The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal - Vol 8 No 2

PIET BOTHA - A SOUTH AFRICAN PATRIOT

by Lionel Wulfsohn

The Witwatersrand Rifles De la Rey Regiment, better known as the WR/DLR or Wits/De la Rey, and jocularly referred to as 'The Royal Boere' and of which I was privileged to be a member, was a motorized infantry battalion in the 6th South African Armoured Division. We had a remarkable group of soldiers who not only served their country well during the war but distinguished themselves in the post-war era.

To quote a few examples - our illustrious Commanding Officer, Lt Col J B Bester, DSO and Bar, known to all as 'Happy Jack', was promoted to Brigadier on 7 January 1945 and given command of the newly formed 13th SA Motorized Brigade. After the war he became the head of the South African Railways and Harbours Police but, with the change of Government in 1948, he was transferred to the South African Railways. Upon his retirement in 1974 he was Deputy Commercial Director of the South African Airways, a job which he carried out in his usual brilliant 'ODJ' (Op die Job) way.

Our lovable second in command, Major W R van der Riet, MC, ('Booysie' to his men), was promoted to command of the battalion when Lt Col Bester was promoted to Brigadier. He retired in 1974 from the SADF as Chief of Defence Staff with the rank of Lieutenant General. Major W N A Barends, MC and Bar, ('Bill' to his boys) the Company Commander of 'A' Coy WR/DLR, retired in 1973 from the SADF as Chief of Army Staff with the rank of Major General.

Our beloved regimental Chaplain, Captain the Rev M D V Cloete, MC, was known as 'Doempie' to all South Africans who served with him during the war, in the SAAF in which he was Chaplain of No 2 Fighter Squadron in the Korean Campaign, and finally in the South African Police. On his retirement in 1975 he was Chief Chaplain of the SAP with the rank of Major General, and the most decorated man in the Police. Captain James Craig (Jimmy to all his friends), our competent and highly respected medical officer, specialized in orthopaedic surgery in the post-war years and became one of Johannesburg's leading orthopaedic surgeons. Unfortunately, a rare illness struck him down, and he took on a teaching post at the Witwatersrand University Medical School. On reaching pensionable age he carried on working at the Medical School, and being the 'Royal Boer' that he is, in January 1983 became Associate Professor of the Orthopaedic Surgery Department. At the age of 73 Professor Craig is still doing a full-time job at the Medical School.

But arguably, one of the most remarkable soldiers in the WR/DLR was a modest man of medium height (1,73m) with the rank of Sergeant. This was Sergeant Petrus Paulus Jacobus Botha (better known as 'Piet') who in December 1940 at the age of fifty voluntarily joined the Regiment De la Rey, then in training at Piet Retief, as head of our Military Police Section and later as Post/ Pioneer Sergeant. After nearly 28 years in the SAP Piet had taken early retirement so that he could go on active service and, as he said in his own words, 'to do his bit' in the Union Defence Forces. His discharge certificate from the SAP was impeccable, and his character was described as exemplary.' According to his son Gabriel (Gawie) Botha Piet's first choice had been to join the Police Brigade, but he had been rejected on account of his age. This rejection was to be our gain because we were honoured to have in our ranks this most conscientious of men.

When we were shipped to Egypt in April 1943, Piet travelled with us and, when we amalgamated with the Witwatersrand Rifles, accompanied the new unit to Italy. In the Italian campaign it was part of Piet's duties to stencil on to the wooden crosses or Stars of David, the number, rank and name, regiment and date killed of each fallen comrade, a job which he must have found very hurtful as he personally knew many of the young men who had made the supreme sacrifice.

As probably most of the members of the WR/DLR were not aware of Piet's pre-army history, I wish to relate his story in some detail.

Born in 1890 on the farm Lakensvlei in the Belfast district, and with this farm's destruction in the ruthless British Army's scorched earth policy, he and his family found themselves in the Belfast concentration camp in 1900. When the Merebank punishment concentration camp just south of Durban was established in September 1901, several thousand Transvaalers, the Bothas included, were transferred to the camp. Lord Kitchener, General Officer Commanding British forces in South Africa had decided that the irreconcilables be sent to Natal, and it was stipulated that the following types be sent:

1 Undesirable families
2 Families of men on commando
3 Any who wished to go.(2)

The Bothas belonged to the second category.

Dame Millicent Fawcett's committee which had voluntarily come out to South Africa to investigate the concentration camp scandal had this to say:

'Some of the sites were very badly chosen indeed: the worst of them, in the committee's opinion, was at Merebank, in Natal. It lies at the foot of a low hill, the water from which drains into it. The flat, swampy ground on which the camp is pitched slopes slightly from both sides towards a central drain or little stream, into which all surface water from wash-houses, etc, runs, and which flows slowly into a large mere from which there is no outlet. On that side of the camp which is towards Durban there appears to be a big morass which drains towards the camp. '(3)

Piet Botha's background gives one an inkling into his fine character. Anyone else would have been most bitter, but Piet must have been a supporter of the Botha - Smuts ideal of a united South Africa, at least among the whites of the country. In 1913 he joined the mounted branch of the newly-formed South African Police, and with the outbreak of the Rebellion in September 1914 found himself stationed at the Pilansberg Police Station (near the present day Sun City). The sergeant and a constable had gone out to arrest certain rebel leaders, leaving Constable Piet Botha alone at the Station, in possession of the salaries and a valuable stock of arms and ammunition. Eighteen armed rebels attacked the Station, but Piet Botha refused to surrender. He removed the salaries and Government property into one room, and packed bales of teff grass around this building as a form of protection. Several times during the night of 6/7 November he was warned by the rebels that if he did not surrender they would use force. Botha replied that he too could use force.

The result was that although most of the Station buildings were wrecked, Botha emerged at the end of his ordeal with the property entrusted to him intact.

In July 1917 Piet Botha was promoted to Lance Corporal,(4) but only in 1919 after the First World War had run its course, did Piet receive a decoration in recognition of his efforts. This was to be the King's Police Medal for Gallantry - the Police equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The official Police commendation states:

'His Majesty the King has been pleased to award the King's Police Medal to 3892 (M) Lance Corporal P P J Botha, No 70 District Rustenburg, for an act of exceptional courage and conspicuous devotion to duty in protecting the Police Station at Pilansberg in the Rustenburg District from a rebel Commando on the night of 6 November 19l4.'(5)

Piet was promoted to Lance Sergeant in 1930,(6) and on 2 March 1931 was transferred to the small western Transvaal village of Leeudoringstad as Sergeant in command of the Police Station. On 4 May 1931 he was awarded the Police Good Service Medal.(7)

His previous act of bravery at Pilansberg would have been quite adequate for the average man, but Piet was no ordinary man. When a truckload of dynamite exploded about a kilometre short of Leeudoringstad station at approximately 17:45 on Sunday 17 July 1932, Piet was first on the scene. The engine driver, noticing smoke coming from the centre of the train, applied his brakes, uncoupled the engine and four non-dynamite trucks and pulled away from the burning, smoking train towards Leeudoringstad station. The engine crew warned Piet that more trucks of dynamite might explode at any moment. Half choked by the smoke fumes and dust caused by the explosion, and with the utmost disregard for his own safety, Piet kept on searching for victims who were believed to be buried amongst the debris of the train and adjoining farmhouses.

The casualty list was comparatively light, i.e., five killed and 11 injured, and this can be explained by the fact that the area was very sparsely populated. However, to give an idea of the severity of the explosion, the following extract appeared in The Star newspaper of 18 July 1932: 'A vast hole 200m in length, resembled nothing so much as a shell-swept trench in Flanders, indescribable desolation for an area a kilometre square, wrecked houses, dead and dying animals, twisted metals, branchless tree stumps and the ruins of half a dozen smoking trucks bearing tragic witness to the terrific dynamite explosion which at 17:45 yesterday evening brought suffering untold to the small community of Leeudoringstad in the south-western Transvaal.'

Two black farm labourers were badly injured by flying shrapnel about 1,5 km from the scene of the explosion.

The magistrate of the district reported at the time that Botha's action was deserving of the highest praise. Not only did he organize rescue parties from a neighbouring farmhouse, but by his example and calmness rallied the inhabitants of the area, many of whom were fleeing in panic.

For his work at this terrible explosion, when altogether 33 trucks carrying over 270 m tonnes of dynamite exploded, Piet was promoted to Second Class Sergeant.(8) Some newspapers of the period stated that he was recommended for the King's Police Medal for Gallantry, but a thorough search at the Police Archives in Pretoria could not substantiate this statement. My personal opinion is that the SAP were remiss in not awarding Piet a suitable decoration in recognition of bravery far beyond the call of duty.

Piet was a real pioneer of Rustenburg and its environs, having served, in addition to Pilansberg, at police stations such as Thabazimbi, Tarantaalkraal and Kwikstaart. I personally was aware of Piet's pre-war acts of gallantry, because in a letter I wrote to my father from Egypt in 1943 I stated: 'We have a Sergeant Botha with us, Post/Pioneer Sergeant of the Regiment, ex-policeman, who was decorated for a stout piece of work during the 1914 Rebellion in Pilansberg.'

Early in 1969 I saw an article in The Star written by the late Hugh Carruthers about the Sandringham Red Cross Home for ex-servicemen in general and Piet Botha in particular. This refreshed my memory of Piet, and I wrote a congratulatory letter to Hugh Carruthers, and made a donation to the Red Cross Home. Mr Brown, who was the then Chairman of Red Cross in Johannesburg, sent the letter to Piet who wrote to me in these terms:

'It was a real surprise and a real encouragement to continue to carry on an old age life in the Home. I will be 79 in December 1969, my wife passed away in 1956. Since then I had very hard times, lonely and could not get over her death. Even now I can't forget her. My three children are all married and doing well. They wanted me to stay with them, but I always felt that I am in their way and must try and fight my life independently while I can still help myself, that is why I have landed here.' (At the Red Cross Home)

After the Regimental Re-union in October 1969, I called on Piet and renewed our wartime friendship. Although he was nearly 80 years old at that time, his memory was phenomenal and he remembered vividly the names of men, places and colours of horses.

Piet was quietly living out the evening of his life at the Red Cross Home, and despite the fact that he had been fitted with a heart pace-maker, was still a soldier and a policeman. He maintained discipline and decorum amongst his colleagues, and was an unofficial second-in-command to the Matron. In addition he was the official gardener, and found time to do odd repairs in the well-equipped carpentry workshop.

In February 1971 I wrote an article about Piet which was published in a Rustenburg newspaper and in the Springbok - the SA Legion journal. I sent cuttings of these articles to Piet and he responded as follows:

'Baie dankie vir die gebeurtenis van die verlede waar my naam in voorkom. Ek moet sê ek waarder dit baie saam met my kinders om nog sulke ware vriende te hê, wat aan jou dink in die aand van jou lewe as 'n ou maat en vriend. Alhoewel ek glo nie ek verdien so veel prys nie, alles moes maar seker so gebeur het. Alles kom maar van bo, sonder krag en hulp van Hom wat is die mens werd, niks.'

My last letter to Piet was on 15 March 1971 and then, for some unknown reason of which I am heartily ashamed, I never made contact with him again.

I have been informed by his son, Gawie, who is farming near Dullstroom that his dear father passed away in 1984 at the grand old age of 93. As Gawie told me on the telephone: 'My Pa het gewerk tot die einde toe, sy hart het net ingegee.'

On behalf of all men who had the honour of serving with Piet Botha I would like to pay tribute to the memory of an upright, conscientious, gallant soldier and policeman.

References

1. South African Police Archives - Discharge certificate Sergeant PPJ Botha.
2. S B Spies Methods of Barbarism? Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics January 1900 - May 1902 (Cape Town, 1977.) pp. 223-224.
3. G H L Le May British Supremacy in South Africa 1899-1907 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1965.) pp. 107-108.
4. South African Police Archives - Government Order No. l6 of 1917.
5. South African Police Archives - Government Order No. 4 of 1920.
6. South African Police Archives - SAP Force Order No. 29 of 1930.
7. South African Police Archives - SAP Force Order(General) No.16 of 1931.
8. South African Police Archives - SAP Force Order (General) No.41 of 1932.

Notes

My personal thanks go to the following who have been most helpful in compiling this article:
The late Hugh Carruthers of The Star
Major John Pennefather - Staff Officer Group 19 - Rustenburg
Ivan and Louise Smith - well-known citizens of Rustenburg
Gabriel (Gawie) Botha - son of Piet Botha
Ex-Corporal John Thompson - 'A' Coy WR/DLR
Dr Stanley Monick - Professional Officer at the SA National Museum of Military History
Lt (F) M Appel - Curator South African Police Museum and Archives - Pretoria

Postscript

Ivan and Louise Smith who have a trout farm in Dullstroom, have become friendly with Gawie Botha, who farms nearby. One weekend they went to Dullstroom accompanied by Major John Pennefather and, after a day's trout fishing, spent the evening with Gawie and his family.

Gawie informed the Major that his father had been involved in the defence of the Pilansberg Police Station in 1914, an action which was well known to the Major via the footnote in my book 'Rustenburg at War' (page 42). With their next trip to Dullstroom the Smiths presented Gawie with a copy of my book, and Gawie in turn gave them a copy of a cutting from a 1940 newspaper with the heading 'A Police Sergeant's Career'. Apparently Gawie has been faithfully preserving all his late father's papers, commendations and medals. With all this material available I was motivated to write this article. Incidentally, Ivan's father Arthur Smith was one of the Rustenburg Commando (Van Tonder's Horse) called up to assist in the relief of the besieged Police Station, and finally to escort the captured rebels into Rustenburg.

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