Come Back to PortofinoThrough Italy with the 6th South African Armoured Division

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Overview
Using archival sources and private documents recently unearthed, Come Back to Portofino chronicles the journey taken by volunteers in the 6th South African Armoured Division. From training camps in Egypt through to the idyllic summer of 1945 the ‘Div’ left its mark on towns and villages across Italy.

World War II combat—the South African ‘Red Tabs’ in Italy

Using archival sources and private documents recently unearthed, Come Back to Portofino chronicles the journey taken by volunteers in the 6th South African Armoured Division. From training camps in Egypt through to the idyllic summer of 1945 the ‘Div’ left its mark on towns and villages across Italy. From Monte Cassino to the outskirts of Venice and Milan, the campaign lasted exactly twelve months. During the advance through Rome up to Florence, it was a case of constant movement and violent contact with the enemy.

 

 

Experiences which left an enduring impression on returned soldiers included the periods of rest at Siena and Lucca as well as the four miserable winter months in the northern Apennines. Overall, the casualty rate was surprisingly low considering the ideal ambush country and mountain defences which had to be overcome. In the rifle companies however, the rate of attrition was high and replacements were few. Among the South Africans who are buried in Italy, there are those who died in vehicle accidents, from drowning and falling out of windows or from suicide.

For the ordinary soldier the most important part of everyday life was contact with home or foraging for food and wine, and even enjoying the company of signorine when operations permitted. Nevertheless, it was not one long happy camping trip as was often portrayed in the press. The cast is made up of the famous regiments and ordinary South Africans who participated in these epic events.

James Bourhill

James Bourhill. Despite an inauspicious school career at St John’s College in Johannesburg, James did develop a love of history and literature. There followed a year of compulsory national service with an equestrian unit in 1973. Higher learning began at Cedara College of Agriculture and, after working on farms in Rhodesia and North Dakota, he attended the University of Minnesota as an exchange student. Back home, trying to wrest a livelihood from the arid land, James turned to freelance journalism and to further education—ultimately attaining a Master’s degree in agricultural economics.

For more than twenty years he has been in the property-valuation and consulting business and is now following his passion for history by reading for a D. Phil degree at the University of Pretoria. Come back to Portofino is a by-product of academic work enriched by a decade of travels through Italy. The author divides his time—unequally—between the family farm near Rustenburg and the village of Plan de la Tour in the south of France.

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Weight 1.0 kg
Dimensions 23.4 x 15.3 x 2.8 cm
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Publisher30 Degrees South Publishers Publication Date01/04/2011

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En hierdie ouens? Wie was hulle? – Article in Rapport, mentioning Come Back to Portofino by James Bourhill Rapport, Sondag 17 Mei 2015

Waarom is ons so onkundig oor die verlede, vra Rodney Warwick.
Ek het verlede Dinsdag die Universiteit van Kaapstad (UK) besoek en op die plek gestaan waar Rhodes se standbeeld verwyder is. Dit het my weer opgeval hoe min die huidige generasie jong swart en wit Suid-Afrikaners weet en omgee oor ons eerbiedwaardige wêreldoorlogerfenis. Want agter die leë voetstuk op die eerste vlak van die Jameson-trap is die oorloggedenksteen vir studente en personeellede van die UK wat in 1914-’18 en 1939-’45 gesneuwel het. En bo-oor die eenvoudige gedenkteken het ‘n student geverf: “F*ck Rhodes.” Dit is miskien ‘n gepaste opsomming van die onkunde, histerie, onredelikheid en rasse-antagonisme wat deel was van die “#RhodesMustFall”-beweging. Met die 70ste herdenking van Oorwinningsdag in Europa pas agter die rug wonder ek of die UK die enigste universiteit in die Gemenebes of enige van die Tweede Wêreldoorlog-deelnemers is waar ‘n oorlogsmonument só onteer sou word. Oorwinningsdag het die afgelope naweek sentraal gestaan in die nuus, maar ek het nêrens ‘n woord oor Suid-Afrikaanse betrokkenheid gelees nie. Ons kan mos nie so ‘n geleentheid laat verbygaan om die laaste oorlewende lede van die Unie-Verdedigingsmag (UVM) behoorlik te eer nie! Van ons laaste oorblywende soldate van die Tweede Wêreldoorlog (WO2) sal die jongste nou 87 of 88 wees (as hy 18 was in 1945 toe die 6 SA Pantserdivisie in Italië geveg het). Ná die oorlog is daar in Suid-Afrika, met net enkele uitsonderings, inskrywings bygevoeg tot strukture wat die Eerste Wêreldoorlog herdenk, eerder as om nuwe monumente op te rig. As ‘n mens die wêreldwye betrokkenheid by die oorlog in ag neem, met meer as 100 lande wat betrek is en die verlies van sowat 61miljoen lewens, was Suid-Afrika se militêre betrokkenheid natuurlik betreklik klein. In syfers lyk dit so: Sowat 11000 oorlogsterftes uit 334000 mans en vroue wat vrywillig diens gedoen het. Dit kan rofweg verdeel word in 221000 wit, 77000 swart en 46000 bruin en Indiër-troepe. Dis inderdaad besonder gepas om ons veterane, swart en wit, te vereer 70 jaar ná Oorwinningsdag toe die 6 SA Pantserdivisie sy aan sy met die Geallieerdes in Italië geveg het. “6Div” is in 1943 gevorm uit veterane van die woestynveldtog en nuwe vrywilligers. ” Die oorgrote meerderheid was vrywilligers – voetsoldate én offisiere. ” Onder hulle was mense wat later prominent sou staan in die Suid-Afrikaanse openbare sfeer: Michael Corbett, later hoofregter wat in 1994 vir Nelson Mandela as president ingesweer het; Colin Eglin, liberale politikus; Gavin Relly, voorsitter van Anglo American in die 1980’s; en, al het hy dit later in sy outobiografie met minagting behandel en al was hy nooit by enige veldslagte betrokke nie, was Joe Slovo ‘n lid van die SA Geniekorps. Nog ‘n lid van die SAKP, Lionel Bernstein – wat die 1955-Vryheidsmanifes geskryf het – was ‘n artilleris. Afrikaners is ook goed verteenwoordig, veral onder die 6Div-lede wat later senior range in die 1950’s en 1960’s in die Suid-Afrikaanse Weermag gehou het. Die oorgrote meerderheid was vrywilligers – voetsoldate én offisiere. Sommige geskiedskrywers het al beweer die onderhoudstoelae wat aangebied is, was die grootste motivering vir baie van die Afrikaner-vrywilligers (en bruin en swart mense) uit arm agtergronde. Dít staan in kontras met die Engelse troepe en die Afrikaanse “Bloedsappe” wat Jan Smuts se rasionaal (wat ons nou weet korrek was) gevolg het dat Suid-Afrika eenvoudig móét betrokke raak. PG du Plessis se toneelstuk van 1971, Siener in die suburbs, vang ‘n literêre essensie van dié tydperk vas toe armoedige Afrikaners nog gesukkel het in die tyd van oënskynlike triomfantlike wit republikanisme. ‘n Afwesige pa van ‘n disfunksionele gesin is ‘n sleutelfiguur – in 1945 as vermis gelys “êrens in die Noorde”. Sy oorlogspensioen word steeds uitbetaal aan sy weduwee, maar word ook begeer deur sy uitgebreide familie en agterryers, insluitende die gewelddadige Jakes (wat uiteindelik vir Tiemie vermoor). Sonder twyfel was 6Div veel beter voorberei op oorlog as dié Suid-Afrikaners wat vier jaar vroeër vort is na Oos- en Noord-Afrika onder leiding van genl.maj. George Brink en later die bekender genl.maj. Dan Pienaar. Die divisie het in April 1944 in Italië begin aankom ná breedvoerige opleiding in die Egiptiese woestyn – ongelukkig op terrein geheel en al anders as die beknopte heuwels van die platteland waar die soldate sou moes veg. Die skerp punt van die Italiaanse veldtog sou uiteindelik ‘n fisiek uitmergelende en bloederige besigheid wees – ‘n genadelose tyd. Anders as die Suid-Afrikaanse troepe in die woestyn, wat die gebrek aan ‘n eie pantsermag akuut gevoel het, het 6?Div ‘n pantserafdeling met Amerikaanse Sherman-tenks gehad -“Tommykocher”, oftewel Tommie-braaiers, het die Duitsers hulle genoem vanweë die neiging van die brandstoftenk om maklik aan die brand te slaan nadat hulle getref is. Die infanterie, wat eintlik die meer gepaste militêre afdeling vir die Italiaanse terrein is, is toegerus met die Amerikaanse Thompson-submasjiengeweer van 1920’s-Chicago-Mafia-faam, benewens hul alomteenwoordige Britse .303Lee-Enfield-gewere en Bren-masjiengewere. Suid-Afrikaanse artillerie het die Britse 5.5-duim-kanon en die woestynveldtog se 25-ponder-kanonne ingesluit. 6Div is aangevoer deur genl.maj. ¬Evered Poole, oorspronklik van Kaapstad. Hy was ‘n beroepsoldaat wat baie agting onder sy manskappe geniet het, maar ná die oorlog deur die NP-regering oorgesien is vir bevordering weens sy duidelike afkeer in hul verdelende politiek. 6 SA Pantserdivisie se veldtog in Italië kan sorg vir vreeslik gekompliseerde leeswerk, maar in kort: Die Suid-Afrikaners het hul pad oopgeveg deur Italië deur van die meedoënloosste slagvelde van die veldtog. Met gedurige hinderlae of vanuit vaste posisies het hulle retirerende Duitse magte bestook, tot die finale aanvalle op bergtoppe soos Monte Sole in April 1945. Dis in hierdie gebied wat Duitse SS-troepe in vroeg Oktober 1944 Italiaanse burgerlikes uitgemoor het wat verdink is van steun vir die Italiaanse weerstand. Die Suid-Afrikaanse troepe het op die nippertjie opgeruk en die Duitse magte teruggedwing. In 2007 het die Italiaanse dorp Marzabotto hulde gebring aan 6SAPantserdivisie deur ‘n straat na hulle te vernoem. Dié straat verbind Castiglioni dei Pepoli en omliggende gebiede via die Bologna-Modena-hoofweg: dieselfde landskap waaroor Suid-Afrikaners 70 jaar gelede hul pad oopgeveg het en waar baie vir ewig agtergelaat is. By die Castiglioni- Suid-Afrikaanse begraafplaas het Smuts ‘n inskripsie in hul eer ontsluier: “To save mankind your¬selves you scorned to save” bokant die Afrikaans: “Om die mensdom te dien het jul veiligheid versmaad.” Twee persoonlike verhale tipeer die soort opofferings wat Suid-Afrikaners in Italië gemaak het. Lt.kol. Angus Duncan, die offisier in bevel van die Cape Town Highlanders-infanterieregiment in 1945, was, net soos amper al sy manskappe, ‘n vrywilliger. Voor die oorlog was hy ‘n prokureur. Hy was 35 in 1945, getroud en met drie kinders in Kaapstad. Duncan het sy regiment by Monte Sole gelei in een van die grootste veldslae waarin Suid-Afrikaners betrokke was. In ‘n aanval op die Duitse verdedigingslinie, dae voor die Duitse oorgawe in Italië, is Duncan in ‘n landmynontploffing op die berg dood. Duncan was een van vele Suid-Afrikaanse vrywilligers wat geglo het ‘n beter wêreld sou uit die ondergang van Nazisme spruit. ‘n Ander vrywilliger was kpl. William Cloete van die Kaapse Kleurlingkorps. Hy was die leier van ‘n draagbaarspan verbonde aan die Cape Town Highlanders-regiment. In ‘n verbete geveg met Duitse magte, waarin sy afdeling aan drie kante van mortier- en masjiengeweervuur omsingel was, het Cloete en sy span tien gewonde Suid-Afrikaners na veiligheid gebring. Hiervoor het hy ‘n militêre medalje vir dapperheid ontvang. Amper ‘n jaar later, toe hy 24 jaar oud was, is Cloete op Monte Sole getref deur ‘n koeël van ‘n Duitse skerpskutter en permanent verblind in albei oë. Ná die oorlog het hy die Bellville-skool vir Blindes bygewoon. Hy het ‘n spesialis-mandjievervaardiger geword – ‘n beroep wat hy vir die res van sy werkende lewe beoefen het. Hy is in 1993 oorlede. In die Italiaanse veldtog het 6?SA?Pantserdivisie meer as 700 soldate verloor, met vele meer gewond. ‘n Spesifieke insident is opgeteken deur James Bourhill van Johannesburg, seun van ‘n 6Div-veteraan, wat in 2012 die jongste (en beste) geskiedenis van die divisie in Italië geskryf het. In Come Back to Portofino demonstreer hy hoe die vasberadenheid van die soldate om te oorleef en hul onwrikbare lojaliteit aan mekaar tot genadelose wraak op die vyand kon lei. Lt.kol. “Papa” Brits, een van die UVM se voorste tenkbevelvoerders wat 1 Spesiale Diensbataljon gelei het, was hoogs verontwaardig toe, slegs dae voor die Duitse oorgawe, een van sy sersante deur ‘n Duitse sluipskutter geskiet is. Toe dié Duitser gevange geneem is, het Brits beveel dat hy uit die UVM se veldhospitaal verwyder word en summier tereggestel word deur een van die sersant se vriende. Hoewel die teregstelling van krygsgevangenes op alle fronte van die Tweede Wêreldoorlog plaasgevind het, is dié insident een van bitter min bevestigde gevalle wat Suid-Afrikaners betrek. Brits is kort daarna terug Suid-Afrika toe en het uit die weermag uitgetree. ‘n Paar jare gelede vertel ‘n buurman, ‘n NG dominee, vir my sy pa het onder Brits ge-dien en het die man amper verafgod. Daar is nie veel glorie in oorlog en die impak daarvan op die betrokkenes nie. Maar laat ons ten minste die geskiedenis reg onthou – en om die onthalwe van die laaste oorlewende veterane hulde bring aan die Suid-Afrikaanse soldate van die Tweede Wêreldoorlog.

Simplistiese verlede word altyd verkies
In Suid-Afrika se politieke geskiedenis het ons konflikte gereeld eendimensionele historiese tekste opgelewer – tekste wat nie verdraagsaam is teenoor detail wat nie by die heersende ideologie inpas nie. In my skooldae het die regerende Nasionale Party, wat betrokkenheid by die oorlog verwerp het, die aandag probeer aftrek van die rol van die Unie-Verdedigingsmagte (UVM) teen Duitsland. Die NP-regering se hoofdoelwit met die UVM was om dit te “Afrikaner-iseer”, so deeglik en so vinnig moontlik. Die soldate wat in Noord-Afrika en Italië diens gedoen het, het wel van hul kundigheid aan die Suid-Afrikaanse Weermag oorgedra in ‘n tyd van toenemende vyandigheid teenoor apartheid. Suid-Afrika se oorlog-erfenis het ná 1945 net die minimum amptelike aandag en blootstelling gekry. Jan Smuts se projek om die oorlogsgeskiedenis van die Unie te boekstaaf is teen 1960 laat vaar weens ‘n gebrek aan belangstelling. Van die drie volumes wat in die 1950’s verskyn het, is nie een in Afrikaans vertaal nie, ondanks die feit dat minstens die helfte van die wit soldate in die Noord-Afrika-veldtog Afrikaners was. In skole is min plek gelos vir die Tweede Wêreldoorlog. Die houding was: As die NP nie die oorlog gesteun het nie, is dit nie die moeite werd nie. En ná 1994 duur die amptelike gebrek aan belangstelling in die Tweede Wêreldoorlog voort. Die werklikheid is dat Afrikanasionaliste verslaaf is aan ‘n verlede van dogmatiese teenpole eerder as een met ingewikkelde nuanse. ‘n Voorbeeld is die oproep van die ANC dat geskiedenis verpligtend vir hoërskoolleerlinge moet wees in ‘n poging om ‘n simplistiese Afrosentriese “strugglegeskiedenis” te versprei. Die motivering is deels die wanopvatting dat net wit mense deelgeneem en geveg het in die wêreldoorloë. Die boek The Unknown Force (1994) deur lt.genl. Ian Gleeson demonstreer egter duidelik hoe swart, bruin en Indiërsoldate se oorloggeskiedenis gemarginaliseer is. Om dié onreg te herstel is iets wat ‘n mens sou verwag reeds onderneem sou word deur plaaslike historici in die afgelope 21 jaar. Ongelukkig weet ons dis altyd winsgewender om historiese onakkuraatheid na te streef, en om soos die NP die lastige nuanses te ignoreer.
Dr. Rodney Warwick is ‘n geskiedenis-onderwyser by Bishops in Kaapstad. Die Universiteit van Kaapstad het intussen die graffiti op die oorlogsmonument op hul kampus verwyder.

  Military History Journal Vol 15 No 3 June 2011 – H R Paterson MA

As they did with from Fledgling to Eagle, the publishers have shown that, with the right author, they can produce a publication which does both the subject and the author justice. Come back to Portofino’s presentation immediately strikes one as being excellent. It has an index, which is always appreciated in a book of this nature. The glossary and regimental abbreviations are very useful (but here the ‘Ioggies’ and’tiffies’ will wonder at the omission of the ‘Q’ Services Corps and the Technical Services Corps although they feature significantly in the narrative). The second half of the Second World War tends to be neglected, particularly the Italian Campaign after the battles for Monte Cassino (December 1943 to May 1944). Come back to Portofino eloquently resolves this problem and forcefully reminds us that the war continued after the campaign in North Africa. It also prompts us to remember the group of South African soldiers who fought in the later campaigns of the War and receive too little mention in most accounts of the war. Come back to Portofino goes a long way towards rectifying this oversight. The author has chosen a most stimulating format. He has had access to two important sets of private documents. One is a set of notes written by his father during the Italian Campaign; the second is a set of 350 letters written by Corporal J B Hodgson, Royal Natal Carbineers, to his family. The author has used these to form the core of his story. Most authors would be content to use the official histories to lend coherence to this type of treasure trove. James Bourhill does not do so. Instead, he enriches his account with information from the regimental histories and from the war diaries and operational reports in the South African National Defence Force Documentation Centre. The result is a stimulating story which constantly shifts perspective. The mix of military operations combined with sharp personal perspectives is a heady one. It reminded this reviewer of his school days; when most of his friends’ parents and many of his teachers were veterans of the Second World War. Come back to Portofino is a particularly well rounded book. James Bourhill eases one gently into the Second World War and the formation of the 6th South African Armoured Division. Here is what undoubtedly will be, for many years to come, the definitive account of the 6th South African Armoured Division’s operations. After providing a history of the Division in Italy, he completes the circle by telling readers what happened to his principal narrators, Stephen Bourhill and John Hodgson. (This has a particular resonance for the reviewer, as J B Hodgson went to the same school as he did and his story revived memories of the wall in the Memorial Hall with the names of those old boys who did not survive the War.) The book has few flaws. A noticeable one – and presumably a simple typographic error – is the designation of the South African 136 Tank Transporter Company, ‘Q’ Services Corps, as ‘Q’ Services Company, when the company’s function was only to transport tanks. It did not carry out the multitude of logistic functions typical of other ‘Q’ Services Corps companies. The appendix lists the names of South Africans who were killed in Italy. This Roll of Honour is a real bonus, yet James Bourhill may unknowingly have raised an important aspect of the Second World War which started oncethe British Commonwealth forces reached Europe. While the feeling that the war was almost over arose again from late 1944 into 1945, men and women continued to die every day. It took some time after the war ended for the dying to stop. The main reason for this was the German practice of demolishing and booby-trapping as they retreated. These deadly devices continued to kill long after Germany’s armed forces ceased to exist. Come back to Portofino is a timely reminder that war is not waged by robots. This point is reinforced by the number of deaths that were the result of accidents or carelessness. Particularly poignant are the letters asking how a son died. In some cases, it was perhaps better not to know. A significant aspect of Come back to Portofino, which may have inspired the title of book, is how South African soldiers spent their time awaiting repatriation and demobilization. When reading about the immigration official who sent a soldier’s wife back to Italy, one gets the distinct impression that in South Africa, as elsewhere, there were bureaucrats seemingly unaware that there had even been a war on. Most Highly Recommended.

War memories – Book Review on Come Back to Portofino by James Bourhill Donald P. McCracken, Farmer’s Weekly, 16th September 2011 

It’s hard not to be both intrigued and saddened by the intense nostalgia for the Second World War in SA, certainly among the generation who went through it, particularly English-speaking whites. Even in Britain this feeling, almost of hankering after a lost world, isn’t as strong and there’s much less obvious psychological heritage – the MOTHS and dilapidated tanks displayed outside ageing shell-holes. This properly researched book, well referenced, stacked with relevant military information, a comprehensive bibliography and good index, is a useful historical record. Though 544 pages long, this cleverly constructed diary of events relating to the 6th SA Armoured Division push across north Africa and up the boot of Italy can be read in easy chunks. The decision to send home the 1st SA Division after its disastrous misfortunes, and in particular the demoralising surrender of General Klopper to Tobruk along with 11 000 South Africans, and then reconstitute a new force, was a successful gamble that saved SA’s reputation. I can’t agree with the author that Churchill’s wartime speeches had more impact in SA than in Britain, but found fascinating his occasional glimpses of an English-SA grouping now lost (in all but Pietermaritzburg), where people spoke ‘proper English’, went to dance halls with sprung floors and were a mirror of home-counties’ Edwardian British society. Sneer as one might, though it was predominately that society which offered, as one of its last meaningful gestures, a fighting force which did all SA proud.

South Africa’s role in Italy’s World War 2 campaign –  Stephen Coan, The Witness, 5th October 2011 

SUBTITLED Through Italy with the 6th South African Armoured Division, this evocative book has earned an accolade from Martin Windrow, author of the acclaimed The Last Valley: Dien ¬Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, who is quoted on the cover as saying he is delighted “to have this valuable record on my shelf”. James Bourhill’s book constitutes an almost day-by-day account of the South African role in the Italian campaign during World War 2; from Pietermaritzburg’s Hay Paddock, then onto training in Egypt and finally into action in Italy. Many did not return, and a Roll of Honour records those who now lie in cemeteries in such picturesque settings as Arezzo, Assisi and Florence. Bourhill makes good use of letters and diaries, particularly those of John Hodgson and his own father, Stephen Bourhill, which provide something of a narrative thread through the book. In fact, if Bourhill had perhaps concentrated on these, his book could have been something far more than a “valuable record”. There’s a much better book in here somewhere. While Come Back to Portofino is packed with information (and copiously illustrated with maps and photographs) there’s no doubt it could have benefitted from a tighter editorial hand. As personal experience intersects with ¬campaign details and statistics, the writing is at times disjointed and the focus tends to drift. But there is no doubt that local readers will find much of interest. Pietermaritzburg features in the training phase, and one gets a sense of the impact the presence of the transit depot, Hay Paddock (now Hayfields), had on city life at the time. The Natal Carbineers (then the Royal Carbineers) are also ¬prominent and Maritzburg readers will encounter many a familiar name.

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