Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit

Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit is a unit founded during the Second World War to entertain South African troops. It was also known as The Boomerangs.

Also referred to as the U.D.F. Entertainment Unit, UDF Entertainment Unit or the Union Defence Force Entertainment Group.

(The unit or group is also referred to as the South African Defense Force Entertainment Group by Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies in their online index (and possibly elsewhere), which is strange since the actual article by Swift referred to uses the name "The Union Defence Force Entertainment Group in South Africa". Possibly to adapt to the later name for the Defense Force and its entertainment branch, and to avoid misunderstanding by readers unfamiliar with the old name.)

For the general principle, see Military Entertainment

Origins of the Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit

During the early years of the second world war the South African Women's Auxilliary Services (SAWAS)[1] organised voluntary "concert parties" (the name used to refer to entertainment units housed within military units) at the various military camps in the Union. From this came the idea of having a formally and centrally organised entertainment unit for the entire Union Defence Force (UDF)[2]. According to Swift (1974) this was first suggested by a Colonel G. Newman, who felt that entertainment was a vital necessity in the battle against boredom which inevitably existed in military camps in the Union. He was supported in this by Major-General F.H. Theron, the UDF Adjudant General, and having found approval from Field Marshal Smuts, they appointed Major Myles Bourke, the founder of the Pretoria Repertory Theatre and a well known amateur actor, as the Chief Entertainment Officer for the UDF in 1940. The Entertainment Unit's original designation was No. 19 Reserve Transport Company.

In a memorandum outlining his scheme for troop entertainment, Bourke stressed that the main object of an entertainment unit was to ensure at least one good concert per week in every camp in the Union, and to ensure that the entertainment was of the highest quality. He pointed out that this was only possible if the entertainment was centrally controlled as a military undertaking, and not undertaken on a voluntary basis as before. It required a Chief Entertainment Officer at its head who could hold himself responsible for the type of entertainment offered and the discipline of the formally appointed artists. With one head the concert parties could visit all camps throughout the Union on specific itineraries, and not only those camps nearby the organizing volunteer company.

The various UDF Entertainment Units performed in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Tripolitania (north-western part of Libya), Palestine (Israel), Syria, Iraq, Sicily, Transjordan (mostly present Jordan), Cirenaica (eastern Libya), Italy and Persia (present day Iran).


Founded in 1940 by Major Myles Bourke it employed entrepreneurs such as Frank Rogaly and Leo Quayle as organisers and directors. Rogaly’s first wartime revue, Springbok Follies was a produced at the Empire Theatre in 1941 and played to capacity, before it went north to the front.

During February 1941, Major Bourke asked for the transfer of specified members of the Potchefstroom Camp Concert party, which he had seen in their famous revue "Springbok Frolics", which had contributed £3,435 to the war fund. They became the core of nucleus of the Entertainment Unit and consisted of Frank Rogaly, who was made Chief Production Officer, F. Stuart Needham, G. Marriott, Lionel Roche and G. Walker. Shortly after they were joined by Arthur Swemmer.

The only commissioned woman officer in the UDF Entertainment Unit was Captain (Mrs) Sybil Gaiger who was transferred from the SAWAS to the WAAS. She was in overall command of all the women in the Entertainment Unit. Not only did she travel with groups overseas, but also traveled around South Africa on recruitment drives, looking for new entertainers to join the unit.

Performance Activities

Two more concert parties, besides Springbok Frolics, were rehearsed at Bourke's residence. They were called the "Gypsies", who left on tour in April 1941, and the "Crazy Gang" (Unit No 3) (Swift lists them as the "Crasy Gang"), who left for a Union tour in May 1941. To the "Crazy Gang" goes the credit of being the first unit to tour the farthest outposts of the Western Desert and the first to make a concert tour in Sinai, Palestine and Syria.

Later acting groups performed under names such as the "Amuseliers", (Middle East Unit No 1) the "Ballyhoos", the "Boomerangs", (Middle East Unit No 10), "Troopadours", (Middle East Unit No 5), the "Rafwaafs", (Middle East Unit No 170) and the "Modernairs".

During her overseas trip from October 1941, Lieut (later Captain) (Mrs) Sybil Gaiger was away for seven months and flew from Pretoria to Heliopolis and Cairo with Major Myles Bourke to investigate the possibilities of sending South African concert parties to the Middle East. During the outward-bound journey they experienced a forced landing at Luxor.

the "Crazy Gang"'s first show was given to the remnants of the 5th Brigade and the 1st Divisional Troops after the disastrous battle at Sidi Rezegh. The men were so impressed by the performance, they could barely express their gratitude. After all they had been through, the relief of being able to sit back and laugh again in a completely normal way at the fun and nonsense provided by the "Crazy Gang" was almost too much for them. Before starting out for the Western Desert, the "Crazy Gang" provided shows for the whole of the Cairo area. From there they went to Alexandria, where they played on board ships in the harbour. From there they went on to the Forward Areas.

At Mersa Matruh the members of the "Crazy Gang" lived in dugouts underground, and played to an audience limited only by the number of split trenches that surrounded the hut. The air alerts provided some hilarious moments, nerve-shattering in some ways but intensely funny in others as they never knew when the alarm would come. When it did, the members of the cast had to run for cover wit their tin hats and dash for the nearest trench. The sight of “Public Sweetheart No. 1," with a rose over her ear, a tin hat and flowing draperies concealed beneath an army overcoat, was always certain to raise a howl of laughter; a tin hat over an Afrikaans "kappie" was another amusing spectacle, and so were the Charlie Chaplin boots worn by one of the girls in an old-fashioned circus number.

She could never get into the trench with them on, but had to be lifted in bodily and would lie on her back with her feet in the air until the alarm was past! An air raid in Mersa Matruh was always certain to raise hearty laughter.

When they played at El Daba, an Egyptian general came down to see the show and afterwards he said it was the only European entertainment he had ever enjoyed.

The girls took everything in their stride, living under the same conditions as the men on active service - two to a dugout, with half a gallon of water for washing, cooking and drinking. Seventy costumes had to be ironed before each show, and conditions were sometimes very difficult.

Captain Gaiger left the "Crazy Gang" in Mersa Matruh with an itinerary that would carry them on for a month, and set out to pioneer the next stage of their tour through the Middle East. She went by car from Cairo, through Sinai, Palestine and Syria with a driver and the chance company of a war correspondent. On her way she contacted every South African unit outside Africa, as well as Imperial, New Zealand and Australian troops; she planned hotel accommodation, made arrangements for petrol, halls and general facilities. Fortunately she spoke fluent French, without which her task would have been next to impossible.

When the "Crazy Gang" arrived, they found everything ready for them. Arrangements went without a hitch and they continued with their tour through the Suez Canal area, into Sinai, then across 300 miles of desert through Beersheba and to Tel-Aviv. From there their itinerary took them to Haifa, and they contacted all the camps from there up to Beirut, head¬quarters of the French Foreign Legion, and up along the coastline of the Mediterranean as far as Tripoli in Northern Syria. They came back over the Lebanon Mountains to Baalbek, then via Damascus to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee and on to Jerusalem. Finally, they then returned over the Sinai Desert to Cairo. They travelled with three lorries to carry themselves and all their gear and they all took turns at driving.

Every member of the UDF Entertainment Unit had to be able to drive, and all the men were trained to use a rifle or a pistol. It was a hazardous trip and full of excitement, and the women especially had a wonderful welcome from troops who in many cases had not seen a woman for nine months. Where possible, Captain Gaiger arranged that they should spend sufficient time in important centres to enable them to see something of the country and its sights.

Among the individuals involved in the Unit who would later return to make an impact on theatre in the country were Frank Rogaly, Gordon Mulholland, Sidney James, Elaine English, Marjorie Gilbey Neville Phillips and musical directors Leo Quayle, and Harry Rabinowitz. Among the shows put on were ****. After the war, the Unit continued as ***?? until it was disbanded in 1946.

See also

ENSA; ME Live Entertainments Committee; Union Defence Force Band; SAAF Band, SAWAS


“CRAZY GANG’S” PIONEER TOUR OF THE MIDDLE EAST by Mrs Anne M C Money. The Women's Auxiliary, Page 21, October 1942.

Saturday Post, July 26, 1947.

Cliff Goodwin. 2011. Sid James: A Biography. London: Random House

Neville Phillips. 2008. The Stage Struck Me! Leicester: Troubador Publishing Ltd.

Swift, M.1974. "The Union Defence Force Entertainment Group in South Africa (World War II)". Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies, [S.l.], feb. 2012. ISSN 2224-0020. Available at: <http://scientiamilitaria.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/935/946>. Date accessed: 24 May. 2015.

Ivor Markman. "South African Women's Auxiliary Services"[[3]]


Percy Tucker. 1997. Just the Ticket. My 50 Years in Show Business. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.


Temple Hauptfleisch (ed.). 1985a. The Breytie Book: A Collection of Articles on South African Theatre Dedicated to P.P.B. Breytenbach. Johannesburg: The Limelight press.[4]

Go to the ESAT Bibliography

Return to

Return to South African Theatre Venues, Companies, Societies, etc

Return to The ESAT Entries

Return to Main Page