The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 10 No 6 - December 1997

(incorporating Museum Review)


by N G Garson

At the inception of the South African National War Museum (as it was then called) on 29 August 1947, there could have been no more appropriate person to perform the act of declaring it open than Field Marshal JC Smuts. The Museum had started out in 1942 as a sub-unit of the South African defence force. Early in 1944 the prime minister appointed an advisory committee whose task was to bring the Museum into being. Smuts was minister of defence and, in the years 1940 to 1945, commander-in- chief of the Union forces; he was also prime minister and minister of external affairs. In fact, as his official biographer, Sir Keith Hancock, wrote of the war years: 'No comparable concentration of political and military power in the hands of one man existed anywhere else in the Commonwealth.'(1) The purpose of this article is to assess Smuts's speech at the opening ceremony and then to place it in the context of his concerns about South Africa and the world in the year 1947 as these emerge through the prism of his private correspondence.

In welcoming Smuts at the opening ceremony, Senator (and Brigadier) FB Adler, the chairman of the Museum's first Board of Trustees, thanked him for the 'active help' he had given to the museum project. He also paid him this tribute: 'He it was who as the chosen head of all its activities, civilian and military, by his devoted example and untiring energy provided the requisite driving force which sent our nation along the indicated path and brought us honour and renown among all freedom loving people.'

The focus of the first potential exhibits assembled by the founders of the Museum was the Second World War. Not surprisingly, this was also Smuts's focus: the Museum 'could be looked upon as a memorial to the greatest united effort our country has ever been called upon to produce'. Smuts's speech was brief (judging from the typewritten notes it could not have taken more than ten minutes to deliver) and hardly one of his most memorable, but the wording suggests that it was his own rather than one written for him. Prepared before the appearance of the official war histories, it provides a succinct review of South Africa's participation in the war with some interesting emphases that reflect Smuts's own perceptions as the central figure in the story.(2)

First photo

The man who opened the South African National Museum fifty years ago:
Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts
(Photo: by courtesy of the SA National Museum of Military History).

'It is reported,' said Smuts, 'that Hitler laughed when he heard that this young nation, so small in population and possessing few great industries, had declared war on mighty Germany.' But the Union's contribution, Smuts claimed, was disproportionate to its size and resources and sufficient to help determine the outcome. Part of the explanation lay in 'the indomitable spirit of those who built South Africa', namely 'the Voortrekkers and the Pioneers'.

Smuts also commented on the Union's initial state of unpreparedness: 'only obsolete tanks, a handful of antiquated aircraft and only the barest minimum of other war necessities'. Yet, by June 1940, when Mussolini brought Italy into the war, South African Air Force aircraft were ready to bomb military installations in Abyssinia and the First Infantry Brigade was poised for service in East Africa.(3) By the beginning of 1941, the First Infantry Division was assembled in East Africa and the successful campaign there followed during the next few months. By July, both the First Division and the newly arrived Second Division were in Egypt, ready 'to fight in the defence of the vital Middle East'. Then came the North African campaign with its heavy casualties at Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk. Although, after thirty months of continuous campaigning, the First Division returned to the Union 'for conversion into armour..., when Von Arnim finally surrendered in Tunisia [in May 1943] thirty Springbok units were still with the victorious armies'.

Next Smuts noted the landing of the Seventh Infantry Brigade in Madagascar, the precautions taken to ward off a possible Japanese attack and the Union's contribution to the keeping open of 'the Cape line of communications, so useful in war'. By February 1943, 'for the first time in South African military history', an armoured division had been formed, ready to lead the Eighth Army 'in its vigorous dash from Rome to Florence' and then on to attack the German 'Gothic Line' to the north.

During the war, the South African Air Force developed 'out of recognition. It was, perhaps, our outstanding contribution.' Beginning with the achievement of air supremacy against Italy in Abyssinia, the South African effort continued in the form of shuttle-bombing by light bombers in North Africa and in Italy where enemy railway links were successfully targeted. South African Liberator planes were also used in the highly hazardous exercise of providing supplies from southern Italy to the Polish patriots in Warsaw. Smuts also mentioned the 'hundreds' of South Africans who flew with the Royal Air Force, many giving their lives in the Battle of Britain. The men serving in the scores of 'little ships' that made up South Africa's naval forces helped clear enemy mines in Union waters, and fought in the Mediterranean, where they helped to support the Tobruk garrison in 1941, to open Tripoli's harbour for Montgomery's advancing army and to supply Malta.

Finally, without using the phrase, Smuts addressed the home front, praising 'the executives and workers' who produced the supplies needed to keep and equip the men in the field, in particular the 'tens of thousands of new volunteers'. Supplies were also needed for the many ships rounding the Cape and for the Allied armies in the Middle East. 'Iscor, the Mint, explosive factories, the mining industry, and private firms, all concentrated their effort on military needs.' A huge increase in steel production was achieved, making possible the manufacture of 'howitzers, field guns, and anti-tank guns.., in their hundreds', while in Union ports 'thousands of ships' were repaired. 'All this effort,' said Smuts, returning to his idea of a disproportionate contribution from a small country, 'came from a country of less than three million Europeans and eight million other underdeveloped races, a young country, a largely undeveloped country... It was a wonderful effort, a great chapter in the history of our country; and we can be proud that we played a worthy part in the struggle for our way of life in a civilised world.'

Second photo

Always a keen botanist, Field Marshal Smuts examines a
small desert plant in North Africa during the war. With him
are Maj Gen Theron, Maj Gen Pienaar, Lt Gen Ritchie, and
Air Vice Marshal Cunningham. (Photo: By courtesy, SANMMH)

In introducing Smuts, Senator Adler made the point that visitors to the museum, viewing the 'deadly machines. all created for the destruction of human life' would leave 'with a clear realisation of the wastefulness of war, its futility and its disastrous effect on civilisation'. At the beginning of his speech, Smuts made a similar point: as a 'Memorial' the Museum should not only be a reminder 'of great deeds of heroism and sacrifice', but also serve 'as a pointer, and sometimes as a warning, to the future', against 'the horrors, the loss of life and the devastation' of war. He returned to this theme at the end of his speech: 'I hope that [the Museum] will come to be regarded as a standing warning, as a constant reminder that we should build a world and create a society which will lead to the end of war, and make such weapons as these, or those more terrible to come, unnecessary for our human advance towards the distant happier future.'

Looking back fifty years later it may surprise us how little is conveyed, in the speeches of both Adler and Smuts, of the flavour of the new era they had just entered, that of the post-war years. In the case of Smuts, with the aid of hindsight, we can see that the year 1947 belonged to what the editors of the published Smuts Papers called 'the last five years', the period 1945 to 1950, in which the central domestic event was the fall of Smuts's government after his defeat in the 1948 general election and which ended with his death.(4) Smuts turned seventy-seven in 1947. Although he still walked up Table Mountain regularly, he was beginning to tire physically, especially in the afternoons and evenings. He was also beginning to find the continuous burden of public office wearisome: seven years under Hertzog (1933-1939) and eight since then as prime minister himself. In recognition of his achievements as a Commonwealth statesman, both during and after the war, he was awarded the Order of Merit in the New Year Honours List for 1947. The most important event in Smuts's private life in that year was the celebration of his golden wedding with his wife Isie ('Ouma') Smuts at their home Doornkloof in May - 'a most happy family affair'.(5) 1947 was also the year of the royal visit to South Africa undertaken by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, together with the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, in February and March. Later in the year, in November, came the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Smuts's attendance was the only occasion in 1947 that he undertook a trip outside Africa.

Smuts found the transition from war to peace difficult. To his close friend, Florence Lamont, he wrote in March 1947: 'these years of post-war peace have been in many ways a heavier burden for me to bear than the war years themselves. War is a great stimulus, and an effective answer to your opponents. Now we are back in the old pulls and divided counsels and the world of small things - and life is much more of a burden than ever before.'(6) His general outlook was pessimistic and, as one of his biographers remarks, 'an elegiac tone' ran through his correspondence.(7) One of his preoccupations was the decline of Britain (and the British Empire-commonwealth) in the world. He commiserated with his British friends over the hard winter of 1946-7 - and the persistence into the post-war era of shortages of food and coal. More grandiloquently, he likened British decline to the fate of the Roman Empire: 'It sounds so much like Rome, and we know what followed the fall of Rome.' Smuts saw British decline as symptomatic of the end of European dominance in the world: 'The European leadership of the world is in grave danger, if not already lost, and the European is being booted out of Asia and the Far East.'(8)

Notwithstanding his authorship of the charter to the preamble of the United Nations Organisation, Smuts believed that the UN was, as an instrument for peace-making, inferior to the League of Nations. Its procedures were too democratic and would encourage delusions of world government. He fully grasped the changing realities of the world, what Hancock labelled 'the shift of world power'.(9) This was the dominance shared by what later came to be called the super powers, the United States and Soviet Russia. Initially, Smuts hoped that Britain, with Commonwealth support, could function as a counter-weight to this two-power dominance, but the end of British imperial dominance in Asia, symbolised in the replacement of the British Raj by India and Pakistan as independent states (also a major event of the year 1947), soon disillusioned him. Another option was the idea of a united Europe. During the war, in 1943, Smuts had canvassed the fanciful idea of a European union made up of the smaller western European states, but excluding both France and Germany. By the end of 1947 the post-war experience had clarified his vision. If East Germany became another Russian satellite state, then West Germany 'must be put on her feet again and restored as fast as possible', to become part of a European union.(10)

Smuts shared the general sense in the western world that the idea of two-power dominance was only part of the new situation. More sinister was the threat of dominance by one of them, Soviet Russia. The USSR and all its satellites were under one-party communist rule with the system as a whole directed from Moscow. Having dissolved Comintern (the Third International) in 1943, in deference to the susceptibilities of his western allies, Stalin in September 1947 set up Cominform, a new organ of international communism as orchestrated from Moscow. Whether by the ideological route of world revolution, or by sheer conquest, the perceived threat in western eyes was Soviet world dominance. Winston Churchill, in his famous address at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, had applied the phrase 'iron curtain' to the enforced isolationism of the Russian system, as it impinged on western Europe. Extending the idea to embrace the conflict between the communism of the east and the capitalism of the west, the financier and philanthropist, Bernard Baruch, who had become the United States representative on the atomic energy commission in 1946, coined an equally famous phrase in 1947, the 'cold war'. Smuts wrote of 'perhaps a world dividing into two' and the opening of 'a new chapter of dissent and confusion'.(11) Two further developments relating to this situation also belong to 1947. These were the Truman Doctrine, offering aid to countries resisting communist aggression (in particular in that year, Greece and Turkey); and the Marshall Plan (the European Recovery Programme) providing economic aid to the countries of western Europe. Striking a note of optimism (unusually for him, at least in 1947, and certainly unrealistically), Smuts acclaimed these developments as pointers to a potential threefold achievement: Atlantic Community, European Union and (through British participation) Commonwealth-Europe.(12)

In global terms the counterpart to the decline of western European power was the challenge to European dominance that was developing in Asia: 'How ungainly is the waking up of that giant! How upsetting to all the other continents!'(13) Smuts was originally reluctant to accept the idea of a British withdrawal from India. Later, in the course of 1947, he was converted not only to this but also to the insistence of Lord Mountbatten, the new Viceroy of India, that given the British withdrawal, the political unity of the sub-continent could not be maintained and the partition that produced the new states of India and Pakistan was unavoidable. Commenting in September 1947, Smuts was appalled by the human cost of partition: 'it is a story of savagery which takes you back to the darkest ages of history.' He went on to ask: 'Are the East and the West [in Europe] "one world"? And is the Far East not another, third, world?' Although he seemed to be limiting its application to Asia, Smuts's use of the term 'third world' must be one of the earliest instances. The optimist in him derived some comfort from the continued Commonwealth membership of India, Pakistan and Ceylon. But the pessimist did not believe that western democracy could be handled by Asian peoples: 'demagogy' was the more likely outcome.(14)

In contrast to both leading South Africa's war effort and grappling with the great world issues of the post-war era, for Smuts the domestic politics of South Africa was only small beer. Characteristically he wrote in June 1947: 'My heart is not in this business, and sometimes I feel [that I am] wasting my time on trifles.' Earlier, with the defeat in mind of Sir de Villiers Graaff in the Hottentots Holland by-election in January, he had a sense that 'the day's march... is uphill most of the time'. As the general election drew nearer, he felt South Africa could not be not immune from 'a spirit of change about the world. All other governments have fallen in this post-war time - why should I not fall too? People get tired of you.' But in action he was no defeatist: 'Still I am most anxious to win and not to lose the next election!'(15) Towards the end of the year he felt that he would win and generally he sustained this optimism throughout the election campaign in 1948.

Third photo

The 'Oubaas' at No 24 Air School, Dunnottar, in 1943.
(Photo: By courtesy, SANMMH).

In 1947 the interface between world trends and South African issues emerged in the aftermath of what Smuts called 'my failure with UNO... a bitter experience.' He had been unable the previous year to prevent the general assembly from taking an interventionist line on two issues - the treatment of Indians in South Africa and the right of South Africa to continue to administer the South West Africa mandate. 'People [meaning the white population] simply cannot understand it and are running over with resentment... The opposition [D F Malan's Re-united National Party] naturally rejoices and puts this all to my account... Here is the author of the great preamble of the Charter, exposed as a hypocrite and a double-faced time-server!'(16) In 1947 the dispute with India, now under Nehru as prime minister, escalated with the withdrawal of India's high commissioner and the imposition of Indian sanctions against South Africa.

Fourth photo

Gen JC Smuts attends the peace talks in Paris, 1919.
(Photo. courtesy of the SANMMH).

More far-reaching was the impact of events at the United Nations on race relations in South Africa. These Smuts saw as 'definitely deteriorating.., due not only to more difficult conditions here... but also to the new wind blowing through the world'. He recognised the impact of the social and economic changes that had accelerated during the war, producing a 'rising cost of living, higher prices with which wages do not keep pace'. He also saw the legitimacy of the grievances of the African population and the need to ameliorate them. But their demands, in particular for an end to discrimination and for political rights (which had been fully articulated by the Natives Representative Council in the previous year) had 'just the opposite effect on European mentality'. Smuts therefore understood how race relations were becoming polarised. If the 'Native claims' were the one extreme, the other was represented by the parliamentary opposition. He stated his dilemma in clear terms: 'The danger is that by appearing pro-Native I may run the risk to lose the general election next year, and thus hand the Natives over to the other extreme.'(17) He did not use the word 'apartheid'. But it cannot be claimed for Smuts that, had this electoral constraint been absent, his own wish would have been to put South Africa on the road to full political rights for all. He recognised the fundamental conflict within his own personality. He was on the one side 'a humanist, and the author of the preamble to the Charter. On the other I am a South African European, proud of our heritage and proud of the clean European society we have built up in South Africa, and which I am determined not to see lost in the black pool of Africa.'(18)

There is a marked disjunction between Smuts's celebration of South Africa's achievements in the Second World War, in his speech at the opening the War Museum, and his main concerns in that year, 1947. The explanation for this begins with the point that the importance of the Allied victory in the war lay in its negative or preventive aspect: the Axis powers had been defeated and their bid for world dominance had been ended. But peace and security in the future were not ensured and the world was not made safe for democracy. In the Middle East, where Smuts accepted partition as the price for the establishment of the Jewish National Home in the future state of Israel, he deplored the prospect of British withdrawal, But this was a consequence of Britain's declining power. Again, in the east and north African theatres of the war, where the South African troops had fought, there was also 'scuttle': 'If anybody had told me in the days of our Herculean toils that all that world was hopelessly lost to us I could never have believed it.'(19) Smuts was hard put to make out a case that South Africa had made tangible gains from the war.

Fifth photo

An early view of the interior of a display hall
at the SA National Museum of Military History,
opened by Field Marshal Smuts in 1947.

In his speech, Smuts made much of the South Africa's 'united effort' in waging the war, This ignored the fact that his policy had entailed bringing a politically highly divided country into the war. The price that had to be paid was the political capital that his Nationalist opponents could make out of any grievances that could be related to the country's participation in the war. Smuts survived their onslaught in the 1943 general election, but by 1947 the Nationalists could also claim that they had foretold his global concerns of that year: 'the expansion of Soviet Communism, the collapse of Europe, the decline of Britain and the Commonwealth'.(20) Their remedy was simple: isolation in the form of a republic outside the Commonwealth.

Fifty years later we have a new perspective on the era that the world as well as South Africa was entering in 1947. With the demise of the Soviet system, the Cold War has ended. In a related development, South Africa, after almost fifty years of following the course laid down by his political opponents, has embarked on the road to which Smuts himself shrank from recommending in 1947: the end of white rule and the extension of political rights to all its people. But while in both global and South African terms we might recognise the element of progress involved in these changes, few would deny that we face many uncertainties, as weighty perhaps as those confronting Smuts and his contemporaries fifty years ago.


1. WK Hancock, Smuts - the Fields of Force 1919-1950, Vol 2, (Cambridge, 1968), p 350. 2. Typed copies of the speeches of Adler and Smuts in the records of the South African National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg.
3. Both the First Infantry Brigade and (in 1942) the Seventh Infantry Brigade had been commanded by Brigadier GT Senescall, who became the first director of the War Museum in 1947.
4. WK Hancock and J Van der Poel (eds), Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, (Cambridge, 1973).
5. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 136, Smuts to Lady Daphne Moore, wife of Sir Henry Moore, the governor of Ceylon, 18 May 1947.

6. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 129, 31 March 1947.
7. K Ingham, Jan Christian Smuts: the Conscience of a South African (Johannesburg, 1986), p 238.
8. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 152, Smuts to F Lamont, 29 July 1947; and p 124, to JG Latham (formerly chief justice of Australia), 12 February 1947.
9. Hancock, Smuts, Vol 2, Chapter 25.
10. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 170, Smuts to Margaret Gillett, 19 December 1947.

11. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 170.
12. Hancock, Smuts, Vol 2, p 449.
13. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 117, Smuts to Margaret Gillett, 14 January 1947.
14. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, pp 1634, Smuts to Lady Moore, 23 September 1947.
15. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 147, Smuts to Lady Moore, 14 June 1947;
p 118, to Margaret Gillett, 14 January 1947; p 153, to Florence Lamont, 29 July 1947; p 140, to Lady Daphne Moore, 6 June 1947.

16. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, pp 116-7, Smuts to Margaret Gillett, 14 January 1947.
17. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 121, Smuts to Margaret Gillett, 1 February 1947.
18. Hancock and Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers, Vol VII, p 126, Smuts to Lady Daphne Moore, 2 March 1947.
19. Hancock, Smuts, Vol 2, p 447, quoting Smuts to Lady Moore, 10 December 1947.
20. Hancock, Smuts, Vol 2, p 445.

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