Published on the Website of the South African Military History Society in the interest of research into military history
Copyright Suzanne van den Bergh. April 2006.
Suzanne van den Bergh October 1977
This chapter follows in English, as most of the persons I want to write about did not know any Afrikaans - or even that it existed at all. The first Afrikaans bible was only published in 1933, and at the time of which I now write (1906) Afrikaans was not in general use, and was only spoken at home by a small portion of the population. The Eastern Province of the Cape Colony where my father was born and grew up used English exclusively in all its courts, schools, newspapers, and correspondence, and the same state of affairs reigned in Vryburg, where Sir Charles Warren had decreed, upon annexation of the territory into the Cape Province "There being no civilized inhabitants, I annexe this territory in the name of Her Most Glorious Majesty, Queen Victoria", and further ordered that all schools, churches, courts would be governed "in the language of the victor". So my parents attended English-language schools, and only spoke Afrikaans at home to parents, family and friends. Habit dies hard, and for the rest of their lives I can only recollect the two of them speaking English to one another, but mostly Afrikaans to their children.
My father was born on 8th June 1906 at Cradock, Cape Province, and his mother was CASSIE MITCHELL. She may have been born at Uitenhage, but this I have been unable to verify. She was born on 19th January 1886, and she probably died late 1930 or perhaps a year or so later at Pretoria. His father was ARTHUR SCOTT COWLRICK who came to South Africa as a soldier, and he died in 1916 during the battle of Delville Wood in France.
My father was registered in the same name as his father, but the marriage soon ran into difficulties and Cassie decided to leave with her baby son. In those days there were very few job opportunities for women and she had a difficult time trying to cope on her own. She approached the Salvation Army in Cradock for help and this was freely and generously given and she had access to her baby at all times. There was a lady living in Cradock, a well-to-do widow who had no children of her own, and she undertook to adopt three children from the Salvation Army Home, and one of them was my father Arthur Scott Cowlrick. She begged Cassie to give up the little boy to her, promising a good home and every care, but Cassie held out as long as she could before finally agreeing to the adoption.
There was a proviso to Mrs. Annie Theron's generosity, however. She would adopt three children, two boys and a girl (I have a vague recollection that the other boy and girl were brother and sister, but can find no record of this), but she insisted that the children be renamed and registered in her name. So my father was renamed COLENSO THERON, and although I can find no verification of this, one must assume that he was named after the battle of Colenso which took place in Natal during the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902, as I have never in my life heard of any other person who was given this name.
As Mrs. Theron was a childless widow I am assuming that she wanted a son to give this name in memory of a loved-one who had been killed in this battle. This we will now never know for certain. My grandmother kept in touch with Mrs. Theron and visited them at times and she kept in touch and wrote to her son until she died around 1930 or a year or so later.
Mrs. Theron appeared to be a most kind-hearted and generous lady in this respect and allowed Cassie access to her son at all times. Mrs. Theron was also a dedicated supporter of the Salvation Army and her adopted son was encouraged to go to their meetings, to study music with them (he learnt to play all the various brass instruments), and he became a keen member of the Scout movement and eventually achieved their highest rank - King's Scout. There was a very handsome studio portrait of him in his full King's Scout uniform, but this, together with all his other photographs, medals, awards etc. can no longer be found. They were all given to my eldest brother Alfonso, but after he passed away I have been unable to find out who has these souvenirs.
My father was a very good athlete, but his greatest love was rugby and here he was a star. There was a photograph of his team taken in 1923, where he is the captain of the Under-19 Eastern Province side, for which he played right wing. As a schools rugby player he travelled all over the entire Eastern Province: from Cradock they went to Aliwal North, Lady Grey, Sterkstroom, Queenstown, Molteno, Cathcart, Fort Beaufort, Alice, King William's Town, Grahamstown, Bedford, Adelaide, Tarkastad, Beaufort West, Somerset East, there simply was not a town with a rugby team that he did not visit.
At the outbreak of World War I my grandfather, Arthur Scott Cowlrick, was one of the first volunteers to sign up in the South African Brigade. He was killed in the heroic battle of DELVILLE WOOD, which lasted for six days from 16th July 1916, and which ended in the almost total annihilation of the Brigade. On the 15th July 1916 some 121 officers and 3032 other ranks were ordered into Delville Wood. The order "To hold the position at all costs" was given three times - an order which is very seldom given. The Germans numbered more than 50,000. The massive German attack included 400 shells every minute for more than eight hours. This comes to more than 250, 000 shells in one night. But the S.A. Brigade never wavered. In the small hours of July 17 the South Africans attacked again and took the north-west corner of the wood from the enemy. With fewer than 500 men in the assault force, over 1500 Germans (two strong battalions of the 14th Corps) were driven back into the village and orchard. A three-hour barrage followed and the 300 survivors of the attack fell back; the wounded had to be left behind.
At 2 p.m. on July 18th, ten German battalions - almost two divisions totalling 15,000 men - threw themselves upon the South African lines. The Germans attacked on two fronts at once, but the gallant handful held on to their corner of the wood throughout the incessant sniping and shelling. At 6 p.m. on July 20th, Lt,-Col, E.F. Thackeray, two wounded officers and 140 other ranks were relieved - and only these 143 walked out of the wood. My grandfather Arthur Scott Cowlrick was one of those hundreds who were bombarded into smithereens.
My grandmother Cassie Mitchell (she was then Mrs Rorke) wrote to her son Colenso in a letter dated 10 October 1929:
My biological grandmother Cassie Mitchell was born on 19 January 1886, and was of total English stock. Her brother, Jack Mitchell, was a magistrate in Johannesburg around 1928/29 and was then transferred to some small town in Natal, about 60 miles from Durban (Cassie had forgotten the name of the town). She had a sister Florence who had three or more children, but I never knew further details about them.
Nobody really ever knew what happened between Cassie and Arthur during the years 1908 when they separated and 1916 when Arthur was killed during the War, except that they never lost touch altogether. What I do know from letters written by her in 1929 and 1930 to my father Colenso and his young wife Martha, was that during these years she remarried, to a Mr. H. Rorke, also from Ireland, and this new husband occupied an important post as "Chief Clerk, Accounts Branch, Defence Department, Pretoria" (Cassie's letter of 25 October 1929).
Cassie was a well-educated woman and at one time she was a teacher. She played the piano beautifully, but after a few years she separated from Rorke also because of his abnormal possessiveness and jealousy. In order to support herself she underwent training as a nurse (four years in those days) but after completion of her training Rorke persuaded her to resume their married life. At this time they lived in Pretoria in a very big house with a great deal of good furniture.
During the time of her correspondence with my parents in 1929 and 1930, she mentioned that they had let the house "fully furnished to a bank manager" because her health did not allow the running of such a large household. From this house, situated in Arcadia Street, they moved to a residential guest house, Regent House, 541 Pretorius Street, Arcadia, Pretoria.
Cassie and her second husband did not have any children, and she writes regretfully to Colenso in a letter dated 16 October 1929 "Rorke is a most peculiar man (an Irishman with an Irish temper). We have been married for almost twenty years and he has never once mentioned you to me. We never speak about the past. I had a small photograph of you, a baby one holding a penny in your hand - in a silver frame on my dressing table. It just disappeared one day and I never saw it again. This was many years ago, and of course he must have destroyed it".
If there were any further letters from Cassie after the end of 1930 I never saw them, and neither my mother nor my father ever talked about his natural parents to me - their story therefore ends here.
My father was not, as far as I know, trained for any specific trade but he was very much mechanically minded and from an early age he loved motorcars. After leaving school, probably in 1923 or 1924, he was employed by the South African Railways and we have to assume that they sent him on a training course for driver-mechanics because it is very unlikely that he then owned a car of his own, or even had the means for taking driving lessons. Upon completion of his training he started work as truck driver for the S.A.R. in Cradock. As was usual in those days he was soon transferred to other towns, and I remember him talking about Kimberley and De Aar, and some time in late 1927 or early 1928 he was stationed at Vryburg, where he met and married my mother, Martha Engelbrecht. His work consisted of driving a huge railways truck over vast stretches of country, far into the Kalahari, carrying parcels, post, milk and cream cans, passengers and whatever else needed shifting from Vryburg and back again to such destinations as Morokweng, Thakwaneng, Geluk, Kuruman, Dibeng, Sishen, Taung, Pomfret, Tierkloof and many other places. In those days there were no tarmac roads, and driving such a huge lorry over primitive unmade roads in all kinds of weather must have been really hard work. As he had no assistant he had to do all the loads of paperwork himself, as well as carrying out repairs, fixing flat wheels and anything else that needed to be done. As it is unlikely that there were any rest-houses or other affordable accommodation on his route, it seems probable - with hindsight - that he must have carried his own roll of bedding and food with him, because he was often away on the road for many days or more than a week at a time.
It was during these years - about 1928 to 1934 - that he and my mother had the "Happy Five" dance band as well as three small children, so their time must have been fully occupied. Oupa and Ouma Engelbrecht stood in for our parents whenever they were asked and as children we lacked nothing - nobody had any money, but we were happy, with ample food, vegetables and meat from my grandfather's land, and this was tremendously important during the depression years 1929-1935 when so many people had no jobs and not enough to eat. I emphasise this point because our small family was well-off compared to many others. This depression was world-wide; in the Rhondda Valley in Wales (a mining area) unemployment stood at 75% and the government dole money for a family of five was 18/- (eighteen shillings = R3.60)per week. This was the sum total of their support and had to include rent. The Nobel-prize winning writer John Steinbeck in writing about his life during those years, recalled that he did not have so much as a piece of paper on which to write his stories, and had to use the blank pages in old ledgers. He also did not have the money to buy a new pot of ink, which cannot have cost more than a few cents, and had to use pencil-stubs scrounged from his friends. In fact during 1935 he was employed as a builder's labourer in the building of Madison Square Garden, but he didn't last very long there and went back to California to resume his interrupted writing in old ledgers.
This depression caused tremendous job losses and cutbacks and eventually lead to my father losing his railways job, and being forced to look for a living in Johannesburg in 1934 - then a thriving gold-mining town of 48 years old. First my parents and I left Vryburg, with my two young brothers left in the care of Ouma Engelbrecht, but as soon as finances allowed they were sent for and we were once again together as a family.
The years from 1934 to 1939 were mostly one long grind to earn a crust and keep the family together, and then World War II broke out. Germany declared war on England on 1st September 1939 and South Africa came into the war as England's ally on 6th September 1939.
Like his father before him in World War I, my father must have been one of the very first volunteers to join the army, because when my sister Sylvia was born on 2 November 1939 he was already in training camp at Zonderwater, near Pretoria. One must suppose that the prospect of travel an& adventure was irresistible and certainly preferable to driving a truck for the Lion Match Company in the streets of Johannesburg for meagre wages and no prospects of advancement. It must also be remembered that it was a time of world-wide unemployment which engulfed millions of men, a time of hunger and misery, wretched wages, lying promises by governments, no prospects of ever achieving anything, and a constant desperate search for work.
Whatever the reasons, off he went with his few personal possessions in a rucksack and his beloved trumpet in its carrying case around his neck, leaving my mother to cope with three small children and a new baby, without knowing when, if ever, he would return. He was 33 years old.
In 1939 the Defence Act still limited army service to Southern Africa, but General Smuts stated in Parliament on 7 February 1940 that it was Government's policy 'to extend operations as far as Kenya and Tanganyika' using volunteers if necessary. On 29 March all officers and men were invited to take a new oath whereby they undertook to serve anywhere in Africa for the duration of the war. In future, no man would be allowed to join the forces unless he attested on these terms, but which were optional for those already serving. All who took the oath were soon wearing the distinguishing corps sign of the Mobile Field Force, an orange strip on the shoulder of all garments, which was to become well known as the 'Red Tab'. My father must have attested this new oath immediately because when he visited us after completing his basic training (and incidentally making the acquaintance of his new baby daugbter), he was already wearing the Red Tab.
After basic training he was immediately posted to the Motor Transport Company of the Rand Light Infantry, where he served for a total of five years and 118 days before he was finally discharged after peace was declared in 1945.
As early as May 1940 the Quartermaster-General had given instructions to the Assistant Director of Transport to send an exploratory overland motor convoy to Egypt with an eye to the future and bearing in mind the possibility of a Japanese threat to sea communications. The Regiment (R.L.I.) sustained a temporary loss when 33 Motor Transport personnel left Zonderwater in charge of Lieut G. Evans, and two days later a further 96 under Captain J.C. Pagnam (my father's group) were posted for detached duty as lines-of-communications drivers for the First Division in East Africa. The initial convoy of 45 vehicles was to proceed from Pretoria to Broken Hill in Northern Rhodesia (today's Zambia) a distance of some1300 miles = 2090 km - with five officers and 127 other ranks, departing on the 7th June 1940 (the day before my father's 34th birthday). One must assume that his selection for this pioneer group owed something to the fact that he had had all those years of driver-mechanic experience for the S.A.R. over difficult terrain and well into the Kalahari desert, was able to operate independently, and then also the fact that he had many years' training with the Scouts, achieving their highest rank of King's Scout, where he certainly learnt all about camping, living in the open and being able to cope with rough outdoor living and survival in difficult situations.
I have a book "RAND LIGHT INFANTRY" compiled by Major B.G. Simpkins, J.C.D. and Bar, M.M., edited by Ken Anderson, signed by the author and eleven other R.L.I. officers, which gives the full story of the R.L.I. participation in the East and North African campaigns 1939-1945 - on page 302 of this book the following appears:
To appreciate the problems facing East Africa Force, whom the South African were to help, the topography of Kenya itself must be considered as it set the lines on which services such as engineers, transport companies and field ambulances would have to develop and operate.
The frontier of Kenya and Italian East Africa stretched for 1,200 miles = 1922 km from Lake Rudolf to the Indian Ocean between Lamu and Kismayu, and throughout almost its entire length it ran through bush and semi-desert, except near Moyale where some efforts had been made at cultivation. On the Kenya side of the frontier a barrier of desert nearly 300 miles wide = 483 km spread like an impassable cordon between the border and the Central Kenya farmlands. Inside this Northern Frontier District the only points of importance were those places where the ancient camel-tracks met because it had water. Marsabit, Isiolo and Moyale were keypoints in the defence of Kenya, and a seemingly impassable barrier of waterless desert separated them from Italian-occupied territory. To undertake operations towards either Abyssinia or Italian Somaliland across the almost trackless and uncharted aridity of the Northern Frontier District in 1940 was to embark on a hazardous venture.
To the east in the direction of Italian Somaliland, the absence of roads and the total lack of water between the Juba River and the Tana had convinced experts that any large-scale military operations were impossible. To the west lay some of the most inhospitable country in Africa, ranging from impenetrable forest or trackless thorn bush to scorching lava masses, rugged mountains and waterless deserts of soda ash and volcanic dust. On the Mega-Moyale escarpment to the north-east where the enemy was known to be firmly established, operations might have to be carried out at night in temperatures scarcely above freezing point. To such topographical and climatic conditions were added the complications of poor or non-existent communications.
Nanyuki, the eastern railhead for troops in this sector, was 126 miles = 203 km from Nairobi and almost on the edge of the Kenya highlands. The transport drivers ran into the grim lava-dust waste of the Kaisut Desert, crossed by deeply-rutted, potholed, loose sand tracks when first encountered by the South Africans. In rain, the Kaisut became an impassable quagmire, but in dry weather the only water between Isiolo and Laisamis was from strictly limited supplies at Merille. The only other road to the Abyssinian frontier ran north-west across 28 miles = 45.5 km of practically solid lava before dropping down to the utterly desolate Chalbi desert, a vast, flat, white waste of soda and soft lava dust, totally devoid of vegetation and mercilessly reflecting the scorching sun which baked the 168 mile = 271 km track to North Horr, which was passable but very dusty for about three months of the year. For the rest of the time, the Chalbi was impassable to wheeled mechanical transport, even one inch of rain turning it into a sea of mud, from which no wheeled vehicles could be extricated until the return of the dry season.
Almost the whole area cross the frontier, bounded by Lake Stefanie on the west and the Mega-Moyale road on the east, was so thickly wooded that vehicles could seldom move off existing tracks. Large areas covred with lava rock made cross-country movement by motor transport extremely difficult and the inaccuracy of existing maps, which even ignored mountain ranges and depicted non-existent roads, made planning still more hazardous. The Union Government was naturally interested in the country to which their forces were being sent; they understood the difficulties, and they provided invaluable equipment and skilled men of all kinds. Best of all, they supplied transport, the key to the whole problem.
In the wake of the overland exploratory Motor Transport Company came the other units: engineers, roadmakers, hospital units, and others. The Road Construction Companies needed no training in roadmaking; they were already experts and had some of the finest equipment available, and in some respects better than any then available to the British Army, without equal on the African continent. They were composed of highly trained specialists, who had worked together in civilian life and understood one another and their work, and they were to prove their worth in East Africa even before operations began. It would be fair to say that the East Africa campaign would have been impossible without them.
More vital than anything else of course was water, not only for the troops but also for the vehicles. Special motor transport convoys for the carriage of water were organized and other special vehicles and equipment were also supplied by the Soutb African Government. In the area round Marsabit, 36th Water Supply Company had two drills operating and another available for a forward move, while the field companies developed existing supplies, so that the activities of the various Engineer companies became tightly interlinked. Steady development was so effective that during 1st S.A. Division's stay at Marsabit the 6,000 gallons a day was raised to over 52,000 gallons a day in four weeks. South Africa provided 360 tank lorries, 120 water purification lorries and 2,200 water-tank trailers for the South African and Allied forces before the war was over.
The first convoy of 45 vehicles had been sent off on 7th June 1940 with instructions to report on the feasibility of running overland convoys from Broken Hill to Nairobi, at the same time reconnoitring all routes affecting a possible Great North road to Egypt. On the way they were to select camping areas and sites for petrol dumps. Within four months of the first overland convoy reaching Nairobi from South Africa, trucks were arriving in Kenya at the rate of 70-80 per day, rising to 90-100 per day by mid-January 1941, to bring the total of vehicles brought from South Africa by road before the end of May 1941, to 13,000 out of a total of 15,000 South African vehicles in East Africa.
Bear in mind that the convoy did not merely drive from one destination to the next - they were exploring and reconnoitring in enemy-held territory. These few pioneers in the first overland convoy had to be tremendously tough and resourceful to endure the conditions encountered.
After having reached Asmara in Eritrea, they crossed the Nubian Desert in the Sudan to get to Wadi Haifa in Egypt, but on this part of their long journey I have so far not found any information. Their journey from South Africa to Egypt - as far as I have been able to establish details, and bearing in mind that I have no adequate maps available for checking distances etc - until they rejoined their Regiment at Mareopolis in Egypt in July 1941 (having departed from the Union of South Africa on 7th June 1940) seems to have been the following:
In the official history of SOUTH AFRICAN FORCES WORLD WAR II (Vol.1) - EAST AFRICAN AND ABYSSINIAN CAMPAIGNS by Neil Orpen - there is an interesting insight into the conditions experienced by this group.
"The Rand Light Infantry motor transport drivers who had been through the Abyssinian campaign with the First Division rejoined the Regiment at Mareopolis, an expanse of desert some 15 miles west of Alexandria as the crow flies, and 25 miles by road. They received a shock when they got there, for instead of finding a camp already set up, there were only the kitchens constructed of plaster-of-paris, hessian and poles sunk into concrete, together with a water supply. Company Commanders were told 'You see that peg over there, and that mound of sand? Well, that is your company area. Send one truck per company to the Quartermaster, draw your tents, and erect them.' And that was that. The Regiment had been allocated a slab of desert and it was up to them to make the most of it".
The Rand Light Infantry motor transport drivers who had been through the Abyssinian campaign with the First Division rejoined the Regiment at the beginning of July 1941, and starting on 25th July, batches of men went on 24-hour leave to Cairo by motor transport. This gave the men a welcome break from the desert and a look at the Pyramids, the Sphinx and the Mouski bazaar. This might possibly have been where my father bought the brass souvenir tray with the six small goblets which he carried everywhere for the rest of the war as a present for my mother, and which still stands in my house today.
By 29 July the Regiment was transported further into the desert for two days' manoeuvres, when they received the news that they were to move 63 miles up the coast to El Alamein. Here swimming at night was introduced, beer was on sale for a limited time every evening, and 'soya stoves' were issued to the companies to make cooking easier. These were heated by a device that dripped cold water and engine oil on to a piece of stale bread, which burned continuously.
Here also the Regiment turned once again to some of their favourite pastimes: athletics meetings, inter-company and inter-Regiment shooting competitions, and concerts put on by the troops themselves. There was enormous talent and ingenuity to be found amongst the men, and full use was made of whatever was available to put on shows - in the total absence at that stage of professional actors and variety turns.
At these concerts, Colenso Theron was one of the star turns. He was a very good musician, and whatever was requested he could play for his audience. He also had a vast fund of stories, jokes and sketches, and he would be recalled again and again to "give another encore" or tell another story. In fact, he more than earned his place in building morale, as his beloved trumpet never left his side from the time he left South Africa until his demobilisation more than five years later. He played music, or he played Reveille, Cookhouse Call, Pay Call, Parade Call, Guard Call, First Post, Last Post and Lights Out. His favourite was the Last Post, and I recall him teaching me the words, when I was a small child of four or five, then I would sing while he played the trumpet
It is not my intention to repeat the history of World War II, and the part played by the South Africans in North Africa - there are several official histories on my bookshelves - but I would like to mention some features of life there as experienced by my father. The motor transport drivers, seasoned in Abyssinia, who were attached to the various companies, did a fine job and a number of them acted as riflemen in battle. My father told us, after his return from the war, that he had fired his rifle only twice in the entire campaign, once as he was getting away from the attack on Tobruk by Rommel's Afrika Korps (where thousands of South African were taken as prisoners of war, but he was not one of them) and another time at Gazala, just a couple of shots fired at random, after which he got into his truck and made tracks for the nearest R.L.I. base, from where he continued to operate. Some of the others were leaders in getting newly-arrived drivers trained.
It was not enough to have learned in the military sense how to operate in the desert. The driver must be able to drive in conditions entirely new to him, signalmen to keep in touch and navigators to find the way. There is more to it than that. To exist at all in places like the Quattara Depression is a science in itself which practice develops into an art. The problem is to make yourself so much the master over appalling difficulties of Nature - heat, thirst, cold, rain, fatigue, that you still retain the physical energy and mental resiliance to deal with the greater object of winning the war. There are many things to be arranged - cross-country driving, special equipment, alterations to vehicles, navigation, rations, signals, intelligence. In addition to their loads the trucks needed to carry rations and water. Communications were primitive or non-existent, and good signals were essential; without them a convoy, sometimes three or four hundred miles away from base, could not send back vital information nor receive fresh orders. If signals failed the best thing to do was to come home.
Motor Transport got their first seventy trucks through to Siwa Oasis, a great achievement in the face of countless difficulties - heat, soft sand, worn-out trucks, some inexperienced drivers - but within a month some lO-tonners had been added to the convoys and things were going better. The front line, as far as it was then a front line, was at Sollum and Tobruk.
Reconnaissance and motor convoy job routine differed very little from one day to the other, and four out of five were spent on the move. Before dawn the fires would start, and soon it would get lighter. Then breakfast: porridge, a sausage or tinned bacon, biscuits with margarine, jam and tea. If you were far away from a water supply, the last bit of tea was kept to wet the sand you used to clean your plate with.
Then moving on, in the open, with an aircraft-spotter up on the back of one of the trucks until about nine or ten the heat began. By eleven it would be scorching and soon after when the sun was almost vertical there was an excuse to stop. If the enemy was far off and there was no need for camouflage, a tarpaulin stretched between two trucks gave good shade, and so you lay in the midday heat, with the sweat drying as fast as it reached the surface. By one o'clock the compass could be used again and the convoy would move on. After 3 p.m. it would be growing cooler, and in the Sirte desert the on shore breeze would begin to blow. Towards sunset you camped, in low ground to hide the cooking-fires and car lights and near a sand drift if there was one for soft sleeping and good plate cleaning.
If there was one name which my father mentioned constantly to the end of his days, it was the Quattara Depression. To him this was the most awe-inspiring and frightening place he had come across in all his travels. Going from El Alamein to Siwa Oasis they stopped above the cliffs at the Depression, which lay a thousand feet below them. They stayed there for a day or two and wherever they looked, day or night, you saw the long lines of transport, head to tail, moving slowly back towards Alexandria. It was impossible to estimate how many trucks passed in those days, possibly fifty thousand, even a hundred thousand, a whole army was on the move. Survey Office patrols showed figures for this great hole of a hundred or more feet below sea level. When the survey work was eventually finished there was added to the map of Egypt this vast basin, 150 miles long and 75 miles broad = 242 km long and 120 km broad, and at its deepest point 450 feet = 138 metres below the Mediterranean. There are few worse places than this at midday. To the north unscalable cliffs shimmer in the heat haze, to the south are sand dunes. In the basin itself the heat is unbelievable, there is no shade, no trees, drive your truck two yards from the beaten track and it will sink up to its axles in the quicksands.
The old caravan masters had found a way across, a narrow strip of harder ground cutting across it. They called it El Quenetra, the Little Bridge and across this Little Bridge the convoys made their way.
It is difficult for anyone who has never seen a real desert to form a picture of what it is like. In a country where rain never falls there are none of those things directly attributable to rain: streams, lakes, hedges, woods, crops, rivers, nor any of the things which are indirectly the consequence of it - roads, villages, towns, railways.
In an ordinary unit in the Western Desert the Quartermaster's responsibilities are always heavy, drawing his rations daily, sending his own transport back to the nearest Issue Depot. In Jalo Oasis supplies were drawn from railhead.
From Siwa they sent to Mersa Matruh, at Kufra food and petrol was brought from Wadi Halfa, some 650 miles = 1046 km, for anything else they had to send to Cairo, 1,000 miles away = 1610 km. Week in and week out small parties of Heavy Section motor transport set off on journeys which were adventures in themselves. Before the war to reach Kufra from Cairo would have been a major expedition; by the summer of 1942 with 3-tonners the trip was done in four days and nobody thought much of it. In addition to their few personal possessions, they carried camouflage nets, telescopes, sheepskin coats, sunglasses, 44-gallon drums for storing petrol, water cans and tents.
Company canteens were established, a system that was continued with scarcely a break until the Regiment withdrew from the line to return to the Union. A large variety of goods was made available to the men at small cost such as candles, tooth-paste, polish, tinned fruit and tomatoes, sugar; biscuits and sweets. In addition, each man was rationed by the N.A.A.F.I. to one bottle or tin of beer and a bar of chocolate per week, for which he paid. Once a month the men were issued with 'glory bags' usually containing a pair of socks, pencil, notebook, boot polish, a length of string and other small sundry articles, which were provided by the South African Gifts and Comforts Fund. Occasionally a Y.M.C.A. van visited the Division, and one or two men from the Regiment were allowed to make purchases on behalf of their comrades, and once a week trucks went to Tobruk and Alexandria to purchase supplies for the company canteens from the bulk N.A.A.F.I. store.
There are two deserts in Libya, one semi-desert and one real desert. The former is the narrow strip along the Mediterranean where the Eighth Army - including the South Africans - fought and sweated and shivered; where the wheels of a hundred thousand vehicles had churned the clay surface to a fine powder which made its way into eyes, mouth, hair, food, engines and guns; and where swarms of flies made life a burden.
Apart from some local patrolling to get to know the country, the first months were quiet because petrol was scarce. The supply problems at Kufra Oasis was unending. Lines of communication were always long in Libya, but that from Wadi Halfa broke all records - 650 miles = 1046 km, with two water points en route, a journey of a week or more, over sand plain, dune lines, rock and gravel, all in searing temperatures. At the end of April the first convoy was guided in. The first stage was from the Nile to Selima, then to the desert well at Bir Misaha, and then 400 waterless miles = 644 km to Kufra.
My father's epic journey included visits and stopovers at various Oases both in Egypt and Libya, but I will refer only to one because it is a major one and includes most features of a desert oasis.
Kufra Oasis, in the Libyan Desert, was taken by the Italians from the Senussi in 1931. In 1941 the Italians were beaten by the French; the Italians made no attempt to retake Kufra, and for some months in 1941 and another seven months in 1942 Kufra was an invaluable base for the motor transport convoys operating from the coast where the front line stood at Sollum and the siege of Tobruk had begun. The heavy transport lorries were soon rumbling across the desert, and their first sight of Kufra was never to be forgotten. Kufra was a story-book oasis, remote, the last goal of desert explorers. Virtually no rain falls in the Libyan Desert, sometimes only once in twenty years, so it is something of a mystery where the ample water supplies come from. The most popular theory is that the rain which falls in the Tsibesti Mountains or the area of Lake Chad percolates under pressure through the sandstone strata which lie under the desert and comes to the surface in the oasis depressions. From the high wireless masts left by the Italians at their fort you could see the whole oasis - thousands of date palms, scattered on the upper slopes and thicker around the salt marshes; the mosque and the market place, the two blue lakes as salt as the dead sea, although you could dig a well of sweet water five yards from the margin, with small patches of cultivation, laboriously irrigated by donkey-hauled buckets from shallow wells.
The place was terribly poor, without the palms life would have been impossible. There is no limit to what this wonderful tree provides for its owners - dates for food, palm-wine to drink, timber for building and firewood, leaves for thatch, baskets, mats and sandals, and fibre for ropes.
The Italians had built a school, a hospital, a market and a mosque. They collected no taxes and their introduction of motor transport did reduce the isolation. It is difficult to exaggerate the loneliness of an oasis.
My father was an active participant in all the major battles of the North African campaign: El Alamein, Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barani, Sollum, Bardia, Tobruk, Gazala, during all that time serving in Motor Transport, carrying troops, food, equipment, ammunition, but he was never taken prisoner (as thousands of South African were at Tobruk and El Alamein), nor was he ever wounded. At both Alamein and Tobruk he escaped capture by the Germans when all his friends and comrades were taken prisoner. He rejoined his nearest R.L.I. Transport unit and carried on day in and day out driving those thousands of miles far into the Libyan Desert, past the Quattara Depression, which he hated, through the Little Bridge which was eventually taken by the enemy so that the convoys had to take an alternative, far more difficult route to their various destinations.
In October 1941 the South African Second Division was placed under command of the Eighth Army (General Montgomery) and during the month there was constant movement of heavy equipment including tanks, towards the front by road and rail. The Rand Light Infantry was called upon to supply trucks, drivers and escorts to transport stocks of petrol to Mersah Matruh and Sidi Rezegh.
On 23 November the South African Brigade was overrun and all but annihilated by a German Panzer Force at Sidi Rezegh. In a broadcast General Smuts said they had fought an action comparable with the stand of the South African Brigade in Delville Wood in 1916. In a desperate struggle they held their ground against repeated air, panzer and infantry attacks, made by greatly superior numbers, and kept on fighting until their ammunition was exhausted and resistance became pysically impossible.
On 5 December 1941 Rommel abandoned his siege of Tobruk and began to withdraw to Gazala and late on 15 December the O.C. received the news that at 0800 hours next day, 16 December, the Rand Light Infantry was to attack Bardia from the South. General Rommel left behind him Bardia and Halfaya Pass to be defended to the last to obstruct the Eighth Army in its advance. It became urgent to clear the enemy from the frontier defences and open up communications through Sollum. Two patrols were sent out and reconnaissance patrols were also organised to proceed along the escarpment to the frontier Wire.
This "Wire" starting on the coast at Bardia and running southwards as far as the Sand Sea, was 200 miles long, 6 feet high and 30 feet across (= 322 km long, 1.22 metres high, 9.15 metres across), and had been put up by the Italians at a cost of more than a quarter of a million pounds in 1931 to stop gun-running between Egypt and Libya. The troops always held camp sing-songs and one of their favourites was "West of the Wire, down Bardia Way" sung to the music of "South of the Border, Down Mexico Way" but after so many years I do not recollect the words of this adaptation.
The enemy were strongly entrenched in Bardia, the strength of the garrison not known, and patrols sent out were unable to establish the number of troops in the town.
The Rand Light Infantry and Imperial Light Horse attacked on 16 December, but by Christmas day the enemy still held out. The troops were cheered by the arrival of post and parcels from home on Christmas Day and they were able to enjoy a few treats in addition to their usual rations. After an early supper on 30 December, with the whole Regiment in jerseys, balaclavas, battle-dress, leather jerkins and steel helmets against the freezing cold, they left by motor transport for the crossing to the Bardia-Sollum road before they could at midnight unload their arms and equipment to move to the assembly area.
At 0415 on 31 December the Second South African Division's attack on Bardia opened with an intense artillery barrage, but by that night the enemy still held on to his position. It was a bitterly cold night with showers of rain, and the troops got a pleasant surprise when they were issued with a hot meal which put new life into everybody. It was a job well done by Headquarters Company and the transport men. Official time of surrender of the German and Italian troops at Bardia was given as 1200 hours, 2 January 1942.
There was a particularly unusual and unnerving event at Halfaya Pass during the Battle of Bardia. The Regimental Transport Park, with hundreds of trucks and other vehicles, were concentrated at Halfaya Pass and one night the troops were awakened by what appeared to be an enemy attack. Rifles and other weapons were grabbed in the roar and rumble and vivid flashes that lit up the sky, and then the rain began to fall in the freak storm. The water formed a small lake up on the escarpment, which broke its banks without warning. The water poured through the wadis over the Regimental lines and down the escarpment, washing away most of Brigade Headquarters and the Transport Park. This story was often retold to us by my father.
Total Rand Light Infantry casualties in the Battle of Bardia from 16 December 1941 to 2 January 1942 were 30 killed and 67 wounded. Total number of prisoners taken was 7,775 of whom 2,120 were Germans. Intelligence reports had estimated the entire garrison at Bardia at about 4,500. Nearly 1,100 Allied prisoners were released. The R.L.I. and I.L.H. had the distinction of going through the enemy wire, in the first phase, actually ahead of the tanks. They performed the formidable task of wiping out pillboxes and held their line while a path for the tanks was prepared by sappers and work parties of the infantry. Colonel Henry, who was mentioned in dispatches, issued a message to his men "I wish to place on record my appreciation of the loyal support and magnificent fighting qualities of all ranks of the Rand Light Infantry during the Bardia operations, which exceeded even my high expectations. This appreciation would not be complete without reference to the fine work of the medical stretcher-bearers, "Q" and Transport sections of the Regiment. It is a privilege to command you".
So we come to the end of this epic journey. From the date of his departure from Zonderwater on 7th June 1940, until he rejoined his Regiment at Mareopolis in Egypt in July 1941, was roughly thirteen months, doing hundreds of thousands of miles by truck through Africa. From July 1941 he served with the Eighth Army in the North African campaign until his departure by sea from Suez in January 1943, a further eighteen months, with thousands more miles which cannot be calculated or even estimated. Total estimated duration of journey some 31 months.
On p.304 of the "HISTORY OF THE RAND LIGHT INFANTRY" there is another entry:
Colenso Theron was finally discharged from the South African Defence Force on 29 September 1945 after a total service of five years and 118 days. He was awarded the Africa Star with Eighth Army Clasp and the Africa Service Medal. Two more medals were awarded subsequently, but I never saw them and do not know what they were. There were other awards for Scouting and Rugby, but all these together with photographs were handed to my eldest brother Alfonso Colenso Theron; after his death all these mementoes were lost, and I have not been able to trace anything.
My father died at Johannesburg General Hospital on 16 January 1951, after an illness of many months, at the age of 44 years, seven months. He was laid to rest in West Park Cemetery, Grave No. 3759.
Copyright Suzanne van den Bergh. April 2006.