Hitler’s spies: Secret agents and the intelligence war in South Africa by Evert Kleynhans – reader impression

  • 1

This reader impression was written and sent to LitNet on the writer's own initiative.

Hitler’s spies: Secret agents and the intelligence war in South Africa
Evert Kleynhans
Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2021
ISBN: 9781776190201

........

This terrific, very readable book, which may ruffle a few feathers in South Africa, is up there with the best contemporary war histories, equal at least to the work of Ben Macintyre’s (The spy and the traitor and Agent Sonya) ilk. It kept me glued from the first page to the last, and Hitler’s spies deserves a wide readership.

...........

This terrific, very readable book, which may ruffle a few feathers in South Africa, is up there with the best contemporary war histories, equal at least to the work of Ben Macintyre’s (The spy and the traitor and Agent Sonya) ilk. It kept me glued from the first page to the last, and Hitler’s spies deserves a wide readership.

Evert Kleynhans (in life, a military historian at Stellenbosch University) meticulously charts the wartime ambitions of the militantly extreme Afrikaner nationalist organisation, the Ossewabrandwag (Ox Wagon Sentinel), also known as the OB. These ambitions included a determined effort to create and sustain a direct radio link with Nazi Germany’s top spy agency (the Abwehr) while supplying the German war machine with crucial military intelligence through a network of strategically placed OB spies at key South African harbours and elsewhere.

South Africa, with General Smuts as prime minister – together with Britain and the other dominions and Royal Commonwealth countries – declared war on Hitler’s Germany in 1939. Almost immediately, numerous German nationals living in South Africa and South West Africa were detained on security risk grounds. At the same time, Smuts cracked down on the OB and its paramilitary force of “Stormjaers”, and hundreds if not thousands of Afrikaners – all men – ended up in three internment camps hastily thrown up by the authorities. These were Leeukop, Baviaanspoort and Koffiefontein. Future prime minister John Vorster was among those incarcerated.

South Africans fighting in the war were all volunteers identified by a red flash on the shoulder, and since the OB regarded them as essentially defending the British Empire and Crown, who had been responsible for the agonies of the Boer War not that many years before, friction between the two groups often led to open street riots. One such disturbance in 1941 between OB supporters and Union Defence Force soldiers left 141 uniformed men seriously injured.

As the war at sea raged in the battle for the Atlantic, where U-boats were sinking millions of tons’ worth of ships, and the Mediterranean became a no-go transit zone for vessels heading to the Suez Canal, so attention shifted to the renewed importance of the strategic bases of Singapore, Aden and Cape Town. By 1939/40, 10 000 cargo ships a year were docking at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban, most en route to Far Eastern, Australian and Indian destinations.

The war had already placed enormous strains on Britain. America had not yet joined the fight against Germany, and South Africa, with its vital mineral and food resources, was a key trade partner for Britain at this stage of the struggle, which further emphasised the importance of the Cape route and its potential vulnerability to the U-boat threat.

Within two years of the outbreak of the war, Admiral Canaris, head of the German navy, had dispatched a new, big class of long-range submarines to patrol South African waters and sink Allied shipping. Canaris was chief not only of the German navy, but also of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organisation. As such, he would eventually be in receipt of South African military secrets, including the movement of Allied ships in South African ports. But mercifully for South Africa, Canaris was not a Hitler loyalist, especially after he became aware of Nazi atrocities in Poland, and Kleynhans recounts how Admiral Canaris was accused by his own key South African agent of deliberately suppressing military secrets culled by the OB, before the German military command structure could act on the information. We may ironically have Canaris to thank for the fact that, in the event, German U-boats managed to sink only some 200 Allied ships off the South African coast – barely a million tons. Eventually, the utility of the submarine squadron was questioned, and the subs were withdrawn. Admiral Canaris was eventually rumbled by the Nazis, relieved of his post, suspected of sympathising with the failed attempt on Hitler’s life, and hanged by the Gestapo.

Kleynhans describes the initial blitz attack of the Eisbär group off Cape Town in April 1942 in very moving terms, drawing on German diaries of the submariners involved. Six unguarded Allied ships, including a large passenger liner, were sunk, all within a very short space of time. Life would become more difficult for the U-boats thereafter, with improved anti-submarine activity and with vital intelligence drying up.

........

Meanwhile, matters were hotting up in South Africa itself. As backdrop to the OB contacts with Nazi Germany, Kleynhans skilfully navigates the historical context of the friendship between the Afrikaners and Germany over centuries, rooted in the post-1652 settlement of many Germans in the country, and consolidated during the Anglo-Boer War.

...........

Meanwhile, matters were hotting up in South Africa itself. As backdrop to the OB contacts with Nazi Germany, Kleynhans skilfully navigates the historical context of the friendship between the Afrikaners and Germany over centuries, rooted in the post-1652 settlement of many Germans in the country, and consolidated during the Anglo-Boer War. He hovers over the alienation that developed in white South Africa at large, following General Smuts’s decision to expel all German nationals from the new post-First World War mandate of the former colony of South West Africa. Smuts was reined in, however, when a few years later JBM Hertzog became prime minister. Hertzog was an Afrikaner nationalist of the old school, who revived the links with Germany, both diplomatically and in terms of trade agreements.

The bonds were dramatically strengthened when Prime Minister Hertzog gave vocal support to the remilitarisation of the Rhineland by Germany and concluded a trade agreement with Hitler. But when parliamentary power shifted to General Smuts at the outbreak of the war, the focus fell on the Ossewabrandwag (OB) to continue the relationship with Nazi Germany.

The Ossewabrandwag emerged as a result of the galvanisation of Afrikaner sentiment, which accompanied the centenary celebration of the Great Trek in 1938. The OB was eventually led by the charismatic and brilliant Dr Hans van Rensburg, who spoke fluent German. At its height, the OB had some 300 000 members, as well as a paramilitary wing called the Stormjaers (assault troops), modelled on the Nazi Party’s Sturmabteilung, and also in some respects the Schutzstaffel (SS). They were organised to be ready to execute a coup d’état in the event of a German victory, and to conduct active resistance against Smuts’s wartime government.

With this as backdrop, Kleynhans leads us through a detailed, gripping account of the various attempts by the OB to help German agents in various ways and to organise a network of OB-supporting spies throughout South Africa, based in every harbour and manning lighthouses where shipping movements could be plotted. We meet a galaxy of individuals, including the Radleys (a Nazi-supporting husband and wife team) as well as Afrikaner Robey Leibbrandt, the bizarre but self-serving former boxer who was at the centre of an early abortive attempt by German intelligence to form a network called Operation Weissdorn in the Union. Leibbrandt was landed by German submarine after receiving training in Berlin, but fell out with the OB, and he disappeared into obscurity after his eventual arrest by Smuts’s security forces.

Then, there were other marvellous characters to pick up the spy baton, who could have stepped straight out of the pages of a Graham Greene novel. One of the most successful of these was Hans Rooseboom, who arrived in the Union via Lourenço Marques, a fantastically atmospheric wartime port city in neutral, Portuguese Mozambique. Rooseboom established direct, if cumbersome, contact between the OB and Germany through the German diplomatic mission in Lourenço Marques. The OB helped Rooseboom to hide on various sympathiser farms, and managed his escapes from sundry camps, but he ultimately fell out with Van Rensburg, who tried to sideline him.

........

Kleynhans researched Hitler’s spies for his PhD thesis, and, as might be expected, he has included a superb bibliography, which will keep serious students of the Second World War history of South Africa reading for years to come.

..........

During this phase of the war, the OB received commitments from Hitler that when they were victorious, Germany would not invade South Africa, but would leave it up to the South Africans to run the show. Germany would only require control of one or two ports. But probably the most intriguing exchange between the OB and German authorities was when the OB, early on, indicated that they required weapons to force the overthrow of Smuts’s government, and were offered a large supply of weaponry which Germany had supplied earlier to General Franco of Spain during the civil war in that country. In the event, nothing came of it because of the difficulties of transport, but it provides a fascinating glimpse of the serious risk the OB potentially posed, especially in the early years of the war.

The most successful of the “spy rings” in South Africa, however, was that started by Lothar Sittig, the “Felix” organisation galvaniser. He not only, with technical support from OB members working at the post office, managed to construct a powerful transmitter that put them directly in touch with German intelligence, but coordinated and transmitted an extraordinary amount of amazing war intelligence being passed to him. It was only after detailing an account of troop ships sailing in convoy from Cape Town to join D-Day invasion forces in Europe, that he suspected Admiral Canaris of “burying” the intelligence before it could be acted on by the Oberkommando der Marine. The convoy was unmolested. His suspicions were proved correct, in the event. When Canaris was hanged, he celebrated.

What “Felix” and Sittig didn’t know was that all his transmissions were being monitored by British and UDF intelligence. It also became apparent that Hans van Rensburg was placing his own bets, in the event of either side winning the war. He claimed to have refused to allow the OB to “give away our own people” towards the later stages of the war in a statement he intended to read at the dock, where he was convinced he would be heading on a charge of high treason, which carried the death penalty if Germany lost the war.

His prepared statement, never delivered but found in his papers, carries echoes of Nelson Mandela’s famous statement in the dock two decades later.

Van Rensburg, knowing he faced the gallows, says: “... [I]t will be the verdict of history, and by that verdict I am prepared to abide. (In the) interests of my country and its people I came into armed conflict with the only means at my disposal; I did so with my eyes open ... and under the same circumstances ... I shall do so again.”

After the war, Smuts dispatched top legal officials to scour Europe for evidence of treason on the part of the OB. This resulted in two reports, the Rein and Barrett Reports. They provided conclusive evidence that if Van Rensburg and other key members of the OB were tried for high treason, they would be found guilty. The matter was so sensitive, however, that only six copies of the Barrett Report were produced. Within a short space of time (1948), the Afrikaner nationalists won the general election, and Smuts, like Churchill, was booted out of office. The new prime minister, DF Malan, was bent on reconciliation, and no charges were ever brought against OB members, including Hans van Rensburg. All copies of the incriminating Barrett Report disappeared from archives, but after years of sleuthing, the author of this remarkable book actually managed to track down a surviving copy, which provided the final link in the chain.

The Ossewabrandwag disbanded shortly after the war, with many of its members considering that its nationalist objectives had been achieved through the ballot box.

Kleynhans researched Hitler’s spies for his PhD thesis, and, as might be expected, he has included a superb bibliography, which will keep serious students of the Second World War history of South Africa reading for years to come.

  • David Willers is a former editor of the Natal Witness.

  • 1

Kommentaar

  • ROBERT BARRIE.

    Die ‘sad’ ding is dat die verraaiers soos die Radleys al die jare as helde in gemeenskappe beskou is terwyl mense soos Sailor Malan en Gideon Jacobs deur die NP-kabaal nooit vereer is nie. Die FAK sal vandag nog rondgaan en OB-grafte as histories behandel. Mens kan nie dink dat daar vandag nog mense is wat die Hitler-volgelinge wil onthou nie.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.


     

    Top