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South African Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Vol 10 No 3 – June 1996(incorporating Museum Review)

South Africa and the War against Japan 1941-1945

On 7 December 1941, the Second World War escalated dramatically when the Japanese launched a surprise attack against the American naval base at Pearl Harbour Hawaii and declared war against the United States of America and the British Empire. The South Africa government acted swiftly and on Tuesday, 9 December 1941, a proclamation was issued, stating that, as from 8 December, South Africa was at war with Japan.(1)

Dr D F Malan and the Nationalists justified Japanese expansion and regarded Soviet communism as the real threat to the Union.(2) However, while the Nationalists did not, on the whole, regard Japan as a threat,(3) govemment supporters took a much more realistic view of the situation. Prime Minister General J C Smuts said that should Japan dare to attack the Union, he would arm all able-bodied blacks and coloureds.(4)

A substantial amount of research has been done and much has been written about South Africas role during the Second World War, especially regarding the role of the Union Defence Forces (UDF) in Abyssinia,(5) North Africa(6) and Italy,(7) as well as the situation on the home front(8). However, the countrys role in the struggle against Japan has so far received only cursory mention. For nearly four years, the Union of South Africa was officially at war with Imperial Japan. It is the purpose of this study to shed some light on this war, in an effort to ascertain the nature and extent of South Africas contribution to the Allied war effort, the implications for South Africa, both militarily and on the home front, of Japans entry into the war, as well as any possible influence which the war against Japan may have had on local defence and economic, political and social matters.

The article should be seen as an introduction and a preliminary analysis of a few basic issues regarding South Africas role in the war against Japan and the author hopes that it will lead to further research regarding this facet of South Africas military past. The situation on the South African home front in December 1941 and the strength of the UDF at the time will be discussed first, followed by a review of what happened on the home front from 1941 to 1945, emphasizing, throughout, the influence exercised by the war against Japan. Before finally drawing some conclusions, South Africas role in the military struggle will be set out and evaluated including reviews of the role played by several naval vessels in the Far East.

In a minesweeping operation, naval personnel bring in the kite,

an instrument which determines the depth at which the sweep wire will travel.

(Photo: By courtesy, SA National Museum of Military History)

The South African home front, December 1941

Within two years, Smuts had consolidated his political position and had laid a sound economic foundation for the work that was to be done during the rest of the war years. Smuts security measures, such as the National Emergency Regulations, played a very important role in maintaining relative peace and stability on the home front. By acting quickly and decisively, Smuts showed that there was a strong government in the saddle, a government which damped any sparks that might have led to a conflagration and had stabilised the internal security situation. By the end of 1941, there were even indications that the parliamentary and democratic forces in the opposition, as represented by Dr D F Malans Herenigde Nasionale Party (HNP), were gaining the upper hand over the more militant ideological hotheads in, for example, the Ossewa-Brandwag (OB).(9)

The Second World War brought the race question in South Africa to a head, and Smuts United Party (UP) government apparently did not have a consistent non white (10) policy. If blacks wanted to make their grievances known on a dramatic scale, the war afforded them that opportunity, but nothing of the sort occurred; instead, black, coloured and Asian South Africans were, on the whole, committed to the Allied cause,(11) and many were directly or indirectly involved in South Africas war effort. (12)

By the end of 1941, the South African economy had not yet been affected much by the war, but the foundation had been laid for a war economy and for massive war production during the remaining war years. This was mainly due to the dedication of Dr H J van der Bijl, who, on 24 November 1939, was appointed Director-General of War Supplies. (13)

By December 1941, the war had not really had any effect worth mentioning on social conditions in the country. The initial military success of the Japanese had a potential psychological effect on at least a portion of South Africas population, for the non-white Japanese had inflicted serious losses on whites in the East, including those colonial powers who were driven from some of their colonies. As far as the local political scene was concerned, a possibility existed that the anti-war factions could step up their agitation against South Africas continued participation in the war.

The Union Defence Forces (UDF), December 1941

Japans entry into the war posed a very real threat to South Africa and emphasized the vulnerability of her coasts and harbours. The countrys coastal defences had been planned to meet simple hit-and-run raids by enemy surface vessels and submarines, limited attacks by shipborne aircraft, and raids by small parties of enemy soldiers or marines. With Japanese forces overrunning one area after the other in the East, however, there was the possibility of a full-scale invasion. The Unions only safeguard against a Japanese invasion was the ability of the countrys more powerful allies to maintain themselves in the Indian Ocean,(14) especially after the spectacular successes achieved by the Japanese during the first few weeks of war.

The Japanese war machine was formidable. In December 1941, the Japanese army had some 1 400 000 men, and the country possessed a total of about 2 400 aircraft (including naval aircraft).(15)

It was the Japanese navy, however, that posed the greatest threat to the Allies. The navy consisted of some 325 000 personnel with ten battleships, eight aircraft carriers, eighteen heavy cruisers, twenty light cruisers, 108 destroyers, 67 submarines (including several large I Class that could carry a midget submarine and/or a floatplane), several minor naval vessels, as well as many auxiliaries.(16)

Although the UDF underwent a metamorphosis in the course of the first two years of the war, South Africa itself remained very vulnerable and its local defences not in the least adequate to withstand a determined enemy onslaught. By December 1941, a variety of coast artillery guns, ranging from quick-firing 6-pdr guns to heavy 9,2-inch guns, were installed at Walvis Bay, Saldanha Bay, on Robben Island, at Cape Town, Simons Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, and Durban, but these were not enough.(17)

The Unions anti-aircraft capacity also left much to be desired. When war broke out in 1939, there were only eight 3-inch anti-aircraft guns and six searchlights in South Africa and, when these guns and searchlights were despatched to East Africa, the Union was completely devoid of ground anti-aircraft defences. By the middle of 1941, there were still no modern anti-aircraft guns in the country – only machine-guns – and it was only in the course of 1942 that new equipment became available.(18)

The South African Air Force (SAAF) grew dramatically during the first two years of the war and, by December 1941, had a personnel strength of 31 204, including 4 321 of the Womens Auxiliary Air Force. Of the total personnel, however, most were trainees and only 2 074 officers and men were operationally employed in South Africa. The number of SAAF aircraft increased from 104 in September 1939 to 1 709 in September 1941. Nevertheless, in December 1941, the SAAF had no fighter squadrons in South Africa. The threat of a Japanese invasion on the east coast was, for some time, considered a serious possibility and consequently the maritime patrol squadrons were reinforced by two fighter squadrons (No 6 and No 10) flying Curtiss-Mohawk IVs.(19)

As far as maritime defence was concerned, the South African Naval Service (SANS) grew from three officers and three ratings – obviously with no warships! – in September l939(20) to a force with a personnel of 216 officers and 1 427 other ratings in September 1941. On 7 December 1941, the Seaward Defence Force (SDF) – as the SANS was known since 15 January 1940 – had fifteen small anti-submarine vessels and 39 minesweepers(21).

By December 1941,the UDF, which, until then, only had to look northwards, had successfully taken part in the Abyssinian campaign and was then involved in the struggle against Rommels Afrika Korps in North Africa. Henceforth, however, it would also have to take into consideration a threat coming from the East.

Japans entry into the war meant that the conflict had truly become a world conflagration. The Indian Ocean and adjoining areas were then directly threatened by enemy actions. The possibility of enemy submarine attacks on Allied ships in the oceans around South Africa increased dramatically, as did the threat against the countrys harbours and coasts. In the light of the weakness of the Unions coastal and anti-aircraft defences, industrial areas along the coasts were particularly vulnerable.

Far away from the main operational areas, South Africa had been spared the brunt of the Axis offensives, but, by December 1941, she could not rely on much support, should the Japanese decide to launch an all-out offensive in the Indian Ocean. In more than one way, the Union was ill-prepared for a war against Japan, and nearly three and a half years would pass before the country would be in a position to actively support its allies militarily in the East. In the meantime, South Africa had to prepare itself for a possible Japanese incursion into the Indian Ocean.

The South African home front, 1941-1945

The Second World War once again emphasized the importance of the Cape sea-route and South Africas harbours were of vital importance, particularly for storage and for repair work.

The Japanese capture of the British bases in the Far East, especially those at Hong Kong (25 December 1941) and Singapore (15 February 1942), had an immediate effect on South Africa. New bases were required, and the Union was the obvious choice. The country already had a well-developed harbour infrastructure and, for quite some time, the dry dock in Durban had been of immense strategic importance, being the largest of its kind between Singapore and Gibraltar. However, as this graving dock on its own was insufficient for the number of ships requiring attention, the Sturrock dry dock was built in Cape Town, capable of handling (like its counterpart in Durban) battleships and aircraft carriers. Also authorised was the dry dock for cruisers at East London.(22)

As far as harbour facilities were concerned, perhaps the most important and far-reaching result of the war against Japan was the decision to build a complete new naval base at Salisbury Island in Durban. The vast construction works, which cost 2 million, included the building of a causeway to link the island to the mainland; raising the level of the island by some 3 metres; the building of wharves, workshops, barracks, a hospital, training and other facilities; and the acquisition of a floating dock and a floating crane. The new base was, however, only completed after the war against Japan had ended.(23)

The war led to a dramatic increase in the sea traffic around the Cape and in the number of ships that visited the local ports. For example, the number of ocean-going ships (excluding warships) that called at Cape Town rose from 1 784 (1938-39) to 2 559 (1941-42) and 2 593 (1942-43) and, at Durban, from 1 534 to 1 835 and 1 930 respectively. The number of naval vessels that visited Cape Town rose from ten (1938-39) to 251(1941-42) and 306 (1942-43), while, in Durban, the numbers rose from sixteen (in 1938) to 192 (in 1941) and 313 (in 1942).(24) The extent of the increase in sea-going traffic around the Cape may also be gauged from the rise in the value of South African produce supplied for the visiting ships, from 142 209 in 1939 to 5 381 015 in 1945.(25)

About 400 convoys, carrying some six million men, visited South African ports in the course of the war and a total of about 50 000 ships passed through these ports en route to and from the Mediterranean and Far Eastern war zones. Of these ships, about 13 000 underwent repairs in South Africas harbours. Thus it is quite remarkable that, throughout the war, there was not a single serious accident at any South African port.(26)

The workshops of the South African Railways and Harbours (SAR&H) were requested to add the production of military material to their normal activities and they produced a variety of articles, including 100 barges of 250 tons each for India and 41 motor-boats for river-towing in Burma. Of all the private and government-controlled organizations, the SAR&H probably made the most important industrial contribution towards South Africas war effort.(27)

As South Africas geographic position safeguarded her against enemy attacks, industrial development was able to proceed unhindered. By 1942, the countrys war economy was running smoothly. Industrial employment increased by more than 50% during the war,(28) and the number of blacks employed in industrial occupations also grew, as did the number of blacks in the so-called white towns and cities.(29) In due course, this would have serious political consequences.

Apart from arms manufacturing,(30) South Africas industries supplied the UDF and other Allied forces with a large variety of personal and other equipment, some of which was exported to the East and used by personnel fighting against the Japanese. By the end of the war, South Africa had produced more than twelve million pairs of boots and shoes, five and a half million blankets and 2 435 million cigarettes to meet military requirements. About 80 different types of motor vehicles were also produced, resulting in a total of some 32 000 vehicles, including about 14 000 three and five-ton trucks.(31)

Japans entry into the war had a profound impact on the demand for South African-produced war material as Australia, New Zealand and India then had to concentrate on their own defence requirements and could no longer supply the Allies in the West to the same extent as they had before. This placed increasing pressure on South Africas industries (32).

South Africas position, away from the main operational areas of the war, was both a blessing and a problem. The entry of Italy into the war on 10 June 1940 brought the conflict nearer home, but, even by the middle of 1942, despite Japans involvement since December 1941 and the increase of submarine activity along the South African coasts and adjacent oceans, there was still an almost general lack of appreciation by the average citizen of the fact that the country was involved in a war that, in more than one way, required total effort.(33)

Nevertheless, hardly any aspect of South African life remained unaffected by the war in some way. On 9 June 1942, Durban experienced its first – albeit not very successful – real black-out,(34) a step that became permanent on 16 June 1942(35). The rationing of petrol further restricted the movement of people, while commodities like motor vehicles, building material, rubber, wood, paper and agricultural implements were declared to be controlled goods. A shortage developed in foodstuffs, such as meat, maize, wheat and sugar; wholesale and retail price indexes rose; and price control was introduced.(36) The heavy demands made by visiting convoys aggravated shortages in certain foodstuffs and, by the beginning of 1943, there was greater austerity in the country. People were beginning to feel the pinch of shortages and the accompanying rising costs and the man in the street began to realise that the war had its price. Civilians began to feel the strain and even government supporters began to grumble.(37) However, as the result of the 1943 election pointed out, Smuts and his UP enjoyed stronger support than ever.

While the Allies and Japanese battled it out in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands in the Far Fast and, in the Mediterranean theatre, the Allies had invaded Sicily, South Africa was gripped in a campaign for the general (albeit almost exclusively white) election, which was held on 7 July 1943. The election was fought almost entirely on the war issue, but the race question was also fiercely debated. The HNP remained vehemently opposed to the Unions continued participation in the war against the Axis powers and, in particular, against Germany, but the war against Japan was not specifically debated. While Smuts and his UPs victory appeared to be spectacular, the result was an artificial one and did not reflect the governments true standing.(38)

Within a short space of time following his appointment as Prime Minister in 1939, Smuts had consolidated his position and, by the time war against Japan broke out, it did not really affect the South African home front that much. While the Smuts governments decision to declare war against Germany had evoked strong reaction from many Afrikaners, the same did not occur when the Union went to war with the non-white Japan.

South Africa and the military struggle against Japan, 1941-1945

The threat of a Japanese invasion declined after the battle of Midway (4-6 June 1942), but still hung over South Africa until the United States started to roll back the Japanese by the end of 1942. Throughout the war against Japan, South Africas contribution was mostly of an indirect nature, with the emphasis on coastal defence and safeguarding the Cape sea-route.

Although more than three years would lapse before units of the UDF were actually sent to the Far East in the war against Japan, South African naval personnel, seconded to the Royal Navy almost immediately after Pearl Harbour, saw action against the Japanese. Having dealt the American navy in the Pacific a severe blow at Pearl Harbour, the Japanese invaded, inter alia, the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, the Gilberts and Wake,(39) and set out to destroy Allied naval units operating in the Pacific Ocean. Amongst the first vessels to fall prey to the Japanese were the British battleship HMSPrince of Walesand the battle-cruiser HMSRepulse.Both vessels had stopped at Cape Town and Durban on their way to the East, forming part of a British naval task force, also including four destroyers, which had been sent out to intercept the attacking Japanese task force. Both capital ships were sunk on 10 December 1941, off the east coast of Malaya, by shore-based naval aircraft. Of 1 612 crew members of thePrince of Wales, 325 perished, as well as 513 (including a South African) of theRepulsescomplement of 1309 (40).

From 27 February to 1 March 1942, the battle of the Java Sea occurred when an Allied force of five cruisers and eleven destroyers (including ships from four nations) challenged a Japanese force, which was escorting a convoy carrying troops for the invasion of Java. Two Dutch cruisers and one Dutch and two British destroyers were sunk in the ensuing running battle, and one British and one US cruiser were damaged. The Japanese suffered only minor damage and went ahead with the invasion.(41). During the clash, one South African was killed on 1 March 1942, when the E Class destroyer HMSEncounterwas sunk by Japanese surface craft.

With the Japanese almost completely in control of the skies, they started mopping up the little remaining Allied resistance and April 1942 became a very bleak month for the Allies. On 5 April, Japanese dive-bombers caught and sank the British heavy cruisers HMSCornwalland HMSDorsetshireoff the west coast of Ceylon. Amongst theCornwalls casualties were 25 South Africans, and sixteen of their compatriots died when theDorsetshirewent down. Of the two ships total complements of 1 546, 424 were killed.(42)

Many South-Africans served on the HMSCornwall(above), which was lost off Ceylon.

(Photo: By courtesy, SA Naval Museum)

On 9 April 1942, Japanese dive-bombers attacked and sank the aircraft carrier HMS

off the east coast of Ceylon. Amongst those who died, were another sixteen South Africans. On that same day, the Flower Class corvette, the HMS

, was sunk by Japanese aircraft east of Ceylon, and amongst the fatalities were five South Africans. Some time lapsed before the next South African died in action against the Japanese. This occurred on 12 February 1944 when the British troopship SS

was sunk by submarine I-27. About 2 000 of those on board died, including one South African. This appears to have been the last seconded South African to die in action against the Japanese, although at least another two South Africans died while on duty in the Far East: one at HMS Highflyer, a base in Trincomalee, and the other at HMS Lanka, a Royal Navy shore establishment at Colombo.(43) In total, some 4 000 South Africans served in the Royal Navy at one time or another during the war.(44) Of these, 191 are believed to have died while on active service,(45) at least 67 (or 35% of them) in the war against Japan.

The threat of a Japanese penetration into the Indian Ocean rendered the defence of the Union against invasion a matter of urgency. Accordingly, in June 1942, the UDF in South Africa was reorganised into an Inland Area (comprising the Northern, Central and Witwatersrand Commands, with headquarters at Johannesburg) and a Coastal Area (comprising the Fortress Commands of the Cape, Outeniqua, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, with headquarters at Cape Town). Defences at the countrys ports were strengthened and sea and air patrols along the coasts were intensified. Those Active Citizen Force (ACF) units that remained in the country were organised into a Mobile Field Force with headquarters at Ermelo.(46)

Defence Headquarters called for special vigilance against possible attacks from the sea, as well as for the stepping up of internal security.(47) When relations with Japan became strained in July 1941, and especially after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, the threat to the Unions coastline was greatly increased and all coastal batteries were manned with a greater degree of alertness. Towards the end of 1941, the first coloured (Cape Corps) troops made their appearance in the Coast Artillery. They proved to be apt pupils and, by June 1942, formed the largest portion of the detail manning the various batteries.(48) South Africas coast artillery defences were gradually improved and a few South African coast gunners also served outside the Union, such as at Kismayu and Mogadishu in the former Italian Somaliland, which, it was feared, might be threatened by the Japanese.(49) As the threat of invasion decreased during 1944, so too did the strength of coastal artillery units and, by November 1944, all batteries were placed in care and maintenance.(50) Despite South Africa having invested heavily in coast defence during the war, the coastal defence units never fired a shot in anger. Nevertheless, it was a necessary precaution and may well have been a good deterrent.(51)

Over and above coastal guns, South Africas harbours were also protected by other means. The Japanese had attacked Sydney harbour (Australia) and Diego Suarez (Madagascar) with midget submarines and, with a Japanese submarine force operating in the Indian Ocean,(52) Durban harbour, with its long entrance channel, was considered to be exceptionally vulnerable. Loops of electric cable were installed at the harbour entrance, and later also at Cape Town, and depth-charge throwers were introduced at Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, Simons Town and Cape Town. Saldanha Bay was earmarked as a convoy assembly port and, to protect the assembly area in the land-locked bay, a controlled minefield was layed there in l943.(53)

As the situation in the East deteriorated at the beginning of 1942, South Africa braced itself for possible attacks from the sea and air. Towards the end of February 1942, the British War Cabinets Subcommittee on Defence Arrangements for the Indian Ocean envisaged the possibility of brief bombardments of the Unions ports by Japanese battleships, operations by torpedo and minelaying craft, infantry landings, as well as attacks by up to 200 carrier-borne aircraft. Consequently, more anti-aircraft guns were ordered for the defence of the countrys ports.(54) By 23 April 1942, the following anti-aircraft guns existed at the ports: two 3,7-inch guns, four old 3-inch guns and four Bofors guns.(55). By September 1942, the increasing availability of equipment had turned the countrys anti-aircraft port defences into a respectable force, with a total of 104 3,7-inch and 104 40 mm guns and 60 searchlights at Saldanha Bay, Table Bay, Simons Bay, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban.(56) From the beginning of the war, South African air – and later also naval – forces played an important role in watching over the trade routes along the countrys shores. By February 1942, there were 2 002 aircraft in the Union, but of those only 179 were of the operational type and serviceable. Ventura aircraft were used to seek out and attack enemy submarines and, later, the SAAF took over the Royal Air Force (RAF) Catalina squadron that was stationed at Durban. In 1945 this squadron (No 35) switched to Sunderland aircraft.(57)

Far away from enemy air force bases, South Africas air space was ideally suited for training purposes. On 11 April 1940, Smuts announced that the British government had accepted his offer of facilities for training airmen, a scheme with far-reaching consequences for both the RAF and the SAAF. The Joint Air Training Scheme (JATS) virtually commenced its existence on 1 June 1940 and was one of the countrys great success stories during the war, continuing after the war in Europe had ended and providing a steady stream of pilots for the struggle against Japan. By 31 December 1945, the JATS had passed out 33 347 aircrew members at 57 flying schools and depots: 20 800 for the RAF (including about 15 000 pilots and navigators), 12 221 for the SAAF and 326 for other Allied air forces.(58)

When Japan entered the war, the SDF was fully occupied in patrolling South African waters against possible enemy submarine attacks and sweeping mines where necessary. The threat of a Japanese invasion meant that these patrols were to be stepped up. On 1 August 1942, the SDF and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (South African Division), or RNVR(SA), were amalgamated under a new designation, the South African Naval Forces (SANF). All South African officers and men serving in the Royal Navy automatically became SANF seconded personnel.(59)

By the end of 1943, when the war at sea and the threat of a Japanese invasion began to abate as the Allies gradually rolled back the Japanese forces, there were about 4 000 officers and ratings in the SANF and, on 7 December 1943, the SANF had eighteen small antisubmarine vessels and 40 minesweepers.(60) By the end of hostilities in 1945, more than 10 000 officers and men had served in South Africas naval forces, and 89 vessels had, at one stage or other, been in commission.(61)

It must be noted that, on the eve of the war, there had been, for all intents and purposes, no armaments industry in South Africa. Within a remarkable short space of time, a formidable armaments industry had been built up and, by the end of the war, the following arms and ammunition had been produced in the country: 5 770 armoured cars, about 300 3,7-inch ordinary and pack howitzers, at least 300 6-pdr and 100 2-pdr anti-tank guns, 11 323 3-inch mortars, 4 970 502 hand-grenades, 768 314 966 rounds of .303 rifle ammunition, 2 568 652 mortar bombs, more than four million shell bodies, and 3 660 216 aerial bombs, including 3 057 717 practice bombs. Although the countrys armaments industry was never specifically geared towards the struggle against Japan, certain locally manufactured items found their way to the East. For example, most of the 3,7-inch howitzers were exported to India, some of the 6-pdr anti-tank guns were exported to Burma, and many 3-inch mortars, armoured cars and hand-grenades went to India.(62)

Sixteen Fairmile B motor launches were built at Cape Town and Knysna in 1942 and early 1943, all for the Royal Navy and, although these boats were not built for South Africa, they were crewed mainly by South Africans who were originally recruited by the RNVR(S A). These Fairmiles first served in the Persian Gulf and later in the Burmese Arakan front campaign against the Japanese. Thereafter, they were handed over to the Indian Navy.(63)

South-African-manned motor launches in Burmese waters.

(Photo: By courtesy, SA Naval Museum)

The Madagascar campaign, May-November 1942

During the Madagascar campaign, the Allies clashed with the Vichy French defenders on the island, but, in reality, the campaign was directed against the Japanese.

With the fall of France on 22 June 1940, Madag