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I Dread This Time of the Year

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I spend most of my time weeping. Why? Because of the past, forgotten glory of South Africa, and about how my dying husband came to be treated as a consequence.

Jan Christiaan Smuts

It breaks my heart that Canadians are unaware of the fact that there were South Africans at Vimy Ridge and Delville Wood and so little is known about the part the South African ‘Cheetahs’ played n the Korean War. It surprises me that so very few of my North American friends,  and possibly also the modern generation of South Africans, have ever heard of Field Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts, the prominent South African and British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher who, in addition to holding various cabinet posts, served as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa from from 1919 until 1924 and from 1939 until 1948.

Smuts helped to create the Royal Air Force, became a Field Marshall in the British Army in 1941, served in the Imperial War Cabinet under Winston Churchill and became the only person to sign the peace treaties ending both the First and Second World Wars. According to Wikipedia,

One of his greatest international accomplishments was the establishment of the League of Nations, the exact design and implementation of which relied upon Smuts. He later urged the formation of a new international organization for peace: the UN. In addition, he wrote the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the UN. He sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, helping to establish the British Commonwealth, as it was known at the time. This proved to be a two-way street; in 1946 the General Assembly requested the Smuts government to take measures to bring the treatment of Indians in South Africa into line with the provisions of the United Nations Charter and in 2004 Smuts was named by voters in a poll held by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (S.A.B.C.) as one of the top ten Greatest South Africans of all time.

The Only Allied Victory In The Opening Years Of The War

Hitler, it is said, laughed when he heard that South Africa had declared war on Germany. (Neither his sense of geography nor history could have been very well developed!) Without the Cape sea lane, the Allies would not have held Egypt, the Middle East or India. Probably, and ironically, the Mediterranean would have been lost. Perhaps Russia too, as the Axis swept up from what was then Persia, through the back door. Pearl Harbour might have been unnecessary for the Japanese if they had taken India; thus, according to experts, there would have been no USA involvement.

Despite low numbers, the South African Springboks bundled the Italians out of Abyssinia in months, thus also probably saving Egypt, the Middle East, and India. (The only Allied victory in the opening years of the war.) This enabled O’Connor to drive the Italians out of Libya (only to be chased out in turn by Rommel). For all Hitler’s derision, the South Africans went on to do yeoman work. There were South Africans in the Royal Navy; even on the county class cruiser which chased the Graff Spee in the River Plate.

MOST OF ALL I WEEP FOR TOM WARDER

Saying nothing about the vicissitudes of war, he told his children about how he had swum in the Mediterranean off the coast of Oran, but, not, until they were older, about how he and a friend had brought the body of an American soldier ashore. He sang the songs that he and his brother had sung on the ship, and played the tunes they had played in the squadron band, named The Venturians because the aircraft they flew were Venturas. His youthful listeners thrilled to hear about how he had once or twice had a chance to play with some famous musicians including Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller; but he was never able to talk much about how pilots, returning from anti-submarine reconnaissance to the hopelessly too short emergency airstrip at Kalafrana in Malta, on occasion misjudged the distance to the precipice at the edge of the towering cliffs.

The Warder Boys came home from the war in Europe, having signed up for further service in Burma; Tom to court his girl while they waited to be shipped out to the Far East. Fortuitously, before the order came for them to leave, peace returned to their world on V J Day. Tom joined a commercial airline, married and settled down to raise a family, remaining fiercely proud of his squadron. After emigrating from South Africa in 1978, he joined the Royal Canadian Legion and became a member of the Army Navy and Air force Veterans’ Association, retaining life membership of the South African Air-force Association. He gave his time, his energy and his money passionately, however, to help his wife establish an organization which has saved millions of lives in Canada and around the world by creating awareness of the most common genetic disorder of all: Hemochromatosis.

He has been described by physicians and patients alike as the “most courageous man” they have ever known. When, with dreadful suddenness, that same genetic disorder caught up with him and he learnt that he was dying, he was faced with two almost overwhelming problems: he might not have time to write “The Story of the Monarch,” as he had promised the children; and not only was the kind of money which a funeral might entail, frozen in South Africa but it would take too long to arrive in time to pay for his funeral

He turned to the Canadian Legion and was advised to apply to Veterans’ Affairs in Vancouver, which he did, one cold rainy afternoon in April 1992. Taking with him his medals, discharge papers and a letter of the kind most Commonwealth ex-servicemen had received from the King of England, he stood patiently and dripping wet, waiting until his turn came to state his case to the clerk behind the counter.

“I’m sorry,” said the young man, politely but firmly, shaking his head. “South Africa was never in the war!”

AN APOLOGY WOULD DO A GREAT DEAL TO ASSUAGE THE HURT

Tom Warder did not give up readily. His immediate need was great, but what was more important, his pride had been stung. He tried repeatedly to have his medals, discharge papers and other records of active service recognized. They were deemed to be inadequate, however, on the grounds that, although the month and the year were given, the exact dates of arrival and departure from war zones, for example, South West Africa (now Namibia), Oran and Malta, were not specified. Six weeks after his first visit to Veterans’ Affairs in Vancouver, in a greatly weakened state but determined to have his evidence validated, he managed, by utilizing his airline privileges, to make it back to South Africa. He followed up correspondence, sent ahead by him from Canada, with a personal visit to the records office in Pretoria. From there the necessary documentation was mailed to Canada, but he did not live long enough to know the outcome. He died in South Africa on July 9, 1992. Relevant documents were recently found among his personal papers; too late for his case to be resolved. One official document shows that his records had indeed been received; however, despite the numerous letters I have written to the department of Veterans’ Affairs, asking only for an apology, after all these years his file is still marked “Pending!”

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About Marie Warder

Born in South Africa, became a journalist and later trained as a teacher before establishing my own school - "Windsor House Academy, of which I remained the principal until I emigrated to Canada. Love to write, and have published 27 books. Played the piano in my husband's dance band for 33years. Founder and President Emerita of the the Canadian, South African and in International Association of Hemochromatosis Societies, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Warder
  • Arthur Blake.

    What a great article! I was in the RAF and I remember clearly when 27 Squadron SAAF came to join us on Malta. Their band – led by Tom Warder – lifted us up and helped to keep us going during a really dreadful time in our lives.

  • Desmond Graham

    My wife found a link to this article on Facebook and what memories you have triggered, Arthur.

    Herewith another link that might interest you. Remember Thuys Uys, the Commanding Officer of 27 squadron and the ‘rescue’ off Skeleton Coast?

  • Zena Desmond

    I recommend a gripping book called “With No Remorse…” by the writer of this article. It is partly fiction, but much of it is based on fact. It has a photo of the Tom Warder and the “Venturians” on the opening page.

  • Patsy

    I’ve read it, and have a URL for a tape of the Venturians.

    Try it out.

  • http://vimeo.com/9842343 Marie Warder

    Thank you for posting a link to the Venturians. Something tells me that you must also have had a dear one “Up North” with 27 Squadron, SAAF.

  • Ziggy

    I cannot find words to express my sorrow at reading about how an old and very dear friend was treated.
    My wife and I remember dancing to the music of his band at the Coronation Ball — which was held at Rand Airport in Germiston — on the occasion of the Queen Elizabeth’s crowning.

  • Marie Warder

    Thank you,Ziggy. Good news!I have received a letter from my member of parliament who read the article, and hers has come with a copy of one to the Minister of Veteran affairs requesting recognition of South African Servicemen! – Praise God!
    I now await his response with baited breath.

  • Dorothy

    Marie, I admire your courage, strength and believing and fighting for something that should of been recogized a long time ago.
    Keep up the great work.
    You are finally being heard.
    Dorothy Found

  • Marie Warder

    Another accolade for Jan Smuts: He drafted the Charter of the International Court of Justice, helped found the State of Israel, and led the Boers to victory in the Boer War.

  • Marie Warder

    Praise God! The years I have spent writing to Canadian members of parliament, and pleading for South African vets to be recognized, have paid off! The member of Parliament for my area, read this article and sent it to the the Minister of Veteran Affairs, who has now acknowledged that SA was indeed an ally in WW2, and that surviving veterans would henceforth enjoy the same benefits as Canadians.