THE CAPE CORPS IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR; Illustrated by works of art at the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

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THE CAPE CORPS IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR; Illustrated by works of art at the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

By Allan Sinclair, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


The official Military Art Collection which depicts South Africa’s involvement in the Second World War (1939 – 1945) was placed in the care of the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) in 1953.  This article highlights four works of art in the collection that embody the activities of the South African Cape Corps during the Second World War (1939 – 1945).

The Official Military Art Collection

Following South Africa’s entry into the Second World War, the Union Defence Forces appointed its own artists to operate in the areas where South African troops would be fighting. The first artists selected in 1940 were Neville Lewis, C Meredith Bleach, Geoffrey Long and Francois Krige.

In 1943 a War Art Advisory Committee was formed in South Africa to take responsibility for the programme.  Four additional artists, Philip Bawcombe, Terence McCaw, Ben Burrage and Gordon Taylor were appointed by this Committee. The works produced by these artists also included the activities of the Air Force, the Naval Forces, the Medical Forces and the Engineers. Other areas, in particular the home front, were relatively neglected.  To bridge this gap, works of art from other well-known artists such as Dorothy Kay, Barbara Loxton, Nils Andersen, Ruth Prowse, Robert Broadley, Herbert McWilliams and Alexis Preller were purchased by the government and acquired for the collection.  At the end of hostilities, a collection of approximately 850 works had been produced. Four of these works have been selected to illustrate this article.

The Establishment of the Cape Corps

The Cape Corps was the traditional military formation of the coloured community of South Africa prior to the political changes of 1994. The unit traced its lineage to the Corps of Pandours raised during the period of the Dutch East Indies colonial government at the Cape in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the Cape Regiment and Cape Mounted Rifles formed in the 19th century after Britain had seized control of the Cape.

Section 7 of the Defence Act of 1912 (amended in 1922), which laid the foundation of the Union Defence Forces, stated clearly that only white citizens of the Union could be called upon for military service in a combatant capacity. Black, coloured and Indian citizens could only volunteer for service in a non-belligerent role. Despite that, the South African Government took a decision during the First World War (1914 – 1918) to form two battalions of the Cape Corps for combat service in the German East Africa Campaign. The decision was made easier by the fact that all units raised for service in Africa, the Middle East and Europe were Imperial service units paid for by the British Government. On completion of its service in German East Africa, the 1st Bn Cape Corps distinguished itself at the Battle of Square Hill in Palestine on 19 and 20 September 1918, suffering 152 casualties in the process.

The Role of the Cape Corps in the Second World War

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, South Africa could no longer make use of this imperial service arrangement as a means of forming non-white units for combat operations. The fervent right wing opposition to the country’s participation in the war also meant that the Prime Minister, Gen J C Smuts, had to negotiate a narrow line in order to maintain his slender parliamentary support for the war. Under these conditions the provisions of the Defence Act, in so far as it concerned non-white volunteers, were strictly adhered to. The Government did accept the fact that the white manpower available for the war effort was too small and its fighting forces would not be sustained without the support of black, coloured and Indian South Africans.

On 8 May 1940, Lt Col C N Hoy, who had commanded the 1st Bn Cape Corps during the First World War, received instructions from the Chief of the South African General Staff to re-form the Cape Corps and establish a number of motor transport and construction companies from its ranks. Recruiting offices were opened in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Kimberley while the Bultfontein Compound in Kimberley was chosen as the main training centre for the Corps.  Hoy immediately recruited twelve former platoon sergeants who had served with the Corps during the First World War to train the new recruits. 

The response in recruitment of coloured personnel was so successful that two further training centres were established at the Dutoitspan and Wesselton compounds in Kimberley. Wesselton became the main depot for basic training while Bultfontein was used for motor transport training and Dutoitspan for pioneer / construction training.

Figure 1: Ruth Prowse – Recruitment for the Cape Corps (DNMMH Second World War Art Collection: Cat No 1884)


By August 1940 all white motor transport drivers were being replaced by men allocated from the Cape Corps and the Indian and Malay Corps. Drivers provided by the Cape Corps then undertook the massive transport of vehicles and necessary supplies overland to East Africa. Gleeson records that these vehicles were first sent by rail to Broken Hill in Northern Rhodesia (today Zambia).  The drivers then took over and personally drove the vehicles across the 2 575 km route from Broken Hill to Kenya through some of the most inhospitable terrain found in Africa.  By the end of March 1941 around 90 to 100 vehicles were arriving in Kenya per day. Gleeson adds that the long journey through Africa provided definitive training for the men and gave them effective practical skills that would prove vital as the war continued.

Once there the Motor Transport Companies were based in Nairobi and their tasks divided as follows:

  • Support of operational forces located near Lake Rudolph.
  • Maintaining lines of communication between Nairobi, Nanyuki and Wajir.
  • Transporting troops and supplies northward for operations in Somaliland and Abyssinia.


A further four companies also provided support to British and Indian forces operating along the Nile River and in Eritrea. Around 5 500 Cape Corps personnel served in the motor transport companies while an additional 1 500 men operated in the construction companies located in East Africa.

Figure 2: Gordon Taylor – Cape Corps Pioneers digging slit trenches, East Africa (DNMMH Second World War Art Collection: Cat No 1571)


A policy of dilution of non-white personnel into selected traditional white UDF units and corps was introduced to solve the growing shortage of white troops available for combat duty in 1941.  Priority was therefore given for Cape Corps personnel to be allocated to units within the South African Air Force (SAAF), the South African Engineer Corps (SAEC) and the South African Artillery (SAA).

Over 1 200 Cape Corps men were trained by the SAAF to serve as anti-aircraft gunners and ground security. Gleeson refers to the fact that, despite the strict adherence to the provisions of the Defence Act, coloured personnel serving in these units did receive musketry training due to the fact that such troops were required to carry arms in the operational areas of the Middle East.

Those allocated to the SAA were trained as coastal defence gunners at the Anti-Aircraft Depot on Robben Island. Eventually over 2 000 troops were being trained on the island. A significant number were posted to units such as No 1 Light Anti-Aircraft Regt serving in in the 1st South African Division, the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regt located in the Western Desert and the 6th Field Regiment which was deployed to Madagascar along with the 7th South African Brigade. 

Figure 3:  Barbara Loxton – Cape Corps men on route to Robben Island (DNMMH Second World War Art Collection: Cat No 1570)

The dilution policy also led to the disbandment of a number of motor transport and construction companies in East Africa and the transfer of these members of the Cape Corps to the 1st South African Division. There the men were distributed to units within the Division and employed as drivers, mechanics, cooks and other such duties. Only five motor transport companies remained and No 133 MT Company was assigned the task of transporting vehicles from the Nile Delta through Palestine and Syria to Turkey over a period of six months.  Around 70 Cape Corps personnel also found themselves absorbed into four roads construction companies and one roads maintenance company, all in service in the Middle East.

In May 1942, a number of Cape Corps Battalions were formed, primarily, to guard prisoners-of-war in South Africa and, furthermore, to guard the important lines of communication in North Africa. Of these, No 102 Bn Cape Corps was selected to provide security for the SAAF. The men were all armed with rifles and trained in the use of Bren, Browing and Breda machine guns. Detachments of the unit were then deployed to a number of Allied air force squadrons based along the North African coast.

Figure 4: Geoffrey Long – Cape Corps anti-aircraft gunners at El Hasaet (DNMMH Second World War Art Collection: Cat No 1569)


In May 1944 the 6th South African Armoured Division arrived in Italy with a total of 21 300 Cape Corps personnel on strength. The men served as store clerks, MT drivers and stretcher bearers attached to two field ambulances. Maj Gen W H E Poole, the General-Officer-Commanding the Division, submitted a proposal which may have had important consequences for racial attitudes in South Africa, both during and after the war.

By this time white male combatant manpower was in complete short supply and, in an effort to keep the Division up to strength, a number of well-known regiments were amalgamated. Poole, realising that there was great shortage of infantry in Italy and that it was difficult to employ an armoured division in its true role in such a country, proposed that a new brigade consisting of battalions of the Cape Corps be formed to provide further infantry support.  

Smuts authorised an investigation into the possibility of providing a Cape Corps Brigade and that Brig H B Klopper, the unfortunate commander of the ill-fated 2nd South African Division that was forced to surrender at Tobruk in June 1942, be allowed to vindicate himself by being placed in command of it. For a time, it was believed that the Cape Corps would achieve its cherished ideal of operating in a proper combatant role again. The South African cabinet, unfortunately, turned down the proposal and the idea was eventually abandoned.


Legacy of the Cape Corps

Approximately 45 000 coloured personnel served in the Cape Corps during the Second World War. The Corps suffered 3 000 casualties of which 250 were killed in action. In 1963 the Cape Corps was reformed and, following an amendment to the Defence Act in 1975, it was granted the status of a permanent force combatant unit. The ensuing changes which occurred after the political transformation of 1994 led to the Cape Corps being re-designated as No 9 South African Infantry Battalion. However, due to the racial reforms introduced in the South African National Defence Force, this Battalion is now no longer a segregated unit for coloured soldiers only.



Even though the coloured community was unable to serve in a true combatant capacity as had been the case in the First World War, the contribution of the Cape Corps to the South African War effort in the Second World War was still extensive. The four works of art used to illustrate this article provide the reader with a small but unique pictorial record of some of the activities of the Corps during this period. The works illustrate the recruitment of coloured men into the Cape Corps (No 1), anti-aircraft gunners in position at an air base in North Africa (No 4), pioneers at work in East Africa (No 2) and coastal gunners on their way to Robben Island (No 3). There are more such works of art in the collection at the Museum and these will ensure that the memory of the Cape Corps in the Second World War is preserved in visual form.





Difford, I D. 1923. The Story of the 1st Battalion Cape Corps. Cape Town: Hortors.

Gleeson, I. 1994. The Unknown Force: Black, Coloured and Indian Soldiers through Two World Wars. Johannesburg: Ashanti.

Kruger, C. 1990. South African Images of War. Johannesburg: Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

Martin, H J & Orpen, N. 1979. South Africa at War. Johannesburg, Purnell.


Published Articles

Hoy, C N. “Cape Corps” in Nongqai (April 1944): 426 – 429.


Archival Sources

Library File B 412 (68) “Cape Corps”: Archives, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History.

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