Is there a typical South African military doctrine? South African officers have been notoriously reticent in writing about their profession. In fact only one – Major general Roland de Vries – has ever attempted to formulate a military doctrine, based on his study of the history of warfare and his own considerable experience. For the rest, one has to look more at what South African commanders did on the battlefield rather than what they wrote, although their published reminiscences do contain sprinklings of what they thought.
Based on what they did, however, a typical South African military doctrine does emerge. In this article, attention is given to the distinctive historical circumstances which influenced such a doctrine. This includes the vast distances, the shortage of manpower and the fact that economic circumstances favoured short wars. This meant that South African wars were fought mostly by militias, mounted infantry moving with great rapidity. Because of the lack of numbers, operations were mostly planned based on an absolute minimum number of casualties. That led to mobility, flanking attacks and indirect approach rather than full-frontal steamroller tactics without regard to casualties.
This approach typified the South African operations in German South West Africa and German East Africa during the First World War, when officers like General Louis Botha and Jan Smuts eschewed direct frontal attacks and preferred to outflank the German defenders. This type of tactic was once again followed in the first years of the Second World War, when the South Africans were involved in operations against the Italians in Somalia and Ethiopia. The traditional mounted infantry approach was continued there, albeit with the lorry rather than the horse as means of movement.
From 1941 onwards, however, the South Africans were integrated in British and American operations against the Germans in Libya and Italy, and their natural knack for mobility was stifled. This gave rise to considerable rows between South African and British generals.
The Border War (1966–1989) provides further material to identify the distinctive South African military doctrine. The easy-going lack of organisation and discipline which marked the Boers in the Boer War was replaced with a much more professional approach, albeit that the South Africans always allowed their subordinate commanders great leeway in deciding for themselves how to fight, provided that they stayed within the broad parameters of the operation as laid down by the commanders. In this the South African style was similar to that of the Germans in the 19th and 20th century, rather than that of the much more rigid British.
The cross-border operations undertaken by the South African Defence Force (SADF) into Angola after 1978 were also characterised by great mobility, while their adversaries in the Angolan Army (FAPLA) floundered about almost helplessly. Several times, the South Africans demonstrated their knack for doing the unexpected and attacking the enemy where and when they did not expect it.
However, during the last weeks of the final phase of the war in Angola the SADF top commanders – men without operational experience – deviated from the typical South African doctrine, and were punished for it. That meant that the final phase ended in a draw, rather than a South African victory. The fact is that the South African officers were traditionally tactically brilliant, but showed definite shortcomings on the operational and strategic level.
Keywords: Anglo-Boer War; Border War; First World War; military doctrine; Second World War; South African Defence Force; Union Defence Forces