What role did South Africa play in World War II? – Quartz Africa

The story of the Intelligence War in South Africa during World War II is one of tension, drama and tenacious persistence. South Africa officially joined the war on September 6, 1939, advocating for Great Britain and the Allies and declaring war on Nazi Germany.

South African historians have largely overlooked the intelligence war, in part because of the apparent lack of reference sources. This lack of attention prompted me to investigate further. The result was my book Hitler’s Spies: Secret Agents and the Secret Service War in South Africa.

The book offers a new perspective on this lesser-known episode in South African history.

After six years of research in various archive depots in South Africa and Great Britain, I was able to deliver a new report on the German secret services that were operated in South Africa during the war. My book is also about the hunt for witnesses in post-war Europe to help the South African government bring charges of high treason against those who supported the German war effort.

My research shows how the German government secretly turned to the political opposition in South Africa, the Ossewabrandwag (ox wagon guard), between 1939 and 1945. This group was founded in Bloemfontein in 1939 as an African cultural organization. During the war the movement became decidedly anti-imperial and increasingly militaristic. The government saw it as the proverbial “enemy within”.

The Germans were particularly interested in maritime and political secret services. Accurate naval information on ships from Europe and the Far East circling the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of South Africa, would enable German submarines to attack them.

Political intelligence could further help the Germans to spread riot within the then Union of South Africa. At the time, this was a rulership – a self-governing entity within the British Empire with English and African populations. During the war, German agents were sent around the globe to gather military and political information. These agents undermined the overall Allied war effort with varying degrees of success.

Hitler’s spies in South Africa

With the help of the Ossewabrandwag, a network of German agents was set up in South Africa. These agents used various channels to send encrypted messages to German diplomats in neighboring Mozambique for forwarding to Berlin. Due to Portugal’s neutrality during the war, Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony, was a safe haven for German agents and diplomats in southern Africa.

In mid-1942 the Felix organization built a radio transmitter with the help of the Ossewabrandwag near Vryburg, a large farming town in what is now the north-west African province of northwest. The Felix organization was headed by agent Lothar Sittig and was the leading German secret service organization in the war in South Africa. This radio transmitter finally enabled direct radio contact between agents and Berlin.

However, the cooperation between the Ossewabrandwag and the German agents did not go unnoticed.

The British and South African authorities were aware of the full extent of contacts and collaborations between key members of the Ossewabrandwag and the German agents operating in South Africa. They planned several unsuccessful raids on the illegal radio transmitter near Vryburg. These failed for the most part because of the dubious loyalties of some of the members involved. Through the joint efforts of the South African authorities, all illegal wireless communications between South Africa, Mozambique and Germany have been intercepted and decrypted.

This is evidenced by the presence of several British Security Service (MI5) files in the British National Archives. These are filled to the brim with documentary evidence detailing every tiny aspect of this episode in South African history.


After the war, the South African authorities sought to indict known war criminals, traitors and collaborators. Under the direction of prosecutors Rudolph Rein and Lawrence Barrett, missions have been set up to interview key suspects and gather evidence to bring charges against known South African traitors and collaborators.

The Barrett Mission was particularly interested in the charismatic leader of the Ossewabrandwag, Hans van Rensburg. Together with a trustworthy inner circle, it acted as a hub for German agents who were active in the war in South Africa. A case of high treason was set up against Van Rensburg.

The case ended after the National Party’s election victory in 1948, which was intended to formalize apartheid. Van Rensburg soon disappeared from the political scene in South Africa. The Ossewabrandwag movement was dissolved in 1952.

It seems that the postwar quest for greater unity among Africans was more important than indicting other Africans of treason, despite the overwhelming evidence against them.

After 1948 there was a decisive step towards reconciliation within the African community. This culminated in 1961 with the formal establishment of the Republic of South Africa.

Over time, these war events almost disappeared from the collective memory of South Africa. The gatekeeper mentality in archives, missing documents and the removal of important evidence from public transport have hampered further research on the subject. The high treason protocol against Van Rensburg, for example, was deposited in the National Archives in Pretoria in 1948. It has been embargoed for an undisclosed period of time. That document has since “disappeared”.

However, my book proves that the missing narrative about the intelligence war in South Africa can be reconstructed.

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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