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During World War II, many South Africans saw military service. The Union of South Africa participated with other British Commonwealth forces in battles in North Africa against Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, and many South African pilots joined the Royal Air Force and fought against the Axis powers in the European theatre.
Political choices at outbreak of war
On the eve of World War II, the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. While it was closely allied with Great Britain, being a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with its head of state being the British king, the South African Prime Minister on 1 September 1939 was J.B.M. Hertzog – the leader of the pro-Afrikaner and anti-British National Party. The National Party had joined in a unity government with the pro-British South African Party of Jan Smuts in 1934 as the United Party.
Hertzog's problem was that South Africa was constitutionally obligated to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. The Anglo-Polish military alliance obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if attacked by the Nazis. When Adolf Hitler's forces attacked Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany two days later. A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the halls of power in the Parliament of South Africa. It pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain's side, led by Smuts, against those who wanted to keep South Africa neutral, led by Hertzog.
Declaration of war against the Axis
On 4 September 1939, the United Party caucus refused to accept Hertzog's stance of neutrality in World War II and deposed him in favour of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, on 6 September Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany and the Axis. Immediately, Smuts set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa's global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.
John Vorster and other members of the pro-Nazi Ossewabrandwag strongly objected to South Africa's participation in World War II and actively carried out sabotage against Smuts' government. Smuts took severe action against the Ossewabrandwag movement and jailed its leaders, including Vorster, for the duration of the war.
Field Marshal and Prime Minister Smuts
Field Marshal Jan Smuts was the only important non-British general whose advice was constantly sought by Britain's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Smuts was invited to the Imperial War Cabinet in 1939 as the most senior South African in favour of war. On 28 May 1941, Smuts was appointed a Field Marshal of the British Army, becoming the first South African to hold that rank. Ultimately, Smuts would pay a steep political price for his closeness to the British establishment, to the King, and to Churchill which had made Smuts very unpopular amongst the Afrikaners, leading to his eventual downfall.
With the declaration of war in September 1939, the South African Army numbered only 5,353 regulars, with an additional 14,631 men of the Active Citizen Force (ACF) which gave peace time training to volunteers and in time of war would form the main body of the army. Pre-war plans did not anticipate that the army would fight outside southern Africa and it was trained and equipped only for bush warfare.
One of the problems to continuously face South Africa during the war was the shortage of available men. Due to its race policies it would only consider arming men of European descent which limited the available pool of men aged between 20 and 40 to around 320,000. In addition the declaration of war on Germany had the support of only a narrow majority in the South African parliament and was far from universally popular. Indeed, there was a significant minority actively opposed to the war and under these conditions conscription was never an option. The expansion of the army and its deployment overseas depended entirely on volunteers.
Given the country's attitudes to race at the time, the enlistment of fighting troops from the much larger black population was hardly considered. Instead, in an attempt to free up as many whites as possible for the fighting and technical arms, a number of corps were formed to provide drivers and pioneers, drawn from the more acceptable Cape Coloured and Indian populations. These were eventually amalgamated into the Cape Corps. A Native Military Corps, manned by blacks, was also formed for pioneer and labouring tasks. For some of their tasks, individuals were armed, mainly for self-protection and guard duties, but they were never allowed to participate in actual combat against Europeans.
Military contributions and casualties in World War II
South Africa and its military forces contributed in many theatres of war. South Africa's contribution consisted mainly of supplying troops, airmen and material for the North African campaign (the Desert War) and the Italian Campaign as well as to Allied ships that docked at its crucial ports adjoining the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean that converge at the tip of Southern Africa. Numerous volunteers also flew for the Royal Air Force.
- The South African Army and Air Force played a major role in defeating the Italian forces of Benito Mussolini during the 1940–1941 East African Campaign. The converted Junkers Ju 86s of 12 Squadron, South African Air Force, carried out the first bombing raid of the campaign on a concentration of tanks at Moyale at 8am on 11 June 1940, mere hours after Italy's declaration of war.
- Another important victory that the South Africans participated in was the liberation of Madagascar from the control of the Vichy French. British troops aided by South African soldiers, staged their attack from South Africa, landing on the strategic island on 4 May 1942 to preclude its seizure by the Japanese.
- The South African 1st Infantry Division took part in several actions in North Africa in 1941 and 1942, including the Battle of El Alamein, before being withdrawn to South Africa to be re-constituted as an armoured division.
- The South African 2nd Infantry Division also took part in a number of actions in North Africa during 1942, but on 21 June 1942 two complete infantry brigades of the division as well as most of the supporting units were captured at the fall of Tobruk.
- The South African 3rd Infantry Division never took an active part in any battles but instead organised and trained the South African home defence forces, performed garrison duties and supplied replacements for the South African 1st Infantry Division and the South African 2nd Infantry Division. One of this division's constituent brigades — 7 SA Motorised Brigade — did take part in the invasion of Madagascar in 1942.
- The South African 6th Armoured Division fought in numerous actions in Italy in 1944–1945.
- The South African Air Force (SAAF) made a significant contribution to the air war in East Africa, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, the Balkans and even as far east as bombing missions aimed at the Romanian oilfields in Ploiești, supply missions in support of the Warsaw uprising and reconnaissance missions ahead of the Russian advances in the Lvov-Cracow area.
- Numerous South African airmen also volunteered service to the RAF, some serving with distinction.
- South Africa contributed to the war effort against Japan, supplying men and manning ships in naval engagements against the Japanese.
About 334,000 men volunteered for full-time service in the South African Army during the war (including some 211,000 white, 77,000 black and 46,000 coloured and Indian servicemen). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of 11,023 known South Africans who died during World War II.
- Military production during World War II
- Military history of the British Commonwealth in the Second World War
- Wessels, Andre (June 2000). "The first two years of war: The development of the Union Defence Forces (UDF) September 1939 to September 1941". Military History Journal. 11 (5).
- BROWN, J.A. A Gathering of Eagles: The Campaigns of the South African Air Force in Italian East Africa 1940–1941. Purnell, Cape Town. 1970. p. 37
- BROWN, J.A. Eagles Strike: Campaigns of the South African Air Force in Egypt, Cyrenaica, Libya, Tunisia, Tripolitana and Madagascar 1941–1943. Purnell, Cape Town. 1974. p. 387
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- MARTIN, H. J. & ORPEN N. Eagles Victorious. Purnell, Cape Town. 1977. p. 242
- "South Africa and the War against Japan 1941–1945". South African Military History Society (Military History Journal – Vol 10 No 3). 21 November 2006. http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol103aw.html
- "Commonwealth War Graves Commission". cwgc.org. 1 March 2007. http://www.cwgc.org/