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The Black Beret - Volume 2

Willem Steenkamp
This book is the second volume of the history of South Africa’s armoured forces and covers the period 1943 – 61. The overwhelming bulk of the book charts the formation and actions of the 6th South African Armoured Division, which fought up Italy from just north of Monte Cassino to the Po valley and Bologna.

In many ways there is an irony that South Africans, born and raised in a country of wide open space and honed in desert warfare should find themselves fighting up the Apennines with their steep terrain, restricted vision and non-existent opportunities for manoeuvre – but such is the nature of soldiering. The author is rightly contemptuous of those who describe the terrain as “poor tank country” (a phrase that is a sure sign of a bluffing ignoramus) as were those on the ground. The Germans were conducting a disciplined and effective withdrawal, more or less in contact, from defensive line to defensive line. The interlying terrain inevitably favoured the defence, equipped with tanks, infantry and artillery – the latter including the nebelwerfer multi barreled mortar which became a scourge of the advancing allied forces. The lack of opportunities to turn flanks and the frequency of natural obstacles meant that the entire campaign became a series of low (brigade and down) level operations -with a logistic and supporting tail grinding along mostly medieval routes never designed for (and barely capable of) supporting armoured warfare. And it had to be armoured warfare as dismounted infantry lacked protection and any capability to destroy armoured targets or sangars at ranges over 100m or so.

The South Africans, like the rest of the Allied forces, had to learn to develop their tactics and procedures and learn to operate in an all arms manner (including integrating with air support when it was available). This they did, but of course they learned from mistakes and mistakes cost lives. By dint of being in Italy for the duration 6th South African Armoured Division became one of the most capable in the theatre, and at times in the later stages almost became a Corps.

So this is a potentially interesting piece of history, with recent relevance (e.g. the use of Armour – or non-use by the British – in Afghanistan). The further overtones of the complexities of South African participation should add some spice and further interest. The post war South African Armoured Corps is also highly interesting; it shrank, then became part of the forces developed to intervene in the Middle East should the Cold War get hot, and then shrank as the nuclear options were favoured. Along the way it collected a fine fleet of Centurions, missed on getting Saladin and reshaped them to suit the conditions in Africa – where distances are so very much greater than northwest Europe. The period ends with problems developing in Namibia and Angola.

Unfortunately the book does not do justice to the material. The advance up the Apennines, which is the bulk of the book is prolix, repetitive and devoid of maps. I suppose that one could argue that this approach, which is mind numbingly dull and repetitive to read, accurately portrays the sheer tedium and exertion required of the participants – but at least they had maps (most of the time).

The story of the post war South African Armoured Forces is confused. Selection of anecdotes is poor – the story of drowning a Centurion while night driving is tedious and unnecessary. Paragraphs on the activity of the Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) appear almost at random and the book stops abruptly. Hopefully the next volume will have more focus.

Amazon productThat said, somewhere in the mangled prose there is a tale that should be of interest to any armoured soldier. Warfare in Africa is different, as is the political background, and on that basis (only) it is worth reading. Don’t expect it to be easy though.

Three Mushrooms. Just.
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