World War II, or the Second World War (often abbreviated as WWII or WW2), was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world’s nationsóincluding all of the great powersóeventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. It was the most widespread war in history, with more than 100 million military personnel mobilised. In a state of “total war”, the major participants placed their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities at the service of the war effort, erasing the distinction between civilian and military resources. Marked by significant events involving the mass death of civilians, including the Holocaust and the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare, it is the deadliest conflict in human history, resulting in 50 million to over 70 million fatalities.
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 the Afrika Korps, and many South African pilots joined the Royal Air Force and fought against the Axis powers in the European theatre.
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 September 1, 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 Polish-British Common Defence Pact obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if it attacked by Germany. When Adolf Hitler’s forces attacked Poland on September 1, 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, if not pro-Axis, led by Hertzog.
On September 4, the United Party caucus refused to accept Hertzog’s stance of neutrality in World War II and deposed him in favor of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany and the Axis. He immediately 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-German Ossewabrandwag strongly objected to South Africa’s participation in World WarII 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 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 3,353 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.
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. (See: South African Army in World War II; South African Air Force in World War II; South African Navy in World War II.)
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 Malagasy (now known as Madagascar) from the control of the Vichy French who were allies of the Nazis. 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. However, one of this division’s constituent brigades ó 7 SA Motorised Brigade ó 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,Italy, the Balkans and even as far east as bombing missions aimed at the Romanian oilfields in Ploesti, 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.
Of the 334,000 men volunteered for full time service in the South African Army during the war (including some 211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks and 46,000 coloureds and Indians), nearly 9,000 were killed in action.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of 11,023 known South African war dead during World War II.