Oct 26, 2020

Fidelity Services Group Club Rugby Column


An international rugby team that played five matches remaining unbeaten, and who in their way, did as much to enhance the reputation of South African rugby, as any overseas touring side.

It was a team that proudly took the field wearing the green and gold and won every “international” match played in a prison camp at Mühlberg-on-Elbe in Germany in the spring of 1944. The team having being selected from only 700 South Africans soldiers in a total strength of nearly 12,000 prisoners-of-war being held at the camp.

Their playing record was –
Beat a Combined New Zealand/Australian side, 21-0.
Beat a Combined England, Scotland and Ireland side, 14-3.
Beat Wales, 14-3.
Beat a Combined Rest of the World side, 9-0.
Beat Wales, 3-0.

A word about the Stalag IVb Springboks that did so well, for the team included eight players who had represented their provinces in South Africa – two Natal, two Eastern Province, two from Border, one Northern Transvaaler and one from South-Western Districts, with the balance being made up of first-team club players from Hamilton-Sea Point, Crusaders – Port Elizabeth, Police, Buffaloes – East London, Diggers – Johannesburg, Albany – Grahamstown and many from the country districts. The side was captained Barend Van Der Merwe, a pre-war Natal scrum-half, who was awarded the Military Medal for bravery at Tobruk, and who during the war years developed into a fine flank forward,  remembered today by his nick-name “Fiks”, who in 1949 gained his official Springbok colours in the First Test at Newlands against the 1949 All Blacks. The team was coached by Noel Robertson, a former Junior Springbok, who had toured the Argentine in 1932.

No sooner had the prisoners-of-war, having been transferred from Italy to Stalag IVb settled down, and getting over the disappointment of being captured, when that their thoughts turned to sport. A “Hut” league was formed, with committees, selectors and referees appointed. More than thirty huts entered teams and the men were from all parts of the British Isles, the Dominions, as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, were then called. There were also teams from the United States, with each hut team playing under a name such as Wanderers, Barbarians, Rovers, Swifts, Harlequins, and United etc.    

Just when everything was ready, the snows came and epidemics of infectious diseases in the camp brought on a ban of all sport. This was when the South Africans did not stop their planning, for the selectors, drew up a comprehensive list of available players, seeded them and verified their records from home, and were ready for the tournament when the time was called. Of interest, a D. Katzeff, was elected as President of the South Africa Rugby Club in the camp.         

The South African supporters were also very active, especially those from Natal making elaborate plans for a Zulu war-dance to precede each match. Thousands of cigarettes went to the market to buy black grease paint and various odds and ends to equip the Zulu warriors. Amateur carpenters and tailors worked long hours making shields, assegais, and all the trimmings and trappings required for the “Impi’s” to perform

Stalag IVb, had previously been a Russian slave labour camp and the playing field was a hard corrugated piece of land, which were once the lime pits of the buried Russian labourers.

The ingenuity of prisoners-of-war was a legend. The jersey was made from Red Cross issue vests adapted by one of the prisoners who was a tailor by profession. To simulate the green – there were plenty of discarded olive-green Russian overalls lying around and these were boiled up together with the vests and military long stockings to produce the main colour. A willing Medical Corp prisoner produced the gold colouring, by boiling up anti-malaria tablets, resulting in a liquid mixture, which was applied to the collars and stockings tops. Italian white underpants were used for the shorts, whilst the Springbok badge was hand-stitched on to the jersey. Even boots did not produce a problem, for they used normal army issue boots, removing the heels, and from these they fashioned studs. For bootlaces, they whipped the string out of the Red Cross parcel and that was that!

For the match against Wales, a hand-written souvenir programme was produced in colour, with the Springbok head and the heraldic badge of the Prince of Wales displayed on the front page, with the teams listed inside as well as a page for the programme which showed:
Military Band at 2.30
Teams presented to Major White – The Senior British Officer at 2.55
Kick-Off at 3.00

Somewhat surprising there was a notice contained in the programme of a social evening to be held afterwards, at the “Empire Theatre”. This was a hut kept vacant especially, despite crowding in other huts, for concert evenings. Obviously there was no beer, only tea in mugs and snacks of German bread and biscuits obtained from Red Cross parcels, but it was considered a fitting banquet to an international match and wound up to the strains of the song “Sarie Marais”.

It was only after the victory against Wales that the South Africans agreed to play against the “The Rest”, a side picked from all the rugby playing countries. The date selected being the 31st May, in those days celebrated as Union Day so it was decided by the whole camp that it would be an all-South African day in Stalag IVb – a church service in the morning, followed by a P. T. display, given by picked South Africans, with the big match in the afternoon which, as had become normal, being preceded by the display of the well-rehearsed Zulu “Impi’s” to get our avid supporters in good spirits. It goes without saying that the spirit of the Stalag IVb Springboks and the difficulties they overcame was worthy of the green and gold jersey. There is a wonderful photograph of the team on record. This was arranged by bribing a young German guard with plenty of black market cigarettes

To round off this tale, much of the information that has been used is from an article which appeared, after the war, in the then-popular local magazine “The Outspan” of the 14th June 1946, written by Eric Cowling, who was one of the prisoners-of-war at Stalag IVb. It was my good fortune to get to know him well, in later years, and in a way this article is a tribute to him, for he was a stalwart of Hamilton – Sea Point Rugby Club for well over fifty years, being of a generation that made sure that we, the young Under-19 players were well looked after, properly kitted out, driven in style to away matches and taken back to the Hamilton’s Clubhouse, for a beer or more which we were treated to, and being told to “bugger-off”  at the appropriate time, before we got out of hand.

B. R. Forsyth
First Published 2005 ~ Sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War 2.

Stalag IV B was the largest POW camp on German soil during the Second World War and was opened in September 1939. From 1939 to 1944, captured soldiers from 33 nations passed through the camp. Stalag IV B was liberated by the Red Army on 23rd April 1945. 3,000 internees perished in the camp due to sickness and life circumstances. The people who died in Stalag IV B were buried in a cemetery in Neuburxdorf.

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