by H S McKenzie, SC
It was June 1940 and the 'phoney' war was over. On 10 May, Hitler had launched his invasion of the West and, by 4 June, the last British troops had left Dunkirk. Also on 10 May, Mr Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister of Great Britain and, under his inspired leadership, a new spirit of defiance became evident throughout the Western World. In South Africa, Mr Churchill could rely on his old friend and colleague, General J C Smuts, who, as South African Prime Minister and Commander in Chief, was determined that his country should play a part in the defeat of the German and Italian dictators. South Africa officially declared war on Italy on 11 June 1940.
In Cape Town, as in towns elsewhere in South Africa and, indeed, throughout all parts of the world sympathetic towards the Allied cause, there was a rush to the colours. Young (and not so young) men from all walks of life volunteered to join the services. They wanted to be 'where the action was' and to be there quickly. For this reason, the 2nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade drew recruits like a magnet draws iron filings, for it was generally accepted that this unit would leave on active service as soon as it became physically possible. On 17 June, two batteries of the 2nd Anti-Aircraft Brigade, South African Artillery, under the command of Maj D C 'Daantjie' Kruger, marched from the Castle to the old Cape Town Station to entrain for Potchefstroom. The 5th Battery was commanded by Major N G 'Nick' Wessels and the 6th by Maj W H Morris. It was not a smart parade. Although there were a few permanent soldiers, a small number of veterans from the First World War and some who were or had been in the Citizen Force, the majority had received no military training. The men did not have complete uniforms and such as they had were ill-fitting and obsolete. What they had was enthusiasm, as did the citizens of Cape Town who turned out in their hundreds to say 'totsiens' to the boys going 'Up North'.
The 4th Battery, under Maj H Scholtz, was formed some weeks later and trained at Zonderwater, but joined the rest of the brigade in Durban to embark for East Africa. Potchefstroom and Zonderwater would be remembered for the cold showers, meal queues, ten to a bell-tent, weekend leave to Johannesburg, German Measles, influenza, cookhouse fatigue, weekly inspections and the many other things that happen in a military camp. Nevertheless, a great spirit of comradeship started to develop - a spirit which would last through the war years and to this day.
The brigade, with a strength of 36 officers and 855 other ranks, armed with twin Lewis machine guns, arrived at Mombasa on 8 September 1940. The 4th Battery remained in Mombasa and the 5th and 6th batteries went on to Kabete, near Nairobi. This process of division would continue down to section level and sometimes even sections were split until, by the end of January 1941, the brigade was distributed over a 600 mile (965 km) arc with the Brigade HQ situated in the centre, some 200 miles (321 km) behind. Kenya, like South Africa, has many romantic place-names and those such as Nanyuki, Garissa, Nakuru, Habaswain, Wajir, Moyale, Archers Post and Marsabit will bring back memories to the Ack-Ack men.
It was not until June 1941 that the brigade reassembled in Addis Ababa. By then, the brigade commander was Lt Col C T Howie, Lt Col Kruger having returned to the Union in December 1940 and Major Wessels having acted until the arrival of the new commanding officer. Most of the brigade had reached Addis Ababa via Italian Somaliland, the Ogaden and Harrar, but the 4th Battery and one section of the 6th had advanced along almost impassable roads from the south via Neghelli and the Lake area. Before their arrival at Addis Ababa, sections of the brigade had seen action at many places, including Garissa, Garsi Gerbi, El Wak, Dagabur, Marda Pass, Babille Pass, Giggiga, Dessie Road and Amba Alagi. There were later involvements at Gimma, the Omo crossing, Abalti and Lechempiti. Men remember the campaign not only for the very limited periods of action, but also for the dreary months of being bumped about in the back of a 3-ton truck, for the dust and, at other times, the soaking tropical rains, for the shortness and brackness of the water, the basic diet of bully beef, biscuits, jam and sometimes melted butter, for the quinine and mosquito cream, for the primitive natives who would provide more eggs for a penny than for a shilling, for shooting small game for the pot, for the short periods of leave in Mogadishu, Addis Ababa and Asmara, for the seemingly endless number of Italian prisoners of war and for the hockey against the Indians in Addis Ababa and the boxing against the British at Asmara. Sections and even individual gun teams learned to become self-sufficient - most men knew how to repair a vehicle, many had 'won' a personal revolver, and all had learnt to cook.
During the campaign, the brigade had acquired a number of captured weapons and, in addition to the twin Lewis machine guns, had 20 mm and 12,7 mm Breda machine guns. Also, during the campaign, the brigade was equipped with a number of 'mosquito trucks' - vehicles which were specially designed to carry the twin Lewis guns.
The main body of the brigade embarked at Massawa in late August and arrived at Port Tewfik, in Egypt, on 2 September 1941. Remaining in East Africa was the 7th Battery, under the command of Capt L G F Wolf, which had been formed during the campaign. This battery reached Egypt in November, when it was disbanded and its men absorbed by the 4th and 6th batteries. In Egypt, the unit was known as the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and the sub-divisions within the batteries were called 'troops'.
The 2nd AA Brigade march out of the Castle, Cape Town, led by 2/Lt Moodie and Sgt Miller.
Behind Lt Moodie is Gnr Boon Wallace, later a famous cricketer.
In Egypt, the regiment first assembled at Amariya near Alexandria - sufficiently close for daily leave to that fascinating city. After only two weeks, the regiment was again split. The 6th Battery remained at Amariya, later to be moved to Helwan where it was re-equipped with 40 mm Bofors guns and predictors while the rest of the regiment moved west to Smuggler's Cove near Mersa Matruh, where it became involved in manoeuvres and in the defence of the harbour area of Mersa Matruh. In November, the 6th battery moved into the forward area and the 4th in turn returned to re-equip at Helwan. The 5th Battery received Bofors guns only in March 1941, when it took over the guns of the 6th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery.
As in East Africa, the regiment became split into small sub-divisions. Usually troops remained intact, but on occasion even these were sub-divided as was the case when guns were mounted on trains operating between Capuzzo and Matruh. During the preparations for the Allied November advance, and thereafter until Rommel's attack in May 1942, troops were stationed at various places in the Western Desert, among them Daba, Simillia Station, Sidi Omar, Gambut, Bir Hafid, Monastir, Bardia, Solluin, Capuzzo, Halfaya, Acroma and Gazala. Apart from Mersa Matruh, anti-aircraft action occurred at a number of places, notably Daba, Bardia, El Adem, Acroma and Gazala. During the month of April 1942, all troops were in action and although the official war diary for May and June concerning the activities of the regiment was lost with the fall of Tobruk, there can be no doubt that the whole regiment was most actively involved during this period. Anti-aircraft actions in the Western Desert were different from the rather primitive variety encountered in East Africa and being on the receiving end of a Stuka dive-bombing attack was an experience not easily forgotten. Other lasting impressions of these months of the war were the endless movement, the dust-storms and the flies, the digging of gun-pits and slit-trenches in hard desert ground, cooking and 'brewing up' on petrol fires, regular rations of bread and fresh meat, occasional distributions of 'glory bags', issues of brandy and Naafi treats, Cairo leave, training on new guns and the nightly guard duties.
From 26 May 1942, when Rommel launched his attack on the Gazala line, the regiment was heavily involved in both an anti-aircraft and anti-tank role. Troops fought many an anti-aircraft action outside the Tobruk perimeter, most notably in the Acroma-Knightsbridge area and along the Gazala road. Eventually all the troops took up positions inside the perimeter where, again, they were regularly in action until the morning of 21 June, when the order came for the guns to be destroyed - Tobruk had surrendered.
Up to the time of the capture of Tobruk, the regiment had shot down some 48 enemy aircraft and had inflicted more or less severe damage on about one hundred others. Shortly before the surrender, Maj Gen Klopper had congratulated Lt Col Howie on the fine showing and efficient work of the regiment during the three weeks' battle in the Gazala-Tobruk area.
Two years and four days after its departure from Cape Town, the regiment was 'in the bag', but it would be wrong to think that the story of the regiment ended with the fall of Tobruk. Many got away and were only taken prisoner some time after the fatal 21 June 1942. In prisoner of war camps in North Africa, Italy and Germany, Ack-Ack men played their part in camp organisation and entertainment which was so necessary for the maintenance of morale. Many escaped, particularly after the capitulation of Italy and some assisted partisan groups. Some were recaptured and some succeeded in reaching the Allied lines. Ack-Ack men tended to stick together and help one another, whether in the dysentery-ridden starvation camps in North Africa, the coal mines and sugar factories of Silesia or on the final long march across Germany. Many had left the regiment before Tobruk - some owing to wounds and illness and some to go on various promotion courses. Most of these men served with distinction until the end of the war and, although they served in many different units, nearly all of them tended to regard the 2nd Ack-Ack as their unit.
By the end of 1945, the vast majority of Ack-Aek men were back in the Union of South Africa. The 2nd Anti-Aircraft Regimental Association was formed. Apart from organising functions, this association succeeded in collecting sufficient money to endow a bed at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in 'memory of fallen comrades'. In the late forties and early fifties, the tendency was to forget the war and to settle down to peacetime activities and, after a few years, the association ceased to exist. This did not mean that the spirit of comradeship amongst the Ack-Ack men also ceased. Far from it, 'the boys' still love to meet one another and reminisce. There were two well-attended 'get togethers' in the seventies and this article was originally written for a very special 40 years' reunion in 1980.
Christmas card of the 2nd AA Brigade, 1940.
(SA Naval Museum, Simon's Town)
No story of the regiment would be complete without mention of the 'Anxious Annies' - the wives, mothers and girlfriends of the 'boys' of the regiment. They assisted the men of the regiment in many ways and it was only fitting that, in the entrance of the Red Cross Memorial Children's Hospital, the name 'Anxious Annies' appears next to the '2nd Anti-Aircraft Regimental Association in the list of organisations which donated beds to the hospital.
Agar-Hamilton, J A I, and Turner, L C F, Crisis in the
Desert, May-July 1942 (Cape Town, Rustica Press,1952).
Millin, Maj E, SAA, 'History of AA Organisation, UDF, 1939-44', report held in the library of the South African National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg.
Orpen, N, East African and Abyssinian Campaign, SA Forces World War II, Volume I (Purnell, Cape Town, 1968).
Orpen, N, War in the Desert, SA Forces World War II, Volume III (Purnell, Cape Town).
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