The Springbok Legion: a different breed of Springbok Warrior

Harry Jones Roar Guru

By Harry Jones, Harry Jones is a Roar Guru

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    The Springboks must be down in the dumps after losing to Japan. AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville

    The dashing Adolph Gysbert “Sailor” Malan was an ace South African fighter pilot.

    He won the RAF Distinguished Flying Cross for his night sorties as a flight commander of a Spitfire squadron over Dunkirk, shot down at least fifteen German aircraft as a squadron leader in the Battle of Britain.

    His flying formation doctrines became standard for the RAF. His textbook Ten Rules of Air Fighting was distributed to every noticeboard in every crew room.

    He rose to wing commander; and was loved by the junior pilots because he put the safety of his squadron above his own.

    He was hard on his pilots, but harder on himself. By the end of the War, his tally was 27 enemy aircraft down; and another 26 presumed destroyed or damaged.

    Renowned for his exceptional eyesight, which his peers believed was “supernatural,” he wore a South African insignia on his shoulder throughout the fighting.

    He was “cool, precise, detached” in battle, and completely unflappable. He was named later as one of the two greatest fighter pilots of the War.

    His childhood was that of an archetypical Afrikaner in the Wellington wine lands of the Western Cape. A big and well-formed lad, he was comfortable on a horse and deadly accurate with a shotgun.

    These skills could have led him down a stereotypical path.

    At fourteen, he went to maritime college on board the ship General Botha, a place where bullying was institutionalised, discipline was sadistic (the punishment for being caught smoking was a spread-eagled flogging while naked on deck).

    He became a war hero, and his looks and pedigree put him in the driver’s seat for any position he might have wanted in post-war South Africa.

    But Sailor Malan was also a man of great courage after the War, whose conscience and decency led him to become part of the controversially multi-racial ”Springbok Legion,” which fought at first for the rights of destitute or injured soldiers and then wider social problems.

    The Springbok Legion was initially formed by members of the South African Tank Corps.

    The aims and objectives of the Springbok Legion were enunciated in its “Soldiers Manifesto”.

    The Springbok Legion was open to all servicemen regardless of race and was avowedly anti-fascist and anti-racist.

    Ultimately, Malan became president of a group that grew out of the Springbok Legion, the 250,000 member “Torch Commando,” who conducted torchlight marches with as many as 75,000 protesters, to oppose the beginning of apartheid policies in 1948 which came about with the election of the “National Party.”

    Specifically, the National Party sought to change South Africa in ways that Sailor Malan could not accept.

    Why did the Legion choose the name and emblem “Springbok?” As I wrote in an earlier article, it was in first decade of the 20th century that South Africa’s rugby team became known as the Springboks.

    But by 1940, the term “Springboks” had become a widely used nickname for the South African servicemen fighting on the side of the Allies against the Axis powers.

    The term had a patriotic connotation.

    The Springbok Legion became a vehicle in the South African Army for a lot of progressive thinking on the race issue, as is detailed in the book Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid.

    The Manifesto of the Springbok Legion was explicit in one of its core goals: to be a sort of soldiers’ trade union, a non-discriminatory organisation with a mixed race membership, which aimed to carry over into peace time the cooperation (which existed in war time) between races.

    Branches of the Springbok Legion formed in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban.

    The left wing Guardian newspaper reported that “Africans, Indians, and Coloureds” joined the Springbok Legion, including Peter Kaya Selepe, an organiser of the African National Congress.

    The inclusion of all racial groups set the Springbok Legion apart from other service member groups.

    The Springbok Legion members wore badges (in specific opposition to the swastika) and rallied around the concept of social justice and egalitarianism. By 1944, its membership was more than 60,000.

    In 1948, after the National Party won power they segregated the trains, defined people strictly on the basis of “race,” and started to erode the rights of Coloureds in the Cape.

    The Springbok Legion condemned the government and stated they were trying to “remove all rights from Non Europeans” which would “culminate in disenfranchisement,” which was “contrary to all morality” and “in direct conflict with the fundamentals of civil liberty.”

    The Springbok Legion became a particular target for oppression. Sailor Malan was aghast, as we can see from his correspondence in the RAF archives.

    He wrote to a British pilot that his country, South Africa, was “in danger of losing its ticket to remaining in the company of the civilised nations of our world, the humane world of decent values.”

    The National Government became alarmed at the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining the organisation, and a new law was passed to ban anyone in public service or the military from joining.

    The Springbok Legion became dominated by communist elements, and radicalised.

    The Suppression of Communism Act made the Springbok Legion illicit. Membership shrunk, but a new group, the Torch Commando took its place.

    This Commando organised rallies, torchlight processions, and motorcades to protest the stripping of the Coloured vote in the Cape.

    Harry Oppenheimer underwrote the costs.

    Sailor Malan wielded his fame and image in the ultimately unsuccessful defence of Coloured suffrage. He put himself on the street, to fight for his principles, the values of the Springbok Legion when it started, and the freedoms he had fought for in the War.

    He was no revolutionary. Sailor Malan wrote that he was “quite prepared to accept eventual Non-European control” in South Africa, but what he advocated was planned evolution, “material advancement,” and addressing “poverty and starvation.”

    He died quite young, in his early fifties, in 1963.

    The Times of London gave him a full page obituary.

    At home, in South Africa, his passing was ignored by the military and the government, who did everything to purge the involvement of Sailor Malan in the Springbok Legion from his local obituaries.

    The Times had already lionised Sailor Malan during the War, calling him the “South African Springbok who become a British Lion.”

    There are many kinds of Springboks. Like any great symbol, it has evolved, and can grow.

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    The Crowd Says (52)

    • November 21st 2013 @ 5:31am
      DR said | November 21st 2013 @ 5:31am | ! Report

      Great read. Thank you Harry.

      • Roar Guru

        November 21st 2013 @ 8:06am
        Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 8:06am | ! Report

        Thanks, DR. Trying to build up a set of chapters for a book on SA rugby (the greatest one ever!). I can immediately tell if it’s good or not by this site; instant reviews!

        • November 21st 2013 @ 9:34am
          DR said | November 21st 2013 @ 9:34am | ! Report

          Look forward to it!! No doubt I will be in line for an autographed copy? 😉

          • Roar Guru

            November 21st 2013 @ 10:15am
            Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 10:15am | ! Report

            And a biltong piece to keep your place.

    • November 21st 2013 @ 5:54am
      captainBokster! said | November 21st 2013 @ 5:54am | ! Report

      Harry, William Shakespeare couldn’t have said it beter himself you sir are a inspiration to all…you should be the boks PR manager get on that man you can do it!

      • Roar Guru

        November 21st 2013 @ 8:07am
        Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 8:07am | ! Report

        If they can afford me, sure!


        Official scribe…

    • Roar Guru

      November 21st 2013 @ 6:11am
      biltongbek said | November 21st 2013 @ 6:11am | ! Report

      Our young Sir Harry certainly does have a talent for writing.

      • Roar Guru

        November 21st 2013 @ 8:11am
        Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 8:11am | ! Report

        Cheers, BB.

        I wrote this ages ago. It was “percolating.”

        I think SA history is some of the most fascinating, around.

        • November 21st 2013 @ 9:39am
          DR said | November 21st 2013 @ 9:39am | ! Report

          I agree. Wilbur Smith is one of my favorite authors and the snippets I get intrigue me greatly.

          Can you perhaps direct me to some non fiction you would recommend? Boer war would be a good start from a non English viewpoint?

          • Roar Guru

            November 21st 2013 @ 10:34am
            Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 10:34am | ! Report

            Prof. Bill Nasson has written two very good books:

            The War for South Africa: The Anglo Boer War


            The War at Home: Women and Families in the Anglo-Boer War.

            • Roar Guru

              November 21st 2013 @ 10:35am
              Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 10:35am | ! Report

              Professor at U of Cape Town, but also I think in Australia for a time.

              Fair-minded look at this (still very contentious) war.

              • November 21st 2013 @ 10:37am
                DR said | November 21st 2013 @ 10:37am | ! Report

                Fantastic! Thank you Harry, i will track these down. 🙂

                Feel free to offer any thing else you believe of value.

          • November 21st 2013 @ 12:30pm
            Vic said | November 21st 2013 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

            Commando, by Deneys Reitz, also good. he was a young lawyer who fought with Smuts during the war. A bit gung ho, as young men would be, but gives a good understanding of local circumstances, not necessarily an overview of political issues.

            • November 21st 2013 @ 3:57pm
              DR said | November 21st 2013 @ 3:57pm | ! Report

              Thank you Vic.

              • November 24th 2013 @ 12:48am
                Vic said | November 24th 2013 @ 12:48am | ! Report


                Free e book: Three years’ War- Christiaan Rudolf de Wet

              • November 24th 2013 @ 8:54am
                DR said | November 24th 2013 @ 8:54am | ! Report

                Thank you Vic. Think I will give that a nudge today.

    • November 21st 2013 @ 6:45am
      richard said | November 21st 2013 @ 6:45am | ! Report

      I was under the impression that Avril “Sailor” Malan was the most famous fighter ace in the RAF in WW2.

      Interesting reading about his crusade against apartheid.It must have been uncomfortable for the government of the day facing such staunch criticism from a national hero.This merely reinforces the greatness of the man.

    • November 21st 2013 @ 6:49am
      Ziggy said | November 21st 2013 @ 6:49am | ! Report

      Thanks Harry. I was fortunate enough to meet him as a young Uni student during some protest or another that we were always busy with. We were in awe of him and I recall my father (who also served with great distinction in WW2) reagarded him as a wonderful leader of men. My Dad also told me of Jan Smuts role in founding the RAF during WW1. I wonder how many people know that Smuts was designated to take over as British P.M. if anything happened to Churchill? My father was disappointed that Smuts did not do more to bring about rapid political change in SA along the lines proposed by Malan.But he lost power too soon. Never forget that SA entered the war on the side of Britain by very few votes – it could easily have gone the other way!!

      Amazing that these sons of the veldt could adapt and lead in those very British circumstances!

      What a legacy Sailor Malan left behind. Alas, forgotten by most and asssigned to the ashes of history.

      • Roar Guru

        November 21st 2013 @ 9:24am
        Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 9:24am | ! Report

        That’s an incredible story, Z.

        Yes, I read a great deal about Jan Smuts in my research. Fascinating man. He hiked up the Skeleton Gorge, above Kirstenbosch, up the back side of Table Mountain, even when he was in his 80s. The track now is named Smuts Track. Tough guy!

        • November 23rd 2013 @ 11:58pm
          WaltSaffa said | November 23rd 2013 @ 11:58pm | ! Report

          Do you know that Smuts was one of the very people at the Congress of Versailles after WWI who sided with the English economist Maynard Keynes in fighting against the extremely punitive reparations that there ultimately imposed on Germany? He warned that it may create bitterness and an intolerable situation in Germany, but he was shouted down. It’s ironic that he had fought and seen his own people, the boers, subjugated, and the strength of the bitterness that caused was manipulated into the racist mechanisms later deployed in South Africa!

          One of my relatives, a botanist, collaborated with Smuts and with Dr Louis Leipoldt in the documentation of much of the Cape’s flora. Remember Smuts was a brilliant legal student at Cambridge, and went on formulate the concept of Holism. He remained a simple man in his habits, despite his world wide profile.

          • November 26th 2013 @ 2:27pm
            Harry Jones said | November 26th 2013 @ 2:27pm | ! Report

            Amazing story! Cape flora is magnificent.

    • November 21st 2013 @ 7:07am
      nickoldschool said | November 21st 2013 @ 7:07am | ! Report

      Great piece Harry, thanks! Had never heard about him until today. Very impressed by his achievements in post war SA. A man called Adolph spending his life fighting the Nazis and racists in his own country is an achievement of its own anyway!

      • Roar Guru

        November 21st 2013 @ 9:12am
        Harry Jones said | November 21st 2013 @ 9:12am | ! Report

        Yes, I appreciated the irony!