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South Africa in World War II


South Africa is not a country typically associated with active participation in the World War II today. Yet, without South African ports, thousands of Allies’ troops would not have reached the Middle East theatre. The notion of South Africa’s role in that conflict surprises many people, who believe that this country is too distanced to have been involved in a European war theatre. Although the army of South Africa may not have liberated Paris or captured Berlin, it still made a significant contribution, ignoring which would be a disservice to South Africa’s history.

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In order to understand the importance of South Africa, it is important to know where it is situated. The country occupies the southernmost point of Africa, with a costal line stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean. This intersection is the reason why great powers were interested in South Africa historically. The crux of the matter is that the coastline is the most logical location to place seaports. Any country wishing to send or receive goods from India to South America would have to use the trade route passing near South Africa. As such, the region is extremely valuable in strategic terms.

At the start of the twentieth century, the British Empire occupied the region and thus took advantage of South Africa’s location. However, local population was not satisfied with the British rule, as anti-British sentiment was on the rise. This controversy became was especially evident at the start of the World War II. When the British Empire declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939, many people were opposed the idea of allying South Africa with the British Empire due to strong dislike of the crown. Some forces went so far as to actually support Germany.

As such, at the time of start of the World War II, there was no unity in South Africa. The nation found itself at a crossfire between pro-British forces and pro-German forces. The situation was further complicated by the fact that in both cases, it were white people who promoted their agenda. Black people as well as women were marginalized and had no interest in becoming involved in a war between other nations. Centuries of racial segregation underscored the lack of sympathy for the hardships of the British Empire. This controversy was used by pro-German forces, who took advantage of anti-war and anti-British sentiment, further dividing South African society.

Political Factors

At the start of World War II, South Africa was a dominion of British Empire. This status meant that nation was sovereign and could not be an object of the British Parliament’s legislation. At the same time, the Union of South Africa was officially a part of the British Empire, with a King of the United Kingdom and British Dominions being its monarch as well. King George VI was represented by Governor-General, which was the highest-ranking office. However, in reality, Prime Minister of South Africa was the factual head of state. Subsequently, Governor-General had no real sway over the government of South Africa. As such, the Union of South Africa was independent of the United Kingdom.

The United Party, which was the ruling party of South Africa in 1939, harbored numerous politicians with an open anti-British sentiment, including Prime Minister J.B.M. Hertzog. The Parliament had a peculiar structure – the United Party was the majority party, but there was substantial political dissention within it. The reason for this is that the United Party was the result of merging of two opposing parties – the National Party under the leadership of Hertzog and the South African Party under Jan Smuts. Hertzog’s followers were openly anti-British, while Smuts’ proponents favored connections with British Empire. It was inevitable than any serious foreign challenge would severely compromise the unity.

Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia became such a challenge for the party. When the British entered the war with the Nazi Germany, Hertzog’s decision was to keep the Union away from the war. This was a highly debated decision, which led to Hertzog’s resignation and Smuts succeeding him as Prime Minister. A vote was held on whether the Union should enter the war, with 80 PMs voting in favor and 67 against. The Union declared war on Germany and South Africa entered the conflict as a British Empire’s ally, even though it was by no means a unilateral decision.

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Social and Economic Factors

The Union was significantly divided by opposition to British rule, racial conflicts, and nationalist sentiment. Many Afrikaners still remembered the Second Boer War, which caused them to view British Empire as the enemy. As South Africa declared war on Germany, nationalist forces opposed this decision, some of which saw World War II as “yet another war on behalf of the British Empire”. As a result, anti-British sentiment was the first factor underpinning the complexity of South African role in World War II.

Another complication was derived from nationalist feelings among South Afrikaners. In South Africa: A Country Study, Rita M. Byrnes writes that German National Socialism “had garnered many Afrikaner admirers in the 1930s”. The largest organization opposing South African participation in World War II was known as Ossewabrandwag. Dear and Foot write that “at its peak it had 400,000 members and posed a considerable threat to the South African government”. Furthermore, the organization encompassed a military wing, which was similar to the Nazi Party’s Sturmabteilung. Known as stormjaers, they committed sabotage, blew up power lines, railroads, post offices and cut communication lines.4 Although not all nationalists were pro-Nazi, this dissention had to be considered by the government.

Finally, racism also played its role in the way South Africa participated in the war. Before the war, “the doctrine of the white man’s prestige” was a cornerstone of white people’s influence in South Africa. The parliament that voted for the Union’s entrance to war consisted of white-only members. Being aware of the political and racial contradictions in society Hertzog’s successor as Prime Minister Jan Smuts, decided against compulsory conscription and in favor of a volunteer-based defense force.7 The way the government framed war became instrumental in how successful the recruitment campaign would be.

Mass media were in deficit in South Africa in 1930s. South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was the major broadcaster in the country. However, it was technologically and informationally limited as “it relied heavily on material from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)”. As a result, any data surrounding military advances, German actions, and overall war progress, was sorted through British propaganda. Furthermore, there appears to have been a deliberate transmitter shortage in some regions of South Africa in the first months following the start of the war. Teer-Tomaselli argues that “at the very time when anti-British, anti-war sentiment was at its highest, the entire Afrikaans listenership on the Witwatersrand, the heart of South Africa, was without a radio service”. The majority of programming was in English, which further promoted pro-British agenda.

However firm their control over the news industry was, the government could not ignore the fact that it needed population, both black and white to keep working as well as serving. For example, according to Clark, “mining accounted for well over 50 percent of South African government revenues”. The bulk of the workforce consisted of low-paid African workers with extremely poor labor methods. The government’s economy was extremely vulnerable even in peaceful periods. Yet, war demands make any worker strike a potential disaster. Technological advancements offered at least a partial solution to the problem of the workforce’s extreme dissatisfaction. However, the real economic boost came from the incorporation of women’s labor into production, allowing it to expand. Smuts proceeded to establish new plants, implement standardized production and modernize equipment and machinery. Thus, the government managed to keep the highly divided population from descending into internal conflict, while strengthening the economy to supply war needs.

Military Strength and Capabilities

The most important contribution of South Africa was the steady supply of resources. Allied war effort required large amounts of iron, manganese, uranium, coal, platinum, and steel. However, South African engineers also devised their own armoured vehicle – Marmon-Herrington armour car. Thousands of these vehicles were produced, many of which became a part of the British military.

South Africa’s port infrastructure was vital to the Allies naval forces. First, the Allies in the India-Birma theatre received necessary supplies from South African ports. Second, South Africa’s geography once again became vitally important, when the Axis powers blocked access to the Mediterranean Sea. The only remaining way to reach Europe by sea was now through the Suez Canal. South African ports were essential in the routes used by British ships.

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Military training was another way South Africa helped the Allies. Being located relatively far from the actual fighting, South Africa was a logical place for setting up training camps. Particularly, a number of air schools in South Africa trained both South African Air Force pilots and Royal Air Force pilots. Initially, the number of pilots did not exceed 5000, but within the period of one year, the number eclipsed 30 000. The practice gained in these schools allowed pilots to better prepare for actual combat.

The manpower of South Africa was severely limited in large part due to the absence of compulsory military conscription. Nevertheless, those soldiers that did enlist participated in engagements in North Africa, East Africa, Madagascar, Italy, the Balkans, and in the British skies. Mwanikii writes that “A total of 334,000 South Africans volunteered to fight on all fronts”. The most notable victory of South African forces transpired during the East African campaign, where Italian forces fought for Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, trying to achieve regional supremacy.

The most notorious defeat of South African forces happened at Tobruk in 1942. Tobruk is an important city in Libya on the coastline of the Mediterrenean Sea. A contingent of almost 35 000 troops comprised of British and South African forces was defeated by a joint Germany-Italian force. With tens of thousands people becoming prisoners, the loss of Tobruk was a severe blow to the Allies, yet it also showcased participation of Afrikaners in the World War II.

Another task the South Africa performed was the preparedness to fight off a Japanese invasion. Although in reality, Japan never really attacked South Africa, this possibility forced the Allies to protect the waters near South Africa. This became an appropriate defense precaution, as in 1942, German submarines attacked vehicles in Cape waters. However, a more evident counter measure by the allies was the liberation of Madagascar, which was controlled by Germany’s allies. After a successful operation, in which South Africa’s forces also participated, the island was fortified against a potential Japanese invasion.

As a result, South Africa made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. Number-wise its contribution and losses in terms of pure manpower was relatively low in comparison with major nations, which suffered the most devastating blow during the war. Nevertheless, in full-scale military conflicts, numbers alone do not resolve the fate of the army. The most essential component of a successful military initiative is the ability to procure supplies. This is where the real and the most important contribution of South Africa was made. Its success in restructuring economy to suit the Allied war effort has ensured the stable supply of material, armaments, and even personnel that was trained in South Africa’s training site.

Significant Outcomes/Conclusions

As with all other countries, the World War II had an enormous impact on South Africa. First, the economy that received a large boost during the war remained and allowed the Union to experience further economic growth. Most importantly, the government saw the value of women and African workers, who became indispensable at the time of war. At the same time, labor conditions were not adequate, with few benefits and “disgracefully inadequate wages”. Production became more efficient, yet the segregation also increased, as African workers and women did not achieve the rights as white men.

The World War II accentuated the problem of racial segregation in the Union. As soldiers returned home, many expected changes that would put an end to racism, even though the government made no such promises. At the same time, not all whites were content to surrender their eight to make Africans equal to them. As the number of black migrants attracted by new job opportunities grew, many white people feared the rise of the influence of black people. The National Party capitalized on such fears and won 1948 elections. This marked the beginning of the Apartheid era in South Africa.

As such, the World War II did not bring the end to discrimination in South Africa. If anything, Apartheid further exacerbated the conditions of black people. Whereas the Allies’ victory in the World War II is frequently praised as saving the world from slavery, South Africa continued to be a state with systemic segregation, which would be institutionalized three years after the war. It is surprising that the United Party managed to prevent an internal outbreak and propel economic growth during the war considering the amount of controversies and social unrest. Yet, the lesson that nationalists learned from the World War II was that white supremacy should persevere.

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This outcome is all the more striking, when considering the changes in the rest of Africa. Clark notes that unlike other nations, which experienced transformations following the World War II, “South Africa became more repressive in the postwar period than any of the colonial territories”. It is no surprise that younger generations of Afrikaners have bitter feelings towards white people. Combined with the general ignorance of South Africa’s role in the World War II, the long years of segregation provide Afrikaners with a reason to call for historic justice.


Clark, Nancy L. “Gendering production in wartime South Africa.” The American Historical Review 106, no. 4 (2001): 1181-1213.

Dear, Ian, and Foot, Michael. “South Africa, Union of.” In Oxford Companion to World War II, edited by Ian Dear, and Michael Foot, 662-798. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Grundlingh, Albert. “The King’s Afrikaners? Enlistment and ethnic identity in the Union of South Africa’s Defence Force during the Second World War, 1939–45.” The Journal of African History 40, no. 3 (1999): 351-365.

Grundlingh, Louis. “Aspects of the impact of the Second World War on the lives of black South African and British colonial soldiers.” Transafrican Journal of History (1992): 19-35.

Mwanikii. “The Unspoken Contributions of South Africa in WWII,” Medium, Web.

Smith, Jean P. “Race and hospitality: Allied troops of colour on the South African home front during the Second World War.” War & Society 39, no. 3 (2020): 155-170.

Teer-Tomaselli, Ruth. “In service of empire: The South African broadcasting corporation during World War II.” Critical Arts 28, no. 6 (2014): 879-904.

“The Impact of World War II,” Country Studies. Web.

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