South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 183

December/Desember 2019

Matters of General interest.

Chairman Malcolm Kinghorn welcomed all to our monthly meeting which followed in the afternoon after our interesting excursion into Walmer to visit various sites of interest. A full report follows in this issue.

Your Scribe attended the Annual Memorial Service held at the Grey High School on Monday 11 November. The service was very well attended where not only the school pays homage to the 187 Old Greys who gave their lives in the two World Wars but also remembers those who served in later conflicts. All the Service organizations were represented together with representatives from the SA Defence Force and SA Navy. An enjoyable tea followed which was much appreciated. It was noted that for the first time ever that there were no WW2 veterans present. Time has sadly taken its toll.

Our traditional November outing.

The Society at this time of the year annually undertakes a Saturday visit to sites of mutual interest in the city. On this occasion a large group met at the Aloe Shell Hole in Walmer before proceeding to the nearby St.John’s Church with its cemetery and then went to the Walmer War Memorial and the Pax obelisk which is to be found on the Little Walmer Golf Course.

The Shell Hole is very active, has a pleasant bar facility and a Garden of Remembrance. It has also an interesting collection of artefacts and plaques. We were met by Noel Smith the “Wee Bill” who was our able guide

In the Memorial Hall at St.John’s, Alan Anderson of the Church Council showed us plaques erected in memory of those who did not return. On display as well is a full and considerable listing of those from the congregation who saw service. The three stained glass windows in the church were presented as a token of appreciation by a long serving Rector Mosel whose three sons returned safely after hostilities had ceased at the end of WW2.

The two graves in the church cemetery are those of Clinton Cunningham of the Royal Navy and John Milne of the SA Police who was killed in action at Dunswart on the East Rand in 1922 at the time of the Rand Rebellion. Both graves are well preserved.

The Walmer War Memorial is now the recognised gathering point for old soldiers, service organizations and their family members to honour the fallen. No longer is it the Cenotaph situated opposite the Art Gallery in Central which is both open and exposed to the elements.

On the Little Walmer Golf Course is situated the Pax obelisk which was erected in 1919 not to honour the fallen of WW1 but rather the Peace of Versailles which was concluded in July of that year. The structure itself is about three metres high, made of concrete, is four sided and has a pointed top.

The afternoon programme followed at our usual venue where we heard talks on “Maritime Piracy”, and “The Declaration of War in September 1939.” The Main Lecture was “The Historic Background to the Military Character of the South African Police.”

The sinking of the Titanic ship yards – by Peter Duffell-Canham.
(Presented by Peter who filled the Member’s slot at our October meeting)

In August this year the Daily Mail reported that the famous shipyard of Harland and Wolff in Belfast was closing after 150 years of shipbuilding due to the collapse of their Norwegian parent company. Probably the best-known ship from this yard was the Titanic and at its busiest they employed around 35 000 people.

Between 1868 and 1969 the yard built 174 ships for the Royal Navy. World War 1 vessels ranged from flat bottomed Monitors for river patrols to Destroyers and a Battle Cruiser. World War 2 saw the building of Aircraft Carriers and a variety of Corvettes, Minesweepers and Cruisers, including HMS Belfast, anchored in the Thames. There were also merchant ships that went to war as Armed Merchant Cruisers such as Alcantara.

There was also fabrication of components for the Stirling bomber for the nearby Short aircraft factory, and components for Churchill tanks. Belfast attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, with the 1941 Belfast Blitz killing 900 civilians.

The last ship to go to war made in the yard was the cruise liner Canberra, used as a troopship in the Falklands conflict, and the last ship for the Ministry of Defence was a roll on/roll off transport. There was light at the end of the tunnel when Harland and Wolff was part of a consortium headed by Babcock to build 5 Frigates for the Royal Navy.

Then the news came in early October that the company had been bought by an energy company, Infrastrata that will focus on metal fabrication for its energy projects such as a gas storage project and a floating gas storage facility. The new owners looked at the company’s reputation as a multi-purpose fabrication facility, taking on the 79 workers still employed, with the promise of several hundred jobs being created.

The Curtain Raiser - The Declaration of War by South Africa – 6 September 1939 - by Andre Crozier.

The 6 September 2019 was the 80th anniversary of the Declaration of War by South Africa in 1939, an event that had a major effect on the political, economic and military history of South Africa.

On the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939 the people of Britain and Commonwealth listened with dismay to the BBC broadcast of Neville Chamberlain announcing that Germany had failed to respond to the British ultimatum to withdraw its troops from Poland “and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany”.

At the time South Africa was governed by the United South African National Party known as the United Party which was a fusion of the South African Party of General Smuts and the National Party of General Hertzog. General Hertzog was the Prime Minister. During the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938 the cabinet had resolved that in the event of war in Europe South Africa would remain neutral.

However various events had occurred since that date that caused General Smuts to change his mind and take the view that South Africa must join the war together with the rest of the Commonwealth. Of particular concern to Smuts was the fact that Germany had its eyes on recovering South West Africa. This fear was accentuated by the German radio broadcasts from Zeesen in English and Afrikaans with thinly disguised attempts to stir up resentment and promote the idea of neutrality. With Hitler now making demands against Poland and following the Czechoslovakian crisis the previous year it was now becoming obvious that Hitler did indeed have further territorial demands.

Then on the 15 April 1939 information was received by the inner Cabinet that a small group of Nazis in South West would attempt a putsch on Hitler’s birthday on the 20 April 1939 and seize the radio station in Walvis Bay. A large number of policemen were rushed by train from Cape Town and Pretoria to South West Africa. They took with them armoured cars, machine guns etc.The show of force had the desired effect and no putsch took place. However on the 28th April Hitler announced in a speech that while he had no further demands against France he wanted the Germany’s former colonies to be returned by Britain. After Chamberlain’s broadcast the South African Cabinet met at 3 pm on Sunday 3 September at Groote Schuur.

General Hertzog opened the proceedings and spoke for over an hour in favour of South Africa remaining neutral. General Hertzog felt Hitler was just trying to redress the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles and that entering the war would destroy the hard won unity between Afrikaans and English speaking South Africans. General Kemp supported him and said there would be civil war if South Africa declared war.

Eventually General Smuts spoke. He argued that circumstances had changed since 1938. South Africa could no longer afford to be neutral and must stand by the commonwealth and declare war. He felt that South Africa as a country rich in resources but weak militarily could not afford to stand alone and needed the protection of Britain and the Commonwealth.

A vote was taken and it was 7 to 6 in favour of declaring war.

Hertzog decided to take the matter straight to parliament rather than to the party caucus as requested by Smuts. He was emboldened by the fact that Dr Malan of the opposition Purified National Party (Gesuiwerde Nasionale Party) had sent him a message that in the event of a vote he could rely on his party’s support for neutrality. Parliament met on the morning of Monday 4th September 1939. It had already been summoned to pass a bill to extend the life of the Senate. Hertzog’s motion was that SA remains neutral but allow Britain to continue to use the harbour at Simonstown – qualified neutrality. Hertzog spoke passionately on the need to remain neutral so as to preserve unity between English and Afrikaans. However, according to W.K Hancock, he spoilt the effect by launching a tirade against the Treaty of Versailles and his conviction of Hitler’s innocence.

Smuts proposed a four point amendment to the effect that South Africa would sever relations with Germany, stand by its obligations to the Commonwealth and take all measures to defend itself but not send forces overseas. Smuts saw Hitler differently from Hertzog. Danzig was not the cause of the war. The real cause was Hitler’s refusal to limit his ambitions. South West was one of Hitler’s ambitions and if South West was lost the security of South Africa would be compromised .The time to defend SA was now while the war was geographically remote and South Africa had loyal and powerful friends. If it disassociated itself from the British Commonwealth it could find itself, in the future, isolated in a dangerous world. At 9pm the debate closed and a division was called. The vote was 67 in favour of Hertzog’s motion and neutrality and 80 in favour of Smuts’ amendment and war. Smuts had taken SA into the War by a mere 13 votes.

Hertzog immediately approached the Governor General, Sir Patrick Duncan, and asked him to declare a general election. However as there had already been a general election in 1938 the Governor General asked Smuts to attempt to form a government which Smuts duly did. General Hertzog resigned and General Smuts, at the age of 70, was Prime Minister again.

The Governor General issued a proclamation on the 6th September 1939 and SA was officially at war with Germany. Hitler is said to have laughed when he heard of the declaration of war by SA - the country had virtually no military capacity. It had no navy, its air force had 6 modern aircraft and 63 obsolete ones. The Army had a permanent force of 260 officers and 4 600 men and an active citizen force of 950 officers and 14 000 men. It had no modern tanks or armoured cars and Port Elizabeth and East London had no harbour defences. There was no munitions industry apart from the Mint which could produce small arms ammunition.

However it can be argued that the declaration of war by South Africa was of immense importance to Britain at the time. It meant that the route around the Cape was secure and the ports of South Africa were available for the Royal Navy and for the convoys going to the Middle East and the Far East. It also meant the agricultural and industrial production of SA was available for the war effort. Equally vital was the mining production, in particular gold, to help pay for the war. It also meant that aircrew could be trained in safety in SA and over 30 000 were trained in SA. The declaration of War however divided the nation and was followed by large demonstrations against the war.

Unlike other Commonwealth countries there was no conscription. Every participant was a volunteer. By the end of the war over 334 000 South Africans of all race, gender and language groups had enlisted. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission 11 907 South African servicemen and women died during the war.
( (accessed 8 November 2019) 14363 South Africans were wounded and 14 589 were prisoners of war.
( (accessed on 8 November 2019)
Of those who survived many carried injuries either physical or mental, such as post-traumatic stress and alcoholism. The families of all servicemen and women paid a high price. Looking back after 80 years one can ask was it worth it? Should South Africa not have just sat out the war like Portugal or Argentine?

The answer is best stated by General Smuts himself two 2 months after the declaration of war: “Germany declared war on Poland knowing that it would mean war against England and the democratic nations. The declaration of war against Poland was thus also against England. It is now a question of a life and death struggle for England – it’s a world war in which our interests are deeply involved. If Germany wins, then not only England but South Africa as well is lost. We will become a Nazi country, and then our independence is lost… No. It is not a question of Danzig and Poland. The honour and freedom of South Africa was at stake.”

At the end of the War the international reputation of SA was at its height and General Smuts paid a leading role in the creation of the United Nations forming an organisation with real power unlike the League of Nations. On the 11th November we remember those who died in the World Wars and the other conflicts.

Main Lecture - The Historic Background to the Military Character of South Africa’s Police by McGill Alexander.

In South Africa, the “post-frontier” era, more especially after Union, with the peculiar police legislation that was passed, saw the South African Police imbued with a military character that has been difficult, almost impossible, to shake off. Policing was done in Van Riebeeck’s time by soldiers. The Free Burghers did their own policing, but in growing urban settlements like Cape Town, Stellenbosch and eventually Swellendam, a “Burgerwacht” came into existence from about1686 and is the origin of what could be called a “police force”.

A Fiscal was introduced in 1689 and was effectively both a magistrate and a police officer. He oversaw unpaid ward-masters and had a few armed constables at his disposal. During the 18th century, “Dienaars” came into existence, but they were mostly discharged soldiers who were formed into a small body to arrest deserters. It was only after the arrival of the British at the Cape that urban policing in Cape Town was gradually formalised. In 1839, John King was brought to the Cape from Scotland Yard. He had been one of Sir Robert Peel’s original new Metropolitan Police in 1829. He brought about the first professional police force in South Africa.

After King’s death in 1859 there was some retrogression in the policing of the mother city. The focus of policing had by then shifted to the isolated frontier districts. Here, it was generally done by relatively small and widely dispersed military units vested with some policing powers, where there was no clear delineation of policing and military roles. In 1855, after the introduction of representative government at the Cape, such military units were amalgamated to form the Frontier Armed and Mounted Police (later renamed the Cape Mounted Riflemen).

With the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899 police forces of Transvaal and OFS were mobilised as part of Boer Republican Forces. The Cape Mounted Police, Cape Mounted Riflemen and Natal Mounted Police fought as mounted infantry on the British side. After the war, there was barely a policeman in South Africa who had not fought as a soldier during the conflict. The British established the Transvaal Town Police and SA Constabulary to carry out policing duties. They were replaced/renamed in 1908 and were then known as the Transvaal Police and Orange River Colony police. The other two colonies had their Cape Mounted Police and Natal Mounted Police, who returned to policing the rural areas, while a constabulary attended to their urban centres.

After Union in 1910, Theodorus Truter, a former civil servant, volunteer colonial soldier during Anglo-Boer War, former magistrate and by then Commissioner of the Transvaal Police, was appointed the first Chief Commissioner of Police for the Union with rank of colonel. He played a major role in the restructuring of the police force, which was already taking place by the end of 1911. The new police capability was divided into two forces namely the South African Police (SAP) and the South African Mounted Riflemen (SAMR).

The SAP came into existence in 1913 as police officers, but in war they could be conscripted according to the Defence Act. The SAMR, on the other hand, would be a military force with police duties during times of peace, especially in tribal areas. The Defence Act of 1912 afforded special powers to the police in relation to national defence. The Police Act of the same year provided for the police force or any part of it to be diverted to national defence and thus come under the Defence Force during hostilities. These two Acts of Parliament enshrined in legislation a police force for South Africa with a peculiar military character and responsibility.

Internal unrest erupted with the miners’ strikes in 1913 and 1914, before the police structure was in place, and the military were called on to restore order. There were further crises (the 1920/21 Bulhoek Rising near Queenstown, the 1922 Rand Rebellion, the 1922 Bondelswart revolt in SWA) with the military sometimes called in to assist. This served to blur the lines of responsibility between the SAP and the UDF.

During the First World War the SAMR were called to service and 957 policemen from the SAP were also seconded to the UDF for active duty. Seventy-three of them lost their lives. This contributed to policemen seeing themselves as soldiers.

The SAMR were disbanded in 1926, leaving the SAP as the sole policing agency in South Africa. But the SAP militarisation continued through the Second World War. A Police Motor Cycle Company was constituted for service in East and North Africa.

The “Police Brigade” was formed in 1940, consisting of the 1st and 2nd SAP Battalions and the 2nd Battalion, Transvaal Scottish. It formed part of the 2nd SA Division, which was initially commanded by Major General I.P. de Villiers, the SA Commissioner of Police, who had relinquished his position to volunteer for active service. The 2nd SA Division participated in the battles around Bardia, Sollum and Halfaya Pass. However, most of the division (including the Police Brigade) went into captivity with the fall of Tobruk. The commander of the Police Brigade, Brigadier Freddy Cooper, earned a DSO during the taking of Sollum, but was taken PoW with his brigade during the fall of Tobruk.

The other SAP officer who was not at Tobruk was Brigadier “Bobby” Palmer. He had a distinguished Second World War career, serving in a command appointment in all three the divisions fielded on active service by South Africa. He was regarded as one of the best brigade commanders produced by South Africa, being awarded the DSO three times and the CVO. After the war he took over as Commissioner of Police from General De Villiers and reorganised and modernised the SAP. He retired in 1951 and was the first Commissioner of Police to rise through the ranks from private/trooper/constable. He is also the only Commissioner of the SAP to date who was a qualified military pilot.

The new Police Act (No. 7) of 1958 broadened the mission of the SAP beyond conventional police functions and allowed police to quell civil unrest and conduct counter-insurgency operations without being under control of the military.

This meant that the duties of the SAP far exceeded normal police duties and included both civil and military responsibilities. Initially, however, there was no specialised training given to the police for this expanded role, and when they launched the first action of the 23-year “Border War” in 1966, a contingent of SADF paratroopers had to be attached to them to give them some training and to assist them in the actual helicopter assault.

The following year, when the SAP was first deployed to Rhodesia they operated under command of the Rhodesian Army, not the BSAP. The first company of policemen was strongly reinforced with SADF paratroopers in key leadership positions or in shadow positions. The SAP established a COIN Training Base at Maleoskop in the early 1970s. Initially, they were assisted by SA Army instructors who were seconded to the police for the purpose. By the time the war in Namibia had intensified, both the Army and the Police were involved in counter-insurgency operations, often in the same area. There was no longer clarity of command and control, as there had been in the Second World War. The police were increasingly conducting military operations, and with Koevoet they were even venturing across the border into Angola.

By the end of the war, the question was being asked by many people: “Are the SAP policemen or soldiers?”

Until the changes brought about in the new SAPS, our police were in many respects more military than the military. This was especially so when one looked at their uniforms and the drill standard and practice at the SA Police College in Pretoria. And even today, with all the effort that went into ridding the police of their military image, they have found it impossible to jettison the military rank structure, reverting back to it almost as quickly as they dispensed with it. Everybody wants to be a general!

More significantly, however, the SAPS has clung to the concept of centralised control – a key military organisational requirement. Until the police cease to be controlled centrally, they will probably always have a strong military character.


Our next meeting – Monday 9 December – 19,30hrs – EPVCC – Conyingham Road.
Members slot – Ian Pringle – Andries Botha – Veld Kornet of the Kat River Settlement
Curtain Raiser – Pat Irwin – The Peace of Versailles
Main Lecture – Ian Copley – Joan of Arc


Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn
Secretary: Franco Cilliers
Scribe (newsletter):Ian Pringle.

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South African Military History Society /