• J. Van Wyk SADF
Keywords: 23 March 1939, Mr Oswald Pirow, Minister of Defence, Union of South Africa, Union Defence Forces, Economic depression, Department of Defence, War Supplies Board


On 23 March 1939 Mr Oswald Pirow, Minister of Defence of the Union of South Africa, reported in Parliament on the progress made in executing the Five-year plan launched in May 1934. The programme had been, aimed at developing and increasing the effectiveness of the Union Defence Forces. Ironically the five years covered by Pirow's plan coincided with the 'last five years of peace before the world was plunged into the second major conflict of the century. It is interesting therefore to consider to what extent the plan prepared South Africa's Defence Force for the war to come. When the programme was launched the Union's economy and military position was poor. During the preceeding years 1929 to 1932 the country had been gripped by an economic depression which coincided with the severest drought ever experienced in the country. The depression had an impact on nearly every facet of the South African economy, .including the public sector and the defence budget. In 1929 £1 019529 was budgeted but thereafter the 'amount declined yearly until the lowest figure was reached in 1932 - only £720976. But the depression's effect was now spent and a gradual improvement in the economic situation was noticeable. This gave way to an increase in the defence budget. Meanwhile the international situation was beginning to change as the European dictatorships began to disturb the balance of power in Europe. In South Africa this gave rise to a new crisis of divided loyalties, culminating in arguments about the country's international responsibilities and role in any future conflict. Thus by 1934 it was clear that the Department of Defence would have to. Enter a review phase of development. By then the need for the expansion and the reor~anisation of the Union's defence system were vital. The state of the international affairs added to the urgency which accompanied this necessity.   Among the matters studied and discussed was the Union's ability to wage war with the supplies at hand. By 1934 there was a general trend towards mobilization which called for local manufactured motor and aeroplane engines. This rising cost of production together with the rapid obsolescence of aeroplane models and equipment hampered the local production effort. When it became difficult to import even the outdated models, it was decided to assemble Hawker Hartebeests locally. Yet by August 1938 the situation was still unsatisfactory as only 69 Hartebeests as well as seven Hawker Furies were available. The drive towards mechanization was nearly brought to an end in March 1939. By then it was believed that the Union Forces would operate in territory noted for its thick vegetation. Thus a narrow bush cart drawn by local oxen was considered a suitable solution for the transport problem, although this never passed the experimental stage. Another objective of the 'plan was aimed at adapting the South African industries to meet war needs. In May 1937 a, War Supplies Board was established to administer matters such as production and storage to ensure; that South Africa would be self-sufficient in times of war.In fact, the war in which South Africa was shortly to find herself involved was of greater scale than any of the planners had conceived.