South African Army 1939-40
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On 3rd September 1939 the South African Army consisted of three parts: the South African Permanent Force, the Active Citizen Force and the Defence Rifle Associations (also known as the Commandos). The Permanent Force was generally formed into an infantry component, which consisted primarily of the Special Service Battalion and the Pioneer Battalion, and an artillery component, whose role was mainly coast defence.
The Special Service Battalion was created as an outgrowth of the depression in order to employ young men who could not find employment elsewhere. On 15 September 1939, the battalion was expanded at Robert's Heights in Transvaal to form the 1st Special Service Brigade with the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Special Service Battalions. The 3rd Battalion was organized as a junior unit while the first two battalions were adult units. The 3rd Battalion was not completely formed unitl after Christmas 1939 and was never brought up to full strength. In addition, the 2nd Special Service Brigadewas also raised at Robert's Heights on 1 September from the Class 'A' Reservists of the Special Service Battalion and was organized into 4th and 5th Special Service Battalions. A 1st Special Service Reserve Battalion was also formed in 1939, but it was converted to 1st (Transvaal) Battalion of the First Reserve Brigade on 29 February 1940. The Pioneer Battalion had been formed in 1934 from men in the age range 18-30, who were not educationally qualified for the Special Service Battalion. This unit was authorized on 15 September 1939 to recruit up to a strength of 3000, but by the end of the year it was absorbed into the Special Service Battalion. Later in 1941, the Pioneer Battalion became a component of the Youth Training Brigade.
Both 1st and 2nd Special Service Brigades were short-lived. The 1st Special Service Brigade was to be organised as an Active Citizen Force Brigade on 1 June 1940 on a war basis and the personnel were asked to take the Extended Service Oath (or Africa Oath). Since only one-third were willing to take the oath, the brigade was broken up and the Special Service Battalion was once again organized as a standard volunteer battalion for home service at the end of June. Many of the men were drafted to the Field Force Battalions on 1 February 1940. The 2nd Special Service Brigade was converted to the Field Force Brigade at Ladysmith on 1 February 1940 and 4th and 5th Battalions were reformed as 1st, 2nd and 3rd Field Force Battalions. Even though the 3rd Battalion was slated to be part of the brigade, there were not enough volunteers to form three battalions so it was dropped on 29 March 1940. This brigade was renamed 2nd South African Infantry Brigade on 13 May 1940 and mobilized for service under 1st South African Infantry Division on 22 May 1940 at Premier Mine.
The Mobile Field Force was 15 September 1939 to command any South African Divisions raised. Planned at this point were two Active Citizen Force Divisions and GHQ Troops of two mounted and two dismounted brigades. First of the formations raised under the Mobile Field Force were 1st and 2nd Mounted Brigades. These were raised in November 1939 at Ladysmith and consisted of 1st to 6th Mounted Regiments along with 1st Field Squadron, SAEC. The brigades were formed into 1st Mounted Commando Division at Piet Retief on 10 June 1940 and mobilized in July 1940. The formation was short-lived and was disbanded on 1 February 1941 and reformed as 1st, 2nd and 3rd Mounted Commandos. These Mounted Commandos were later absorbed into the South African Tank Corps.
The men who remained in the Defence Rifles Associations at the start of war were formed into Commandos of a minimum of 600 members. Many men joined theMounted Brigades listed above. On 30 June 1936 there were 1382 different DRAs or Commandos in South Africa. This informal part-time organization were later formed into home-service divisions during the war. Many were called up to join the Active Citizen Force on 19 March 1940.
The major portion of the South African Army that served overseas came from the pre-war Active Citizen Force (ACF). The ACF consisted of twenty-seven infantry battalions organized into nine brigades based on province. From September through December 1939, nine additional battalions were raised:
1st Pretoria Highlanders - Pretoria, Transvaal - 21 September 1939
1st South-West African Infantry Battalion - Windhoek, South-West Africa - 22 September 1939
2nd Rand Light Infantry - Krugersdorp, Transvaal - October 1939
3rd Transvaal Scottish - Benoni, Transvaal - 16 October 1939
1st South African Irish Regiment - Johannesburg, Transvaal - 1 November 1939
2nd Regiment Botha - North of Nystroom, Transvaal - 1 November 1939
2nd Imperial Light Horse - Johannesburg, Transvaal - 1 November 1939
2nd Witwatersrand Rifles - Springs, Transvaal - 21 November 1939
2nd Natal Mounted Rifles - Greytown, Natal - 1 December 1939
These units along with the associated artillery and engineers would form the bulk of the Mobile Field Force. In March 1940, these 36 battalions were tentatively organised into twelve brigades. Since both 1st and 2nd Field Force Battalions, formed from the Special Service Battalion, and the newly formed 1st and 2nd South African Police were included in this structure, itleft four extra battalions not assigned to any brigade. Because of difficulties in recruiting and the Africa Oath, some units did not mobilized or were aborbed by others. Some units transferred to the newly formed South African Tank Corps as well. There were many changes in the organization of the brigades by the time they were mobilized in May-July 1940.
During the first two years of the war, South Africa raised a variety of units. In order to cope with protection of vulnerable points and guarding prisoners of war, the First Reserve Brigade was formed on 29 February 1940 initially with six battalions but later expanded to twelve battalions before being broken up at the end of 1943. The brigade drafted men of 'B' and 'C' Medical Categories primarily for guard duties at aerodromes. It became part of the National Reserve Volunteers of the Commandos on 7 April 1942. 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Battalions served in the Middle East. The Commando National Reserve Volunteers were formed on 16 October 1940 along lines similar to the Reserve Brigade. It was based on the pre-war Commandos (DRAs) and had twenty-two detachments. This part-time force was formed into 5th South African Armoured Division. The National Volunteer Brigade was formed on 1 October 1940 as a part-time unit of the Active Citizen Force. It trained and recruited twelve battalions (1st-12th). It consisted of members of the Police Reseve and Civic Guard and up to 1941 was a Police Reserve, not military, formation. It was reorganized in 1941 with its coast battalions transferring to the Coast Defence Corps and inland battalions organized as infantry battalions. Only four battalions were left by 1942.
The Railways and Harbour Brigade was disbanded in 1928 when its Medical Section and two armoured trains were absorbed into the Active Citizen Force. It was reestablished on 1 April 1940 with HQ in Johannesburg. It was organized with two infantry battalions, four armoured trains and an Operating Group in the Engineer Field. It formed No. 1 Railway Engineering Battalion on 10 September 1940 at Germiston, which was known as the Railway Construction and Maintenance Group. This Group consiste of 38th, 39th and 40th Railway Construction Companies and 41st Harbour Construction Company, all of which served in the Middle East. Similarly, a Mines Engineering Brigade was formed in the Rand with two battalions by December 1940. The North Rand Battalion had five companies and the South-East Rand Battalion had four companies. By 1942, it formed an Armoured Car Brigade.
The Essential Services Protection Corps was formed on 24 October 1939 of men over 45 with Corps HQ established at Pretoria on 29 October 1939. Companies were initially established at Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth and East London. This corps guarded all bridges and worked in close cooperation with the Railways and Harbour Brigade. A Seaward Defence Force was established in November 1940 and was later renamed the Coast Defence Corps. It absorbed the National Volunteer Brigade battalions on the coast in 1941 and by 1942 it had fifteen battalions. It further expanded in 1943 to include Armoured Car Commandos.
Native military units were also established during the war. The Cape Corps was reformed on 8 May 1940 and recruitedColoured volunteers to train at Kimberley. By 20 May 1940, the Corps had a Pioneer Battalion and five motor transport companies. The Corps expanded rapidly during the war to include Motorized Infantry Battalions, POW Guard Battalions, POW Escort Battalions as well as Infantry Battalions. Corps units served in East Africa and the Middle East.The Native Labour Corps was formed on 1 June 1940. It was later called the Native Military Guards Brigade and still later the Native Military Corps. It had ten battalions at peak that did guard duty equipped with assegais (spears). The Indian Services Corps was established on 26 June 1940. It also changed names to the Indian and Moslem Corps on 11 September and the Indian and Malay Corps on 6 November 1940. The role of this corps was motor transport and pioneer. It was amalgamated with the Cape Corps on 13 October 1942.
At the start of the war, South African had no armoured units. Some of the Active Citizen Force units, such as the Imperial Light Horse, had cavalry titles but all were infantry battalions. Only the Defence Rifle Associations maintained mounted units. As mentioned above, a Mounted Commando Division was formed during the war but this eventually was converted to armoured units. Many armoured car, tank and motorcycle companies were formed during the first half of 1940. These were eventually formed into units of the South African Tank Corps. The South African Tank Corps (SATC) had its beginnings in the formation of 1st Armoured Car Company, which was raised from the Permanent Force on 31 January 1940. The personnel of this company went on to form 1st Light Tank Company in May 1940 and moved to Kenya on 1 June 1940 equipped with 12 Mk III Light Tanks. As additional companies were formed or about to be formed, it was necessary to establish an organization for these units. The 1st Battalion, The South African Tank Corps was established at Robert's Heights on 23 May 1940 as a holding unit for the 1st Light Tank Company, 1st and 2nd Armoured Car Companies and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Motorcycle Companies. The 1st Battalion was reorganized on 15 July 1940 into Nos. 1 and 2 Armoured Fighting Vehicle Battalions, but both battalion were later disestablished since many units had transferred to East Africa. The following units of the SATC were formed during 1940:
1st Light Tank Company - Raised May 1940 from original 1st Armoured Car Company.
1st Armoured Car Company - Reconstituted in May 1940.
2nd Armoured Car Company - Raised in April 1940 from the South African Police.
3rd Armoured Car Company - Raised in May 1940 from volunteers.
4th Armoured Car Company - Raised in June 1940 from volunteers.
5th Armoured Car Company - Raised in June 1940 from volunteers.
11th Armoured Car Company - Raised on 1 September 1940 from Regiment Suid-Westelike Distrikte.
12th Armoured Car Company - Raised on 1 September 1940 from Regiment Westelike Provinsie.
13th Armoured Car Company - Raised 3 October 1940 from 2nd Imperial Light Horse.
14th Armoured Car Company - Raised 3 October 1940 from 2nd Royal Natal Carabineers.
21st Armoured Car Company - Raised 1940 from the Railways and Harbour Brigade.
22nd Armoured Car Company - Raised 1940 from the Railways and Harbour Brigade.
23rd Armoured Car Company - Raised 1940 from the Railways and Harbour Brigade.
24th Armoured Car Company - Raised 1940 from the Railways and Harbour Brigade.
31st Armoured Car Company - Raised 1940 from the Special Service Battalion.
34th Armoured Car Company - Raised January 1941 from the Cape Town Highlanders.
1st Motorcycle Company - Raised May 1940 from the South African Police.
2nd Motorcycle Company - Raised May 1940.
3rd Motorcycle Company - Raised May 1940.
A number of the companies served in East Africa (1st Light Tank Company; 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 13th, 14th Armoured Car Companies; and 1st, 2nd Motorcycle Companies). By 1941, all companies were absorbed into battalions of the South African Tank Corps. The South African Tank Corps was to be short-lived and was absorbed into the South African Armoured Corps in 1943.
Until May 1940, the majority of the South African Army had not mobilized. The only exception was the 2nd Special Service Brigade (Field Force Brigade on 1 February 1940). Italy's possible entry into the war changed that and the South African Army began to mobilize in May. The initial plan was to create a Mobile Field Force with six brigades along with divisional troops. In addition, two mounted and two dismounted brigades were to be included along with supporting artillery and tanks. The force was to be ready two months after mobilization. An additional home defence division of three brigades was also be raised along with up to four Defence Rifle Association divisions of three brigades each. In reality, three ACF divisions each of three brigades were formed and the two mounted brigades already formed were organized into the 1st Mounted Commando Division on 10 June 1940. The 1st South African Division was formed with 1st, 2nd and 5th Brigades on 13 August 1940; the 2nd South African Division with 3rd, 4th, and 6th Brigades was raised on 23 October 1940; and the 3rd South African Division was also raised on 23 October 1940 with 7th, 8th and 9th Brigades. The mobilization began on 23 May 1940 and was accomplished by the end of the year. Many units were immediately despatched to East Africa and served there through 1941.
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