A Brief History of the South African Defence Force (SADF) 1912 - 1994      Part 1    Part 2    Home


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After unification the formation of a unitary defence organization became one of the priorities of the South African
Government.  In this respect General J C Smuts, who managed the portfolio of defence, would play a leading role.
The first important step was the passing of the Defence Act (No 13 of 1912) on 14 June 1912, which brought the
Union Defence Force into existence on 1 July 1912.  The Act made provision for a Permanent Force (established
on 1 April 1913), an Active Citizen Force and a Cadet Organization (both established in July 1913).

During the 1913 and 1914 strikes on the Witwatersrand the newly established Union Defence Force had its first
baptism of fire.  The industrial disturbances of 1914 led to the mobilization of units of the Active Citizen Force and
the Permanent Force.  The same year saw South African enter World War I, which resulted in an armed rebellion
within the country.  Within four months the Union Defence Force succeeded in suppressing the insurrection, after
which it invaded South West Africa at the request of Britian. This campaign was successfully concluded in 1915
with only a few casualties.

During World War I South African troops distinguished themselves in East Africa, Palestine and France.  The
British summer offensive in France and Flanders saw I SA Infantry Brigade participate in various battles, Delville
Wood being the most famous.

The Air Service (out of which the Air Force would develop) was established in Feb 1920, and the SA Naval Service
on 1 April 1922.  That year also saw the mobilization of Active Citizen Force units to suppress yet another miners'
strike on the Witwatersrand.  During the ensuing fighting, the newlyborn South African Air Force went into action
for the first time, bombing the strikers' positions in Benoni and Springs. The Air Force also provided air support to
the ground forces of the Union Defence Force during the Bondelswart-Herero Rebellion which flared up in South
West Africa a few months later. In 1925 and 1932 the SAAF once again assisted in the quelling of insurrections
in Rehoboth and Ovambo.

February 1923 saw the establishment of the regenerated Permanent Force, and in 1926 the Union Defence Force
was reorganized on a large scale. Development of the Union Defence Force was slowed down by die depression
of 1929 - 33.  However, the five-year development plan instigated in 1934 by Defence Minister Oswald Pirow,
marked the beginning of a new era. Many of the expansions could not, however, be put into effect, and before
the reorganization envisaged in 1938 could be implemented, World War II erupted.

South African's participation in the war once again illustrated the Union Defence Froce's dependence upon volun-
teers. Nevertheless, South African troops and pilots held their own against Italian forces in Abyssinia.
Two South African divisions fought well against Rommel's Africa Korps in North Africa, notable battles being Sidi
Rezegh, Bardia and El Alamein.  A total of eleven SAAF squadrons operated in the western desert, and became
well-known in operations such as the "Boston Shuttle Service".  The infant SA Naval Servce, which operated in the
Mediterranean, participated in the dangerous convoy-duties along the North African coast.

The Forces of the Union played a large role in the conquest of Madagascar.  In Europe 6 SA Armoured Divisions
and squadrons of the SAAF participated in the Italian Campaign. The so-called "Warsaw Concerto" saw conduct
by the South African airmen which bordered on the heroic. During this operation the task of the aircrews was to
drop supplies to the beleaguered Polish City.

The end of Wold War II in 1945 was followed by large-scale demobilization of the Union Defence Force. This did
not, however, imply a return to the pre-war situation, which was prevented by mounting international pressure
against South Africa, and the advent of the so-called "Cold War".  In 1948 the Russians besieged Berlin.The South
African Air Force provided 20 aircrews to assist in the "Berlin Air Bridge".

Written by Cmdt C.J.Nöthling