The immutable links between Israel and South Africa

While the current government policy might be a short-term view, events that have taken place tell a very different tale.

 1 Cape Corps during World War I (photo credit: IWM/ISRAELINK)
1 Cape Corps during World War I
(photo credit: IWM/ISRAELINK)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

A combination of circumstances have created a unique opportunity for the South African Jewish community to remind all South Africans of the immutable link that exists between South Africa and Israel, a connection that has existed for over 100 years. Notwithstanding this, the current South African ANC government is one of Israel’s greatest detractors on the international stage. South Africa downgraded its embassy in Israel to the status of a liaison office as this quote from its official International Affairs Department website states: “South Africa currently does not have an ambassador in Israel. South Africa took a decision to recall our Ambassador in 2018 as part of processes to downgrade our diplomatic presence in Israel.” 

While the current government policy might be a short-term view, events that have taken place over the course of time between South Africans of color and the Jews of Mandate Palestine, and later Israel, tell a very different tale.

Former South African prime minister General Jan Smuts unveiled a cornerstone on the corner of Bree and Von Brandis streets in central Johannesburg on November 8, 1922. This was the cornerstone of the Jewish Guild War Memorial Building, memorializing South Africa Jewry who had fallen in combat during the First World War. Smuts also served in the Imperial War Cabinet of the British Empire and, as such, played a significant role in the discussions leading up to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. 

He met Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, later Israel’s first president, in London during the war. The two became firm friends, remaining so until Smuts’ death in 1950. They worked in unison to convince the British government of the need for, and justification of, a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Smuts was later honored when Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, founded in 1931, was named after him, “Yohanan” being the Hebrew version of “Jan.” 

The story of the cornerstone doesn’t end with the completion of the Jewish Guild building, as subsequent events sent the cornerstone on a journey of its own. The Jewish Guild building was sold in 1957, and the sporting and social club moved to new premises in what was then rural Morningside, 18 kilometers north of central Johannesburg. 

 The ‘SS Erinpura’ memorial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. (credit: AVISHAI TEICHER/PIKIWIKI) The ‘SS Erinpura’ memorial on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. (credit: AVISHAI TEICHER/PIKIWIKI)

A few years later, the cornerstone was removed from its original setting and transported to the Jewish Guild’s new home in Morningside, where it became the centerpiece of a new South African Jewish War Memorial. With the progress of time and events, the social side of the Jewish Guild faded, and the sports club relocated to a pre-existing sports club with bowling greens in the Johannesburg suburb of Observatory. Some time later, the cornerstone made the journey from Morningside to the Jewish Guild Club in Observatory, while a new South African National Jewish War Memorial was constructed by the South African Jewish Ex-Service League at the West Park Jewish Cemetery in Johannesburg. This memorial was consecrated on September 19, 1993.

South African Jewish Ex-Service League committee member and former chairman of the Military Association of Gauteng, Selwyn Rogoff, was contacted by David Fisher to tell him about a cornerstone that he had found in the garden of the former Observatory Park bowling club. Rogoff immediately sprang into action, and the long-forgotten cornerstone was soon moved to West Park cemetery, where it was reunited with the South African National Jewish War Memorial. The cornerstone has been permanently placed in a new position facing the memorial boards for all South African Jewish fallen. 

One hundred years after it was laid by Smuts, the cornerstone will be unveiled in its new setting by his great-grandson, Gareth Shackleford, closing the circle of this most significant cornerstone and its travels.

Benji Shulman of the South African Zionist Federation was apprised of the cornerstone project, and he suggested that the strong link between Smuts and Israel be taken a step further, by creating a tangible means of honoring Southern African soldiers who had played a role in the eventual 1948 establishment of the State of Israel. 

1 Cape Corps, which fought with distinction at the Battle of Megiddo in Ottoman Palestine in 1918 during the First World War, will thus be honored. During the Second World War, a British troopship, the SS Erinpura, was torpedoed and sank off the Libyan coast in 1943, with 140 Yishuv Jewish soldiers and 644 black Southern African soldiers of the British Army’s African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps (AAPC) drowning when the ship went down. These Southern African men who served with the AAPC in Mandate Palestine, as well as the 140 Yishuv Jews, will also be honored. This article allows the reader to further explore the immutable link between Jan Smuts, the War Memorial cornerstone, 1 Cape Corps, the SS Erinpura victims, South Africa and Israel.

A special service to unveil the cornerstone in its new setting, as well as three plaques relating to the history of the cornerstone, 1 Cape Corps and the SS Erinpura sinking respectively, was scheduled to be held at the South African National Jewish War Memorial in Johannesburg on November 27, 2022. 

The story of 1 Cape Corps

One of the oldest military formations in South Africa was the Cape Corps, which started out under the Dutch administration in 1781. Following many mutations and name changes, it was disbanded in 1990 after a very proud history. From its inception, the corps drew its members from the mixed race community of Cape Town, colloquially known as Cape Coloureds. The Cape Corps participated in many of the significant battles of early colonial South Africa, moving onto the global stage during the First World War. 

The Cape Corps, which was re-established in 1915 as 1 Cape Corps, made up of Cape Coloured volunteers, underwent intensive training before being dispatched to East Africa in 1916 to bolster the British forces in the war against the German enemy. 1 Cape Corps was actively engaged in combat for all of 1916 and 1917, where the battalion performed with distinction, being awarded four battle honors: Kilimanjaro, Beho-Beho, Nyangao and Refugi Delta. Battle honors are awarded to the participating military formations following significant victories, so these battle honors speak for the combat record of 1 Cape Corps in East Africa. The battalion returned to South Africa in December 1917 for rest and recuperation, as many of the men had suffered from the ravages of malaria while in East Africa. Following their return to duty, 1 Cape Corps was posted to Egypt where, much to their disgust, they were to be deployed as non-combatant support personnel, this despite their proud combat record in East Africa.

Reacting to the immense dissatisfaction in the ranks, Corps Commander Lt.-Col. Morris made a personal appeal to Egyptian Expeditionary Force commander General Edmund Allenby for 1 Cape Corps to once again be utilized as fighting troops. Considering their East African combat record, Allenby agreed that they would join his Egyptian Expeditionary Force fighting against the Ottoman Empire forces and their allied German forces in Palestine. The men of 1 Cape Corps had to undergo intensive training in preparation for their role in Allenby’s army. Writing about their training, Captain Ivor Difford, author of The Story of the First Battalion Cape Corps, said: “We had left the amateur stage behind us and were by way of becoming professionals. A period of intensive training was commenced in musketry, bayonet fighting, the use of hand grenades, gas warfare and trench warfare.” Following intensive training between April and July 1918, the men of 1 Cape Corps were ready to go into battle. 

The big opportunity for 1 Cape Corps came during the final stages of a series of battles which ranged from Nablus, the biblical city of Shechem, to Afula in northern Palestine. A distance of about 60 km., south to north. With Nablus to the south and Afula to the north of Megiddo, Allenby chose to refer to these battles collectively as the Battle of Megiddo. Historically, there have been many Battles of Megiddo, starting with the Egyptian invasion by Pharaoh Thutmose III in circa 1500 BCE, the first of 34 significant recorded battles, the last of which was Allenby’s Battle of Megiddo. The name also satisfied Allenby’s sense of history and the belief that he was engaged in a modern crusade.

Allenby planned a major offensive, which would begin with reconnaissance from September 17, 1918, before commencing the final battle to dislodge the enemy from Palestine and open the road through Afula to Damascus for the Expeditionary Force. 1 Cape Corps were given responsibility for attacking a Turko-German stronghold called Square Hill, close to the biblical city of Shiloh. During the attack, which commenced at 18:45 on September 18 and lasted until 04:00 on September 19, 1 Cape Corps successfully overcame the enemy forces and captured Square Hill as ordered. During the course of the battle, the battalion took 181 prisoners and captured a Turkish artillery gun. The Battle of Square Hill was over, with 1 Cape Corps suffering two casualties – one killed and another wounded.

1 Cape Corps were next ordered to take Kh Jibeit (Giv’it), another hill some 700 meters north of Square Hill. The South Africans had no artillery support and took substantial losses in trying to achieve their objective. 1 Cape Corps lost 51 officers and men killed, 101 wounded, and one taken prisoner by the retreating Turkish forces. Kh Jibeit was later taken by Indian troops who found that the retreating Turkish troops had taken immense losses from their engagement with 1 Cape Corps. The victories at Square Hill and Kh Jibeit were decisive in opening the road to Damascus for Allenby’s forces. 

Following these successes, 1 Cape Corps was awarded three further battle honors, namely Megiddo, Nablus and Square Hill. Prior to the victory at Square Hill, the British government had suppressed publication of the Balfour Declaration in Palestine; but with the Ottomans having been evicted from Palestine, publication of the famous document that was the first tangible step in the establishment of the modern State of Israel became possible.

Many years later in South Africa, 1 Cape Corps was further honored when the battalion was granted the Freedom of the City of Cape Town by then-mayor David Bloomberg. 

The plaque to be affixed to a new memorial wall facing the existing Jewish War Memorial will recognize the sacrifice of the 52 men who fell at Kh Jibeit, as well as the significance of the role played by 1 Cape Corps as a first step toward the realization of the Balfour Declaration promise of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This plaque will be unveiled by Cmdr. M. Adeel Carelse MMM (Ret.), whose grandfather Cpl. C. H. Carelse fought at the Battles of Square Hill and Kh Jibeit. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in those battles. 

‘SS Erinpura’

The 140 Yishuv Jews and the 644 black Southern Africans who went down with the SS Erinpura during the Second World War had been employed on the same British army project in Palestine, prior to being together on board the ill-fated ship. The Jewish leadership in Palestine had encouraged members of the Yishuv Jewish community to volunteer for service with the British army for two very important reasons. Firstly, to assist in hastening the end of the Nazi German regime, and secondly to receive military training that would stand them in good stead in the inevitable fight for a Jewish homeland in Mandate Palestine. One of the Jewish military units established in Palestine under the aegis of the British Army was 462 Transport Company. 

While recruitment of Jewish volunteers was taking place in Palestine, a similar recruitment campaign was taking place in Southern Africa, where citizens of the British Protectorates of Basutoland (Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland (Eswatini) were being encouraged to volunteer for the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps (AAPC). The Pioneer Corps was, in fact, a euphemism for a labor corps that was required to carry out a variety of manual labor tasks needed by the military authorities. Many of the Sotho and a smaller number of Tswana volunteers were drafted into 1919 and 1927 companies of the AAPC and found themselves in Mandate Palestine in 1942. The extension of the rail line from Acre to Beirut had become a strategic necessity in the Allied fight against Axis (German and Italian) forces, and South Africa’s 40th Railway Construction Company had been tasked with laying the track from Acre to Rosh Hanikra. 

The 61st Tunneling Company, made up of volunteer South African miners, had the responsibility of constructing the tunnels through the Rosh Hanikra headlands, which separate Israel from Lebanon. The AAPC 1919 and 1927 companies were attached to the railway construction company and tunneling company, respectively, as the labor force for the work to be done. Meanwhile, 462 Transport Company was detailed to provide transport and other support services to the two AAPC companies, bringing the Southern African and Yishuv Jewish volunteers together. 

Repeated German bombing attacks on Malta meant that the British army had to improve its defensive fortifications on the island, and it was decided to relocate 1919 and 1927 AAPC companies and 462 Transport Company to Malta to carry out the construction of additional fortifications. 

They boarded the SS Erinpura, which was carrying almost 1,000 troops when it set sail from Alexandria, Egypt, bound for Malta on April 29, 1943. The SS Erinpura was one of six troopships in a fleet escorted by six Royal Navy and four Greek Navy destroyers supported by two Royal Navy minesweepers. The escort protection was to no avail when the SS Erinpura was attacked by a German Luftwaffe Heinkel bomber, which torpedoed the ship, with the stricken vessel sinking a short while later. Exact numbers are not available, but some 800 passengers and crew went down with the ship, including 139 Jewish soldiers (one was rescued and succumbed to his wounds later), bringing the total lost to 140, plus 633 Sotho and 11 Tswana soldiers. 

There are memorials to the SS Erinpura on Mount Herzl in Israel, as well as in Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, while the plaque that will be affixed to the new memorial wall at the South African Jewish War Memorial in Johannesburg will provide tangible evidence of the strong connection between the people of Southern Africa and Israel. The plaque will be unveiled by Israel’s ambassador, Eliav Beletsecovsky.  ■

The writer was a major in the South African Army Reserve before making aliyah in 2013. He is the author of two books: Street Names in Israel; and Men of Valor: Israel’s Latter Day Heroes.