Hillary War Graves

A while ago I discovered some military graves in Hillary Cemetary and wrote about them in the diary on this site on 22nd March 2006. I got some responses and thought I'd put the whole lot here on a page by itself, beginning with my original article. Allan Jackson - 9 August 2006

On 22 March 2006, I wrote:

I've been pondering on the transient nature of our memories quite a lot just lately. I'm not talking about little things like forgetting where you've lost your keys, for example. What is concerning me at the moment is how even an entity like eThekwini (Durban) and all the people in it can forget something really big.

All this intropection was brough about by my recent discovery of a military burial site in Hillary Cemetary. It contains around 120 graves of men who died between 1942 and 1946; each with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission-pattern headstone. There is also a mini chapel and a big cross but, get this, there is apparently nobody who knows the circumstances under which the men were buried in our city!

The grave site is divided into two sections with a cross standing in
the middle. The cross can be seen in the distance and, beyoond that,
there is another smaller plot.

The names on the gravestones seem to indicate that many of the people buried there are black Africans. There are some English or Afrikaans-sounding names among them but it might be unwise to make racial assumptions from that. The majority are South African, which is shown by the Springbok head and the 'Unity is Strength', 'Eendrag Maak Mag' motto carved on their stones. The remainder of the stones have a variety of markings on them indicating that the men came from West Africa.

Many of the stones carry only the standard items of information like number, rank, name, unit and date of death, but others have additions which, I am informed by Mr Potgieter of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the family would have requested at the time of burial.

The chapel, on the left was erected on 28.2.1948 by Mrs JB Daniel who husband had been buried in the cemetary on 15 September, 1943. Its windows have been broken and the interior is a scene of indescribable squalour, serving as some sort of shelter for a number of people. Next left is the cross, situated between the two burial plots, and, finally, two of the stones.

Click the images to view larger versions.

The CWGC told me that they are well aware of the site but not of the circumstances under which the men were buried here. I consulted the Local History people who couldn't tell me any more but who put me on to Arthur Gammage at the City Architect and Buildings Department. He told me he was aware of the graves and that moves were afoot to find out more. He told me that the only way to find out anything would be to delve through the military files to find each man's records to find when and where they died. He said that a researcher had already begun the process, but that nothing had yet come to light.

I have every hope that we will soon know more about the people buried in Hillary because it isn't right that they, who gave their lives during and immediately after WWII, should be forgotten so soon. I suspect that at least some of them will turn out to have been victims of U-Boat attacks in the area, or of accidents which took place while their ships had stopped off at Durban.

The grave site is located near the Italian Military Cemetary, which is also located within the Hillary Cemetary, and which I described in this diary on 20 April 2004. When I visited the Italian Cemetary I saw this one, across a little stream, but I didn't get around to visiting it until a couple of days ago.


The first repsonse I received to the article was from Ricky Nortje who is National Coordinator of the rather remarkable South African War Graves Project. The organisation has as its goal to take pictures of every single South African War Grave from every war and no matter where it is located. The organisation was started by Canadian Ralph McLean and is part of a wider network of similar organisations in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the Netherlands.

On 6 June 2006 Ricky Nortje wrote:

I read with interest the article pertaining to the war graves located in the Hillary Cemetery.

During the Second World War, Durban was the embarkation and disembarkation port, first for the East African and Abyssinian campaigns and later for those in the Middle East and Italy. A large military hospital (apart from others) operated at Springfield and hospital ships plied between the port and theatres of war in the north. Operational flights in protection of incoming and outgoing convoys and general anti-submarine patrols were conducted from the airfield to the south of Durban city.

Based on the fact that Durban itself received so many troop ships that contained wounded and sick, many were cared for in various hospitals in and around Durban, of all Commonwealth nationalities. It's possible that all the graves that are located at Hillary were cared for at a particular dressing station either that was located close to the present cemetery site, or it was the plot allocated to accommodate the bodies at that specific period. There are 122 Commonwealth burials and 16 French graves in the cemetery.

The Italian graves were in fact POWs on board the Nova Scotia that was sunk while transporting them from Egypt. I have all the records in my possession of the casualties (commonwealth) located there, in regards to next of kin and all service number details, and from my overall glance most were killed throughout the duration of the war, with no specific date being a common denominator. In other words, those casualties located in Hillary, could have been there due to wounds received in the front, accidents at home, sickness from the front or home....there are many possibilities.

In regards to the headstones, yes, as you see it, the engravings are standard. The families were given an opportunity to supply their own headstones, but given the financial situation, most opted for the state issued headstones. A personal small message was allowed to be placed on the headstones by the family as well as the option of a religious symbol.

The cross of sacrifice is erected in cemeteries that contain 40 or more Commonwealth casualties. They differ in size in accordance with the size of the war plot and number of graves. Stellawood Cemetery houses the largest military concentration of graves, with over 700.

There are many military plots in and around Durban. If you are interested in war graves, please feel free to have a look at www.southafricawargraves.org You will see that there are a few people out there who are trying to preserve our military past and to give the so many who sacrificed their lives for mankind the dignity and recognition they deserve.

A great organisation...

Ricky also sent me a very interesting document which contains a great deal of information on the beginnings of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the SAWGP, as well as some very interesting bits and pieces on Durban in the two World Wars, Victoria Cross holders in Durban, and much other stuff of interest. I could have cut it up and put it here and there on the site but I decided it deserved its own page, which I put here.

I am grateful to local historian Ken Gillings who put me onto Col. Graham Du Toit who has a massive database of information on South African War Graves. I sent him a query and he replied in the following terms.

On 12 June 2006, Graham Du Toit wrote:

I am in receipt of your message regarding the Military War Graves plot in Hillary Cemetery. The cemetery belongs to the Durban City Council and it must be remembered that during World War Two 1939-1945, Durban was the seat of the Natal Command of the Military Establishment. During the war years, Durban was the embarkation and disembarkation Port, first for the Campaign in East Africa, then later for North Africa/Middle East. The 6th South African Armoured Division also used this port during the Italian Campaign. Visiting Allied War Ships and Allied Troopships bound for the Far East also stopped over in Durban for replenishment.

A large Military Hospital operated at Springfield and the Hospital Ships plied between Durban and the various theatres of war. Anti-Submarine patrols were also flown from Durban and from the lakes at St. Lucia. All this activity demanded a huge labour force to maintain and construct roads, railway lines, Port facilities, coastal gun batteries and generally maintain the military and civilian infrastructure in and around Durban.

The majority of the graves in Hillary Cemetery belong to members attached to the labour units in and around Durban while some of the foreign unit burials come from the military hospital ships or ships passing through the Port. Causes of death are mainly due to sickness and natural causes. Some are from trauma casualties such as car accidents, stabbings, freak accidents, shootings etc.

The other large military graves plot in Durban is situated in the Stellawood Cemetery, south of the City. Burials here are much the same as those in the Hillary cemetery but many of these graves can be attributed to air training accidents, general army training accidents or bodies that were washed up from torpedoed Merchantmen. Men who died from natural causes, injuries or were admitted to hospital for sickness while aboard ships calling in at Durban and who subsequently did not recover, are also buried here. There are also many 1939–45 war graves scattered in the civilian cemeteries of Redhill, Clairwood, Kenilworth, Lamontville, Old St. Thomas Street cemetery and Stamford Hill cemetery.

The old Ordnance Road Cemetery contains World War One Graves. The Port of Durban became a considerably large Military Hospital centre during the First World War, taking in patients from the East African Campaign and other Theatres and by 1918, No. 3 South African General Hospital, seven other Allied Military Hospitals and two convalescent centres were stationed in and around the port. The majority of the men buried in this cemetery, came from these hospitals. I hope this answers your questions. I can also provide the causes of death for the majority of the W.W.II burials in Hillary Cemetery should you be seeking this sort of information.

In response to a question received from a geology student about what stone the the headstones were made of, I received a note from Brigadier General Johan Potgieter (Retd.) who is in charge of the Commonwealth War Graves in South Africa.

On 6 June 2006, Johan Potgieter wrote:

Thank you for the interest in our activities. Regarding your enquiry I unfortunately could not find any record of the contractor who manufactured the headstones in Hillary Cemetery. They were erected during the early 1950's and manufactured according to the same shape and dimensions as the standard Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone which is used world wide to mark the grave of a serviceman/woman who died during the 2 World Wars. The stone used for the headstones is called Rustenburg granite and I have contacted a local (Durban) stone mason who has done work for us in the past who assured me that the stone used must have come from the Rustenburg area as this stone is not quarried anywhere else.

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