Africa Orientale Italiana:
South Africa’s Army
The South African Army dates its existence to 1912. The
white population of the newly-formed Union of South Africa
existed in heavily-armed rival English- and Afrikaans-speaking
factions, and the new army tried to channel these aggressive
The army’s first uses were as strikebreakers in 1913
and 1914. When the First World War broke out, the Union sent
an expeditionary force of 67,000 men into neighboring German
South-West Africa and overwhelmed the tiny German garrison
there. The army also showed its loyalty to the British Empire
by quickly crushing an attempted Boer revolt, using many Afrikaans-speaking
troops in the effort.
A South African brigade served in German East Africa from
1916 until 1918, suffering a shocking 2,000 dead and 12,000
hospitalized, mostly from disease. Another brigade fought
Senussi tribesmen in Egypt and then made up part of 9th Scottish
Division on the Western Front. This brigade also suffered
horrifying casualties, losing over 3,000 men in the Somme
offensive in July 1916 alone.
Britain officially removed its garrison from South Africa
in 1921, turning over responsibility to the Union Defence
Forces. The army remained small and under-funded, and during
the 1930s served mostly as a job-training program for
unemployed young men. Several times it deployed against striking
industrial and railway workers, particularly those labor actions
undertaken to demand changes to South Africa’s ever-tighteniong
In 1939, Britain’s declaration of war against Germany
caused a serious political upheaval in South Africa. For three
days debate raged, until the World War One hero J.C. Smuts
split the ruling United Party to oust prime minister J.B.M.
Hertzog, an Afrikaner nationalist who wanted to keep South
Africa neutral. Smuts rammed through the declaration on 6
September, but anger over his action smoldered for years afterwards.
The army quickly began to expand, but under some limitations.
At first South Africa began conscripting all young white men
aged 17 to 21, but this led to political unrest among some
of the Boer communities. In February, 1940, the army reorganized
itself, separating the conscripts into the Permanent Force
(the small pre-war professional army), with a responsibility
to serve only with the Union. Volunteers who took the “Africa
Oath” could serve anywhere on the continent —
but not elsewhere. These men made up the Active Citizen Force,
and these units would form the South African divisions in
South Africa had only 2.4 million white citizens, but the
Union’s racial politics would not allow the arming of
its South Asian, “Colored” (mixed race) or black
communities. These instead furnished drivers, construction
workers and other non-combat personnel, though these men were
issued arms in combat zones.
Keeping with tradition, and hoping to build Boer enthusiasm
for the war (and, not coincidentally, get potential malcontents
safely into uniform), the South African Army first organized
a Mounted Commando Division from existing volunteer mounted
rifle units. These troops would later become part of the Tank
Corps, which despite the name operated armored cars. The cavalry
division never left the Union before it was dissolved to provide
personnel for an armored division.
Three infantry divisions would form the bulk of the South
African ground forces. The 1st Division went to British East Africa for the invasion
of Italian East Africa with the understanding that South African
troops would not be deployed north of the Equator. It and
the 2nd Division also served in Egypt. The 3rd Division never
fully completed its formation, and except for one brigade
remained in the Union for the war’s duration.
First South African Division performed well in East Africa,
spearheading the advance from Kenya into Somaliland and on
into the heartland of Ethiopia. During the summer of 1941,
it re-deployed to Mersa Matruh in Egypt’s Western Desert,
while 2nd South African Division arrived and was stationed
at El Alamein. In addition, several South African armored
car regiments deployed in the desert, most equipped with South
African-made Marmot-Herrington armored cars.
War in the desert did not go well for the South Africans.
Their units arrived short of motor transport, and took some
time to achieve full mobility. First South African Division
entered large-scale combat during Operation Crusader in November
1941. On the ridge line at Sidi Rezegh southeast of Tobruk
the 5th South African Brigade was overrun and destroyed while
1st Brigade also suffered heavy casualties. Second South African
Division fought along the Libyan border as part of the subsidiary
effort to capture the isolated German and Italian garrisons
During the Gazala battles, 1st South African Division stood along the perimeter
line with 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigades (3rd having been re-assigned
from 2nd Division, to replace the lost 5th). Second South
African Division, with 4th and 6th Brigades plus the 5th Indian
Division’s 9th Brigade, manned the Tobruk defenses.
The division and over 10,000 prisoners were lost when Tobruk
fell following the Gazala battles. First Division, led cautiously
by Maj. Gen. Dan Pienaar, escaped to Egypt with relatively
The South African high command, in common with the other Dominions,
had been increasingly unhappy with British direction of the
war. Non-British politicians and generals felt their troops
faced more risks than did similar British units. The South
Africans felt that 5th Brigade was needlessly exposed at Sidi
Rezegh because it was operating with the British 7th Armoured
Division instead of under South African command. Pienaar complied
with his government’s wishes by preserving his nation’s
last armed force, but he infuriated the British who whispered
that he had lost his nerve and fallen into an alcoholic stupor.
The loss of an entire division at Tobruk crippled the South
African war effort, and accusations of blame for the surrender
would be traded by British and South African veterans for
the next 50 years.
First Division returned to South Africa at the end of the
year, to be disbanded. A new 6th Armoured Division, with its
troops having sworn new oaths allowing service outside Africa,
would be formed in 1943. But that’s a different story
and a different game.
Third Division never reached operational status because of
shortages of white volunteers willing to serve outside the
Union, instead becoming a training establishment. Its 7th
Brigade was the most complete of its units and while the rest
of the South African Army fought in the desert of eastern
Libya it too was in action, fighting the Vichy French garrison
of Madagascar. Officially a motorized brigade intended for
the eventual formation of 1st South African Armoured Division,
the brigade left its trucks at home when it went to Madagascar
for six months.
Some in the British high command wanted the 7th sent to
Egypt to replace the lost 5th Brigade, but the South African
Army preferred to keep the unit at home and speed formation
of its armoured division.
The South African Army appears in Panzer Grenadier: Africa Orientale Italiana, a game based on battles of the Allied campaign in Italian East Africa in 1940 and 1941. There are 88 die-cut-and-mounted South African pieces, which see action in nine of the game’s 45 scenarios.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.