The real stories of SA’s unsung heroes of WW2
In Enemy Hands – South Africa’s POWs in World War II Karen Horn Jonathan Ball 308 pages R203 at takealot.com
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”.