Gallant WW2 effort ignored by politics

2011-11-25 00:00

WHILE Libya has dominated media reports over the past months, the remaining handful of an almost extinct generation of South African soldiers might have reflected back this week to November 23, 1941. This day saw the 70-year-old Battle of Sidi Rezeg, a bloody clash between Union Defence Force (UDF) troops and the German Afrika Korps in North Africa.

Take yourself to Sidi Rezeg via Google Earth. The general area is located about 30 kilometres south-east of Tobruk. From afar technology depicts an area as featureless and remote as it would have been for the Fifth SA Brigade seven decades ago. Except that those 5 700 South Africans, all men but with our familiar cultural diversity — white English and Afrikaans, coloured and black— were not entirely alone. They constituted one component of the Commonwealth forces attempting to relieve their besieged garrison at Tobruk.

The bigger ambition of the Commonwealth Eighth Army was to use numerical armour, aircraft and men-power strength to overwhelm German general Erwin Rommel’s crack African expeditionary force. Eighth Army plans went awry early after a series of inconclusive clashes between Allied and Afrika Korps led to the near annihilation of the British Seventh Armoured Division. Rommel’s tank commanders made skilled use of their technically superior vehicles employing effective tactics of operating in large formations. Manoeuvring his massed armour into a counterattack, Rommel’s path was blocked by the static Fifth SA Brigade. The South Africans were only partly dug in on rocky ground where sparks flew off picks and spades during digging. They waited in a defensive box approximately five by two-and-a-half kilometres, while from the southwest a German mass charge was launched consisting of nearly 100 tanks with mechanised infantry behind in support. While their 19 artillery guns fired solid armour-piecing shells the infantry fought back from slit trenches with rifles and light machine guns. Within three hours the battle was over. At least 70 knocked-out German tanks littered the desert, but after the artillery had run out of ammunition, infantry small arms were little use against tanks.

But Rommel’s armour had been severely hammered — a critical outcome, for it temporarily precluded the Afrika Korps from further haranguing the Eighth Army. However, the South African cost was high: 224 men killed and nearly 3 000 taken prisoner. The trauma and desolation of the Sidi Rezeg aftermath is poignantly captured in writer Uys Krige’s short story Death of a Zulu — an account of a battlefield mercy killing recorded by the author who was among those captured. In recent years, school history textbooks have been preoccupied with one detail of South Africa’s participation in World War 2: that the Union government declined for black and coloured troops to bear arms. While officially correct, this has obscured the battlefield reality that black and particularly coloured troops were at times armed and fought alongside their white comrades, earning the same service medals while some were decorated for bravery. Sidi Rezeg was the first major engagement South Africans were to fight in North Africa. For the two under-strength divisions of volunteers there would be many more battles, casualties and prisoners.

Out of the 334 000 South African men and women who volunteered in the war 11 000 died. Of these volunteers 221 000 were whites, 77 000 blacks and 46 000 coloureds and Indians. Two weeks ago another November 11 passed by marked by ceremonies and the handing out of poppies for donations to organisations such as the SA Legion and Moths. But in contrast to military heritage endeavours in Britain, Australia, the United States and elsewhere, despite substantial South African involvement World War 2 significance for South Africans has virtually faded away over the decades.

Where did this dearth of popular historical knowledge of our World War 2 involvement originate? The white South African political conflicts of the 20th century’s second half provide part of an explanation. Afrikaner nationalist politicians called for South African neutrality in 1939 and the National Party (NP) maintained this stance throughout the war. More sinisterly, while our troops were fighting for their lives at Sidi Rezeg and elsewhere, the neo-Nazi Ossewabrandwag (OB) claimed hundreds of thousands of members. They were well represented in the South African Police, a potentially dangerous fifth column considering thousands of loyal policemen were serving as a brigade of infantry in the far-off North African desert. The OB’s armed wing of stormjaers committed numerous acts of treason through sabotage, while regular members occasionally attacked off-duty soldiers in city streets. The War Veterans Torch Commando organisation shook the NP government during the early fifties with impressive torchlight city demonstrations, before tailing off in the wake of the United Party’s comprehensive 1953 election defeat. Other non-politically driven veterans’ organisations like the Moths were filled with World War 2 ex-servicemen from 1945 to the nineties but these have shrunk dramatically since. The Moths remain visible but today are just partly replenished by Border War veterans.

From 1948 the new NP government cautiously distanced itself from the disintegrating OB but still gave South Africa’s war exploits minimal exposure. Only one NP MP had served in the military and he was used by notorious Defence Minister Frans Erasmus as a parliamentary sniper to denigrate the supposedly Anglo-dominated UDF. The government-sponsored Union War Histories project, originally commissioned by 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 fifties, including one titled The Sidi Rezeg Battles, none were translated into Afrikaans despite at least half of the white volunteers being Afrikaners. In state school syllabi the government education departments made scant place for World War 2 in history teaching. If it had been a war the National Party had not supported, it was not worth recording, teaching or recalling. The pattern has been perpetuated post-1994. For example, when the SA Navy received its four Valour-Class frigates, three were named after battles from 19th-century South African history. Not even Delville Wood got a mention.

South African politics in the 21st century is unrecognisable from the white political conflicts of the forties and fifties, but if we pause to reinvestigate South Africa’s history in World War 2, there are aspects, demonstrating non-racial service and sacrifice under daunting odds, which could still be instructive. It is a historical resource yet to be fully exploited, as the events at Sidi Rezeg 70 years ago remind us.

• Dr Rodney Warwick is a history teacher in Cape Town.

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