, drowned in the disaster.
South West Africa under German control – In 1915, during South-West Africa Campaign of the First World War, South Africa captured the German colony. After the war, it was declared a League of Nations Mandate territory under the Treaty of Versailles, with the Union of South Africa responsible for the administration of South-West Africa, including Walvis Bay.
WW2 Highlights of South African involvement
The South African Army and Air Force played a major role in defeating the Italian forces of Benito Mussolini during the 1940/1941 East African Campaign. The converted Junkers Ju 86s of 12 Squadron, South African Air Force, carried out the first bombing raid of the campaign on a concentration of tanks at Moyale at 8am on 11 June 1940, mere hours after Italy’s declaration of war.
South African Propaganda Film of WW2
Another important victory that the South Africans participated in was the liberation of Malagasy (now known as Madagascar) from the control of the Vichy French who were allies of the Nazis. British troops aided by South African soldiers, staged their attack from South Africa, landing on the strategic island on 4 May 1942 to preclude its seizure by the Japanese.
The South African 1st Infantry Division took part in several actions in North Africa in 1941 and 1942, including the Battle of El Alamein, before being withdrawn to South Africa to be re-constituted as an armoured division.
The South African 2nd Infantry Division also took part in a number of actions in North Africa during 1942, but on 21 June 1942 two complete infantry brigades of the division as well as most of the supporting units were captured at the fall of Tobruk.
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The South African 3rd Infantry Division never took an active part in any battles but instead organised and trained the South African home defence forces, performed garrison duties and supplied replacements for the South African 1st Infantry Division and the South African 2nd Infantry Division. However, one of this division’s constituent brigades — 7 SA Motorised Brigade — did take part in the invasion of Madagascar in 1942.
The South African 6th Armoured Division fought in numerous actions in Italy in 1944-1945.One of the lesser known incidents is the 6th Armour Divisions engagement with Nazi SS troops that massacred the small town of Marzabotto. The Italian town commemorates their liberation by South African soldiers by hoisting the South African flag every year. They also named a road to the 6th Armoured Division.
The South African Air Force (SAAF) made a significant contribution to the air war in East Africa, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Balkans and even as far east as bombing missions aimed at the Romanian oilfields in Ploie?ti, supply missions in support of the Warsaw uprising and reconnaissance missions ahead of the Russian advances in the Lvov-Cracow area. South Africa contributed to the war effort against Japan, supplying men and manning ships in naval engagements against the Japanese.
Numerous volunteers also flew for the Royal Air Force including “Ace” Sailor Malan. Adolph Gysbert Malan, known as Sailor Malan, was a famed South African World War II RAF fighter pilot who led No. 74 Squadron RAF during the height of the Battle of Britain. Sailor reached the impressive total of 32 enemy aircraft destroyed, with two probable.
Sailor Malan developed 10 rules for fighter combat – rules that are still taught today:
1. Wait until you see the whites of his eyes. Fire short bursts of one to two seconds only when your sights are definitely “ON”
2. Whilst shooting think of nothing else, brace the whole of your body: have both hands on the stick: concentrate on your ring sight.
3. Always keep a sharp lookout. “Keep your finger out”.
4. Height gives you the initiative.
5. Always turn and face the attack.
6. Make your decisions promptly. It is better to act quickly even though your tactics are not the best.
7. Never fly straight and level for more than 30 seconds in the combat area.
8.When diving to attack always leave a proportion of your formation above to act as a top guard.
9. Initiative, aggression, air discipline, and teamwork are words that mean something in Air Fighting.
10. Go in quickly – Punch hard – Get out!
Many South Africans also served in various areas around the world and possibly died with nobody having any recording of their whereabouts.A good example is a South African soldier “discovered” 1981 buried in an American Cemetery. For nearly 50 years World War II soldier Lieutenant Victor Potgieter lay unacknowledged in a common grave in the U.S, until his family learned of his whereabouts in 1981.
The fate of Lieutenant Potgieter, who grew up in Carolina, Mpumalanga, and attended Wits before volunteering for active service in 1940, remained a mystery for half a century. He went missing in 1944 and his family in South Africa did not know his fate until 1981 when they read a newspaper article about an unknown soldier named Potgieter who lay unaccounted for in the United States; most revered military cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
The lieutenant’s brother, Ben Potgieter of Arcadia, told the Pretoria News in 1993 that he believed his brother was involved in a clandestine operation when his plane was shot down and crashed in Greece.”Victor was home on leave from Egypt two months before his death,” Ben Potgieter was quoted as saying. “He told me he had volunteered for a mission and he would be photographing bridges there were to blow up.”When Potgieter was first brought to the United States, all the authorities knew was his name. He was not registered as being on a mission in the area with any army. With no other leads, his headstone was marked as a British soldier.
The first aerial photographs of the Auschwitz death camp were unknowingly taken by Lt Charles Barry during a World War II photo reconnaissance mission over the giant I G Farben Synthetic Oil and Rubber Plant at Monowitz, Poland, five kilometres east of Auschwitz, on 4 April 1944. At the time Lt Barry was a pilot in the well-known 60 (Photo reconnaissance Squadron), South African Air Force (SAAF), operating from San Severo, Italy. He and his navigator Lt Ian McIntyre made the long trip in an unarmed de Havilland Mosquito IX aircraft and were over the target at an altitude of 26 000 feet [7 925 m] for a period of four minutes in the early afternoon.
The story about the “Great Escape”of which a movie was made was one of the most famous escape stories during WW2. Fifty of the 76 escapees were captured and executed on Hitlers direct orders. Of those that were executed, 4 were South Africans.
Lieutenant Johannes S. Gouws – SAAF – Executed by Gestapo
Lieutenant Clement A.N. McGarr – SAAF – Executed by Gestapo
Lieutenant Rupert J. Stevens – SAAF – Executed by Gestapo
Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell RAF (30 August 1910 – 29 March 1944) was a South African born Auxiliary Air Force pilot in Britain who organized and led the famous escape from the Nazi prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft III. The escape was later used as the basis for the film The Great Escape. The character played by Richard Attenborough, Roger Bartlett, is modeled after Roger Bushell. The soldier played by Richard Attenborough in the movie, Was based on South African Roger Bushnell, the brains behind the planning.
Of the 334,000 men volunteered for full-time service in the South African Army during the war (including some
211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks and 46,000 coloureds and Indians), nearly 9,000 were killed in action.
These are just a few interesting individuals or events, with even more remarkable stories out there of many South Africans that contributed to the freedoms many of us are taking for granted today. Lest we forget:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.