THE UNION DEFENCE FORCE BEFORE 1933
World War II broke out only twenty-nine years after the union of the four former colonies in South Africa had demanded the coalescing of widely divergent military establishments and traditions which had originated in the old Republican Commandos and the Staats Artillerie as well as in the Colonial volunteer units. In accordance with the Defence Act, 1912, two new commands were created in 1913, the Citizen Force Command and the Permanent Force Command, with School Cadets as well. The second of these commands immediately controlled a regular force of 2,500 men created on 1 April 1913 by the establishment of the South African Mounted Riflemen, whose five regiments--with their five field batteries of 13-pounders--were then assigned to different areas for 'the duty of maintaining order', a police function which was to remain part of Permanent Force responsibilities for the next ten years. On the other side of the scale, provision was made in the Police Act, 1912, for support for the regular military forces by the South African Police, with the Governor-General being empowered in case of war or other national emergency to employ the South African Police in defence of the Union and place them under the orders of anyone he might appoint for the purpose. In such an event, the Police would be subject to all regulations governing the Permanent Force on active or other military service.1
The main body of the forces was to come from the Active Citizen Force, composed of citizens undergoing peace training. Enlistment was voluntary, with recourse to the ballot if sufficient numbers were not forthcoming, but compulsion was never resorted to until well after World War II.
All who did not receive training with the Active Citizen Force or the much smaller Coast Garrison Force (which was confined to the defended ports) were theoretically liable to undergo musketry training with Defence Rifle Associations or Commandos stemming more directly from the old Boer tradition, but few were called up in this manner. On paper, various classes of Citizen Force Reserve were to be established, while boys between 13 and 17 years old would receive training in the school Cadet Corps. The first registration of citizens between their 17th and 21st years took place in January 1913.
Of 58,071 who reported, 47,864 volunteered for peace training. From the earlier militia and volunteer forces, 456 officers and 5,481 other ranks chose to transfer to the new Active Citizen Force, in which they formed a trained nucleus in a total Active Citizen Force and Coast Garrison Force establishment of 25,155.
The Department of Defence initially consisted of three sections, a Civil Section under a Secretary for Defence, a General Staff Section and a military Administrative Section. The Union Defence Force comprised the Citizen Force Command under a Commandant-General, Brigadier-General C. F. Beyers; the Permanent Force Command with Brigadier-General H. T. Lukin, C.M.G., D.S.O., as Inspector-General; and the School Cadets under Colonel P. S. Beves, C.B., C.M.G. Officers of the instructional and administrative staffs were drawn from among fifty-one who had assembled at the Old Presidency in Bloemfontein in 1912 when the S.A. Military School was established there under Brigadier-General G. G. Aston, C.B., A.D.C., of the Royal Marines Artillery, who had been seconded by the British Government. Forty of the officers attending this first course came from the Permanent, Police, Militia and Volunteer Forces of the old colonies or from the old Transvaal Staats Artillerie or other forces of the former South African and Free State Republics, and on completion of the course staff officers were appointed to the thirteen Military Districts and one Sub-District into which the Union had been divided.
A Defence Council, with the Minister of Defence as ex-officio Chairman and the Secretary for Defence as Secretary, was appointed on 22 June 1912.* The Council had held office for barely a year when a serious miners' strike broke out on the Witwatersrand in July 1913, to complicate and delay the organization of the forces. Six months later, when more serious industrial unrest spread from Johannesburg, martial law was proclaimed. Some 6,000 S.A. Mounted Riflemen and Police were called out, 27,000 members of the Citizen Forces were employed and another 18,000 mobilized but not moved out of their own districts.
* The first members of the Defence Council were General Schalk W. Burger, Colonel the Hon. Charles Crewe, C.B., General the Hon. Christiaan R. de Wet and Colonel Sir Duncan McKenzie, K.C.M.G., C.B., V.D., former commander of the Natal Militia.
Hardly had units returned to normal routine when war broke out in Europe. Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, and the South African Government cabled to London, undertaking the defence of its own territory and offering to replace with the Defence Force any British garrison troops withdrawn for service elsewhere. On 1 August the British Government accepted the offer, but later the same day another cable reached the Prime Minister, General Louis Botha, requesting the occupation of as much of German South West Africa as was required to control the ports of Swakopmund and Liideritzbucht and any wireless stations.2 With Windhoek not only in touch with Germany by radio but also with German warships on the high seas the matter was urgent.
On 10 August the South African Government agreed to Britain's request, and at once they were faced with a problem which was to recur 25 years later.3 In terms of the Defence Act, citizens were only liable 'to render in time of war personal service in defence of the Union in any part of South Africa, whether within or outside the Union'.
It was decided to use volunteers in German South West Africa, and to mobilize the Active Citizen Force to replace the departing British Garrison troops,4 but among an appreciable section of the population there was discontent with the whole idea of invading German territory. Brigadier-General Beyers, Commandant-General of the Citizen Force, resigned in protest. In October 1914 a small portion of the South African forces on the border went over to the enemy and within a fortnight rebellion had broken out in the Northern Provinces, only to be speedily put down, largely by the Commandos.
By mid-July 1915, German South West Africa had been conquered in a series of operations described in detail in The Campaign in German South West Africa, 1914--1915, by Brigadier-General J. J. Collyer, which was published officially in 1937. Volunteers were enrolled for service overseas and a brigade of heavy artillery, an infantry brigade under Brigadier-General H. T. Lukin, medical units and a signals unit were trained and sent overseas, their outstanding contribution to the Allied cause being excellently recorded by John Buchan in The History of the South African Forces in France. Three months later the South African Government was asked to organize a large force for service in German East Africa, where General J. C. Smuts had already been appointed to command Imperial troops. Two mounted brigades and two mounted regiments, two infantry brigades and two rifle regiments, a South African Field Artillery Brigade of five batteries (later increased to six), and ancillary units of volunteers were organized, trained and dispatched within five months,5 to participate in the campaign officially covered by Brigadier-General J. J. Collyer's account in The South Africans with General Smuts in East Africa, 1916.
The back of the enemy resistance in East Africa was broken by the end of 1916 and the bulk of the South African forces returned home for demobilization, but in July 1917 the artillery brigade headquarters and three batteries embarked for the Middle East to serve in Egypt and Palestine till the end of the war.6
In addition, two infantry battalions of the Cape Corps were raised in South Africa to fight in East Africa and Palestine, while the Cape Corps Auxiliary Horse Transport served in France and large numbers of South African Natives were also sent overseas in labour battalions and other non-combatant units.
With an estimated white manpower of only 685,000, South Africa enrolled 146,515 Europeans for military service before the war was over and 74,196 volunteers went overseas. In addition 84,694 Coloured men and Natives served in Europe, Egypt, East or Central Africa, and in the Union in Labour Contingents. In all, 231,591 men and women enlisted.7
The 1914-18 war saw a number of changes within the Defence Force. A Medical Services Section had been added in December 1913, and during 1916 the Administrative Section became the Quartermaster-General's Section, while the head of the General Staff Section became designated Chief of the General Staff. Only a few months after the Armistice, an Air Services Section was added. When the duties of the Chief of the General Staff and the Adjutant-General were divorced, Defence Headquarters expanded into six sections:
- The Secretarial Section under the Secretary for Defence.
- The General Staff Section under the Chief of the General Staff.
- The Adjutant-General's Section.
- The Quartermaster-General's Section.
- The Air Services Section.
- The Medical Services Section.
Following General Beyers's resignation in 1914, the post of Commandant-General was left vacant, the functions of the appointment being exercised by the Minister of Defence, and when Major-General Sir H. T. Lukin retired in January 1919 he relinquished the post
of Inspector-General which was allowed to lapse on 1 January 1922, when the powers passed to the Chief of the General Staff, who also assumed command of the school Cadets.
The last British troops had left, and as from 1 December 1921, the Union Government became solely responsible for South Africa's land defences, including the manning of the coastal batteries covering the Simonstown naval base. Under the Defence Endowment Property and Account Act, 1922, provision was also made for the taking over by the Union Government of all War Department lands and buildings in the country and also certain Admiralty property. Included among such buildings and properties were The Castle and coastal batteries at Cape Town, Wynberg Camp, the barracks and coastal batteries at Simonstown, Fort Napier cantonments at Pietermaritzburg, the Old Fort at Durban, the cantonments at Roberts Heights (as present-day Voortrekkerhoogte was still called), Schanskop and Klapperkop Forts at Pretoria, the cantonments at Potchefstroom, the Tempe farms and cantonments in the Orange Free State and various other land and buildings.8
At the end of September 1922, Sir H. R. M. Bourne, K.B.E., C.M.G., who had headed the Department since its inception, retired and control of the Ministerial Department also became vested in the Chief of the General Staff, Brigadier-General A. J. E. Brink, D.T.D., D.S.O., who became in addition Secretary for Defence as from 1 October 1922.
The Secretarial Section was soon replaced by a Financial Section, and in July 1925 a Military Board was constituted to decide on matters of policy, regulations, administration, expenditure and other matters under the Minister. Meanwhile, peacetime training had been revived and thirteen units were accepted for training. By mid-1921 the Active Citizen Force numbered 1,320 officers and 7,327 other ranks, including a new Railways and Harbours Brigade formed from Defence Rifle Association members employed by the railways.*
The Defence Rifle Associations by the end of 1915 had boasted a strength of 92,340 and each year the total grew, to reach 151,198 in 1926. Then, as members who failed to attend musketry practices or 'wapenskouings' were struck off strength, the numbers declined, and by 1 July 1930 membership had dropped to 136,196.
Change in emphasis within the regular element of the forces resulted from the S.A. Defence Act Amendment Act, No. 22 of 1922, which constituted the S.A. Permanent Force in place of the former Permanent Force Staff and S.A. Mounted Riflemen. The reorganized Permanent Force from 1 February 1923 consisted of the S.A. Staff Corps, S.A. Instructional Corps, S.A. Naval Service, S.A. Field Artillery, 1st Regiment, S.A.M.R., the S.A. Permanent Garrison Artillery, the S.A. Engineer Corps, the S.A. Air Force, S.A. Service Corps, S.A. Medical Corps, S.A. Ordnance Corps, S.A. Veterinary Corps and the S.A. Administrative, Pay and Clerical Corps. No longer was the Permanent Force connected with police duties or the constabulary, and the lines along which it would logically develop as a purely military body were already discernible.
The Military Schools at Bloemfontein--for musketry and signalling--had been amalgamated but later closed after the outbreak of World War I. After the war they were transferred to Roberts Heights and in 1924 became the S.A. Military College. By the beginning of 1930 the Permanent Force Cadet courses inaugurated in 1923 for candidate officers had amalgamated with the Air Force Cadet Courses and had been extended to twenty-one months, so that all Permanent Force officers would be eligible for appointment in any branch, including the S.A. Air Force.
Unfortunately economic depression had already entailed the disbandment of the S.A. Mounted Riflemen and their three remaining field batteries as a permanent field force. Establishments were pruned and Military Districts reduced in number from fifteen to six. Even the Active Citizen Force was cut from 10,147 to 8,100, though in 1926 independent units were brigaded for the first time, with two infantry brigades and, in Natal, a mounted brigade.
Units were brigaded as follows:
1st Mounted Rifles (Natal Carbineers)
2nd Mounted Rifles (Natal Carbineers)
3rd Mounted Rifles (Natal Mounted Rifles)
4th Mounted Rifles (Umvoti Mounted Rifles)
* This Railways and Harbours Brigade continued to exist until the end of 1928, when the medical section and its two armoured trains were absorbed as units of the Active Citizen Force.
1st Infantry Brigade
1st Infantry (Durban Light Infantry)
3rd Infantry (Prince Alfred's Guard)
4th Infantry (Fist City Volunteers)
5th Infantry (Kaffarian Rifles)
2nd Infantry Brigade
2nd Infantry (Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles)
6th Infantry (Cape Town Highlanders)
7th Infantry (Kimberly Regiment)
5th Mounted Rifles (Imperial Light Horse)
Brigade Commanders and Staffs were appointed in an initial move toward the formation of a field force such as would be necessary in time of war.
Noticeable progress had been made in the organization of the air force before the full blast of world-wide economic depression hit South Africa. The post of Director of Air Services was created on 1 February 1920, and shortly after completing his historic flight from the United Kingdom to the Cape, in March 1920, Sir H. A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld, K.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., was appointed to organize the Air Services Section, the formation of which was rendered possible by the generous gift form the Imperial Government in 1919 of 100 DH4, DH9, SE5 and Avro aircraft complete with spares, tools and hangars, workshop machinery and mechanical transport.
When stringent economies were forced upon the country by the depression and the gold standard crisis of the early 1930's, however, the fortunes of the Union Defence Force reached their lowest ebb, with only £736,831 (R1,473,662) being voted for Defence in 1932.9 Continuous training for Active Citizen Force units was abandoned.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation