The Resistance Against December 16: A Historical Reflection

By: Motsane Getrude Seabela

Curator Anthropology, Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History

Until 1995, a year after the demise of apartheid government in South Africa, 16 December was commemorated as Dingaan’s Dag (Dingane’s Day), a celebration by most of the Afrikaner speaking population as it represented the Voortrekkers’ victory over the Zulus at the so-called Battle of Blood River in 1838. However, to the African-black population the celebration was deemed offensive in that it symbolised “the loss of their land and associated freedom, and the death of a great Zulu chief, King Dingane” thus the day evoked contentious views. The nucleus of Afrikaner Nationalist historiography perceived King Dingane as a “treacherous, uncivilized barbarian”’. The general view was that the King was an anti‐white agitator who was beyond redemption. However, for African nationalists and workers, King Dingane was regarded as “one of the original freedom fighters who resisted the oppression of the land‐grabbing white settlers and Voortrekkers of the nineteenth century”. The African nationalists and workers’ interpretations of King Dingane’s relationship with white settlers show the later as disrespectful imperialists and dishonest men, who were hell-bent on enriching themselves at the expense of the indigenous population.

As a way of dissent against a celebration which symbolised loss of land, freedom and continuous subjugation of black people in South Africa, on 16 December 1929 the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) later the South African Communist Party (SACP) organised anti-pass protest in Potchefstroom in the then Transvaal. “In one meeting addressed by Edwin Thabo Mofutsanyane and John Beaver Marks a group of white people invaded the gathering and fired a gunshot meant for the leaders resulting in the death of one person” The incident was followed by a strike that lasted until 1930. Thence, the CPSA continued to hold anti-pass campaigns and meetings on 16 December which ultimately led to the burning of passes. The racial policies of Prime Minister Hertzog too, were challenged in 1935 from 15 December to 18 December during the All-African Convention (AAC) held in Bloemfontein. Accordingly, the 16th of December during the “1920s and the 1930s became a day that highlighted divisions in the country. The actions of the CPSAs resistance permeated consciousness.

REFERENCES Ndlovu, S.M. 2017. ‘Remember Dingaan’s Day: The Passing of African Independence’: Public History and the Counter-Commemoration of King Dingane, 1920–1930, African Perspectives of King Dingane kaSenzangakhona: 129-166.

Ndlovu, S.M. 2000. Johannes Nkosi and the Communist Party of South Africa: Images of ‘Blood River’ and King Dingane in the Late 1920s–1930. History and Theory. Studies in the Philosophy of History. 39(4).


Julia Roelofse, site curator, DITSONG: Pioneer Museum and Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum


A 750 ml bottle of 2015 Lourensford Chardonay wine was purchased for consumption at a supermarket, Checkers, which is local to South Africa. The supermarket is situated within a shopping complex north of Pretoria. The centre itself is located between a very poor housing area and a wealthier area.  It is small and consists of small shops selling relatively low value items, such as PEP, Cash Crusaders (in effect a money lending trope), where one is able to lend money against the value estimated of the goods, mainly electronic or jewellery goods. The money is lent to the borrower in exchange for the goods handed in as a security should the money not be able to be returned to the lending company (Kopytoff, 1986:64).

The shopping centre also has two Chinese owned shops who have imported goods from China in bulk for sale – retail shops. One of the shops is a clothing shop, where it is obvious the clothes are imported and not well made, as the sizes of the clothes are smaller than South African sizes. The second Chinese shop is similar to a mini Chinese market. It has many various goods crammed into a small space ranging from laser pointers to nail polish, stationery, toys and cookware.

The centre caters for a middle to lower income group.  A cellphone shop just inside the centre is run by a family from Bangladesh. For the average income white South African, the shops owned by foreigners are part of the changing landscape of our country. The Chinese family is seen as industrious escaping from their homelands’ circumstances to build a better life. The family keeps to themselves and are proud.  The Bangladeshis are proud of their country and speak of home with great longing. They are Muslim and have also arrived in South Africa to run a small shop to send money home as well as make a life for themselves in this country. A life that seems to be a good life in Pretoria North may be a terrible life for a person living in Durban but a wonderful life for someone from Bangladesh. (Kopytoff, 1986:66) Within the Pretoria North area, the number of mosques are growing. The Bangladeshis have been reaching out to the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. Their faith and culture have shown them respect. Diawara (1998:35) describes the evil forest which becomes colonised by Christian missionaries, but in this case the conversion to Islam of those whom “would have been cast out”, and now have found new life and meaning in Allah. There are a number of similarities in Diawara (1998:41-43).

On street corners and parking lots, Zimbabweans and Nigerians make a living watching cars, making clothes, cutting hair, selling fake hair, CDs and also trying to convert the lost, but in this case to Christianity. Although not within the shopping centre, the irregular and organic formation of these small businesses almost takes the form or a market place forced to align itself along the edges of the parking areas and pavements. Some traditional foods are ready for take away or for a quick bite under the shelter on the pavement. Each item for sale as seen through the eyes of an anthropologist would have its own origin, its own maker, a status and an age. It could be used within its successive ages for different purposes (Kopytoff 1986:66-67).

As Diawara (1998:41-42) comments on the diversity of the markets of West Africa, means of trade, bartering, the national pride particularly of African nationals, could this be the new South Africa, the globalisation of South Africa?  The South African economy has not fallen so much, that the country is totally dependent on the World Bank for assistance, yet the country carries massive debt. South Africans are proud but very diverse and racism still raises its head. Politicians are corrupt but have been called to account. The country is not under a dictator as many of the Western African countries.

Each object or item for sale would have a biography or history. They would have a description within a culture and how they were to be used in that culture. As they are sold, or possibly first repaired and then resold, the object adds to its biography. In Africa where an object would need to have an extensive life due to the value of money and cost, the object may be repaired or altered and sold a number of times. Its biography would include who did the selling and buying, how the money was acquired and relationships between the people whose lives it passes through. Within a person’s biography would be their intellectual, relationship, political and social biographies. Similarly, with objects that may also offer indications to the family relations, social standing and even class structure (Kopytoff 1986:68).

To backtrack and re-enter the Checkers supermarket, and purchase the commodity; the Chardonay’s first value was higher, but had a reduced value of R85.00 due to the age of the bottle. The same bottle of wine was sold at Makro, a wholesale supermarket, for R 59.00. The wine is created for an export market to be exported to the Netherlands. The beautiful label and bottle was neatly packed on a table next to other bottles of wine also on discount, in the alcohol section of Checkers. The Lourensford Chardonnay would have travelled approximately 1 460 km from Somerset West to reach Pretoria.

The grapes are harvested and wine is produced on the Lourensford farm in Somerset West, which has been a wine farm since the 1700s. The estate was once part of the neighbouring Vergelegen, one of Willem Adriaan van der Stel’s farms established in 1709. Here he spent Dutch East India company resources on the farm allowing him unfair advantage over the Free Burghers and giving him the monopoly on wine. This led to a revolt among farmers in 1706. A petition was drawn up and sent to the VOC headquarters in Amsterdam. His one sided decisions also determined who could be part of the meat and wine monopoly (Du Bruin. W. 2015).

Dr Christo Wiese purchased the farm in 1998. The history of Vergelegen on its website, gives an account of the people who lived in the area, namely the Khoi-Khoi and Khoi-San people. The Quenaku peoples also lived within the Hottentots Holland mountains. The Khoi-Khoi and Khoi-San peoples were well established in this area when the Dutch arrived at the Cape (info@lourensford, no Author, no Date).  There is very little stated in public brochures about the slaves that were kept on the farm, but there is a small museum on Lourensford, indicating that there was indeed a slave lodge on the farm. However, there are academic articles such as Markell, A., Hall, M. & Schrire, C. (1995: Abstract) that indicate there were interrelationships between the slaves and colonists and indigenous inhabitants of the Western Cape. Between the years 1705 and 1706 there were 250 to 350 slaves working on the Vergelegen farm, the foremost farm in the Cape (

Very much like the Waterfront project as described by Worden (1996:59), visitors have been drawn to the various attractions of the farm Lourensford, their main interest in visiting the farm is to relax and have a good meal with a glass of wine produced on the estate. Not to think about the slaves who were kept in the slave lodge on the original farm on whose labour the farm was built. In Hall & Bombela (2005:18 ) the Lourensford farm has digressed vastly from what it was in the 1700s and become a capitalist’s dream. Visitors experience a number of pleasurable escapes, taking them further and further away from what was, the farm of Willem Adriaan van der Stel, a man driven to outdo all the other farms in its production and competition. The more slaves one had, the more commodities could be produced creating greater capital. Visitors come to the farm for modern entertainment rather than to learn of the history of the area. The Lourensford farm has lost its essence of Cape heritage and become a modern form of escapism for the elite. The camphor and oak trees are the living testaments of what was.  Visitors are removed from the history of the farm. There is no place for them to reflect on the life of the labouring class or rather slaves of the 18th century who laboured intensively to ensure the vines were pruned or grapes picked as required by the owner.

The Cape has also removed itself from the rest of Africa and the world. The Dutch heritage of the coloniser is reflected in the architecture and some of the food one can purchase, but the origins and heritage of the slaves who laboured on the farm are lost.

The slaves originated from various parts of the world. Many were children. Their origins were as diverse as India, Tranquebare, Madagascar, Bali, Batavia, Ceylon and the Canary Islands. Slaves were the principal labour source on farms and viticulture especially made intensive use of slave labour. (SA History on Line. no Author. no Date). As Kopytoff (1986:65) explains that the slaves were captured or sometimes purchased, which took away their identity and forcing them to become just a something or a thing to be used, a commodity.  When the slave is purchased and becomes part of a group they receive a new identity. They act within the groups norms and culture and become a person, an individual again.

The history of the Khoi- Khoi, Khoi-San and Quenaku or red people is also not well represented although there is a Stone Age midden found on site as well as a site reminiscent of a celestial stone conservatory. These archaeological features are not well publicised in terms of the rest of the context of what is afforded to visitors. The visitor is able to immerse themselves in new ventures such as rope climbing, zip lines, spa treatments, village markets, cellar tours, blind wine tasting, vodka tasting, and of all aspects a link to Africa a visit to an master’s art gallery. The visitor has become a gentile Englishman or lady enjoying the luxuries on offer between the beauty of green lush mountains and gardens. (Hall & Bombella, 2005:20).

Lourensford has removed herself from Africa or has Africa removed herself from Lourensford, wanting nothing to do with the gentile capitalist enjoying a safe clean neat orderly environment where everything is clear and organised? Here the commodity, the Chardonnay would enter into a reciprocal nature, it would become a gift or a commodity to be used as a drink, a luxury. (Kopytoff 1986:69). The guest could forget about the slaves, the struggles people endure to survive, to come to live in a country which may seem uninhabitable to some, and yet an opportunity for a new life to others. People who are able to adapt and develop systems of transaction so they can endure and even improve their own lives (Diawara, 1998:41-42).

Diawara (1998:162) explains that a sense of unity and acceptance of each other’s cultures in West Africa is what is necessary today for each of the participating countries to become economically successful and to build a thriving economic system and culture. This would be true for South Africa as well.


Cape Slavery No Date. No Author. Available at: (Accessed on: 25 June 2020)

Du Bruin. W. 2015. The heritage portal: The Vergelegen story Part One- Splendid Beginnings and a Period of decline. Available at: (Accessed on: 25 June 2020)

Lourensford Wineries https;//

Kopytoff, I. 1986. “The cultural biography of things: commoditisation is a process” in Appadurai, A. (ed) The Social Life of Things. Cambridge New York.  Cambridge University Press. 64-91

Hall, M. & Bombela, P. 2005.” Las Vegas in Africa” Journal of Social Anthropology 5:5-25.

Markell, A., Hall, M. & Schrire, C. 1995. “The historical archaeology of Vergelegen, an early farmstead at the Cape of Good Hope”. Historical archaeology 29 (1), 10-34, 1995.

SA History On Line.  “Adriaan van der Stel” Available at: Http:/// (Accessed on: 25 June 2020)

Worden, N. 1996. “Contested Heritage at the Cape Town Waterfront”. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 2:1-2, 59-75, DOI: 10.1080/13527259608722161




By Frank Teichert, curator, archaeology and human remains, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

Avatar was a large budget Hollywood film that was released on 16 December 2009. This American epic science fiction film was directed, written, produced and co-edited by James Cameron. It starred Sam WorthingtonZoe SaldanaStephen LangMichelle Rodriguez, and Sigourney Weaver.

The film is set in the mid-22nd century when humans are colonizing Pandora, a lush habitable moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. The reason for the colonization is that a specific mineral that acts as a superconductor is being mined by the human colonisers. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe called the Na’vi, a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora.

Since the release of the film on 16 December 2009, there has been numerous discussions relating to a wide variety of cultural, social, political, and religious themes that have been identified by critics and commentators, and the film’s writer and director James Cameron has responded that he hoped to create an emotional reaction and to provoke public conversation about these topics. According to James Cameron: “Avatar is a science fiction retelling of the history of North and South America in the early colonial period. Avatar very pointedly made reference to the colonial period in the Americas, with all its conflict and bloodshed between the military aggressors from Europe and the indigenous peoples. Europe equals Earth. The native Americans are the Na’vi. It’s not meant to be subtle.”

Avatar looks at a number of themes that can be interpreted in a number of different ways. If one looks at politics, then we see things such as imperialism, militarism, and anti-Americanism. If one looks at cultural and social themes, then we notice things such as civilisation and race, and environment and property. Then one can study all the religious themes portrayed such as religions and mythology, the parallels with Hinduism and Pantheism (Nature Worship) versus the belief in Christianity. All these different themes and sub-themes can be drawn from the movie and debates about them have been and will be discussed at length in the past and probably in the future. The themes in the movie not only affects the Americas but there are many countries that can relate to one or more themes that Avatar portrays. The suffering of the Na’vi people trying to save their home and their resources from an invading alien species, is very common to many countries on Earth. Countries that are powerful taking over other countries, who might be larger than them but not as powerful, being bullied into submission by the more powerful so that their resources can be stolen for the more powerful country.

There have been many controversial views regarding these themes and can easily be found on the internet. One interesting fact is that in the movie the Na’vi are the colour blue where all the humans from Earth are white, even the actors playing the Na’vi were people of colour. This has sparked much debate by critics and commentators of the movie and seeing that James Cameron stated that this movie has a number of different themes, many of them being controversial this is probably one of the biggest. This take on a very real issue of race and how the white people have treated people of colour in the past and even in 2020 is still happening where there is still race issues in America, Europe and even hear in South Africa. In the movie the love story between a white male human and a Na’vi female, where at the end the white human sacrifices himself to save the Na’vi people. Some say that this shows the concept of the “White Messiah” , where the white people are considered to be the saviours of the so called “primitive” or indigenous people. By giving the Na’vi the blue colour and all the human white probably portrays the concept that many groups can relate to the Na’vi as they are not a recognisable race, but represent them, so not to pick out a specific race but to represent a race. This is very relatable to people living in South Africa as South Africa is made up of a number of different races and cultures living together in one country.

Other critics and commentators regard the movie as a stereotypical and propaganda presentation of the themes but not the facts. They believe that the movie is intentionally trying to portray stereotypical and propaganda views by the director James Cameron, that in fact are only one-sided and therefore not a true reflection of these themes mentioned about this movie. It is easy to show off the stereotypical and propaganda in a movie like this as it is basically a science fiction movie and not based on any real facts. It is very common to see this in movies coming from America where the Americans show off their power and strength. They are shown as the “good guys” and the saviours of the world and many of the so-called bad guys are from foreign countries, even in some the bad South Africans with really bad accents. So at the end of the day is this another propaganda and stereotypical American movie or does it really have a much deeper meaning?

One should make his or her own mind up about Avatar as I believe the movie is going to spark different ideas and feelings in different people, some might find it political, others racist and others just a fun Hollywood science fiction movie. The choice is yours and at the end of the day it is good to debate and discuss these issues. Even if the movie touches us in different ways, by discussing and debating these themes, I believe makes the world a better place because we are all different and everyone’s opinion matters.

Just as a side note. James Cameron is working on a sequel, Avatar 2, with the same cast as the first Avatar. It would be interesting to see if the themes in the first movie differs from the second, eleven or so years later.



David Rilley-Harris

Ditsong National Museum of Military History

December 2020

The Battle of Blood/Ncome River (16 December 1838) is included as a part of the 16 December South African national holiday, the Day of Reconciliation. The anniversary of the battle was included into the new South African calendar specifically because it had a long history of being a severely emotional day of remembrance for Afrikaans South Africans. One perspective on the battle is that its commemoration can be used to suggest white supremacy ordained by god, and so the day was combined with the commemoration of the 16 December 1961 founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC). This combination provided some balance but the two commemorations have also made strange bedfellows over the years. This is no coincidence as the 16 December date had long since developed into both annual commemorations of Afrikaner nationalism and annual opportunities to advance the struggle for universal South African liberty in a series of protest events against the Apartheid system. It is in the naming of the national holiday as a Day of Reconciliation that the expedient combination of these commemorations can be considered in a less divisive light.

In the edged weapons display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History there is a window with the South African flag hanging in the centre. Four edged weapons surround the flag in what may be the most eclectic single display space in the museum. There is the ceremonial sword of Freddie Zeelie who was the first SADF soldier killed in the Border Wars (and was awarded the very rare Louw Weppener Decoration); there is a Natal Carbineers sword from the Battle of Isandlwana; there is the ceremonial sword of Lt Gen Sir Jacob van Deventer from the First World War; and there is a spear from the Battle of Blood/Ncome River. The display is inspired by symbolism in the national flag depicting the convergence of the histories of various South Africans into one shared story.

The display plays a role in promoting a united South African identity and is a stop along the tour route for school groups visiting the museum. The students are given permission to perceive all South African sides of any past conflict as a part of their own personal identity. Giving ownership of all South African history to each South African promotes empathy and unity in an attempt to replace the sometimes aggressive one-sided perspectives that South Africans habitually take in understanding their country’s past. The message is not that each side of each conflict was the good side, or that each side was the bad side, but rather to encourage the development of more complex perspectives about past events.

Regarding the example of The Battle of Blood/Ncome River, which was fought between Afrikaans and Zulu people, a tour guide who is neither Zulu nor Afrikaans can explain to the students that the desperate defence successfully mounted by the Afrikaans combatants is something they themselves can be proud of while simultaneously feeling the sorrow for the terrible losses suffered by the Zulu combatants. Also, both the Zulu and Afrikaans perspectives on the battle rightfully point out that the battle occurred at a time when the very existence of both cultures was under threat. The Afrikaans people were fleeing British rule while the Zulu people were responding to continued incursions of well-armed foreigners into territory which they had controlled.

This method of depicting the Battle of Blood/Ncome River places the event as an apt inclusion into South Africa’s national holiday on 16 December, the Day of Rec



Including a brief discussion on some of the exhibits in the
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
Allan Sinclair
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
November 2020

The date 16 December is an important day in South African military history. Originally it was officially known as the Day of the Covenant and commemorated the Battle of Blood River fought in 1838.  In the years following from 1961, it also came to recall the date of the official founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the African National Congress, and the commencement of its campaign to destabilise the state in response to South Africa’s apartheid policies. More recently, following the establishment of democracy in 1994, the date has become celebrated as the Day of Reconciliation.

Not many people are aware that that the same date also commemorates another event in our nation’s military history.  The Battle of El Wak, fought on 16 December 1940, was South Africa’s first action of the Second World War (1939 – 1945). The encounter was relatively minor in comparison to the number of other crucial battles of that conflict and has largely been forgotten over the years. This article will provide insight into the decision taken to fight the battle, the preparations involved and a brief account of the action that took place. The article will also look at examples of the equipment that were unique to the East African campaign and which can be viewed on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

The decision to move South African forces to East Africa

Various factors contributed to South Africa’s participation in the campaign against the Italian East African colonies in 1940 and 1941.

Firstly, the Union Defence Forces (UDF) had taken a decision in the years preceding the outbreak of the war to prepare for warfare in tropical bush country as found in southern and central Africa.[1] Secondly, following the country’s entry into the war on 6 September 1939, the Prime Minster, Gen J C Smuts, openly stated that he did not wish to see South African lives wasted again in a futile war of attrition as was experienced on the Western Front in Europe during the First World War (1914 – 1918). The Government therefore limited operations to the defence of the African continent and all volunteers were required to take the Africa Service Oath on 29 March 1940 which bound them for service anywhere on the continent.[2]

It remained unclear at the start of the war just how the UDF was expected to engage enemy forces under such conditions. Italy had not yet become belligerent and the prospect of any German military activity in Africa seemed remote at that time. Although it was believed that the Italian presence on the continent was a threat to British interests in the Middle East and Africa, Britain was hesitant to take any action, considering that such incitement should be avoided to keep Italy out of the war.[3]

Italy’s eventual declaration of war on the Axis side on 24 June 1940 altered this approach and the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, Gen Sir Archibald Wavell, argued that Britain had to defend its positions in East Africa and, if possible, attack the Italian forces in Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland. Smuts was concerned that the Italians had the capacity to threaten southern Africa and immediately agreed to the formation of a South African brigade to be sent to Kenya in support of the British colonial forces.[4]

It was also suggested that this brigade should represent the whole country and contain the senior regiments of the Cape, Natal and Transvaal provinces of the time.  The 1st South African Infantry Brigade was consequently established on 13 May 1940 with the 1st Battalions of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles (DEOR), the Royal Natal Carbineers (RNC) and the Transvaal Scottish (1TS) under its command. Brig D H Pienaar was appointed Officer Commanding the Brigade on 12 June 1940.[5] While technically a component of the 1st South African Division, the Brigade nonetheless remained independent of the Division throughout the campaign in East Africa.

Brig D H Pienaar DSO, OC 1 SA Brigade        A map of Kenya. Wajir and El Wak can be

(DNMMH EA333)                                                  seen in the north-east.



1st SA Brigade on Parade, Kenya (DNMMH EA 5)

The 1st SA Brigade eventually arrived in Kenya on 24 July 1940. In September 1940 the Brigade was ordered to move to the Northern Frontier District (NFD) north of the equator where a base had been established at Wajir.

Preparations for the Battle

In October 1940 Lt Gen Sir Alan Cunningham was appointed as C-in-C British Forces in East Africa. He took an instant decision to attack the Italian positions located along the border of the NFD.[6]

Lt Gen Sir Alan Cunningham,

British C-in-C East Africa

(DNMMH EA 191)


His plan was important for three reasons. It would reduce that vast area of no-man’s land between the forward British positions in Kenya and those of the Italians in Abyssinia and Italian Somaliland.  It would also provide engineering units with the opportunity to improve communications and water supplies throughout the NFD to support further offensives. Finally, a successful attack would result in a psychological dominance over the Italians. Cunningham was equally eager to test the light tanks and armoured cars under his command in operations in thick bush and sand.  The defended Italian outpost of El Wak, north–east of Wajir, presented him with an ideal target for such an attack. El Wak consisted of two settlements astride of the British/ Italian border and was inhabited by both Italian regular and colonial (Banda) forces.[7]


The five Italian Frontier posts (Kleynhans 2018)              Wajir Fort where 1 SA Brigade was based (DNMMH EA 31)

The South Africans immediately commenced with an intensive period of training under the harshest of conditions. The pre-war training strategy of the UDF, using light raiding columns, capable of carrying out operations in the dense southern African bush, paid dividends in the East African theatre. Nevertheless, this would be the first action in which the UDF would operate as a mobile force and as Hartshorn writes:

“As 16 December 1940 – the date chosen for the attack – drew nearer, the South Africans were in fine fettle [sic], tough as nails with their morale high.”[8]


Final training manoeuvres took place between 10 and 12 December with everything being arranged to the smallest detail. The training included swift deployment from vehicles, movement through the bush using compass bearings and rapid camouflaging of vehicles and equipment.

1 Bn Transvaal Scottish carrying out a route march (DNMMH EA 78)

The Battle – 16 December 1940


South Africa’s first land battle of the Second World War took place more than a year after she had entered war. For the purposes of the operation 1st SA Brigade was placed under the 12th African Division commanded by Maj Gen A R Godwin-Austen. The 24th Gold Coast Brigade, under the command of Brig C E M Richards, also formed part of the Division.  Godwin-Austen divided the Division into two raiding forces. The first raiding force, named Dickforce (Richards), consisted of all the units of the 24th Gold Coast Brigade with the DEOR and elements of South African armoured car and artillery units attached. The second raiding force, referred to as Pinforce (Pienaar), comprised the bulk of the 1st SA Brigade less the units that had been attached to Dickforce. [9]

Troops of the 24th Gold Coast Brigade in East Africa (DNMMH EA 31)

Both Dickforce and Pinforce trained to carry out a double envelopment of the target area. They then moved out of Wajir on 14 December and made their way through the dense bush to their respective staging areas near a landing ground established close to El Wak. On commencement of the attack Dickforce was given the task of capturing British and Italian El Wak while operating in two columns. Pinforce was required to manoeuvre to the east of El Wak and cut the road to Bardera and capture the village of El Buru Hachi in the process.[10]

The plan of the attack (Orpen 1968)

The South African Air Force (SAAF) was tasked to provide air support and to distribute valuable intelligence on the Italian positions and the approaches to El Wak. Four Hawker Hurricane Mk I aircraft of No 2 Squadron, three Junkers Ju86s of No 12 Squadron and nine Hawker Hartbees aircraft of No 40 Squadron were placed at the disposal of Godwin-Austen.[11]

A Junkers Ju 86 Bomber of No 12 Squadron, SAAF (DNMMH EA 149)

The raid commenced early on 16 December. Each attack followed a similar pattern of troops advancing while being engaged sporadically by Italian artillery.  At the same time the armoured cars ploughed through the bush ahead of the charging infantry. The advance of Column B of Dickforce into British El Wak was led by the DEOR under the cover of heavy artillery fire. In the Pinforce sector, the RNC attacked El Buru Hachi. After taking part in a fire fight with the defending Banda troops of the 191st Colonial Battalion, the RNC charged amid the machine gun and artillery fire with bayonets fixed, suffering the UDF’s first battle casualties of the war. Two members of the mortar detachment were killed in action and another wounded in the process. At the same time 1TS attacked further east in an attempt to block a possible Italian counter-attack from Mandera and to capture any retreating enemy troops. In little more than an hour 1TS had captured its objective and taken a number of POWs.[12]


         South African vehicles in dense bush                                      Bren-Gun Section of the RNC

                                (DNMMH EA 420)                                                                  (DNMMH EA 68)


Following the successful capture of its objective, Pinforce discovered that the main Italian headquarters had been located at El Wak and in the process succeeded in capturing valuable documents that provided details of the Italian defensive lines and troops dispositions both in Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia.[13]


The withdrawal of both Pinforce and Dickforce commenced at 13:00. By 20 December all attacking units were back at Wajir. In the coming weeks Pienaar was made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order for his leadership in carrying out a successful and instructive operation. A number of other South African senior officers were also signalled out for their contribution to the victory.[14]

1st SA Brigade moving back from El Wak to Wajir (DNMMH EA 335)

Exhibits on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History that are unique to the Campaign in East Africa


  1. The South African Bush Warfare Uniform


Prior to the outbreak of the war, changes in uniform style had been intended to make the UDF better equipped for bush warfare. A new design of helmet, known as the Polo Helmet, replaced the Wolseley Pattern helmet that had been standard issue since the establishment of the UDF in 1912. The principal demand for a uniform that would be effective in the bush led to the production of the bush shirt which, along with the Polo Helmet, trousers, canvas anklets and brown ankle boots, came to symbolise South African troops in East Africa. Most infantrymen were also issued with the 1937 loadbearing equipment from June 1940.[15]


SA infantryman in                        Bush Shirt issued to                                     Pattern 1937 Loadbearing Equipment

Bush Warfare Uniform                Sgt Lukas Majozi DCM – Native                   (Display DNMMH)

As worn at El Wak                        Military Corps (Display DNMMH)

(Osprey 1975)


  1. The South African Reconnaissance Car Mk I


This was the first South African armoured vehicle to be produced during the war.  It was moderately successful in East Africa. However, the crews found the going through rough terrain very heavy due to the fact that the car was only a two-wheel drive.  At El Wak they were often required to dismount and push the cars through the numerous bad patches of heavy sand. The local inhabitants of the NFD referred to the vehicle as Garri Kifarru which translated means rhinoceros car.

No 1 Light Tank Company was the first South African armoured car unit to traverse the difficult countryside into the NFD and also became the first operational armoured car unit. At El Wak the unit was placed in support of Dickforce while No 3 Armoured Car Company provided support to Pinforce. No 2 Platoon of No 2 Armoured Car Company was given the honour of being assigned as Gen Godwin-Austen’s bodyguard.[16]

South African Reconnaissance Car Mk I

(Display DNMMH)

  1. The Hawker Hartbees

The aircraft on display at the DNMMH arrived in Kenya on strength with No 3 Squadron, SAAF.  After the squadron had been re-equipped with more modern aircraft, the Hartbees aircraft were transferred to No 40 (Army Co-Operation) Squadron, SAAF. This squadron was formed on 30 May 1940 under the command of Maj (later Brig) J T Durrant.  At El Wak the Hartbees aircraft were tasked with providing the advancing infantry with situation reports and up to date intelligence on the Italian positions. In the process of the battle one particular Hartbees came into contact with three Italian Savoia 81 aircraft and a Caproni 133 bomber. In the ensuing action the Hartbees rear-gunner succeeded in shooting down the Caproni.[17]

Hawker Hartbees (Display DNMMH)

  1. The Quick-Firing 18 Pounder Mk II Field Gun


The 18 Pounder Field Gun was practically obsolete by the beginning of the war and was being superseded by the 25 Pounder Field Gun. Nevertheless, the UDF utilised the 18 Pounder to good effect during the campaign in East Africa. No 4 Field Brigade, South African Artillery Corps, which had been equipped with the gun, was placed under command of 1st SA Brigade. At El Wak two batteries were allocated to Dickforce and provided supporting fire for the DEOR as they charged on the objective.   The barrage proved effective and cleared the area of all Italian defenders even before the infantry got there. The remaining battery operated in support of Pinforce.[18]

Quick-Firing 18 Pounder Mk II Field Gun

(Display DNMMH)

An Analysis of the Aftermath of the Battle

The success of the Battle of El Wak had a resounding effect on the future conduct of the war. A number of scholars who have studied the battle confirm that it was an effective tool in measuring both the peacetime preparation of the UDF and its subsequent mobilisation for war. It confirmed the merits of using combined arms – that being combining the use of infantry, artillery, armour and aviation – in battle. Pienaar would become a major adherent of this approach in his tactical planning as the war progressed.  The South Africans also succeeded in manoeuvres under night conditions, an achievement they would be required to undertake repeatedly in later months.

The Battle confirmed many inadequacies in the combat capability and morale of the Italian forces. The Italians were found to be demoralised and lacking any willpower to make a concerted stand and as the campaign progressed a large majority surrendered on mass.  Many would later find themselves in prisoner-of-war camps in South Africa.[19]

By contrast it is well documented that South African morale was excellent and the UDF proved itself as a fighting force.  Coetzee believes, nonetheless, that there were lessons to be learnt from the battle. He writes that there was evidence of a certain amount of ill-discipline which was partially due to a lack of battle experience. Cases of troops not remaining in their vehicles during the night and drivers not even attempting to hide their vehicles from enemy aircraft were apparent. In certain cases many drivers succumbed to fatigue and fell asleep under their vehicles while resting on route to the objective. Intelligence reports were also found to be wanting with much of it being based on miss-information provided by captured Banda troops.  He does point out that it was fortunate for the UDF that these problems were not ignored and future staff planning was adjusted as such in the months and years ahead.[20]


Despite the problems mentioned above, the attack on El Wak was considered a textbook execution of a military operation and contributed to the speed and intensity of the remainder of the campaign in East Africa. It was also a turning point marking the ascendancy of the morale of the British, South African and colonial forces over that of their Italian counterparts.  The initiative had been taken away from the Italians who until then had considered themselves, their armaments and their numbers to be invincible. Consequently, the Italian East African Empire would surrender just six months later.

South Africa was fortunate that its first battle had ended in complete victory at a relatively minor cost of two men dead and a small number injured.  For Smuts it was a blessing. Having taken a divided nation into war, it is easy to envisage how a large portion of the population who had been vehemently opposed to fighting on the side of Britain would have reacted to a defeat the first time the UDF went into battle. The victory boosted the South Africans’ appetite to continue the war effort and confirmed British confidence in the UDF’s ability as a fighting force.

The weapons and equipment which are on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History are tangible embodiments of South Africa’s contribution to the Battle of El Wak and the remainder of the East African campaign.

Troops of 1/6 Bn King’s African Rifles displaying an

Italian flag captured at El Wak (DNMMH EA 63)


[1] . I van der Waag, “The Union Defence Force between the two World Wars: 1919 – 1940”, p 216.

[2] . G Bentz, “From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh”, p 179.

[3] . F A Hattersley, Carbineer: The History of the Royal Natal Carbineers, p 64.

[4] . N Orpen, East African and Abyssinian Campaigns, p 6.

[5] . E.P Hartshorn, Avenge Tobruk , p 32.

[6] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[7] . E Coetzee lecture, “El Wak or Bust”.

[8] . E. P. Hartshorn, p 41.

[9] . N Orpen, p 70.

[10] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[11] . J Ambrose Brown, A Gathering of Eagles p 101.

[12] . G Bentz, “From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh …” p 184.

[13] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[14] . N. Orpen, p 79.

[15] . H Paterson, “South Africa’s Second World War Bush Warfare Uniform” pp 87, 88, 91, 92.

[16] . H Klein, Springboks in Armour, pp 13, 27, 28.

[17] . J Ambrose Brown, p 102.

[18] . N. Orpen, pp 76, 77.

[19] . E Kleynhans, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”.

[20] . E Coetzee, “El Wak or Bust”.



Academic published articles

Bentz, G, “From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh: The UDF’s first Experience of Battle in East and North Africa” in Scientia Militaria Vol 40 No 3, 2012

Kleynhans, E, “The Apostles of Terror: South Africa, the East African Campaign and the Battle of El Wak” in Historia Vol 63 No 2, 2018

Paterson, HR, “South Africa’s Second World War Bush Warfare Uniform” in  Museum Review (Vol 2 No 3, September 1989)

Van der Waag, I, “The Union Defence Force between the two World Wars” in Scientia Militaria Vol 30, No 2, 2000


Ambrose Brown, J,  A Gathering of Eagles (Cape Town, Purnell, 1970)

Hatshorn, E P, Avenge Tobruk (Cape Town, Purnell, 1960)

Hattersley, F A, Carbineer: The History of the Royal Natal Carbineers (Aldershot, Gale and Polden, 1950)

Klein, H, Springboks in Armour (Cape Town, Purnell, 1965)

Orpen, N East African and Abyssinian Campaigns (Cape Town, Purnell, 1968)

Public Lecture

Coetzee, E, “El Wak or Bust” (Lecture to the SA Military History Society Johannesburg Branch, 14 October 2010)

Internet Source

Kleynhans, E, “The Union Defence Forces and the East African Campaign – A Critical Analysis”

Archival Sources

Instruction for Dress for the Union Defence Forces (Approved December 1934).

East Africa Album (Official Second World War Photographic Collection)

Both sources located in the archives of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.