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194026 SAPPER DEDRICK JOHANNES KOEKEMOER
SOUTH AFRICAN ENGINEER CORPS
by
Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis, 1999

Personal Data

Dedrick Johannes Koekemoer was born on the 25th of September 1923. He was raised in the Roman Catholic religion and as a teenager he worked as a handyman in Johannesburg. Immediately prior to enlisting in the Army to serve in the Second World War, Dedrick was living with his aunt, Mrs. A.C. Fouche at 3, 11th Avenue, Bezuidenout Valley in Johannesburg.

Enlistment

Koekemoer enlisted in the South African Engineer Corps (S.A.E.C.) on the 20th of October 1941, about a month after his 18th birthday. Upon his enlistment he was classified as an Artisan; specifically, as a Welder’s Mate, Class "C." This immediate classification as a welder’s mate suggests that he may have been somewhat skilled in this trade in civilian life.

On the 22nd of October, Koekemoer was posted to the Engineer Reserve Training Depot (E.R.T.D.) at Pietermaritzburg Camp. He remained at the E.R.T.D., presumably while he was further trained in his military trade, until the 1st of April 1942. He was then transferred to "C" Reserve Field Company, S.A.E.C. that was also located at Pietermaritzburg Camp. This unit appears to have been a "holding" company for those individuals ready for deployment to an active theatre of the war.

War Service in the Middle Eastern Theatre

Koekemoer was struck off the strength of "C" Reserve Field Company on the 12th of April 1942 for reassignment, as his service papers say, "to an unknown destination." This personnel action placed him on the strength of the S.A.E.C. General (or "X4") List. On the 13th of April he embarked at Durban on board the S.S. Empire Trooper bound for Egypt.

Koekemoer disembarked at Suez on the 4th of May 1942. He was immediately struck off the strength of the S.A.E.C. General List and posted to the 25th Road Construction Company, S.A.E.C. He was taken on the strength of that unit on the following day at the company’s headquarters in Qassasin.

On the day that Koekemoer joined the 25th Road Construction Company, the unit was commanded by Major F.J. Hugo, S.A.E.C. The company, along with other road construction and road maintenance companies, operated under the control of Colonel S.B. Shannon, the Deputy Chief Engineer (Roads) for the 8th Army.

When Koekemoer joined the unit in May of 1942 it was engaged in numerous projects in the Libyan Desert. These projects included tarring the road to Siwa and widening the road to Gazala. A detachment under Lieutenant J.R. Armstrong, S.A.E.C. had just come off the road widening project near Gazala and was now engaged in patching the same road. Patching roads and filling potholes was constantly required in the North African theatre of operations to repair damage caused by the heavy traffic of wheeled and traced vehicles in constant movement on the roadways. In addition to this repair work, the company also had a motor grader cutting tracks at a location known as 91 Sub-Area, and the company’s bulldozer was working on a pipeline to Bir Hakeim. During this same period, Captain O.W. Rascher, S.A.E.C. joined the company as Major Hugo’s Second-in-Command.

Based on his training at Pietermaritzburg, and on his classification as a Welder’s Mate, it is most likely that Koekemoer served in the maintenance section of the company. His work would generally include welding to repair damage to the unit’s equipment, although he would also have been employed on jobs involving welding for the company’s projects. A good example of this type of work would have been welding on the pipe line job near Bir Hakeim.

The German buildup for the attack on Tobruk in May of 1942 found the 25th Road Construction Company dispersed along the lines of communication in the area of the soon to be besieged fortress. The company’s main body was located at Charing Cross. The company had a detachment working on the Axis Bypass road around Tobruk and another detachment working on the road from Tobruk to Derna. A section of the company was employed on the El Adem road and another section was working on the Tobruk to Bardia road.

Koekemoer’s service papers show that he was admitted to hospital on the 28th of May 1942 for an unspecified ailment. This admission to hospital got him placed on the "X2" List. Debilitation due to exposure to heat and sun would be the most likely ailment he suffered from at this time, since service in this part of the world required some acclimatization. Given that the ailment came over him just three weeks after his arrival at Qassasin and following his rapid deployment to the Libyan Desert, it is a good bet that the adverse effects of the climate probably caused his medical problem. His ailment lasted only five days and he was returned to duty with the 25th Road Construction Company on the 3rd of June 1942. On the 1st of June 1942, while he was in hospital, Koekemoer was reclassified as a non-Artisan and was given the rank of Sapper. Since skilled artisans were difficult to come by in the South African Army, his reclassification was almost certainly due to a lack of skill on his part as a welder. The South African Engineer Corps surely had more Sappers than welders in their ranks, so that his reclassification was probably done out of necessity.

With the German attack on Tobruk looming on the horizon, the Army and Corps engineer units were given orders to leave the area. Only the combat engineers in the field companies were left with the Tobruk garrison to support the infantry, armour and artillery units. The 25th Road Construction Company was ordered to move east of the Gazala-Tobruk Frontier Area. Lieutenant J.A. Armstrong’s detachment of 50 men, together with their plant and tools, were among those who began the long trek eastward. Their movement was very slow, hampered by their heavy equipment. Their three tractors were capable of a maximum speed of about 6.5 kilometers per hour, while their two road rollers could manage no more than 4 kilometers per hour. This slow speed must have caused concern among the men as they felt the German panzers and mechanized infantry breathing down their necks.

Defeating the British at the Battle of Gazala, the Germans and Italians under General Rommel pressed on to Tobruk, about 40 miles east of Gazala. At dawn on the 20th of June 1942, Stuka dive bombers and artillery heavily pounded its defenses. German infantry and tanks of the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions broke through the defenses. That evening General Klopper surrendered the 25,000 men and vast quantities of stores of the 2nd South African Division.

Sapper Koekemoer and his company were spared capture at Tobruk by being ordered out of the area in time. Once east of the Gazala-Tobruk area, the company began working on the Mersa-Matruh to Siwa road and continued on this project throughout the remainder of 1942 and well into 1943. General Montgomery had, in the meantime, defeated Rommel at El Alamein.

In July of 1943 the company was ordered to Mena to work on the barrel track (see Figure 1). On the 3rd of July 1943 work was begun on this track from Mena westward towards the eastern end of the Qattara Depression. The Qattara Depression was an area of about 7,000 square miles of impassable sand with its lowest point at 440 feet below sea level. Located about 130 miles west of Cairo and 40 miles south of the seacoast, it was impassable to vehicles and hence to mechanized military forces. The Depression formed the anchor of the southern end of the British defense line at El Alamein.

Sapper Koekemoer was granted 10 days leave on the 2nd of September 1943, a leave that he probably spent in Cairo. He returned from leave on the 11th of September and on the 23rd of that same month he left the 25th Road Construction Company and was picked up on the strength of the 31st Road Construction Company on the 24th of September 1943.

Koekemoer was again admitted to hospital on the 1st of November 1943 and was discharged on the 8th of November. His records give no indication of his ailment. He returned to his unit after leaving hospital. At this time the company was working in the Sollum-Bardia area.

December of 1943 was a busy month for the 31st Road Construction Company. A section under Captain F.C.M. Voight, S.A.E.C. was sent to the Magrun area. Shortly after Captain Voight’s departure, the remainder of the company followed. With the company headquarters established near Magrun, work was begun on the Benghazi to Agedabia road, on tracks leading to El Agheila, and on the Benghasi to Ghemines road. By the end of January 1944, the company was preparing to move beyond Buerat to a position south of Tauorga.

On the 1st of March 1944 Sapper Koekemoer was posted to the 30th Road Construction Company, commanded by Major G.B. Weale (see Figure 2). In May of 1944, Major Weale left the company after being appointed Deputy Chief Engineer (Roads), with a subsequent promotion to Lieutenant Colonel. Major E.R. Massey was selected to command the company in place of Major Weale.

At about the time of this change of command, the 30th Road Construction Company was sent to Port Said to join the South African Airfield Construction Group (S.A.A.C.G.) under the temporary command of Major R.D. Hawkins, S.A.E.C. The men of the 30th Road Construction Company sailed from Port Said to French Morocco to assist in the construction of an airfield to be used by British, American and South African forces. The company’s equipment sailed from Alexandria bound for Casablanca.

The company disembarked at Oran in Algeria on the 26th of May 1944 and the equipment arrived at Casablanca on the same day. Offloading the equipment at Casablanca turned out to be a hair-raising experience. At first all went well as the 3-ton wharf cranes first selected smaller items such as air compressors to unload. Eventually the time came to move the heavier equipment. The first piece was the 8-ton road roller that was brought up from the hold and was swung inshore for lowering to the pier. The heavy load gathered speed, hit the quay with a crash and the front roller came loose and went off on its own. The roller was badly damaged. To cope with the 11-ton excavator, two cranes were positioned, each with a sling around the tracks fore and aft on the machine. One crane outpaced the other, and as the load came into sight above the deck of the ship, the machine somersaulted and crashed to the bottom of the hold, waking the captain and causing great alarm among those on board. The problem was finally overcome by using an equalizer sheave, and happily there were no further mishaps with the excavator.

When the crew appeared to be positioning a D8 dozer for hoisting in a similar manner, the ship’s captain and Captain C.S. West, S.A.E.C., the Mechanical Officer of the 30th Road Construction Company, stepped in to supervise. The crew simply walked off the ship from frustration and there was silence for an hour before the Commanding Officer of the company arrived. He apologized for all the trouble encountered during the unloading of the ship and pointed out a 50-ton floating crane that was approaching the bay with a fresh crew. Though there were no further equipment losses, the roller had to be abandoned. The excavator, after thorough inspection, went into service trouble free.

After a few months working on the Rabat-Sale airfield in French Morocco, Major G.F. Richardson replaced Major Massey as the commanding officer of the 30th Road Construction Company. Captain D.H. Lourens, S.A.E.C. joined the company on the 14th of September 1944.

The airfield at Rabat-Sale had originally been built by the French and later extended by the Americans after the landings in Morocco. The airfield had three runways; two made of pierced steel planking, each 1,500 meters long, and the third consisted of Irving grid stretching for 1,140 meters. Two large concrete hangars and an old timber hangar provided some shelter, and there were taxi tracks and dispersal areas as well as living quarters, messes and a small hospital. A complete new layout of taxi tracks, hardstands and various buildings was required in addition to two main runways, each 1,820 meters long.

The work of the 30th Road Construction Company involved the removal of a mound at one end of No. 1 Runway and the filling of a site for an extension of the runway. The company was also tasked with the construction of transport and aircraft assembly areas. The unit undertook this work between September and November 1944.

On the 25th of October 1944, Sapper Koekemoer was again reclassified, this time from a non-Artisan (Sapper) to an Apprentice Trainee Master Cook. One wonders how a welder turned Sapper could end up as a Master Cook. He was either a man of many talents, or he was not quite good at anything they gave him to do; hence, his varied and unrelated military trades. At any rate, his service papers show that he continued in this classification until his discharge.

On the 17th of November 1944, its work done at Rabat-Sale, the 30th Road Construction Company departed from the airfield project and proceeded by road to Algiers. The unit’s departure was marked by a letter of appreciation from Lieutenant Colonel N.S. Farrow, 7 Commander Royal Engineers (Aerodromes). By the 2nd of December 1944 the company was back at Alexandria. Within ten days the men of the company were preparing to go back to normal work in the Sidi Barrani area. There they continued their road construction work until the end of April 1945.

On the 7th of March 1945 Koekemoer was struck off the strength of the 30th Road Construction Company and placed on the S.A.E.C. General ("X4") List. On the 21st of March 1945 he was struck off the "X4" List in preparation for his return to South Africa. On the 23rd of March he was taken on the strength of the Base Depot at Voortrekkerhoogte as he embarked to travel home by air from the Middle East Theatre. On the 24th of March, while enroute to Voortrekkerhoogte he was struck off the strength of the Base Depot (in absentia) and was reassigned to "G" Reserve Field Company which was also located at Voortrekkerhoogte.

Home Service and Discharge

Koekemoer served with "G" Reserve Field Company until the 23rd of May 1945 when he was posted to No. 8 Platoon, "W.R." Field Company at the Engineer Reserve Training Center (E.R.T.C.). He remained with this unit for about three weeks, when he was again reassigned, this time to the 84th Base Works Company, S.A.E.C. at Voortrekkerhoogte. This unit was commanded by Major A.N. Gill, S.A.E.C. and was involved with work on barracks, security fencing and sullage disposal works at the camp.

On the 21st of July 1945 Koekemoer was admitted to the 110th Military Hospital where he remained until the 3rd of August. After being discharged from the hospital he returned to duty with the 84th Base Works Company. During this period of time, his service records show that he was authorized the award of the Africa Service Medal, although he was not issued the medal until seven years later.

Koekemoer was struck off the strength of the 84th Base Works Company on the 15th of December 1945 and was posted to Assembly Camp at Johannesburg. On the 2nd of January 1946 he was admitted to hospital and then discharged from hospital on the same day. His illness apparently was severe enough so that he was forced to return to hospital the next day for prolonged treatment. He subsequently spent a month in the 110th Military Hospital and was not released until the 2nd of February 1946. Upon discharge from hospital, he started a 30 day sick leave and did not return to duty until the 3rd of March.

On the 30th of March 1946, Dedrick Johannes Koekemoer was married. Unfortunately, his service papers do not indicate his wife’s given names. An entry was made on his papers changing his next of kin to Mrs. W.P. Koekemoer of 113 Loveday Street in Johannesburg.

Koekemoer was taken on the strength of the Demobilization Detachment on the 1st of May 1946 in preparation for his discharge from the Army. His discharge was authorized on the 5th of September and then canceled on the 12th of September. On the 13th of September 1946 he was granted 56 days of leave, returning to the Demobilization Detachment on the 7th of November 1946. He was taken back on the strength of the Detachment the next day at his full rates of pay.

Dedrick Johannes Koekemoer was finally discharged from the Army on the 24th of November 1946 after serving a total of five years and one month in the Army. His service in the North African theatre and in Egypt amounted to three years and one month. The medals he had earned for his war service were not issued to him until the 18th of April 1952. These medals included:

1939-45 Star
Africa Star with 8th Army clasp
Defence Medal
War Medal
Africa Service Medal

It is these medal that formed the basis for the research work presented in this account of Koekemoer’s military service.

REFERENCES

Books

1.HARBOTTLE, T. Dictionary of Battles. Stein and Day, New York, 1971.
2. MERRIAM WEBSTER. Geographical Dictionary, Springfield, MA, 1997.
3. MOOREHEAD, A. The March to Tunis: The North African War, 1940-1943. Harper & Row, New York, 1967.
4. ORPEN, N. and MARTIN, H.J. Salute the Sappers. South African Forces: World War II. Volume 8, Part 1. Sappers Association, Johannesburg, 1981.
5. ORPEN, N. and MARTIN, H.J. Salute the Sappers. South African Forces: World War II. Volume 8, Part 2. Sappers Association, Johannesburg, 1982.

Documents

D.D. 293 (W.R. 6). Soldier’s Service Papers. South African Army

Maps

MAP STUDIO. Street Plan of Johannesburg, Randburg and Sandton. Wynburg, S.A., no imprint.

Internet

MICROSOFT EXPEDIA MAPS. http:\www.expediamaps.com

Software

Maps ‘N Facts