Telling the story of events surrounding South Africa’s Entry into the Second World War 1939 – 1945

By Allan Sinclair, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

Date: March 2021

Newspaper headlines are used to quickly draw attention to important stories. They are usually written in a term called headlinese, a compressed abbreviated style designed to meet strict space requirements in a newspaper. Newspaper billboards that only carry these headlines are printed to publicise what is published in a particular edition and are placed in communal places, normally outdoors, utilising vertical surfaces such as walls, boards, fences and electricity poles. A small number of these billboards produced by the now defunct newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, and which headline events surrounding the outbreak of the Second World War, are located in the propaganda collection of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History.

The outbreak of war on 3 September 1939 once again brought to the fore the lingering animosity that had existed between English and Afrikaans speaking South Africans since the end of the Anglo Boer South African War forty years earlier. The question of South African participation in the Second World War on the side of Britain and the Commonwealth continued to polarise the white population. The English speaking community, along with a significant portion of Afrikaners it must be said, supported the war effort while the vast majority of those opposed were drawn from the right wing republican minded Afrikaans community. The Rand Daily Mail followed the drama that unfolded and the billboards produced over this turbulent period tell an interesting story.

Figure 1: (DNMMH Acq No 16376/6)

On 1 September 1939 German forces invaded Poland. South Africans read about this invasion in special newspaper editions. The next morning the news, as described in the billboard above, was even grimmer. Britain and France had previously issued a guarantee to Poland providing full support in the event of a German attack. Richard Steyn describes the fact that one question hung on the minds of most South Africans: would the country support Britain along with the rest of the British Commonwealth or would she remain neutral. The implications of such a decision were extensive. South Africa had been governed by the United Party since 1934. This party had been formed from the fusion of Gen J B M Hertzog’s National Party and Gen J C Smuts’ South African Party in 1933. This fusion had been created out of necessity, largely as a result of the hardships caused by of the Great Depression of 1929 and as an attempt to heal the long-standing rift at the heart of white South African politics. But while Hertzog, the South African Prime-Minister, believed firmly in his policy of ‘South Africa First’ and was relentless in his opposition to the blind support of British and Imperial objectives, Smuts remained fervent in his belief that full co-operation with the British Empire and the Commonwealth was non-negotiable.[1]

Supplementary newspaper editions of 2 September published further coverage of the events taking place in Europe. The Rand Daily Mail’s billboard above publicised a special edition containing the full text of the British ultimatum to Germany issued by the British Prime-Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on the same day. The ultimatum expired the following morning and Britain and France, along with Australia and New Zealand, immediately declared war on Germany. However, in contrast to the political reality of the First World War (1914 – 1918) where the British Dominions were automatically at war subsequent to the British declaration, the Statute of Westminster passed by the British Parliament in 1931 provided legal recognition to the de facto independence of the Dominions. South Africa therefore had the right to make its own decision this time on the question of participation in the war.[2]

Figure 2: (DNMMH Acq No 16376/5)

By chance the South African Parliament had recently been recalled to prolong the life of the Senate and the decision was taken to put the question to the House of Assembly at a sitting arranged for 4 September. A vote taken by the South African cabinet on the evening of 2 September resulted in a split of six members voting in favour of Hertzog’s proposed motion of neutrality while seven members supported Smuts’ counter-proposal for full participation in the war.[3]

Steyn provides a full account of the debate which took place that Monday morning. Hertzog introduced his motion of neutrality first. He was followed by Smuts who moved his amendment that South Africa should stand by Britain and the Commonwealth and severe all relations with Germany. The debate ranged back and forth the entire day. At the same time the country literally came to a standstill. Shops closed their doors and large crowds gathered outside Parliament in Cape Town and public places in other major centres, all the time listening on various types of radios. At 21:10 that evening the vote was called and Smuts’ motion for war was carried by 80 votes to 67.[4]

Figure 3: (DNMMH Acq No 16376/7)

In the meantime, billboards continued to provide headlines on activities taking place in Europe as the war entered its third day. One of the initial tasks carried out by the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command, the same force that would destroy many of Germany’s cities by the end of the war, was to drop propaganda leaflets over the German port of Kiel. The Rand Daly Mail carried this as a headline story in its 5 September edition.[5]


Tensions continued to rise between those in support of the war and those opposed. Ugly scenes had already emerged in Johannesburg on 1 September when a crowd of 700 people supporting war surrounded the German Club in Loveday St. The police were forced to fire tear gas at the demonstrators and running fights broke out before the riot was eventually broken up. Similar such cases of attempts to damage property owned by Germans and street fights involving supporters and opponents of the war would continue for the months to come. Headline billboards such as the example above published in the Rand Daily Mail the Rand Daily Mail on 6 September were to become the norm.[6]

Figure 4: (DNMMH Acq No 16376/4)

In the wake of the vote taken in Parliament, Hertzog made an official request to the Governor-General, Sir Patrick Duncan, to dissolve Parliament and call a general election. Headlines such as the example published in the Rand Daily Mail on the morning of Tuesday 5 September heightened tensions even further and people everywhere contemplated what the Governor-General’s verdict would be. Eventually it became known that Duncan had decided not to grant permission for the dissolution of Parliament and the calling of an election. Hertzog had no choice but to tender his resignation with immediate effect.[7]

On Wednesday 6 September it was announced that Smuts formally accepted the Governor-General’s invitation to form a government. A little later that day the new Prime-Minister announced that South Africa was officially at war with Germany.[8]

Figure 5: (DNMMH Acq No 16376/1)

The headline billboards illustrated in this article chronicle the crises that prevailed over the period from the German invasion of Poland early on 1 September until South Africa’s eventual declaration of war on Germany six days later. The events which took place over these six days would have wide-ranging consequences for the future history of South Africa. The billboards preserved in the propaganda collection of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History are tangible embodiments of this turbulent but historic moment in our nation’s history.



[1] . R Steyn, Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa forever, preface.

[2] . J Cryws-Williams, A Country at war, p 18.

[3] . W K Hancock, Smuts: The Fields of Force 1919 – 1950, p 319.

[4] . R Steyn, p 46; J Cryws-Williams, p 18.

[5] . N Frankland, “Bombing the RAF Case”in Purnell’s History of the Second World War Vol 5, p 2272

[6] . J Cryws-Williams, p 21.

[7] . R Steyn, p 51.

[8] . R Steyn, p 52.


  • Cryws-Williams, J, A Country at War: 1939 – 1945 (Ashanti, Johannesburg, 1992)
  • Frankland, N “Bombing, The RAF Case” in Purnell’s History of the Second World War Vol 6
  • Hancock, W K, Smuts: The Fields of Force 1919 – 1950 (Cambridge, University Press, 1968)
  • Steyn, R Seven Votes: How WW2 changed South Africa for ever (Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 2020)
  • Illustrations courtesy of the Propaganda Collection of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History

Ditsong Logo