The real sto­ries of SA’s un­sung he­roes of WW2

CityPress - - Voices - KATE TURK­ING­TON voices@city­

In En­emy Hands – South Africa’s POWs in World War II Karen Horn Jonathan Ball 308 pages R203 at

This im­por­tant, fas­ci­nat­ing book is about a hitherto un­re­vealed chap­ter of South African history. It tells the World War 2 story of some of the thou­sands of South Africans who started their mil­i­tary ca­reers, of­ten in ig­no­rance of what they were volunteering for – al­most with a sense of fun – and ended up fight­ing a very dif­fer­ent war than the one they had imag­ined. They were sent to north Africa and spent years suf­fer­ing hunger, mis­ery, de­pri­va­tion and loss of pre­cious free­dom. They be­came pris­on­ers of war (POWs) in Ger­man-oc­cu­pied or Axis ter­ri­tory. There are books aplenty on World War 2, but very few tell the story of South Africa’s par­tic­i­pa­tion. And yet tens of thou­sands of this coun­try’s peo­ple, of all races, colours and creeds, vol­un­teered for the Union De­fence Force, joined the ranks of New Zealan­ders, In­di­ans, Aus­tralians and Bri­tish, and be­came em­broiled in a war for another na­tion’s king and coun­try.

Although the white po­lit­i­cal par­ties of Jan Smuts and JBM Herz­tog had joined forces in 1934 (black peo­ple were still dis­en­fran­chised), they bit­terly parted ways: with Smuts go­ing for the em­pire’s war, and Hert­zog, whose sym­pa­thies were with the Ger­mans, dra­mat­i­cally re­sign­ing as prime min­is­ter. Karen Horn, in an amaz­ing feat of re­search, tracked down sur­vivors of those POW camps, and through their eyes and vivid mem­o­ries re­counts their per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences – from mak­ing a de­li­cious cat stew, suf­fer­ing lone­li­ness and hard­ships, death and dis­ease, to es­cap­ing or try­ing to.

The South Africans were a de­ter­mined lot and some did man­age to gain free­dom, of­ten thanks to lo­cals who aided and abet­ted them – from Greek peasants to desert tribes­men.

Most of the POWs were cap­tured at the bat­tle of Sidi Rezegh, where the dis­ci­plined fight­ing force of Rom­mel’s Afrika Korps mowed down the ill-equipped, un­pre­pared, poorly led South African forces, and where, as one sur­vivor wrote, “our fel­lows were shot down like dogs while at­tend­ing to the wounded”. War cor­re­spon­dent Uys Krige was cap­tured there, and re­mem­bered it as the most im­por­tant day of his life.

Willy, a for­mer POW, be­came the owner of a Cape Town pet shop. One morn­ing, the Ger­man com­man­der of his for­mer bru­tal POW camp came into his shop to buy pet food. The com­man­dant said: “The war is over and I’m happy here in South Africa, I am liv­ing in Camps Bay.” Willy asked him to leave the shop im­me­di­ately, and wryly added: “It had to be a camp.”

In En­emy Hands is a bril­liant, pi­o­neer­ing work that reads dra­mat­i­cally through the mem­o­ries of the sur­vivors who, when Horn in­ter­viewed them, al­ways de­nied that they were he­roes of any kind, and were al­ways sur­prised “that some­one would be in­ter­ested in their sto­ries many years later”.

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