In war and peace: Amazing story of miraculous Springbok jersey
SPOTLIGHT: Acclaimed @rugby365com writer Paul Dobson produces another of his bodacious baubles from the past – the story of a Springbok jersey that saw war and only victory.
There is not a more touching jersey in the whole of the rugby world than this one.
There are older jerseys, more elegant jerseys, jerseys worn on bigger occasions, jerseys worn by players of higher profile.
There is not one more touching than this jersey, dating back to 1944.
It was worn in five matches, all of which the Springboks won, none of which will be found in the records of international rugby matches, and yet it in some ways transcends them as an expression of the greatness of human spirit expressed on a rugby field.
The date is a giveaway.
Yes, it was during World War II.
The players who wore the jersey did not buy their togs at the local sports store. They made them themselves, for they were all prisoners of war in Stalag-IVB near Mühlberg on the right bank of the River Elbe in southeast Germany.
It was a notorious prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War when the Germans ran it and even more notorious after it when the Russians ran it.
In 1944 there were some 12 000 prisoners of war in Stalag-IVB.
Amongst them were roughly 700 South Africans, captured in Tobruk and sent up to Germany when the Allies were taking over Italy.
If days are long in the world of Covid-19, they were much, much longer in Stalag-IVB.
Amongst the South Africans there was Eric Cowling, son of Doris who was the daughter of Bertie Powell who, along with his brother Jackie, had played rugby for South Africa. Grandson Eric was an ardent member of the Hamiltons club in Cape Town, South Africa’s oldest rugby club.
The prisoners of war were housed in what they called huts, and soon they organised a Hut League with over 30 teams from British, New Zealand, Australian and, of course, prisoners of war, teams with names like Barbarians, Wanderers, Rovers, United, Rabbits and Swifts.
Sport was forbidden during a period of infectious diseases. The South Africans used the break to prepare for an international tournament. They elected three selectors and a coach, Noel Robertson of Border, who had been in the 1932 Junior Springbok team that toured Argentina.
They chose a captain – Fiks van der Merwe, a Cradock-born policeman who had played scrumhalf for Natal in 1939 before going Up North with the Police Brigade. The POW Springboks had a provincial scrumhalf in Ross Hinds of Border and chose Van der Merwe as a flank. He had won a Military Medal at Tobruk, After the war, he stayed a flank and played on the flank for South Africa against New Zealand in the first Test in 1949.
The Stalag-IVB selectors came up with a squad of 23 players, including some with provincial experience back in South Africa – two for Natal, two for Eastern Province, two for Border, one each for Northern Transvaal and South-Western Districts, apart from several players who played first league club rugby. Before the first match, they actually had a trial match.
South African troops in Europe were called Springboks. If one of them crossed Regent Street in London, he would be greeted with “Hello, Springbok.”
The men in Stalag IV-B were proud to call themselves Springboks and, of course, it was inevitable that they would want to dress like Springboks.
And so the jersey.
With much determination, ingenuity, sacrifice and bribery, they dressed as Springboks.
They used vests that came in their Red Cross parcels as the fabric for the jerseys. Among the prisoners there was a tailor to fashion the garments. There were olive green Russian overalls lying around. They boiled them to get the green dye. And so they had green jerseys.
They used chocolate from their Red Cross parcels to persuade guards to get them thread. From a medical corps man they got malaria tablets, which they boiled to get the yellow dye.
And so they made them Springbok jerseys and socks. They hand-stitched the Springbok badge onto the jersey.
Italian underpants provided the basis for their white shorts.
They took the heels off their army boots and used them to make studs. For bootlaces they took the string out of the Red Cross parcels.
The Springboks of Stalag IV-B looked like Springboks.
They had a war cry led by “Zulu warriors”, dyed black by kind favour of guards who liked chocolate, and brandishing assegais fashioned by carpenters.
They played five matches and won them all.
Match 1. Springboks vs Anzacs (combined New Zealand and Australia): won 21-0
Match 2. Springboks vs combined England, Scotland and Ireland: won 14-3
Match 3: Springboks vs Wales: won 14-3
Match 4: Springboks vs The Rest: won 9-0
Then came Match 5 – against Wales on 31 May 1944 – Union Day in South Africa at a time when public holidays were rare.
The South Africans laid on the day.
They printed a programme in colour.
They had a gymnastic display. Then at 14.30, the military band played, followed by the line-ups of the two teams to be introduced to Major White, the Senior British Officer in the camp.
At 15.00 the match started with about 6 000 spectators at the rough field, once a lime pit.
The South Africans, who had swapped rations in getting their playing togs as right as they could, were weakened and in danger of losing the match till captain Fiks van der Merwe forced his way over for the only score of the match.
Match 5. Springboks vs Wales, 3-0
The South African Rugby Union has in its possession one of the 3 jerseys in excellent conditions.
It must surely be their most precious possession, certainly the most touching of all rugby jerseys in the world, an astonishing expression of Springbok rugby pride.
***Help came from those two stalwarts of UCT rugby, John le Roux and Denis Cassidy, and from Andy Colquhoun of SARU. A lot of help, too, came from an article in the Outspan of 14 June 1946.