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The springboks in East Africa: the role of 1 SA Survey Company (SAEC) in the East African campaign of World War II, 1940–1941

Elri Liebenberg


As a member of the British Commonwealth, South Africa was part of Britain’s war effort from September 1939 onward. When Italy entered the War on the side of Germany on 10 June 1940, the territories governed by Italy in East Africa comprised Abyssinia together with Eritrea, now part of Ethiopia, and Italian Somaliland, now part of the Somali Democratic Republic. Although pre-war plans did not anticipate that the South African (SA) Army would fight outside southern Africa, Italy’s involvement in northeast Africa made it inevitable that SA troops would be deployed to the new war front.

The SA forces (nicknamed ‘Springboks’ in the media) played a major role in the demise of Mussolini’s East African Empire. The war was fought under extreme physical conditions, and it was especially the SAEC (South African Engineering Corps) who rendered invaluable service. By 1940 East Africa was still largely unmapped, and one of the SAEC units, 1 SA Survey Company (initially named the 1st Field Survey Company), supported by 60 Photographic Squadron of the SA Air Force (SAAF), mapped large parts of the war zone and provided essential military intelligence.

Although the role the SAEC as a whole played in the East African Campaign has received attention in publications on South Africa’s involvement in World War II, little attention has been paid to the essential cartographical services rendered by 1 SA Survey Company. This article deals with the formation and subsequent successful deployment of 1 SA Survey Company in Kenya, and the former Abyssinia and Somaliland, and the maps it produced for strategic and combat purposes. Attention is given to the operational structure of the Company, the mapping policy decisions the Company had to adhere to, the way the company sections operated in the field, the prevailing conditions under which the men worked, and the types of map that were produced.

Keywords: war, map, East Africa, survey, aerial photograph