Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk : two South African military disasters revisited 1941-1942

Katz, David Brock (2014-12)

Thesis (MMil)--Stellenbosch University, 2014.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk are the largest disasters suffered by South Africa in its military history. Yet, despite their enormity, Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk are little understood and hardly remembered. South Africa declared war on Germany on the 6 September 1939, after a bitter internal debate, amounting to a conflict between Afrikaner nationalists and those who supported the British Empire. South Africa’s political ambivalence and disunity ran parallel to her unpreparedness for war in every important department from the lack of vital coastal defences to the miniscule size of her army and air force and complete lack of a navy. The first six months of 1941 saw the South Africans play a significant part in completely defeating the Italian colonial forces in East Africa. However, the campaign was poor preparation for what the South Africans were to encounter in the North African Desert months later. South African troops spent their time rebuilding fortifications in Egypt rather than in essential training to acclimatise this “bush war” army to harsh desert conditions. In a reluctant political decision, the unprepared South Africans were committed to Operation Crusader. The inexperienced South Africans met up with the battle hardened Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941 and were annihilated in the face of overwhelming odds. In revisiting this forgotten battle, it has been found, using primary and secondary sources, that the South Africans extracted an enormous price on the German armour in what may have been the true turning point of Operation Crusader. In May 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps sallied forth in a series of lightning moves that demonstrated the Axis grip on combined operations and managed to isolate the vital port of Tobruk commanded by an inexperienced South African, Major General H. B. Klopper. His surrender in one day is often compared to the previous siege endured under similar circumstances, where the Australians managed to hold Rommel at bay for 244 days until the siege was lifted. Klopper’s surrender of Tobruk resulted in a political crisis for Winston Churchill and for Jan Smuts, as the fiasco caused considerable tension within the Allied camp and within South Africa. On re-examination, interesting facts have emerged from the primary source material, as to the state of the Tobruk defences and of its unfortunate commander and how the United Kingdom, acting in concert with South Africa, sought to suppress the true facts. Immediate post-war memory has been shaped and distorted by sensitive political considerations that affected relations between South Africa and the United Kingdom. Thereafter, the memory of Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk was relegated first by a nationalistic Afrikaner government and then since by a democratically elected government, both of which have seen very little use in incorporating these two milestones into the national memory.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Sidi Rezegh en Tobruk is die grootste nederlae wat Suid-Afrika in sy militêre geskiedenis ervaar het. Ten spyte van hul omvang, word daar min van Sidi Rezegh en Tobruk verstaan of onthou. Na ‘n hewige interne debat wat tot konflik tussen Afrikanernasionaliste en pro-Britse Suid-Afrikaners gelei het, het Suid-Afrika op 6 September 1939 oorlog teen Duitsland verklaar. Suid-Afrika se politieke verdeeldheid het saamgeval met die Unie se totale onvoorbereidheid vir oorlog, wat gestrek het van kritieke tekortkominge in kusverdediging, tot die ontoereikende grootte van die leër en lugmag en die totale afwesigheid van ‘n vloot. Gedurende die eerste ses maande van 1941 het Suid-Afrika ‘n beduidende rol gespeel om die Italiaanse koloniale magte in Oos-Afrika te verslaan. Dié veldtog was egter nie effektiewe voorbereiding vir die uitdagings waarteen die Suid-Afrikaners kort daarna in Noord-Afrika te staan sou kom nie. Die Suid-Afrikaanse troepe het daarby hul tyd daaraan bestee om vestings in Egipte te herbou in plaas daarvan om noodsaaklike opleiding te ondergaan om hul “bosoorlog”-leër vir ruwe woestynoorlogvoering voor te berei. ‘n Huiwerige, teensinnige politieke besluit het die onvoorbereide Suid-Afrikaners tot Operasie Crusader verbind. Die onervare Suid-Afrikaners het op 23 November 1941 by Sidi Rezegh teen die geharde Afrika Korps te staan gekom, waar oorweldigende magte hulle verpletter het. ‘n Heroorweging van hierdie vergete veldslag aan die hand van primêre en sekondêre bronne het aan die lig gebring dat die Suid-Afrikaners ‘n hoë tol van die Duitse pantser geëis het, wat besmoontlik die ware keerpunt in Operasie Crusader gebring het. In Mei 1942 het Rommel se Afrika Korps deur ‘n reeks blitsige bewegings wat die greep van die Spilmagte op gekombineerde operasies gedemonstreer het, daarin geslaag om die kritiese hawe van Tobruk, waar die onervare Suid Afrikaanse generaal-majoor H.B. Klopper in bevel was, te isoleer. Sy oorgawe binne ‘n enkele dag word dikwels vergelyk met die vorige beleg van Tobruk toe die Australianers Rommel onder vergelykbare omstandighede vir 244 dae teruggehou het totdat die beleg opgehef is. Klopper se oorgawe het ‘n politieke krisis vir Winston Churchill en Jan Smuts geskep, deurdat dit aansienlike spanning binne sowel die Gealieerde kamp as Suid-Afrika veroorsaak het. Die herevaluering van die gebeure het interessante feite uit die primêre bronne na vore gebring ten opsigte van die toestand van Tobruk se verdedigingstellings, die ongelukkige bevelvoerder, en hoe die Verenigde Koninkryk in samewerking met Suid-Afrika die ware feite wou toesmeer. Die onmiddellike naoorlogse geheuebeeld van die gebeure by Sidi Rezegh en Tobruk is geskep en verwring deur sensitiewe politieke oorwegings wat die verhouding tussen Suid-Afrika en die Verenigde Koninkryk beïnvloed het. Sedertdien het ‘n nasionalistiese Afrikaner-regering en daarna ook die demokraties-verkose, post-apartheid-regering die herinneringe aan Sidi Rezegh en Tobruk tot die vergetelheid verdoem; nie een van die twee het die nut daarvan gesien om dié twee mylpale in die nasionale geheue te verewig nie. Stellenbosch University http://scholar.sun.ac.za

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