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.

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

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