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South African Army

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South African Army

South African Army
Flag of the South African Army
Active 1912 – present (from law creating the Union Defence Force)
Country South Africa
Type Army
  • 40,121 (Active)[1]
  • 12,300 (Reserve)
Part of
Headquarters Pretoria, Gauteng
Minister of Defence and Veteran Affairs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula
Chief of the Army Lt. Gen. Vusumuzi Masondo
Deputy CARMY Maj. Gen. Les Rudman
Sergeant Major of the Army Senior Chief Warrant Officer Charles Laubscher[2]

The South African Army is the army of South Africa, first formed after the Union of South Africa was created in 1910. The South African military evolved within the tradition of frontier warfare fought by Boer Commando (militia) forces, reinforced by the Afrikaners' historical distrust of large standing armies.[3] It then fought as part of the wider British effort in World War II, but afterwards was cut off from its long-standing Commonwealth ties with the ascension to power of the National Party in South Africa in 1948. The National Party's opposition to socialism and the ANC, and it's introduction of the policy of apartheid, led to friction with neighbouring states that helped to spark the border wars in South West Africa, now Namibia, from 1966. The role of the Army was fundamentally changed by the upheavals of the early 1990s and after 1994 the Army became part of the new South African National Defence Force. It is now becoming increasingly involved in peacekeeping efforts in southern Africa, often as part of wider African Union operations.


  • History 1
    • World War I 1.1
    • Interwar period 1.2
    • World War II 1.3
    • Postwar period 1.4
    • "Border War" (1966–1989) 1.5
    • Post-1994 1.6
  • Structure 2
    • Directorates 2.1
    • Formations and units 2.2
    • Bases 2.3
      • Eastern Cape 2.3.1
      • Free State 2.3.2
      • Gauteng 2.3.3
      • Western Cape 2.3.4
      • Northern Cape 2.3.5
      • North-West 2.3.6
      • KwaZulu-Natal 2.3.7
      • Mpumalanga 2.3.8
      • Limpopo 2.3.9
    • Budget 2.4
  • Personnel 3
  • Equipment 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


After the

External links

  • Hamann, Hilton (23 July 2007). Days of the Generals: The Untold Story of South Africa's Apartheid-era Military Generals (1st ed.). Struik Publishers.  
  • Crook, Lionel, Col (Rtd) (1994). Greenbank, Michele, ed. 71 Motorised Brigade: a history of the headquarters 71 Motorised Brigade and of the citizen force units under its command. Brackenfell, South Africa: L. Crook in conjunction with the South African Legion.  
  • Frankel, Philip (2000). Soldiers in a Storm: The Armed Forces in South Africa's Democratic Transition (paper). Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.  
  • Vrdoljak, Mary Kathleen (1970). The history of South African regiments: A select bibliography.  
  • Wessels, André. "South Africa's Land Forces, 1912-2012." Journal for Contemporary History 38, no. 1 (2013): 229-254.

Further reading

  1. ^ "SANDF not meeting staffing targets". DefenceWeb. 11 November 2014. Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  2. ^ Ngubane, Hamilton (29 March 2012). "The Chief of the SA Army Honours Good Work". SA Department of Defence. Retrieved 17 November 2014. 
  3. ^ "A Country Study: South Africa". The Library of Congress. 1996. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  4. ^ a b "Early Development of the South African Military". Library of Congress Country Studies. 1996. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f Dorning, W.A. (28 February 2012). "A concise history of the South African Defence Force (1912-1987)" (Online). Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies 17 (2).  
  6. ^ "South African forces in the British Army". Retrieved July 21, 2014. 
  7. ^ Lillie, Ashley C. (2012). "THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF THE SOUTH AFRICAN ARMY" (Online). Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies 12 (2).  
  8. ^ Ryan, David A. "Union Defence Forces 6 September 1939". World War II Armed Forces — Orders of Battle and Organizations. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  9. ^ Wessels, Andre (June 2000). "The first two years of war: The development of the Union Defence Forces (UDF) September 1939 to September 1941". Military History Journal 11 (5). 
  10. ^ "Commonwealth War Graves Commission". Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  11. ^ "A Short History of the South African Army". Retrieved 30 November 2014. From: South African Defence Force Review 1991 
  12. ^ John Keegan, World Armies, p.639
  13. ^ "SAMHS Newsletter". South African Military History Society. August 1992. Retrieved 29 November 2014. DURBAN: 13th August. Evening outing to visit 8th Armoured Divs. H.Q. at Lords Grounds. Old Fort Road. To be conducted by Brigadier Frank Bestbier SD 
  14. ^ "SACMP Corps History 1946-1988". redcap. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  15. ^ See Jane's Defence Weekly 20 December 1992 and, earlier, 20 July 1991. The term 'small' is used here in comparison with the 'normal' strength of a division of nine manoeuvre battalions. Divisional HQ location source
  16. ^ "SACMP Corps History 1988–98". redcap. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  17. ^ Engelbrecht, Leon (17 February 2010). "Fact file: 7 SA Division". DefenceWeb. Retrieved 17 November 2014. 
  18. ^ a b c "The post-apartheid South African military: Transforming with the nation". Institute for Security Studies Africa. Retrieved 3 May 2014. 
  19. ^ a b "African peacekeeping deployments show what the SANDF can do". DefenceWeb. 1 April 2014. 
  20. ^ a b "SA Army Force Structure: Level 2". SA Army: RSA Dept of Defence. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  21. ^ "Structure: SA Army Structure: Level 2". SA Army: RSA Dept of Defence. 2010-12-13. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  22. ^ "SA Army/Leër". Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^ "Army Bases South Africa". Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  26. ^ Engelbrecht, Leon (2010-06-17). "Fact file: Regiment Bloemspruit". defenceWeb. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  27. ^ "SA Army Contact Us: Free State Province, South Africa". SA Army: RSA Dept of Defence. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  28. ^ "SA Army Contact Us: Gauteng Province, South Africa". SA Army: RSA Dept of Defence. 2010-12-13. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  29. ^ "SA Army Contact Us: Western Cape Province". SA Army: RSA Dept of Defence. 2010-12-13. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  30. ^ "SA Army Contact Us: North West Province, South Africa". SA Army: RSA Dept of Defence. 2013-12-13. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  31. ^ "SA Army Contact Us: KwaZulu Natal Province, South Africa". SA Army: RSA Dept of Defence. 2010-12-13. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  32. ^ Engelbrecht, Leon (2010-02-09). "Fact file: The SA Infantry Corps". DefenceWeb. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  33. ^ Engelbrecht, Leon (2010-02-09). "Fact file: The SA Armoured Corps". DefenceWeb. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  34. ^ Engelbrecht, Leon (2010-02-09). "Fact file: The SA Artillery". DefenceWeb. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  35. ^ Engelbrecht, Leon (2010-02-09). "Fact file: The SA Air Defence Artillery". DefenceWeb. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  36. ^ Engelbrecht, Leon (2010-02-09). "Fact file: The SA Tactical Intelligence Corps". DefenceWeb. Retrieved 2014-12-01. 
  37. ^ "Lack of funds harming South African Army". Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  38. ^ "Denel showcases a 21st Century R4 assault rifle at AAD". DefenceWeb. 2010-09-24. Retrieved 2013-04-26. 
  39. ^ "Department of Defence Annual Report FY11/12". p. 31. Retrieved 16 April 2014. 
  40. ^


See also

The South African Army maintains a wide variety of military equipment.


South African military ranks are derived from that of the British Armed Forces, with Army ranks derived from the British Army.

There were several thousand other members in the army territorial reserve (South African Commando System). Each Commando was responsible for the safeguarding and protection of a specific community (both rural or urban). However, this system was phased out between 2003 and 2008 "because of the role it played in the apartheid era", according to the Minister of Safety and Security Charles Nqakula.[40] The last commando unit, that at Harrismith in the Free State, was disbanded in March 2008.

Due to the restructuring of the Reserves, the exact number of reserves is difficult to ascertain. However the 2011/12 planning target was 12 400 reserves.[39]

The South African Army is composed of roughly 40,121 regular uniformed personnel, augmented by 12,300 reserve force personnel. The rank/age structure of the army that deteriorated desperately during the 1990s is greatly improving through the Military Skills Development (MSDS) voluntary national service system. Through this system, young healthy members are being inducted into the regular and reserve forces every year.


The South African National Defence Force has however started to remedy the situation with the procurement of 238 Patria AMV infantry fighting vehicles under the Hoefyster programme. Other procurements are planned and should follow in line with the guideline document – Army Vision 2020. The SANDF has launched a project called "African Warrior" which is aimed in modernising the equipment and weapons of the SANDF. The project has been very successful in recent years and the South African Army has now put in service a 21st-century R4 assault rifle.[38]

The vast majority of army equipment is nearing the end of its service life, with some items (like the Olifant Main Battle Tank) dating from decades ago.

A budget of approximately Rand 9.98 billion was allocated for fiscal year 2010/2011. In December 2010, it was reported that funding shortages were causing severe problems.[37]


The main South African Army Headquarters are located in Salvokop, Pretoria in the Dequar Road Complex along with the 102 Field Workshop unit, 17 Maintenance Unit and the S.A.M.S Military Health Department.






  • An Army base is located in Kimberley which is home to the Air Defence Artillery School, 10 Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Air Defence Artillery), a basic training depot for 3 South African Infantry Battalion, the Kimberley Regiment (Motorised Infantry) and 44 Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Air Defence Artillery).
  • The Lohatla training area and army base is home to the SA Army Combat Training Centre where large army field exercises take place. It also houses the 101 Field Workshop and the 16 Maintenance Unit.
  • An Army base in Upington is home to 8 South African Infantry Battalion (Mechanized Infantry).

Northern Cape

Western Cape

The South African Army College in Pretoria.
  • Pretoria is home to a large joint services base called Thaba Tshwane, which is also home to the South African Army College, the National Ceremonial Guard and Band, the Military Police School, 1 Military Hospital, 2 Parachute Battalion, 44 Parachute Engineers, 44 Parachute Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Air Defence Artillery), 1 Military Printing Regiment, Tshwane Regiment (Motorised Infantry), 18 Light Regiment (Artillery) and 4 Survey and Map Regiment. The Dequar Road Base in Pretoria houses the Transvaalse Staatsartillerie (Artillery) and the Pretoria Regiment (Tank Regiment). The Joint Support Base in Wonderboom houses the School of Signals, 1 Signal Regiment, 2 Signal Regiment, 3 Electronic Workshop, 4 Signal Regiment and 5 Signal Regiment. Technical Base Complex Centurion is home to the Technical Service Training Centre, the Army Engineer Formation and a general support base. It also houses units from the SAMHS and the SAAF.[28]
  • Wallmannsthal is home to 43 SA Brigade Headquarters.
  • Centurion is home to 3 Parachute Battalion.
  • Several army bases in Johannesburg house the 21 South African Battalion (Light Infantry), 46 South African Brigade headquarters, 6th Field Engineers Regiment, 1 Construction Regiment, 35th Engineering Supply Regiment, the Rand Light Infantry (Motorised Infantry), The Johannesburg Regiment (Motorised Infantry), the Transvaal Scottish Regiment (Motorised Infantry), Regiment Oos Rand (Motorised Infantry), the South African Irish Regiment (Motorised Infantry), Regiment President Kruger (Motorised Infantry), the Transvaal Horse Artillery (Artillery) and the Light Horse Regiment (Armoured Car Regiment).
  • Benoni is home to Regiment Oos Transvaal (Air Defence Artillery).
  • The Springs is home to 6 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment (Air Defence Artillery).
  • The Heidelberg Army Base is home to the SA Army Gymnasium.
  • Germiston is home to the Witwatersrand Rifles Regiment (Mechanized Infantry).
  • Vereeniging is home to Regiment Vaal Rivier (Air Defence Artillery).


Maj. Gen. William B. Garrett III of United States Army Africa visits the Bloemfontein School of Armour at Tempe Base.

Free State

Eastern Cape

The South African Army maintains large bases in all 9 provinces of the country, mostly in or around major cities and towns.


Brigadier-General McGill Alexander took over as General Officer Commanding RJTF South in 2002, but in 2003 he was tasked to close down all the RJTFs.

[24] Many Army units are routinely placed under the nine joint operational-tactical headquarters that the SANDF Chief of Joint Operations supervises directly through

Existing and current administrative corps and branches of the South African Army can be seen at South African Army corps and branches.

  • South African Army Support Formation
- Army Combat Training Centre (Lohatla)

In accordance with the Deloitte and Touche structure plan, the army was reorganised into single-branch 'formations':

The two standing army brigades are Headquarters 43 South African Brigade and Headquarters 46 South African Brigade.[20] Each of these two headquarters are organised to provide four headquarters groups. Two of these units should be available for deployment at any one time whilst the other two are on leave and in training.

Formations and units

  • Chief of the SA Army Force Structure - To structure the SA Army in order to provide the SA Army component of the Landward Defence Capability.[21]
  • Chief of the SA Army Force Preparation - Responsible for directing, orchestrating and controlling the combat readiness of SA Army Forces
  • Chief of the SA Army Corporate Services - Directing corporate resources, services and advice directed towards operationalising the SA Army strategy.
  • Inspector General - Provides an internal audit service within the Army strategy.
  • Chief of the SA Army Reserves - To give specialist advice to Chief of the SA Army and his staff in all Reserves related issues
  • Sergeant Major of the Army - To enhance discipline in the SA Army and enforce standards of discipline.


The SA Army command structure is as follows:[20] The Army has 10 general support bases.


The major challenges that the Army face today is to readdress its current force design in order to better carry out its primary functions, to balance its budget to match the policies and constitutional obligations assigned to it, to integrate new equipment to replace several ageing systems and to meet the demands of the CADSP.[18]

The African Union has also recently accepted the creation of a Common African Defence and Security Policy (CADSP). One of the core concepts behind this policy is the creation of an African Standby Force (ASF) (that is mandated by the Protocol of the Peace and Security Council of the AU). The ASF will consist of standby brigades to be provided by the five African sub-regions. The creation of the CADSP owes itself to the tendency that violence in neighbouring African countries have in affecting the peace and stability of their neighbours. South Africa is part of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and all SADC countries have agreed to a Mutual Defence Pact and are working on establishing the SADC Brigade as an element of the ASF. Working towards the creation and strengthening of these regional brigades should contribute to the peace, safety and security of the region.[18]

Other operations that the Army was tasked with by government include: Operation Boleas (Lesotho), Operation Fibre (Burundi), Operation Triton (five times in the Comoros), Operation Amphibian (Rwanda), Operation Montego (Liberia), Operation Cordite (Sudan), Operation Teutonic and Operation Bulisa (both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Operation Pristine (Ivory Coast), Operation Vimbezela (Central African Republic) and Operation Bongane (Uganda).[19]

South African Soldier serving as part of the United Nations Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The post-1994 South African Army has been extensively involved in United Nations Force Intervention Brigade, a ~3000-strong intervention brigade that was authorized by the United Nations Security Council on 28 March 2013 through United Nations Security Council Resolution 2098. It is the first United Nations peacekeeping unit that has been specifically tasked to carry out offensive operations against armed rebel groups operating in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, specifically those that threaten the State authority and civilian security. They can also carry out their mandate without the help of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo. The brigade is made up of troops from Tanzania, South Africa and Malawi and has had several successes against rebel groups such as the M23 (militia).[19]

Though non-white personnel did serve as unarmed labourers with the army in both World Wars, a number of non-whites were employed in segregated units during the Border War, and a number of units were completely desegregated, it was not until 1994 – when South Africa achieved full democracy – that the army as a whole was made open to all races. Today the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has racial quotas to make sure that White, Black, Coloured, and Indian South Africans are proportionately represented in the armed forces.

7th Division was disbanded on 1 April 1999 and all army battalions were assigned to 'type' formations.[17] The 'type' formation force structure was implemented in accordance with the recommendations of auditing firm Deloitte and Touche, who were contracted to draw up a plan to make the SA Army more economically efficient. The Deloitte and Touche plan had the army separate its combat forces into ‘silo’ style formations for armour, infantry, artillery, and engineers. Deane-Peter Baker of the South African Institute for Security Studies said that the D&T plan, while alleviating, to an extent, the mistrust of the new South African leadership of the remaining apartheid-era South African Defence Force personnel in middle management positions, reduced the combat effectiveness of the Army, and was seen by 2011 as a mistake, as was the decision to limit the force design of the SANDF to rely on short logistic lines for highly mechanised mobile forces in defence of national territory, as it causes many supply issues during modern foreign deployments. This is one of the major problems of the army and various solutions are being considered by the government to better equip forces deployed in out-of-area force projection operations.[18]

From the early 1990s (after 1992) to 1 April 1997, the SA Army maintained three 'small' divisions, the 7th (HQ Johannesburg), 8th (HQ Durban) and 9th (HQ Cape Town).[15] They consisted of a reconnaissance battalion, two anti-aircraft defence battalions (AA guns), two battalions of artillery (G-5s and G-6s), a battalion of 127 mm MRLs, an engineer battalion, two battalions of Olifant MBTs, two battalions mounted in Ratel ICVs, and finally two battalions mounted in Buffel APCs. They were all amalgamated into the 7th South African Division on 1 April 1997, and became the 73rd, 74th and 75th Brigades respectively.[16]

An Olifant Mk2 tank of the South African Armoured Corps during the Africa Aerospace Expo 2014.
Ratel IFVs of the Cape Town Highlanders Regiment during a mechanized training exercise.
South African troops in Sake, 10 km from Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo.


During the 1980s, the legal requirements for national service were to register for service at age sixteen and to report for duty when called up, which usually occurred at some time after a man's eighteenth birthday.[4] National service obligations could be fulfilled by active-duty military service for two years and by serving in the reserves, generally for ten or twelve years. Reservists generally underwent fifty days per year of active duty or training, after their initial period of service. The requirements for national service changed several times during the 1980s and the early 1990s in response to national security needs, and they were suspended in 1993.

In the early 1980s, the Army was restructured in order to counter all forms of insurgency while at the same time maintaining a creditable conventional force. To meet these requirements, the Army was subdivided into conventional and counterinsurgency forces. The counterinsurgency forces were further divided into nine territorial commands, each of which was responsible to the Chief of the Army. This force consists of members of the Permanent Force, Commandos, and a few selected Citizens Force units. The Citizens Force, through the 7th and 8th Divisions, provided the conventional defence force. In 1989 the RLI became the conventional reserve for Far North Command.

From 1 September 1972 Army Task Force Headquarters was redesignated HQ Lord's Grounds, Durban, until at least 27 September 1992.[13] 1 SA Corps itself was established in August 1974 and was active until 1978-79.[14]

7th and 8th Divisions, early 1980s[12]

In 1973 two new infantry units were established: 7 South African Infantry Battalion (Bourke's Luck) and 8 SA Infantry Battalion (Upington), as well as 11 Commando (Kimberley), which to a great extent took over the functions of the Danie Theron Combat School's training wing. In 1973 the SADF also took over responsibility for the defence of South West Africa (today Namibia) from the South African Police. During the succeeding months the Army became involved in combat operations for the first time since the Second World War, clashing with groups of SWAPO infiltrating into South West Africa.

Also during the 1970s, the SADF began accepting "non-whites" and women into the military as career soldiers, not only as temporary volunteers or reservists; however, the former served mostly, if not exclusively, in segregated units while the latter were not assigned to combat roles. By the end of the 1970s, the army had become the principal defender of the apartheid regime against the rising tide of African nationalism in South Africa and the region.

As far as conventional formations were concerned, 7 SA Division and 17, 18 and 19 Brigades were established on 1 April 1965.[5] Difficulties with manning levels saw the disestablishment of 7 SA Division on 1 November 1967 and its replacement by the Army Task Force (HQ) and 16 Brigade.

From 1966 to 1989 the SADF, with its South African 32 Battalion. They also carried out operations in support of UNITA rebels in Angola and against the Cuban troops that supported the Angolan government.

SADF Commemorate "Erected in sacred memory of all members of the South African Defence Force who gave their lives in the service of The Republic of South Africa" at Fort Klapperkop.

The 1960s ushered in a new era in military history. South Africa's growing international isolation and the military threat by SWAPO and its Communist backers in South West Africa (now Namibia) prompted the government to increase military service obligations repeatedly and to extend periods of active duty. The Defence Act (No. 12) of 1961 authorized the minister of defense to deploy Citizen Force troops and Commandos for "riot" control, often to quell anti-apartheid demonstrations, especially when it deteriorated into mob riots with loss of life. The Defence Act (No. 85) of 1967 also expanded military obligations, requiring white male citizens to perform national service, including an initial period of training, a period of active duty, and several years in reserve status, subject to immediate call-up.

"Border War" (1966–1989)

Following the declaration of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, the "Royal" title was dropped from the names of army regiments like the Natal Carbineers and the Durban Light Infantry, and the Crown removed from regimental badges.

The Defence Act (No. 44) of 1957 renamed the UDF the South African Defence Force (SADF) and established within it some quick-reaction units, or Commandos, to respond to localized threats. The SADF, numbering about 20,000 in 1958, would grow to almost 80,000 in the next two decades.

As part of the post-war reorganization, the Defence Rifle Associations were disbanded in 1948 and replaced by a new Commando organization with a strength of 90,000 men.[11] It was also decided to establish and maintain two complete army divisions in the UDF: namely 1 SA Infantry Division and 6 SA Armoured Division, consisting of 1, 2, 3, 12, and 13 (CF) Infantry Brigades and the (PF) 11th Armoured Brigade. The divisions were formally established with effect from 1 July 1948, but with the exception of 11 Brigade they were disbanded on 1 November 1949, mainly as a result of difficulties in obtaining volunteer recruits to man the CF Brigades. The 11th Armoured Brigade was itself disbanded on 1 October 1953. In the early 1950s the Union undertook, however, to provide one armoured division for active service in the Middle East in the event of war in the region. To this end some 200 Centurion tanks were ordered, and the first were delivered in July 1952. During Exercise Oranje, conducted in 1956, the Army trialled its Centurions for the first time in a simulated nuclear war situation.

Wartime expansion was again followed by rapid demobilization after World War II. By then, a century of Anglo-Boer clashes followed by decades of growing British influence in South Africa had fueled Afrikaner resentment. Resurgent Afrikaner nationalism was an important factor in the growth of the National Party (NP) as the 1948 elections approached. After the narrow election victory by the NP in 1948, the government began the steady Afrikanerization of the military; it expanded military service obligations and enforced conscription laws more strictly. Most UDF conscripts underwent three months of Citizen Force training in their first year of service, and an additional three weeks of training each year for four years after that.

Postwar period

General Mark W. Clark (15th Army Group) takes the salute from M-10 tank destroyers of the 11th Armoured Brigade of the 6th South African Armoured Division at the commemoration parade marking the end of hostilities in Italy. Monza Race Circuit: 14 July 1945

Of the 334,000 men volunteered for full time service in the South African Army during the war (including some 211,000 whites, 77,000 blacks and 46,000 Cape Coloureds and Asians), about 9,000 were killed in action, though the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of 11,023 known South African war dead during World War II.[10]

The 6th South African Armoured Division fought in numerous actions in Italy from 1944 to 1945.

The 7th South African Motorised Brigade – did take part in the invasion of Madagascar in 1942.

The 2nd South African Infantry Division also took part in a number of actions in North Africa during 1942, but on 21 June 1942 two complete infantry brigades of the division as well as most of the supporting units were captured at the fall of Tobruk.

The 1st South African Infantry Division took part in several actions in East Africa in 1940, North Africa in 1941 and 1942, including the Second Battle of El Alamein, before being withdrawn to South Africa.

One of the problems to continuously face South Africa during the war was the shortage of available men. Due to its race policies it would only consider arming men of European descent which limited the available pool of men aged between 20 and 40 to around 320,000. In addition the declaration of war on Germany had the support of only a narrow majority in the South African parliament and was far from universally popular. Indeed, there was a significant minority actively opposed to the war and under these conditions conscription was never an option. The expansion of the army and its deployment overseas depended entirely on volunteers.

With the declaration of war in September 1939, the South African Army numbered only 5,353 regulars,[9] with an additional 14,631 men of the Active Citizen Force (ACF) which gave peace time training to volunteers and in time of war would form the main body of the army. Pre-war plans did not anticipate that the army would fight outside southern Africa and it was trained and equipped only for bush warfare.

During World War II, the South African Army fought in the East African, North African and Italian campaigns. In 1939, the army at home in South Africa was divided between a number of regional commands.[8] These included Cape Command (with its headquarters at the Castle of Good Hope, Capetown, and including 3rd Infantry Brigade, 8th Infantry Brigade the Coast Artillery Brigade (a coastal artillery regiment), and a battery of the 1st Anti-Aircraft Regiment), Orange Free State Command, Natal Command, Witwatersrand Command (5th and 9th Brigades plus the Transvaal Horse Artillery), Roberts' Heights and Transvaal Command, and Eastern Province Command at East London.

A South African Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car conducting reconnaissance in North Africa.

World War II

As a result of its conscription policies, the UDF increased its active-duty forces to 56,000 by the late 1930s; 100,000 men also belonged to the National Riflemen's Reserve, which provided weapons training and practice.

Expenditure cuts saw the UDF as a whole reduced. The last remaining regiment of the South Africa Mounted Riflemen was disbanded on 31 March 1926 and the number of military districts was reduced from 16 to six on 1 April 1926. The Brigade HQ of the SA Field Artillery was also disbanded.[5]:8 In 1933 the six military districts were redesignated Commands.[5]:9

Wartime casualties and postwar demobilization weakened the UDF. New legislation in 1922 re-established conscription for white males[7] over the age of 21 for four years of military training and service and re-constituted the Permanent Force. UDF troops assumed internal security tasks in South Africa and quelled several revolts against South African domination in South-West Africa. South Africans suffered high casualties, especially in 1922, when an independent group of Khoikhoi – known as the Bondelswart-Herero for the black bands that they wore into battle – led one of numerous revolts; in 1925, when a mixed-race population – the Basters – demanded cultural autonomy and political independence; and in 1932, when the Ovambo (Ambo) population along the border with Angola demanded an end to South African domination.

Interwar period

The total South African casualties during the war was about 18,600 with over 12,452 killed – more than 4,600 in the European theater alone.

More than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks and 2,500 people of mixed race ("Coloureds") and Asians served in South African military units during the war, including 43,000 in German South-West Africa and 30,000 on the Western Front. An estimated 3,000 South Africans also joined the Royal Flying Corps.

South Africans also saw action with the Cape Corps in Palestine.

In addition, the war against the German and Askari forces in German East Africa also involved more than 20,000 South African troops; they fought under General Jan Smuts's command when he directed the British campaign against there in 1915. (During the war, the army was led by General Smuts, who had rejoined the army from his position as Minister of Defence on the outbreak of the war.)

The most costly action that the South African forces on the Western Front fought in was the Battle of Delville Wood in 1916 – of the 3,000 men from the brigade who entered the wood, only 768 emerged unscathed. Another tragic loss of life for the South African forces during the war was the Mendi sinking on 21 February 1917, when the troopship Mendi – while transporting 607 members of the South African Native Labour Corps from Britain to France – was struck and cut almost in half by another ship.

The supporting units included five batteries of heavy artillery, a field ambulance unit, a Royal Engineers signals company and a military hospital.[6]

Later, an infantry brigade and various other supporting units were shipped to France in order to fight on the Western Front as the South African Overseas Expeditionary Force. The 1st South African Brigade consisted of four infantry battalions, representing men from all four provinces of the Union of South Africa as well as Rhodesia: the 1st Regiment was from the Cape Province, the 2nd Regiment was from Natal and the Orange Free State and the 3rd Regiment was from Transvaal and Rhodesia. The 4th Regiment was called the South African Scottish and was raised from members of the Transvaal Scottish and the Cape Town Highlanders; they wore the Atholl Murray tartan.

Cap badge of 1st SA Infantry Brigade

When World War I broke out in 1914, the South African government chose to join the war on the side of the Allies. General Louis Botha, the then prime minister, faced widespread Afrikaner opposition to fighting alongside Great Britain so soon after the Second Boer War and had to put down a revolt by some of the more militant elements before he could send an expeditionary force of some 67,000 troops to invade German South-West Africa (now Namibia). The German troops stationed there eventually surrendered to the South African forces in July 1915. (In 1920 South Africa received a League of Nations mandate to govern the former German colony and to prepare it for independence within a few years.)

BL 5.4 inch Howitzer and crew, East Africa, 1916 or 1917. Photo courtesy of SANDF Archives, from Nöthling, C J (ed), "Ultima Ratio Regum: Artillery History of South Africa" 1987

World War I

Initially, the Permanent Force consisted of five regiments of the South African Mounted Riflemen (SAMR), each with a battery of artillery attached. Dorning says that '..the SAMR was in reality a military constabulary similar to the Cape Mounted Riflemen, tasked primarily with police work in their respective geographical areas.'[5]:3 In 1913 and 1914, the new 23,400-member Citizen Force was called on to suppress several industrial strikes on the Witwatersrand.

:2[5] The 1912 law also obligated all white males between seventeen and sixty years of age to serve in the military, but this was not strictly enforced as there were a large number of volunteers. Instead, half of the white males aged from 17 to 25 were drafted by lots into the ACF. For training purposes, the Union was divided into 15 military districts.[4]

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