|History of South Africa|
This article is part of a series
|1652 to 1815|
|1815 to 1910|
|1910 to 1948|
|1948 to 1994|
|1994 to present|
South Africa Portal
The Union of South Africa was tied closely to the British Empire, and automatically joined with Great Britain and the allies against the German Empire. Both Prime Minister Louis Botha and Defence Minister Jan Smuts, both former Second Boer War generals who had fought against the British then, but who now became active and respected members of the Imperial War Cabinet. (See Jan Smuts during World War I.)
South Africa was part of significant military operations against Germany. In spite of Boer resistance at home, the Afrikaner-led government of Louis Botha unhestitatingly joined the side of the Allies of World War I and fought alongside its armies. The South African Government agreed to the withdrawal of British Army units so that they were free to join the European war, and laid plans to invade German South-West Africa. Elements of the South African army refused to fight against the Germans and along with other opponents of the Government rose in open revolt. The government declared martial law on 14 October 1914, and forces loyal to the government under the command of General Louis Botha and Jan Smuts proceeded to destroy the Maritz Rebellion. The leading Boer rebels got off lightly with terms of imprisonment of six and seven years and heavy fines. (See World War I and the Maritz Rebellion.)
The South African Union Defence Force saw action in a number of areas:
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. 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.
There is no question that South Africa greatly assisted the Allies, and Great Britain in particular, in capturing the two German colonies of German West Africa and German East Africa (although many South African troops were tied down by the failure to capture all the German East Africa forces) as well as in battles in Western Europe and the Middle East. South Africa's ports and harbors, such as at Cape Town, Durban, and Simon's Town, were also important rest-stops, refueling-stations, and served as strategic assets to the British Royal Navy during the war, helping to keep the vital sea lanes to the British Raj open.
On the eve of World War II the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. While it was closely allied with Great Britain, being a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with its head of state being the British king, the South African Prime Minister on September 1, 1939 was Barry Hertzog, the leader of the pro-Afrikaner anti-British National party that had joined in a unity government as the United Party.
Herzog's problem was that South Africa was constitutionally obligated to support Great Britain against Nazi Germany. The Polish-British Common Defence Pact obligated Britain, and in turn its dominions, to help Poland if attacked by the Nazis. After Hitler's forces attacked Poland on the night of August 31, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany within a few days. A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the halls of power in the Parliament of South Africa, that pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain's side, led by the pro-Allied, pro-British Afrikaner, ex-General, and former Prime Minister Jan Smuts against then-current Prime Minister Barry Hertzog who wished to keep South Africa "neutral", if not pro-Axis.
On September 4, 1939, the United Party caucus refused to accept Hertzog's stance of neutrality in World War II and deposed him in favor of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister of South Africa, Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany and the Axis. Smuts immediately set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa's global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.
Smuts took severe action against the pro-Nazi South African Ossewabrandwag movement (they were caught committing acts of sabotage) and jailed its leaders for the duration of the war. (One of them, John Vorster, was to become future Prime Minister of South Africa.) (See Jan Smuts during World War II.)
Prime Minister Jan Smuts was the only important non-British general whose advice was constantly sought by Britain's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Smuts was invited to the Imperial War Cabinet in 1939 as the most senior South African in favour of war. In 28 May 1941, Smuts was appointed a Field Marshal of the British Army, becoming the first South African to hold that rank. Ultimately, Smuts would pay a steep political price for his closeness to the British establishment, to the King, and to Churchill which had made Smuts very unpopular among the conservative nationalistic Afrikaners, leading to his eventual downfall, whereas most English-speaking whites and a minority of liberal Afrikaners in South Africa remained loyal to him. (See Jan Smuts during World War II.)
South Africa and its military forces contributed in many theaters of war. South Africa's contribution consisted mainly of supplying troops, men and material for the North African campaign (the Desert War) and the Italian Campaign as well as to Allied ships that docked at its crucial ports adjoining the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean that converge at the tip of Southern Africa. Numerous volunteers also flew for the Royal Air Force. (See: South African Army in World War II; South African Air Force in World War II; South African Navy in World War II; South Africa's contribution in World War II.)
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 "coloureds" and Asians), nearly 9,000 were killed in action.
South Africa emerged from the Allied victory with its prestige and national honor enhanced as it had fought tirelessly for the Western Allies. South Africa's standing in the international community was rising, at a time when the Third World's struggle against colonialism had still not taken center stage. In May 1945, Prime Minister Smuts represented South Africa in San Francisco at the drafting of the United Nations Charter. Just as he did in 1919, Smuts urged the delegates to create a powerful international body to preserve peace; he was determined that, unlike the League of Nations, the United Nations would have teeth. Smuts signed the Paris Peace Treaty, resolving the peace in Europe, thus becoming the only signatory of both the treaty ending the First World War, and that ending the Second.
However, internal political struggles in the disgruntled and essentially impoverished Afrikaner community would soon come to the fore leading to Smuts' defeat at the polls in the 1948 elections (in which only whites and coloureds could vote) at the hands of a resurgent National Party after the war. This began the road to South Africa's eventual isolation from a world that would no longer tolerate any forms of political discrimination or differentiation based on race only.