South Africa’s Union Defence Force played an important part in World War II and also made tremendous sacrifices. By early 1941 South Africa had 30 000 troops in East Africa, where it helped drive the Italians out of Abyssinia and Somalia. This campaign was mere prelude to the operations it would conduct as part of the British Eighth Army against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in North Africa.
In November 1941 the battle-hardened Afrika Korps decimated a South African force at Sidi Rezegh in Libya. Six weeks later, South Africans captured the ports of Bardia and Sollum, after Rommel withdrew to the west. Rommel regrouped and attacked again, driving the South Africans and British back toward the vital port of Tobruk. The situation was tenuous at best ‒ South African general Hendrik Klopper surrendered his trapped force of 35 000 men, including 10 000 South Africans, in June 1942.
When Rommel attacked El Alamein a week later, his lead elements were pinned down by South Africans, who went on to play a significant role in the month-long battle that halted Rommel’s advance into Egypt.
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