Let's not forget SA's role in WW2

Rodney Warwick writes on the enduring failure of post-1948 governments to properly commemorate our part in that war

The 11 November Remembrance Day, last month, has once again come and gone. Next year there will be fewer World War Two veterans until they finally will, as the old saying goes: "Just fade away". Growing up in Bergvliet, Cape Town during the 1970s I increasingly became more aware of the significance of the MOTH hall across the road from the primary school, property of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats, the oldest South African military veterans association.

A friend's father had been a founder member of this "Shell Hole" as MOTHS refer to their different establishments. He had served throughout World War Two as a sergeant in the SA Signals Corps during the North African and Italian campaigns.

Each year on Remembrance Day these war veterans would march through the suburb with their medals pinned on their black jackets while carrying the MOTHS colours. Inside the "Shell Hole" grounds, much to schoolboys' fascination, were two war-era howitzers and a Marmon-Herrington armoured car with the turret's swivel still operational.

Nearby was a stone structure where a steel helmet was positioned behind glass with an electric light permanently burning on a smelted candle. Back then many of these veterans were still working men; being in their sixties, fifties, and even late forties.

Now I have reached that age group of four decades ago. The youngest of those few remaining World War Two soldiers, would be 87 - if he had served in the 6th SA Armoured Division in Italy at age 18 during 1945, the last year of the war.

In other parts of the world, very significant commemorations were organised around the war's 70th anniversary: in Europe and elsewhere at sites where the most tumultuous battles were fought: D-Day in Normandy, France; Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) in the then Soviet Union amongst many others.

The D-Day Anniversary in June this year included mass military involvement, including a drop by members of the British Parachute Regiment accompanied by an 87 year old paratrooper veteran who seven decades previously had made exactly the same jump but into battle.

The D-Day commemorations were also marked by the presence of significant world leaders and surviving veterans. By contrast the public remembrance of South Africa's World War Two dead is meagre; or at least certainly at an official level from the ANC government.

In South Africa after the war, with some exceptions, rather than erecting new memorials to the fallen, inscriptions were often added to structures already commemorating the First World War dead. Local examples include the recently vandalised Cape Town Cenotaph and other Cenotaphs in Johannesburg and Durban, besides numerous other war monuments; plaques within Anglican churches and the Honour Rolls of the fallen prominently located in traditional Boys Schools. Considering the sheer immensity of a global war seven decades ago involving over 100 counties, accounting for perhaps as many as 61 million dead, South Africa's military involvement was obviously comparatively very small next to say: the USA or USSR.

Quantifiably South Africa suffered approximately 11 000 war dead from the 334 000 men and women who volunteered and then, as now, racially based population statistics were kept and these broke down roughly into 221 000 whites, 77 000 blacks and 46 000 Coloureds and Indians.

From where did this contemporary hiatus of popular historical knowledge regarding our World War Two involvement originate? It has been a feature of this country's political history and culture that its racial/cultural/language conflicts have often produced one-dimensional historical texts intolerant of detail which does not "fit" the prevailing ideology of the day.

In the traditional Afrikaner nationalist interpretations found within the history textbooks of my school days, the ruling nationalists - who had early opposed South African involvement in the war - attempted as far as politically practical to play down the history of Union Defence Force (UDF) members who had served alongside other British Commonwealth countries and Americans against the German and Italian fascists.

These white South African political conflicts of the twentieth century therefore provide us with part of the explanation. Afrikaner nationalist politicians led by Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog called for South African neutrality in 1939 and once in opposition from the same year, the National Party under Dr D. F. Malan maintained this stance throughout the war.

The neo-Nazi Ossewabrandwag (OB) had thousands of members and was well represented in the South African Police, forming a potentially highly dangerous fifth column within South Africa state structures. The OB's Stormjaers - an armed wing, committed numerous acts of treason through sabotage, while their members often attacked off-duty soldiers in city or town streets, leading to several deaths and injuries on both sides.

The NP government from 1948 cautiously distanced itself from the OB, however its main concern with the UDF was to Afrikanerize it as thoroughly and quickly as practical. This task was taken on by the unpopular and incompetent defence minister Frans Erasmus; supported by lackeys like the war "refusenik" Afrikaner nationalist Rudolf Hiemstra, who ultimately rose to the SADF Commandant-General position during 1965-73.

In response to the National Party racial policies and most specifically the disenfranchisement of the Coloured community in the Cape, the War Veterans Torch Commando organization was formed. Under its President, Boland-born RAF fighter pilot ace "Sailor" Malan, it shook the NP government during the early 1950s with a huge membership and impressive torchlight city demonstrations. Sadly the Torch Commando disintegrated following the United Party's 1953 election defeat, as Afrikaners were drawn to the NP's nationalistic and racialist clarion call.

For decades the MOTHS included numerous World War Two ex-servicemen, but of course time has taken its toll and very few of these remain, with the organization and its assets largely now run by SADF Border War veterans. The various MOTH ‘shellhole' locations usually contain small museums filled with World War Two memorabilia. But unless one has some personal historical background, World War Two remembrance, let alone that of the 1914-18 Great War, is increasingly distant, even from the affairs of such veteran forums. The MOTHS do however still religiously participate at every annual Remembrance Day service, while some additional annual commemorations now also exist concerning the Border War fallen.

Regarding popular historical dissemination, South Africa's war exploits received the minimum of public attention or exposure after 1945. The government-sponsored early 1950s Union War Histories project, originally commissioned by former Prime Minister Field Marshall Jan Smuts, was wound up by 1960 due to official lack of funding, interest and obstructive red tape.

Of the three meticulously researched volumes that appeared in the late 1950s, none were translated into Afrikaans, despite the fact that at least half of the white volunteers during the North African campaign were Afrikaners, besides a good proportion of those who later served in Italy.  In state school syllabi the government education departments made little place for World War Two in history teaching. The attitude was that if it had been a war the National Party had not supported, they were not interested in teaching it either.

A later series of general books, published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, covered the South Africa's forces history during World War Two, while several others including the 1990s Ashanti series followed. There are also of course many personal and regimental histories.

The best most recent (2012) general account concerns the history of the 6th SA Armored Division in Italy: Come Back to Portofino by Johannesburg-based James Bourhill, the son of a "6th Div" veteran. In short, although much work still needs to done, at the critical level of archival-referenced written history, South Africa's World War Two legacy is reasonably safe.

When it comes to popular historical understandings however, as propagated by the state and media, the official disinterest in South Africa's involvement in World War Two continued after 1994. The contemporary reality is that African nationalists of various political groupings - whether ANC, EFF or those concealed within the SACP - are addicted to understanding the past in dogmatic black and white terms.

A typical example of this is SADTU's recent call for school history to inculcate "patriotism"; where only local "struggle" history (as "patriotism") is apparently worthy of study. Such logic was no doubt in the vandal's thoughts as he/she spray-painted "disown this heritage" across the Cape Town Cenotaph three weeks ago.

Sometime earlier - 2009, the war memorial in Observatory, Cape Town bore an even more blunt vandal's message: "F.... your white wars". For all the crass historical ignorance such acts of public desecration display; it is actually more than likely anti- white South African racial antipathy which is at the root of such attitudes.

Proponents of the above "historical perspective" have long trotted out that only white troops were armed and fought; a claim not entirely true. This is clearly illustrated by former senior SADF officer Lieutenant-General Ian Gleeson's landmark book The Unknown Force, published in 1994, and still the best general historical work detailing the service of black and coloured South African soldiers during World War Two.

The book title's point was that these men's historical record had up to 1994 been largely marginalised, although not completely ignored within the Union war histories and other works on the UDF during 1939-45. Indeed, Gleeson used some of these as references, but he also delved significantly into archives and other sources.

SADTU history teachers should rise above their various prejudices and study Gleeson's work, for the men he wrote about are as much part of Remembrance Days as their white comrades, and none of the latter today would deny it.

But for those few veterans still with us it is right to particularly honour them during remaining Remembrance Days. It is 70 years ago since 1944-45, when the 6th SA Armoured Division fought alongside the Allies in Italy. The "6th Div" was formed in 1943 out of desert campaign veterans and more recent volunteers.

Amongst these were men later to become prominent in South African public life: Lieutenant Michael Corbett, later Chief Justice who swore Mandela into presidential office in 1994; Corporal Colin Eglin, long-standing prominent Member of Parliament and sometimes leader of the South African parliamentary liberal democratic opposition; Corporal Gavin Relly - the 1980s head of Anglo-American, Captain Guy Butler, a Rhodes University academic, poet, playwright and authority on English South African identity and literature; Gunner Rodney Davenport later the doyen of South African liberal historians; future Justice Cecil Margo who served as a bomber pilot in the SA Air Force.

Sapper Joe Slovo was a member of the SA Engineering Corps - although he sneered in his autobiography at his South African military service and never saw any action - while another SA Communist Party member, Lionel Bernstein - the man who actually wrote the 1955 Freedom Charter - was a gunner in the artillery.

The 6th Div started arriving in Italy in April 1944 after its extensive training in the Egyptian desert, terrain completely different to the close hilly countryside where it would operate. The sharp end of the Italian campaign would be anything but a holiday. But unlike the South African troops of the desert campaign who had sorely lacked their own independent tank force, the 6th Div had a powerful armour component of American-built Sherman tanks.

The infantry - who were actually often the more required military component for Italian terrain- were equipped with American Thompson sub-marine guns of 1920s Chicago gangster ill-fame, besides their ubiquitous British .303 Lee-Enfield rifles and Bren light machine guns.

SA artillery included the British 5.5 inch gun besides the 25 pounder guns, well used during the desert campaign. Certainly the "6th Div" was far better prepared for war than the South African soldiers who had left four years earlier for East and North Africa.

The division was commanded by Major-General Evered Poole - originally from Cape Town; a career soldier well respected by his men and later disgracefully side lined from attaining the top rank in the UDF for political reasons thanks to the incoming National Party government in 1948.

The 6th SA Division's campaign in Italy makes for complicated reading and Bourhill's book is an excellent place to start. In short, the South Africans fought their way up through Italy and endured some of the toughest combat of the campaign: Constant ambushes; occupying fixed positions while bombarding retreating German forces, until the final assaults in occupied peaks like Mount Sole in April 1945.

It was in this area that in early October 1944, German SS troops had started massacring Italian civilians suspected of helping Italian partisans. South African troops arrived in the nick of time and drove the German forces back.

In 2007 the Italian town of Marzabotto honoured the 6th SA Armoured Division by naming a new street after them. This road connects Castiglioni dei Pepoli and surrounding areas via the Bologna-Modena highway; the same landscape the South Africans fought across 70 years ago and where many are buried; particularly in the Castiglioni South African cemetery. Here Prime Minister Smuts unveiled an inscription to their honour: "To Save Mankind Yourselves You Scorned to Save" or the Afrikaans which reads: "Om Die Mensdom Te Dien Het Jul Veiligheid Versmaad".

Two personalised incidents highlight the kinds of sacrifices the South Africans made in Italy: Lieutenant-Colonel Angus Duncan, 35, the officer commanding the Cape Town Highlanders infantry regiment in 1945, was a volunteer like virtually all of his men. In civilian life Duncan was a lawyer and was married with three children back in Cape Town.

Duncan led his regiment at Mount Sole in one of the last big battles that South Africans were involved in. During the assualt on the German defences, literally days before the final German surrender in Italy, Duncan was killed by a German mine at the top of the mountain. Duncan was one of scores of South African volunteers who had believed that a better world had to emerge after the defeat of Nazism.

Another volunteer was Corporal William Cloete of the Cape Coloured Corps and the leader of a strecher bearer team attached to the Cape Town Highlanders regiment. During a fierce fight with German troops, when his company was pinned down on three sides by mortar and machine gun fire, Cloete and his strecher team carried ten wounded South African soldiers to safety. For this Cloete was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.

Nearly a year later, at the age of 24, also at Mount Sole, Cloete was struck by a bullet from a German sniper and permanently blinded in both eyes. After the war Cloete attended the School for the Blind in Bellville; he became an expert basket-maker for the rest of his working life. He passed away in 1993. During the Italian campaign the 6th SA Armoured Division suffered over seven hundred fatalities with scores more injured.

One particular incident grimly indicates how the determination of men to survive and their fierce loyalty to one another could lead to merciless revenge against the enemy. Lieutenant-Colonel "Papa" Brits, one of the UDF's finest tank commanders who led the 1st Special Service Battalion, was outraged when just days before the final German surrender one of his sergeants was shot by a German sniper.

When the same German, now wounded was later captured, Brits ordered him removed from the UDF field hospital and summarily executed by one of the sergeant's friends. While the shooting of prisoners occurred on all fronts in World War Two, this incident is one of very few verified regarding South Africans - courtesy of Bourhill's excellent research. Shortly afterwards Brits returned to the Union and retired from the military.

There is little to glorify about war and its impact upon those affected. But let's at least get our history right and for their remaining Remembrance Days, for the few remaining living veterans, honour the South African soldiers of World War Two.

Dr Rodney Warwick PhD MA (UCT)

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