South African war hero Job Maseko sank an enemy ship with a makeshift bomb in a milk tin during World War Two. A member of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC), Maseko received the Military Medal for his “meritorious and courageous” act that showed “ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety”.
But it’s turned out that the Military Medal was “just a consolation prize”. Somerset resident Bill Gillespie, who heard the story of Maseko’s bravery from his father, says Maseko was recommended for the highest military award — a Victoria Cross — but it was blocked by his South African commanders.
Gillespie and Maseko’s family have since launched a campaign hoping to secure a posthumous Victoria Cross for Maseko. Campaigners believe that the Second World War soldier, who died in 1952 after being struck by a train, was denied the award because he was Black. “I’m very proud of what he did but at the same time, there’s sorrow. If he were a white soldier we believe he would’ve received the [higher] award,” Maseko’s niece Jennifer Nkosi Maaba told the BBC.
Maseko was working as a delivery man in Springs before he volunteered for service in the Second World War and joined the South African Native Military Corps (NMC). After completing basic training, he was sent to North Africa, attached to the 2nd South African Infantry Division. South Africa’s Military History Journal notes that members of the NMC performed roles in the Division which did not require them to be issued firearms. Serving as military cooks, drivers, stretcher bearers, engineers and bomb loaders, they were however made to carry traditional weapons such as spears for guard and ceremonial duty. They could not carry firearms because of South African race laws at the time.
Maseko was a stretcher bearer for the allied forces in North Africa, where he treated the wounded. However, he became a prisoner of war in June 1942 when his commander surrendered to the Germans in Tobruk. In Tobruk, he was made to work on the docks unloading supplies.
A former miner, Maseko did the incredible on July 21 when he created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, cordite and a long fuse. He filled the small tin with gunpowder and placed it near some petrol drums in the hold of a German ship. The ship sank after the explosion, as stated by the official citation that went with his Military Medal.
Gillespie said: “On the evening of June 21, 1942, and before they were due off the still overloaded ship, Job placed his home-made bomb deep in the hold.
“He lit the fuse and ran to join his friends on the dock. There was an almighty explosion. Apparently, the ship sank almost immediately.”
Maseko, who would later escape from the prisoner of war camp and reach the rank of lance corporal, was to receive a Victoria Cross but, according to Neville Lewis, the first official war artist for South Africa during the Second World War, Maseko “was awarded the Military Medal instead as he was ‘only an African’.”
Campaigners believe that is exactly what happened. “I hate injustice of any sort. I think this incident requires addressing,” said Gillespie.
Keith Lumley, the head of the Victoria Cross Trust that preserves the memories of people awarded a Victoria Cross, said Maseko probably didn’t receive the award for other reasons. “There’s no doubt that what Job did in terms of the sabotage of the ship was exceptionally dangerous and would’ve probably have led to his death had he been caught,” Lumley was quoted by BBC.
“However at the moment, it doesn’t seem to quite hit the level of a VC because it wasn’t witnessed. While there’s no doubt that he did what he did… but nobody actually saw him do it. I just get the sense from what I’ve read that his Military Medal was a reflection of his actions.”
It does not also appear that Maseko’s award will be “upgraded” by the UK’s ministry of defense. “We cannot consider retrospective awards because we are unable to confirm the circumstances or compare the merits between cases that took place so many years ago”, a spokesperson told the BBC.
Maseko did not only get a Victoria Cross, but also he became a poor man living under apartheid in South Africa after the war. Even after his death in 1952, he was buried with borrowed money in the Payneville Township Cemetery in Springs, according to South Africa’s Military History Journal.
His legacy, however, lives on, particularly in his hometown, the Kwa-Thema township in Springs, where a main road and a primary school have been named after him. A large mural with his portrait also commemorates him.