Number of Soldiers: 10,000
Number of Fallen: 357
Number of Medal Holders: 100
In September, 1939, South Africa’s Regular Army numbered 5,385 persons, in its three Arms. The back-up for this Force were the volunteer-reservists of the Active Citizen’s Force (ACF), who numbered 14,631 soldiers. This Force was supposed to train in peace-time and to constitute the Army’s main body in time of war.
Prior to the war South Africa did not have in existence any operative plans for combat outside the borders of the Country.
Its small Army has been trained and equipped for fighting in the African Plains – as Light Infantry.
At that time, the Country’s Anti-Aircraft Defense consisted of a mere eight 3" Guns and six Searchlights.
The Air-Force had a total sum of 104 aircraft, most of them obsolete.
The Navy numbered three Officers and three Soldiers, with no vessels, and in actuality did not exist at all.
After Italy had occupied Ethiopia, in 1936, the Army went through some organizational changes, as 9 Regimental Battle Groups were raised out of the 27 Reserve Battalions.
The Regimental Battle Group turned into the South African Army’s basic Formation, in accordance with the British model.
Apart from the Infantry Battalions, each Regimental Battle Group comprised an Artillery Force, Engineering and other professional elements.
Following the outbreak of the war, the Chief of the General Staff, Major General Pierre van Ryneveld, submitted to the Government an ambitious plan for the establishment of a Mobile Field-Force in a Force Array of 2 Divisions, and additionally, a Motorized Brigade and an Armored Brigade. And together with the professional elements, the Artillery Force and the Coast Artillery, there was a requisition to expand the Force Array to about 140,000 Soldiers.
Although this plan was never officially approved, it served as a blue-print for the organization and Force build-up in the following years.
At once this plan engulfed the cardinal problem with which South Africa was compelled to contend in the course of the entire war, namely – the shortage of manpower.
Out of the Country’s entire white population, which totaled 2,400,000 people, the number of those at the ages of 20 to 40, and destined for enlistment, was only 320,000 persons.
The declaration of war on Germany passed in the South African Parliament with just a scant majority and was far from winning wide public support in the Country. In fact, there existed a significant, active minority that sympathized with Nazi Germany and opposed any involvement in the war alongside hated Britain. Under these circumstances conscription was inconceivable, and therefore, Force build-up and its maintenance in remote locations was bound to be solely on a voluntary basis.
Because of the Country’s Apartheid Regime it was hardly possible to think about recruitment from among the Black population, which was much larger than the White. Nevertheless, in order to free the largest number of Whites for service in Combat Units and in the Professional Corps, several designated Forces of Pioneers and Drivers were raised, whose members had been recruited from among the Asian and Colored residents of the Cape Province. Likewise, a special Force was established that recruited Black soldiers for assignments in construction and auxiliary service. Some of them were assigned to certain Guard and Security duties and even received weapons, but they were never permitted to participate in active combat against Europeans.
Conspicuous over this background was the Country’s Jewish public, which was the only organized factor supporting Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts’ policy and the war against Germany.
The Jews complied in masses and volunteered to all Units, and their proportion in the Army was higher than their rate in the population.
At first, the Army’s training advanced slowly and without any forecast of combat activity, but in March, 1940, in accordance with a British request, South Africa’s Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, promised to send a Brigade to Kenya, to fight against the Italians in East Africa. This deployment, the first outside the Country’s borders, was supposed to be implemented by July, yet the South African Soldier’s Oath of Enlistment did not include such an eventuality and had to be revised accordingly; and indeed, beginning in 29 March, Officers and Soldiers were asked to take a new Oath of Enlistment, which made it possible for them to serve anywhere in the South African Continent.
On 11 May 1940, the 1st Infantry Brigade was mobilized, followed by 8 additional Brigades in the course of that summer.
On 11 June, South Africa declared war on Italy, and in the course of the month of July the 1st Infantry Brigade deployed in Kenya.
On 13 August, the 1st Division was raised, which joined the 1st Brigade in the course of the months of October and November, together with the 2nd and 5th Brigades.
In the following months, the South African Forces excelled in the East African Campaign against the Italians.
The South African Army provided most of the Engineering and other Technical Units to this Campaign, and by April, 1941, its Forces in that Theatre of Battle already numbered 31,560 Troops. In May, 1941, the 1st South African Division was dispatched to Egypt, where the 2nd Brigade soon joined it.
The 2nd and 3rd Divisions were raised in South Africa in the course of the months of October and November, but the 3rd Division stayed home in order to serve as a training Corps for the Army, whose task was to provide the other two Divisions with prepared manpower.
By September, 1941, there were about 60,000 South African Soldiers in Egypt (around 15,000 of them Black), a record number of this Army’s Forces who participated in the war.
The war’s first two years saw many changes in the Armed Forces of South Africa. However, it was not until the British Offensive on the Vichy-French controlled Island of Madagascar, in May, 1942, following their assessment that there was a real threat of a Japanese invasion of it, that the South African war effort turned into a comprehensive national effort.
The Campaign in North Africa did not extend a particularly warm welcome to the South African Forces. In Operation “Crusader”, the first in which they participated in this Theatre, on 23 November 1941, the 5th Brigade was destroyed by the German Afrika Korps in Sidi Rezegh, while the 1st Brigade, under the command of Dan Pienaar, which absorbed heavy casualties itself, continued fighting until the end of the Operation, albeit very cautiously.
The 2nd Brigade was subordinated directly to the Eighth Army Headquarters, as Garrison for the Mersa Matruh range.
The 2nd Division, which lacked mobility, did not participate in the Operation at all. Nevertheless, it did participate in the Operation to capture Bardia, and lost 353 people.
The South Africans insisted that their Brigades operate under the command of their own Divisions, and indeed, towards the Ghazala Campaign, the British complied with this demand and the Divisions began to operate as organic Detachments.
Yet the disasters continued to happen, and on 21 June 1942, in the Ghazala Campaign, the 2nd Division surrendered to the Germans with the falling of Tobruk Fort, along with the 4th and 6th Brigades (a total of 10,772 people were taken captive).
The 1st Division, which now included the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigades, managed to escape the Battlefield relatively intact and fought well in the defensive Battles in the course of the British retreat to Egypt.
The cautious Pienaar, who at present commanded the 1st Division, was determined to preserve his remaining men (after half of the South African Units have been lost) and not endanger them beyond the necessary.
This conduct made the British lose their faith in South Africans, and Dan Pienaar was accused of lacking an offensive spirit and selecting only defensive operations for his Division.
These differences of opinion did not prevent the Division from taking an important part in the Campaign of El Alamein and in the victory that was gained in it.
Ever since its arrival in the North African Theatre, the South African Army aspired to convert its two fighting Divisions into Armored Divisions. But it was deficient in the required equipment, especially in tanks.
The victory in North Africa presented an opportunity to implement this conversion plan, but two major problems arose that had to be overcome.
The first, as always, was the problem of manpower. Since the 3rd Division had allocated the 7th Motorized Brigade for the invasion of Madagascar, between June and December of 1942, it was not practicable to convert the Division into an armored one as was. Therefore, at the end of the year 1942, it was decided to remove the 1st Division from the North African Theatre and to replace it with a new Armored Division.
Yet there still remained the second problem, namely, where should this Division be sent to fight.
The 6th Armored Division was raised in South Africa in February, 1943, and dispatched to Egypt in April, where it was organized, equipped and trained by the British Army for almost an entire year.
Early in the year 1943, the South African Soldier’s Oath of Enlistment was revised once again, and now the Soldier was called to consent to fight outside the African Continent as well. The South African Government offered Britain the services of the 6th Armored Division and several Engineering Units for the Campaign in Italy.
The British gladly accepted the Engineering Units but at first expressed doubts regarding the Armored Division, for their main shortage was in Infantry Units. In the end they attached the British Infantry 24th Guards Brigade to the Division’s 11th Armored Brigade and 12th Motorized Brigade and in this disposition the Division entered combat in Italy in June, 1944, and until the conclusion of the war.
This configuration was better suited for the Italian mountainous terrain, where the fighting was carried out utilizing mixed Combat Teams combined with tanks. Most of the time in Italy, this Detachment fought with an Indian Infantry Battalion that had been subordinated to it by the British.
In the course of the war The South African Air-Force grew to include 4 Wings and 28 Squadrons therein.
It operated under the command of the British Air-Force (the RAF), in East Africa and Madagascar, and in the Western Desert, where it constituted a third of the power of the “Western Desert Air-Force”. It also operated in the framework of the “Balkan Air-Force”, which flew out of Bases in southern Italy, and it made an important contribution to the Battle of the Mediterranean. Further, it contributed greatly in training pilots for the Allies.
The South African Navy, which was established in August, 1942, grew and developed in the course of the war. At the end of the year 1943, 4,000 persons were already serving in it and 18 Anti-Submarine Ships and 40 Minesweepers were already in its possession. At the end of the war, over 10,000 people were serving in the Navy and its War Fleet included 89 vessels. During the course of the entire war, 4,000 South African Sailors served in the British Navy, of whom, 191 were killed.
South Africa made a significant contribution to the British Commonwealth’s war effort, especially in the early days of the war.
A total of 334,224 volunteers served in the South African Army in the course of the war, of whom, 123,131 were Black and serving mostly in the Ground Forces, and 132,194 were White, 44,569 of them serving in the Air-Force and 9,455 in the Navy.
There were 21,265 White women serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Force, and 3,710 serving in the Military Nursing Service.
The Army’s casualties reached to about 9,000 fallen, more than 8,000 injured and more than 14,000 captured.
In January, 1943, during a speech in Parliament, Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts noted that, “8,366 Jewish Men and an additional 542 Women enlisted for military service. Of them, 2,200 served with Combat Units outside the Country’s borders.”
Until the end of the war, over 10,000 Jews enlisted for service, about 4.8% of the Army’s total.
They fought in East Africa and in the Western Desert.
There were 750 Jewish Soldiers serving in the Division that was captured in Battle of Tobruk.
Small groups of those Jews managed to escape and get back to British lines.
Jewish captives who had been interned in Prisoner-of-War Camps in Italy escaped and joined the Italian Partisans.
357 Jewish Soldiers fell in the war, and another 327 were injured.
Scores of Jews were awarded with various decorations; of them, 2 were awarded with the Distinguished Service Order and 7 with Officer of the British Empire.