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War Story-1942 (chapter 4)
War Story 1943 – chapter 4
Irene and I had chatted for many hours about our family background in the sometimes sleepless nights as we lay in our bunks or at end the day, after helping with the wounded soldiers. The worrying stories about the conflict in South Africa, between those who were pro- Allied Forces and those who were pro-German, seemed to make no sense. But then as we thought about it, parts of the puzzle seemed to start falling into place.
I come from a French-Huguenot background, where my forefathers had fled France to avoid persecution by the Roman Catholic Church and had then left the Cape of Good Hope by ox wagon into the interior, to escape the of oppression under the British Colonial government. My great, grandfather, Charel (Sarel) Cilliers, had made the covenant with God at the famous “Battle of Blood” river. Here the small group of Voortrekkers, with their superior fire power, had defeated the mighty Zulu forces, and the river was reputed to have been filled with blood when the Zulus retreated. My Mom was adamant that his name was Charel and not Sarel, as the history books in South Africa said, but that is open to debate.
Irene Johnstone came from British farming stock who had moved from England into the Bathurst area of the Eastern Cape in 1820 with promises of “free farms” and “government aid”. These farmers formed a human barrier between the Xhosas to the north, who were being forced south by the Zulus, and the expanding Cape Colony moving north. Here the “Frontier Wars” had taken place. Another group of settlers had been located not far from there in the East London area and consisted mainly of German Settlers. Again they were lured by promises of farms and equipment. Promises made in the newspapers of England and Berlin by Colonial politicians were found to be misleading, to say the least. In reality families found themselves in the harsh conditions of the Eastern Cape. Here drought, poor soil, unreliable provision of aid and ongoing conflict with the nearby Xhosa tribes provided far from ideal farming conditions.
Add to this mixing pot the many European and other world citizens who had travelled to the Kimberly area to make their fortunes on the diamond fields. Often, after selling everything they had, or borrowing from family and friends to make the journey, they saw their dreams disappear in the harsh reality of the dusty Karoo desert, so they moved into the towns to look for work or started to ply their previous trades in places like Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town.
Now, as part of the so called “Allied Forces”, the South African colonial government, together with countries like Australia and New Zealand, was sending troops to withstand the German juggernaught. At the same time not all members of the country sympathized with England. A strong anti-England sentiment was dividing the European Settlers and even some families. I hope that this is not going to cause serious problems in our country and can’t help worrying about my older sister, Helen whose husband is definitely not sympathetic towards Britain.
Not long before the war started, Helen and Boet had for a short time, hidden Robey Leibbrandt on his return to the country. After representing South Africa as a heavy-weight boxer in the 1936 Olympics, he had become a great admirer of Adolf Hitler. He left our country to undergo military training in Germany and was secretly landed on the South African Namaqualand West Coast by German intelligence. His mission, it was said, was to lead the resistance movement known as the “Ossewa Brandwag” in South Africa. When my Dad heard rumours about Helen’s assistance to Robey, he was furious, and although I was not present, I heard that there was a huge fight about it.
As children we had lived in Rebecca Street in Pretoria, and had been friends with Robey, who was then an instructor in the South African Police College which was just around the corner from us. Robey had always fascinated Helen and so it was no surprise when we heard that she and Boet had given him a place to hide on his mysterious return. When I left for North Africa Robey had disappeared, the security Police were searching for him, but no one knew where he was. The feelings in our family, where five of the children were fighting in the Allied Forces and one was probably, if not certainly, supporting the Germans, was a good example of what was happening in the country.
My mind jumped back into the present as I looked onto the dock and thought I caught a glimpse of my father in the crowd. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he was there to welcome me back home? Irene would sail on to Cape Town were her family now lived. Her father had recently decided to move there to start a small pub in the harbour village of Fishhoek. He had sold his farm near Bathurst to finance this new venture and I promised to visit as soon as I could. As we hugged to say goodbye, tears were streaming down her face and mine. It is amazing how quickly a deep friendship can form in such testing times.
Here I was, the young woman from French and Afrikaans descent, carrying the child of my Dutch husband, returning to my parent’s farm near Pretoria. Then there was my new friend Irene, the young women from Bathhurst in the Eastern Cape, a descendent of the1820 Settlers, now returning to Cape Town to her family and new challenges. How our lives had changed in the last year as we were thrown together by events in Europe and North Africa and even Japan. These events were not only affecting and dividing the whole world but also bringing people together!