Source: The Times

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Job Maseko: Black soldier who blew up German ship was denied VC

Job Maseko served as a stretcher-bearer with South African forces as the Allies fought against Rommel’s troops in North Africa in 1942. After he was taken prisoner at Tobruk, he risked his life to sink a fully laden German steamer using an improvised device, later receiving the Military Medal for his “meritorious and courageous” act that showed “ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety”.

Bill Gillespie, a care home owner in Milverton, Somerset, is launching a petition seeking to right the “injustice”, which he learned about from his father, Jim, a South African officer who was seconded to the Black Watch as a lieutenant-colonel.

Gillespie, 67, said: “My dad was up north fighting against Rommel as well. He told me the story when I was a little boy, I remember clearly, and he said how cross they were that he [Maseko] didn’t get the Victoria Cross.

“My dad didn’t know Job personally but he knew people who knew Job. They thought it would be a formality, he would definitely get it. The British generals were for it, but the South African hierarchy thought better and said, no, they didn’t want a black man to get anything before his white peers.”

Maseko had quit his job as a delivery man in the town of Springs, South Africa, to enlist in the Native Military Corps. The events for which he was decorated unfolded after Tobruk fell to the Germans in June 1942 and Maseko and his comrades were taken captive. The white prisoners were sent to camps in Europe, but the black prisoners were retained in Italian camps in Africa, where they were forced to work as labourers under harsh conditions.

In due course, Maseko was detailed to unload supply ships laden with military hardware, ammunition and vehicles. Gillespie said: “Job created a bomb using a condensed milk tin, some cordite and an extremely long fuse. 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. Job waited and a few hours later there was an almighty explosion. Apparently, the ship sank almost immediately.

“It was a large vessel and would have resulted in a significant depletion of German equipment destined to oppose Montgomery at El Alamein. It is anyone’s guess, but this small act by a very brave man could well have assisted in the decisive Allied victory by Montgomery’s troops barely three months later.”

Job later escaped from the Italian PoW camp where he was being held and walked for three weeks through the desert and enemy lines to El Alamein.

In October 1942 he became a stretcher-bearer with the 1st South African Infantry Division in the Second Battle of El Alamein. He reached the rank of lance corporal during his service.

After the war Maseko received a much smaller military pension than white colleagues. He was struck and killed by a train on March 7, 1952. At the time of his death he was so poor that his funeral was paid for by borrowed and donated funds.

Gillespie said Job’s story remains largely unknown both in the UK and South Africa. “As a stretcher-bearer, even before the bomb incident, he was already one of the brave. I’ve looked at all the other South African VCs of the Second World War — there were five. All their exploits were spontaneous, adrenaline-driven, spur of the moment.

“If they had thought about it, they might not have done it. This chap went and planned something where he knew that if he was caught he would have been summarily executed, and probably his peers as well. To me, that’s incredible bravery.”

Job’s citation for the Military Medal reads: “For meritorious and courageous action in that on or about the 21st July, while a Prisoner of War, he, Job Masego [sic], sank a fully laden enemy steamer — probably an ‘F’ boat — while moored in Tobruk Harbour. This he did by placing a small tin filled with gunpowder in among drums of petrol in the hold, leading a fuse therefrom to the hatch and lighting the fuse upon closing the hatch.

“In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Masego displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight.”

Gillespie plans to launch his petition on the website in the coming weeks. Further details are available from Gillespie via