David Katz's South Africans versus Rommel recounts the untold story of the Desert War

This is the story of an ill-prepared army; an army committed to battle; the story of men at war

11 February 2019 - 11:59

South Africa’s Union Defence Force played an important part in World War II and also made tremendous sacrifices.

By early 1941 South Africa had 30 000 troops in East Africa, where it helped drive the Italians out of Abyssinia and Somalia. This campaign was mere prelude to the operations it would conduct as part of the British Eighth Army against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa.

In November 1941 the battle-hardened Afrika Korps decimated a South African force at Sidi Rezegh in Libya.

Six weeks later, South Africans captured the ports of Bardia and Sollum, after Rommel withdrew to the west.

Rommel regrouped and attacked again, driving the South Africans and British back toward the vital port of Tobruk.

The situation was tenuous at best ‒ South African general Hendrik Klopper surrendered his trapped force of 35 000 men, including 10 000 South Africans, in June 1942.

When Rommel attacked El Alamein a week later, his lead elements were pinned down by South Africans, who went on to play a significant role in the month-long battle that halted Rommel’s advance into Egypt.

Relying on deep research in South African and British archives, Katz recounts a side of the Desert War that has never received the attention it deserves.

It is the story of an army committed somewhat reluctantly to a war it did not fully support, an army ill-prepared for the campaigns it was tasked with waging and forced to learn as it fought, an army committed to battle on the orders of its senior alliance partner.

But at its heart this is the story of men at war.