Forgotten story of a historian let down by history

Reviewer: Archie Henderson

Sights, Sounds, Memories: South African Soldier Experiences in the Second World War, edited by Ian van der Waag (African Sun Media publishers)

Eric Axelson is a forgotten figure of South Africa’s wartime history. He was so often at the frontline that he might even be a forgotten hero. Axelson was a soldier, but he was mostly a historian. Ian van der Waag, himself a military historian, has given a small nudge towards Axelson’s resurrection.

The book is a compelling story in a collection of war stories that includes one of South Africa’s own Private Ryan, white women in the Union Defence Force, South Africa’s black soldiers in captivity and the story of a historian let down by history.

By 1943, Axelson was an established historian at Wits University where he was an expert on Portuguese Africa history. He had followed other academics, among them Leo Marquard and Guy Butler, into uniform and became an information officer in the Union Defence Force (UDF).

He was serving in the Middle East by the end of 1943 when he was posted to Italy where South African soldiers, regrouped after the battles in North Africa into the Sixth SA Armoured Division, were being deployed.

The division was to fight in one of the most difficult terrains of World War 2: the mountains and rivers of Italy. Winston Churchill had believed Italy to be the soft underbelly of enemy-occupied Europe. It proved quite opposite. The ground was perfect for defenders, whom the Allies were attempting to defeat in a great offensive often overshadowed by other campaigns, and certainly the stepchild as far as resources went.

Axelson operated independently from any frontline command and was often resented by the officers who led South African units. They believed they should have some control over him and what he could write.

“The men of the division, focused on warfighting, did not always understand the nature and often strategic implications of Axelson’s duties,” writes Van der Waag. They thought he was performing a “soft job” and he was in a constant battle with authority to obtain material of historical value.

He also clashed with those whose job it was to do “public relations” in the war. The PR lot were often behind the lines “in prime locations, set against scenic slopes alongside streams that offered leisure swimming”.

The head of the PR photographic unit felt no obligation to help Axelson. At least this PR man had no pretensions about his task, saying he was there “for propaganda purposes only” and that the public did not want to see the “ugly side of war”. Axelson’s job was more dispassionate and more dangerous. He was often with the infantry grunts in the trenches.

Axelson might have been something of a free spirit, but he had the backing of  UDF’s general headquarters, who had sent him on a mission to write the history of South Africa’s campaign, which the brass believed would be vital to the country’s future soldiers.

It might have sounded like a cushy job, but Axelson was often in the worst of the fighting. “He had to dart ahead to try to secure any maps the Germans might have left behind [in their retreat],” he told colleagues.

Butler, who would become professor of English at Rhodes University and a renowned author and poet, met Axelson at one stage. He recalled the young historian being weighed down with a heavy pack, carrying a camera and war diaries along with the usual military accoutrements.

Axelson was given a photographer and driver to help, but it didn’t mean that his job was made any easier.

During some of the heaviest fighting, in the summer of 1944, the officer commanding De La Rey Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Bester, was surprised to see Axelson and his photographer in an area that had not yet been cleared of the enemy.

On another occasion, the historian and photographer joined a forward patrol. All of this was done with history in mind: Axelson wanted to get the true picture of the war, not just the neat bits for public consumption.

Van der Waag has made good use of Axelson’s material in the Department of Defence Archives but much of the historian’s original material may now have been lost. The logs he kept and uncensored letters he wrote to Captain John Agar-Hamilton, head of the Union War Histories in Pretoria, were stored in the University of Cape Town’s Jagger Library that recently went up in flames.

The definitive history of South Africa’s role in the Italian campaign has never been written. In bits and pieces histories, Axelson gets no credit. The National Party government, when it came to power in 1948, also put a stop to those writing that history. It’s all a great tragedy of South Africa’s proud history of World War 2. But Van der Waag has given an important chronicler some belated recognition in his story of Axelson.


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