The campaign to upgrade Lance Corporal Job Masego’s Military Medal to a Victoria Cross
By Anna La Grange, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
South Africa’s participation in the Second World is a multifaceted historical phenomenon covering various interesting aspects, campaigns, victories, Prison-of-War (POW) stories, interesting personalities, and war heroes. April and May 2021 saw a sudden influx of press activity about one of these war heroes: Lance Corporal Jacob (Job) Masego, who won the Military Medal (MM) for his brave act of blowing up an enemy ship in the Tobruk Harbour in 1942. The 2021 press activity was motivated after a campaign that Job Masego’s MM should be upgraded to a Victoria Cross (VC) was launched. Rumours abound that Lance Corporal Masego was not recommended for a VC because he was a black man. To better understand these rumours, it is crucial to investigate the context in which these events occurred.
Recruitment and role of non-whites in the Union Defence Force during the Second World War
By July 1940, there were already three units within the Union Defence Force (UDF) for non-whites: the Cape Corps (CC), Indian and Malay Corps (IMC), and Native Military Guards Brigade (later to be called the Native Military Corps or NMC). Some 79 258 men served in the NMC and a further 46 412 non-whites in the CC and IMC. All three of these units played an essential part in the South African Second World War effort by serving in the UDF in predominantly non-combatant roles such as stretcher-bearers, medical aids, clerks, motor transport drivers, motor mechanics, carpenters, builders, bootmakers, typists, telephone operators, and so forth. Members of the NMC received training for various support functions, and after training, these men were posted to various units to support the war effort. Lance Corporal Job Masego was employed as a delivery man in Springs before volunteering with the NMC. After initial training, he was sent to North Africa with the 2nd South African Infantry (SAI) Division.
Figure 1:Lance Corporal Job Masego MM, Oil on canvas, Neville Lewis.
The Surrender of the Tobruk Garrison
On 21 June 1942, a substantial portion of the 2nd South African Infantry (SAI) Division was taken captive by axis powers when Major General H.B. Klopper surrendered to Lieutenant General E. Rommel and his Afrika Korps (DAK). The fall of Tobruk was disastrous in many ways. The Allies lost an estimated total of 33 000 men who were taken as POWs and had to deal with the loss of a strategically placed harbour in North Africa. Of the approximate 33 000 men taken captive, 10 722 were South Africans of the 2nd Division, and 1 200 of those were non-whites who formed part of the NMC. Lance Corporal Job Masego was amongst these men and thus became a POW in June 1942.
Prisoners of War (POW) Experiences after the Surrender of the Tobruk Garrison
Research about POW experiences is an important and exciting part of military history. Karen Horn and David Katz argue that POWs held captive by axis powers often struggled to recover from the “humiliation of defeat.” These individuals are often severely affected by their experiences many years after the war ended. During the Second World War, 14 583 South African soldiers were captured and locked up by either Germans or Italians. Most of these POWs were captured at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941 and Tobruk in June 1942. Amongst these detainees were non-white members of the CC, IMC, and NMC.
Circumstances for any POW are already challenging, being stripped of their weapons, fundamental rights, and freedom and entirely at the mercy of the enemy. For members of the NMC, being black and forming part of a disadvantaged group, the conditions were often far worse than what was faced by their white fellow countrymen. Racist ideologies at the time flourished; even the Geneva Convention did not consider it necessary for black POWs to be treated in the same way as their white counterparts.
After the fall of Tobruk, the Germans separated the non-white and white POWs by race, sending the white POWs to POW camps in Europe and using the black POWs as labourers in Africa. The non-white POWs were treated very harshly, exposed to long working hours and constant ill-treatment from their captors. These men were also supplied with false information about the war to let them think that the allied forces were losing. There are some fascinating stories of black POWs who did not submit to this harsh fate but rather showed extreme courage in the face of this suffering.
Examples include Sergeant Reuben Moloi, captured at Tobruk and taken to Mersa Matruh in Egypt, where he was forced to work on the docks. Sergeant Moloi managed to escape and set off to rejoin allied forces. He eventually rejoined the allies at El Alamain after ten days and having travelled more than 200km with no food, no water, no compass, and no map; in that time, only living off food and water found in vehicle wrecks along the way. During his journey, Sergeant Moloi survived minefields, shellfire, and enemy sentries. His efforts earned him a Military Medal.
Figure 2: Sergeant Reuben Moloi wearing the ribbon of his Military Medal, c. 1942.
The highest award won by a non-white South African during the Second World War was the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), awarded to Sergeant Lucas Majosi, who served as a stretcher-bearer. Sergeant Majosi won his DCM for displaying great bravery on 23 October 1942 during the Battle of El Alamein, where he continued to evacuate casualties under heavy enemy fire. Sergeant Majosi himself was eventually wounded by shrapnel but continued to evacuate the injured. After his co-bearer became a casualty, he continued to carry wounded men back on his own by carrying them on his back.
Figure 3: Sergeant Lucas Majosi DCM, Oil on canvas, Neville Lewis.
Another fascinating POW escape story is that of Lance Corporal Masego. The axis forces used him to work on the docks at Tobruk Harbour, mainly to help load and unload German ships. During his time as a labourer on the docks, he came up with the plan to blow up a German ship. On 21 July 1942, he went down into the vessel’s hold and set up a delayed explosion while three of his fellow POWs distracted the guards. Lance Corporal Masego placed a small tin filled with gunpowder among petrol drums in the ship’s hold. He then led a fuse to the hatch and lighted the fuse upon closing the hatch. After the explosion, he escaped his captors and walked three weeks through the harsh desert territory to re-join allied forces.
An award for Lance Corporal Masego’s heroic actions
Lance Corporal Masego was initially recommended for the British Empire Medal, but the recommendation was changed to a MM. Although a MM is a very prestigious award, it is not as prestigious as a VC. So the question remains: Should Lance Corporal Job Masego have received a Victoria Cross for his brave actions?
The VC remains the most prestigious award within the British and Commonwealth awards and honours system, and since its inception in 1856, only 1358 VCs have been awarded. According to the National Army Museum in London and the Victoria Cross Trust, the VC is an “open to all” award regardless of race, age, social background, military ranking, gender orientation, etc. To win a VC, two main criteria must be met:
- The act of bravery should be “in the face of the enemy,” or in other words, during combat; and
- The act of bravery must be witnessed (by a senior officer or a junior officer that can report it to a senior officer).
While Lance Corporal Masego’s deeds were indeed brave, they do not fulfil either one of these criteria. The campaign to upgrade his MM to a VC has since lost ground, mainly because the criteria for awarding a VC cannot be altered.
By the end of the Second World War, in 1945, a total of 334 224 volunteers from all racial groupings in South Africa had served in the UDF (excluding the 8468 semi-military, antisabotage, guard unit known as the Essential Services Protection Corps). Lance Corporal Job Masego’s heroic deeds are among the thousands of interesting war stories and memories that continue to captivate the general public and academic scholars alike. His heroic efforts are recorded amongst other South African wartime heroes’ stories like Sergeants Lucas Majosi and Reuben Moloi. Although Lance Corporal Masego’s MM will not be upgraded to a VC, it is comforting to know that his heroic act lives on in history books, academic articles, and artworks.
Masego’s memory is also still very much alive in South Africa. To honour their local hero, the Springs community recently restored his tombstone and named one of the local primary schools as well as one of the main roads in the KwaThema township after him. A Naval Base wardroom in Simon’s Town now also bears the name of Job Masego. In 1997 the South African Navy strike craft, SAS Kobie Coetzee, was renamed SAS Job Masego. The DITSONG: National Museum of Military History also has a display honouring Lance Corporal Masego and his brave actions.
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