Among the more than 4300 allied prisoners of war held on Taiwan during World War II there were three South Africans. Lambert Rees, Lieutenant, Royal Engineers; William Reid, Sapper, Royal Engineers and John M. Henderson, Private, Royal Army Service Corps were all attached to the British Army and took part in the battles for Malaya and Singapore. After capture by the Japanese they were brought to Taiwan on the hellship England Maru in August 1942 with General Percival’s group, and while he and the other senior officers moved on to Karenko Camp, Rees, Reid, Henderson and many of the ‘enlisted men’ were held at the Heito POW Camp. There they slaved in the hot tropical sun clearing rocks and stones from an old river bed so that sugar cane could be planted. The rocks and stones they gathered were used by the Japanese to build airfields on the island and in the construction of the naval harbour at Tsoying.
Most of the men brought to Taiwan in that first group from Singapore were ultimately destined for slave labour in Japan, and so after two months at Heito Camp, the three men were loaded aboard another hellship, the Dainichi Maru on November 13th 1942 and sent on to Japan to Yokohama Camp-01D where most of the other ranks and a few of the officers were put to work in the Mitsubishi Company shipyards. Later when that camp was bombed by the Americans, they were moved north to Sendai Camp 6 where they finished the war.
Upon arrival in Japan many of the remaining officers from Heito were sent to Zentsuji Camp for the better part of the next two years and Lt Rees was a part of this group. Later as the war progressed a number of the officers were moved to other camps and Lt. Rees was sent to Omori Camp and was evacuated from there when the war ended.
The Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society wants to ensure that the memory of all the former Taiwan POWs, including those from the other Commonwealth countries of Canada, New Zealand and South Africa are remembered, as well those from countries who had the majority of POWs on Taiwan. Board member Mark Wilkie, a South African, has given us a message on remembrance with regards to South Africa’s involvement in the War against Japan - little of which is known or remembered today. We must never forget the contribution given by ALL those who fought and died for our freedom!
South Africa did her duty alongside the rest of the British Empire in the Great War and her forces served in South West Africa, East Africa, Palestine and on the Western Front. Within days of the declaration of war, Empire and Dominion Forces in Africa saw action even before British Forces did in France and Belgium. On 7th August 1914, a combined British and French force invaded the German protectorate of Togoland in West Africa. On 10th August 1914, German forces from German South West Africa crossed the northern border of the Union of South Africa’s Cape Province in a daring raid. They were driven back by Union Forces and an invasion of German South West Africa followed shortly thereafter.
With the outbreak of the war the government attempted to mobilize the nation for the war effort. The English South Africans supported this but many Afrikaners rebelled and several of the commandos (those would be Boer [Afrikaans] “regiments” that were established during the Boer War) actually took up arms against the Union. They weren't going to fight for Britain when they had been at war with her just 12 years before. It was a very serious problem because they were openly pro-German and the Cape sea route and the mines were not something that Britain wanted in German hands. Union Prime Minister, Louis Botha and his deputy Jan Smuts, both great Boer generals, remained loyal to the Crown. They were able to raise Boers loyal to the Crown to put down the rebellion. They had to use Boers because if the English got involved it would have sparked another Boer War. One other point to note is that South Africa supplied the bulk of the labour force on the Western Front in the form of the African Labour Corps.
With the outbreak of World War II, South Africa was again divided on going to war. The Prime Minister, Hertzog was against it. The opposition, headed by Smuts, was able to pass a vote of no confidence and topple the Hertzog government. This saw South Africa declare war on Germany on 5th September 1939. Because of the pro-German Afrikaner issue, South Africa didn't conscript its soldiers. All the South African Forces were volunteers. The majority of South Africans did support going to war. Many Afrikaners and non-whites enlisted, too. There was however a small hardcore group of Afrikaners that was openly pro-Nazi and they even waged an underground war against the Allied effort. There was the famous attempted assassination of Smuts by the German-South African Olympic Champion boxer and Nazi spy, Roby Leibrandt.
South Africa proudly did her part in the war alongside the other Commonwealth nations. One aspect of the war that is often overlooked is South Africa's special role as a major supplier of war materials to the Allies. This is especially true for the war against Japan. When Japan entered the war most of South Africa's forces were committed to the effort against the Germans and Italians. The South African forces had seen action quite early in the war in East Africa in 1940. The Air Force was also involved very early on and saw action in France and the Battle of Britain.
When Japan entered the war, South Africa suddenly was the only major supply option for that theatre of war for the Empire. Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya had been lost. India, Australia and New Zealand were directly threatened and all their efforts and supplies were needed at home for their immediate defence. The supplies they had been sending to Europe had to stop immediately and South Africa had to plug the gap and defend the sea route to the East via the Cape. South Africa was the only nation in a position to supply the Empire war effort in the East. The British couldn't do it. The Americans had their own effort starting from the Pacific side, and then the “Germany First” policy meant their supplies had to be sent to Britain and the other Allies in Europe. South Africa had to step up and largely supply materiel for the war against the Japanese and to a large extent cover the shortfall of supplies from India and Australia to the war effort in North Africa and later for Italy.
With the loss of Singapore and the dangers to Allied shipping around Gibraltar, the only harbour outside of Britain really capable of handling repairs to very large warships like aircraft carriers was Durban. Cape Town’s huge dry docks were quickly enlarged and Cape Town and Durban became a major centre for repairs to Empire ships and a very important repair and supply station for all Allied ships, too. During the war six million men passed through South African ports in naval convoys while their ships were repaired, refueled and equipped.
South Africa had considerable heavy industry because of the mines, and this industry was converted to the war effort. Many vehicles, gun boats, barges, arms etc used in Burma and later in other parts, came from South African factories. It was said the Empire marched on South African-made boots and slept on South African-made blankets.
While all the Commonwealth nations knuckled down and did their bit to produce, South Africa found itself in a unique situation and in many ways became the "Commonwealth's" supply depot. While both my grandfathers were fighting up North, my grandmothers served in the Women's Auxiliary Forces on the home front. The one was a truck driver and the other worked on radar.
Because of South Africa's unique political situation at the start of the war and that conscription couldn't be used, a lot of South Africans went straight into British units and that is why South Africa had high numbers of men that served in British units (some also landed up in Aussie and other units). If you look at the Southern African War Graves, you see almost 200 in Burma and others from Indonesia to Japan to Papua New Guinea.
South African Hurricanes on a mission in N. Africa
South Africa didn't really have a Navy at the start of the war as the big naval base in Cape Town belonged to the British Royal Navy, so South Africans largely served in the Royal Navy not the South African Navy. The South African Navy Service was a kind of coast guard affair before the war. Once the war was underway, the South African Navy Service was enlarged and many South Africans serving in the Royal Navy were then transferred across to the new South African Navy. On the whole there were still a lot of South Africans that remained “seconded” to the Royal Navy, even to the extent that some ships were totally crewed by South African RN crews. This explains why there were many South Africans serving on ships in the Far East. South Africans were lost on the HMS Repulse, HMS Encounter, HMS Cornwell, HMS Dorsetshire, HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock.
The South African Prime Minister, Field Marshal Jan Smuts had been concerned about Vichy French forces on Madagascar since the fall of France. When Japan entered the war it was imperative that something be done about Madagascar before the Japanese could use it as a springboard for an invasion of east and southern Africa .The planned invasion of Madagascar was called Operation Ironclad. In May 1942 a joint British and South African force headed for Madagascar. The first Allied amphibious assault of the war was made by the British at Diego Suarez on the 5th May. The French forces on Madagascar finally surrendered on 5th November 1942.
By late May 1942 the Japanese 8th Submarine Flotilla (including two auxiliary cruisers and two aircraft) under the command of Rear Admiral Ishizaki were hunting Allied ships along the southern African coast. They torpedoed and damaged the battleship HMS Ramillies and a British tanker during the Allied invasion of Madagascar. During the operation, two Japanese midget submarines were destroyed. From 5th June to 8th July the Japanese 8th Submarine Flotilla sank 22 Allied merchant ships off the Southern African coast. With increasing South African anti-submarine air and naval patrols along the southern African coast, the large Allied force rapidly gaining control of Madagascar and the Japanese defeat at Midway, the Japanese 8th Submarine Flotilla left the area to assist in efforts elsewhere. Three years later, Comdr A.P. Cartwright of the South African Navy would represent South Africa on the deck of the USS Missouri at the signing of the Japanese Surrender in Tokyo Bay.
Later, during the Korean War elements of the South African Air Force served with great distinction and pride.
OK, fast forward to 1960. Apartheid was a big problem. British PM Harold MacMillan made his famous "Winds of Change" speech in the South African Parliament. This sparked a crisis. Britain had given South Africa an ultimatum. South Africa was faced with a referendum - remain with Britain, which meant rejecting Apartheid, or break away from Britain and become a Republic. It was a white only vote. Remember Britain, too, had a hand in the racial laws of South Africa so bore much of the co-responsibility for what had gone on in South Africa up until this point. The white population was 60% Afrikaans - 40% English. The British South Africans couldn't outvote the Afrikaners. The referendum came in pro Republic by the narrowest of margins, 50.5% for to 49.5% against. Regardless of the unanimous declaration in the referendum by the British South Africans to remain with Britain, South Africa got cut off and kicked out of the Commonwealth and later the United Nations.
Apart from it's expulsion from international events like the Olympics, South Africa was “systematically” removed from much of the Commonwealth’s history. Previously it had been Britain with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Suddenly South Africa wasn't there anymore. As anniversaries of wars and battles came along, the memory of South Africa was simply erased. As time went on it just became the norm. The Great War was Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. World War II was Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. One can watch documentaries on the War in North Africa and Italy and not a mention of South Africa is made. Quite often they actually show footage of South African troops but say they are British. This purge of South Africa's involvement in the war created tremendous bitterness and hurt for South African WWII veterans. The South African English really felt that the British and Commonwealth had just cut them off and abandoned them.
Our grandfathers’ efforts in the two World Wars, the Berlin Airlift and Korea were "erased and forgotten." They felt belittled and hurt. South Africa played her part in helping to bring down the Japanese. Admittedly, it was more with materials than with men, but men need materials to fight. Still South Africans did spill blood against the Japanese, and there were men like John M. Henderson, William Reid and Lambert Rees who ended up as FEPOWs. How South Africa plugged the gap for the Empire when Japan entered the war has been largely purged from history.
South Africa is now once again a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. South African forces are presently engaged in peace keeping missions in Central Africa, and other South Africans - just like many of their grandfathers before them, proudly serve in the British forces. To date, 13 have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men all need to be remembered too, along with those who have gone before - because they deserve it, just as their country should also be remembered for its efforts!
Mark Wilkie - is a South African who has been living and working in Taiwan for the past 13 years. Since 2005 he has served on the board of directors of the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society.
Mark was conscripted in the late 80’s and served in the Medics. He later served in 1 Medical Battalion (Natal Medical Volunteers) and finally in the Transvaal Scottish Regiment, one closely aligned with the famous Black Watch, Royal Highland Regiment.
Mark saw active service in the South African conflict of the late 80’s and early 90’s. He knows what it’s like to be in conflict as our men in Afghanistan are today.
Mark also had two grandfathers who served with the South African Forces in Abyssinia, North Africa and Italy during World War II. One narrowly escaped becoming a POW by capturing a German truck with a mate and driving it out from behind German lines when the 8th Army’s 5th South African Infantry Brigade, which was part of the 1st South African Infantry Division. were overrun at Sidi Rezegh, near Tobruk, during Operation Crusader in November 1941.
Mark is committed to ensuring that the memory of South Africans who served their country will not be forgotten. Here in Taiwan we are going to ensure that this happens too.