“To Back up the British Government”: Sidney Waterson’s Role as South African High Commissioner in Wartime Britain, 1939-42

John Lambert. Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History. Volume 40, Issue 1. March 2012.

Unlike the high commissioners from the other dominions, Sidney Waterson was not in London before the war and represented his country only until the end of 1942. Because of this, while Waterson is the focus of this essay, a discussion of his predecessor, Charles Te Water (1929-39), and of his two successors, Deneys Reitz (1943-44) and George Heaton Nicholls (1945-47), places his term of office in context. The essay touches on Waterson’s background and examines his attitude to Britain and the war effort. Initially inexperienced and without the political clout of high commissioners like Massey of Canada and Bruce of Australia, he was also overshadowed by Smuts who, enjoying direct contact with Churchill and other British officials, frequently bypassed him. Smuts’s instructions to his high commissioners were explicit: their task of representing South African interests in London was to take second place to that of offering uncritical support to the British government in its prosecution of the war. Despite his commitment to the war effort, Waterson found it difficult giving this support. Throughout his term of office he was critical of the way in which the British government prosecuted the war and was resentful of Churchill’s attitude to the dominions in general and the high commissioners in particular, believing that he fobbed them off with second-rate men as secretaries of state for the dominions. Thus, although he was a highly successful high commissioner and under him South Africa House was run as a tight ship, he never succeeded in persuading Smuts of the necessity of urging Churchill to pay more attention to the dominions nor did he succeed in gaining more political clout for the high commissioners.

Sidney Waterson was appointed South Africa’s high commissioner in London on the outbreak of the Second World War, holding the position until the end of 1942 when he was appointed Minister of Trade and Industries in the Union. He was in Britain during the ‘Phoney War’, witnessing the Battle of Britain and the disastrous events of the following years as Britain reeled under defeats in North Africa and the Far East. For most of this period, Britain and the Commonwealth fought alone, against seemingly overwhelming odds. Waterson, together with his fellow dominion high commissioners, was caught up in the turmoil and tensions of these events.

Compared to his fellow high commissioners, Waterson was at a disadvantage. Vincent Massey of Canada, Stanley Bruce of Australia and Bill Jordan of New Zealand had represented their respective dominions in London from the 1930s. They were au fait with conditions in Britain and had important political, social and business connections in London. They were to see out the war in their posts. By contrast, the Union was represented successively in London during this period by four men—Charles Te Water (1929-39), Waterson (1939-42), Deneys Reitz (1943-44) and George Heaton Nicholls (1944-47). All were politicians rather than career diplomats and, other than Te Water, were appointed by South Africa’s wartime prime minister, Jan Smuts. As a result, they were required to carry out and promote his policies. These involved a complete commitment to Britain, the Commonwealth and the common war effort. While Waterson is the focus of this article, his high commissionership cannot be seen in isolation. As South Africa’s commitment to Britain remained in doubt until the outbreak of war, it is necessary to place Waterson’s term of office in this broader context.

Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 3 September 1939 brought to the fore tensions within South Africa’s United Party government. The establishment of a ‘fusion’ government in 1934 between the National Party of General J. B M. Hertzog and Smuts’s South African Party, with the former as prime minister, was based on a consensus that accepted that the 1931 Statute of Westminster and the Union’s 1934 Status Acts had established the Union’s independence within the British Commonwealth. Despite this, there was no consensus on the Union’s position should Britain become involved in a war with a European power which did not directly threaten the Union.

The deteriorating international situation in the late 1930s and Germany’s growing belligerence towards its neighbours changed a theoretical question into a distinct possibility. To Hertzog, participation on Britain’s side against Germany would be incompatible with the Union’s independent status, a stand he made clear during the Munich Crisis of September 1938. In 1938 virtually all white South Africans supported neutrality, a view that was widely shared in the other dominions.

In his determination to maintain South African neutrality, Hertzog received Charles Te Water’s whole-hearted support. Hertzog had appointed Te Water high commissioner in 1929, two years after the establishment of a Department of External Affairs with the prime minister as the responsible minister. Extrovert and a born diplomat, Te Water was an ideal high commissioner during a period of considerable change in the Union’s relations with the British government. Although an Afrikaner Nationalist, he had been educated in Britain and had made many influential friends at Cambridge. Like the prime minister, he upheld the constitutional independence of the Union and sought to ensure that the British government acknowledged the Union’s status. Yet he did this with diplomatic skill and without hostility towards Britain for which he was held in high esteem in British government circles.

Like Hertzog, Te Water was concerned lest membership of the Commonwealth drag the Union into a European war. As a result, he used his position as high commissioner and as president of the League of Nations’ Assembly in 1938 to pursue peace. Believing the dominions should play a more active peace-keeping role, he discussed this possibility with his fellow high commissioners. In March 1939, with Massey’s concurrence, he urged the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, to invite the Axis nations to enter into a mutual assistance non-aggression agreement. Later that year he urged Hertzog to press upon Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain the need for European discussions on the repeal of the Treaty of Versailles and colonial problems.

Despite these efforts, by March 1939 Te Water recognised war was inevitable and that Hitler’s colonial ambitions would force South Africa into the conflict. Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the South African Parliament’s rejection of Hertzog’s motion that the Union remain neutral, saw the governor-general, Sir Patrick Duncan, call on Smuts to form a new government. Te Water had been reappointed high commissioner only days before for a further five-year term. He sought Hertzog’s advice on whether he should resign or not but did so in a telegram addressed to the prime minister. This naturally was delivered to Smuts who both for personal reasons and because of Te Water’s support for neutrality accepted the letter as a resignation. It is interesting to speculate whether his presence as high commissioner would have made a difference to the Union’s participation in British and Commonwealth deliberations. He would certainly have found it difficult to accept Smuts’s injunction that his high commissioner show a complete commitment to Britain.

Smuts sent the Union’s envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary in Paris, the 43-year-old Sidney Waterson, to London to replace Te Water. Born in London in 1896, Waterson moved with his parents to South Africa the following year. He returned to England for his schooling, at St Clare’s in Kent and at Westminster School where he was a King’s Scholar. During the Great War he served with the Royal Sussex Regiment and the Machine Gun Corps in Salonika and France. Returning to Cape Town after the war, he joined the wine merchant firm, J. Sedgwick and Company, becoming a director in 1922. In 1929 he was elected to Parliament for the South African Party holding the South Peninsula seat. He was regarded as a promising young member of the SAP but after 1934 found it difficult reconciling his strong sense of loyalty to Britain and the Commonwealth with Hertzog’s commitment to neutrality. In a hard-hitting speech in Parliament in July 1938, he criticised the Minister of Defence, Oswald Pirow, for his failure to secure the Union’s defences, at the same time indirectly attacking Hertzog’s neutrality policy. Hertzog could not tolerate such an attack from one of his backbenchers and removed Waterson from Parliament by appointing him to Paris in January 1939. Experience of the situation in Europe saw him become convinced of the need to destroy Nazism.

Although little has been written on Waterson, from February 1940 until his return to South Africa in December 1942, he kept a diary which gives an invaluable account of his tenure in London. It shows that Waterson’s position was at first not easy. Unlike his predecessor and his fellow high commissioners, he was a ‘new boy’ without the social and political links with British officials which oiled the wheels of diplomacy in London. Nor, despite his year in Paris, did he have the knowledge of events they had. Bruce had been prime minister of Australia and both he and Massey were Privy Councillors which gave them a diplomatic clout he did not have. Waterson’s diary shows how much he relied on the two men with both of whom he struck up close friendships. His relationship with Jordan was more ambivalent. He personally liked him but believed that Jordan had ‘a confirmed inferiority complex & thinks everyone else ignores him & in any case he doesn’t understand half that is going on’.

Waterson’s position was also made difficult as until well into 1940 he represented a government whose military contribution to the war was negligible. As indicated above, Hertzog’s government had done little to secure the Union’s military defences and there was, as Te Water ruefully admitted, a ‘great gap between our vaunted claim of sovereign independence and our unpreparedness to make the necessary sacrifices in the interests of our national defence’. Practically speaking, the country was in no position to defend itself, let alone join in an attempt to contain Axis aggression. While Canada and Australia were able to despatch soldiers and airmen to Britain by December 1939, the Union entered the war without a navy, an air force of six modern machines, a Permanent Force of 260 officers and 4,600 men and an Active Citizen Force of 950 officers and 14,000 poorly-trained men. The Union’s munitions industry was virtually non-existent.

In addition, the Defence Act of 1912 prohibited the Union Defence Force from fighting outside South Africa’s borders unless the country was threatened by invasion. Smuts’s narrow majority in Parliament meant that he had to move carefully before committing troops to an active role. In addition, with a white male population of military age of less than 500,000 and a refusal by the electorate to agree to black combatant military service, the pool of men that the Defence Force could call on was small. In early 1940, the Union Parliament authorised volunteer service outside South Africa but it was not until the entry of Italy into the war in June 1940 that the South African Engineer and Medical Corps, the South African Air Force and the 1st South African Division began moving to East Africa.

Despite the Union’s military unpreparedness, Smuts was totally committed to winning the war and everything else he did during these years was secondary to this commitment. Before September 1939, he had realised that, should the Union remain aloof from a war involving Britain, ‘we … shall be cutting our own throats, because if we allowed our greatest friend to be destroyed, we shall assuredly be next’. He saw a strong Commonwealth as a force for stability in the world and, unlike Hertzog, believed that strengthening the ties that bound the Union with Britain and the Commonwealth were in South Africa’s best interests. As prime minister he was in a position to strengthen these ties. He completely dominated his cabinet and, as minister of external affairs and of defence as well as, from June 1940, commander-in-chief of the Union’s armed forces, he personally controlled the Union’s relations with the British government.

Smuts enjoyed close links with British ministers and officials who relied on his experience and wisdom. His status in Britain, reinforced by his appointment as a British Field-Marshal on 24 May 1941, ensured him direct access to the War Cabinet and particularly to Winston Churchill after the latter became prime minister in May 1940. The two men were old and trusted friends, a friendship Churchill described to Heaton Nicholls in January 1945 as that of ‘two old love-birds moulting together on a perch but still able to peck’. Churchill welcomed Smuts’s companionship ‘in this hard and long trek’ while Smuts was completely committed to supporting Churchill.

Smuts’s knowledge of Commonwealth and foreign relations was far greater than that of any of his dominion colleagues. He was one of the few people to whom Churchill always listened and from whom he received military and political secrets. As field-marshal and commander-in-chief he could make decisions about the deployment of South African forces without consulting his colleagues and give immediate answers to all proposals put to him by Churchill or by local commanders. As his biographer, Sir Keith Hancock, commented, ‘[n]o comparable concentration of political and military power in the hands of one man existed anywhere else in the Commonwealth’.

Smuts thus enjoyed direct contacts in Britain that Waterson did not have. As high commissioner, Waterson’s prime functions were to liaise between the South African and British governments and to protect South African interests in Britain. Yet from the start Smuts undermined the first function. At Te Water’s insistence, Hertzog had agreed that all communications from the Union government to the British should be through South Africa House. Smuts was concerned that highly confidential despatches could fall into the wrong hands in South Africa. As a result, he frequently ignored this agreement, preferring to send despatches through the United Kingdom high commissioners in the Union. After 15 years of Hertzog’s premiership, many of the top civil servants, particularly in the Department of External Affairs, were Afrikaner nationalists. These included the permanent secretary of the department, Dr H. D. J. Bodenstein, and many of his staff. Because of this, Smuts ignored Bodenstein and, even after the latter’s retirement in 1941, the prime minister regularly by-passed the department, in particular sending his secret messages to Churchill directly through the UK high commissioner. In fact, Smuts enjoyed an especially close relationship with Lord Harlech, UK high commissioner from 1941 to 1944, who provided the Dominions Office with detailed analyses of political developments in the Union. While making direct use of the British high commissioner ensured confidentiality, it did sideline Waterson.

Waterson was aware that Smuts and Churchill confided in each other and that he was being by-passed and this angered him. According to his United Party colleague, Harry Lawrence, Waterson was ‘no fervent admirer of Smuts’, and, although he was always loyal to him, he resented being ignored. On 3 August 1942, for example, on hearing for the first time that Churchill was meeting Smuts in Cairo, he wrote in his diary: ‘I’m getting used to being ignored but it doesn’t become any pleasanter.’

Smuts’s hands-on role is evident in his instructions to his high commissioners. While no copy of these to Waterson exists, they should have been similar to those given to Heaton Nicholls on his appointment in late 1944 with the proviso that by then the end of the war was in sight and Smuts was looking to the future:

You will represent me in London at a time when most serious decisions are being arrived at and your duty will be to further my policy of Commonwealth solidarity. The future of South Africa depends upon our maintaining a strong and united Commonwealth … South Africa cannot live in isolation. Therefore I want you to back up the British Ministers in their task of keeping the Commonwealth together. I shall tell Churchill that you have my complete confidence. You will be in constant communication with me by cable and you must report frankly on all matters. Part of your work, of course, will be to explain South Africa to the British people.

From these instructions it is clear that Smuts saw the high commissioner’s position as the representative of South African interests in Britain taking second place to supporting the British government and the war effort. Waterson would have found little to fault with these instructions. He was as committed as Smuts to winning the war and identified closely with Britain in her time of need. Yet Smuts also insisted that Waterson offer no criticism of the British government. As his diary entries show, he was frequently critical of British officials and policies and of what he viewed as British political incompetence. Smuts’s insistence was therefore a constant source of resentment to Waterson. It is highly unlikely that Te Water would have adapted to this new policy.

Whatever his feelings, Waterson had little time to brood over the position in which he found himself. The outbreak of war radically increased the high commissioner’s workload. The amount of work involved with looking after the interests of South Africans, both civilians and military personnel, in London vastly increased as did entertaining and holding discussions with British and Allied officials and other important people. Waterson was also required to oversee the acquisition for the Union of war supplies and grapple with problems concerning practically every South African department of state. According to Donald Sole, his private secretary, Waterson was a man of exceptional ability who ran a tight ship but he also knew how to delegate responsibility while remaining in overall control. He was fortunate that his senior officials, Frans du Toit, his official secretary, W. G. Parminter, the political secretary, and Sole were all able and conscientious.

South Africa House played a pivotal role in disseminating information and forwarding correspondence between the Union Department of External Affairs and the Dominions Office and other British government departments, and also with the Union’s ministers in Europe and the United States, much of which required comment by Waterson. The British government consulted regularly with the high commissioners on developments and, like his fellow high commissioners, Waterson had access to all Colonial, Dominions and Foreign Office information and to the resources available to the three departments. Copies of British and Commonwealth despatches and other documents were regularly circulated between the high commissioners, taking up much of Waterson’s time. In addition, monthly reports to Britain on the Union’s role in the struggle also passed over his desk.

To keep in touch with developments, the four high commissioners met at the Dominions Office most afternoons under the chairmanship of the secretary of state—until May 1940, Anthony Eden. Only the high commissioners, Eden, his permanent and parliamentary under-secretaries and a representative from the Foreign Office attended the meetings unless information was needed from other departments. Waterson respected Eden’s ability and honesty and found the meetings a valuable source of information. The high commissioners were shown the daily most secret telegrams sent to the dominion prime ministers and heard what was being discussed in the War Cabinet. They also raised issues concerning their governments. The Dominions Office notes kept of the meetings are disappointingly brief, but, together with Waterson’s diary entries and, to a lesser extent, his letters to Smuts, they show that the high commissioners were often critical of policies and submitted suggestions and criticisms to the War Cabinet. They were particularly irritated during the ‘Phoney War’ by the indecision displayed by the British government and by the Supreme War Cabinet of Britain and France, particularly over Scandinavia. Irritation turned to alarm when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway in April 1940 especially when the British proved inept in defending the latter country. By now Waterson seriously doubted the British government’s ability to manage affairs, a doubt he expressed at the high commissioners’ meeting on 6 May: ‘unless Govt can take a strong line & demand confidence I sh[oul]d feel that it is not fit to lead the country in war’. Like his fellow high commissioners, Waterson was convinced that a coalition government was essential if the war was to be vigorously prosecuted.

The diary entries and Dominions Office notes reflect that the high commissioners could be more hawkish than the British government—in early May, for example, they urged that war be declared on Italy should she move, while in June Waterson suggested sinking French ships in the entrance to Taranto harbour to block the Italian navy from sailing out. During the Battle of Britain the high commissioners were to urge the retaliatory bombing of civilians in Berlin.

With the invasion of the Low Countries and France after 10 May 1940, the high commissioners feared that Britain would not be able to withstand a German attack. On 22 May they cabled their respective prime ministers urging them to approach the United States for help. In response, the premiers urged Churchill, now prime minister, to make a public appeal to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On 26 and 27 May, Waterson and Bruce discussed the deteriorating situation with Chamberlain. It is unlikely, however, that Waterson, never an appeaser, would have supported Bruce’s plea on 30 May for an international conference to formulate a peace settlement, a plea Churchill rejected out of hand. When news of the fall of Paris came through on 14 June, Waterson, anticipating a peace overture from Hitler, again urged American involvement in any response and he, Bruce and Massey discussed this with the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and the deputy prime minister, Clement Attlee.

Waterson became increasingly depressed as disaster succeeded disaster: ‘This is much worse than the last war. Then I was a carefree subaltern knowing only what I was told by the paper & saw with my eyes; now I know & see too much for peace of mind!’ Yet he never doubted that Britain would ultimately be victorious and in radio broadcasts and public speeches he remained upbeat.

The end of the ‘Phoney War’ made Waterson’s workload even heavier. By 1941 he was accredited to the governments-in-exile of the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece and, against his will, was negotiating on diplomatic relations between South Africa and the Soviet Union with the its ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky. South Africa House, designed to hold 120 staff, had to accommodate double the number as the Union’s representatives and staff from occupied Europe arrived. Every room was packed, with the basements, ground floor and cinema being partitioned and divided into offices. Although the high commissioners received some relief from the stringent rationing of food and petrol, life in London during the Blitz took its toll. The staff did duty as fire wardens and there were many occasions when it was impossible to return home at night. Betty Waterson also felt the strain. Apart from brief spells when she took her children home in May 1940 and from the end of 1941, she played an active role in London, running the South African Women’s Voluntary Service which cared for South African servicemen and women in Britain. Much of her time was taken visiting canteens, service stations and soldiers’ clubs. Her charitable work received widespread acknowledgement and in late 1941 London’s regional commissioners unanimously recommended her for a CBE.

The escalation of hostilities and the increased involvement of Commonwealth forces in North Africa and the Far East, as first Italy, and then Japan entered the war, increased South Africa’s importance to the war effort. The closure of the Mediterranean made the Cape sea route essential and the Union became a vital cog in the Commonwealth’s war machine. From the time South African forces arrived in Kenya, they played a major role in driving the Italians out of Somaliland and Ethiopia before becoming part of the British Eighth Army fighting the Italians and Germans in North Africa.

The escalation of the war should have made the daily high commissioners’ meetings more important than during the ‘Phoney War’. Yet, although the notes show that there was far more to discuss, Waterson’s diaries contain constant criticisms that the high commissioners were being side-tracked and that they had less voice than they had had during Chamberlain’s premiership. Waterson attributed this to the new prime minister. While he admired Churchill’s ability to inspire people, Waterson felt that he paid insufficient attention to the contribution of the dominions to the war and ignored the high commissioners. Despite frequent requests for a meeting, Churchill saw the high commissioners for the first time on 24 July 1940. It was only in May 1944, at Australian Prime Minister John Curtin’s suggestion, and long after Waterson’s departure, that Churchill agreed to meet the high commissioners once a month.

Waterson described the high commissioners as helpless onlookers and would have agreed with Donald Sole’s observation that the British prime minister saw the high commissioners ‘as mere postmen, for the purveyance of information to and from their governments’. In March 1941, Waterson commented that ‘[i]f there were not a war on we would have a hell of a row: as it is we shall have to swallow it’. He did not appear to appreciate that the British government was often in a position where there was little time to consult the high commissioners and had to make decisions on behalf of the dominions which would not have been tolerated in peace time. In the situation that existed in the critical early years of the war ‘Britain expected to be allowed to get on with prosecuting the war, informing and involving the Dominions where necessary, rather than seeking their input and advice on every important matter’. As Churchill put it, ‘We cannot carry on the war, if every secret operation has to be proclaimed to every Dominion’.

Waterson’s feelings towards Churchill increased his resentment of Smuts’s insistence that he ‘concentrate the most loyal support behind him and avoid anything which savours of criticism’. In November 1942 he arranged a meeting between Smuts and Bruce for the Australian high commissioner to explain their difficulties with Churchill. This made little impression on Smuts who replied: ‘Well, there you are my dear fellow—Winston is an actor—an artist—& he is playing his part & no one can stop him. These artistic geniuses have their own techniques & you can’t alter it, and looking around his Cabinet, who can take his place? He hasn’t got a first rate team … Winston isn’t & won’t be [a team man].

Waterson’s complaints against Churchill went further, however, than that the prime minister ignored the dominions. He was particularly incensed by what he saw as a fobbing off of the dominions with second-rate men as secretaries of state. On Eden’s departure from the Dominions Office in May 1940, Churchill replaced him with Viscount Caldecote who, as Sir Thomas Inskip, had been secretary of state for dominion affairs in 1939. Waterson recorded his fellow high commissioners’ reaction to his appointment:

Bruce and Massey with me in attendance ‘happened’ to meet in Massey’s office this morning when they who remember ‘dear old Tom’ as Dom[inion] Sec[retary] last year expressed their views on his appointment. They called him a ‘dormouse’ ‘dead from the neck up’ ‘a second rate politician who has peacefully ascended the ladder as a good party man … The Daily Chronicle calls him ‘the epitome of human inertia’.

Waterson soon concurred with these views and by June was referring to Caldecote as ‘a fatuous & ineffective old man & it is an insult to the Dominions to have him as Secretary of State’.

In October, Caldecote was replaced by Lord Cranborne, later 5th Marques of Salisbury who stubbornly resisted Britain’s withdrawal from empire during the 1950s. Waterson dismissed Cranborne as ‘[t]he usual inbred perfect gentleman, full of good qualities but really not tough enough for our purpose’. A month later he wrote that ‘Bruce was right & Massey wrong, Cranborne hasn’t got the guts for this job. With Winston in the saddle with a blind spot towards Dominion affairs you need guts to keep your end up.’ The high commissioner continued to find fault with Churchill’s appointments. Between February 1942 and September 1943, Attlee replaced Cranborne. Waterson dismissed him as ‘uninspiring & unattractive’ and complained that he never gave any important news to the high commissioners.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that no Churchill appointee would have found favour with Waterson. He had a markedly jaundiced view of most politicians and his disapproval of cabinet ministers extended beyond Britain. In July 1941, he recorded: ‘I’ve met quite a lot of Cabinet Ministers from one place & another since the war began and on the whole they are a poor lot.’ Nor were generals exempt. He met Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief of British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa, ‘who did not impress’. This generally negative attitude suggests a measure of insecurity in his character which must have affected his attitude to those with whom he came into contact. However, the views of other South Africans in London provide a useful corrective. Cranborne is a case in point. Lief Egeland, in South Africa House for part of the war and himself high commissioner from 1947, found the secretary of state ‘a man of insight, courage and potential leadership’. Heaton Nicholls’s accounts of his dealings with Cranborne and other officials were also generally positive. Waterson’s views seem to have coincided with those of Bruce and one wonders to what extent they were shaped by a deference to the more experienced man.

Despite Waterson’s complaints about Churchill, he was meticulous in keeping Smuts fully informed of developments, hoping that in this way he could offer informed advice to the South African prime minister. This advice could be characteristically forthright. On 4 October 1940, he sent Smuts his views on Vichy: ‘The FO must make up its mind to back either Vichy or de Gaulle’. Three days later, he cabled Smuts suggesting he send Churchill a ‘tickler’ concerning the Dakar fiasco. He also raised the Dakar operation at the high commissioners’ meeting where Cranborne promised to take the matter up, while in December he urged Smuts to come to London to gain a first-hand picture of the situation. He was constantly looking for support in his attempts to keep Smuts better informed; in 1941 he suggested to Bruce that his prime minister, Robert Menzies, cable Smuts his view of the position in Greece. A few months later he concocted a plan for keeping Smuts better advised through Churchill’s Chief of Staff, General Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay.

The high commissioners realised that a reason they were not kept au fait with developments was that the dominions secretary was not a member of the War Cabinet. This was a constant grievance to Waterson. In April 1940, he urged that Eden should have access to the Supreme War Cabinet of Britain and France or that the high commissioners should at least have the agenda of cabinet meetings beforehand to enable the dominion premiers to relay their views to Eden. By June 1941, angered by Churchill’s indifference, Waterson discussed ways of improving methods of communication with Bruce and the two men cabled their prime ministers asking them to intervene.

Waterson’s cable to Smuts forcefully urged his mediation with Churchill, stressing that the situation was reaching breaking point.

From the Dominion point of view it would be most useful if as far as possible at least one Dominion Prime Minister were here, possibly in rotation, to sit in the War Cabinet and it is essential repeat essential that the Dominions Secretary of State should be a member both of the Cabinet and the Defence Committee. I have felt for some time that under present arrangements whereby Dominions Secretary only has access to Cabinet which meets about twice a week and no contact with Defence Committee which meets daily you are not being kept as absolutely informed as you should be on all aspects of the war as it is being conducted from here. The Secretary of State for Dominions should be a strong vigorous person who regards himself as the watchdog in Cabinet of the Dominions and should as far as possible make good the unavoidable gap between you and the War Cabinet.

The Union’s governor-general, Sir Patrick Duncan, agreed with Waterson that the secretary of state should be forceful enough to be a member of the War Cabinet ‘and if the present S of S is not up to that situation he should be replaced. That I think would do something to reassure the Dominion representatives over there that they are in touch with the inner circle of decision and information.’ Smuts, however, was reluctant to intervene.

As far as dominion representation in the War Cabinet was concerned, Cranborne, reacting to dominion criticisms of the Dakar fiasco, suggested such representation in January 1941. Churchill rejected this outright: ‘I could not for a moment admit the right of the Dominions to have a representative at every meeting of the War Cabinet, or, to reverse the statement, that His Majesty’s Servants may never meet without supervision.’

Waterson would have seen this as yet more evidence of Churchill’s indifference to the dominions and he continued through 1941 to press for some form of dominion representation. Smuts, however, himself fully aware of developments (unknown to Waterson, for example, he had been the only dominion premier who knew in advance of the Dakar operation), saw no need for a South African representative on the War Cabinet. Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King of Canada also rejected dominion representation. Japan’s entry into the war in December 1941 saw the possibility of an attack on Australia, causing the Commonwealth government to insist on representation. Churchill now agreed and offered similar representation to the other dominions but without the power to take decisions. Waterson urged Smuts to take up the offer but was curtly rebuffed. By August 1942, Bruce was representing Australia in the War Cabinet while the most Waterson achieved was membership of the Pacific War Council.

By 1942, Smuts’s telegrams to Waterson were often curt, suggesting that he was tiring of his high commissioner’s antagonistic attitude to the British government. Yet he retained confidence in Waterson’s ability. In November, in a cabinet reshuffle, he took the opportunity both of strengthening his cabinet and of appointing a more amenable high commissioner and offered Waterson the Trade and Industries portfolio. Although Waterson, despite his frequently voiced frustrations, did not want to leave London, he accepted the offer.

Waterson’s successors, Colonel Deneys Reitz who represented the Union until his death from a stroke on 19 October 1944, and George Heaton Nicholls, in London from Reitz’s death until 1947, were political appointments apparently made to relieve Smuts of political problems in the Union. Reitz’s appointment caused surprise as he was not well, was inherently lazy and hated desk work. Cecil Syers, Harlech’s secretary, believed Reitz was ‘hardly likely to throw himself into affairs of state with the energy that is needed at this time’ and believed he had been appointed because he was no longer functioning effectively as deputy prime minister. He had also embarrassed Smuts by blurting out in Parliament that the government would not resign even if it lost the next general election. Equally important, Smuts wanted a high commissioner who would not, in Harlech’s words, ‘throw his weight about’. From this point of view, the appointment was a success. Reitz neither threw his weight about nor did he share Waterson’s annoyance at being bypassed by Smuts.

Well known in British political and social circles, Reitz was an extremely popular high commissioner. During the Great War he had commanded the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers and he was a firm believer in South African cooperation with Britain and the Commonwealth. He also enjoyed wide-spread fame for his extremely popular Anglo-Boer War reminiscences, Commando. But Reitz quickly became bored as high commissioner. He would disappear from London for weeks on end without letting his staff know where he was and conditions in South Africa House deteriorated. The Dominions Office found it difficult getting in touch with him, he often missed the high commissioners’ meetings and when present took little part in the discussions. Presumably, again to solve the problem of what to do with Reitz, shortly before he died Smuts was considering asking King George VI to appoint him the Union’s governor-general.

Reitz’s death gave Smuts the opportunity to rid himself of another political problem. George Heaton Nicholls, a South African Party (later United Party) member of parliament from 1920 had been administrator of Natal since 1941. By 1944 Smuts wanted to remove him from his post because his handling of an ordinance relating to the acquisition by Indians of property in Natal was straining relations with the Indian government, while his insistence on provincial rights in Natal was also embarrassing the prime minister. He was a successful high commissioner, described by his secretary, Brand Fourie, as one of the most honest, hardworking and committed men he knew. A firm believer in the British Empire and supporter of the Union’s position as a British dominion (he had insisted in the neutrality debate in 1939 that as South Africans were British subjects, Britain’s declaration of war automatically involved the Union in the war), he readily accepted Smuts’s instructions that he offer complete support to Churchill. Like Reitz, he does not seem to have been concerned at being by-passed and there are no traces of friction in his relations with either the British government or with Smuts. Instead, as he described in his autobiography, ‘[s]eated at the end of a wire at the centre of the world at war, communicating to my Government the daily events as they presented themselves, life was intense and throbbing with interest’.

The changing fortunes of the war after 1942 meant that the position of Reitz and Heaton Nicholls was in many ways different from what Waterson’s had been. It was becoming apparent that, despite Churchill’s personal stature, Britain and the Commonwealth were becoming junior partners in an alliance dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. Under these circumstances the role of the dominion high commissioners could have become even less important than it had been during the days when the Commonwealth stood alone against the Axis powers.

South Africa’s contribution also became less important. The victory of the Eighth Army at El Alamein in October 1942 and the expulsion of the Axis armies from North Africa in May 1943 secured the Mediterranean. The Cape route was no longer indispensable, reducing South Africa’s strategic importance and making the country, from the British point of view, ‘comparatively a backwater’. The invasion of France in June 1944 also overshadowed the Italian campaign, the main theatre of South African military operations. In Keith Hancock’s words, ‘South Africa was shrinking to her normal military size’.

By 1944 it was obvious that it was only a matter of time before the Allies would be victorious. Because of this much of both Reitz’s and Heaton Nicholls’s time was taken up by post-war concerns. Both men, but particularly Heaton Nicholls, spent a considerable amount of time in negotiations over the future of Greece. Smuts’s involvement with the Greek royal family during its exile in South Africa made him determined to work towards the return of King George II to Greece. As the British government did not share this view, Heaton Nicholls found himself in the invidious position of acting as the bearer of messages from Smuts to the king ‘which I knew were in direct conflict with the policy of the British Government’.

Smuts’s concerns ranged wider than the future of Greece. In 1943 he came out strongly for the establishment of a new international order. Speaking to the Empire Parliamentary Association in London, he urged the British to accept a leadership role in Western Europe and outlined his post-war objectives: ‘The creation of an international organization designed to preserve the peace; second, the restoration of a peaceful and prosperous Europe; and third, the reinforcement and expansion of the British Commonwealth of Nations.’ Smuts believed that, as the smaller democracies in Western Europe had the same ideals as the dominions, they should work together with the Commonwealth; he even toyed with the idea that they should join the Commonwealth. He also believed that a new world organisation should be established and that South Africa should play a full part in its establishment. The need to coordinate Commonwealth military policies and establish guidelines for a common approach to post-war problems meant that Reitz and Heaton Nicholls spent much of their time with matters relating to the holding of Prime Ministers’ conferences in 1944 and 1945.

Despite his concern for the post-war world, however, Smuts seems to have had little conception of what South Africa’s role in it should be. In 1944, Donald Sole lamented the lack of a South African foreign policy ‘except such ideas as are carried in General Smuts’s head’. He believed that, despite its support for the Commonwealth, the Department of External Affairs had no idea how the Union would play a part in shaping its future or of what its role in Africa would be. Because of this South Africa House took no effective part in discussions on the post-war world.


By the end of the war, the Union of South Africa could look with satisfaction and pride at what it had achieved during the war years. The staff of South Africa House in London shared these sentiments. For six years they had been at the centre of South Africa’s diplomatic war effort and the three successive high commissioners had played a crucial role representing the Union in London and participating in the affairs of the Commonwealth. If none of them had sought to place South African interests above those of Britain, as Te Water had done, this had been explicitly at Smuts’s instructions.

Of the three men, Waterson had the more difficult task of representing the Union during the critical days when the survival of Britain and the Commonwealth had been in the balance. He suffered hardships and was subject to far greater physical and mental strains than those to which his successors were exposed. He ran South Africa House as a tight ship and gave firm leadership to the Union’s representation in London during a critical period. He had the satisfaction of seeing the Union develop from a position of total unpreparedness to become a key cog in the war machinery. Furthermore, he played an important part in the Commonwealth’s political deliberations during the years it stood alone against the Axis. He could look with pride on what had been achieved during the years of his high commissionership. Returning to the Union ‘fresh from laurels won in London’ he became a valuable accession to Smuts’s government, and was even considered by Harlech, albeit briefly, as a potential successor to Smuts as prime minister.

Waterson should be given credit for what he achieved yet, as his diary reveals, he did not believe that he had necessarily achieved his objectives as high commissioner. If he had drawn up a balance sheet of his three years in London the debits would possibly have out-weighed the credits. Of the debits, he would have placed near the top the fact that he had constantly been by-passed by Smuts. Also important was his failure to persuade Smuts to agree to his views on Churchill’s dismissive attitude to the dominion high commissioners and to the role of the dominions generally. The continuation in office of dominion secretaries whom he regarded as ineffectual and their failure more effectively to protect dominion interests he would also have seen as a debit. By the end of 1942 he felt that he had little reason to revise his opinion that the war was receiving ineffectual leadership. Because of this, despite his commitment to Britain and the war effort, he had found it increasingly difficult to carry out Smuts’s injunction that he unconditionally back up the British government.

Waterson’s diary frequently registers his frustration at what was happening and at the men with whom he was working. Therefore, it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that he was not the ideal diplomat. Whether he repeated his comments in his diary to other people is unknown but back in South Africa as a cabinet minister, he became known for his ‘air of superior boredom’. In Harlech’s words, Waterson had ‘no knowledge of the technique … of how to win friends and influence people’. His dismissive attitude to others could have been picked up by his fellow high commissioners and the Dominions Office. If so, Deneys Reitz would personally have been a welcome replacement.

Back in the Union, although he was a competent cabinet minister, his career did not live up to the expectations people had of him and he became regarded as a political lightweight. He remained a cabinet minister until the Nationalist victory of 1948 resulted in his move to the opposition benches. Although he considered joining fellow United Party MPs when they broke away to form the more liberal Progressive Party in 1959, his courage failed him and he continued to represent the United Party until he retired in 1970.