The Dummy battle: How a SA v NZ match fooled the Germans
FEATURE: Acclaimed @rugby365com writer Paul Dobson takes us back in time once again to look at a rugby match between South Africans and New Zealanders that fooled the Nazis.
There are two aspects to this use of the dummy that it would be good to corroborate. The first is that the dummy (pretended pass) was a South African invention, dating back to Kimberley in the second half of the 19th century.
It is said that the player who was the first in the world to use “the blind pass”, the dummy, was Dan Smith of Kimberley, who was first a forward, then a halfback. He played for South Africa in 1891.
To our story – which also needs corroboration.
In the early 1940s, German General Erwin Rommell’s Afrika Corps were battering the Allied forces in North Africa. He famously took Tobruk and marched on towards the Suez Canal. But at the railways station of El Alamein, west of Cairo, the Allied 8th Army stood firm and stopped his advance, an insignificant station that has become famous in history. That was in July 1942 and then the allies, led by Field Marshal Montgomery, rebuilt their army, buoyed by their July success.
The story now was one told with great pride by Dr Louis Babrow, the 1937 Springbok, a medical officer with the 1st Transvaal Scottish regiment, who had been taken prisoner at the Sidi Rezegh but had managed to escape with four others. He told how the allied command approached the South Africans and the New Zealanders and requested that they play a rugby match on 21 October 1942 – an effort to sell the Germans a dummy.
Asking the South Africans and New Zealanders was an obvious thing to do, for the rivalry between the two countries, dating from 1919, 1921, 1928 and 1937, was there for all to see. It is said that the two sides scrummed many a Cairo bar to pieces. In fact they scrummed from Benghazi up the leg of Italy to Bologna and on to Brighton. They each had a version of “The Book”, a printed pamphlet which from time to time would show how one side was teaching the other a rugby lesson. “Who wrote the book?” they would ask. They also played formal matches on the harsh sands of the desert and on grass next to the Nile.
The request for a rugby match was a deliberate ploy of the 8th Amy command. The soldiers were encamped near El Alamein and they knew that the Germans, disappointed in July, were monitoring them, and so the rugby match took place.
The German recce planes flew over, saw the rugby match in progress and returned to report that no Allied putsch was about to take place, in fact they were killing each other in a strange game of football.
Two days later the Allies attacked. Babrow remembered how the South African armoured vehicles passed through ranks of Kiwi infantrymen with many a cheerful wave and salute from some still showing the battle scars of the match two days before.
Of the 30 players who had played in the match four were killed and 11 wounded. Babrow was one of the wounded when shrapnel was embedded in his left knee. He was then repatriated to South Africa.
The Battle of El Alamein was a turning point in the war, for it was the first time that the Germans had been defeated in battle. The allies chased Rommell’s Corps all the way to Tunisia and out of Africa. Winston Churchill famously said of the Battle of El Alamein: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
When Field Marshall Montgomery was raised to the peerage, he took the title Viscount Montgomery of Alamein.
Babrow was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry in the Battle of El Alamein and he was mentioned three times in dispatches. Two of his Springbok teammates of the 1937 team were also awarded the Military Cross for their gallantry in the battle – Pat Lyster and Henry Martin.
Well after the war, Louis Babrow said of his experience in the Transvaal Scottish: “I’ve been totally opposed to war all my life, but in this regiment, I experienced the best of the awful experience of being at war. The team spirit, camaraderie and compassion of these men for one another was wonderful.”