Skip to content

Middle East 1930 - 1947:

South African Formations

The pre-war South African Army comprised a small Regular Army, known as the South African Permanent Force, a territorial force called the Active Citizen Force and the Defence Rifles Association. All these elements drew only from the white population of the country.


» 1 South African Division (1941-42)
» 2 South African Division (1941-42)

The infantry component of the Permanent Force was the Special Service Battalion, born out of the depression in order to employ young men. On 15 September 1939, the one battalion was expanded to form the 1 Special Service Brigade. The war in South Africa was not overly popular, and some men refused to serve outside South Africa. This led to the reorganisation of the armed forces onto a volunteer basis for service overseas. The Mobile Field Force was created to command any divisions raised.

On 13 August 1940, the 1 South African Division was formed with its headquarters at the Military College. It moved to East Africa and joined the force there on 11 November 1940. It took part in the Abyssinia campaign from 10 February 1941 until withdrawn to move to Egypt on 21 April 1941. Following the success of the Allies in Abyssinia and Somaliland, and with the deterioration of the situation in Libya and Egypt, the division was moved by sea, arriving in Egypt on 3 May 1941. The division concentrated in Egypt under the command of British Troops Egypt. It entered the line, under the command of XXX Corps on 1 October 1941. It was involved in the battle which commenced on the 18 November 1941 to relieve Tobruk. With the capture of the 5 Brigade, the division reorganised, being withdrawn from the line to come under command of the 8 Army on 13 December 1941.

On 29 January 1942, the division came under command of XXX Corps, transferring to XIII Corps the next day. In anticipation of its involvement in the Battle for Gazala, the 5 South African Infantry Brigade was transferred in from the 2 South African Infantry Division on 20 April 1942. The Battle for Gazala took place between 26 May and 21 June 1942. On 25 June, the division transferred to XXX Corps, and fought at Mersa Matruh. It took part in the defence of the El Alamein line between 1 July and 27 July 1942. It also participated in the main battle of El Alamein between 23 October and 4 November still under XXX Corps. Following the breakout, the division did not take part in the advance, but remained in Egypt transferring to XIII Corps on 5 November. On 30 November, it transferred to G.H.Q. Middle East and left Egypt on 1 January 1943 to return to South Africa in order to form an armoured division.

The 2 South African Infantry Division was raised on 23 October 1940. It left South Africa on 20 April 1941, and arrived in Egypt on 6 June 1941. It joined X Corps on 21 July 1941, transferring to British Troops Egypt on 7 September and 8 Army command on 5 October. Suffering a lack of transport, it was held in reserve. On 2 December, it came under command of XIII Corps, transferring to XXX Corps on 10 December. It first entered battle at Sollum on 11 January 1942 with XXX Corps, transferring to XIII Corps on 27 March. The division fought at Gazala between 26 May 1942 and 21 June 1942, being was cut off on 18 June, retreating into the Tobruk Fortress. It took under command the 32 Army Tank Brigade, 201 Guards Infantry Brigade and 11 Indian Infantry Brigade. The division was captured with the fall of Tobruk on 21 June 1942. It was not reformed.

Back To Top