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Interview'They might have overthrown the government'

How Nazi sympathizers in WWII Cape Town spied on the Allies and evaded justice

In ‘Hitler’s South African Spies,’ Evert Kleynhans uncovers ‘suppressed’ evidence that members of an ultimately ineffective effort to harm Allied ships escaped prosecution

  • 'Hitler's South African Spies,' by Stellenbosch University military historian Evert Kleynhans. (Courtesy of Kleynhans); Ossewabrandwag wartime leader Hans Van Rensburg. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)
    'Hitler's South African Spies,' by Stellenbosch University military historian Evert Kleynhans. (Courtesy of Kleynhans); Ossewabrandwag wartime leader Hans Van Rensburg. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)
  • Members of the South African pro-German group the Ossewabrandwag march in a parade in this undated photo from circa WWII. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)
    Members of the South African pro-German group the Ossewabrandwag march in a parade in this undated photo from circa WWII. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)
  • Members of the South African pro-German group the Ossewabrandwag perform their salute in this undated photo from circa WWII. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)
    Members of the South African pro-German group the Ossewabrandwag perform their salute in this undated photo from circa WWII. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)

In one of the more improbable Nazi operations during World War II, a South African boxer named Robey Leibbrandt traveled back home from the Reich aboard a German yacht with a mission to sow domestic discord. A competitor in the 1936 Summer Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany, Leibbrandt was ready to use weapons beyond his fists.

The mission to stir the political pot wasn’t as foolhardy as it sounds. There already existed links between the Nazis and a South African pro-German antiwar organization called the Ossewabrandwag — “oxcart sentinels” in Afrikaans — that reflected wider sympathies for Germany within the Afrikaner population.

Yet Leibbrandt’s tempestuousness proved his undoing. He argued with his German handler, who refused to land ashore with him. Eventually, the boxer was betrayed by the Ossewabrandwag and sent to prison.

Leibbrandt ended up being a minor character in the story of clandestine Nazi activity within South Africa. His saga is part of the larger, and largely untold, story of intelligence networks in the country operating on behalf of the Reich chronicled in a new book, “Hitler’s South African Spies,” by Stellenbosch University military historian Evert Kleynhans.

“[The] whole intelligence aspect of the war, everything that happened within the country, for different reasons has never really been written about in our history,” Kleynhans told The Times of Israel via Zoom. “Bits and pieces have been analyzed, certain elements of it. I think a lot of it was suppressed for a long time because one couldn’t get across some of the materials.”

Although South Africa was a British commonwealth, there was pro-German sentiment dating back generations to the Boer War, when British authorities interned Afrikaner civilians in concentration camps. At the outset of WWII, there was enough of an antiwar movement to make for an extremely tight vote in parliament to join the Allied cause.

A former South African Defence Forces member turned military historian, Kleynhans did a fair amount of sleuthing himself while writing the book — including unearthing a crucial file on a postwar investigation of South African spies.

He explained how the extensive espionage effort worked. A spy in the crucial port of Cape Town — one of the top shipping nexuses of the British Empire following the Italian closure of the Mediterranean and the Japanese capture of Hong Kong and Singapore — would make a report on Allied shipping and troop and ammunition movements. The spy would travel by train hundreds of miles inland to Pretoria or Johannesburg. The intel would then be relayed to a colleague, who would journey an additional 400 miles north to transmit the encoded message by wireless radio to Germany — perhaps to naval headquarters at Wilhelmshaven, which would pass the information along to the U-boats.

Members of the South African pro-German group the Ossewabrandwag perform their salute in this undated photo from circa WWII. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)

In all, German U-boats sank nearly 800,000 tons of Allied ships and cargo in South African waters. An estimated 200-plus messages were sent between South Africa and Germany during the war.

“[There] was obviously political intelligence that on the one hand could be used for propaganda purposes for the German government to try to cause sedition within the country, revolution,” Kleynhans explained, adding that there was also “military intelligence, naval in nature. The main activity was trying to collect intelligence.”

Public Enemy No. 1

The mastermind of the South African spy operation was the leader of the Ossewabrandwag, a charismatic politician named Hans Van Rensburg.

Ossewabrandwag wartime leader Hans Van Rensburg. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)

“Everybody knew Hans Van Rensburg was sort of like Public Enemy No. 1, the nodal point in all of this,” Kleynhans said.

Van Rensburg worked with German confederates — including an Abwehr German military intelligence recruit named Hans Rooseboom who reported on political intelligence within South Africa. After Rooseboom fell out of favor with Van Rensburg, a different German operative took over: Lothar Sittig, code named “Felix.”

From his base in the town of Vryburg, Sittig established direct two-way radio contact between South Africa and Germany, bypassing the need for a relay station in nearby Mozambique, then a colony of neutral Portugal.

“[Sittig] was for all intents and purposes the main spy for at least two years, maybe two and a half years,” Kleynhans said.

Even more militant

As some on the South African far-right aided the espionage effort, others moved even further to the fringe, including future prime minister John Vorster, who spent the war in an internment camp and later became notorious as head of the government that sent anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela to prison in the Rivonia Trial. Other far-right wartime extremists included boxer Leibbrandt and a wing of the Ossewabrandwag called the Stormjaers.

Members of the South African pro-German group the Ossewabrandwag march in a parade in this undated photo from circa WWII. (Courtesy OB Archive, North-West University, South Africa)

“The Stormjaers was the more militant and armed wing of the Ossewabrandwag and was used to commit various acts of sabotage, theft and political violence during the war (and even murder),” Kleynhans wrote in an email. “It was even intimated that they could possibly be used to overthrow the South African government and maybe even assassinate [prime minister] Jan Smuts.”

Too little too late

Ultimately, timing was not on the side of the South African spies. They only made direct wireless contact with Germany in 1943.

Stellenbosch University military historian Evert Kleynhans. (Courtesy of Kleynhans)

Allied victories in North Africa and Sicily had reopened the Mediterranean, taking the pressure off the Cape of Good Hope as a transit point. And the intel the spies did send could take several days — and up to a week — to arrive, resulting in often out-of-date messages.

But the spies did show remarkable staying power. Although the British agency MI5 and the cipher school at Bletchley Park decoded enemy intel from South Africa, efforts to capture the actual operatives — including Felix — met with far less success.

“I think the British were quite keen to make a move to catch these guys,” Kleynhans said. “Because of the political situation, Smuts was often unwilling to do so.” He added, “Some subversive elements in the police force might have tipped off [the spies] when they raided them.”

Reluctance to prosecute

According to Kleynhans, another frustration ensued after the end of the conflict in Europe. Determined South African investigators traveled to war-torn Germany seeking information about their countrymen who spied for Hitler. Kleynhans writes that two such missions went to Germany — the Rein mission, headed by prosecutor Rudolph Rein, and the Barrett mission, headed by prosecutor Lawrence Barrett and aided by policeman George Visser.

“[Van Rensburg] was one of the principal people they wanted to investigate and build a case of high treason,” Kleynhans said. “The book proves it was entirely possible to do so.”

Kleynhans writes that in 1946, investigator Lawrence Barrett and policeman George Visser grilled ex-German agents — including Luitpold Werz, a former spymaster in Mozambique. Werz’s testimony “was damning, riveting, telling the whole story,” Kleynhans said.

According to Kleynhans, Barrett’s findings were eventually documented in an eponymous report and legal proceedings seemed a logical next step.

‘Hitler’s South African Spies,’ by Stellenbosch University military historian Evert Kleynhans. (Courtesy of Kleynhans)

“There was a big case against Hans Van Rensburg and the Ossewabrandwag,” Kleynhans said. “It was called back. Smuts was very wary of going ahead.”

The prime minister’s misgivings proved correct. He lost the 1948 general election to the National Party, headed by new prime minister Daniel Malan, who was later to become infamous as the architect of apartheid. According to Kleynhans, Malan was implicated in part of the wartime intelligence effort.

As for the spies, Kleynhans reflected, “The great irony is that none of the guys involved in this intelligence issue, Germans or South Africans, were punished.”
There was even a reprieve for the fringe elements who had been jailed, such as Leibbrandt and the Stormjaers.

“After the war, when the National Party came to power in 1948, all were pardoned and released,” Kleynhans said. “They didn’t even serve that long.”

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