Review by Graham Linscott for The Mercury Newspaper
The title is a translation from the oath sworn by initiates to the Ossewa Brandwag (OB) during World War II, whose members were a fifth column against South Africa’s participation on the side of Britain.
In face the OB activities – sabotage of the war effort, attacks on men in uniform and collaboration with the Nazis in various ways – were so serious that throughout the war Smuts’s government had to leave behind in the country an entire division of troops to guard against an uprising.
Baker’s account (a very creditable first novel) is of two Free State Afrikaner brothers whose sibling rivalry spills over, when war breaks out, into choosing opposing sides. The elder volunteers for the South African Air Force and serves up North. The younger; still at university, is heavily influence by anti-British sentiment, still lingering from the Boer War; and throws in his lot with the OB. The younger is involved in some pretty serious sabotage, including the attempted blowing up of a troop train; he also locates to the Wild Coast where he joins a clandestine group who are in radio contact with the German submarines that are attacking the Allies’ shipping lanes and regularly supply them food.
But things go wrong and he ends up in Koffiefontein, the Free State camp where Smuts locked up Nazi sympathisers such future luminaries as John Voster, who became Nat prime minister, and Lang Hendrik van den Bergh, who headed up Boss. The book has quite a bit of love interest as well involving boeremeisies in the Free State and “English” girls from East London. Some of the action takes place in the dunes of the Wild Coast.
Quite apart from military action, World War II was a highly complicated phase in our history – brother against brother was common – and its effects played out for a very long time as the Smuts influence faded and Koffiefontein took over. Baker brings us a very readable account of what it could mean to individuals on the ground.
Review by Patrick Coyne, formerly Vice-Chairman of the South African Writers’ Circle and award-winning writer of published fiction and non-fiction.
The riveting title of Dave Baker’s novel IF I RETREAT, SHOOT ME (Partridge, Penguin Random House) refers to a line in the oath taken by all members of the Stormjaers, the militant wing of the Ossewa Brandwag, the anti-government movement in South Africa during World War 2.
What Baker’s book brings out so well is the often-forgotten fact that during the years from 1939 to 1945 the citizens of our country were deeply divided between those who supported the Smuts government’s decision to join forces with Britain against Germany, and those who were diametrically opposed to the decision and formed an illegal underground movement aimed at sabotage and violent anarchy. This deep division was often seen even between members of the same family. In this story the plot follows the results of the strong antagonism between two brothers, Pierre and Jan Rousseau – not only politically, but also in their romantic relationships with their girlfriends.
Pierre joins up as an air-gunner with the RAF in its North African and Italian campaigns, while back home Jan throws in his lot with the Ossewa Brandwag. The reader finds it easy to identify with these so-different characters as they experience many enthralling, life-threatening adventures.
As I myself was a youth in South Africa during WW2, I can vouch for the fact that Dave Baker has given us an authentic portrayal of life in our divided country in those days, a topic which I believe has received inadequate attention from our best authors.
I can also assure anyone looking for a good read that this book is breathlessly ‘unputdownable’. My advice is, therefore – get it!
Review by Colleen Shearer, Author and ex-journalist
For those interested in the activities in the Transkei during World War II, Dave Baker’s recollections are well related.
As an 8-year-old myself at time and living in Umtata, I remember much of what he describes. This includes helping in anti-waste depots, street collections, and numerous fund-raising activities while our mothers worked hard helping the Allies. Other activities included hosting and entertaining British sailors who had been torpedoed along the Wild Coast of Transkei by U-boats, supplied by members of the militant wing of the Ossewa Brandwag, the Stormjaers. The title of the book was taken from the oath sworn by them:
If I advance, follow me.
IF I RETREAT, SHOOT ME.
If I die, avenge me.
So help me, God.
The book covers both sides of that conflict – pro- and anti-German – including one within a family. Baker depicts highly realistic descriptions of the conflict, both within South Africa, the desert ‘Up North’ and Italy. However, the author leavens his account with moving love stories, which end happily.
Also interesting is his account of how two different races interact, with his accurate portrayals of shared languages and cultures. These are many and warm and I enjoyed reading of his intimate knowledge of the tiny Xhosa hamlets like Viedgesville, as well as his knowledge of the tribal customs, still followed even in my time.
Particularly poignant for me was re-living times spent in several holiday resorts on the Wild Coast of the Transkei, like Umngazi Mouth, Coffee Bay and especially iconic Hole-in-the-Wall, which I revisited in 1996.
Altogether, this is a highly credible account of the historical events and life in South during the Second World War, and a worthwhile read.
Review by author Sue Hickey
Dave Baker has the art of storytelling. If I Retreat, Shoot Me is an intriguing tapestry of time, place and people. For those of us who lived through some of South Africa’s “grim years” this novel is evocative and moving – it reminds and saddens us. For younger readers it allows them to understand that in amongst the powerful political issues were people whose lives, dreams and tragedies were inextricably tied to that history. This is a novel about decent people trapped in a space in history that demanded that they make choices.