Fight for UK recognition of forgotten WW2 hero Job Maseko

Written on 06/10/2021
Claire Badenhorst

Bill Gillespie is fighting to get recognition for the heroic acts of Job Maseko, a South African soldier for the Allied Forces during WW2.

A South African living in Somerset in the United Kingdom has launched a campaign to get recognition for Job Maseko, a South African soldier and stretcher-bearer for the Allied Forces during the Second World War. Bill Gillespie believes that Maseko – who single-handedly blew up a German ship – should have been given a Victoria Cross. Gillespie was told the story of Maseko by his father who also fought in the Second World War for the Allied Forces. In this interview, Gillespie tells BizNews that he believes Maseko should have been given the same honours as other South African soldiers who fought in WW2, and he has started a petition on change.org – a cause that has received considerable support thus far. – Linda van Tilburg

Bill Gillespie on why he took an interest in Job Maseko’s story: 

Well, I was writing my book, which is called ‘Apartheid Lives Divided’, under my pseudonym Bill Duncan. I mentioned Job Maseko because my dad, when I was a little boy, mentioned this very brave African POW – as he was a prisoner of war in Tobruk – who had done this incredible brave feat of blowing up a German boat carrying military equipment which was probably destined to El Alamein. So in some ways, I think it could have helped the allied cause in winning that battle, even if it was in a small way.

He went along and he thought, this is probably a dangerous thing to do because he knew if he was caught, he would have been shot. I mean, there’s no question about it. He’d have been executed. And he went and got this empty condensed milk tin and filled it with some gunpowder, which he had got from some bullets that the Germans had dropped. And he pulled up the condensed milk tin and then he managed to get himself a fuse. I think he must have gone into these German stores and got himself a long fuse, which was 12 feet [long].

He went on board the ship, which they were actually offloading, and he said to his friends, just distract the Germans while I place this condensed milk tin in some fuel. He emptied a small portion of a drum of petrol onto the floor of the hold in the ship, and he put his condensed milk tin there and I believe a bit of straw, which he must have brought on board as well, and then he unravelled the fuse and lit it and then ran like anything and joined his friends on the shore. They went off back to their camp and he thought there was nothing happening, so he thought the fuze must have snuffed itself out. And I think he had barely said that and there was this massive explosion and the ship sank so fast, apparently. And that was it. Ja, I mean, he did this incredible thing which really would have affected the German war effort adversely, I’m sure.

On how Gillespie’s father heard the story:

Well, everyone knew the story. I mean, it just went around from officer to officer. My dad was a major in the Transvaal Scottish and they just, you know, like anything, it was a very brave deed – it got around very quickly. And I think the fact that it was an African, it was just a bigger talking point because they were so amazed how this chap who actually volunteered, it wasn’t really even his war and he went and volunteered, and over and above that [he] went and made his own decision to do this incredibly brave deed.

On black South Africans who fought for Britain in the Second World War:

There were 74,000 black soldiers that volunteered to go up with the native contingent, as it was called, and they went up north and they were each attached to different regiments. I believe Job Maseko was attached to the Middlellandse Regiment, which is from the Karoo, and him and a few of his other peers were attached to that regiment, as were other blacks attached to other South African regiments as well.

On his efforts to get recognition for Job Maseko in the UK:

I’ve raised a petition which has been quite successful. It’s had well over a thousand people contributing to it. But I don’t think I’m going to get very far with the Victoria Cross because they say it’s got to be put in within five years of the deed being done. Unfortunately, they probably won’t even look at it, but I feel that’s so unfair because it wasn’t Job’s fault. I mean, the fact that he was black – there shouldn’t be a statute of limitations, or whatever you call it, on the awarding of a Victoria Cross in those circumstances, anyway.

On why Job Maseko wasn’t awarded at the time: 

No question, [because] he was black. I mean, the people said that. I mean, there are even some British generals who were in conversation. Actually, General Alexander, who was in charge of the North African campaign on the British side, had his portrait painted by a gentleman called Mr Neville Lewis. The intimation is that the general had actually said to him during the painting of his portrait that, you know, this African should have got the Victoria Cross but the South African authorities gave him the military medal, which is, well, it is the lowest medal that you can get for bravery. And it’s just sad. The whole thing was just sad.

On whether South Africans can put pressure on the UK to give him this award:

Definitely. I mean, South Africa was fighting for the UK government, for the British Empire, and I think they should. They should actually put pressure on the British Empire – if not a Victoria Cross – but certainly something like a statue or some other recognition in Britain for Job Maseko.

On what happened to Maseko after the war:

Well, that wasn’t the end of his brave deeds. The Germans were filling the POWs’ heads with the fact that the war was already won by Germany, and the Germans had taken Cairo and they’d taken the Suez Canal, and it would be just a matter of time that they went through Palestine, Syria, and joined up with the Axis forces in Russia. And then basically the impression they gave was that, oh, the war is won, so you people mustn’t even try and think of escaping.

So Job went and stole the equivalent of a transistor radio. I think it was just a wireless from the Germans or the Italians. He went into a cellar where there was an unexploded bomb that had fallen from probably the British, I guess, could have been the Germans as well. And it was lying in the cellar and exploded and had signs around it in German saying, beware, don’t come close here because there’s an unexploded bomb in the cellar. But he went down into the cellar and he listened to the radio from day to day and he got through to the BBC, and the BBC soon gave an impression that Germans were nowhere near winning the war and that the war was very much still on the go. So that’s when he decided to escape, and him and another chap escaped and they walked. They took, I believe, nearly 21 days to get back to the British lines at Mersa Matruh. He rejoined his unit again, and he was a stretcher-bearer during the Battle of El Alamein, I believe.

[After the war] I believe that all they got was two pairs of boots and a bicycle as a thank you for having done this incredibly wonderful thing of going up north to fight for Britain. And that’s all they got, whereas I believe that the white soldiers got quite a lot more. I’m not sure what they got, but I believe some of them got farms or help with buying farms or property. So there was a huge difference about, you know, between the races on the awards or rewards they got.

On his being recognised in South Africa:

Only since the new dispensation, after 1994, when President Mandela came into power. There was a frigate called the Kobie Coetzee, which was named after an old Afrikaans minister, and they replaced the name with Job Maseko. And I believe there’s a road in Kwa-Thema location near Springs which is named after him. And then, of course, there’s a school – the Job Maseko Primary School. These have all just been named after him since the new dispensation in South Africa.

On appealing to the Victorian Cross Trust:

I haven’t appealed directly, but I’ve heard from a number of people that they won’t look at it. And one of the newspapers, I can’t remember which one, apparently did contact the people that award these medals, and they said, no, forget it, it won’t happen now. But since then, I’ve heard there’s an Australian who did a brave feat in 1942, and he apparently, just recently in 2018, managed to get the VC. So, whether Australia’s got a different way of getting things with Britain, I don’t know. But that’s a fact, apparently, that he got this VC posthumously, I believe it was.

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