by Lionel Wulfsohn
One of the factors in the Union Defence Forces' favour during the 1939-1945 War was the remarkably high calibre of the chaplains who served the various corps, regiments, naval and air force units.
The men of Regiment de la Rey were most privileged to have had Captain (the Reverend) M D V Cloete as their chaplain from February 1943 until the end of the war.
'Doempie', as he was most affectionately known, was born on 27 February 1913 in that most beautiful part of South Africa, De Doorns, at the head of the Hex River Valley. After completing his primary education at De Doorns, he was sent to the Paarl Boys High School where he duly matriculated. As he had a strong desire to enter the Church, he was sent to the Wellington Hugenot Seminary to become a missionary in the N G Kerk and, after completing his studies, was sent to Victoria West as assistant Reverend of that community.
He must have returned to the Western Cape, because in a letter which the writer received from his wife, Mrs Anna Cloete, in March 1994, she stated that he had worked for five years as a missionary at the Zion Church in Paarl. In 1941, he enlisted in the Union Defence Forces (UDF) with the intention of proceeding to North Africa and serving as a field chaplain.(1) Lt-Col J B ('Happy Jack') Bester, Officer Commanding the Field Force Battalion (FFB), also an old boy of Paarl Boys High, must have heard about Doempie's arrival in the Middle East and persuaded him to join his regiment. Doempie would not have required much persuasion.
After the 1st Division returned to South Africa towards the end of 1942, the FFB was disbanded, having lost too many men in the North African campaign, particularly at El Alamein. Their officer corps, however, had remained reasonably intact, and they were instructed to take over the Regiment de la Rey, which had a fair complement of men, but virtually no officers. This was the writer's first introduction to Doempie Cloete, a man who would very shortly win the complete admiration, love and respect of a very religiously mixed group of men.
Doempie Cloete was a tremendous rugby player with a most devastating tackle, an enthusiastic hockey player and, on route marches, would outperform many of the tough infantrymen. He would always say, at the end of a march, that he was the fittest man on parade. Close on 30 years old, Doempie was as fit as a fiddle and in the prime of his life.
In September 1943, the Regiment de la Rey was amalgamated with the Witwatersrand Rifles and henceforth were to be known as the WR/DLR or 'Wits de La Rey'. Doempie became the chaplain of this new unit.
The men only really got to know Doempie properly, once they were involved in action in the Italian campaign. The officers gave the orders, but Doempie was everywhere and he was the man who provided the men with the moral courage required to proceed into battle. He was not only a great man of God, but also had an instinctive knowledge of military matters. Thus, there are still men alive today, who are grateful that they heeded Doempie's advice and moved their front line positions.
The writer was personally present when Doempie Cloete captured two German soldiers who had been deliberately left behind to harass Allied High Command officers who were following the advance of the army in open vehicles. They had dug a very strong position to the side of the road and had camouflaged the position with bush. Realising that there was something wrong, Doempie pushed the bush to one side and shouted to the two men in Afrikaans: 'Kom uit kërels - die oorlog is op 'n einde'. ('Come out, guys - the war is over'). They heeded his instructions and two very weary Germans climbed out of the position and surrendered. One of them was a man of about 45 years of age, who told them that he had had enough of the war and was glad to be taken as a prisoner of war. The other was a Hitler Jugend lad of about 18 years of age, who was shaking in every bone, fibre and tissue of his body as he believed that he would be shot out of hand. The only 'weapon' that Doempie carried was his short officer's cane. This incident occurred in June 1944 near the village of Allerona, which is to the north of Orvieto. Although WR/DLR sustained comparatively few casualties (four killed in action) at Allerona, it was considered to be the first major clash in which they had been involved.(2)
As the campaign progressed, the WR/DLR lost many men in pushing back a most determined and stubborn enemy, who occupied extremely strong, well-prepared defensive positions.
In August 1990, the writer sent Doempie a copy of the June 1990 issue of the Military History Journal, which carried an earlier article of his, entitled 'Italy Revisited - 1958'. This article brought back many memories and Doempie replied:
'Die foto's oor ons Kerkhof by Castiglione (dei Pepoli) praat met my oor baie manne wat ek in daardie berge begrawe het. Ek was die laaste mens wat baie van hulle nog lewendig gesien het - ek kon nog hulle arms oor hulle bors kruis en hulle voete met elektriese draad aan mekaar bind en hulle wegbêre in 'n vreemde land. Eendag in die Hemel sal ek hulle weer sien, en vir hulle wear 'n slag dankie sê dat hulle hulle lewe afgelê het vir ons daardie dae in die berge van Italië. Ons wat agter gebly het sal hulle mos nooit vergeet nie.'
('The photographs of our churchyard at Castiglione [dei Pepoli] remind me of many men whom I buried in those mountains. I was the last person whom many of them saw - I could still cross their arms over their chests and bind their feet together with electrical wire and bury them in a foreign land. One day, in Heaven, I shall see them again and then thank them once more for giving their lives for us those days in the mountains of Italy. We, who remained behind, shall never forget them').
The WR/DLR lost 151 men, of whom eight were Cape Corps stretcher bearers, in the 1944-5 Italian campaign, and they lie buried from Monte Cassino in the south to Castiglione in the north.(3)
The writer is of the opinion that, had Doempie never entered the Church, he would have become one of South Africa's most prominent Afrikaans writers. In 1948, Captain Stan von Broembsen, Information Officer of the WR/DLR, compiled a brief history of the regiment in a book entitled The story of men. Doempie contributed a chapter which he called 'Hulle werk was klaar' ('Their work was done') and the writer would like to quote from his last paragraph:(4)
'Dit was tussen daardie hoe kruine [in die Appenines] dat die Bataljon geveg het van Oktober 1944 tot April 1945. Daar teen die hange van die hoogste berge het ons maters wat geval het agtergelaat. Daar het ons gestaan by die ope graftes in die herfs van 1944, toe die sagte najaarswinde die natuur stadig aan die slaap gesing het; daar het ons gestaan in die snerpende winterkoue toe die sneeu saggies op ons skouers geval het, en ook op hulle wat die koue nie meer gevoel het nie; daar het ons gestaan in die lente van 1945 en ons het geweet dat, net so groen en skoon en fris soos die natuur om ons, so was ook die lewe wat hulle nou ingegaan het - hulle wat ons daar ter ruste gelê het in die kerkhof te Castiglione. Hulle het te vroeg gegaan, ja, maar hulle werk was klaar.'
('It was amongst those high crests [in the Appenines] that the battalion fought from October 1944 until April 1945. There, against the slopes of the highest mountains, we left our fallen companions behind. There, we stood by the open graves in the autumn of 1944, when the gentle autumn winds slowly lulled nature to sleep; there we stood in the biting cold of winter, when the snow fell softly upon our shoulders, and upon those who no longer felt the cold; there we stood in the spring of 1945 and we knew that, just as green and clean and fresh as the nature was around us, so too had been the lives of those who had passed away - those whom we had buried in the churchyard at Castiglione. They had gone too soon, yes, but their work was done.')
The late, lovable ex-Cpl Jimmy Lister of the WR/DLR was asked to contribute a few thumbnail sketches in Capt von Broembsen's book on some of the leading personalities in the regiment, and the writer feels that his sketch on Doempie was superb:
'It is hard to tell whether Doempie is a minister of religion first or a soldier. He is such a fine example of both. Essentially a man of Christ, our Padre carries his religion easily.' [In a letter to the author on 8 September 1989, Doempie wrote: 'Ek het nooit eintlik belang gestel aan watter kerke julle behoort het nie - dit het toe mos nie meer getel nie - ons was almal saam een klomp - onafskeidbaar verbonde aan mekaar.' ('I was never really concerned about which churches you belonged to - that did not really matter anymore - together, we were a group - inseparably connected to each other.')] Lister continued:
'Men listened to him not only for the man he is, but also for the message he brings. He carried his religion into the field like a sword, and wielded it like a sword in his dealings with the men, using it to cut away any suggestion of hypocrisy or false sentiment. In his welfare work no man comes to him in vain. The men are his first thought, and no matter what the conditions are he is with them. Collectively he gives the men what they need, and his work is marked by the sureness and sympathy of his individual approach. Doempie was awarded the (prestigious) Military Cross for his gallantry in carrying out what was certainly more than his duty called for under enemy fire. [The writer was one of the many wounded whom Doempie and the gallant Cape Corps stretcher bearers carried out at the Battle of Monte Stanco, Friday, 13 October 1944. It was after this battle that Doempie was given the immediate award of the Military Cross.] He is all that a Padre should - and shouldn't - be.'(5)
The citation for his Military Cross reads as follows: 'On the morning of the 13th October 1944 at 05.00 hrs "A" Coy formed up on their start line prior to their attack on the strongly held position of Monte Stanco. The enemy brought down a heavy concentration of shell fire killing eight men including the Coy medical NCO and two stretcher bearers, and wounding most of 3 Platoon. (Captain James Craig, the MO of WR/DLR, advised "Doempie" about the wounded of No 3 Platoon, and also that Sgt W F Lalor of the SAMC i.c. of the Cape Corps stretcher bearers had been killed). Captain Cloete the Battalion Padre was with the Platoon immediately, worked his way forward to where the casualties were in spite of continued heavy fire and assisted the wounded. Here, despite the Red Cross flag he came under such accurate spandau (machine gun) and sniper fire he was pinned to the ground for one and half hours. He then re-organised the remaining stretcher bearers and (together with the bearers) rendered first aid to every wounded man and evacuated almost the entire platoon, only four of which had escaped unscathed. (It had rained the previous night and proceeding up a slippery clayish slope the bearers and wounded would all slide back a few paces, but somehow by superhuman grit and effort they managed to evacuate all the wounded). Shells were falling closely, but he struggled on over the difficult terrain and reached the village of Stanco where he entirely on his own initiative established a forward Regimental Aid Post, bandaging and rendering first aid to the casualties of all three forward companies and seeing to their evacuation. Finding the steep trench impassable he recced [reconnoitred] a route to "B" Coy Headquarters where 12 badly wounded lay and notwithstanding enemy shell and mortar fire raking the area successfully evacuated these casualties. He worked incessantly throughout the entire day under shell fire and snipers, dragging wounded from highly dangerous areas, organising the Jeep ambulances, keeping the stretcher bearers going with his superb example of unflagging energy and dauntless courage. Throughout his outstanding and exemplary conduct under constant enemy fire, his untiring efforts and quick initiative and his complete disregard for his own personal safety, he saved many lives and was a vivid inspiration to all.'
After the battle of Monte Stanco, Cpl S Fillies of the Cape Corps stretcher bearers was awarded the MM (Military Medal), which emphasised the valiant and much appreciated service of these men to the WR/DLR.(6) The war in Italy was slowly grinding to a close, but a final task awaited the 6th South African Armoured Division. The Germans had to be driven from the strongly held Monte Sole-Caprara-Abelle line in order to open the road to Bologna and the Po River valley. The 'honour' of liberating the positions on Monte Caprara was granted to the WR/DLR. The tragedy of these battles was that the men knew that very shortly the war would be over, and they entered the operation with much trepidation.
With lessons learnt from previous battles in the Appenines, an improved method of evacuating the wounded down the treacherous slopes and foot paths of the rugged mountains had evolved. Fifty Italians were recruited to back-up the Cape Corps bearers and they were placed under the control of SAMC medical orderlies. A group of sergeants from the Anti-Tank Platoon had volunteered to help with the evacuation. As an officer had to be delegated to be in command of the entire evacuation group, Doempie was naturally given the job. In his usual practical way, he had developed a system of relay stations for the evacuation of the wounded. This system, however, was never to be put into operation, as the German artillery and mortar fire caught one of the rifle companies on the start line. In the general confusion and chaos that prevailed, the bulk of the Italians deserted, and Doempie and the remaining stretcher bearers and orderlies went to the assistance of the many wounded.
From 22:30 on the night of 15 April 1945 until late the following afternoon, Doempie Cloete and his depleted evacuation team were kept busy with a major work of mercy, and always under enemy fire.
This was one of the most savage battles that the WR/DLR had to face in the entire Italian campaign and, although they succeeded in their objectives, they paid a heavy price: 25 men were killed or died of wounds and 143 were wounded. Doempie, though exhausted, would not rest until the last wounded man had been taken to the RAP (Regimental Aid Post).(7)
In a letter to Doempie in June 1989, the writer said: 'Ek sal altyd onthou hoe Bernie Cohen ('n weerman in die WR/DLR mortierpeloton) aan u gesê het in Italië - "Doempie, as die Duitsers my in die oorlog doodskiet, moet jy my begrawe - nie die Rabbi nie." ' ('I shall always remember how Bernie Cohen (a private in the WR/DLR Mortar Platoon) said to you in Italy - "Doempie, if I am shot dead by the Germans in the war, you - not the Rabbi - must bury me." ') In September 1989 he replied: 'As ek by Lionel Wulfsohn en Bernie Cohen se begrafnis kon wees, sou ek vir die Rabbis net sê, julle kan maar huistoe gaan, want ek wil daardie twee vriende van my self wegbere in hulle Vader Huis daarbo.' ('If I should be present at Lionel Wulfsohn and Bernie Cohen's funerals, I would simply say to the Rabbis, you might as well go home, because I want to bury those two friends of mine in their Father's House up there.')
With the end of the war in May 1945, Doempie remained in the Defence Force and served as Chaplain at Wynberg in the Cape and at Voortrekkerhoogte. In 1950, with the outbreak of the war in Korea, the South African Government decided to send an Air Force squadron to assist the United Nations forces in combat against the Communist armies of North Korea. The 2nd SAAF Fighter Squadron, 'The Flying Cheetahs', required a chaplain to cater for the spiritual needs of the men, and what better choice could they have made than Doempie. Although the writer has no written proof, he sincerely believes that Doempie volunteered for the position. He served the squadron with the same love and dedication that he so graciously gave to the WR/DLR in the Italian campaign. When the young airmen were about to take-off on a sortie, he was there to bid them farewell. Many a young pilot stood with bowed head next to his aircraft, whilst Doempie offered a quiet prayer for his safe return. Sadly, for some, this was their last prayer and ascent. On their return from dangerous missions, the sight of the lonely figure of Doempie on the run-way quietly awaiting their arrival, brought much spiritual joy to the pilots. He would be waiting for his pilots, no matter what the weather was like, day or night.
Doempie returned to South Africa at the end of 2 SAAF Squadron's tour of duty of almost two years in Korea.(8) He continued with his duties as Defence Force chaplain and, in 1957, became a full minister or 'predikant' in the N G Kerk. However, speaking on behalf of all ex-members of the WR/DLR, the writer was quite happy to have been served by an ordinary Reverend or 'Eerwaarde'.
Also in 1957, Doempie Cloete was promoted to the rank of major and, in 1959, he was given the rank of commandant (lieutenant-colonel).
In 1960, the Minister of Justice and the Commissioner of Police felt that there was a great need for a well organised Chaplain Corps in the South African Police (SAP), and their inspired choice fell on Commandant (Ds) M D V Cloete to become the first Chaplain-General of the Corps with the rank of full colonel.
To formulate the Chaplain Corps for the SAP was a great challenge, and Doempie took it in his stride. From being a people's chaplain, he proved to be a great administrator and the organisation, which he so capably built-up from scratch, remains intact, serving the police well.(9)
In the early 1970s Doempie was doing the job that he knew and liked best, visiting the young policemen on the borders of South West Africa (Namibia) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and attending to their spiritual needs. Having known him personally, the writer is convinced that he was probably also giving them some sound advice on how to conduct their war.
After an article on Doempie appeared in the Sunday Times, the writer immediately remembered the events of October 1944, and he wrote to the same newspaper of his personal experiences of this great man of God. Doempie then wrote him a letter which went as follows:
'Lionel, hoekom skryf jy altyd artikels oor my, dit was julle manne wat so hard geveg het. Maar laat ek vir jou sê, dat die blomme wat jy na 'n man bring terwyl hy leef, baie mooier is as die rose wat jy na sy begrafnis toe bring.' ('Lionel, why do you always write articles about me? It was you men who fought so hard. But, let me tell you, the flowers which you bring to a man while he lives, are more beautiful than the roses which you bring to his funeral.')
In April 1973 Doempie was promoted to major-general, a rank which he kept after his retirement in February 1975. With his characteristic humility, he never made a big issue of his rank and, on all the letters he wrote to the writer, he simply signed his name 'Doempie' or 'Anna & Doempie - die Cloetes'.
With his retirement, Doempie Cloete was the most highly decorated man in the SAP. Apart from all the usual 1939-1945 War and Police campaign medals, he was also the recipient of the Korean 'Order of Military Merit Ulchi', the American Bronze Star, the Military Cross and clasp in the form of an Arabic '8' on his Africa Star (indicating that he had served with the famous 8th Army in the battle of El Alamein which commenced on 23 October 1942).
During an interview that Anna Greyling had held with General Cloete prior to his retirement, she had asked the question: 'Wat sê iemand wat vir sy lewenswerk soveel oneindig bale toekennings en eer ingepalm het?' ('What does someone say who has earned such an infinite number of awards and much honour through his life's work?') He modestly replied: 'Se maar net ek is nog 'n mens wat my werk met leiding en krag van Bo na die beste van my vermoëns gedoen het.'(10) ('I am just another person who has done my work to the best of my abilities, with direction and strength from above.')
Doempie had married Anna Orlandini in February 1941, a daughter of a missionary family in the erstwhile Rhodesia, and this wonderful woman stood by him constantly. They were ideally suited for one another and, throughout her working life, she has been involved in serving her fellow man and woman through nursing and through her social work for the under-privileged. December 1987 found the Cloete family back in De Dooms, but what followed would not be easy years. Ill-health, as it does to so many ex-servicemen, began to plague Doempie constantly. Being the soldier and policeman that he was, however, he kept on smiling until he was crippled by a massive brain haemorrhage on 10 May 1992. On 27 December 1992, Doempie passed away, just short of his 80th birthday. When the news became public, there were not many dry eyes amongst the veterans of the FFB, Wits de la Rey, 2 SAAF Squadron and his beloved border policemen.
1. Letter from Mrs Anna Cloete to the writer, 10 March 1994.
2. S Monick, A Bugle Calls: The story of the Witwatersrand Rifles and its predecessors, 1899-1987(Witwatersrand Rifles Regimental Council, Pretoria, 1989), p 359.
3. Monick, A Bugle Calls, pp 504-7.
4. S E von Broembsen, The Story of Men: A brief history of the Regiment de la Rey and the Witwatersrand Rifles and their Association (Potchefstroom. 1948), pp 71-7. 5. Von Broembsen, The Story of Men, p 109.
6. Monick, A Bugle Calls, pp 427, 511.
7. Monick, A Bugle Calls, pp 456-67.
8. NG Kerk se Jaarboek 1994. Photocopy of obituary of Ds M D V Cloete, sent to the writer by Mrs Anna Cloete, 10 March 1994.
9. South African Police Archives: 'Die aanstelling van Ds M D V Cloete as Kapelaan-Generaal van die SAP', pp 38-43.
10. Aletta Greyling, 'Aftrede van Gen Majoor (Ds) M D V Cloete' in Oggendblad, Pretoria, 11 February 1975.