Of the Rhodesian Light Infantry

Richard Henry

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

12 May 2020

The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has two sets of elephant tusks.  One set is large and the other medium size. These tusks were held in storage on behalf of the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association (RLIRA) post Zimbabwe independence in 1980.

large tusks in storage at Ditsong National Museum of Military History
The large tusks in storage at Ditsong National Museum of Military History

The Rhodesian Light Infantry
The 1st Battalion, Rhodesian Light Infantry (1RLI), commonly called The Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), was a regiment formed in 1961 at Brady Barracks, Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia.)  It formed part of the army of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.  A year later it was relocated to Cranborne Barracks, Salisbury, where it remained until1980. In 1964, when the Federation was dissolved, the RLI formed a major part of the Southern Rhodesian Army and later became the main counter-insurgency unit of Rhodesia.  The RLI was nicknamed “The Saints”

The beret badge was made from silver anodised aluminium.  A British Queen’s crown over a heraldic lion standing on ground and with an exaggerated tail curved over its back.  In the lion’s paw is an elephant tusk. The lion stands in the curve of a bugle horn with below downward scroll on which is written RHODESIAN LIGHT INFANTRY.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry were presented with the Queen’s and Imperial Regimental Colour on 19 June 1965.  Colours are also normally paid for by the Regiment. These Colours, the embodiment of the Regiment were displayed in the Officers Mess at Cranborne Barracks.

In about 1971, after the Rhodesian Light Infantry was given the honour of the Freedom of the City of Salisbury, the Colours were flanked by a set of large elephant tusks.  These are the large pair of tusks at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.  It is not known how tusks were acquired by the RLI.

The large tusks flanking the Queen’s and Regimental Colour displayed at Cranborne Barracks.
Ref:  The Saints by Binda, A, 2007, page  468.

The RLI have a close association with elephants. Many of the soldiers of the RLI had close encounters with herds of elephants while on operational duty.  A trooper Pete Pitman came across a herd of elephant at a river.  He sat down waiting for the herd to move on. Suddenly a spotter plane appeared overhead and startled the herd into a stampede.  One enraged bull saw the soldiers and targeted Penrose and Pitman. The fleeing Penrose stumbled and fell and the elephant grabbed him with his trunk and tossed him, after which he knelt on him to crush him. Pitman raced to Penrose’s aid and began clubbing the elephant in the ribs with his rifle but to no avail. Pitman hit the elephant on the ear with the rifle butt; the elephant whirled around and knocked Pitman down.  Luckily for both the elephant lumbered off into the bush. Pitman was awarded 31 days leave and awarded the Military Forces Commendation for his non-operational bravery on 23 October 1970.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association
The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association (RLIRA) was founded in 1968.  The Regiment and the Association was at the Cranborne Barracks in the then Salisbury. RLIRA consisted of ex serving members of the regiment and there function was to promote and sustain the Esprit de Corps of the Regiment. RLIRA held many successful functions and fund raisers and obtained sponsorship or prizes from local businesses.   Along the way photographs, trophies, memorabilia and other significant items in the history of the Regiment were collected and displayed in either the Officers or Non Commissioned (NCOs) messes.  These items were mostly privately purchased, donated or purchased from Regimental funds and belonged to the Regiment or the Regimental Association and were not purchased by the state and therefore did not belong to the state.

Following the creation and independence of the, Republic of Zimbabwe, a Colour Parade on 17 October 1980 was held at Cranborne Barracks where the Regimental Colour was laid-up. This symbolised the closing down of the regiment. The unit’s last Commanding Officer J. C. W. Aust took the parade which was attended by a large crowd of spectators. On the 31 October 1980, the Rhodesian Light Infantry was disbanded.

The well-known ‘Trooper’ statue, a memorial to the men of the RLI, was made from melted-down cartridge cases and sculptured from a master by Captain Michael Blackman, It had recently been unveiled on the unit’s official regimental birthday on 1 February 1979.  It stood in the centre of the “Holy Ground” in front of the Battalion Headquarters and was saluted by all officers and men of the regiment when they passed it.   This iconic statue along with Queen’s and Regimental Colours, the elephant tusks, regimental documents, trophies, and other paraphernalia left Zimbabwe on a South African Air Force C-130 Hercules for Pretoria on Monday 28 July 1980.   Later it was moved to the then South African National Museum of Military History.  It was stored in two of the Director’s Residence garages.

In about 1984 all the RLI memorabilia crates were moved to a Department of Public Works (DPW) store, Fennel Street Selby, Johannesburg. This store was used by the Museum for surplus and large material which could not be stored at the Museum.   Various ex commanding officers and men (RLIA) viewed their stored memorabilia from 1984 – 1999.  Security at the stores declined.  It was decided that the RLI material be moved back to the Museum.  Some of the more sensitive material was moved to Museum storage for safekeeping, but would not form part of the Museum collection. This included firearms, the Regimental and Queen’s Colours and the tusks.  The tusks were stored in Brink Hall, Bay Number 4.  The Colours were stored in the flag store and the firearms in the armoury. The rest of the material was stored in a shipping container in the museum workshop area.  The RLIRA later decided to ship their material to England. A listing of all the material in the container was made by the registrar and the writer of this article.  It appears that the then director, General Pretorius, in telephonic discussion with RLIRA agreed that the items which could not be shipped to England such as the tusks would be donated to the Museum. The RLIRA however failed to complete a donor’s form for this material. The materials in the container, as well as the two Colours were shipped by Calvert Removals in November 1999.  They eventually found their place at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol England.  The Trooper Statue now stands in the grounds of Hatfield House, the country seat of the Marquis of Salisbury.

The Trooper, the RLI’s regimental statue, on the grounds of Hatfield House, England in 2014

The two sets of tusks were left at the Museum by the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association who was unable to ship them to the United Kingdom.  In August 2012, a representative from the government Department of Environmental Affairs came to view and document the two sets of tusks.  There was to be a micro-chip attached to  the tusks to document and the tusks in accordance with the Conservation of International Trade in Endangered Species  (CITES )

Binda, A            The Saints – the Rhodesian Light Infantry              30 ⁰ South, Johannesburg, 2007
RLIRA              The Cheetah – Magazine of the Rhodesian Light Infantry               30 ⁰ South,                                     Johannesburg, 2007
Wikipedia          The Rhodesian Light Infantry
Henry, R           Personal involvement in documenting the equipment

Article Verified by
S R Mackenzie



Richard Henry
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
20 May 2020

Anti-Splash Tankers Mask
The Museum’s Anti-Splash Tankers Mask:  Acq No 17126.
Belonged to Corporal Glegg Moir.

Introduction / development
Tanks development and production in the First World War 1914-1918 was in response to the stalemate that developed on the Western Front. The prototype in the development of the British Mark 1 Tank was constructed in the autumn of 1915 and was demonstrated to the British Army on February 2, 1916. The term Tank was coined after a steel water tank, and supposedly uses in the desert conditions of Mesopotamia. This subterfuge was used to preserve secrecy.     The Mark I’s, 8 m long rhomboid shape gave a the caterpillar tracks a large surface area which helped the 30 ton tank cross up to 2,7m wide trenches and easily cross barbed wire obstacles.

First use of the tank
The first use of the British Mk I tank was at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916.  Many tanks broke down but nearly a third succeeded in breaking through the German lines.  The tanks initial unreliability was improved with later marks but not corrected completely.

Difficult operating conditions
The hull of the tank was undivided internally. There were eight crew;  four men operated either the two 6-pouder (57mm) Quick Firing Hotchkiss guns in the male tank or four .303 in Vickers machine guns in the female version of the tank and the other four crew were to operate the tank.

If the subaltern commander wanted the tank to move left for example, he would bang on the hull with a spanner to get the crews attention as the nose inside the tank was too great for verbal commands.  Then he would indicate by hand signal – left.  The driver would depress the clutch pedal, the commander then worked a T bar handle which moved the differential and the one of the two gear men at the back of the tank, lifted leavers on the differential to disengage the left side track.  The right track would continue to turn and the tank would move to the left. Then the left track would be engaged again and the tank would slowly progress forward at a maximum speed of 6 km/h; the marching speed of attacking infantry. These actions were not easy under normal conditions but under the stress of combat with the noise, cordite smoke fumes from the guns, with the tank lurching across rough ground, it was nigh impossible.  The crews were thrown around inside the hull, bumping their heads and or bodies against the steel structure. This sometimes led to a led to a man knocking himself unconscious in action. To combat this, tank crews were issued with leather helmets to protect their heads.  These leather helmets had a similar shape to the German Pickelhaube helmet.  The crews were sometimes mistaken for Germans and shot at by their own forces.

The crew shared the same interior space as the Daimler-Knight 6-cylinder sleeve-valve 16-litre petrol engine.  This made the environment inside the tank was extremely unpleasant. After the engine has run for about half an hour, the exhaust, vented out to the roof of the tank, became red hot.  This heated the inside of the tank up to 50 ⁰ Centigrade.  The engine manifold, now also extremely hot, separated slightly from the engine which allowed carbon monoxide gasses to enter the inside of the tank.  The only fresh air into the tank was from the driver’s and commander’s hatches which could also be closed under combat.  Crew members were often unaware of the carbon monoxide poisoning until they eventually stopped and got fresh air which caused the crew member to start vomiting.

Enemy fire
The standard cartridge of the Germans in the First World War was the 1903 pattern 7.92 x 57 mm Mauser ball round with a pointed (Spitzgeschoß) 9.9 gram (153 grains) bullet. The bullet had a lead core encased in a cupronickel jacket and had a muzzle velocity of velocity 878 metres per second.

When a British tank approached the German trenches, the tank came under machine gun and rifle fire.  The noise of the bullets striking the outside of the tank was very loud.  On impact with the tank armour, the lead core of the bullet melted and this molten lead found its way through the smallest gaps between the riveted plates of the tank armour.   This was called bullet splash. Bullet splash also entered the tank via the numerous pistol ports and vision hatches.   There is a report of an Mk IV British tank returning to the British lines after the Battle of Cambrai on 20 November 1917, after being hit so many times by machine gun and rifle file, that the bullet splash had painted the tank silver.  Bullet splash was not deadly but could pepper the crew’s face with small lead particle which could penetrate the skin and cause blindness if hit in the eyes.  Sometimes the impact of the bullet on the exterior of the armour might cause a piece of the armour on the inside of the tank to dislodge and also cause fine pieces of steel to strike the crew.  This was more common on the earlier marks of tanks which had thinner more brittle armour plate.  The armour on the early tanks could stop small arms fire and fragments from high-explosive artillery shells. By June 1917 the Germans were using the K bullet – an armour piercing bullet with a steel core which was able to penetrate up to 13mm of armour at 100. This was just sufficient to penetrate the latest Mk IV British tank.  A larger Mauser Model 1918, 13mm anti-tank rifle known as T Gewehr which could penetrate up 26 mm of armour at 100 m and 18 mm of armour at 500 m – enough to easily penetrate the armour on a British Mk IV tank was used from 191.   All tanks were vulnerable to a direct hit from artillery and mortar shells.

The iconic anti-splash mask
At the end of 1916, after the battle Flers, anti-bullet splash masks were issued to tank crews to protect their eyes and throat.  The Imperial War Museum example has the letters WS & Co (possibly William Suckling of Birmingham) printed on the cloth ties.      They were made of light metal, covered in brown leather. The eye pieces had five horizontal slits cut into the metal as vision ports.  A chain-mail skirt was attached by rings to lugs on the steel plate, and hung from the mask below the cheeks and nose to protect the throat area.

The steel portion of the Museum’s mask and possibly the whole mask was made by Burys & Co of Sheffield.  See advertisement below. The mask belonged to Corporal Glegg Moir who may have served in the Scottish Highlanders. It is not known if he later served in the fledgling Tank Corps.  On his death in 1976, the mask was donated to the Museum on 21 February 1976 by his wife.

Guide to British Industrial History
Guide to British Industrial History

Manufacturer’s mark on the Museum anti-splash mask
The Manufacturer’s mark on the Museum anti-splash mask.

The light steel could be bent and formed to fit the individuals face.  The inside of the steel was covered in a padded buff coloured chamois leather and the mask was held in place on the face by two cloth ties  which were tied at the back of the head.  Splatter Masks were extensively used by the British in the battle of Cambrai, 20 November 1917.  Neither the helmet nor the mask were welcomed by the crews as wearing them was uncomfortable and the mask also made it very difficult to see inside the already hot, smoky, noisy interior.  Many of these splash masks were saved by the crews as a symbol of having been an elite tank crewman in WW1.

Museum mask showing the padded chamois leather
The rear of the Museum mask showing the padded chamois leather.

When tanks were first used in combat the authorities did not foresee that bullet splash could blind the tank crews.  As a quick stopgap, these masks were quickly manufactured to protect the eyes of tank crewmen from bullet splash but were not liked.

Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History from:  The Stock Exchange Year Book 1908


Article Verified by
S R Mackenzie



Allan Sinclair

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

30 April 2020

During the First World War (1914 – 1918) most nations that participated went to great lengths to record the activities of their soldiers in sketches, watercolours and oil paintings.  South Africa was one of the exceptions and, as a result, no official First World War art collection of South Africa’s role exists.

This mistake was not repeated and soon after South Africa’s entry into the Second World War (1939 – 1945), artists were appointed to travel to the battlefronts where the Union Defence Forces fought. The resulting official collection of 925 works of art is housed at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

Francois Krige was amongst the first artists to be selected for this task in 1940 and this article looks at four works produced by him after the Battle of Sidi Rezegh (23 November 1941).

Francois KrigeFrancois Krige

Francois Krige was born in Uniondale in the Western Cape in 1913.  His father, Japie, played international rugby for South Africa whilst his brother, Uys, became a well-known author and poet. Between 1934 and 1937 Francois studied at the Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town prior to furthering these studies in Antwerp, Florence and Spain.

At the outbreak of the war in 1939 Francois and his four brothers signed up.  Francois was appointed as a war artist while Uys became a war correspondent. The position that they took as Afrikaans speaking South Africans positioned against Nazi Germany drew strong criticism from National Party supporters in South Africa and right-wing newspapers wrote abusive articles about the brothers.

Justin Fox, a great nephew of Francois who published a book The Life and Works of Francois Krige in 2000, wrote that many of his images produced in the desert of North Africa are overworked and the use of oil colour is often unsure, probably due to the fact that he was supposed to be a quasi-journalist recording facts and was not at all enthusiastic about the kind of images of destruction he was compelled to record.[1]

Sidi Rezegh
Towards the end of 1941 Krige travelled across the desert from Cairo to Sidi Rezegh on the outskirts of Tobruk. It was there that on 23 November 1941 the 5th South African Brigade had been completely overrun by the German XV and XXI Panzer Divisions. At the end of that fateful day the Brigade had ceased to exist as a fighting force and, out of an initial strength of 5 700 men, only 2 300 escaped to safety.  Of the 3 394 South African casualties, 224 soldiers had been killed and 379 wounded.  The remainder, including Uys Krige who had been attached to the Brigade as a correspondent, were taken into captivity.

Drift Sands top of Halfaya Pass (Cat No 1636)
Drift Sands

At Halfaya Pass on route to Sidi Rezegh, Krige sketched a sea of graves and wrecked tanks beside the road.  It was a scene of total destruction with barely any buildings or vehicles left intact.

Death comes in the afternoon (Cat No 1619)
Death comes in the afternoon (Cat No 1619)

As Krige neared the battle scene, it became apparent that the horizon was littered with burned out vehicles and dead bodies.  Krige stopped beside a German staff car that had suffered attack by Allied aircraft.  The two occupants of the car were slumped dead beside the vehicle.  The stench of rotting flesh and hosts of flies provoked such a response in him that his sketchbook provided the only answer.

The vehicle in the painting is a German Lechter Messtruppkraftwagen (Sfz 3).

Interior of a knocked-out British tank, Sidi Rezegh (Cat No 1726)
Interior of a knocked-out British tank, Sidi Rezegh (Cat No 1726)

At Sidi Rezegh Krige was confronted by the sight of a destroyed British tank that still had a dead body inside. Krige describes the scene as such:

“A shell had taken off the turret as neatly as with a knife; and we had a detailed view of the tank’s interior.  With his hands firmly grasping the steering wheel, the driver sat erect in his seat, straining backwards as if, in the final moment, he had wanted to jerk his stationary tank into sudden action.  A taut figure sat there, pitch-black since it had been completely carbonised, but perfectly preserved except that it had contracted to about two-thirds of an ordinary man’s size.” [2]

“Nature Morte” (Cat no 1817)
“Nature Morte” (Cat no 1817)

Krige then arrived at the burial grounds for the Sidi Rezegh fatalities. The graves were being laid out near the tomb of the Arab Sheik after whom the area is named.   One scene depicts a group of four body bags which were rendered as though they were butterfly cocoons.  A full moon rises over a plain where the grave diggers work hard to bury the bodies. Each bag is a subtly different combination of greys, blues and mauves with pairs of boots protruding, from two of them. It suggests the unique character of each of its inhabitants.

Francois Krige was moved by his experiences during this visit and the scenes of the battlefield at Sidi Rezegh left a lasting impression on him. He spent quite some time recording the horrors he had seen.  Krige clearly tried to capture the alienation of battle and was uninterested in attempting to portray or celebrate the glory of war.  His fellow war artists and correspondents often stated that he was a recluse who kept himself apart from the others, rather turning in on himself to deal with the traumatic life that he had become involved in.

[1]  J Fox, 2000
[2] J Fox, 2000

Fox, J The Life and Works of Francois Krige (Cape Town, Fernwood Press, 2000).
Huntingford, N The Official World War II works of Francois Krige (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1980).
Library File 920, “Krige Francois” (Archives of the DNMMH).

Article Verified by
S R Mackenzie



Allan Sinclair

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

29 April 2020

The fall of France in June 1940 and Japan’s entry into the Second World War (1939 – 1945) in December 1941 were to have a significant bearing on the Union of South Africa and her standing as a role player in both the British Commonwealth of Nations and the Allied war effort. Both nations were situated far from South African shores and one can forgive the reader for thinking that such an impact would be negligible for a small country at the bottom of Africa. This article will explain how this very location made such an impact possible and provide insight into the measures taken to meet the threats posed.

The effect of the fall of France on South Africa
On 10 May 1940 German forces launched their attack on France and the Low Countries. Within six weeks the Allied forces had been defeated resulting in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk and the eventual capitulation of the French Army.[i] On 22 June 1940 the French signed an armistice with Germany by which France was divided into a German occupation zone in the north and west and a free zone in the south. The Government of the free zone established at Vichy was compelled to align itself with Nazi Germany. The former French Republic was abolished and all power was vested in Marshal Philippe Petain.  The Regime also retained control over the French Colonial Empire.

The effect of the capitulation of France and the establishment of the Vichy Regime on South Africa was instantaneous. The South African Prime Minister, Field Marshal J C Smuts, openly stated in Parliament that, as far as possible, the country would remain on friendly terms with the Vichy Government. The relationship would be maintained as long as the French possessions in Africa and the Indian Ocean, in particular Madagascar, did not present any danger to South Africa.[1] Smuts also accepted the fact that the French collapse along with Italy’s entry into the war on the side of Germany would see the Mediterranean Sea closed to all but the most heavily guarded of Allied shipping. In turn, the Cape sea route would become the corridor of strategic importance to maintain Britain’s vital lines of communication with the Middle East, India and the Far East. South Africa’s status as an important Indian Ocean role player and a key member of the Allied nations was entrenched as a result.[2]

Madagascar’s allegiance to the Vichy regime troubled Smuts from the outset. He informed the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that the port of Diego Suarez (today Antisiranana) on the island was crucial to the safety of the Indian Ocean.[ii] [3] After the Vichy Government allowed Japan to seize control of French Indo-China on 26 September 1940, the threat of Diego Suarez and other ports on the island being ceded to Japan in similar fashion became a crucial factor in Allied thinking.[iii]

Relations between Vichy and the Allies took a turn for the worse in July 1940 when Britain, fearing that the French Fleet might fall into German hands, took the difficult decision to attack and sink the her former ally’s fleet moored at Mers-el-Keber in North Africa. A total of 1 200 French sailors were killed during the attack and relations between the British Empire and the Vichy Government were formally broken off.[iv] The French attempted to seek improved terms with Germany by suggesting a more active role on the side of the Axis in Africa and offering to provide French pilots to participate in the Luftwaffe’s air offensive against Britain.[4]

The effect of the entry of Japan into the war on South Africa
South Africa’s position in the Indian Ocean became even more noticeable when, after the Japanese attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Japan also entered the war as part of the Axis Pact with Germany and Italy. The attack on Pearl Harbour was followed up by the invasion of Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippians and Burma. Spurred on by these successes, the Japanese Imperial Navy stood poised to launch an offensive into the Indian Ocean.[5]

Smuts knew in his mind that the intervention of Japan in the Indian Ocean posed a substantial threat to South Africa’s vulnerable coast line. Defensive measures in place at the nation’s harbours were originally developed as a deterrent against sporadic forays by enemy surface raiders or submarines and by raids of no more than 200 people. The speed and ruthlessness of the Japanese conquest of South-East Asia left Smuts in no doubt that the risk of invasion was a visible reality and the country’s meagre defences and limited naval force were in no way capable of resisting such an attack.[6]

The bulk of the nation’s fighting forces were at the time deployed in the Middle East.[v]  At home the 3rd South African Division, which lacked training and equipment and whose battalions had been drained to provide reinforcements for the forces in the Middle East, was the only substantial formation available. The Division’s role immediately increased in significance and, even though it remained under-strength, its main function was converted to provide a force to defend the east coast as well as the mountain passes leading from Mozambique. The defence of the harbours was assumed by volunteer units of the newly formed Coastal Defence Corps and reinforced by the South African Garrison Artillery which provided crews for the coastal batteries. At that stage there were only three flights of Avro Anson Mk I aircraft available for coastal patrols.  These flights were re-equipped with Bristol Beaufort Mk 1 aircraft in early 1942. The SAAF proposed that the air capability should be increased to one bomber and four fighter squadrons for adequate defence.  None of the required aircraft could, however, be delivered for some months.[7]

New defensive measures put in place
After an attack by the main Japanese Carrier Force on Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) and the Bay of Bengal in April 1942, it was assumed that Japan would launch its anticipated offensive further west. Smuts was determined that South Africa should be prepared for this threat along with the dangers proposed by Madagascar.[8] In a speech made to Parliament he stated categorically that such measures could include introducing universal conscription and the arming of all able bodied South Africans regardless of race.[vi] [9]

In May 1942 Coastal Area Command was established with its headquarters in Cape Town to meet the threat and to unify the defence of the South African coast. The Command had control of the strip of land roughly 160 km wide along the entire coast. Its sub-divisions were the cities and major towns along this strip which, for operational purposes, were termed fortresses.[vii] The General-Officer-Commanding, Maj Gen I P De Villiers, took control of all military operations and security within the area as well as the discipline and training of all units including SAAF squadrons placed under his command. At the same time the Royal Navy’s Commander-in-Chief South Atlantic transferred his headquarters from Freetown in West Africa to Simonstown.  Over time a combined operations room was set up in the Lady Ann Barnard Room of the Cape Town Castle to pool all information regarding movements of shipping, intelligence and reconnaissance.[10]

On 4 June 1942 Smuts again informed Churchill of his concerns about the weakness of Allied power in the Indian Ocean. He envisaged that the critical value of Durban as a port was well known to the Axis and, with an eye to the future, he agreed to setting up a new naval establishment at Salisbury Island in Durban Harbour as well as a training institution in Port Elizabeth.[11]

The Allied occupation of Madagascar
Madagascar was again revealed to be fundamental to the whole issue. After Singapore had been captured and Ceylon bombed, Allied attention became more focussed on the strategic importance of the island. The Allies believed that the Vichy Government would be compelled under German pressure to let Japan to take occupation of the island or at least gain control of Diego Suarez. This had to be forestalled at all costs and a plan to occupy Diego Suarez, codenamed Operation Ironclad, led to the first major Allied amphibious operation of the war.[viii]  With South African security interests at stake Smuts was also keen to participate in the operation.[12]

The invasion force, known as Force 121, was placed under the command of the South African born Royal Navy officer, R Adm Norman Syfret.  The ground force component numbered 15 000 troops who would face a French colonial force of approximately 8 000 troops. Initially the South African Air Force provided reliable reconnaissance over Diego Suarez.   Later during the landings, three coastal flights under the command of Col S A Melville and nicknamed the Sugar Cane Wing, provided air support.[ix] Durban was chosen as the main staging and supply base for the operation and the expedition was launched from there on 17 April 1942.[13]

The primary objective of Ironclad was to capture Diego Suarez and stop it from falling into Japanese hands. As the operation progressed the difficulties of carrying out amphibious operations became apparent after British armoured units found themselves bogged down in the mud.[x] The eventual capture of the harbour cost 100 British lives and around 600 French colonial casualties. It proved to be no quick victory as the French refused to surrender and retreated south into the heartland of the island.[14]

Smuts felt it important to extend the operation and occupy the whole island. This proposal was not initially accepted as the British troops involved in the landings were urgently required in India. Eventually in September 1942, after Japanese submarines had been found operating in South African waters and the Mozambique Channel, the decision to go on and capture the whole of Madagascar was agreed to.  Smuts ordered the 7th South African Motorised Brigade, a component of the 3rd Division and with A Squadron 1st Armoured Car Commando attached, to be made available as part of the occupation force.[15]

South African participation in the occupation of Madagascar
Lt Col C L Engelbrecht, Officer-Commanding the Pretoria Regiment in the 7th Brigade, wrote that the mobilisation of the Brigade was carried out in the utmost secrecy and no-one except the Brigade Commander knew of the destination.[xi] The secrecy was due to apparent intelligence reports that the Japanese were already on route to take possession of Madagascar.  It was therefore imperative that the French authorities on the island not be made aware of the impending Allied attack.[16]

The Brigade arrived in Diego Suarez on 24 June 1942 and took up positions in defence of the envisaged Japanese landing and a possible counter attack by the Vichy forces still intact to the south. By 10 September it had become apparent that no Japanese invasion was forthcoming and preparations were made to renew the offensive. The Brigade’s actions were limited by shortage of transport. Nevertheless the First City Regt advanced along the west coast capturing a force of 135 French colonial troops on 14 September. Elements of the Pretoria Regt occupied positions along the east coast while two of the Regt’s companies landed at Tulear (today Toliara) on 29 September and advanced inland.[xii] Hostilities eventually ceased on 30 September and two days later the armistice was signed by the French Governor-General, M Annet.[xiii][17]

Throughout the second phase of the campaign the fighting was intermittent and the Allied casualties numbered 107 troops of whom 18 were South African, the result of tropical diseases prevalent on the island.[18]

The reality of the Japanese threat to Madagascar and South Africa
The successful occupation of Madagascar did remove the Japanese threat to South Africa but questions have to be raised about the reality of such a threat. Turner wrote that the Japanese Naval Attaché in Berlin, Adm Nomura, met Adm Ficke, the Chief of Staff of the German Oberkommando der Marine, on 17 December 1941 to discuss the demarcation of the respective areas of operation by the Japanese and German navies in the Indian Ocean.  While the Japanese proposed that the longitude 700 east should form the boundary of operations, the Germans suggested that a diagonal line running across the Ocean from the Gulf of Aden to Northern Australia be approved with the Japanese operating north of the line while the Germans conducted their operations to the south.[xiv] An agreement was eventually settled upon on 18 January 1942 which accepted the 700 longitude line with a proviso that both navies could extend their influence beyond this line should the situation require it.[19]

Germany and Japan came as close as possible to operating together during the period December 1941 to June 1942. The Japanese initially proposed that both nations should focus on defeating Britain and knocking her out of the war. Adm Erich Rader, C-in-C of the German Kriegsmarine, perceived that the Japanese capture of the Burma and Ceylon would have a sweeping effect on British interests in the Indian Ocean and threaten the oil supply through the Persian Gulf.  It would also leave only Alexandria in Egypt and Durban and Simonstown in South Africa available as bases for the large capital ships of the Royal Navy. In his opinion the time was right for a substantial German offensive against British positions in the Middle East and the capture of the Suez Canal.[20]

Rosenthal provides evidence that Gen Oshima, the Japanese Ambassador to Germany, travelled to Vichy in January 1942 to submit an argument for the Japanese to make use of both Madagascar and Reunion while the war was in progress. He added that it was no secret that the purpose of the plan was to use the harbours on both islands to assist Japan in gaining complete control of the Indian Ocean.[21]

Turner argues that, once Adolf Hitler had been informed about Japanese ambitions in Madagascar, he displayed very little interest remarking that he did not believe that the French would consider the matter favourably.[22] Rosenthal documented that Petain eventually turned down Japan’s proposal altogether.[23]

The facts seem to conclude that both Germany and Japan, although wartime allies, shared a mutual distrust of each other’s aims.  Co-operation seemed unnecessary to both and, although there was a fair amount of Japanese naval activity in the South African waters, this was restricted to submarine warfare with no surface ships ever penetrating far into the western Indian Ocean.[24]

It is possible that Hitler may have welcomed Japanese intervention in South Africa as means of extending the Axis war effort.  It is also possible that he considered the issue to be of no real importance in relation to his main aim which was the destruction of the Soviet Union, against which even the campaign in North Africa paled into insignificance. In the end Japan also took the decision to withdraw from the Indian Ocean and concentrate on its primary focus, to seek out and destroy the remainder of the United States Fleet in the Pacific Ocean.

One argument is plausible.  Germany knew that South Africa was divided on the issue of participation in the war and that many Afrikaans speaking South Africans were sympathetic to the German cause. Restricted to using volunteers, Smuts struggled to maintain the strengths of the country’s fighting formations. It is easy to envisage how a conservative, racially-minded opposition based on the doctrine of white Afrikaner supremacy would have reacted to an attack by Japan, a ‘non-white’ power. A Japanese attack on South Africa might even have served to unite the population behind the nation’s war effort.

The major consequence of the fall of France and Japan’s entry into the conflict was that it brought the war to South Africa’s door step so to speak.  The battles were no longer only being fought on distant fronts and, while the Cape sea route had become a vital line of communication that had to be defended, Madagascar emerged as a credible threat to this line of communication. Although the evidence points to the fact that the threat of aggression in the western Indian Ocean was not relatively high on the Japanese planning agenda, in most South African minds it remained real, at least until the occupation of Madagascar had been concluded.

[i] The armies of France, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands were all defeated during the German invasion.
[ii] British plans to seize control of Madagascar were contemplated in December 1940. Difficulties experienced in finding the required forces at the time led to the shelving of the operation unless the use of the island by Axis raiders made such an action imperative. 
[iii] Rosenthal wrote that Japan formally proposed such an idea to Petain in January 1942.
[iv] South Africa broke off relations with the Vichy Government on 23 April 1942 following the appointment by Petain of Pierre Laval as Minister of State.
[v] These included the 1st and 2nd South African Divisions, a significant number of non-divisional engineering and administrative units and a substantial air force of ten squadrons.
[vi] The Defence Act of 1912 stipulated that only white male South Africans could be armed and used in a combatant capacity.  The internal opposition to the country’s entry into the war in 1939 led to the Government’s decision that service in the Union Defence Forces would only be on a volunteer basis.
[vii] At the same time Inland Area Command responsible for the defence of the remainder of the Union was established with its headquarters in Pretoria.
[viii] This would also be the only amphibious operation of the Second World War involving South African formations.
[ix]  In an article published in the Rand Daily Mail on 5 March 1948, Adm Syfret placed on record the excellent relations between the Royal Navy and the South African Air Force during Operation Ironclad.
[x] Operation Ironclad provided valuable experience in carrying out amphibious offensives, experience which would prove beneficial for further operations such as the landings in North Africa that were being planned at the time.
[xi]  According to Engelbrecht the mobilisation and movement of the 7th Brigade was so secret that not even the GOC 3rd South African Division, Maj Gen Manie Botha, was informed of the mission.
[xii] Engelbrecht stated that the organisation and execution of the landings at Tulear, which involved co-operation with the Royal Navy and troops of the Royal Marines, was exhilarating [sic].  Adm Tennant, the RN commander reported that, with a little more practice, the South Africans could have become proficient in amphibious operations.
[xiii] The Vichy and colonial (Malagasy and Senegalese) forces withstood the Allied invasion of Madagascar in 1942 for a much longer period than the main French Regular Army had done during the German invasion of Metropolitan France in 1940.
[xiv] The information was based on German documents that were made available to the Union War Histories Project after the Second World War.

1. E. Rosenthal, Japan’s Bid For Africa p 51.
2. R. Steyn, Churchill and Smuts: The Friendship p 101.
3. R. Steyn, p 125.
4. M. Burleigh, Moral Combat: A History of World War II p
5. E. Rosenthal, p 42.
6. L.C.F. Turner & H.R. Gordon-Cummings, War in the Southern Oceans p 109.
7. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 109.
8. E. Rosenthal, p 52.
9. R. Steyn, Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness, p 140.
10. L.C.F. Turner et al, p and H J Martin et al, p 152.
11. H.J. Martin & N. Orpen, South Africa at War, p 238.
12. S. Woodburn-Kirby (Ed), The War against Japan (Vol II), p 133.
13. J.L. Moulton, in Purnell’s History of the Second World War (vol 3) p 1085.
14. The History Guy (You tube video), The Allied Invasion of Madagascar (29 August 2019).
15. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 131.
16. Library File B.423 (Madagascar)
17. The History Buff (You tube video), The British Invasion of Madagascar 1942 (23 November 2019).
18. S. Woodburn-Kirby (Ed), p 144.
19. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 115.
20. L.C.F. Turner et al, p 116.
21. E. Rosenthal, p 41.
22. L.C.F Turner et al, p 115.
23. E Rosenthal, p 56.
24. H. J. Martin et all, p 182.

Archival Sources
Library File B.423 (Madagascar) located in the archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

You Tube Sources
The History Guy (You tube video), The Allied Invasion of Madagascar (29 August 2019).
The History Buff (You tube video), The British Invasion of Madagascar 1942 (23 November 2019).

Published Sources
Moulton, J L “Madagascar The First Of The Allied Invasions” in Purnell’s History Of The Second World War (Vol 3)

Burleigh M, Moral Combat: A History Of World War 2 (London, Harper Press, 2010)
Martin H J & Orpen N, South Africa At War  (Cape Town, Purnell, 1979)
Rosenthal E, Japan’s Bid For Africa (Johannesburg, CNA, 1944)
Steyn R, Churchill And Smuts: The Friendship  (Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 2017)
Steyn R, Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness  (Johannesburg, Jonathan Ball, 2015)
Turner L F C & Gordon-Cummings H R, War In The Southern Oceans (Cape Town, Oxford University Press, 1961)
Woodburn-Kirby S (Et Al), The War Against Japan (Vol 2) (London, HMSO, 1958)

Article Verified by
S R Mackenzie


Allan Sinclair

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

8 May 2020

On 8 May 1945 the British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, delivered a speech on the radio declaring that the Allies had received the unconditional surrender of Germany bringing the fighting in Europe finally to an end. The date has since been observed each year as VE (Victory in Europe) Day and the 75th anniversary of this event was recently commemorated.

A total of 342 692 South African men and women of all races volunteered for service in the Second World War (1939 – 1945) with 38 208 casualties suffered over five years of combat. At the end of the war the bulk of nation’s forces were serving in the Italian Campaign. The primary fighting formation, the 6th South African Armoured Division, ended its advance near Milan after the German forces in Italy surrendered on 2 May 1945. The General-Officer-Commanding the Division, Major General W H E Poole, addressed his troops two days later where a flag presented at the start of the campaign by Field Marshal J C Smuts, Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Union Defence Forces, was unfurled and hoisted in recognition of the victory.  The flag was a specifically designed national flag of the time complete with the green and gold triangular flash of the Division and the signatures of Smuts and Lieutenant General Sir H A van Ryneveld, Chief of the South African General Staff.

On 14 May 1945 a final victory parade for the 6th Division was held at the Grand Prix Motor Racing Circuit at Monza. The Commanders-in-Chief of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean Theatre, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, and the 15th Army Group, General Mark Clark, were both in attendance to take the salute as the Division as it marched past.

Other South African formations and units serving in Italy and the Mediterranean at the end of the war also deserve a mention.  These include a substantial number of non-divisional units of the South African Engineer and Administrative Corps; the South African Air Force which had increased to 35 operational squadrons at by that time; and elements of the South African Naval Forces employed to carry out anti-submarine, minesweeping and harbour clearance duties in the Mediterranean.

Men and women who volunteered and served in the Second World War, the vast majority of whom have sadly passed on by now, would often refer to a sense of unity and common purpose motivated by their service. While we commemorate the 75th Anniversary of VE Day it is important that South Africans acknowledge and remember those of our country who laid aside their differences, as well as those who made the ultimate sacrifice in a struggle which they believed would create a better world for us all.

Martin, H J and Orpen, N South Africa at War (Purnell, Cape Town, 1979)

Article Verified by
S R Mackenzie