Scientia Militaria, which is the South African Journal of Military Studies based at the Faculty of Military Science of Stellenbosch University, South Africa, has just published the following articles relating to the Union Defence Forces during the Second World War. This journal is open access.
Gustav Bentz, ‘From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh: The Union Defence Force’s First Experience of Battle in East and North Africa, 1940-1941’
After J.C. Smuts (1870–1950) had managed to unseat J.B.M. Hertzog (1866–1942) as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa it was clear that the country would enter the Second World War on the side of Great Britain. In spite of extensive changes and an increased budget the Union Defence Force (UDF) found itself in a state of war on 7 September 1939 with a Permanent Force of only 5 400 men with limited training and antiquated equipment. While Hitler’s armies conquered Western Europe the Springboks prepared to go North and in spite of trepidations about the might of Mussolini’s East African Empire the First South African Infantry Division set sail for East Africa in mid-July 1940. In five short months, Mussolini’s East African Empire had been torn to shreds. Victorious in every major engagement, the South Africans embarked for Egypt in June 1941. Here they encountered similar logistical problems as were prevalent before they embarked for East Africa. With two divisions in the field and a third in training, UDF planners had a trying time marshalling enough motorised transport to enable the Springboks to keep pace with the increased mobility that was a hallmark of desert warfare. Expecting to build on their success over the Italians the South Africans confidently went into battle, but by November 1941, the 5th South African Infantry Brigade was annihilated and the victors of East Africa badly mauled. Fighting low-moraled Italian armies in the bush and mountains of Abyssinia was quite easy; beating the Germans in the desert would be a different story altogether.
Karen Horn, ‘Changing Attitudes among South African Prisoners of War towards their Italian Captors during World War II, 1942–1943’
The Battle of Sidi Rezegh in November 1941 and the fall of Tobruk in June 1942 were disastrous for South Africa. At Sidi Rezegh, the entire 5th South African Infantry Brigade was lost and at Tobruk the following year more than 10 000 South Africans were captured by German forces. As if the shock of becoming prisoners of war (POWs) was not bad enough, most South Africans were horrified when the Germans promptly handed them over to the Italians, who were to deal with the logistics for the thousands of POWs, first housing them in temporary camps in North Africa, and then transporting them to Italy. Once on the European continent, the South African POWs found themselves in better-organised prison camps, although most POW accommodation was a far cry from what the Geneva Convention required. Some were fortunate to be assigned to labour detachments, where they were in a better position to take control of their circumstances with regard to living conditions and food and even gaining a degree of freedom of movement. During each of the stages of their captivity under the Italians, the South African POWs displayed changing attitudes towards their captors. For the most part, the Italian forces in North Africa were viewed with disrespect and sometimes with cynical amusement. The antagonism towards Italians quickly changed to intense hatred when POWs suffered severe deprivations in the cargo holds of the boats that transported them to Italy. Once in Italy, however, the POWs came into contact with Italian camp guards who, in many cases, displayed a remarkable lack of interest in the prisoners and in the war. The changing attitudes of South African POWs towards their Italian captors reflect to an extent their changing circumstances as captives; however, their behaviour towards their captors also reveal how the POWs adapted to and accepted their POW identity. Ultimately, the POWs contact with the enemy captors changed the way they viewed their part in the war, and this article looks at examples of the shifting mind-sets until the Armistice in 1943 once again changed the state of affairs for the POWs.
Andre Wessels, ‘The South African Air Force, 1920–2012: A Review of its History and an Indication of its Cultural Heritage’
Although a South African Aviation Corps existed for a few months in 1915, and although several South Africans saw action in World War I as members of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps, the history of the South African Air Force (SAAF) – the world’s second oldest air force – strictly speaking only dates back to 1 February 1920. In this article, a review is provided of the history of the SAAF, with specific reference to its operational deployments in the 1920s; the difficult years of the great depression and its aftermath and impact on the SAAF; the very important role played by the SAAF in the course of World War II (for example in patrolling South Africa’s coastal waters, and in taking part in the campaigns in East Africa and Abyssinia, as well as in North Africa, Madagascar, Italy, over the Mediterranean and in the Balkans); the post-war rationalisation; its small but important role in the Korean War; the acquisition of a large number of modern aircraft and helicopters from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s; the impact that sanctions had on the SAAF; the SAAF’s role in Northern Namibia and in Angola during the war years, 1966–1989, and the SAAF in post-apartheid South Africa. Throughout the article, historiographical matters are mentioned by means of references – either in the text or in footnotes – to the most important available sources.
Evert Kleynhans, ‘The First South African Armoured Battle in Italy during the Second World War: The Battle of Celleno – 10 June 1944’
The formation of 6 South African Armoured Division (6 SA Armd Div), during February 1943, afforded the Union Defence Force (UDF) the chance to expand its military capabilities to that of armoured warfare. An armoured division further offered South Africa the opportunity to equip the UDF with modern fighting equipment and to master the art of combined warfare. Actual deployment in Italy differed vastly from the training which the division received in North Africa, for Italy was arguably, largely “untankable”. The Division’s first battle occurred at Celleno, on 10 June 1944, where it was able to “prove” itself by securing its first victory. As far as secondary sources are concerned, the Battle of Celleno is only superficially covered. Primary sources are however abundant, thus adding to the rich history which is available on the Division. This article analyses the Battle of Celleno, fought by 11 SA Armoured Brigade, in the context of the notion of “first battles”. Emphasis will be placed on the training received prior to deployment, the Battle of Celleno, the lessons that were learned by the division at Celleno, and the way these influenced future operations in Italy. The Division’s combined-arms approach is also evaluated, with specific emphasis on changing patterns of leadership, command, and employment of the Division after Celleno.
David Katz, ‘A Case of Arrested Development: The Historiography Relating to South Africa’s Participation in the Second World War’
The quantity and quality of military historical work on the participation of South Africa in the Second World War, with few exceptions, namely that of a few significant academic contributions over the last decade, lags appreciably compared to the plethora of titles offered on all aspects of the war in the buoyant international market. This article investigates and evaluates more important South African primary and secondary sources pertaining to the Union Defence Force’s participation in the Second World War, highlighting available sources and limitations in published material. Possible opportunities for further research are identified where there are areas of historiographical hiatus. Reasons are offered for what amounts to a rather threadbare South African historiography, especially when compared to the prolific historiographical output of other belligerents. The article offers a brief survey of primary sources, identifying some of the archives that have received scant attention. Then follows an analysis of secondary sources broken down into official, semi-official and general history that examines their methodological integrity and completeness with a view to identifying what historical contributions may still be made in the light of what has been produced.