Military historian does a fine job remembering a forgotten campaign

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

South Africans versus Rommel: The Untold Story of the Desert War in World War II by David Brock Katz (Jonathan Ball)

saffers vs rommelErwin Rommel gets more play in the title than in the book itself. That’s because David Katz’s original publisher, the American group Stackpole, which specialises in military books, believes that Rommel sells, just as Montgomery does, or Patton.

Stackpole might be right and now Jonathan Ball has published a paperback version that is likely to do well on the South African market. Katz’s book lives up to the first part of its title in drama and detail, of which there are plenty of both.

To be flippant for a moment about a serious book, if the title sounds a bit like a sports fixture, Rommel wins two-nil. His Panzer Army destroyed a South African brigade during the battles around Sidi Rezegh in Libya in the northern winter of 1941, then he captured an entire South African division at Tobruk six months later. The two events were among the greatest three disasters suffered by South African soldiers, Delville Wood in World War 1 being the other.

Katz, who is a serving officer in the SA Irish regiment of the SA National Defence Force and a highly regarded military historian, has picked up on a forgotten history of South African arms in World War 2. He examines in detail the reasons for the humiliations and does not shirk when it comes to assigning the blame: British commanders.

What makes this book so valuable is that there are generations of South Africans who have little or no idea of what their ancestors did in the war.

Soon after victory over the Axis forces in 1945, the United Party that took the country into the war on the Allied side lost an election in 1948, presaging the apartheid government of the National Party. The Nats had been against the war and saw no reason to remember it, or glorify South Africa’s participation. A valuable history being written on the war was shelved, for costs, they said, but it was clear that it was more for ideological reasons. Only two books, Crisis in the Desert and the Sidi Rezegh Battles, survived and are now collectors’ items.

Katz has revived that history and deserves great credit for doing so.

As for Rommel, he might have won the two battles, but the South Africans, along with their many allies which included Indians, Aussies and New Zealanders, redeemed themselves at the Battle of El Alamein in October and November 1942. After that gruesome and desperate bit of fighting, Rommel never won another battle against them. He might have fought the green Americans to a brief standstill at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia in 1943, but after Alamein it was all over for him. He returned to Europe, was given the task of setting up defences on the coast of France against the invasion that became known as D-Day, and was implicated in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944, leading to his enforced suicide.

As for South African troops, they were withdrawn from the Alamein battle after its first phase, Lightfoot, and were retrained as an armoured division, serving until the end of the war in Italy, where they were involved in some grim fighting. That campaign has been sadly neglected and let’s hope that Katz can apply his skill as a historian to another part of our country’s role in the war that has been forgotten.


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