What happened to the Union Defence Force after 1948?

1948 was a defining moment in South Africa’s history. The advent of National Party rule on the 26th May 1948 and the defeat of the United Party under the venerable leader, Jan Smuts, who had served with distinction with the Boer forces in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899 – 1902), would open a veritable Pandora’s Box of ill-considered measures such as the segregation of the Union into tribes.

Most notable was the effect on the Union Defence Force which had fought with great distinction against the Nazi forces arrayed against the Allied nations. What they did to this once brave and proud force in the name of Afrikaner Nationalism was a far cry from what one expects of nation building.

Main picture: Frans Christiaan Erasmus, National Party politician and Minister of Defence from June 1948 to 1959, who was at the forefront of efforts to remove English speakers members of the Union Defence Force

A family in crisis

This topic has always been at the forefront of my consciousness from very young. At primary school I subscribed to the part-work on the Second World War (1939 – 1945). Every Thursday, I would visit the C.N.A. to purchase that week’s copy. Not only was I enthralled as the history of this world-wide conflict unfolded but I gained an intimate knowledge of the war. I was exceptionally proud of South Africa’s role in the conflict albeit limited and minor. From the invasion of Italy in 1943 until the end of the conflict in 1945, only the SA 6th Armoured Division participated.

Most of the South African participants were English-speaking who belonged to the predominantly English units. On the other hand, the permanent force was largely staffed with Afrikaans-speaking members. As such, there was a clear bifurcation of the Union Defence Force.

My maternal grand parents who stayed at 37 Eastbourne Road with their six children, of whom the four sons fought in Italy during WW2. How did this affect my family?

How did this affect my family? Well, my maternal grandmother was Afrikaans who as a child only spoke Afrikaans and Xhosa whereas my maternal grandfather could only speak English; love overcame all the odds and they got married. As my grandmother’s family lived in the Middleburg District, they would spend their Christmas holidays with their sister [my grandmother] in Port Elizabeth. Being staunch right wingers, they supported Germany in her quest to defeat the Allies and Britain in particular. One can appreciate their animus against the English, given their defeat by them in the Boer War. However they did not pay heed to the social custom of not denigrating one’s hosts views. They openly listened to Radio Zeesen, the German radio station broadcasting Nazi propaganda in Afrikaans. It strains credulity that my grandmother would not take exception to unflattering descriptions of the Allies and their solemn desire that they be defeated. With her four sons “up North” fighting for the British, how was my grandmother to react. Her siblings’ behaviour was beyond the pale. The family was riven into two in perpetuity.

For the Afrikaners, May 1948 was payback time. Squarely in their sights was the UDF with its English traditions and rank structure, let alone non-PC names such as the Imperial Light Horse.

Enter Brigadier Eric Ponsonby Hartshorn aka Scrubbs

In the succeeding decades, the events covered by the period up to 1950 have largely remained unspoken and undocumented. As youngsters my parents might make mention of the family schism or what happened with the UDF, but it remained largely unspoken as the English-speaking South Africans were fixated on making money and as they had only meagre influence on political and other events, deferred to Afrikaner hegemony.

Brigadier Eric Ponsonby Hartshorn, aka Scrubbs

Having largely forgotten the controversy about the emasculation of the English-speakers within the UDF over half a century ago, an event occurred which brought them to the forefront of my consciousness once again. A friend lent me a book entitled Avenge Tobruk in which the author, Hartshorn laments the culpability placed upon General Klopper for the Allies’ defeat at Tobruk. This was particularly galling for the Australians as their forces had previously held out against the Axis forces during the 241-day siege of Tobruk.

In this book Hartshorn sets the facts to rights and places the blame squarely on the lack of prior preparation of the defences. The last-minute decision to enter Tobruk had meant that the Allies under Klopper were ill-prepared to withstand a German onslaught.

C’est la vie. In spite of Hartshorn’s remonstrations to the contrary, the common refrain will also be that it was the South African’s fault. In spite of compelling evidence to the contrary such as the fact that the Royal Navy had declined to support another siege, General Klopper would forever form part of the roadkill of war

It was in the final chapter, a digression if you will, in which Hartshorn bemoans the disservice that the incoming administration inflicted upon such a dedicated force, intent on its emasculation and even dismemberment. Warnings about potential damage which would be inflicted on the UDF’s operational effectiveness -an own goal if you will – went unheeded. The crowning achievements were disrespected and belittled. Esprit de corps was shattered. Many resigned in disgust. Venerable heroes were sidelined and even demoted. Less proficient subordinates became one’s superior. Even incompetent seat-warmers were promoted over experienced veterans. New careers had to be sought; new opportunities found. It was a period of darkness and despair.

South African armoured car in North Africa

As a mark of respect to all those who were so illogically and poorly treated, I decided to reprint verbatim all 14 pages of the chapter entitled “The Midnight Ride”.

Similarities speak volumes

What the SADF experienced between 1994 and 2000 bears testimony to what occurred between 1948 and 1955 and is an analogue of that period. As this blog merely seeks to shine a light on the prior transitional period and not what has transpired under ANC rule, I will not dwell on it except to enter it as a cautionary tale on how not to exercise victor’s justice. It bodes no gain, only destruction. After temporary schadenfreude, the aftertaste is bitter. Instead of the well-oiled machine that one inherits, it is rusty and barely functional; one that will require a decade of intensive care with the eventual outcome uncertain. The maxim that it is easy to destroy but tedious and arduous to restore to its former glory, applies in spades.

The Midnight Ride by Hartshorn

In May 1948, General Smuts and his Government were defeated in the General Election and the Nationalist Party, composed of many of those who had so bitterly opposed the South African war effort, came to power. The election result was a stunning blow to General Smuts, his son was to write years afterwards. Like Sir Winston Churchill he felt that it was an unjust and ignominious sacking of an old war horse that had deserved well of its country. But however unexpected his defeat, however bitter his disappointment, he did not overlook one further duty he owed to his country and to his soldiers, even though, as he was to remark afterwards, so many had proved turncoats in the election.

Major-General Hendrik B. Klopper

Late one night he carried out one of the final acts he was to perform as South Africa’s Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. It appears in no official history – and is not likely to – but the details have been vouched for by unimpeachable sources, down even to the anti-climax which, though startling at the time, later, in its true perspective, was to provoke great hilarity among those privy to all the details. General Smuts had no illusions about the men who would succeed him, and his Cabinet, in power. The anti-war activities they had carried on for so long, and their bitterness towards Great Britain, were hardly likely to be dissipated now that the war was over. They would be certain to launch a witch-hunt, to seek to wreak their revenge, wherever possible, on those in official positions whom they could prove had been enemies of the Nationalist

Original colour photo taken of a South African position in the North African theatre of operations in 1942 – note the bleak and hard landscape

Party while fulfilling the wartime duties demanded of them by the Government in power. A great many top secret military documents that would, if they fell into Nationalist hands, provide them with much of the ammunition they would be most anxious to acquire, were lying in the archives and certain offices in Defence Headquarters. Added to them were hundreds of official papers, copies of letters and other documents that had been collected in Germany, immediately after the collapse of the Reich, by a special team of researchers from South Africa who worked in collaboration with their British, American and French counter­parts. The State departments of the Nazi Government were methodically gone through and every paper of any political or military value whatsoever removed.

General Erwin Rommel inspects South African and British POWs after the fall of Tobruk

On the night in question a number of trucks drew up in the big quadrangle that lies behind the main block of Defence Headquarters, and men began removing bundles of documents from the building. Supervising the operations was none other than General Smuts himself, acting in his capacity-very soon to be terminated now-as Minister of Defence.

It was a dark night and the scene had all the elements of a spy thriller. The massive walls of Defence Headquarters cast deep shadows, men hurried to and fro carrying bundles of documents, dumping them hastily into the trucks drawn up, and returning to the building for more. Other than the hurrying footsteps and snatches of conversation carried on in low voices no other sound was to be heard. Suddenly there exploded in the night a brilliant flash of light that threw the ghostly scene into sharp relief. In frozen horror it was realised that someone had taken a flashlight photograph. In the split second before mobility returned and enabled General Smuts’ C.I.D. escort to set off

Major General William Henry Evered Poole

at top speed in pursuit of a figure they had seen running towards a car there must have flashed through the minds of that astonished group many hideous thoughts,­ not the least being that they had been spied on and their identities preserved for ever on a photographic plate.

The anti-climax was not long in coming. The C.I.D. officers returned triumphantly bearing the film. The photograph, it transpired, had been taken by an enthusiastic amateur, a University student, who supplemented his income by contributing news photographs to newspapers. Noticing an unusual degree of nocturnal activity around Defence Headquarters but not dreaming who were the characters involved, nor the purpose for which they were there, he had gone up and taken the flashlight picture. The relieved detectives carefully avoided enlightening the photographer on the “scoop” that lay in his camera but casually bought the spool from him – at better than newspaper rates. That same night the documents removed from Defence Headquarters were packed aboard an aircraft and sent to England.

South African Defence Headquarters.jpg

The potential political dynamite lying in some of those top secret documents in Defence Headquarters did not, naturally, escape the attention of the new Nationalist Minister of Defence, Mr. F. C. Erasmus, and his Cabinet colleagues. Unaware that he had already been forestalled by General Smuts, the new Minister of Defence had no sooner been sworn into his political office than he hurried from Cape Town to Pretoria and stormed into Defence Headquarters. His arrival could not have been unexpected for the scene, as later recounted to me by wartime comrades still attached to Defence Headquarters, was like part of a stage comedy. As the Minister accompanied by a flurry of C.I.D. officers and his personal bodyguard, strode down the broad corridor of Defence Head-quarters his progress was being followed by General Poole, Chief of the General Staff, Designate, and other senior officers who were peering furtively through a partially opened office door. They were, one eye-witness was to remark later, like “a bunch of naughty schoolboys peeping at something they Were forbidden to see”.

The Minister burst through the door of the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, brusquely demanding of him the keys of all the filing cabinets and of the office and ordering him to leave the building at once. The officer, a volunteer soldier soon to return to civilian life, with suppressed anticipation of the shock awaiting Mr. Erasmus on discovering that General Smuts had beaten him to it, remained expressionless and did as he was told. Regrettably, no account has ever become available of what happened behind those closed doors when the Minister discovered, as soon he did, that the cabinets had been ransacked and the documents he was so anxious to acquire were already in safe custody abroad.

Field Marshal Jan Smuts (left), prime minister of the Union of South Africa, and Major-General George Brink (Center), commander of the 1st South African Division, perform an inspection tour in North Africa..jpg

With the Nationalist Government now directing the country’s destinies, there began a process, minutely planned, and implacably executed, to wipe out the impact the war had made on South Africa’s armed forces. It was a process that was spread over many years, but in the end it succeeded, virtually, in achieving what, in five years of active warfare, the combined might of the Germans and Italians had failed to do-the disintegration of many famous regimental units; the removal of a great many of the· nation’ s most distinguished professional combat officers; the destruction, to a large extent, of the magnificent esprit de corps that had existed in the war and the discarding of a tremendous reserve of first-hand fighting experience that, in other countries, was made the foundation on which to build new, modern armies.

General Poole, having led to final victory the mighty 6th South African Armoured Division, was unquestionably the ideal officer to succeed General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld as Chief of the General Staff. That, in fact, was what General Smuts had decreed would take place in May 1948, the month in which Sir Pierre van Ryneveld was to retire. General Poole was C.G.S. Designate until, that is, there came the mighty blast of the wind of change that Mr. Erasmus unleashed. General Poole was swept off to Germany to become the South African representative on the Allied Military Control Council; later he replaced General Frank Theron as South African Minister Plenipotentiary to Rome and Athens and then he became South African Minister to the Government of Argentina. All the practical military experience and knowledge he had built up in the war years have been lost to South Africa.

Major General Len Beyers, who had been Adjutant General throughout the war and had retired on its completion, was now recalled and appointed Chief of the General Staff. Though his political sentiments probably conformed closer to those of the Nationalist Government, even he was not able to tolerate for long the policies nor the interference in internal military administration by the Minister of Defence. He asked to be allowed to retire again and went back to his farm. His successor was Major General Matie du Toit who had had two spells as a Brigade Commander with the 1st Division in the Western Desert. He survived as Chief of the General Staff until retirement, to be succeeded by Major General Klopper who, on his retirement, was replaced by Major General S. A. Melville, who is the present Chief of Staff, and is, incidentally, a brother-in-law of a former Prime Minister of the Union, the late Mr. Strijdom.

There were comparatively few senior Permanent Force officers in the land forces but in the Air Force almost all the high-ranking posts were filled by men of the Regular Army. Thus, the saddening story of the removal of men like General Poole from the direction of the South African armed forces could, and was to be, duplicated many times as far as the Air Force was concerned. What can only be described as a “purge” was initiated and it  had far-reaching effects over a period of about five years. One of the first victims was Brigadier J. T. Durrant, C.B.E., D.R.C., who served with great distinction in the Air Force throughout the entire war. For those of us who, in the very first action in which the South Africans were involved-the battle of El Wak when air attack, later to become so commonplace in our daily lives, was still very much of a frightening novelty-Jimmie Durrant earned a never-to­ be-forgotten place in our memories. On the morning after El Wak had been captured three Italian Caproni twin-engined bombers, heavily armed and armour-plated, located us in the neighbourhood of the burning villages and began heavily to bomb and machine gun the area. A radio message for help was sent and though it was responded to immediately we, who were sheltering in slit trenches and behind anthills, weren’t particularly optimistic, for our air support consisted of three Hartebeestes, single-engined reconnaissance fighters which, built in South Africa and modelled on the old British Hawker Hart, were armed with only two .303 Vickers guns and were considerably slower than the Caproni bombers. The advent of the Hartebeestes had the effect, however, of sending two of the Capronis streaking for home but the third, with bombs still aboard, continued to attack us. Two of the Hartebeestes began chasing it while the third, I noticed with some surprise, began climbing in narrow circles higher and higher into the sky. Then suddenly it came plunging downwards in a screaming dive at a speed which, I was convinced, must tear the wings off it. As it drew near the Caproni it suddenly flattened out and we heard both guns open fire to be followed almost instantly by black smoke pouring from the Italian bomber. Soon afterwards I ordered a patrol out and it returned with the crew of the crashed Caproni, the pilot of which had been badly wounded. The pilot of the Hartebeeste, Jimmie Durrant, then a Lieutenant, who, as the war progressed, was to add great luster to his name being, ultimately, seconded to the Royal Air Force with the rank of Major General and given command of a long-range bomber group in the Far East. As befitting his immense experience and abilities he became a post-war Director General of the South African Air Force, but politics were to succeed where enemy guns had failed. He was eliminated from all direction of the South African armed forces. First he was sent to the Imperial Defence College in the United Kingdom to undergo a senior officers’ course, one of the most comprehensive and expensive in the world; but, in the opinion of the Minister of Defence, Mr. Erasmus, all that this, plus his wartime experience, equipped him for was the comparatively junior post of Military Attaché in the office of the South African High Commissioner in London. He returned to South Africa and resigned.

Among the really outstanding Permanent Force administrative officers was Brigadier Peter Hingeston, who in the early days of the war was attached to the Adjutant General’s office and to whom, I knew from personal experience, one could turn for the solution of any administrative problem, whether it fell within his immediate scope or not. He was appointed Chief Administrative Officer to the South African Air Force in the Mediterranean theatre and in this capacity he played a distinguished role, flying himself around the battle areas in a Hurricane to attend promptly and decisively to the multifarious problems associated with keeping the Air Force at its peak of efficiency. At the war’s end he returned to Defence Headquarters as Adjutant General and was carrying out the duties of this high office until the day Mr. Erasmus decided that his great organisational talents were being wasted-that he could be better employed as an Area Commander. He was first in charge of the Witwatersrand Command and later was transferred to Durban. It was while he was here that he received a sudden and unexpected summons to present himself in Cape Town at the office of the Chief of the General Staff, then Major- General Matie du Toit. To his surprise he found that with the Chief of Staff was the Minister of Defence and other officials. The conversation which ensued, recalled after a lapse of many years, was along these lines: An official: “Hingeston, you are being permitted to resign on medical grounds.” Hingeston : “But I do not wish to be retired on medical grounds. I am perfectly fit.”

The official : ”Get out now while you have the chance, or you will be thrown out.”

Peter Hingeston returned to Durban, went on leave and finally was “retired on medical grounds”. To-day he is a successful and enterprising sugar farmer in Southern Rhodesia, whom I visit at yearly intervals, retaining perhaps some bitterness but certainly no regrets at the sudden undeserved twist that politics gave to his career.

Some time was to elapse before the next “sweep” was made on those who had made notable contributions to South Africa’s wartime achievements. On November 30, 1953, came “The Midnight Ride”. Even the elements entered into the spirit of the occasion for it was a dark, stormy night with heavy rain lashing the streets as the Don Rs on their motor-cycles made the rounds of Pretoria and the suburbs, visiting the homes of certain members of the Permanent Force. They carried with them letters addressed for the personal attention of those concerned and each letter had to be signed for. To preserve secrecy, none of the letters was typed in the regular office hours of Defence Headquarters; it was feared, and rightly so, that the popularity of the individuals concerned would unquestionably lead to the contents of the documents leaking out in advance. So, after the regular office staff had left for the night, special typists were brought in and the officer charged with the signing of the letters remained behind. Sometime before 10 p.m. the Don Rs set out. The most senior officer in the Air Force, who was to be a recipient of one of the letters, was Brigadier H. J. Bronkhorst who had devoted 28 years of his life to the service of the South African armed forces. Throughout the Abyssinian campaign, he had been in charge of Air Force maintenance in East Africa and afterwards studied Air Force organisation in the United Kingdom, the U.S.A. and Canada. Towards the end of the war he was on maritime operations in Ceylon and then returned to South Africa to take charge of the Air Force, Coastal Command. With the resignation of Brigadier Durrant, he became Director-General of the Air Force but, despite his great qualifications for the post, he was not to remain in it long. Inexplicably, he was appointed Quartermaster-General of the Union Defence Force and it was in this capacity that he was waiting for; notwithstanding all the precautions, he had been warned in advance that a letter was coming – the arrival of the Don R. The knock on the door came just about 10 p.m. He signed a receipt, tore open the official envelope and read the letter, the relevant portions of which told him that: ”In terms of the South African Defence Force regulations, it has been decided to dispense with your services as from the end of February, ”You will receive the pension as prescribed by the regulations. 1954. “

”The payment of a gratuity is being considered. ‘If you wish to obtain employ-ment in the Civil Service you should apply to the Department of Labour “

No gratuity was ever paid and Brigadier Bronkhorst did not avail himself of the offer to apply to the Department of Labour for a job. He started a new career in civil life and today is, in addition, an Opposition Member of Parliament. He has become, in the House, the champion of those in the Defence Force whom he has reason to believe are being victimised and he is the most bitter-and best informed-critic of the Government on matters relating to defence. As an ironic reminder of that stormy night in Pretoria, he has named his farm ”Midnite Ride” .

No fewer than 14 letters went out that night, the recipients ranging from a Brigadier to a sergeant-major. In addition to Brigadier Bronkhorst the two next most senior officers in the Air Force, Col. J. A.  de Vos and Col. A. D. Irvine, both of whom were greatly experienced wartime pilots, were sacked.

Col. Maurice de Villiers, a senior artillery officer, and Lt.-Co]. Gilroy King, who had been General Brink’s signals officer on active service, went the same way and so did such other highly experienced officers as Major Dennis van Blerk, Captain Ian Cloete and Major Nick Wessels.

In addition to the “victims” of “The Midnight Ride”, there are scores of other Permanent Force officers who had distinguished wartime careers, but who found themselves unable to withstand political pressures of the peacetime army and so resigned, thereby being forced to deprive the country of their invaluable knowledge and experience. One of these deserving special mention is Lieut.-Col. Stan Welles who commanded, with great distinction, the 2nd South African Squadron in the Korean War. On his return to South Africa he reverted to the rank of Captain; he resigned. It would not be human if, at the time, they did not harbour deep bitterness at the ingratitude of the Government, but all of them, without exception, to whom I have spoken since are happier and more prosperous than they were while members of the Permanent Force.

Having disposed of individuals either by sacking them outright, by imposing humiliating conditions that made resignation the only possible alternative or by “banishing” them to minor diplomatic posts abroad, the Government then turned its attention to disintegrating the infantry units that had made their names famous by their wartime exploits. All Active Citizen Force units were, in the normal course of events, demobilised after the cessation of hostilities. Then, after discussions at Defence Headquarters and an assessment of the country’s probable post-war military requirements, old units were encouraged to start re-forming on a volunteer basis. All the famous regiments came into being once more with the added lustre of their achievements in World War 2. My old regiment, the Transvaal Scottish, was reformed with the 1st and 2nd Battalions in their old role of motorised infantry, while the 3rd Battalion became the 7th Medium Regiment , South African Artillery (3rd Transvaal Scottish). All three battalions were permitted to keep the bonnet and red hackle as symbols of their great regimental tradition, together with their famous Athol Murray tartan and, of course, the pipes. So, too, with other regiments of the Active Citizen Force were old traditions restored; the individual characteristics of a particular unit jealously re-enshrined in its regimental badges and colours, and the flame of its esprit de corps rekindled to burn ever brighter with the memories of World War II comradeship.

The “attack” on the Active Citizen Force by the Nationalist Government was subdued at first but it soon gathered momentum. One of the first things on which they fixed their sights was “foreign uniforms” of which the kilt of the Transvaal Scottish must have been, to them, the military equivalent of a red cape waving before a bull. Orders were issued that the kilt was no longer to be worn and, but for the prompt and determined action on the part of some Scottish officers, the kilts today would be rotting in the Quartermaster General’s stores in Defence Headquarters. It was pointed out to the authorities that the kilts had been bought and paid for out of regimental funds and were, therefore, private property. Today kilts may be worn by the Scottish only as part of their dress uniform.

The defence authorities then took the next step in their planned campaign. They decreed that there were too many “English” units in a country that was officially bilingual. The charge was, of course, ludicrous. The regiments were English in name only by reason of their original formation generations before and that, far from being “English” in the sense that the Nationalist Government implied, very nearly half the men were Afrikaans-speaking. But the Government decided that there must be a return to the old Boer War pattern (this, in the atomic age) and so “Skiet Kommandos” came into being. These were Afrikaans units formed in the country districts and composed of men whose basic training was confined to proficiency in shooting. The fundamental weakness of this defence organisation in a country such as South Africa was quickly apparent to those professional soldiers whose thinking was unclouded by political considerations. They pointed out to the Minister that ‘ ‘Skiet Kommandos” composed mainly of farmers would be totally ineffectual in any major emergency. Firstly, the farmers would find it impossible to leave their farms and families in the isolation of the veld while they answered the call to go on Commando and, secondly, the need would be for integrated, properly-trained military formations, equipped with modern weapons and the knowledge to use them, such as the Active Citizen Force represented. Even the police, charged with the responsibility of bearing the brunt of maintaining internal security, threw in their weight in favour of the old Active Citizen Force system but the Government was adamant.

By 1953 the Active Citizen Force units were disintegrating fast. The 2nd Transvaal Scottish was merged with the 1st as a single battalion. The 3rd Battalion has since been disbanded on the grounds that medium artillery would be useless in an atomic war. (Skiet Kommandos, presumably, would not be.) A great many other regiments went the way of the Scottish battalions, cannibalising each other until their strengths were reduced to utterly impracticable military proportions. The Transvaal Scottish Regiment, for example, mustered a total strength, at the beginning of World War II, of approximately 2,800 men all ranks (excluding attached units such as transport, signallers, etc.). Today it is doubtful whether the regiment at its full strength could parade 280 men.

One of the methods adopted to destroy utterly the esprit de corps that existed in the regiments was by the abandonment of the volunteer system. Instead of an individual being permitted to apply to join a particular regiment, all recruits for service in the Active Citizen Force are chosen by means of a ballot. The effect of this is that if a Johannesburg regiment draws a man who works, say, in Windhoek, 1000 miles away and who, quite obviously, cannot be present for regimental training, there is nothing that can be done about it. No transfer can be arranged. The man’s association with his regiment is limited to two weeks’ training in a camp once a year.

One of the main sources of volunteer recruits for Active Citizen Force units had always been provided by the schools. By affiliating various schools to different regiments, boy cadets were permitted to wear the particular badges and uniforms of their affiliation and thus identify themselves with the traditions of the regiments. All that has been stopped. Today boy cadets in South Africa wear uniforms that are, to a large extent, of German pattern.

So, the process of destroying the Active Citizen Force went relentlessly on. The authorities resorted, even, to the petty lengths of breaking the long-standing tradition by which the Cape Town Highlanders formed part of the Guard of Honour at the ceremonial opening of Parliament. The presence of “foreign uniforms” could no longer be tolerated.

The Imperial Light Horse, one of the most famous regiments in the Commonwealth, today has the distinction of being able to claim a ”battle honour” that is surely without parallel in military history. Threatened with disbandment by the authorities, it fought so hard against it, organising protests by all sections of the community and enlisting the aid of newspapers and others, that it succeeded in delaying the implementation of the order that would have sent its famous name into oblivion. It was still engaged in fighting this desperate rearguard action when Mr. Erasmus, fortuitously, lost his portfolio as Minister of Defence and became Minister of Justice instead. The new Minister of Defence rescinded the disbandment order.

As one who fought with the South Africans through five weary years of war; who came to know and admire the qualities they possess, which make them the equal of any fighting men of any nation; who shared with them the honours and glory they earned by their valour in battle, it is tragic that a chapter such as this should ever have to be written. But the fact remains that the imperishable pride that belongs to a nation through the military heritage of its soldiers is today being trampled into the political dust in South Africa. Everything possible is being done to wipe from the slate of history some of the most glorious pages of a country’s Military past. Those men like Dan Pienaar and so many others who died fighting tyranny with such passionate belief in the rightness of the cause. What, I ask myself, would they say now if only they knew?


Avenge Tobruk by E.P. Hartshorn (1960, Purnell & Sons, Johannesburg)

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