Details of South African Army History
About The Second World War
Within two decades, as had been predicted by General Smuts at the Peace Conference in 1919, the Second World War broke out. Once again, her political divisions intractable, South Africa entered the fray on the side of the Allied Powers. Fielding three divisions, two infantry and one armoured, and with its own air force and navy, the South Africans played a significant role in the struggle against the German-Italian Axis. A motorized infantry brigade (7th SA Brigade), was sent to Vichy occupied Madagascar in June 1942.
East Africa and Abyssinia
The 1st South African Division was instrumental in driving Fascist Italy from its East African colonies of Abyssinia and Somaliland. On 24th July 1940, the first South African ground forces, all volunteers, arrived in Kenya. The number of South African troops committed to the East African theatre escalated to 43 730 before they were finally withdrawn for service in the Western Desert.
The first action by South Africans ground forces was on the 16th December 1940 at El Wak where Brigadier General “Dan” Pienaar’s 1st South African Brigade attacked and captured the Italian positions. The 1st South African Division advanced into southern Abyssinia and took Mega on the 19th February 1941. The South African advance thereafter was rapid. Mogadishu fell on the 26th February 1941, Harar was captured on the 25th March, the Awash River was crossed on 3rd April, and Addis Ababa was liberated on the 6th April. The 1st South African Brigade had advanced 2 735 km in 53 days. On 17th April 1941, it reached the Combolcia Pass. By 23rd April, the Brigade had stormed the pass suffering losses of ten killed and twenty-eight wounded ; however it had succeeded in inflicting 400 casualties on the Italians and had captured 1200 more. The South African Brigade arrived at Amba Alagi defences on the 11th May 1941. On the 12th May, Khake Hill was stormed. The attack on Mount Corarsi, the key to the Amba Alagi defences, began on the 14th May and fell to an attack by the South African and Indian troops on the morning of the 15th May. The 1st South African Brigade had traveled 4023 km from El Wak to Amba Alagi in 100 days. South Africans had suffered a total of 270 battle casualties (73 killed).
The 1st South African Division then embarked for Egypt where it was joined by the 2nd South African Division which had arrived in the Middle East from the Union in June 1940, in preparation for the campaign against the Axis forces in the Western Desert.
South African troops with captured Italian guns at Mega in 1941
The British offensive to relieve Tobruk, Crusader Operation, was launched on the 18th November 1941. Two brigades of 1st South African Division were commited, one of them, the 5th, being annihilated by German armour on the 23rd November 1941 at Sidi Rezegh (3394 men killed, wounded and taken prisoner), but not before it had destroyed 72 of the 162 German tanks.
After the Germans and italians had retreated to El Aghella, the 1st South African Division was withdrawn to refit and the 2nd South African Division brought forward to attack the German and Italian positions at Bardia, Sollum and Halfaya. Bardia was captured on the 2nd January 1942 and Sollum on the 11th January. The Halfaya garrison surrendered on the 17th January. These operations cost some 500 casualties but gained more than 14 000 prisoners, including 4000 Germans.
Bardia : 31st December 1941, black stretcher-bearers in action under fire
On the 21st January 1942, the German-Italian forces launched an attack from El Aghella. Its advance was stopped at Gazala. The 1st South African Division had been rushed to hold the line and the 2nd was sent to hold Tobruk. During May 1942, the Axis forces resumed their offensive and forced the 8th Army to withdraw into Egypt on the El Alamein line.
Quentin George Murray Smythe
The 2nd SA Division was left to hold Tobruk which fell on the 22nd June. 10 722 South Africans were captured in this disaster.
The 1st South African Division under Major General Dan Pienaar played a leading role in the two battles of El Alamein which followed.
The first battle commenced on the 1st July 1942 when the might of the German armour was hurled at the El Alamein Box, a fortified semi-circle of pill-boxes and trenches held by the South Africans. The South African defence held and the Axis forces withdrew. The Second battle commenced on the 23rd October 1942 when 8th Army attacked the Axis forces with a massive artillery barrage, the South African gunners firing some 62 000 rounds. This attack, which is considered to have been the turning point in the Allied fortunes during the War, resulted in the repulse of the Axis forces from Egypt and Libya. On the 12th November 1942, The South Africans re-entered Tobruk.
The fighter and bomber squadrons of the South African Air Force, as part of the Desert Air Force, played a critical role in achieving air superiority and victory in Africa. The ships of the South African Naval Forces patrolling the Cape sea route and the Mediterranean were equally important in the achievement of naval superiority over the ennemy.
South African non-divisional troops such as the South African Engineers were also vital to the Allied Victory in Africa and continued serving in the North African theatre until the Axis had been expelled from it.
South Africans killed in the North African campaign lie predominantly in the war cemeteries at Acroma, Tobruk and El Alamein. The names of the missing are inscribed on the Alamein and Malta Memorials.
Following the North African campaign, South Africa raised the 6th South African Armoured Division under command of Major General W.H.E. Poole for service in Italy. The Division disembarked at Taranto in April 1944 and eventually fell under command of 5th United States Army for the campaign. The Division went into the line at Monte Cassion on the 6th May.
On the 1st June, the 6th South African Armoured Division began to pursue the retreating German forces. Its leading squadrons entered Florence on the 4th August. The Division was then withdrawn so that it could be rested and refitted. It returned to the line in August and provided flank protection to the US II Corps. The pursuit of the German forces was resumed on the 1st September. On the 12th September, the Division reached the Appennine mountains and by 7th October had captured Monte Vigese and was lying in front of the Monte Stanco-Monte Salvaro position.
South Africans enter Chiusi
Monte Stanco was stormed on the 13th October 1944 and Point 806, between Stanco and Salvaro, on the 19th October. On the 23rd October, Monte Salvaro was captured. Thereafter the onset of winter prevented further offensive operations until the spring. The South Africans spent the winter in the Appennine mountains , engaged in skirmishes and patrol actions while the German troops were occupying Monte Sole and Monte Caprara.
The 6th South African Armoured Division seized the Caprara-Sole-Abelle massif between the 15th and 17th April 1945 and then had to reorganise to pursue the defeated Germans. The pursuit met little opposition. On the 22nd April 1945 one of the division’s columns cut off the German retreat to the river Po at Finale Nell’Emillia. When the German forces in italy finally surrenderer on the 2nd May 1945, the Division was concentrating in the neighbourhood of Gorgonzola.
During the italian campaign, the 6th South African Armoured Division lost 711 men killed, 2675 wounded and 157 missing. South African dead of the Italian campaign are interred at Castiglione, Florence and Bolsena.
The South African Air Force squadrons flew in the Sicilian Campaign as wall as in Italy. The 31st and 34th Squadrons undertook a hazardous supply drop to beleaguered partisans in the Warsaw uprising in 1944. South African Enginers units in Italy served in both the US 5th Army and the British 8th Army.
334 000 men served, voluntarily in South African forces during the Second World War and 12 080 of them lost their lives. While they are buried and commemorated in the cemeteries and memorials in Egypt, Libya and Italy, it is at Delville Wood that all are remembered.