Fri 5 Jun 2020 | 08:50

War stories: Rugby games 'Up North'

War stories: Rugby games 'Up North'
Fri 5 Jun 2020 | 08:50
War stories: Rugby games 'Up North'

SPOTLIGHT: @rugby365com‘s acclaimed writer Paul Dobson produces another of his entertaining stories about rugby during the war years.


Up North in the early 1940s meant up in the desert war zone, in Egypt and further west, prior to shifting to the leg of Italy.

The Allied Forces included soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa whose volunteer soldiers wore a red tab on their shoulders, showing willingness to serve beyond South Africa’s boundaries, as they took on Hitler’s forces. It was tough but it was also not a case of all-fight-and no-play.

Covid-19 has succeeded in doing what Hitler could not do – stop the playing of sport – many forms of sport, including boxing, cricket, soccer, hockey, rugby, swimming and waterpolo.

Up North, the UDF (Union Defence Force) had sports officers to organise matches for the various sports, an important part of life when you have a large body of able-bodied, physically active young men huddled together. By the middle of May 1943,  the UDF sports office had organised some 900 matches of various kinds in 12 months. Sport was played all right, and it would continue up the leg of Italy and further afield. In rugby the great rivalry was the same as in peace time – South Africa and New Zealand.

They played on the harsh sands of the desert and on grass next to the Nile. They were sometimes barefooted and sometimes wore boots. But these men, for whom death was always a close possibility, were not afraid to get stuck in.

In May 1943, South Africa’s Sixth Armoured Division, formed that year for action Up North, arrived in Egypt and it was as the Sixth Div that South African forces would garner a great rugby reputation.


After all they had some great players amongst them, including Springboks and future Springboks – George Daneel, Bennie Osler, Jimmy White, Jack Gage, Frank Waring, Howard Watt, Louis Babrow, Ebbo Bastard, George van Reenen, John Apsey, Pat Lyster, Henry Martin, Dendy Lawton, Tony Harris, Richard Luyt, Bill Payn, Hermanus de Jongh, Bert Kipling, John Dold, Joe Nijkamp, Bert Reid and above all Boy Louw, who had played for South Africa from 1928 to 1938.

Then there were those to come – Felix du Plessis, Basil Kenyon and Stephen Fry, who would all three captain South Africa, Okey Geffin, Dennis Fry, Franz van der Ryst and Cecil Moss. Then there were many provincial players, including speedy Billy Anderson and tough Hannes Morkel who were so unlucky not to be Springboks. And there were lots of provincial players – past and to come. There were many top players Up North.

It was not haphazard rugby that was played. There were selectors, trials and a coach, Bombardier Boy Louw who coached the 1960-61 Springboks on their Grand Slam tour to the UK and Ireland. Apart from coaching Up North, he also refereed, which is hardly surprising as in 1939 he became the first-ever referee of a Currie Cup final.

The first trials were played at the Gezira Sporting Club on an island in the Nile on 8 October 1943. The teams played barefoot to protect the turf. The second lot of two trial matches was played at Polygon Ground in Abbassia, a suburb of Cairo. The final trial was back in Gezira on 3 November.


The selectors – George Daneel. Bennie Osler, Jack Gage and Boy Louw chose their team for the first match – at El Alamein on 7 November 1943 -the 6th Division against the New Zealand Base.

They played seven matches in Egypt before moving to Italy and more trials. There followed five matches in Italy. From there they went to England and six matches. They headed for the Continent – three matches in France and one (against a Welsh team) in Germany before returning to El Alamein and a final match against the “Rest of Egypt.”

Egypt Matches

1. SA 6th Div vs New Zealand Base, 22-5 on 7 November 1943 at the Alamein Club
2. SA 6th Div vs 10th Armoured Division, 49-0 on 14 November 1943 at the Alamein Club
3. SA 6th Div vs Cairo United Services, 28-3 on Christmas Day 1943 at the Alamein Club
4. SA 6th Div vs New Zealand Base, 12-11 on New Year’s Day 1944 at the Alamein Club
5. SA 6th Div vs Rest of Egypt, 12-9 on 23 January 1944 at the Alamein Club. The Rest were made up of New Zealanders, South Africans and Englishmen.
6. SA 6th Div vs Rest of Egypt, 27-3 on 4 March 1944 at Alamein Club.

Basil Kenyon was the captain in all six matches.

Egypt Results

Played 6, won 6

The Allies took Rome in June 1944, and soon there was rugby. This time the South Africans were the Union Defence force – UDF – with players from the South African Air Force, Medics and 6th Div.

(Continue reading below … )

The Book


1. UDF vs New Zealand Advanced Base, 8-3 on 30 December 1944 at Foro d’Italia in Rome

In May 1945 fighting ceased after the brutal Battles at Monte Cassino, Florence and Bologna. The South Africans then settled into the sudden idleness of occupying forces, and Major-General Frank Theron gave orders to get their sport active,

There was a flurry of activity as Boy Louw set about seeing what players he had at his disposal, finding out their rugby pedigrees, making contact with them and gathering them for practices as well as matches. The methods were not always orthodox.

There was a medical student, Cecil Moss, not yet a doctor but a Medical Corporal in the Special Service Battalion of the 6th Division, stationed at Monza, near Milan when he was summoned by the commanding officer and told to prepare to move out. An ambulance arrived to fetch him and take him – Bombardier’s Louw’s team. Dr Cecil Moss later was the Springboks’ vice-captain in the first post-war series against the touring All Blacks in 1949. Other ambulances went to other parts of Italy and brought rugby players to Rapallo, near Genoa on the Italian coast.

There were trials on 22 October 1945 in Rapallo and the Sixth Div team had match practice against 59 Area. The Sixth Div won 45-3. Then came the big match.

The Sixth Div played the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Rapallo on 10 November 1945. Truck loads of troops, New Zealanders and South Africans arrived and the stadium was packed. The teams lined up and were introduced to Major-General Evered Poole. referee Robin Prescott, the former England prop, blew the whistle and the intense game was on. But Dr Piet Duvenage’s side were too strong for the Kiwis and won 30-5, seven tries to one. Moss scored one of the tries.

Italy Matches

1. SA 6th Div vs 59 Area, 45-3 on 27 October 1945 in Rapallo
2. SA 6th Div vs 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 30-5 on 10 November 1945 in Rapallo.
3. SA 6th Div vs 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, 23-3 on 19 November 1945 in Florence
4. SA 6th Div vs 2 Military District, 19-3 on 27 November 1945 in Rapallo
5. SA 6th Div vs British Army XV, 17-10 on 1 December 1945 in Milan

Italy Results

Played 6, won 6.

England Matches

1. SA 6th Div vs Brigade of Guards, 16-0 on 8 December 1945 at Caterham. The guards were from the Welsh Guards, the Irish Guards and the Grenadier Guards.
2. SA 6th Div vs St Mary’s Hospital, 17-5 on 11 December 1945 at Richmond Athletic Ground
3. SA 6th Div vs Royal Australian Air Force, 10-10 on 15 December at White City, London
4. SA 6th Div vs New Zealand Services on 19 December 1945, 6-9 at Richmond Athletic Ground.
The New Zealanders scored two tries to one. In both cases the scorers were All Blacks in South Africa in 1949 – Morrie Goddard and Ian Botting.
5. SA 6th Div vs Guy’s Hospital, 0-3 on 22 December 1945 at Honors Oak Park. The only score in the match was a penalty goal by left wing David Le Clus, a South African, who came back to South Africa and was a general practitioner in East London..

England Results

Played 5, won 3, lost 2

France Results

1. SA 6th Div vs Combined Paris & Bordeaux Universities, 18-13 on 30 December 1945 at Stade Municipal, Bordeaux
2. SA 6th Div vs Pau, 9-9 in 1 January 1946 at Stade Croix du Prince in Pau
3. SA 6th Div vs Bayonne, 16-4 on 5 January 1946 in Bayonne

Played 3, won 2, drew 1

Germany Results

1. SA 6th Div vs 53rd Welsh Division, 17-7 on 12 January 1946
2. SA 6th Div vs 52nd Scottish Division, cancelled on 19 January 1946 because the field at Munster was frozen.

Played 1, won 1.

the team then had a long, arduous journey from Munster to Calais, Paris Lausanne, Novara and eventually, after eight days, Bari.

From Bari they set out on a flight to Cairo but engine trouble forced them to make an emergency landing in Athens, where they stayed for three days, waiting for another flight. Having set out from Germany on 20 January, they reached Cairo on 4 February 1946.

Back in Egypt.

1. SA 6th Div vs Rest of Egypt, 24-3 on 6 February 1946 at Alamein Club.

Egypt Result

Played 1, won 1

Early on 7 February, the 6th Div team set off by plane for South Africa. They spent the night at Wadi Saidna in Sudan.
On 8 February, the flew to Kisumu in Kenya, where they spent the night.
On 9 February, they flew to Bulawayo, where they spent the night.
On 10 February, they spent the day in Bulawayo because weather prevented flying on.
Despite the bad weather, they managed to fly on 11 February and reached Pretoria.

Five days to fly from Cairo to Pretoria. It’s quicker in 2020.

Mind you, some went by ship. They reached Durban in 10 days on 19 February 946. Boy Louw and the Western Cape players reached Cape Town on 23 February, 1946.

It’s easier in 2020.

Short Summary of Results

Played 22, won 19, drew 1, lost 2, and one match was cancelled.


Louis Babrow, Ham Barry, Cas Botha, Harry Brunow, John Clother-Morkel, Fred Coombe, Rupert Corder, Phil de Bruyn, Japie Duckitt, Hugh Dudley, Ginger Dummett, Piet, Duvenage, Alec Fry, who is still alive, Stephen Fry, Ian Frylinck, Tom Gaffney, Doug Gordon, Chicken Grant, Apie Greeff, Donald Guthrie, Billy Griffiths, Jimmy Hearn, Dick Holton, Abe Hummel, B IMpey, Robert Johnstone, Basil Kenyon, Kelvin King, Frank Kingwill, D Lonsdale, Gerard MacDougal, CJ Mackenzie, Bunny Matthysen, Hannes Morkel, Cecil Moss, John Mullen, John Muller, Pieter Muller, Poens Muller, Tips Muller, Alexander Munro, WJ Newing, H Ogilvie, Mike Owen, Neil Painter, Harvey Pelser, Billy Richards, Walter Ridl, Eddie Smith, George Smith, Abe Stein, Peter Stewart, A Stockhill, Hampshire Swanson, Blackie Swartz, C van der Walt, Nelles Vintcent, Howard Watt, Gibby Webster John Youngelson


Other war stories

The dummy battle
All is fair in rugby and war
A unique invitation
Amazing story of a Springbok jersey

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