A reminder of SA’s vital role in the war against Germany
Author David Brock Katz brings to light the full extent of South Africa’s involvement in the fight against Nazi Germany in his recently published book. It is the untold story of the desert war, and its importance in our history.
“My book tries to explain the military disasters faced by the Allies in Africa, and how the South African forces managed to turn it all around eventually,” he said. “We had our part in a few of the victories of the Allied forces.”
Addressing a large audience at BluBird Shopping Centre last Thursday, Katz, a veteran of the South African Defence Forces, launched South Africans versus Rommel, a study based on his master’s thesis. Arranged by bookstore chain Book Dealers, the launch featured an interview with the author conducted by Howard Feldman.
Said Katz, “Up against the rampant German general Rommel, who succeeded in whatever he did, the South Africans were deeply worried. Morale became extremely low as time went on, but the South African forces took a stand at El Alamein, and made it the turning point of the war in the desert. Our forces played a tremendous part in this success, and didn’t know until much later just how effective they had been in breaking the back of one for the elite German divisions.”
Katz stressed the difficulty of achieving this success. “General Dan Pienaar was told by one of the British generals that if he retreated from El Alamein, he would be solely responsible for the demise of the British Empire.”
He continued, “We faced many problems in battle. [We] employed manoeuvre warfare. Our forces were trained to be mobile, and move swiftly across the battlefield, retreating if necessary. The British, however, fought in a completely different way, employing static warfare techniques that meant they hardly moved at all. The South Africans were totally ill-prepared.”
Unfortunately, the decisive role played by South Africa was and continues to be a point of contention, Katz says. “Looking back to 1939, there was a massive contest between Afrikaners and English [over whether to] join the war,” he said. “It was very close, and we almost remained neutral. When the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, it did everything it could to forget about this history. There’s a total hiatus from 1948 to 1990, because this was not the history the Nationalists wanted to propagate.
“Tragically, the situation remains the same today, albeit for different reasons. Post-1994, we’re finding more information about the sacrifices made in the war by all South Africans who fought, white and black,” he said. “Fifty percent of the 300 000 people who fought were black, Indian or coloured. This is sadly something that the government today still doesn’t want to remember. To them, it’s part of the imperialist past, and is therefore not commemorated.”
Katz explained that while race divisions might have had an effect on certain aspects of the conflict, the South Africans who fought were united in their goal. “The men who joined the Union Defence Force did so for one common reason. Whether you were black, Asian, coloured, or white, Afrikaner or Englishman, you wanted a better South Africa. Whether out of economic or social interest, you volunteered so that the country you were coming home to would be better than it was. A common cause united us, personal though our intentions were,” he said.
It is for this reason that there is a need to conduct further research into our country’s role in the war. “There’s been a total hiatus in writing about the war from the South African perspective,” said Katz. “Nothing has happened really in terms of furthering research into our role in the war since 1968. I was not a lover of South African military history at the outset of the project, but I was introduced to this aspect of our past, and gradually became one with it. It’s about drilling down into the archives as far as we can to find out more about our history, and bringing new things to light.”