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Book Reviews

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


Book Review: The Battle in Bangui: The Untold Inside Story

altThis 40-page publication is a “must read” for everyone in uniform as well as those charged with decision-making in the South African military, particularly the SA National Defence Force’s political masters.

Written by top South African defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman, “The Battle in Bangui: The Untold Inside Story” gives an insight into just how bravely the outnumbered contingent of South African soldiers performed in the long, high intensity firefight they found themselves in between March 22 and 24, 2013, and which resulted in the overthrow of the Central African Republic’s President Francois Bozize.

The book also gives background into what the soldiers were doing in the Central African Republic (CAR) in the first place and draws out a number of lessons learned during the incident. “The Battle in Bangui” raises interesting questions, like should a larger force have been sent, what choices did Commander-in-Chief President Jacob Zuma have, and importantly, what were the lessons learned.

Heitman has no problems with the manner in which the South African soldiers acquitted themselves in the fighting earlier this year. “Do not blame the soldiers and junior leaders: they are doing their best and their best is quite often outstanding,” he says.

He also exonerates the generals for deploying small and/or under-armed forces.

“They can only do the best with what they have. And what they have in terms of the numbers of soldiers, the type of equipment and support capabilities is simply inadequate for the role South Africa’s government wishes to play (in Africa).

“If there is blame it must go to the politicians who starve the Defence Force financially and then expect it to work miracles,” he writes.

Heitman ends with a warning to those in charge of the national purse strings: “There is no such thing as military operations on the cheap: what is saved in cash will be paid for in blood”.

The Battle in Bangui: the Untold Inside Story
Helmoed Romer Heitman
40 pages, five colour photographs and maps
Published in South Africa in 2013 by Parktown Publishers (Pty) Ltd Trading as Mampoer Shorts
Only available digitally from http://mampoer.co.za/helmoed-heitman/the-battle-in-bangui
ISBN 978-0-9921902-8-6

Book review: The Rhodesian Light Infantry: Africa’s Commandos

altThe Rhodesian Light Infantry: Africa’s Commandos, edited by Mark Adams and Chris Cocks, is an interesting work. Commissioned by the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association (RLIRA), it has two goals: to tell the story of the RLI in the words of those that served in it and to support the RLIRA and raise funds for the Combined Forces Welfare Trust, which is used for the direct benefit of ex-servicemen and women, including ex-RLI members.

This hefty tome (320 pages) is divided into three parts: part one covers the early days of the RLI and its formation on February 1, 1961. Part two covers the war years from 1966 to 1980 and forms the meat of the book. Finally, part three contains miscellaneous reflections on the RLI. As a result, the book is a widely varied account of the RLI from many different angles, from its history to operations. There are also recollections of the lighter moments and mischief that soldiers invariably get up to.

After Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965, the RLI became one of the country's main counter-insurgency units during the Rhodesian Bush War, which pitted the government security forces against the rival guerrilla campaigns of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA).

The Rhodesian Light Infantry is considered by many to be one of the finest counterinsurgency units of all time. It made heavy and successful use of the fireforce concept of airborne or air mobile assault groups, which could be quickly inserted right into the battlezone using Alouette III and Huey helicopters and Dakotas, supported by strike aircraft. As the war intensified from 1964 onwards, fireforces often faced multiple call-outs on any given day, meaning that RLI commandos accumulated thousands of parachute jumps – the battalion recorded 10 000 operational jumps in one year in the late 1970s.

The RLI was an international regiment as it counted foreign volunteers from South Africa, North America, the UK, Europe and Australia. By the end of the war, the unit counted soldiers from more than 20 countries. As operational demands increased dramatically in the 1970s, the percentage of national servicemen was increased from 1976 to bolster the battalion. Recollections from all these different players add colour to Africa’s Commandos.

The RLI was not a special forces unit. However, it was trained to become an elite commando unit using regular soldiers whose impressive performance in battle is indicated by the fact that it lost 132 soldiers in action and whilst with the unit, while accumulating thousands of enemy casualties – some estimates put these at 12 to 15 000 guerrillas. The RLI proudly maintains that it did not lose a single battle or skirmish in its history - but it did lose the war when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, something that is still a cause of bitterness amongst many Rhodesians.

A number of books have been published on the RLI, with one of the more thorough works being Alexandre Binda’s The Saints – The Rhodesian Light Infantry. Africa’s Commandos distinguishes itself by being a varied collection of accounts that give a unique flavour of the RLI and cover many different perspectives, actions and styles of writing for an overall authentic account. In addition to soldiers on the ground, there are accounts from support units and personnel, from chaplains to medics. As a result, the reader is able to get a good picture of the RLI and what it was like to serve in the unit. In addition to its diverse and comprehensive overall picture of the RLI, Africa’s Commandoes is also worth reading as a piece of history.

Mark Adams and Chris Cocks
The Rhodesian Light Infantry: Africa’s Commandos
Copyright the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association, 2012
ISBN 978-1-920143-59-6
320 pages, 300 black and white photos, colour illustrations and maps
Published in 2012 by the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association, Boksburg

To purchase a copy of Africa’s Commandos, e-mail Mark Adams at mark@markadams.co.za

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