The Union Defence Force Between the Two World Wars, 1919-1940

  • Ian Van der Waag
Keywords: The Union Defence Force, Two World Wars, Hitler, Afrikaans, UDF, with technological developments, a mix of British and Boer-type infantry


South Africa was ill prepared for the Second World War. Her war potential was limited and Hitler is reputed to have laughed when the South African declaration came on 6 September 1939. The Permanent and Active Citizen Forces were under strength: the first comprised only 350 officers and some five thousand men. There were a further 122 000 men in the Commandos, of whom only 18 000 were reasonably equipped, and, being rurally based and overwhelmingly Afrikaans, many of these men did not support the war effort. Furthermore, training and training facilities were inadequate, there was a shortage of uniforms and equipment and, like the rest of the British Commonwealth, much of the doctrine had not kept pace with technological developments. This predicament developed over the preceding twenty years. The mechanisation of ground forces and the application of new technology for war contrasted sharply with developments in Europe. Although South Africa had the industrial capacity for the development of armour and mechanised forces, arguments based upon the nature of potential enemy forces, poor infrastructure and terrain inaccessibility combined with government policy and financial stringency resulted in nothing being done. Southern Africa, the focus of South African defence policy, was also thought to be unfavourable for mechanised warfare. Inadequate roads and multifarious geographic features concentrated energy on the development of the air arm for operations in Africa and a system of coastal defences to repel a sea assault, as well as a mix of British and Boer-type infantry supported by field artillery. As a result, an expeditionary force had to be prepared from scratch and the first South Africans to serve in the Second World War only left the country in July 1940. Yet the close relationship between the projected role of the Union Defence Force (UDF) and the low priority given to force maintenance and weapons acquisition has been perceived by few writers.
How to Cite
Van der Waag, I. (2012). The Union Defence Force Between the Two World Wars, 1919-1940. Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies, 30(2).