Book review: Uncle George


The late Carel Birkby was a fine writer and “Uncle George” illustrates well his fine eye and finer humour. Brigadier, then Major General George Brink commanded 1 SA Division in East Africa and later in the Libyan desert. His command was however cut short by a back injury.

Even so, Birkby, as the South African Press Association’s war correspondent in East Africa and later, the Western Desert, in 1986 described Brink, or “Uncle George” as he was widely known, as “the most capable soldier South Africa ever produced.”

Birkby personally witnessed many of the events described and interacted with Brink in the theatre of war, bringing unusual and rich perspective. Brink had asked Birkby to his biography as did his widow, but it was, for various reasons, only in the 1980s when pen was put to paper.

Who was Brink? He was the son of a rural Free State magistrate. Born in Jagersfontein, district Fauresmith, in September 1889, Brink witnessed the Boer War and as a young teen spent time in two concentration camps, the latter run by his father for the British authorities. Here he was on friendly terms with the guard an an interest in soldiering developed.

Brink was commissioned in the Union Defence Force (UDF) in November 1914, in time to take part in the suppression of the Rebellion and the invasion of German West Africa (now Namibia). Next followed service in German East Africa (now Tanzania) on the staff of General Jacobus van Deventer. He returned to the Union in 1919 as an acting major. Peacetime economy saw him revert to captain. The future general next partook in the 1922 Rand Revolt, again on the staff of Van Deventer, whom he had first met as a boy at Jagersfontein. Afterwards, Brink became chief instructor, tactics at the Military College (now SA Army College). In 1931, aged 41, he again became major. The next year he was promoted lieutenant colonel and took command of the college. In May 1933 he became the founding commander of the Special Service Battalion. Next followed a spell as officer commanding Cape Command and then, in 1937, a posting to Europe. Here he toured various British defence establishments and met key personalities. Vivid accounts to his wife are reprinted, providing much insight into the tough position the UDF found itself in on the cusp of World War Two, and candid views are expessed on various military and governmental personalities, including Pierre van Ryneveld, Frank Theron and Kenneth van der Spuy. Valuable stuff, personality politics included, for the historian or historically minded.

Next followed a similar study tour of Germany, Franc and Italy. In the former he visited a Reichsarbeitdienst (RAD) camp, witnessed Hitler’s birthday parade in Berlin, toured an infantry officer cadet school at Dresden, visited a Berlin armament factory, viewed a Hitlerjugend May Day parade at the Olympic Stadium and saw a Luftwaffe fighter squadron named for World War One fighter ace Von Richthofen. He briefly returned to London to take part in the coronation of King George VI. Back in Germany followed a month with the 69th Infantry Regiment, studying training at the platoon, company, battalion and regimental level. Short diversions included visiting a pioneer as well as an antitank battalion and the 56th Artillery Regiment. He also spent time with the 20th Infantry division and went to Kiel to visit the panzerschiff Graf Spee and met the legendary General Von Lettow-Vorbeck, his adversary in Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. He further visited several physical fitness schools – including one in neighbouring Denmark – and Hitlerjugend camps before setting out for Italy.

Here Brink would study infantry, artillery, cavalry, Bersaglieri – the last including armour (he did not see German panzers as they were off-limits at the time). There were also visits to a reserve officers’ school and one for NCO, a PT centre, a youth camp and a land-reclamation project. In France, he attended the St Cyr officers’ academy. He then spent three days with the 2nd Light Armoured Division that included a tactical exercise without troops followed by an exercise with troops. Brink took part and discussed conclusions with his French counterparts. Birkby notes Brink was not impressed by either the Italians or French. The British he considered as “pap” (Afrikaans: lacking pep). Before returning home he spent another few days in Britain, watching infantry and tanks on the Salisbury Plain.

On his return, in November 1937, Brink was appointed Director Army Organisation and Training. The next year June he was promoted brigadier general and UDF deputy chief of staff. He was tasked with training troops for “bush warfare in Africa … operating optimally in self-sufficient brigade groups” that at the time did not yet exist. In addition, he had to “coordinate mobilsation and concentration of an as yet non-existent mobile field force”.

Other officers, including Theron, had also done the European tour and the question they had was whether Italy would join Germany in the war that seemed ever-more likely. If so, what threat did the Italian forces in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland pose to British Africa?

South Africa had also left rearmament rather late. For the three divisions the country planned to create (two deployable, the other as a source of reinforcements), the country had available in 1937 some 70 000 modern military rifles, 300 machine guns, 10 mortars and 58 field guns, “enough for only one and a half brigades, and could depend on enough ammunition for only one day of battle. (Carel Birkby, Uncle George, Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, 1987, p95.) There were no anti-tank or anti-aircraft guns and just “three obsolescent tanks and two ineffectual armoured cars.” The Union Defence Force (UDF) had also “bought virtually no motor vehicles” since 1919 and it was “amazing that its solid-tyred old lorries could run at all.” The SA Naval Service, forerunner to the current Navy, had no ships; the SAAF at best had fewer than 30 modern aircraft – the most advanced being a few Hawker Hurricane fighters, themselves no match for the best German or Italian fighter of the time. The UDF’s trained reserve and coast defence troops numbered less than 15,000 and largely manned obsolete equipment; and the UDF’s regular component mustered just 3353 officers and men.

Brink continues: “Within the limits of defence finances and capabilities Brink organised tactical exercises with troops in late 1937 and in 1938 and 1939. He evolved manoeuvres based on his experience and thinking as a young staff officer in East Africa during the First World War and of what he had seen in the Wehrmacht. Fundamentally, brigade groups were to be created capable of operating independently to obviate the delay in summoning supporting units which could be located far back in the divisional column. The success of this theory was to be illustrated by the success of Dan Pienaar’s 1st Infantry Brigade when, detached from Brink’s divisional command on the Somaliland front in 1940, it had to operate independently for the most part of its remarkable dash to Addis Ababa.”

Carel Birkby

Uncle George, The Boer Boyhood, Letter and Battles of Lieutenant General George Edwin Brink

Jonathan Ball