Untold story: South African Pioneer Corps personnel with Dolly, their lioness mascot during the Western Desert campaign of the Second World War. Picture: GOOGLE
Untold story: South African Pioneer Corps personnel with Dolly, their lioness mascot during the Western Desert campaign of the Second World War. Picture: GOOGLE

SOUTH AFRICANS VERSUS ROMMEL: The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War ll
David Brock Katz

SA’s story in the Second World War has been much neglected. Recent books have skimmed over the campaigns and none has dealt with them in detail since 1961 when the Union War Histories Section at the military archives was closed down by the Nationalist government on the grounds of cost-cutting — but probably also because its members had opposed the war.

The section produced two of the most comprehensive secondary sources of SA’s role in the war. The Sidi Rezegh Battles 1941 and Crisis in the Desert: May-July 1942, which is mainly about the surrender at Tobruk, were under the editorship of Prof John Agar-Hamilton, a military historian.

Both, long out of print, deal with fighting the Axis powers in what was then known as the Western Desert. The rug was pulled from under the project before it could get to grips with East Africa, Madagascar and the hardest fighting of the lot, in Italy.

David Katz has made up for this neglect, at least on Africa. A veteran of the postapartheid South African National Defence Force and a major in the South African Irish regiment and a lapsed chartered accountant, Katz is unusual. At a time when there is a bombardment of books about the Angolan or Border War, he focused on SA’s forgotten war and is the only citizen soldier to have been allowed entry to the Military Academy in Saldanha, where he obtained a master’s degree cum laude. His thesis is the foundation for this book.

Much of what Katz tells can be found in Agar-Hamilton’s books, if you can still get hold of a copy. The "untold" part is from the prodigious research he has done at national and military archives in Pretoria and London, mining the vast unpublished manuscripts and documents of the Union War Histories Section, and in the official German and Italian histories. For the first time,
both sides of SA’s battles in Egypt and Libya are told in a single volume.

Katz is also forthright. He debunks some old myths, among them the Italian army’s perceived military weakness, excoriates British commanders and extols Rommel.

His strongest criticism is reserved for British military doctrine. The British approach, in its obsession with tanks, is contrasted with SA’s different war doctrine. The book, for the first time, describes the evolution of SA’s way of fighting, inherited from the Anglo-Boer War where mobility was critical (and extended to Angola during the ’80s). In the desert, the British commanders failed to exploit this talent, became wary of the South Africans and confined them to static roles.

The wariness, if not outright distrust, was on both sides and among the South Africans, it was personified by Maj-Gen Dan Pienaar, who was abrasive in dealing with his British superiors and avuncular towards his own troops.

He could be abrupt with seniors, understandably when under friendly fire, and compassionate with his own soldiers, even when they were a bit drunk.

When a signaller, a little under the weather, mistakenly wandered into the general’s tent, Pienaar found a sober comrade to guide the man back to his own bed.

On another occasion, a clerk carrying a bunch of papers came across the general. As he awkwardly shifted the papers from right to left in order to salute, Pienaar put him at ease: "My boy, don’t worry. The one-pippers [second lieutenants] are the men to watch."

Pienaar is venerated in SA, perhaps because of the paucity of information about the desert campaigns and the natural desire to hold on to heroes. In Libya, his 1st Brigade was certainly slow in going to the aid of its fellow 5th Brigade, which was overrun at Sidi Rezegh, but Pienaar had the capable Italian Ariete armoured division threatening his flank.

He didn’t have that excuse when New Zealand’s General Bernard Freyberg bitterly criticised his dilatoriness later in the battle.

Katz finds Pienaar, who died in an air crash in 1942 after the Battle of Alamein, a complicated character and leaves the reader wondering whether he was a good general or an insubordinate one.

Where Katz is unequivocal is that British doctrine led to the annihilation of the 5th Brigade and the capitulation of an entire division at Tobruk.

South African troops, however, redeemed themselves in the first battle of Alamein, defying the German 90th Light Division and holding the line where, three months later, General Bernard Montgomery and the Eighth Army turned the tide of the desert war. The book is not only about doctrine, perhaps too academic for some and could do with more maps, but it recalls a proud, if often tragic, part of South African history that was in danger of being lost.