Allan Sinclair, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
June is an important month in South Africa’s history owing to the 16 June 1976 protests initiated by the students of Soweto against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of education. That event became a turning point in the struggle for democracy and the day has been commemorated officially as Youth Day since the advent of democracy on 27 April 1994.
Another significant event in our nation’s military history also took place in June during the Second World War (1939–1945). This was the unfortunate surrender of the garrison of Tobruk in North Africa to the Axis (German and Italian) Panzergruppe Afrika under the command of General Erwin Rommel on 21 June 1942. A large portion of the garrison was provided by the 2nd South African Division. This event was disastrous for South Africa as 10 500 South Africans went into captivity with many of them spending the remainder of the Second World War in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Italy and Germany.
The surrender of the garrison in just three days became an unwarranted embarrassment for the South African soldier. It was regarded as so after a predominantly Australian garrison had successfully endured a similar siege of 241 days in Tobruk the previous year.
Tobruk (Oil on canvas by G Long, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History, Cat No 2019).
Events leading up to the siege
The siege took place during the North African Campaign of 1940 to 1943. The town of Tobruk on the Libyan coast has a natural harbour and is one of the few places along the North African coastline where
 . John Connel, Auchinleck: A Biography of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck (London, Cassell, 1959), 605.
spring water can be used for human consumption. Martin describes how the town was particularly important as a logistics base during the war. Control of the port shortened the long supply lines experienced by both sides as the campaign swung one way and another over the inhospitable terrain of the Western Desert. Rommel’s forces would not have the capacity to penetrate into Egypt as far as the Nile Delta without control of Tobruk.
Following the British 8th Army’s Crusader offensive of November 1941, the Axis forces retreated west across Libya to El Agheila in Cyrenaica. Nonetheless, in January 1942 Rommel was on the offensive again and pushed the 8th Army back as far as the Gazala Line situated approximately 48km west of Tobruk.
Map of the Western Desert in North Africa (Connel, 240).
On 26 May 1942 Rommel launched a further attack on the 8th Army defences at Gazala. In the weeks that followed the Panzergruppe Afrika decisively overwhelmed the 8th Army’s armoured forces. The fate of the Tobruk garrison was now at stake. Initially the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) in the Middle East, Gen Sir Claude Auchinleck, did not wish Tobruk to be surrounded and isolated from the rest of the army. He was well aware that the defences around the perimeter of the town were no longer capable of withstanding a formal siege as they had been the previous year. He also knew that another siege would be a huge drain on Allied resources in the Mediterranean.
The problem lay not in military strategy but in political attitude. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was determined that Tobruk must be held to maintain the honour of the British Empire and insisted on this in a series of cables between London and Cairo. Auchinleck was forced to accede and issued an order to the C-in-C of the 8th Army, Lt Gen Neil Ritchie, on 14 June to defend Tobruk at all costs and not allow the enemy to encircle the town. Ritchie failed to carry out these instructions and withdrew the remainder of the 8th Army back passed the Egyptian on 16 June. In complete defiance of Auchinleck’s orders the garrison was left isolated. As Connel records, the tragedy of Tobruk lay with the
 . A. C. Martin, The Durban Light Infantry (Vol II) (Durban, DLI Regt Association, 1969), 150.
 . Barrie Pitt, The Crucible of War (2): Auchinleck’s Command (London, MacMillan, 1986), 232.
inflexibility of Churchill, the ineffectiveness and indiscipline of Ritchie and the capitulation by Auchinleck to both these influences.
The siege and surrender of the garrison
The garrison inside Tobruk contained the 2nd South African Division less one brigade, the 11th Indian Brigade, the 201st Guards Brigade and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. South African troops comprised a large portion of the garrison and the overall commander was the General Officer Commanding 2nd Division, Maj Gen H B Klopper. Horn and Katz allude to the relative inexperience of both the 2nd Division and its commander. In stark contrast its sister division, the 1st South African Division, which had seen service in Italian East Africa and in the Crusader offensive, the 2nd Division’s only experience of battle had been in the capture of the Axis garrison at Bardia six months previously. Likewise Klopper had only been appointed as Division Commander the preceding month at the age of 39. Prior to that he held the position of Chief of Staff to the former divisional commander and had never commanded a brigade or a battalion in combat. To make matters worse Klopper also had an extremely untried staff at his disposal.
By 17 June Tobruk was completely surrounded and cut off from the rest of the 8th Army. Initially, there was a general belief that the garrison could hold out for two months. The town had adequate supplies stockpiled and Klopper informed Maj Gen Frank Theron, the General Officer Commanding (GOC): South African Administration, in Cairo, on 16 June that morale amongst the men was excellent and, in his opinion, they were ready to put up a good fight.
 . John Connel, 579.
 . Karen Horn and David Katz. “The Surrender of Tobruk in 1942: Press Reports and Soldiers’Memories” in Scientia Militaria, ed I van der Waag, 190.
 . J.A.I. Agar-Hamilton & L.C.F. Turner, Crisis in the Desert (London, Oxford University Press, 1952), 129.
The Defences at Tobruk (Martin 144).
The magnitude of the attack, however, was not expected. During the early morning on 21 June the Axis launched a full assault on the south-eastern corner of the perimeter and within a short period of time overran the positions held by the 11th Indian Brigade. By the afternoon most of the defence emplacements had been destroyed by air power and the eastern sector lay in Axis hands. Klopper, realising the ominous situation he now faced, considered breaking out and fighting his way through the Axis formations. It was soon made evident that this would not be possible as the bulk of his transport had also been captured. The only option other than surrender was to make a final stand against the might of the Axis army closing in on the town. Klopper feared the casualties which would be the result and after coming to terms with the fact that any further resistance was useless, eventually chose to surrender the garrison. Connel writes that the majority of the South African troops were shocked by this order. As seen on the above map, their positions were located on the western and south-western sectors of the perimeter and they barely witnessed any action during the entire period of the assault.
Events after the surrender
Some 35 000 Allied troops, including 10 500 South Africans were forced to lay down their arms and submit to Rommel’s victorious forces. The 8th Army also suffered the loss of 2 000 vehicles, 2 000 tons of fuel and 5 000 tons of rations in the process. Most of the prisoners-of-war had to endure rigorous route marches and a journey across the Mediterranean to Italy where they were incarcerated in Italian POW camps. A small number which included Klopper managed to escape captivity after the Italian
 . John Connel, 590.
armistice of September 1943 and were able to either make it back to Allied lines or reach the safety of Switzerland.
Maj Gen H B Klopper and a reproduction of a sketch by Nils Solberg after Klopper returned to Allied lines
(DNMMH File 920 Klopper).
While most of the prisoners were transported to POW camps in Italy the Germans kept all the black, coloured and Indian South Africans in Tobruk to be used for various tasks such as unloading ships. There they were badly treated and forced to endure long working hours. The Germans also gave them false information on the progress of the war.
One such soldier, L-Cpl Job Masego, came across a radio set, the workings of which he understood, and set it up in a crater which had been formed by an unexploded bomb. He took the risk of sitting on the unexploded bomb at night to listen to the true news about the war. On hearing about the Allied victory at El Alamein in November 1942, he made plans to escape. Masego first sank a fully laden steamer moored in the harbour by placing a small tin filled with cordite, extracted from rifle cartridges among drums of fuel in the hold, leading a fuse from there to the hatch and lighting it using his last cigarette after closing the hatch. He then escaped with several other prisoners and after ten days in the desert, was rescued and returned to safety. Masego was later awarded the Military Medal for his ingenuity, determination and complete disregard for personal danger.
 . Karen Horn and David Katz, 202.
 . Cat no 1784, Official Second World War Art Collection Catalogue, (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1987)
L-Cpl Job Masego MM (Oil on canvas by N Lewis Cat No 1784).
Consequences of the surrender
Horn and Katz reflect on the consequences of the surrender for South Africa. The disaster, which took place a mere seven months after the destruction of the 5th South African Brigade at Sidi Rezegh the previous November, led to a realisation that 33% of South Africa’s fighting forces had been lost. As a country that had been fervently divided on the issue of taking part in the war, and which could only rely on volunteers to fill the ranks of the Union Defence Forces, South Africa found it difficult to recover from these losses and could barely maintain one division for the remainder of the war.
According to Martin the order to surrender was received with disbelief by the troops. A vast majority accepted that there should at least have been an attempt to make a stand and feelings of dismay and shame descended on everybody as they marched into captivity. Such feelings were not helped by the fact that the South Africans became the target of resentment by their fellow POWs from other Allied nations after they had been placed in POW camps. Cases of fights amongst the POWs were recorded as a result of snide remarks and accusations of cowardice against South Africans.
For the South African Prime-Minister, Field Marshal J C Smuts, the fall of Tobruk was a catastrophe that gave both the pro-war and the anti-war factions in South Africa endless grounds for criticism. It is easy to envisage how a large portion of the population who had been opposed to fighting on the side of Britain would have reacted. Much of the right wing press emphasised their belief that South African troops had being sacrificed needlessly by British incompetence. Amongst the pro-war lobby rumours of
 . Karen Horn and David Katz, 198.
 . A.C. Martin, 205
 . Karen Horn and David Katz, 201.
 . John Connel, 605.
Klopper’s believed disloyalty and fifth-column elements within the Union Defence Forces became widespread.
Following Klopper’s successful escape from captivity in Italy, he expressed a concern to clear his name and face the court of enquiry that had been formed shortly after the disaster. The enquiry found that Klopper was essentially not to blame for the surrender. Nevertheless, the verdict was kept secret and did little to enhance his reputation or that of his troops. In 1944 Smuts investigated the possibility of providing a Cape Corps Brigade to serve with the 6th South African Armoured Division in Italy. He specifically wanted Klopper to vindicate himself by being placed in command of such a brigade. The South African cabinet, however, turned down the proposal and Klopper had to spend the remainder of the war as Officer-Commanding Northern Command in South Africa. He would later go on to serve in senior positions in the military and eventually retired as Commandant General of the South African Defence Force in 1958.
Connel is fervent in his opinion that the blame for the surrender of Tobruk rested entirely with Churchill. In his words Churchill was frequently at fault when it came to matters military and failed to recognise that he was one of the chief instigators of the disaster while harshly laying the blame at those such as Auchinleck who had been obliged to follow his orders. In fact when Churchill received the news of the surrender his first words were: “Defeat is one thing, disgrace is another”.
Auchinleck and the 8th Army did manage to halt the Axis advance at El Alamein in Egypt a month later while at the 2nd Battle of El Alamein launched in October 1942 Rommel’s forces were finally expelled from Egypt. Yet, even though South African troops played a significant role in both these battles, the stigma attached to the surrender at Tobruk remained with the South African soldier for the remainder of the war and for many years after the war. Questions that have to be asked are, firstly, was it necessary for Tobruk to be held at all costs? The answer here is no with the reasons being discussed at length in this article. Secondly, why was Klopper placed in command of the 2nd South African Division and of the garrison at Tobruk? Surely there were better qualified commanders available to undertake this task? The thought process behind a decision to place the fate of Tobruk in the hands of an officer with no battlefield experience would be an interesting study. It is reasonable to conclude that the surrender of the garrison at Tobruk in June 1942 is without a doubt the greatest military disaster suffered by South Africa at any time in its military history.
 . Karen Horn and David Katz, 198.
 . Karen Horn and David Katz, 202.
 . H J Martin & N D Orpen , South Africa at War (Cape Town, Purnell, 1979), 298 – 299.
 . John Connel, 593, 594.
Agar-Hamilton, J. A. I. & Turner, L. C. F. 1952. Crises in the Desert. London: Oxford University Press.
Connel, John. 1959. Auchinleck: A Biography of Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck. London: Cassell.
Martin, A. C. 1969. The Durban Light Infantry Vol II. Durban: DLI Regimental Association.
Martin, A. C. & Orpen, N. D. South Africa at War. Cape Town: Purnell.
Pitt, Barrie. 1986. The Cruicible of War 2: Auchinleck’s Command. London: MacMillan.
Horn, Karen & Katz, David. “The Surrender of Tobruk in 1942: Press Reports and Soldiers’ Memories” in Scientia Militaria Vol 44, No 1 (2016): 190 – 208.
Official Second World War Art Collection Catalogue. 1988. Johannesburg: DNMMH.
Library File 920 (Klopper, H B), Johannesburg: DNMMH.
David Rilley-Harris, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
A boy with a stone confronts the heavily armed Egyptian military police in Cairo (December 2011). Photo: Alisdare Hickson. Photograph and caption retrieved from https://www.accord.org.za/conflict-trends/youth-demonstrations-and-their-impact-on-political-change-and-development-in-africa/
Youth protest has been a core instrument of political and social change for countless generations even though it seems counterintuitive that the children of a society would be needed to force change. As the years pass by, youth protests are becoming increasingly prominent and are taking up an ever greater proportion of the agency of change all over the world. As we near the annual remembrance of the Soweto Uprising of 1976 (celebrated as Youth Day), it is useful to examine why the youth often become the members of society who sacrifice the most in the pursuit of a better world. It is certainly not only a South African phenomenon. Youth protests in Nepal, which occurred in the period of the Soweto Uprising, were the central influence in forcing a referendum which reduced the power of their monarchy. More recently, the Arab Spring which began in December 2010 was mainly comprised of youth protest and brought down dictatorial governments.
Youth often become involved in protests because it is themselves who are affected by the issue they are protesting. It is important to point out that a component of this is that the adult population has to have failed to successfully tackle the issue themselves. Examples of such issues include HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment where 60% of those contracting the virus do so before the age of twenty-five (this excludes children born with HIV). In India, youth protest dominates efforts against the prevalence of rape which more frequently victimises the youth. Around the world, as in South Africa, youth protests rise up against the unreasonable financial costs or social conditions involved in gaining access to tertiary education. When it comes to climate change protests, it is the youth who are more threatened by the long-term dangers simply because they will be around for longer. Also regarding climate change protest, the profits connected with causes for climate change are enjoyed more by the older generations at the expense of the youth. The youth are also often the first group in a society to feel the brunt of a weakening economy or corrupted political system. This is because they are just beginning their adult lives and are less protected with savings or assets, and they are the ones searching for a job when the number of jobs available is falling. These economic concerns can leave the youth stuck in limbo between their childhood and their adulthood, making protest necessary and leaving the youth with time to commit to protest organising and action. On a lighter note, the youth are more sociable and can more easily organise around youthful events or gatherings. Youth protests in Serbia against Slobodan Milošević were organised around the Exit Music Festival, and in Indonesia, youth have a protest method called massa in which various types of street vehicles join pedestrians on a march with music.
Another factor promoting youth protest lies in the limitations within alternatives. Political parties accept young members but usually hold them in subservient positions to the adults. Those adults are not likely to consider issues that are not affecting themselves as urgently as the youth will. Other institutions like schools and universities which might be expected to protect the youth will supress legitimate activism rather than support it. This was not the case in Soweto where school teachers gave their students time to prepare for what they intended as a peaceful march. It is too often the case that active youth, the likes of which would be willing to commit to protest action, are supported by adults in such a way as to keep the youth from going too far. This is a co-opting of youthful protest energy into an exercise or club which is kept from becoming too useful. In this way moral points can be claimed for supporting a cause without really impacting on the situation. Similarly, there has been a rise in what has been called “slacktivism” where the ease of social media leaves comments online as the beginning and also the end of activist efforts with only the illusion that change has been effected.
It is, however, social media that is largely responsible for the continuing increase in youth protest around the world. It is also more than a little bit relevant that, into the 21st Century, youth under eighteen years old comprise almost half of the global population. While it may seem that youth protests are dangerous and often violent endeavours, it is important to note that when the youth of a society are finding protest action as an option which is available to them, that usually means that they have few options remaining, and an increasing alternative being chosen throughout the world involves recruitment into especially violent and radical terrorist organisations.
Honwana, A.: Youth, Waithood, and Protest Movements in Africa. 2013.
Maganga, T.: Youth Demonstrations and their Impact on Political Change and Development in Africa.
Martin, C.: The Problem With Youth Activism: The institutionalization of activism on college campuses is a key culprit in the absence of visible youth movements in this country. November 2007.
Mpho Khalo, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
THE build-up to the Soweto Uprisings
The first question that should be asked regarding the Soweto Youth Uprising on 16 June 1976, is what went wrong. Was this a cry for help? It was unreasonable for the youth of South Africa to be educated with the language they did not understand.
This led to the leaders of the youth to mobilise students, those in the south western townships (Soweto), against and confront the then government. This young and dynamic leadership felt it was in their hands to confront the government and change the status quo. They told themselves that their parents had given up hope and they needed to fix the country. The youth could no longer take the exploitation by the government and the impact it had on their education. On 16 June 1976 the youth were fearless and confronted the police with struggle songs.
Figure 1 : Courtesy of Print Media.
THE fearless army
A large number of students gathered in the streets of Soweto demanding that they need not to be taught in Afrikaans. On that day the ‘young lions’ were fearless singing struggle songs and making no apology to the police, parents and the government. Little did we know that this would have a huge psychological impact on the current intake of students – as fearless as they are one need to understand that they are the future of our country. We need to take care of them in order for us to harvest great leaders with aof responsibility. The slogans will not build our future leaders, however, education will.
1986: Ten years later
Ever since the Soweto uprising there was a continuation of class struggle. The youth of South Africa continued to fight for equal education for all at all institutions of learning. The year 1986 was a lawless year where a number of students died due to unrest in the country. However, that yielded a lot fruit within the government. The government started negotiations with the leadership of the political parties and this germinated the seed of hope for the youth of South Africa. This was also done to calm the political unrest and to build the economy of our country.
The first democratic election took place in South Africa country obtained its freedom and unity in diversity among its people. The African National Congress was given the power to rule the country with a two third majority Nelson Mandela was deployed to lead the country. After the 1994 election the new government moved quickly toward race-blind policies in both the structure and funding of education. However, that doesn’t mean that students of all races have equal access in practice to whatever school they might like or that all schools have comparable resources at their disposal. Educational equity will depend on the growth rate of South Africa’s economy and its rate of job creation and on how policy makers weigh additional investments in education.
Figure 2: Courtesy of Print Media.
The born free
The born frees (born after 1994) are the ones fighting freedom and equal education, whereas the 1976 generation was fighting for freedom, black consciousness and the class struggle. Equal education for all gave rise to the FeesMustFall struggles that remain unsolved even today. This is a national democratic question presented at the fifty-fourth conference of the African National Congress: FREE EDUCATION FOR ALL. Therefore, allow me to say that the June 16 generation of 1976 has achieved political independence and the born frees need to continue with economic dependence given the current opportunities.
Figure 3: Courtesy of Print Media.
When looking at the expression in figure 3: “Are violent student protests a mirror of society?“, education is a very important aspect of ideological struggles. Professor Issa G Shivji said: “Imperialist and colonial ideologies get reproduced in our classrooms every hour of the day; militant students and intellectuals therefore have to turn these rooms into sites of class struggles.”
- G. Shivji, Fight my Beloved Continent: New Democracy in Africa (Southern African political economy series), Faculty of Law, University of Dar es Salaam, 1988.
Richard Henry, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
Hendrik Frederik Prinsloo was born on 10 May 1861. He was the eldest of three brothers; the others were Bill and Chris. The family farmed in the former Eastern Transvaal area of Carolina. Prinsloo married Cecelia Maria Steyn at Middelburg on 28 April 1884.
Commandant Henrik Frederik Prinsloo Ref: Wikipedia.
All burgher men between the ages 18 and 60 had to be ready for military service when needed. Prinsloo and the other burghers of Carolina area form a veld cornetcy of the larger Lydenburg Commando.
In 1885, Commandant Schalk Willem Burger was elected to lead the 1 400 strong Lydenburg Commando. In 1887 when Burger became a member of the Volksraad, the Lydenburg Commando men elected DCJ Schoeman as their new leader. In 1890 Prinsloo’s son Hendrik was born and a few years later two daughters. In 1895 the veld cornetcy of Carolina was made a full (but small) commando under Commandant David Johannes Joubert. Prinsloo was elected as one of the veld cornets. The Carolinas were mobilised to quell the Jameson Raid in 1896 and fought in the war against Mphephu (1897-98). From August 1896 the new 7mm Model 1896 Mauser rifles became available for purchase from the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR). Joubert had to ensured that his commando was as far as possible armed with the new Mauser rifle.
When Joubert became a member of the Volksraad, he too had to resign his commission as he was not able to occupy two paid positions simultaneously. Field Cornet Prinsloo, a disciplined, 37-year old, man of action, was elected commandant of the approximately 450 strong Carolina Commando in 1898. He continued to ensure each man had a functional rifle and sufficient ammunition. Not all the men could afford their own horse. The three field cornets, AJ de Lange, WH de Villiers and Andries Viljoen ensured the same level of preparedness for each of their wards.
The war starts
The Carolina Commando was mobilised on 4 October 1899 for the Anglo-Boer War and together with the Lydenburg Commando were placed under General Schalk Burger. About 200 men on the Carolina Commando were deployed to the Swaziland border, many of the men walking as they had no horses. Prinsloo’s trusted coloured agterryer “Mei” followed the commandant and was responsible for the care of his horse, mule cart and other possessions. He was also responsible for all domestic chores such as fire making and cooking. Young Hendrik went with his father to the Swaziland border where his father gave him a shortened Mauser carbine. As the men were, young Hendrik was also tattooed with burgher commando number. (Young Hendrik’s story will be told in a later article). The rest of the Carolina and Lydenburg commandos left for the Natal front by rail on 17 October 1899.
After finding no British forces on the Swaziland front Hendrik Prinsloo and his men left for Natal at the end of November 1899. Young Hendrik was told to stay behind on the farm with his mother and two younger sisters. He was to do dispatch riding under the instruction of the local landdrost and or postmaster, carrying messages and later the sad news of an injury or death of the burghers to their respective families.
The Natal front
While Prinsloo’s men were patrolling the Swaziland border, the other Carolina Commando men were engaged in the Battle of Modderspruit on 30 October, where they suffered a few losses. Later after crossing the Tugela River, they attacked Winston Churchill’s train at Chieveley and then invested the village of Weenen. On 22 November, they attacked the Town of Mooi River before retreating back over the Tugela River to their positions around the besieged town of Ladysmith. On 6 January Prinsloo and his commando carried out a feint attack on the town of Ladysmith in order to prevent British forces from sending reinforcements to the British held Wagon Hill and Caesars Camp. These positions, on the southern outskirts of the town, were then attacked by the Boers. To the Boers this battle was known as Platrand.
The Battle of Spioenkop
General George White, besieged in Ladysmith, was unable to break out. Food in the town was rationed. To relive Ladysmith, the British Commander-in-chief General Sir Redvers Buller, had delayed his attack while he built up his forces and equipment and moved his ponderous wagon trains. All this slow movement was watched by the Boer Commander, Gen Louis Botha, who withdrew men from Ladysmith to strengthen his defensive line. Botha entrenched men and placed a couple of guns on the high ground (Ntabamnyama) to the west of Spioenkop. He also sited his other guns in range of the Spioenkop summit. When Buller had about 30 000 men at his disposal, he could delay no longer. He decided on a left flanking attack to relieve Ladysmith. Buller allocated this task to his second-in-command, Lt General Sir Charles Warren. Warren had at his disposal, 11 000 infantry, 2 200 cavalry and 36 field guns. His plan was to take the high ground (the 430 m high Spioenkop) which was situated in the middle of the Boer defensive line. From this vantage point Warren would use his artillery to pound the Boer positions before sending in the cavalry and infantry to rout the Boers.
At 19:30 on 17 January, the first British wagons crossed the Tugela River at Trichardt’s Drift and the last wagons at 22:00 on 18 January – 26 hours later. As soon as the infantry was across the river they moved towards Spioenkop. Warren wanted to place field artillery on the southern lower slopes of the Ntabamnyama high ground, some 2 300m from the Boer main trenches. This area turned out to be too small for the number of guns Warren had and it was also badly situated for the task at hand. After three days of engagement the British were driven back by the Boers on Ntabamnyama.
Spioenkop consists of four high point features, the main summit, a slightly lower hill called Conical Hill to the north, Aloe Knoll 40m lower than the summit to the east and Twin Peaks about 2 000m further east. The Germiston Commando had occupied Conical Hill with the Carolina Commando laagered on the lower slopes of Twin Peaks. A small piquet of 15 Boers from Vryheid Commando was stationed on Spioenkop summit. The summit’s western and south-eastern faces were precipitous and the easiest way to top was by a long spur running south-westwards which rose in a series of easily climbable terraces.
Warren sent 1 800 men under the command of Major General Sir Edward Woodgate to take Spioenkop. He commenced his attack at 21:00 on 23 January. The mountain was covered in mist. They reached the summit at 04:00 without a shot being fired. There they were challenged and fired at by the Boer piquet and suffered a few casualties. The piquet quickly withdrew and informed the rest of the Vryheid Commando that the English were on the summit. Woodgate’s men started to entrench. The trench in a boomerang pattern covered a distance of about 400m in the centre of the small summit. They could only dig down about 40cm before hitting rock. When dawn came Woodgate realised his entrenched positions had a limited field of fire and could be fired at from both Conical Hill and Aloe Knoll.
General Botha ordered General Schalk Burger to drive the British from the crest. The Boers sent back word for reinforcements and shortly before daybreak over 500 Boers were gathered at the foot of the hill.
Boers at the base Spioenkop: Ref https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Spion_Kop.
Commandant Prinsloo the hero at Spioenkop
Prinsloo decided to send Corporal Abraham Smit and 25 burghers of the Carolina Commando to reconnoitre the situation. He then selected the positions from which his artillery could cover the crest while remaining out of range of enemy fire. A further 60 Carolina burghers and about 80 men from Boksburg and Heidelberg Commandos were sent to assist Corporal Smit who had taken up position on Aloe Knoll, about 400m east of Spioenkop proper. They were separated by an easily negotiated saddle. These men moved stealthily to within 200m of the British positions. Prinsloo and his two brothers soon joined them, along with another 50 men of the Heidelberg Commando.
A further 300 men from Pretoria, under Commandant Opperman, climbed the hazardous north-western face which brought them in close range of the British. Using fire with movement, the Boers came to the crest of the hill and fired from both the eastern and north western sides at the British. The Boer rifles and artillery subjected the British to prolonged accurate fire from two sides. The British did not know which side of their inadequate trench walls, to shelter from. At about 8:30 General Woodgate was killed and his deputy panicked. Communications between the mountain top and Warren’s headquarters were slow and confused with different officers thinking they were in command. The British situation deteriorated and casualties mounted with some hand to hand fighting taking place on the hill top. Since it was the middle of summer, men on both sides suffered from the heat and lack of water. At about 13:00, 120 men of the Lancashire Fusiliers surrendered and were taken prisoner. A Boer victory was at hand.
British reinforcements did eventually arrive but these just replaced those killed or injured. The British total force on the summit remained at about 1800 men. A separate British attack on Twin Peaks at 17:00 drove the Carolina men off this important feature. The British brought up artillery which fired from the east at the burghers, taking their toll. Prinsloo suffered shrapnel wounds to his head, and his eyes were affected but he continued to direct his men’s attack on the British positions. As evening approached, some Boers quietly slipped away from the battle. The situation for both Boer and Brit was very dire. The uninjured Carolina men remained at their posts.
At 18:30 Thorneycroft, the appointed British commander on the hill top, sent a message to Warren that his situation was critical and that they had no water and were running short of ammunition. Before he received his new orders, not to surrender, he conferred with his officers and at 20:00 a decision was taken to retreat. At 20:20 he withdrew his men down the same route they had come. Many of the Boers had by now also descended the hill. Prinsloo detailed men to watch the summit and these men reported to Prinsloo when the British retreated. In the meantime, Buller unexpectedly withdrew his men from Twin Peaks. In the early morning of the 24 January, the Carolina men re-occupied Twin Peaks and to General Botha’s surprise he saw Boer men waving their hats from the top of Spioenkop. Over the next three days the British forces withdrew back across the Tugela River.
There are differing reports as to the number of killed and injured in the battle on both sides. Botha instructed Commandant Pretorius to make an accurate account of the killed. He reported 650 dead soldiers on Spioenkop and estimated a further 554 had been wounded. The Boers had also taken 120 men prisoner. The official Boer casualties are 58 dead and 140 wounded. Of these, the brave Carolina men suffered 55 casualties out of the 88 men who fought the battle.
Some of the 650 British soldiers buried in their own trenches on the summit of Spioenkop Ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Spion_Kop.
Recognition for his action at Spioenkop
After the battle of Spioenkop, General Schalk Burger was recalled to Pretoria. Hendrik Prinsloo also travelled to Pretoria to have his facial and eye wounds treated. While in hospital he was visited by President Paul Kruger who presented him with a beautiful custom made sporting Mauser rifle for his brave actions at Spioenkop.
The Sporting Mauser
When the first official consignment of 100 sporting Mausers arrived in Pretoria in February 1899, these rifles were already a popular and desired rifle both in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. The ZAR therefore ordered a further 400 in April 1899 and prospective owners had to put their names on a waiting list. They were ordered by both Boer governments for sale to the burghers at a tidy sum of £7.10.6. These rifles could also be privately ordered through and firearms agents. The 400 sporting Mausers arrived on 15 July 1899. The sporting rifle presented to Commandant Prinsloo in February 1900 was from this batch as it bears the serial № 818.
The sporting Mauser fired the same cartridge as the standard 7mm military Mauser rifle. The barrel was octagonal and 34mm shorter than the standard rifle. The sights were marked up to 1 100m. The left side of the butt had a cheek piece and the pistol grip and fore-end were chequered. Often on the right side of the butt was an oval silver escutcheon inlaid into the butt. Here presentation inscriptions or the owner’s names or initials were often beautifully engraved. It was intended that Prinsloo would have Kruger’s presentation engraved on the silver plate.
While he had the ear of President Kruger he gained authority to purchase horses for future use by the Boer commandos. Remember, many men had to walk to the Swaziland border as they had no horses. He could also foresee that his commando would need fresh horses should they be wedged between the fever stricken Lowveld and the advancing British.
Prinsloo was collected at the hospital by his wife Cecelia and his young son Hendrik. He spent three days at home on his farm and during this period he managed to purchase 600 horses. His son aged just ten was instructed to take charge of one of the two depots with 300 horses to be posted on Prinsloo’s lower farm. He was to get the required food for the horses from the landdrost, with assistance and instructions from the postmaster of Carolina and or an old man Mr Bain Harris.
Prinsloo returns to the battle front with his new rifle
The Carolina Commando, because of their high casualty rate at Spioenkop, was held in reserve. However, from 5-7 February they were involved in the battle of Vaalkrans when Buller tried for the third time to relive Ladysmith. Prinsloo missed this battle as he was still in Pretoria. He had returned in time for the fourth attempt by Buller to relive Ladysmith. In this attempt, the British attacked in strength in a coordinated way. Momentum was gained and the Boers were driven off the hills at Cingolo, Monte Cristo and finally Hlangwane. At Pieter’s Heights, Prinsloo led the Carolina Commando against Barton’s Brigade in some extremely heavy fighting. The Carolina’s were forced to retire on horseback, chased by the British cavalry. The Boer positions crumbled and they retreated in some confusion towards the Natal border. Boer morale was at a low due the news of the relief of Kimberley and Cronje’s surrender at Paardeberg. On 28 February Ladysmith was finally relived.
Lord Dundonald’s cavalry pursuing the Boers at the end of the Battle of Pieter’s Heights.
The Carolina Commando then withdrew to the Biggars Berg and took up a position near the present town of Dannhauser, where they regrouped. Bloemfontein fell to the British on 17 March and the Boers adopted a policy of guerrilla tactics in tandem with continued conventional resistance. On 19 March Joachim Christoffel Fourie was appointed Assistant Field General to supersede General Schalk Willem Burger. Some men of the Carolina Commando were involved at the battle of Elandslaagte on the 9 April 1900.
General Joachim Christoffel Fourie, 1 February 1845 – 7 November 1900 Ref: https://www.geni.com/people/Generaal-Joachim-Fourie/6000000011370472484.
The British continued to advance while the Boers retreated. On 8 May General Buller advanced and the Boers, while offering resistance were forced to retreat. Field Marshall Roberts entered Johannesburg on 30 May 1900 and Pretoria on 5 June. President Kruger had left Pretoria by train for Machadodorp on 29 May. From there he moved to Waterval Onder in late June 1900.
The Carolina and Lydenburg commandos meanwhile defended Botha’s Pass where on 6 June an engagement occurred. On 8 June the British shelled the Boer positions in force. General Joachim Fourie was forced to withdraw to Allermans Nek. On 16 June Field Marshall Roberts issued a proclamation regarding the burning of Boer farms. The erection of blockhouse had already started.
On 23 June General Joachim Fourie attacked Platrand Station, hallway between Volksrust and Standerton, where he again suffered casualties. For several weeks the commando remained in the vicinity of Amersfoort, returning to their respective districts on the 20 July.
After the British had captured both capital cities, they believed the war was certainly near its end. With few targets left, the British commander focussed his efforts on capturing the towns along the Mozambique Railroad, which he believed were key components for supplying the Boers. Once the British advance on Belfast began, the Carolina Commando took up positions on General Joachim Fourie’s farm Welgevonden, north of the town of Carolina. They waited for the British to arrive via Volksrust, Amersfoort and Ermelo.
The Witrand is a plateau which gradually drops down to the Klein Komati River. On 21 August the British fought the Carolina Commando in the area and sustained 36 casualties, while the Boers had three burghers injured. After this there were many skirmishes in the area. The British suffered 74 men dead and wounded on 23 August. On 27 August, the British broke through at Berg en Dal on the railway line. With the British now behind the Carolina men, they were forced to retreat eastwards towards Waterval Onder where President Kruger was living.
President Kruger’s house at Waterval Onder (Mpumalanga Province) – now a museum.
Waterval Onder is below the Elands waterfall and Waterval Boven is above the falls. It was an important railway station. It was from here that the trains had to be pulled up the steep incline or lowered down the incline using a cogwheel engine. The rail carried a rack which fitted the cog wheel of the engine for positive contact with the rails.
Commandant Prinsloo, to ensure the safe passage of President Kruger from Waterval Onder to Lourenco Marques, retarded the British by destroying the cogwheel mountain rail between Waterval Boven and -Onder. He then took up strong defensive positions with his commando on the southern mountains of the railway line at Dwaalheuwel, supported by some Boer artillery. His position was so strong that reinforcements had to be sent to dislodge them. President Kruger left the Transvaal on 11 September for Mozambique and later the Netherlands. General Schalk Willem Burger (ex Lydenburg Commando Commandant) became the sixth president of the ZAR on Kruger’s departure on 11 September 1900.
General Fourie’s burgher force now consisted of about 500 men of the Lydenburg, Carolina, (General DJ Joubert and Commandant HF Prinsloo), Standerton and Ermelo (Commandant Grobler) commandos. Lieutenant General Sir John French advanced on Carolina and the Boers harassed his column by firing their pom-pom gun at the British. While General Fourie attacked French’s column, about 70 men of the Carolina and Ermelo commandos who had no horses were attacked and had to retreat. General Fourie returned to consolidate his men. His force, along with the horseless men withdrew to positions on Nelshoogte. Hendrik Prinsloo thought this a bad idea and asked General Fourie to be excused while he returned to his farm on 11 September 1900. He took with him his brother in law John Groenewald and Commandant Hans Grobler from the Ermelo commando. They were to collect horses to replace some of the worn out horses and for those unsaddled men.
General Fourie was shelled by British artillery at Nelshoogte, while the British infantry advanced up the steep kloof to the top of the Boer defended ridges. General French was eventually able to encircle the Boer left flank and the burghers had to retreat down the south of the Nelsberg with the loss of several men and quite a few wagons with their supplies. Wards 1 and 2 of the commando returned to Leliefontein under General Fourie and Commandant Prinsloo. Ward 3 remained in the area below Sewefontein under the command of General David Joubert. Those burghers who were near their farms were authorised to return to their farms to see their families and refresh while they remained ready to be called up.
Continued attacks on the Delagoa Bay Railway forced the British to remove the Boers from the Klein Komati River area. General French with a force of 3 000, including 16 guns, left Machadodorp on his first sweep to remove Boers from the highveld.
On 14 October 1900, a British squadron of cavalry along with about 20 Afrikaans “joiners” (National Scouts) arrived at Prinsloo’s farm looking for Commandant Prinsloo. Cecelia his wife and three children were questioned and their household was plundered. Their possessions were packed on their wagons and set alight. The family, however, remained on the farm, for now. That night, Hendrik Prinsloo with the assistance of his batman “Mei” got through the British cordon around the home and was able to speak to his wife and find out if she and the children were fine. The following day General Fourie and Commandant Prinsloo attacked the British Column moving on the road to Lake Chrissie. General French’s column lost about 100 men, 320 horses, many oxen and 55 transport wagons. As in the past, Generals Fourie’s headquarters were posted on Leliefontein (in the present area of Nooitgedacht Dam). He maintained look out positions on the high ground to warn off the British advancing to attack. In the early morning of Tuesday 6 November 1900, Major-General Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien left Belfast with 250 cavalry, 900 infantry, 8 guns and a Vickers Maxim (pom-pom) section, bound for Carolina.
Major-General Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien Ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace_Smith-Dorrien.
Smith-Dorrien’s force included the Canadian Mounted Rifles, the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and a section of “D” Battery Royal Canadian Field Artillery with two 12 pounder guns. The Dragoons consisted of only 95 men but they had with them a horse drawn model 1895 Colt Automatic Machine Gun. This air-cooled machine gun fired .303 rifle ammunition loaded in 250 round cloth belts at a cyclic rate 400 round per minute to a distance of 2 000m.
At approximately 8:30 the Boers attacked Smith-Dorrien’s strong column, inflicting a few casualties. Fourie’s men continued to shadow the British but slowly retreated until they came to positions on the high ground and their camp at Leliefontein. Here after repeated unsuccessful British attacks by the infantry, the 250 strong British cavalry eventually were able to attack the left flank of Fourie’s men, which forced the Boers to withdraw towards Carolina. The British camped in the area vacated by the Boers.
The Battle of Leliefontein 7 November 1900
That night General Fourie called a meeting of all the Carolina and Ermelo commando officers. They decided to attack Smith-Dorrien’s force at Leliefontein in the morning. The Ermelo burghers would advance on the left to outflank the British, while the Carolina men would charge the British on horse-back in a frontal attack. This tactic although initially foreign to the Boers, had been proven to be successful in the previous months. Men previously at home arrived to reinforce Fourie.
That night the British rightly thought that Boer reinforcements were on their way. Smith-Dorrien therefore decided that his force was not strong enough and that in the morning he would return to Belfast, traveling north along the Klein Komati River towards Witkloof. This unexpected British movement ensured that the Ermelo Commando missed the British in their flanking attack.
To cover the withdrawal of Smith-Dorrien’s column, the 95 men of Royal Canadian Dragoons (with their Colt machine gun) the two 12 pounder guns of “D “Battery, all under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Lessard of the Dragoons. The Dragoons deployed in a line four to five kilometres across with the two 12 pounder guns and Colt machine gun in the centre of the line.
General Joachim Fourie and the Ward 1 burghers advanced along the Boesmanspruit and then turned in the direction of Witkloof. Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo of Ward 2 advanced over Nooitgedacht crossed the Klein Komati River. When he got there he saw that General Joachim Fourie had already started his attack. Commandant Prinsloo then ordered his men to attack. The two 12 pounder guns of “D “Battery open fire at the Boers. General Fourie and Commandant Prinsloo mounted a series of attacks on the Canadian line in an attempt to inflict damage on the retreating British column and to try and capture the two 12 ponder guns which were commanded by Lieutenant Edward Bancroft. Lieutenant Hamden Cockburn and a few men at the most critical moment held off the Boer attack which allowed the two guns to get away. The Dragoons’ adjutant Lieutenant Emsley was killed and the Dragoons lost a further 31 men out of their 95 compliment, some of the men surrendering. Prinsloo ordered his batman “Mei” to remove the bolts from the rifles of the prisoners. The engagement continued ferociously until 11:00 that morning. After this the Boers regrouped and formulated a new plan to capture the guns.
Sergeant Edward J Holland. VC.
Lieutenant Richard Ernest Turner, VC.
A new frontal attack of 200 burghers went in at 14:00. The men, with General Joachim Fourie and Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo in the lead, charged the Canadians, firing from their saddles. The 12 pounder guns under threat of being captured a second time, were withdrawn. Fourie and Prinsloo saw the guns leaving the battle and chased after them. The Canadians had however left the Colt machine gun to cover their withdrawal. The attacking Boers rode into an ambush arranged by 12 men under the command of Lieutenant Richard Tuner. Tuner was shot three times. Sergeant Edward J Holland, who commanded the Colt machine gun, opened fire when Fourie and Prinsloo were close by pouring a steam of bullets at the burghers. The Boers quickly dismounted but General Joachim Fourie was killed instantly while still mounted. Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo was hit while trying to dismount and his horse was riddled by machine gun bullets. Prinsloo’s adjutant Jan Grobler was severely wounded. The Colt machine gun was still in danger of been captured by General Fourie’s men, so Sergeant Holland calmly removed the gun from its carriage, burning his hands on the hot barrel and rode away with the machine gun tucked under his arm. The Dragoons position was eventually taken by the burghers and Sergeant Holland’s men were captured. Owning to a lack of leadership, the burghers did not continue their attack on Smith-Dorrien’s column. The bravery of the Royal Canadian Dragoons allowed the rest of Smit-Dorrien’s column to successfully retreat to Belfast unhindered.
General Joachim Fourie’s body was taken to his wife Aletta on his farm. Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo’s remains were taken to his wife Cecelia for burial. His mule drawn cart and his sporting Mauser rifle were also taken to his family. In a report for the War Office, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien paid high tribute to Commandant Hendrik Prinsloo’s soldierly and humanitarian qualities and said the Boers through his death had lost the “De Wet of these small commandos.” General Louis Botha sent an official despatch to President Steyn and General De Wet in which he wrote that “Our cause has lost a very brave and loveable officer.”
A few days later the commando assembled and General David Johannes Joubert was elected their leader. The burghers now operated in small independent groups, some of whom joined General Louis Botha and assisted at the attack on Belfast on 7 January 1901. They also assisted General Botha’s attack on Smith-Dorrien’s Lake Chrissies camp on the 5 and 6 February 1901.
To try control the movement and the resupply of the Boer commandos, Kitchener believed that they should remove or destroy anything that might provide the Boers with sustenance or assistance. This meant the systematic burning of any farm that belonged to a burgher serving in any of the commandos and interning of his family. The internment of Boer women and children to concentration camps started in late 1900. In February 1901 an Australian mounted contingent force, arrived at Commandant Prinsloo’s farm. His wife, Cecelia and her three children were loaded onto wagons and their farm house burnt. While looking for valuables they noticed the presentation sporting Mauser rifle and his mule cart with Hendrik Prinsloo’s personal belongings. Captain RD McKenzie captured these and kept the rifle for himself. He later had his initials and name engraved on the silver oval plate on the right side of the butt. He took the rifle back with him to Australia.
Cecelia Prinsloo and her children were transported to the Barberton Concentration Camp close to the Swaziland border. This camp was comparably small (2 000 people) and was efficiently and cleanly run.
Lieutenants Hampden Zane Churchill Cockburn and Richard Ernest William Turner as well as Sergeant Edward James Gibson Holland were awarded the Victoria Cross on the 23 April 1901 for their actions at Leliefontein.
On the 7 November an annual service has been held at the spot where General Fourie and Commandant Prinsloo fell. The spot had a granite stone erected on it which reads “Hier is die Helde Geval. Gen, J C Fourie en Komdt H.F Prinsloo, het hier gesneuwel, tewyl hulle die Boere-magte heldhaftig anngevoer het teen Genl. Sir H.L SmithDorrien op 7 Nov. 1900.”
In 1925, on the request from General Smith-Dorrien to Captain McKenzie in Australia, Commandant Prinsloo’s sporting Mauser was returned to his son, then Captain (late Colonel) Hendrik Prinsloo. The rifle was immediately claimed by the gallant men of the Carolina Commando. It was hung under the photograph of Commandant Prinsloo in the Carolina church hall.
In 1950, № 5 gun, one of the two relived guns formed part of a monument in Ottawa, to commemorate the saving of the guns on 7 November 1900. It was later removed to the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, where it resides today.
Gun № 5 used during the Battle of Leliefontein, 7 November 1900,displayed at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa. Ref: https://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/boer/fieldgun_e.html
In 1964, the sporting Mauser rifle was taken down from display and cleaned and restored by General Smuts’ son-in-law, Colonel Weyers who continued to farm on Smuts’ farm in Irene after the Field Marshall’s death. The rifle was then presented to the Africana Museum in Johannesburg later in the year.
Commandant Prinsloo’s son Colonel Prinsloo requested that both the sporting rifle and his own personal Mauser rifle which he used as a child in the Boer War, be transferred from the Africana Museum to the South African National War Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Military History). This was completed in October 1965.
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Anna La Grange, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
The Victoria Cross, which is the highest British military order for bravery in the face of the enemy, was instituted in 1856 by Queen Victoria. The date was backdated to 1954 to include the Crimean conflict. The idea behind the Victoria Cross was that bravery should be recognised not only in advanced ranks of the British forces, but in all ranks. In a time when rank, class and prestige was everything in society, Queen Victoria’s need to award all ranks can be viewed as extremely forward-thinking. During the imperial and colonial era, the Victoria Cross could also be awarded to individuals from British domains who showcased outstanding acts of bravery whilst serving on Britain’s side.
The design of the Victoria Cross medal is in the form of a Maltese cross and on the obverse of the cross the inscription “For Valour” is surmounted by the Royal Crest. Victoria Crosses are made from bronze metal, obtained from a piece of bronze that originally formed part of two guns that were captured during the Crimea in 1954. The remaining bronze is kept at the Royal Logistic Corps’ Defence Stores Distribution Depot at Donnington, Worcestershire. Some of the first Victoria Crosses had either a navy coloured ribbon (for naval recipients) or a crimson coloured ribbon (for recipients serving in the army). This concept was abandoned in 1920, after which King George V decided that all Victoria Crosses will be issued with a crimson red ribbon by all military services. Most other medals are struck at a mint, but Victoria Crosses are manufactured by Hancock & Co jewellers in London (the company is responsible for producing all Victoria Crosses to this day). Ironically, the most coveted bravery medal in the world, is intrinsically almost valueless. It is only once the medal is engraved and awarded that the monetary value drastically increases.
The Victoria Cross seems to be a captivating research theme for writers. It is a subject that researchers, collectors and historians cannot seem to get enough of. Quite a large number of the works within the historiography focus on one of two aspects. Firstly, how Victoria Crosses have been won; and secondly, the evolution and general administrative history of the Victoria Cross. Recently, especially with military history moving away from the outdated ‘drum and trumpet’ writing style, writing about subjects like the Victoria Cross seems to be a daunting task. Newer research endeavours with the Victoria Cross as the main subject seems to utilise unique themes to research the medal. Prime examples of this are John Winton’s The Victoria Cross at Sea: The Sailors, Marines and Airmen Awarded Britain’s Highest Honour, which uses a naval perspective to study some Victoria Cross recipient stories; and Brian Best’s Unrewarded Courage: Acts of Valour that Were Denied the Victoria Cross. The most recent impact-bearing take on the Victoria Cross is Melvin Smith’s Awarded for Valour: A History of the Victoria Cross and the Evolution of British Heroism.
A quick look at the historiography concerning the Victoria Cross indicates that it is a topic that female researchers seldom pay any attention to, the reason behind this phenomenon can be the topic for an entire article by itself. This article, however, aims to look at the Victoria Cross from a South African perspective. In the long history of the Victoria Cross only 1 355 individuals have received this prestigious medal. In the event of a second award of a Victoria Cross to the same individual, a bar is added to the medal. Only three individuals have ever been able to obtain a bar, bringing the total of Victoria Crosses awarded to 1 358 (three being bars). Of these 1 355 individuals who have received Victoria Crosses only 28 are South African (21 between 1856 and 1914, 4 between 1914 and 1918 during the First World War, and 3 between 1939 and 1945 during the Second World War).
The first South African to be awarded with a Victoria Cross is Lieutenant J.P.H. Crowe who served in the 78th Regiment (Seaforth Highlanders) during the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Since then 27 other South Africans have won this prestigious award. Any of these 28 individuals would serve as an interesting research topic for an article. For this article, however, the focus will be on the three men who won their Victoria Crosses during the Second World War. A total of 182 Victoria Crosses were awarded during the Second World War, of which only three were awarded to South Africans.
The first Victoria Cross awarded to a South African during the Second World War was to Sergeant Quentin George Murray Smythe. On 5 June 1942, during an attack on an enemy stronghold in the Western Desert near Alem Hamza in North Africa, Sergeant Smythe took command of his entire platoon leading them to victory in the process. After successfully attacking and claiming the stronghold Smythe also successfully defeated the enemy’s attempt at reclaiming the position. During the whole ordeal Smythe showed tremendous bravery and leadership despite being severely injured himself. His actions during the abovementioned engagement earned him a Victoria Cross, which was officially awarded on 11 September 1942.
The second South African to win a Victoria Cross during the Second World War is Captain Gerard Ross Norton, who won his Victoria Cross for his actions on 31 August 1944 during the attack on Monte Gridolfo, Italy. Norton originally served in Die Middellandse Regiment between 1936 to 1938 and was later transferred to The Kaffrarian Rifles. He served the Kaffrarian Rifles unit the fall of Tobruk, where he was one of the few who successfully escaped. After escaping, Norton travelled more than 900km, mostly on foot, all the way to EI Alamein. After this Norton served with the Royal Hampshire Regiment who was posted in Italy. On 31 August 1944, during the attack on Monte Gridolfo, Norton continued on alone after his platoon was pinned down by heavy machine gun fire. Norton successfully attacked two machine gun positions despite being under direct fire from the enemy and severely outnumbered. His complete disregard for personal safety, and thus extreme heroism, earned him his Victoria Cross, which was officially awarded on the 26th of October 1944.
The third South African hero to win a Victoria Cross during the Second World War is Captain Edwin Swales. Swales won his Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery showcased in an operation on 23 February 1945. Swales originally served in the Natal Mounted Rifles until 17 January 1942 after which he was transferred to the South African Air Force. Swales’s main task as a “master bomber” was to seek out and attack enemy targets. During his last mission Swales not only successfully finished the mission with a badly damaged aircraft, he also saved the lives of all his crew members by ordering them to bail out once he knew they were over friendly lines. Not long after the last crew member had successfully jumped from the plane, Swales’ plane crashed to the ground. Swales was later found dead at the controls having given his life so that his crew can live. Swales’s Victoria Cross was posthumously awarded on 24 April 1945.
The Victoria Cross, an award that has long captivated the academic community, remains an intriguing topic to research. This article highlighted the three Second World War South African recipients who won this prestigious medal. The Second World War was a dynamic time in South African history, a time that is enjoying some well-deserved attention in the historiography. It is thus important that some of the more understudied aspects of South African Second World War experience (like Victoria Cross awards) should not be forgotten.
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