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.


S vd Bergh

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:

Also in this instance and in spite of repeated requests by me to Standard Bank, Cape Town, and their Public Relations Department, I have never had any reply to my enquiries. Surely such a Memorial Tablet, or Roll of Honour must still exist?

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:

From Broken Hill in Northern Rhodesia to Nairobi (Kenya) was a distance of some 1600 miles = 2575 km. East Africa's difficulties were partly explained by one of General Wavell's Staff Officers at the time who recorded that it had repeatedly been stressed that White troops were not suitable for operations in East Africa. They could not sleep on the ground, fresh meat and vegetables were difficult to deliver and the South African Brigade required 672 Lorries in first line transport. General Wavell's Staff Officer was thinking in terms of pre-war Colonial Service with porters and headloads, and had not yet grasped that the South African idea of motorisation was the key to mobility in Africa, nor did he realize South Africa's ability to produce the vehicles, with the Ford Company alone assembling l8,349 trucks for the South African forces during the first year of war.


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:

I did not find it possible to estimate even the bare minimum for road distances only from one destination to the next - they must have covered thousands of miles more in detours and reconnaissance trips, plus their major job of transporting food, water, petrol and equipment.

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".