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During World War II, many South Africans saw military service. The Union of South Africa participated with other British Empire forces in battles in North Africa against Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, and many South African pilots joined the Royal Air Force and fought against the Axis powers in the European theatre.
On the eve of World War II, the Union of South Africa found itself in a unique political and military quandary. While it was closely allied with the United Kingdom, being a co-equal Dominion under the 1931 Statute of Westminster with its head of state being the British king, the South African Prime Minister and head of government on 1 September 1939 was J.B.M. Hertzog – the leader of the pro-Afrikaner and anti-British National Party. The National Party had joined in a unity government with the pro-British South African Party of Jan Smuts in 1934 as the United Party.
After Adolf Hitler's forces attacked Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany two days later. A short but furious debate unfolded in South Africa, especially in the Parliament of South Africa. It pitted those who sought to enter the war on Britain's side, led by Smuts, against those who wanted to keep South Africa neutral, led by Hertzog. Prior to the war, Afrikaner nationalist movements styled after German Nazism such as the Grey Shirts, the Ossewabrandwag, and Oswald Pirow's New Order had been popular in South Africa.
On 4 September 1939, the United Party caucus refused to accept Hertzog's stance of neutrality in World War II and deposed him in favour of Smuts. Upon becoming Prime Minister, on 6 September Smuts declared South Africa officially at war with Germany and the Axis. Immediately, Smuts set about fortifying South Africa against any possible German sea invasion because of South Africa's global strategic importance controlling the long sea route around the Cape of Good Hope.
Future Prime Minister John Vorster, and other members of the pro-Nazi/anti-British Ossewabrandwag strongly objected to South Africa's participation in World War II and actively carried out sabotage against Smuts' government. Smuts took severe action against the Ossewabrandwag movement and jailed its leaders, including Vorster, for the duration of the war.
Field Marshal Jan Smuts was the only important non-British general whose advice was constantly sought by United Kingdom's war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Smuts was invited to the Imperial War Cabinet in 1939 as the most senior South African in favour of war. On 28 May 1941, Smuts was appointed a Field Marshal of the British Army, becoming the first South African to hold that rank. Ultimately, Smuts would pay a steep political price for his closeness to the British establishment, to King George VI, and to Winston Churchill which had made Smuts very unpopular amongst the Afrikaners, leading to his eventual downfall.
With the declaration of war in September 1939, the South African Army numbered only 5,353 regulars, with an additional 14,631 men of the Active Citizen Force (ACF) which gave peace time training to volunteers and in time of war would form the main body of the army. Pre-war plans did not anticipate that the army would fight outside southern Africa and it was trained and equipped only for bush warfare.
One of the problems to continuously face South Africa during the war was the shortage of available men. Due to its race policies it would only consider arming men of European descent which limited the available pool of men aged between 20 and 40 to around 320,000. In addition the declaration of war on Germany had the support of only a narrow majority in the South African parliament and was far from universally popular. Indeed, there was a significant minority actively opposed to the war and under these conditions conscription was never an option. The expansion of the army and its deployment overseas depended entirely on volunteers.
Given the country's attitudes to race at the time, the enlistment of fighting troops from the much larger black population was hardly considered. Instead, in an attempt to free up as many whites as possible for the fighting and technical arms, a number of corps were formed to provide drivers and pioneers, drawn from the more acceptable Cape Coloured and Indian populations. These were eventually amalgamated into the Cape Corps. A Native Military Corps, manned by blacks, was also formed for pioneer and labouring tasks. For some of their tasks, individuals were armed, mainly for self-protection and guard duties, but they were never allowed to participate in actual combat against Europeans.
The South African Defence Force contributed in many theatres of war. South Africa's contribution consisted mainly of supplying troops, airmen and materiel for the North African campaign (the Desert War) and the Italian Campaign as well as to Allied ships that docked at its crucial ports adjoining the Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean that converge at the tip of Southern Africa. Numerous volunteers also flew for the Royal Air Force.
About 334,000 men volunteered for full-time service in the South African Army during the war (including some 211,000 white, 77,000 black and 46,000 coloured and Indian servicemen). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has records of 11,023 known South Africans who died during World War II.