University of Oxford
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Memories of a Rhodesian Soldier

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posted on 2024-06-05, 16:46 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

My dad (Denzil Dunn) was with the Rhodesian Forces and joined in 1941. Rhodesia is one of the few countries that had to pass legislation to prevent people from going to war because too many people were volunteering. So he had to jump through a few hoops to join up, but he eventually managed it in 1941. I have brought in a Farewell Dinner menu for the Vickers Machine Gunners Detachment signed by his pals with a drawing by my Dad (he was a keen rugby player). The dinner was on Friday 22nd of August 1941, in Rhodesia before they were shipped off. The Rhodesians wore slouch hats - this distinguished them from the South Africans (who wore pith helmets).

His initial training was in Rhodesia then he was sent up North as a machine gunner. His unit was initially seconded to the Cheshire regiment, but for various reasons detailed in the letters I've brought in there was a mutiny, and he ended up serving under Rhodesian officers. My Dad was disciplined with 7 days 'CB' (Confined to Barracks). I have brought in two photos of my Dad and 4 of his friends standing in front of the pyramids in Cairo around this time. There's one gentleman (Ball) wearing an officer's cap in the photo, even though they were all privates. The group had gatecrashed an officers' club in Cairo and tried to order drinks but were spotted and chucked out. On his way out, Ball nicked an officer's cap and Dad picked up an officer's swagger stick (see photo). My Dad used to tell the story of how they paraded all through Cairo that day pretending to be officers and getting saluted, culminating in a trip to the pyramids.

They decided rather than causing too many ripples it was better to place them under the Rhodesian Anti-Tank battery. This battery was attached to the Northumbrian Huzzars and the men seemed to be a lot happier. My dad wore a German pilot's over-boots as slippers until late into his life - he picked these up in the desert when a Stork spotter plane crashed. They were fur-lined and they kept him warm when he was fighting in the bitter cold in the Italian Apennines (see photos).

He wrote letters weekly to his Mum and Dad throughout the war so they're better than a day-to-day diary. There is a sketch he made of his dugout in the desert - very detailed, titled "My Dug Out". He has a little desk, writing a letter home (see photo). One letter talks of my Dad playing in a rugby match in the Desert between the Rhodesians and Northumbrians (the Rhodesians won). He also competed in boxing matches throughout the war.

They then saw some significant action at Alamein. My dad was injured near Alamein as described in one of the letters I've brought in. The Rhodesian Northumbrian Huzzar Jock column woke up next to a 1000 vehicle Axis column that had appeared overnight. The Rhodesians were located on the rising sun side, so they had the advantage and spotted the Axis forces. One of the members of my dad's battery, Barry Hunt, won the Military Medal for knocking out 20-30 enemy vehicles at the End of June 1942. This was documented. My dad was the only one injured in the action and spent a few months in hospital from 6th July 1942 in Alexandria.

He got back home just in time for Alamein 2 (described in the letter I've brought in). On 22 October 1944, the Rhodesians were sent into the cauldron in support of the Australian 9th Division breakthrough (near the coast). Sure enough, Rommel's tanks did counter-attack. In terms of the guns that had crossed the railway line - out of the Australian / Rhodesian troops sent across the railway line - my dad's was the last surviving gun. They succeeded in stopping the Axis forces.

Thereafter, for political reasons, the Rhodesians were taken out of the British army and formed under the South African army because General Smutz couldn't produce enough people to make up the numbers. South Africa had a problem with Nazi sympathisers so: a) they had to use Rhodesians to make up the numbers; and b) they had to keep troops at home in South Africa in case they had a repeat in 1914 where Nazi sympathisers led a rebellion.

When that secondment changes, the letters are handled differently. He goes into a lot of detail about the battles, not exactly where they were, under the British without being censored. However, when his unit was placed under the South African army, because of the dangers of Nazi sympathisers, the censorship was a lot stricter. You see in his letters that he's hinting at what's going on.

During his time in the Desert, Denzil was promoted from Gunner to Bombardier to Sergeant. He was then sent to Egypt for specialist training and went to Officer training in Palestine (see photo of my Dad with his cohort at the training camp). I've brought in a photo of the Rhodesian troops on a boat from South Africa back to Egypt.

On 1st June 1944, he landed in Italy and there were letters and a photo describing the country and a visit to Pompei. He was part of the 6th Division, which was placed under the command of the US Fifth Army. His letters describe the weather progressively getting colder and the conditions worse as his unit saw action further up the leg of Italy. I have brought in two photos of captured German 88mm guns in the snowy Apennines.

We have photographs showing him with Combat Command Charlie - they took part in the assault on Monte Stanco in October 1944, which was at the tail end of Monte Cassino. The Indian 4/13th Frontier Force Rifles unit attacked but was pushed back by the 36th SS Division. The German reserve lines were located behind the summit of Monte Stanco and the Rhodesians were brought in with heavy mortars to reach their troops. On 13th October, an attack led by the Witwatersrand Rifles/De la Rey Regiment managed to take the position. Afterwards, General Poole declared the battles of Monte Stanco and Salvaro as the toughest fought by South Africans during World War Two.

After Monte Stanco, he was in the Monte Sole area - which was the biggest civilian massacre of the campaign - the German 36th SS Division was responsible for the massacre of over 1,000 civilians. The defeat of the SS at Monte Stanco effectively prevented the SS from hiding their crimes at Monte Sole and led to a guerrilla phase of the campaign in the San Marino River valley. My Dad wrote home to his mother and step-father to tell them about building snowmen in the Apennines. In February 1945, his unit was trained on M10 Anti-Tank vehicles (see photo). The anti-tank gunners and tank crews were used in aggressive scout team mode - they were used as support for the taking of Monte Stanco. They wanted mortars there and were then used in an aggressive scouting role for the insurgency phase.

He was one of the first into Florence and then was involved in the drive to the Po. He had an absolute holiday at the end of the war because he was made area Commandant for the region (Varallo) just near the Swiss border. He and his mates lived a life of Riley up there. The Italians loved him and treated him very well. He had 6 months of bliss there. His official job was to disarm the partisans.

I've brought in a photo of my Dad and 3 of his friends at the end of the war, and you can see his friend, Young, wearing his medal from El Alamein. They used to meet up occasionally after the war and they would all share stories. I remember many of them were hard of hearing because they had been in the artillery and never given ear defenders!

There are 5 photos of the victory parade at the Monza racetrack, north of Milan in front of the US General Mark Clarke. You can see photos of my Dad's M10s.

In December 1945, my Dad was shipped back to Cairo whilst preparing to return home. The troops of the 6th Division were getting bored and rioting, so as a keen boxer and rugby player, my Dad was made the Sports Officer for the camp. He organised different sports to keep the men busy and diverted before they were repatriated.

He was awarded the Office of the Legion of Merit during the Rhodesian Bush War.


Item list and details

1. Various letters from Denzil Dunn to his mother and step-father. 2. Photo of Stork pilots over-boots. 3. Sketch by Denzil Dunn of his trench in the desert. 4. Various photos from the desert and Italian campaign. 5. Photos of Victory Parade at Monza, Italy - including General Mark Clark.

Person the story/items relate to

Denzil Dunn

Person who shared the story/items

Iain Scott Dunn

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor


Type of submission

Shared at Great Missenden Library, Buckinghamshire on 30 September 2023.

Record ID

95125 | GRE014