AFTER THE DEPRESSION
The fusion of the political parties of Generals Hertzog and Smuts and the appointment of Mr. Oswald Pirow as Minister of Defence in March 1933 coincided with the end of the economic crises and marked a turning-point in the history of the Union Defence Force. Sufficient funds were now voted for reorganization,1 as shown in the accompanying table.
Eight new Afrikaans-medium regiments were organized and noteworthy expansion of the air force was envisaged. The Permanent Force establishment was now 1,791 all ranks, excluding the Special Service Battalion, a notable unit founded originally to provide work and training for youths who were unable to find suitable employment during the depression, with an establishment of 1,990. It was commanded at the time by Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. E. Poole, in succession to Colonel George E. Brink, who was the founder Commanding Officer of the battalion.2
Together with the eight recently formed units, the Active Citizen Force in 1934 numbered 8,143 men in twenty-four infantry battalions and ancillary units, in a field organization of six brigades, for which Brigade Commanders had already been nominated.3 Continuous training was to be resumed.
A.C.F. FIELD ORGANIZATION IN 1934 1st Brigade: 1st Natal Carbineers, 2nd Natal Carbineers, Natal Mounted Rifles, Umvoti Mounted Rifles, Durban Light Infantry. (Colonel H. Mayne, V.D.) 2nd Brigade: Prince Alfred's Guard, First City, Kaffrarian Rifles, Die Middellandse Regiment. (Colonel F. L. A. Buchanan, M.C., V.D.) 3rd Brigade: Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles, Cape Town Highlanders, Regiment Westelike Provinsie, Regiment Suid-Westelike Distrikte. (Colonel T. Ormiston, D.S.O., V.D.) 4th Brigade: Kimberley Regiment, Regiment de Wet, Regiment President Steyn, Regiment Louw Wepener. (Brigade Commander's post vacant.) 5th Brigade: Imperial Light Horse, Transvaal Scottish, Witwatersrand Rifles, Rand Light Infantry. (Colonel T. Scott, V.D.) 6th Brigade: Pretoria Regiment, Regiment Botha, Regiment de la Rey. (Colonel J. F. J. van Rensburg.)
Brigadier-General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld was appointed Chief of the General Staff as from 1 May 1933, and with Colonel J. Holthouse as Director of Civil Aviation, the privately owned Union Airways was taken over by the Government on 1 February 1934. It became known as South African Airways and was expecting its fleet to be augmented with three three-engined Junkers 52/3m 18-seater aircraft and one six-seater JU 60.4
The S.A. Naval Service came to an end on 1 April 1933,5 but the Royal Navy took over the training of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (S.A. Division) in February 1934. Under recommendations adopted for coastal defence, Simonstown, Cape Town and Durban were each to have modern, power-operated high-angle guns and plans envisaged putting the coast defences in order within four years (by mid-1938).6
The possibility of delay in the provision of equipment and the full significance of Adolf Hitler's assumption of dictatorial power in Germany were not yet appreciated.
The S.A. Air Force, in accordance with a programme which came to be generally known as Five Year Plan, would include three squadrons with necessary reserves; the field army artillery would consist of ten batteries, and the twenty-four Active Citizen Force infantry battalions would be trained on machine-guns and trench mortars. By the end of five years there should also be as a Reserve, capable of taking the field within twenty-one days, 25,000 trained men who had passed through the Special Service Battalion or the Active Citizen Force, and it was hoped that Active Citizen Force battalions and reserves could be expanded into full wartime regiments with a minimum of delay.7
Little over one year after Mr. Pirow had outlined the Five Year Plan, the Italians were already fomenting trouble north of the Equator and attention was focused on possible lines of approach to South Africa, when Mussolini launched the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Bush-fighting and defence against air attack became major considerations but unluckily by April 1936 inevitable delays had already made it clear that the Government's
DEFENCE ESTIMATES, 1932-40
(together with some of the more significant individual items of expenditure)
1932-3 1933-4 1934-5 1935-6 1936-7 1937-8 1938-9 1939-40 Estimates £736,831 £777,342 £1,114,334 £1,330,830 £1,363,540 £1,666,090 £1,797,530 £2,237,620 Aerodromes and aviation stores Nil 33,000 39,700 79,000 106,000 121,000 121,000 121,000 Arms, equipment, stores and ammunition Nil 34,635 102,130 167,615 143,000 178,925 172,280 183,125 Contribution to replacement funds .. Nil Nil 170,000 90,000 110,000 65,000 Nil Nil Subsidies to light plane clubs Nil Nil Nil Nil Nil 47,700 92,700 92,700 Contribution to Additional Defence Account Nil Nil Nil Nil Nil Nil Nil 300,000 Reference: U.G.1, 1933 U.G.1, 1933 U.G.1, 1934 U.G.1, 1935 U.G.1 & 30, 1936 U.G.1 & 29 U.G.1 & 38 U.G.1 & 23
For the year 1940-1, the Contribution to the War Expenses Account, to be accounted for by the Secretary for Defence, was £12,000,000, while the total expenditure which would be charged to War Expenses Account during 1940-1 was estimated at £14,000,000, the balance of £2,000,000 being appropriated from Loan Account. (U.G.1 and 25, 1940 and Second Supplementary Estimates, tabled 13.5.40.)
For the year 1941-2, the total had gone up to £72,000,000, of which £28,800,000 was from Revenue and £43,200,000 from Loan Account. (U.G.1, 41 and 23, 1941.)
Five Year Plan would not be fulfilled by the end of 1938. Furthermore, events in Africa called for some revision of the plan, an immediate reaction being to institute a far-sighted air training scheme with the aim of providing by April 1941 a total of 1,000 qualified pilots and 3,000 mechanics and artisans. In addition Mr. Pirow had an idea to form an air-transportable anti-tank brigade. Twelve flights, each of five multi-engined bombers (converted from civil aircraft) were also to be established.8
On 5 May 1936, Italian Marshal Badoglio entered Addis Ababa, an event which brought home the fact that Fascist Italy had aircraft--such as the Cant Z 1007b--with a range of 1,650 miles, capable of bombing the Witwatersrand from Madagascar, the Belgian Congo, Tanganyika, Mozambique or Angola, all at a speed beyond that of S.A. Air Force fighters.9
Reorganization of the Commandos, whose strength was reported to be 108,295, was begun on 1 April 1937 when Major-General A.J. E. Brink became Commandant-in-Chief, Burger Commandos, with the rank of Lieutenant-General, under direct control of the Minister of Defence. In June 1937 the Chief of the General Staff was able to report that after a decade without any clearly defined State military policy, the policy now emerging was to think and plan in terms of bush-fighting efficiency. The existing fighting organization had necessarily to be reviewed, particularly in regard to the Active Citizen Force, which had been increased to twenty-seven battalions, with the formation of second battalions of the Royal Durban Light Infantry, Transvaal Scottish and Pretoria Regiment.10
In line with suggestions made by Brigadier-General George E. Brink on return from an extended visit to the United Kingdom and Europe in 1937, the field organization was now based on the brigade group as the basic field formation capable of independent existence and action. This was designed to avoid having urgently needed supporting units far back in the divisional column as had happened in East Africa in 1914-18.
On the suggestion of Mr. Pirow, after discussion with the famous German General, Von Lettow-Vorbeck, and in the absence of other available transport, regimental transport was to be in the form of an adaptation of the Indian Transport Cart, locally christened a 'bush-cart',11 about which derisive controversy later arose. Nothing more suitable was at hand, as developments in Europe were seriously affecting South Africa's plans for the build-up of her forces.
For example, of 385 Bren guns ordered through the British War Office in September 1935, only 15 had been delivered by the middle of 1937 and it was already appreciated that 600 more would be required over and above the original order. The new British factory at Enfield was able to cope solely with United Kingdom orders for the next three years. Investigations into the possibility of manufacturing Bren guns locally led to an invitation to Czechoslovakia--where they originated--to quote for such a plant, but Hitler's take-over of that country soon quashed any such scheme. As a result, the Union Defence Force ordered 650 Lewis guns--'inefficient, subject to frequent stoppages and already obsolescent' even in 1931.12 No 3-inch mortars had been provided for the Active Citizen Force by the middle of 1938.
Requirements for coastal defence equipment skyrocketed as a result of a decision that East London and Port Elizabeth should be fortified, while Cape Town was to be made battleship-proof with 15-inch guns on Robben Island. Total expenditure on coastal defences was to be about £1,000,000 (R2,000,000).13
Obsolescent Hawker Harts were being bought at a nominal price from the Royal Air Force for training within the S.A. Air Force and heavy bombers were now to be provided by conversion of the South African Airways' JU 52s and the more recently acquired and faster twin-engined JU 86s.14 The air force had only seven rather outdated Hawker Fury aircraft, but Mr. Pirow had ordered Hurricanes, though he cancelled the orders on hearing that an even more modern fighter was being produced15--presumably the Spitfire, which in prototype form had flown in March 1936.
While South Africa in September 1938 thus remained with her Defence Force handicapped by delays in delivery of equipment, Nazi Germany completed plans for a 'Blitzkrieg' to overwhelm Czechoslovakia in four days. On 30 September 1938 the Munich Agreement between Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany eased the tension for a short while, and on 20 October 1938 Mr. Pirow left by air for Europe on a series of rapid visits to Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, Germany and Italy. The War Office was too hard-pressed to spare anything for South Africa, but before Mr. Pirow left for home the Admiralty had agreed to a loan of the 15-inch gun monitor, H.M.S. Erebus, to bolster the defences of Table Bay.
With the situation in Europe rapidly deteriorating, on 14 April 1939 a scheme for the registration of reserves was published in South Africa and Brigadier-General J. J. CoUyer, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., was appointed Director-General of Reserves at Defence Headquarters.
Within a fortnight conscription had been introduced in Great Britain, and Hitler had renounced both the Anglo-German Naval Agreement and the German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact. As each day passed the situation in Europe grew more grave and German demands on Poland increased in severity. On 19 August, Stalin dropped a bombshell by announcing Soviet Russia's intention to sign a pact with Nazi Germany, and within four days the deed was done. At dawn on 1 September 1939, Hitler's armoured and infantry divisions poured across the borders of Poland. World War II had begun, and South Africa--in common with Great Britain and her sister Dominions--was caught dangerously unprepared.
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Transcribed and formatted by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation