From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh: The Union Defence Force’s First Experience of Battle in East and North Africa, 1940-1941

  • Gustav Bentz Department of Military History, Faculty of Military Science, Stellenbosch University
Keywords: South Africa, Second World War, UDF, First battles, Abyssinia, Libya


After J.C. Smuts (1870–1950) had managed to unseat J.B.M. Hertzog (1866–1942) as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa it was clear that the country would enter the Second World War on the side of Great Britain.  In spite of extensive changes and an increased budget the Union Defence Force (UDF) found itself in a state of war on 7 September 1939 with a Permanent Force of only 5 400 men with limited training and antiquated equipment.  While Hitler’s armies conquered Western Europe the Springboks prepared to go North and in spite of trepidations about the might of Mussolini’s East African Empire the First South African Infantry Division set sail for East Africa in mid-July 1940.  In five short months, Mussolini’s East African Empire had been torn to shreds.  Victorious in every major engagement, the South Africans embarked for Egypt in June 1941.  Here they encountered similar logistical problems as were prevalent before they embarked for East Africa.  With two divisions in the field and a third in training, UDF planners had a trying time marshalling enough motorised transport to enable the Springboks to keep pace with the increased mobility that was a hallmark of desert warfare.  Expecting to build on their success over the Italians the South Africans confidently went into battle, but by November 1941, the 5th South African Infantry Brigade was annihilated and the victors of East Africa badly mauled. Fighting low-moraled Italian 

armies in the bush and mountains of Abyssinia was quite easy; beating the Germans in the desert would be a different story altogether.


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How to Cite
Bentz, G. (2013). From El Wak to Sidi Rezegh: The Union Defence Force’s First Experience of Battle in East and North Africa, 1940-1941. Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies, 40(3).