OUR MILITARY HISTORY
South Africa has a proud military history that chronicles a vast time period and complex events from the dawn of history until the present time. It covers civil wars and wars of aggression and of self-defence both within South Africa and against it.
It includes the history of battles fought in the territories of modern South Africa and in neighboring territories, during both world wars and in modern international conflicts.The “Special Interest” pages contain many interesting articles regarding the military history of South Africa spanning from the Anglo-Boer Wars to the South African Border War.
Read about “Nancy the Springbok” and “Jackie the Baboon”; animals that were used as mascots by the South Africans soldiers during WWI. Here you will also find articles about the daring but controversial South African paratrooper assault on the Angolan town of Cassinga in 1978 during the Border War, and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale towards the latter part of the conflict.
The Boer Wars, known in Afrikaans as Vryheidsoorloë (“freedom wars”) were two wars fought between the British Empire and the two independent Boer republics, the Oranje Vrijstaat (Orange Free State) and the Republiek van Transvaal (Transvaal Republic).
The First Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881), was a rebellion of Boers (farmers) against British rule in the Transvaal that re-established their independence. The conflict occurred against the backdrop of the Pretoria government becoming increasingly ineffective at dealing with growing claims on South African land from rival interests within the country.
The Second Ango-Boer War (1899-1902), by contrast, was a lengthy war involving large numbers of British troops, which ended with the conversion of the Boer republics into British colonies (with a promise of limited “self-bestuur” (self government). These colonies later formed part of the Union of South Africa. The British fought directly against the Transvaal and the Oranje Free State, defeating their forces first in open warfare and then in a long and bitter guerrilla campaign. British losses were high due to both disease and combat. The policies of “scorched earth” and civilian internment in concentration camps (adopted by the British to prevent support for the farmers/Boer commando campaign) ravaged the civilian populations in the Transvaal and the Oranje Free State Republics.
During the later stages of the Second Boer War, the British pursued the policy of rounding up and isolating the Boer civilian population in concentration camps, one of the earliest uses of this method by modern powers. The wives and children of Boer guerrillas were sent to these camps, which had poor hygiene and little food. Many of the children in these camps died, as did some of the adults. This attracted hostility from, in particular, the German Empire. The British journalist, WT Stead, wrote: “Every one of these children who died as a result of the halving of their rations, thereby exerting pressure onto their family still on the battle-field, was purposefully murdered. The system of half rations stands exposed and stark and unshamefully as a cold-blooded deed of state policy employed with the purpose of ensuring the surrender of a people whom we were not able to defeat on the battlefield.”
This led to a change in approach to foreign policy from Britain, which now set about looking for more allies. To this end, the 1902 treaty with Japan in particular was a sign that the British Empire feared attack on its Far Eastern empire and saw this alliance as an opportunity to strengthen its stance in the Far East. This war led to a change from “splendid isolation” policy to a policy that involved looking for allies and improving world relations. Later treaties with France (“Entente cordiale”) and Russia, caused partially by the controversy surrounding the Boer War, were major factors in dictating how the battle lines were drawn during World War I.
The Boer War also had other significance. The Army Medical Corps discovered that 80% of men presenting for service were physically unfit to fight. This was the first time in which the government was forced to take notice of how unhealthy the British population was. This strengthened the call for the liberal reforms of the first decade of the twentieth century.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the following about the Boer nation in his book titled “The Great Boer War”:
“Take a community of Dutchmen of the type of those who defended themselves for fifty years against all the power of Spain at a time when Spain was the greatest power in the world. Intermix with them a strain of those inflexible French Huguenots who gave up home and fortune and left their country forever at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The product must obviously be one of the most rugged, virile, unconquerable races ever seen upon earth. Take this formidable people and train them for seven generations in constant warfare against savage men and ferocious beasts, in circumstances under which no weakling could survive, place them so that they acquire exceptional skill with weapons and in horsemanship, give them a country which is eminently suited to the tactics of the huntsman, the marksman, and the rider. Then, finally, put a finer temper upon their military qualities by a dour fatalistic Old Testament religion and an ardent and consuming patriotism. Combine all these qualities and all these impulses in one individual, and you have the modern Boer — the most formidable antagonist who ever crossed the path of Imperial Britain.”
WORLD WAR 1
World War I (WWI), which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. It involved all the world’s great powers, which were assembled in two opposing alliances: the Allies (centred around the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia) and the Central Powers (originally centred around the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and later the Ottoman Empire.) More than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were mobilised in one of the largest wars in history. More than 9 million combatants were killed, largely because of great technological advances in firepower without corresponding advances in mobility. It was the sixth deadliest conflict in world history, subsequently paving the way for various political changes such as revolutions in the nations involved.
When the World War I broke out in 1914, the South African government chose to join the war on the side of the Allies. General Louis Botha, the then prime minister, faced widespread Afrikaner opposition to fighting alongside Great Britain so soon after the Second Boer War and had to put down a revolt by some of the more militant elements before he could send an expeditionary force of some 67,000 troops to invade German South-West Africa (now Namibia). The German troops stationed there eventually surrendered to the South African forces in July 1915. (In 1920 South Africa received a League of Nations mandate to govern the former German colony and to prepare it for independence within a few years.)
Later, an infantry brigade and various other supporting units were shipped to France in order to fight on the Western Front. The 1st South African Brigade – as this infantry brigade was named – consisted of four infantry battalions, representing men from all four provinces of the Union of South Africa as well as Rhodesia: the 1st Regiment was from the Cape Province, the 2nd Regiment was from Natal and the Orange Free State and the 3rd Regiment was from Transvaal and Rhodesia. The 4th Regiment was called the South African Scottish and was raised from members of the Transvaal Scottish and the Cape Town Highlanders; they wore the Atholl Murray tartan.
The supporting units included five batteries of heavy artillery, a field ambulance unit, a Royal Engineers signals company and a military hospital.
The most costly action that the South African forces on the Western Front fought in was the Battle of Delville Wood in 1916 – of the 3,000 men from the brigade who entered the wood, only 768 emerged unscathed.
Another tragic loss of life for the South African forces during the war was the Mendi sinking on 21 February 1917, when the troopship Mendi – while transporting 607 members of the 802nd South African Native Labour Corps from Britain to France – was struck and cut almost in half by another ship.
In addition, the war against the German and Askari forces in German East Africa also involved more than 20,000 South African troops; they fought under General Jan Smuts’s command when he directed the British campaign against there in 1915. (During the war, the army was led by General Smuts, who had rejoined the army from his position as Minister of Defence on the outbreak of the war.)
South Africans also saw action with the Cape Corps in Palestine.
More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 people of mixed race (“Coloureds”) and Asians served in South African military units during the war, including 43,000 in German South-West Africa and 30,000 on the Western Front. An estimated 3,000 South Africans also joined the Royal Flying Corps.
The total South African casualties during the war was about 18,600 with over 12,452 killed – more than 4,600 in the European theatre alone.
WORLD WAR 2
World War II, or the Second World War (often abbreviated as WWII or WW2), was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world’s nationsóincluding all of the great powersóeventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. It was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million military personnel mobilised. In a state of “total war”, the major participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by significant events involving the mass death of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it is the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in 50 million to over 70 million fatalities.
During World War II, many South Africans saw military service. The Union of South Africa participated with other British Commonwealth forces in battles in North Africa against Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps, and many South African pilots joined the Royal Air Force and fought against the Axis powers in the European theatre.
On the eve of World War II, the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. While it was closely allied with Great Britain, being a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with its head of state being the British king, the South African Prime Minister on September 1, 1939 was J.B.M. Hertzog – the leader of the pro-Afrikaner and anti-British National Party. The National Party had joined in a unity government with the pro-British South African Party of Jan Smuts in 1934 as the United Party.
Hertzog’s problem was that South Africa was constitutionally obligated to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. The Polish-British Common Defence Pact obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if it attacked by Germany. When Adolf Hitler’s forces attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany two days later. A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the halls of power in the Parliament of South Africa. It pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain’s side, led by Smuts, against those who wanted to keep South Africa neutral, if not pro-Axis, led by Hertzog.
On September 4, the United Party caucus refused to accept Hertzog’s stance of neutrality in World War II and deposed him in favor of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany and the Axis. He immediately set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa’s global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.
John Vorster and other members of the pro-German Ossewabrandwag strongly objected to South Africa’s participation in World WarII and actively carried out sabotage against Smuts’ government. Smuts took severe action against the Ossewabrandwag movement and jailed its leaders, including Vorster, for the duration of the war.
Field Marshal Jan Smuts was the only important non-British general whose advice was constantly sought by Britain’s war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Smuts was invited to the Imperial War Cabinet in 1939 as the most senior South African in favour of war. On 28 May 1941, Smuts was appointed a Field Marshal of the British Army, becoming the first South African to hold that rank. Ultimately, Smuts would pay a steep political price for his closeness to the British establishment, to the King, and to Churchill which had made Smuts very unpopular amongst the Afrikaners, leading to his eventual downfall.
With the declaration of war in September 1939, the South African Army numbered only 3,353 regulars, with an additional 14,631 men of the Active Citizen Force (ACF) which gave peace time training to volunteers and in time of war would form the main body of the army. Pre-war plans did not anticipate that the army would fight outside southern Africa and it was trained and equipped only for bush warfare.
South Africa and its military forces contributed in many theatres of war. South Africa’s contribution consisted mainly of supplying troops, airmen and material for the North African campaign (the Desert War) and the Italian Campaign as well as to Allied ships that docked at its crucial ports adjoining the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean that converge at the tip of Southern Africa. Numerous volunteers also flew for the Royal Air Force. (See: South African Army in World War II; South African Air Force in World War II; South African Navy in World War II.)
The South African Army and Air Force played a major role in defeating the Italian forces of Benito Mussolini during the 1940/1941 East African Campaign. The converted Junkers Ju 86s of 12 Squadron, South African Air Force, carried out the first bombing raid of the campaign on a concentration of tanks at Moyale at 8am on 11 June 1940, mere hours after Italy’s declaration of war.
Another important victory that the South Africans participated in was the liberation of Malagasy (now known as Madagascar) from the control of the Vichy French who were allies of the Nazis. British troops aided by South African soldiers, staged their attack from South Africa, landing on the strategic island on 4 May 1942 to preclude its seizure by the Japanese. The South African 1st Infantry Division took part in several actions in North Africa in 1941 and 1942, including the Battle of El Alamein, before being withdrawn to South Africa to be re-constituted as an armoured division. The South African 2nd Infantry Division also took part in a number of actions in North Africa during 1942, but on 21 June 1942 two complete infantry brigades of the division as well as most of the supporting units were captured at the fall of Tobruk.
The South African 3rd Infantry Division never took an active part in any battles but instead organised and trained the South African home defence forces, performed garrison duties and supplied replacements for the South African 1st Infantry Division and the South African 2nd Infantry Division. However, one of this division’s constituent brigades ó 7 SA Motorised Brigade ó did take part in the invasion of Madagascar in 1942. The South African 6th Armoured Division fought in numerous actions in Italy in 1944-1945. The South African Air Force (SAAF) made a significant contribution to the air war in East Africa, North Africa,Italy, the Balkans and even as far east as bombing missions aimed at the Romanian oilfields in Ploesti, supply missions in support of the Warsaw uprising and reconnaissance missions ahead of the Russian advances in the Lvov-Cracow area. Numerous South African airmen also volunteered service to the RAF, some serving with distinction. South Africa contributed to the war effort against Japan, supplying men and manning ships in naval engagements against the Japanese.
Of the 334,000 men volunteered for full time service in the South African Army during the war (including some 211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks and 46,000 coloureds and Indians), nearly 9,000 were killed in action.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of 11,023 known South African war dead during World War II.
Just a year after the South African Air Force’s (SAAF) contributed towards beating the blockade of West Berlin; the SAAF’s services were once again called upon. This time the scene of operations was Asia, where North Korean forces had invaded the Republic of South Korea on 25 June 1950.
The United Nations acceded to the request of the United States to intervene militarily on the side of South Korea. On 12 August 1950, the South African government announced its intention of placing No. 2 Squadron, the so-called “the Flying Cheetahs” of the South African Air Force at the disposal of the United Nations. The offer was accepted, and on 26 September 1950, 49 officers and 206 other ranks, all volunteers, left from Durban for Johnson Air Base in, Yokohama, Japan, prior to their deployment in Korea. All these men were seasoned pilots and technicians having an outstanding World War II record from operations in Eastern Africa, Ethiopia, Sicily, Italy and the Middle East.
2 Squadron had a long and distinguished record of service in Korea flying F-51D Mustangs and later F-86F Sabres. Their role was mainly flying ground attack and interdiction missions as one of the squadrons making up the USAF’s 18th Fighter Bomber Wing.
The first flight of four F-51D Mustangs departed for Korea on 16 November 1950 and the first operational sortie was flown three days later from K9. This was at a stage when the United Nations forces were retreating in front of the advancing enemy. In freezing cold and poor weather, the aircraft had to continue operating and be maintained and armed in the open, moving from K-24 (Pyongyang East Air Field) to K-13 (Suwon Airbase), K-10 (Chinhae Airbase) and finally K-55 Airbase at Osan in January 1953, which became the all jet fighter base for the 18th Fighter Bomber Wing. Here the squadron immediately started to convert to the Canadian F-86F Sabre jet fighter. On 11 March 1953 the squadron flew it first operational sortie with the F-86F Sabre. The Squadron now flew, in addition to its ground attack role, high-level interdiction and standing patrols along the Yalu River.
The cease-fire was signed at Panmunjom at 11:00 hours on 27 July 1953. During the Korean conflict the squadron flew a grand total of 12,067 sorties.
According to the UN Korean War Allied Association, a total of 826 South Africans served in the Korean War. 243 were Air Force officers and 545 were Ground Personnel. 38 army officers and men served as part of the first Commonwealth Division. 37 South Africans gave their lives. 11 South Africans are interred at the UNMCK in Busan. Eight prisoners of war were returned. Aircraft losses amounted to 74 out of 97 Mustangs and four out of 22 Sabres.
On 31 October 1953, the last South African Force left Korea.
The Squadron received the United States Presidential Citation, the Korean Presidential Citation and the USAF Unit Citation. Individual medals were 2 Silver Stars, 50 Distinguished Flying Cross (DFCs), 1 cluster to the DFC, 40 Bronze Medals, 176 Air Medals, 152 clusters to the Air Medal and 1 Soldier Medal.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, the Ambassador, Seoul, attends the General Meeting of the Commission of the United Nations’ Memorial Cemetery in Korea (UNMCK) in October each year. South Africa is a member of the Commission and annually contributes towards the upkeep of the graves of the war-dead. In honour of the fallen South African heros during the Korean War, the Mission also attends the annual commemoration ceremony in the South African Air Force Memorial in Pyongtaek which was erected by the Koreans and officially belongs to the Korean Government.
South Africa’s participation in the Korean War has largely remained an unforgettable act in the minds of the Koreans, thus making South Africa a natural ally of the Korean people.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN BORDER WAR
The South African Border War, commonly referred to as the Angolan Bush War in South Africa, was a conflict that took place from 1966 to 1989 in South-West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola between South Africa and its allied forces (mainly UNITA) on the one side and the Angolan Armed Forces (FAPLA), South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), and their allies – mainly Cuba – on the other. It was closely intertwined with the Angolan Civil War and the Namibian War of Independence.
This List of operations of the South African Border War details the military operations conducted by the South African Defence Force during the South African Border War:
Operation Savannah (1975)
Operation Bruilof (1978)
Operation Seiljag (1978)
Operation Reindeer (1978)
Operation Seiljag (1978)
Operation Rekstok (1979)
Operation Safraan (1979)
Operation Sceptic (Smokeshell) (1980)
Operation Vastrap ( July 1980)
Operation Klipklop (1980)
Operation Vasbyt (1981)
Operation Protea (1981)
Operation Kerslig (1981)
Operation Super (1982)
Operation Meebos (1982)
Operation Drama (1983)
Operation Drama (1983)
Operation Phoenix (1983)
Operation Askari (1983)
Operation Boswilger (1985)
Operation Egret (1985)
Operation Argon (1985)
Operation Alpha Centauri (1986)
Operation Modular (1987)
Operation Hooper (1987 / 1988)
Operation Prone (1988)
Operation Vuiswys (1988)
Operation Displace (1989)
Operation Linger (1989)