Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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Book Reviews

Sporting Soldiers: South African troops at play during World War I

Sporting Soldiers.For soldiers in the First World War, sport was a way for them to escape the horrors of the battlefield or the monotony and dreadful conditions of prison camps. Sport was a part of soldiers’ lives, yet it is a subject not often touched upon in the various accounts of the Great War.

Endgame: Book Review

Endgame is yet another addition to the growing number of titles exploring aspects of one of the seduction efforts that eventually led to the conception of a democratic South Africa.

Written by noted academic, Professor Willie Esterhuyse, who himself was one of the band of influential Afrikaner South Africans who had clandestine meetings with top ANC representatives in the early nineties, Endgame is well worth the read as well as one of the must haves when it comes to bookshelves on the hows and whys of the democracy South Africa is today.

Starting back in 1987 he takes the reader on a journey involving South African politicians of that time as well as what was to many, the shadowy National Intelligence Service.

To this reviewer the involvement of the then South African government’s security apparatus is telling in that there were people, even then, who realised the writing was on the wall for apartheid and its separate development policies.

Esterhuyse takes the reader through meetings at various sites in England where top Afrikaner academics and businessmen met “the enemy” and realised they simply had to put their backs into it if South Africa was not to drift into civil war with the resultant economic disaster.

From genteel country lodges in the English countryside through to the conviviality that is English pubs there is personal insight into just how the opposing factions got to know each other, gradually building up trust to the stage where all were on the same side in agreeing apartheid must go to be replaced by a constitutional democracy.

Discussions about the release of political prisoners, notably Nelson Mandela, lifting the sports boycott and many others are dealt with in depth, but never in a boring manner.

All the ANC heavyweights are frequently mentioned and quoted as are some of the pillars of Afrikaner academia and business. It’s fascinating.

Whet this reviewer found even more fascinating, taking into account Endgame was only published last year, is how Esterhuyse reflects on the current status of the ANC.

Food for thought comes from this quote: “It is a tragic reality, but indisputably a clearly recognisable face of our country: the ANC government has failed to get direct and structural violence in the country under control.

“We have democracy and freedom, but not safety.

“The kind of violence we experience and the brutality that accompanies it even seems to be getting worse.

“Socio-economic inequalities, in other words, structured violence, have reached grotesque proportions. It contrasts with the obscene forms of materialism and self-enrichment promoted by the ANC leadership.

“What we are experiencing in the so-called post-apartheid era illustrates that freedom does not necessarily establish a culture of peace, nor does it automatically foster reconciliation.”

A comprehensive index as well as detailed notes add extra value for the scholar and Endgame should be required reading for political science students as well as for those with more than a passing interest in how South Africa got to where it is today.

Endgame: secret talks and the end of apartheid
Willie Esterhuyse
Tafelberg, an imprint of NB Publishers


Book review: From Addis to the Aosta Valley

altFrom Addis to the Aosta Valley: A South African in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1940-1945, was originally titled “One of millions,” because author Keith Ford was one of the many millions who served in the Second World War.

However, Ford may have been a little modest. He served for approximately six years on a number of fronts during the War and took part in several major battles, notably El Alamein, and has plenty of stories to tell about his experiences.

Ford enlisted in 1940 and trained as a gunner at Potchefstroom before being deployed to East Africa. He experienced his first combat while serving with the 1st South African Division during the invasion of Italian Somaliland. After Somaliland he was involved in the Abyssinian campaign and was with the victorious Allies when Addis Ababa was liberated.

After success in East Africa, Ford faced the might of Rommel’s army in North Africa. As a Gun Position Officer’s Assistant on 25-pounders with the 1st South African Brigade, he fought from Taieb el Essem, the defensive box south of Sidi Rezegh, to Bir el Gubi, Bardia, Tobruk and Gazala. After his battery was annihilated by German panzers at Agheila, Ford was retrained as a Bofors anti-aircraft gunner, and he was with the Eighth Army at El Alamein.

On posting to Italy in 1944, his Light Anti-Aircraft Unit 1 became D Company Witwatersrand De la Rey Battalion and dug in on the 1944 Winter Line. Ford saw action during the assault and capture of Caprara, the advance to the river Po and finally, St Bernard’s Pass in the Aosta valley.

Ford began writing notes about his experiences after the war with the aim of giving the human side of the story. “In most war stories usually successful and talented men are praised…we were the death or glory boys. Very little has been written about those ordinary people and their fears, hopes and opinions,” Ford said before his passing in May 2013.

Ford wanted to capture how the ‘many millions’ spent their time, from their ablutions and toilet methods to prayers and even angry criticism of the English high command. “When you read this book you will know the South African soldier,” Ford said.

The author’s greatest strength and his greatest weakness is his penchant for detail. He describes almost every aspect of a soldier’s life, which on the one hand is interesting because the reader gets an idea of all the little things that make up the soldier’s experiences – something that is often left out of other books. On the other hand, it can be excruciatingly boring sometimes as we are fed information that is completely irrelevant.

The majority of From Addis to the Aosta Valley is interesting and readable, especially Ford’s journey from naïve young schoolboy to experienced gunner taking on the Germans in North Africa. However, the latter section of the book lags and dwindles away – it is obvious that it is a re-hash of his journals at the end – while the book does not completely fizzle out, the end of it is lacklustre and tedious compared to the energy and detail he brings to the beginning and middle.

If you’re going to read From Addis to the Aosta Valley, a very detailed account of daily life of a South African soldier in Africa, read it fast, lest ye become bogged down in the finer details.

Keith Ford
From Addis to the Aosta Valley: A South African in the North African and Italian Campaigns 1940-1945
Co-published in 2012 by Helion & Company Limited and 30 Degrees South Publishers Limited
ISBN 978-1-920143-72-5
176 pages, 47 black and white photos

Book Review: Tumult in the clouds

altBy his own admission Dean Wingrin is a military aviation junkie and his love of the subject has manifested itself in a 340 page book filled with personal memories and reminiscences of the SA Air Force (SAAF).

“Tumult in the clouds: Stories from the SAAF” is the result of personal interviews and contacts with each and every one of the serving and retired SAAF personnel whose stories go from the formative days of the air force through to its involvement in the World War Two, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, the airborne arm of the then SA Defence Force’s involvement in what was Rhodesia, the Bush War, the SAAF in democratic South Africa and display flying.

All told there are 158 contributions ranging from Vincent van Ryneveld, great-grandson of SAAF founder Sir Pierre, to names that have become legendary as a result of exploits in various theatres and will resonate with those either still serving or retired.

The compiler’s decision to publish his interviews in the first person “as unvarnished, unabbreviated and intensely immediate and personal recollections” does, for this reviewer, not always work. But this does not detract in any way from what individuals did while serving in the SAAF.

There are tales or bravery and heroism, many rewarded by the Honoris Crux, and there are also interesting recollections of different bases, different places and the humorous side of life, be it in theatre during conflict or on base in peacetime.

It will become part of South Africa’s military aviation history because in the words of retired SAAF Chief Lieutenant General Dennis Earp “people should write down their personal memories of their time in the SAAF. Sadly, one day they will not be around to tell them”.

This in a way was one of the drivers that saw Wingrin get a move on with the project.

“The death of Porky Rich, just days after I interviewed him forcibly brought home to me that many of those who had stories to tell wouldn’t be around forever.”

For those who have a passion for military aviation and its exponents “Tumult” is a must. Not only to read and bring back memories but also as a reference work on the exploits of the many who have, over the years, proudly worn the blue uniform.

Tumult in the clouds

Dean Wingrin

30 Degrees South Publishers


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