From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh: The Union Defence Force’s First Experience of Battle in East and North Africa, 1940-1941
South Africa entered the Second World War on the side of Great Britain in
September 1939 and, in spite of extensive changes and an increased budget, the Union Defence Force (UDF) found itself in a state of war on 7
September 1939 with a Permanent Force of only 5 400 men with limited
training and antiquated equipment. While Hitler’s armies conquered
Western Europe the Springboks prepared to go North and in spite of
trepidations about the might of Mussolini’s East African Empire the First
South African Infantry Division set sail for East Africa in mid-July 1940. In
five short months, Mussolini’s East African Empire had been torn to shreds.
Victorious in every major engagement, the South Africans embarked for
Egypt in June 1941. Here they encountered similar logistical problems as
were prevalent before they embarked for East Africa. With two divisions in
the field and a third in training, UDF planners had a trying time marshalling enough motorised transport to enable the Springboks to keep pace with the increased mobility that was a hallmark of desert warfare. Expecting to build on their success over the Italians the South Africans confidently went into battle, but by November 1941, the 5th South African Infantry Brigade was annihilated and the victors of East Africa badly mauled. Fighting lowmoraled Italian armies in the bush and mountains of Abyssinia was quite easy; beating the Germans in the desert would be a different story altogether.
Keywords: South Africa, Second World War, UDF, first battles, Abyssinia,