South Africa’s War
Designer’s Preview
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2013

When I designed Desert Rats the original plan was to include one Commonwealth (a term not used then, but very convenient) nationality, just as Afrika Korps had included Australian troops. The two games were to be physically identical, with three large paper maps and three and a half sheets of playing pieces each (plus a sheet of markers). As the design progressed, I found myself reaching for two of the three maps over and over again, but almost never for the third.

And I ran into another problem as well. The battles of late 1941 and early 1942 on which Desert Rats is based involved even more Commonwealth troops than the 1940-41 clashes seen in Afrika Korps. When you’re both the president of the company and the designer of the game, you get to abuse your position every now and then and alter a game’s production budget. I’m not about to lose money for the sake of ego but I did exchange one map for an extra half-sheet of counters. Desert Rats would have but two maps, but would have two Commonwealth nationalities fighting alongside the British.

I had no doubt about the New Zealanders. For one thing, they made the perfect complement to the Australians present in Afrika Korps. And I definitely wanted to include the string of Maori Battalion scenarios that I’d already written. The hard choice was between Indian and South African pieces. The South Africans showed up repeatedly in scenarios taking place around Sidi Rezegh in November 1941. They fought in East Africa, a particular obsession of mine. And they had neat armored cars of their own design. But the Indians had Gurkhas. India won that round.

Some other game systems have solved this dilemma by simply using British pieces to represent Australians, Canadians or other Dominion forces. That’s a solution I’ve always seen as anathema — part of the fun of playing these games is seeing the forces of assorted nationalities laid out in their own colors. As a teenager I balked at using puke-green generic pieces for Poland, Romania or the Netherlands: they should be white, yellow and orange. As a game company executive, I get to put that into reality. If a scenario had South African forces, then they had to be represented by South African pieces.


South Africa’s War adds the South Africans to Desert Rats (occasionally making use of pieces and maps from Afrika Korps as well, and in a couple of scenarios we use some boards from Eastern Front and Road to Berlin). There are several large tank battle scenarios that couldn’t be included in Desert Rats because South Africans were involved that appear here.

Some of the actions of South Africa’s forces are surprisingly little-documented; the battlefield record for the South Africans is fraught with disobedience and outright incompetence. Distrust for British authority was rife in the upper ranks, and more than once South African generals simply ignored orders they did not like or which they thought would put their troops at risk. And all aspects of South African history in the 20th century are overshadowed by the race question. South African combat units were all white, though large numbers of non-white troops were present in service and support units. What is surprising is the strong anti-apartheid undertone to the South African official histories written in the 1960s by English-speaking South African Army officers.

Scenario One
South African Armour
14 February 1941

At the mouth of the Juba River, the fortified village of Gobwen boasted one of the few bridges over the Juba and an airfield as well. Twelfth African Division ordered 1st South African Brigade to seize both objectives with a dawn attack, and allocated South Africa’s lone tank company to support them. Brigadier Dan Pienaar’s men left their encampments at about 0345, but reached their starting points late and the attack went off in full daylight.


The South African attack was slowed by ambushes laid by the tough Somali Dubat irregulars, but backed by tanks they finally stormed the town and captured the bridge. The Italian Colonials began to lose heart, and the town of Jumbo on the opposite bank soon fell as well. The Juba line was collapsing, and Gobwen yielded many abandoned vehicles and a large stockpile of ammunition.

Design Note: South African light tanks; they had to be in the game. It’s a good scenario with hidden Somalis and lots of opportunity for both sides to attack.

Scenario Two
Down in Jubaland
17 February 1941

The Juba River, flowing through southeastern Somaliland, represented a formidable defensive barrier and the Italian command believed it had to hold the line to keep the Allied advance away from the key port of Mogadishu. The Italian-officered Somali battalions assigned to the river line had a generous allotment of artillery by East African standards, but their numbers were far too few to hold a static position against a motorized enemy.


The Italian defenders arrived just as the South Africans were crossing the river in inflatable boats, and opened up heavy machine-gun fire on them. Despite several spirited assaults — the Somali troops proved not only willing but eager to engage in close combat — they could not force them back across, and within a few hours the South Africans had expanded their bridgehead and begun work on a bridge to bring their vehicles across. The road to Mogadishu lay open.

Design Note: I designed a battalion-level game on the Juba River crossings with this working title many, many years ago. I doubt anyone wants to play a game like that (though it did include a brigade of motorized Abyssinian colonial infantry), but this scenario was in my mind as soon as I first thought of a South African module.

Scenario Three
Battle on the Equator
21 February 1941

With the Juba River line broken, the South Africans along with two African divisions began to roll up the Italian positions and advance toward Mogadishu. The Italian colonial troops still had a good deal of fight left in them, and two battalions of them dug in at the village of Margherita, around a huge Fascist monument marking the Equator. It was an imposing marble construction, and the Italian officers did not want to yield it up without a struggle.


The 196th Colonial Battalion did not put up much of a fight, but the 49th more than made up for it and both sides inflicted serious casualties with their artillery fire. But the South African guns were bigger and more numerous, and by mid-afternoon both towns were in South African hands and their officers were posing for photographs with Mussolini’s monument.

Design Note: A battle for a fascist marble monument. I had to include it.

Scenario Four
Crusader: First Contact
18 November 1941

South Africa’s Army high command counted on its armored car regiments to carry on the Boer “commando” tradition. Four of them went to the Western Desert in late 1941, and became integral to the newly-christened Eighth Army’s scouting forces. When Operation Crusader opened, a South African regiment was one of three such units spearheading the advance. They soon encountered opposition.


To the west, the Italian 132nd “Ariete” Armored Division put up fierce resistance to the initial Allied probes, but here and to the east the German reconnaissance battalions charged with watching for the enemy reacted in near panic. The South Africans had greater numbers but the Germans had more anti-tank capability, yet the springboks pushed the Germans back with relative ease, occupied their objective line and observed German reactions. It was a promising start to South Africa’s participation in the Western Desert.

Design Note: A small desert scenario, one I’d sketched out for Desert Rats but not completed. Armored cars chasing armored cars.

Scenario Five
Irish Eyes
21 November 1941

The first task given to 1st South African Division in Operation Crusader was to “mask” the positions of the Italian “Ariete” division around Bir el Gubi. Two days earlier the Italians had mauled a British tank brigade; how an infantry formation was expected to prevent an elite armored division from moving where it wished was not explained by XXX Corps command.


The Italian tank force appears to have been seeking to suppress South Afican harassing artillery fire on columns coming in and out of the Bir el Gubi position. Italian accounts of the action are not very clear, and the tank force may simply have blundered into the South African lines and then gone after the guns on their own initiative. The South Africans claimed seven tanks destroyed, admitting the loss of two of their artillery pieces.

Design Note: This is a small scenario, a tank attack on an infantry position.

Scenario Six
Transvaal Scottish
22 November 1941

South Africa’s two infantry divisions had arrived in Egypt in the spring of 1941, but spent the interval before Operation Crusader on security and construction duties; their desert training was considered sub-par. Allotted to the first wave in Operation Crusader, they saw no fighting for the first several days until finally one brigade was ordered to support 7th Armoured Division. Sitting out the tank battles raging at Sidi Rezegh, only on the offensive’s fifth day did the South Africans receive an order to attack, sending a battalion against German infantry dug in along the ridge line west of the Sidi Rezegh airfield. A heroic attack by a British battalion had taken the line the day before, only to be annihilated in a counterattack.


With little artillery support, the South Africans’ first test of combat in the Western Desert went very poorly. “These magnificent infantry advanced in widely extended lines of riflemen followed by man-handled mortars and other weapons,” Brigadier G.H. Clifton of the XXX Corps staff wrote later. “A text-book show of 1914-15 vintage. Magnificent, but not war. The German machine-guns took a quick and heavy toll.” The Transvaal Scottish suffered terrible casualties and were pinned down until nightfall, when they gathered their wounded and staggered back to their bivouac area.

Design Note: The British attack referenced in the introduction is covered in a Desert Rats scenario. The Scottish have better tank support and so their chances are better.


Scenario Seven
Rear Echelon
23 November 1941

By the sixth day of Operation Crusader, the South African brigades remained largely untouched except for the Transvaal Scottish. Corps command ordered them up to the Sidi Rezegh escarpment to hold the center of the line while the New Zealand Division delivered a flanking attack. It wasn’t a bad plan, but both German and Italian armored divisions were on the move to render it useless and put the South Africans in jeopardy.


The German panzer division’s lead elements stormed into the South African laager largely unopposed, but fierce counterattacks by the remnants of 7th Armoured Brigade stalled the assault. While the Germans dealt with one flanking attack, from the south Maj. Bob Crisp — a South African cricket star before the war — brought his detachment of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment forward in a mad charge that overran a German battery and inflicted serious losses. German tactical skill had been thwarted by raw English courage, but the day was not yet over.

Design Note: German panzers shoot up South African trucks while British tanks counter-attack from both flanks. A wild, wide-open fight that was originally slated for Desert Rats.

Scenario Eight
Ons is Helsems
23 November 1941

Ordered to join its sister brigade on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, 1st South African Infantry Brigade stopped during the night to avoid confusion from its lack of desert training. They had not moved out when the Afrika Korps made its morning attack on 5th Brigade’s transport echelon, and as the German columns made their way southwest after devastating the South African supply columns, one of them blundered into a 1st Brigade position.


In a brief action, the South Africans destroyed several German tanks, captured a number of prisoners and drove off the probe. The encounter became legendary in the Union Defence Force: Lt. N.S. Stranger of the Transvaal Scottish appears to have become totally berserk, leaving his post to commandeer a truck and force its startled driver to chase a German tank across the desert while he waved a “sticky bomb” anti-tank grenade at the Germans. The sight unnerved the German tank crew to such an extent that rather than blast the crazed Boer into oblivion, they surrendered their intact vehicle and Stranger was awarded the Military Cross on the spot. Division commander Maj. Gen. George Edwin Brink considered Stranger’s bravery living proof of his unit’s informal motto (“We are tough bastards”), but within a few hours all his pride would turn to horror.

Design Note: A tank-infantry column assaults dug-in infantry.

Scenario Nine
Sunday of the Dead
23 November 1941

Fighting had swirled around the edges of the South Africans for several days, almost always involving other formations. When war came to the South Africans, it made up for all the previous days with compound interest. Three Axis armored divisions bore down on the South African brigade position from its “open” southern flank. Even when one of them veered off to the left, disaster still loomed. “Your South African brigade seems stuck down with gum,” Maj. Gen. W.H.E. “Strafer” Gott of 7th Armoured Division told the commander of a South African armored car regiment. “They won’t move and they won’t turn their artillery round and they are not dug in — I am sorry for them.”


Gott’s assessment overlooked the minor detail that the brigade had passed under his command and so he bore responsibility for its poor deployment. His subordinates – particularly Brigadier J.C. “Jock” Campbell of the division’s Support Group - showed far more responsibility and almost made good for Gott’s incompetence. The timely arrival of British tanks from either flank seemed to presage a major Allied victory; the German tanks began to mill about aimlessly while their infantry suffered under close-range artillery fire. But once the Germans advanced into the South African brigade area, things fell apart quickly. The entire brigade broke apart and small groups wandered about to be rounded up later by the Germans. The suicidal bravery of the British tank crews would be to no avail.

Design Note: I really regretted not putting this one in Desert Rats; it’s an unusual situation and very free-flowing, which I like to see. This single scenario almost was enough to bump the Indians out of the box.

Scenario Ten
Gialo Oasis
24 November 1941

To the south of Operation Crusader’s battleground, a force of mixed nationalities moved out across the harsh ground to attack Axis airfields, escorted by the famous Long Range Desert Group. Their prime objective was the oasis of Gialo, which had a fort and an airfield. Unknown to Brigadier Denys Reid who led the raiders, a full battalion of elite Bersaglieri had been detailed to protect the key site.


The Italians managed to hold off the Allied advance throughout the day, but when the sun set the Indians took the town with a bayonet charge and resistance crumbled quickly afterwards. A supposedly elite battalion, the VIII Bersaglieri had been detached from the Trento Division for this isolated post and did not fight nearly as well as its two sister battalions then engaged just outside Tobruk. Despite long experience in the region fighting Sanusi guerillas in the early 1930’s, the Italians do not seem to have expected a thrust across the deep desert, believing the Allies lacked their own hard-earned experience.

Design Note: The details were hard to nail down on this one; the Allied accounts were uniformly of the “stupid Italians ran away in panic after smashing Mussolini’s portrait” variety and I could not credit the claims that Bersaglieri gave up so easily. The Italian official history was of no help but I finally found an Italian participant’s account that pretty much confirmed the Reid report.

Scenario Eleven
Sit Jou Kop . . .
25 November 1941

With Operation Crusader’s initial armored thrust defeated, the German Afrika Korps made its own counter-thrust against the Allied positions on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier. Sweeping around the open southern flank, they found the Indian, New Zealand and South African troops quite ready to receive them, having taken many of the Axis positions on the Libyan side of the border. The Afrika Korps had, as the Afrikaans phrase had it, placed its head in a very bad place.


German and British accounts of this action are in sharp contrast, with the Germans claiming to have engaged enemy tanks and the British claiming that all German tank losses were inflicted by artillery crews firing over open sights. What is clear is that both sides suffered losses, and that the Germans did not manage to wipe out the small infantry-artillery force caught in the open by their surprise advance.

Design Note: Afrikaans is a highly metaphorical language, in which speakers often just use the first few words of a well-known phrase. The full phrase here is "Sit jou kop in die koei se kont en wag tot die bul jou kom holnaai!" You’ll have to look up the translation yourself.

Scenario Twelve
Driven by Germans
25 November 1941

Shaken by the loss of their sister brigade, 1st South African Infantry Brigade pulled back to a defensive position around Taieb el Esem. On the morning of the 25th, the Italian “Ariete” division’s artillery began to shell the South African positions — this much is agreed by both sides. The South African commander, Brig. Dan Pienaar, sent off a radio message that his brigade was “attacked by tanks” and begged for armored support. The Italians in turn reported that they were the ones under attack.


The clash lasted for most of the morning, with the Italians shooting up some South African infantry positions but not pressing the attack (if, indeed, one had ever been intended). The brigade’s messages to corps command grew ever more hysterical through the morning; at one point, blurting that “Italian tanks are being driven by Germans and have German 50mm guns.” Despite the fact that no enemy tanks or troops had even reached his perimeter, Pienaar ordered all the brigade’s secret documents destroyed. The South Africans claimed to have hit 25 enemy tanks, but reported that, miraculously, the Italians managed to salvage every one of them during the night and no evidence was left on the battlefield. While the phantom recovery crews worked their magic, the South African brigade precipitously abandoned its positions under cover of darkness while the South African official history would later crow that it had saved Eighth Army by standing up to the entire Afrika Korps.

Design Note: The Italians do attack with tanks in this scenario, against jittery South Africans subject to the surrender rule.

Scenario Thirteen
Set Out For Amusement
28 November 1941

Along the ridge line near Sidi Rezegh, scene of furious combat for several days, things settled down briefly. New Zealand troops even set up bathing stations and held races with abandoned German motorcycles. The fun came quickly to an end when German artillery fire resumed and the Germans began an unexpected advance.


While it is clear that this action took place, why it happened is less easy to discover. After overrunning the two surprised New Zealand battalions and taking hundreds of prisoners, the Germans withdrew to their starting lines – yet the battle report claims the attack was undertaken to gain “a favorable starting point for the concentric attack against the New Zealand Division.” As a spoiling attack, it was very successful and immediately afterwards the British command declared 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade unfit for further operations and called for 1st South African Infantry Brigade to hurry forward to take its place.

Design Note: Infantry against infantry, a short scenario.


Scenario Fourteen
Australia Will Be There
29 November 1941

The Afrika Korps’ planned “concentric attack” finally hit the New Zealand Division late in the afternoon of the 29th. Over the same ground where the motley troops of the “Afika Special division” had made their raid on the 28th, the much-depleted 15th Panzer Division now advanced despite heavy British artillery fire. Overrunning a British battalion, the German infantry dug in to await an Allied counterattack.


The German advance crushed the Essex battalion and occupied their positions, while to their south infantry from the Afrika division did little and the Italians from Ariete carried out their part of the plan by skirmishing with the British armor to prevent them from intervening in force. But with darkness came a fresh Australian battalion from the Tobruk garrison, their distinctive greatcoats flapping behind them and fixed bayonets in front. Along with two dozen closely-packed British tanks, they in turn overran the German infantry and threw the panzer division back beyond its starting point.

Design Note: A night tank battle decided by a bayonet charge; hard to resist this one but the presence of the Aussies assured it would never have gotten into Desert Rats.

Scenario Fifteen
Applying Ginger
30 November 1941

Lt. Gen. C.W.M. Norrie of XXX Corps was determined to use his mobile forces to take back the Axis gains of the previous day, and in particular to dislodge Ariete from the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Two battered armored brigades would be amalgamated to spearhead the assault from the south, and after some discussion with Bernard Freyberg of the New Zealand Division, Norrie decided that the South Africans would swing round and follow up from the east. Norrie repeatedly ordered the brigade into action, and just as often Dan Pienaar found reasons to do nothing. Norrie finally handed over his corps command to Strafer Gott and drove to the South African headquarters to personally “apply ginger” to the Boer general.


The Italians fought off repeated attacks by the British combined armoured brigade, which reported that it desperately needed infantry support. After confronting Pienaar and finding no satisfaction — the South African agreed with everything his corps commander said to his face, yet issued his orders in Afrikaans (which Norrie did not speak) without telling his troops to move forward — Norrie climbed into his command car and took over the lead South African battalion, attempting to bring them into the battle zone by sheer force of personal will. Even then he could not get them into place in time, and the British attack faltered. The intricate political nature of the war in North Africa prevented Norrie or his chiefs from simply firing Pienaar on the spot, which they clearly itched to do, and as so often happens in other walks of life the brigade commander kept his job and was even praised by his government.

Design Note: Most of the action is a tank battle between 7th Armoured and Ariete; the Italians have the high ground and will chew up the unsupported Brits if the South African infantry doesn’t arrive to help dig out the anti-tank guns.

Scenario Sixteen
With the Utmost Vigour
1 December 1941

When the South African brigade finally pulled itself into position, Norrie ordered them to attack the Italians at Point 175 “with the utmost vigour.” The New Zealand Division was now trapped between all three Axis armored formations and in dire need of relief. Two battalions probed forward against the German recon elements that had filtered in during the previous day’s inactivity.


The South Africans made several half-hearted attempts to break through the German recon elements, but mostly contented themselves with raining down artillery fire on the Germans and Italians. When the New Zealanders received the order to withdrawal, Pienaar interpreted it as applying to his brigade as well (whether 1st South African was attached to 7th Armoured or 2nd New Zealand Division at this point was not clear, as conflicting instructions had been issued by corps and army command). After taking a day and a half to advance about five miles up to the ridge line, the brigade managed to pull back 22 miles in just a few hours. Burial parties placed the bodies of both white South African infantrymen and black stretcher bearers of the South African Military Corps in common graves; after the war, the South African government had them disinterred and re-buried in segregated sites.

Design Note: Key to victory here is getting the New Zealanders off the map.

Scenario Seventeen
Night of Confusion
5 – 6 December, 1941

For several days, a small unit of Italian Young Fascists held off repeated attacks by British and Indian troops and tanks, surprising both German and British (but not Italian) generals with their boundless tenacity. The heavy fighting resulted in a number of units wandering across the desert looking for their parent formations, including several columns from 21st Panzer Division trying to meet up with 15th Panzer at Bir el Gubi.


Totally lost, the German column blundered into a South African force holding the hilltop known as Point 184. Challenged, a German officer responded “in perfect English” and the Afrikaners immediately opened fire. A confused firefight erupted in the darkness and the Germans finally made off to the south, leaving behind several burning tanks and trucks.

Design Note: The South African official history leaves it wonderfully ambiguous whether they opened fire because they realized the unknown officer was German, or whether they believed his claim to be British and considered that even worse.

Scenario Eighteen
Dingaan’s Day
16 December 1941

Second South African Division had avoided the disasters of its sister formation, remaining along the Egyptian-Libyan frontier to “mask” the Axis forces there. The division had not fought in East Africa and was considered less combat-capable than the 1st Division. Moving up to the fortress of Bardia, division commander Maj. Gen. I.P. de Villiers believed he could restore some of his army’s lost honor by taking the fortress on South Africa’s national day, marking the 1838 “Battle of Blood River” against the Zulus.


The South Africans met much fiercer opposition than expected, and the attack stalled. The inexperienced troops became tangled in the darkness, and finally De Villiers called off the assault. The brigade had suffered over 60 dead and several hundred wounded, and the South African general would not get his celebration.

Design Note: Infantry assault on a fortified line, with New Zealand tanks in support.

Scenario Nineteen
Assault on Bardia
31 December 1941

Allied success in Operation Crusader left several Axis garrisons cut off in positions along the Libyan-Egyptian frontier. The largest of these was in the fortified port of Bardia, where German Gen. Anton Schmitt was placed in command of the grandly-named “Fortress Division Bardia,” a collection of three Italian and two German infantry battalions, plus Italian border guards, coast defense guns and a large allotment of artillery.


Thwarted in their first attempt two weeks earlier, the South Africans had assembled massive tank, artillery and air support for this assault and succeeded despite heavy casualties. The second-line German and Italian units holding the fortress perimeter fought hard, but began to collapse and Schmitt chose to surrender his post.

Design Note: Very similar to the above, but this time the South Africans have much more artillery and real tanks, including a handful of their own.

Scenario Twenty
Clayden’s Ditch
11 – 12 January, 1942

The Allied victory in Operation Crusader left a number of fortified posts along the Egyptian-Libyan frontier still in Axis hands, but now isolated. Their only source of fresh water was at Sollum, a tiny port town just inside Egypt. It had been fortified by repeated occupiers and now became the target of the 2nd South African Division, still burning for a victory to wash away the failures of November.


The Transvaal Scottish considered themselves an elite unit, on par with their “sister regiment” the Black Watch, and their officers felt themselves shamed by the poor South African performance in Crusader. With pipes playing, they surged over “Clayden’s Ditch” in a mad bayonet attack and overran the defenders. South African newspaper correspondents had stumbled onto the battalion as it prepared for the night assault and quickly filed reports. Union Defence Force command at Voortrekkerhoogt learned that their men had finally scored an unquestioned victory from the morning papers rather than through Eighth Army official channels. With the wells at Sollum in South African hands, the other frontier posts capitulated over the next several days.

Design Note: Sussing out the details of this action proved surprisingly difficult. The re-constituted Transvaal Scottish celebrate 12 January as their regimental day, but most British accounts ignore the action completely and imply that the frontier garrisons gave up because they ran out of supplies. It was a hard-fought night action, and a credit to South African arms.

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