Monday, June 18, 2018
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Book Review: The Story of my War

JH Selfe’s The Story of my War is a title we should see more of. Americans call their World War Two forbears “the greatest generation” and, as has been seen in miniseries such as Band of Brothers and films such as Memphis Belle, Saving Private Ryan and now Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, never tire of telling the story of those illustrious men and women. Centres, such as the D-Day memorial in New Orleans, have also put substantial resources to finding survivors and recording their memories for posterity. Sadly, that veneration does not apply here, and to date, no-one has made much of an effort to take down the recollections of our veterans before they pass beyond living memory – or to fund such an endeavour.


Selfe, a Bishop`s old boy, Rhodes Scholar and diplomat, played a small, but honourable role in World War Two, serving in armoured reconnaissance for the duration. Selfe was a trooper and corporal in Ethiopia, a sergeant in the Western Desert and an officer in Italy. Just over 80 pages in length, the book is no hard read and is largely anecdotal. Believability is enhanced, as in the case of Guy Sajer`s The Forgotten Soldier (see AAFJ March 2002), by the author`s honesty in saying that most of the time he had no clear idea where he was and that equally often one forgot the day of week as they all merged in seeming sameness, especially when one was prohibited from keeping a diary. As a result, the book is also relatively free of quoted speech – who, after all can remember a conversation accurately for 60 years?   


Selfe and his comrades took part in a number of skirmishes in southern Ethiopia and what stands out is that neither the terrain nor the weather was particularly favourable to the primitive armoured cars used by the Union Defence Force in that campaign. At Gil-Gil his unit was in support of the SA Irish. "The rain persisted throughout the three days the battle lasted, it was bitterly cold and no fires could be lit to warm food. Inside our car we at least had some protection… The infantry … in the usual tropical uniform of shorts and shirts had no protection, virtually no food and no chance of a smoke."


With Ethiopia freed from the Italians, his unit was transferred to Egypt, arriving just in time to take part, with the rest of 5 SA Brigade in the "November push" that resulted in the formation`s destruction at Sidi Rezegh. Selfe`s No. 1 Armoured Car Company was the only component of the brigade to survive the melee intact and afterwards became "div troops". At Gazala, Selfe`s unit was based near the sea and deployed forward daily through gaps in the wire and minefields. In the helter-skelter that followed the German attack on the position, Selfe`s 3rd Recce Regiment fell back through Tobruk and formed part of the rearguard during the retreat to the El Alamein line. About that time Selfe returned to the Union for officers` training and on his return to Egypt found his unit amalgamated with the Natal Mounted Rifles – but still an armoured recce unit – albeit now for 6 SA Armoured Division. "Khatatba was for training or re-training, which made sense in that many of the troops had not been ‘up North` before and obviously had a lot to learn. What we found unsatisfactory however was that training in the desert was hardly likely to prepare us for warfare in Europe where the terrain and conditions would obviously be very different…"                      


Once in Italy, the NMR were issued Daimler scout cars, a puny vehicle in which to face German rearguards. The division was moved into line after the fall of Cassino and was given Florence as objective. "This was the pattern, with pockets of enemy having to be engaged and overcome by the leading tank troop if possible before the main armour was committed. Often it was just one gun and its crew, or a single tank well hidden, and the few personnel involved might not fire more than once before making a getaway, sometimes successfully, or on occasions jumping up and surrendering – sometimes in vain if they had inflicted casualties, since men who had seen a tank manned by friends brewed up beside them were disinclined to take prisoners…"                             


The Story of my War

JH Selfe

Syfferdt Publishers

Bapsfontein (Gauteng)