History, the story of others, surrounds us daily. With imagination, past events, personal joys and tragedies, toooften hidden by dry facts, can be brought to life. Human emotions laid bare to reveal never forgotten struggles between those who care for their mates, friends, family, community, country, and those who refuse to rise above their own selfish interests.
The Monesse Mystery is backboned by real events, and although Billy and Kevin are fictional creations, they aren’t too far removed from young people I’ve known and worked with over many years. For sure they aren’t by-standers to life: quite the opposite. Starting with the Billy Can Bomb and ending with When the String Breaks, they consciously make decisions — as individuals, and aslife-long friends — to make a positive difference to the circumstances in which they find themselves. This is never clearer than in the Monesse Mystery where they come of age to understand the world as it is.
The hamlet of Onesse et Laharie in southwest France, has a well-tended cemetery with a simple plaque on a stark white wall — blinding in summer’s light — marking this place where souls restin solitude. The plaque reads: “Commonwealth War Graves Commission.” Here, on consecrated ground, there stands a marble cross, a fresh wreath laid at its foot to honour an Allied serviceman: “Cpl. T. Mathopa, N/6837, NMC.” Timothy Mathopa, serving with South Africa’s Native Military Corps, died on the 13th ofAugust 1944. In the nearby village of Mezos, there is another war grave, the final resting place ofeleven American B17 crew brought down on the last day of 1943.
From a chance stroll through Onesse’s cemetary a story for Billy and Kevin grew.
Back home in England I wrote to the Republic of South Africa’s Embassy in London who forwarded my simple request for information on Corporal Mathopa to South Africa’s National Defence Force. Who, I inquired, was Corporal Timothy Mathopa and why is he buried in Onesse?
Within two months an envelope arrived at my home packed with photocopied military documents, many marked “restricted” or “secret,” together with letters from the Red Cross and various departments of the South Africa army. From this unexpectedly large bundle of papers I began to piece together fragments of the life of one humble South African soldier. I also began to piece together a fitting adventure for Billy and Kevin: a tale in which I knew they’d triumph over life- threatening events. In the Monesse Mystery, I wanted them to represent all that is good and positive of their generation: an audacious and unquenchable curiosity, a sensitive ear to another generations’ truth, and a burning desire to simply do the right thing when faced with danger.
I tried to discover from Onesse’s locals why this Allied grave existed, but drew a blank. The secretary of the Ancient Combattants claimed to know nothing about the grave, though a local medical doctor had discovered a prisoner of war camp had existed nearby, but that the papers relating to it had not survived the war. Maybe, I began to think, Mathopa had been executed because he was black, yet another victim of the Nazi racial “purification” regime. A last shot firedas Hitler’s war machinefoundered under the onslaught of the Allies.
As I studied the documents, a rich, complex and unexpected picture emerged. On March 2nd. 1943, the Red Cross corresponded with a Lieutenant Horwitz of the South African Non-European Army Service announcing “We have pleasure in enclosing herewith a further list of native POWs with camp or hospital addresses.” Corporal Mathopa, serving with the 7th. Recce Battalion, who had been promoted on the 15th, October 1941, was in Camp 82, Laterina, Italy, following his capture at Tobruk. A further document, reporting on Camp 82 written following a visit to it on the 23rd. and 24th. February 1943, revealed there were two South African officers, 101 NCO’s and 840 men, out of a total POW population of 2,457 in a camp built to house 6,000.
A Prisoner of War list, Box 31 in the Native Military Corps files, X List Personnel, contained the names of eleven South African servicemen who had been released from POW camps and were in the process of repatriation to their units during late summer and early autumn of 1944. One, Private Jim Moquena, was bound for the Middle East. The eleventh name on the list, under PARA. 62, was Corporal Mathopa.
A Captain Fink, and the anonymous author of the Box Report, were despatched from London with the following mission: “to evacuate six South African Non Europeans,” but on reporting to Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, were instructed “to interest ourselves in all Allied personnel.”.
Departing on January 18th. 1945 and landing in France the following day after catching the boattrainthey arrived in Versailles on the 22nd. and receiving further instructions drove to Dijon then on to Marseilles. Here they received two ambulances and sufficient petrol to take them to the southwest of France.
From there, they journeyed through Toulouse, where they were informed by Lieutenant Colonel de Gros of the British Civil Affairs authority that one patient, Private Siljosing had already been evacuated through Marseilles. The colonel also informed the two officers that an Irish woman, Miss Rea, who had looked after the South African POWs since the German collapse, should be contacted in Bayonne. Leaving Toulouse, the pair drove through Tarbes, Pau and Orthez before finally reaching Bayonne.
On the 27th. January Captain Fink wrote “We arrived in Bayonne and immediately interviewed Miss Rea who advised us that only two patients remained to be evacuated of the original eleven left behind by Lieutenant Fennesy in the previous September. Of this 11, 7 had died, 2 had already been taken off and two others remained to be removed.” One of the two men was in the hospital at Bayonne and the other in Mont de Marsan. Both these patients survived and were joined by another who was discovered in an unnamed hospital. The three were driven by the two officers to Marseilles where they embarked on a hospital ship bound for the Middle East and South Africa.
It was here that they learned that Corporal Mathopa had died in the Sanatorium de Neuvielle, Mont de Marsan, from what cause we do not know. But what we do know is this: that black South African soldiers fighting the Allied cause against the Axis powers had been captured in North Africa, transported through a continent exterminating non-Aryans and kept alive. They were fed and clothed and hospitalised as Prisoners of War. They were freed by Miss Rea, the Irish woman negotiating on their behalf with the Germans. They were sought by the British despatched from London, and nursed by the French. Humanitarian co-operation at its finest where the South Africans’ status as Allied soldiers sidelined race as being of no consequence.
In this grand mix of emotion, high drama and morality, I know that if Billy Day and Kevin Knight had been born of an earlier generation, they’d have risen to the challenge and behaved in the same selfless manner as those mentioned in this little glimpse into wartime heroism. And now, in the current day, they have taken their opportunity.