Fighting World War II on the home front

John Kane-Berman writes on the South African contribution to the war effort

The 8th and 9th May this week will mark the 75th anniversaries of Nazi Germany’s final surrender to the Western and Russian armies. South Africa’s contribution to victory was threefold: fighting in the air and on land and sea, keeping her ports open to Allied shipping, and making equipment for what Prime Minister Jan Smuts described as a “war of machines, science, and production”.

Smuts wrote these words in a preface to an official report by his director-general of supplies, HJ van der Bijl, “published by authority” after the war in which they both thanked all those who had worked in “factories, mills, and workshops” to help bring about the victory achieved by the “skill of her generals and the courage and initiative of her soldiers”.      

Before war broke out, it had been assumed that if South Africa became involved, she would be able to get her weapons from Great Britain and the United States. However, according to Van der Bijl, the demands on these two countries were soon so great that South Africa had to “look to itself for almost the whole of its munitions requirements”. Supplies already on the water for South Africa had indeed to be turned back to Britain after the British expeditionary force had left all its equipment behind at Dunkirk.

The South African “rush to the colours” was so “tremendous” that blankets at one stage had to be stripped from passenger trains to be sent to troops in Kenya and the Western Desert. Under supervision of the Army Boot Committee, 12.5 million pairs of military footwear were supplied not only to South African troops but also to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and as far away as Burma. More than 34 million items of clothing and other personal equipment were supplied.

More than 70 different items of food and comforts were sent to Allied forces, including 38 tons of Christmas puddings and 17 tons of matzos, along with 2.4 billion cigarettes and liquor that included 193 000 gallons of brandy and 216 000 gallons of wine.

South African factories made tyres for British and American fighters and bombers, along with spares for British and American tanks in North Africa and the Middle East. South Africa made no tanks, but 32 000 other vehicles were supplied, including 14 000 troop carriers, known as general service (GS) wagons. The idea for these vehicles came from Smuts, who helped to design them. He wanted his troops to be as mobile with all their equipment as the Boer commandos had been with their horses and saddle-bags.w anted the Van der Bijl says these GS wagons were so successful that South African men went into the fighting in Kenya and Abyssinia “so lavishly equipped with mechanical transport that the Imperial troops there opened their eyes in wonder”.

Among other vehicles produced in South Africa were 5 746 armoured cars for both South African and British use, some of these finding their way to India, Malaya, Iraq, and the Dutch East Indies. Some were captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in February 1942.

Among the weapons produced were 690 howitzers and anti-tank guns, more than 6 000 aerial bombs (including 1 000-pound bombs used during the D-day invasion in June 1944), 467 000 land mines, 5 million hand grenades, 11 000 field mortars, 2.5 million mortar bombs, and hundreds of millions of rounds of .303 rifle ammunition. According to Van der Bijl, South Africa accounted for 45% of all Allied output of small arms ammunition.

The vast and varied range of other equipment ranged from steel helmets to aircraft hangars, from steel barges to mobile dental vans, from eye shields to water bottles and wire rope, from bayonets to mine detectors, and from radio receivers and transmitters to loudspeakers for controlling anti-aircraft batteries. Also, ammunition, ambulance, and X-ray trailers.  

State-owned Iscor and railways workshops were involved in war production, along with “private factories too numerous to be listed” but approximately 1 000 of them. There was a problem of deserters – “high-spirited young men [who] deserted to the army, from where, to their intense annoyance, they were hauled back to their work-benches”.

Before the Mediterranean was re-opened to Allied shipping after it had been cleared of German and Italian forces, Van der Bijl notes, the whole of the traffic to the Middle East, including troopships, supply ships, and fighting ships flowed round the Cape of Good Hope. Raw materials came into South Africa for production, and munitions and foodstuffs flowed out to the fighting areas and to Britain, where strict rationing was in force. Also, attacked by German U-boats, “many fighting ships limped into South African ports scarred by battle.”

Phenomenal feats of speedy handling and turnaround were achieved, says Van der Bijl. South African ports were indeed able to repair and refit more than 250 ships a month.                          

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Most of the information in this article is taken from the official Record of the Organisation of the Director-General of War Supplies (1939-1943) and Director-General of Supplies (1943-1945). Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.