A century of trials, adventures and achievements
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He escaped from a Nazi prison camp, saved a wine factory that was going to be blown up by the Germans, was a pioneer in the construction of Sani Pass and mayor of Howick for two terms.
That’s Bill Bright who still lives in Howick and has just celebrated his 100th birthday with family, where three generations of Bright men all University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) alumni, gathered together.
Bill’s son, Professor Glen Bright, dean and head of the School of Engineering at UKZN, said this week that his dad’s life century has included many adventures.
Born on August 13, 1921, Bill attended Durban High School. He joined the South African Army’s First Field Engineers in May 1940 for the Allied forces in the war effort. He trained in Zonderwater, Gauteng, before boarding the SS Rohna from Durban for further training in Kenya.
His war years included volunteering to man the assault boats carrying the Carbineers infantry across the Juba River in Somalia, and being stationed behind the infantry of the first South African Brigade at Gazala in Libya, where duties included an attempt to detonate an enemy field gun and blow up a pass to move troops to safety.
In Italy, he was involved in the rescue of a fully stocked wine factory that was rigged to blow by the German army, and attended a reception with Pope Pius XII as his company’s representative after Rome was liberated by the Allies in June 1944.
His tasks in liberated Italy also included the construction of Bailey bridges over rivers and landmine detection.
Towards the end of the war, Bright was captured by the Germans and detained in a Nazi concentration camp in Italy for some weeks. He escaped under enemy fire and was shot in the knee in the process and was hospitalised once he made it back to Allied lines.
This week, Glen said: “My dad, Bill, always highlighted that during the war, he never killed anyone but that many people tried to kill him.
“He has often said the war years were some of the best years of his life with the camaraderie and how men stood united. He has also told us stories about lying under jeeps which was the only way to survive when coming under fire from the Nazis overhead. It was really living on the edge and to hear it first hand is remarkable,” said Glen, adding that Bill is the last surviving member of his army unit.
On returning to South Africa, Bill enrolled as a part-time student in economics at UKZN while working for the railways in Durban, graduating in 1952. He also took flying lessons with the Durban Flying Service.
He moved to Himeville in the late 1950s where he met his wife, Sheila.
During his time in Himeville, Bill became involved in numerous activities in Lesotho which included a visit by plane to the Letšeng Diamond Mine, the first crossing of the country by car in a Ford Taunus station wagon and a Land Rover, a contract to transport UN World Food Programme parcels into Mokhotlong from Underberg via Sani Pass, and assisting in the building of the Sani Pass road service from Underberg to Mokhotlong in the 1950s.
Up until that time, pack animals had been used to transport goods.
“Sani Pass was just a track and my dad and his partners were pioneers in grading it and setting up Mokhotlong Mountain Transport.
“Improving transport not only significantly improved the movement of goods in and out of Lesotho, but also facilitated tourism and, in fact, he even had to escort some royals,” said Glen.
The Bright family moved to Howick in the 1970s so the four children, Glen, Martin, Judy and Sally could attend high school as there was no high school in Himeville.
“My dad always believed in a fair deal and he wanted ratepayers to get a fair deal, so the only way to change that was to become a councillor,” said Glen, adding that Bill progressed and ended up serving two terms as mayor.
“Ethics, responsibility and accountability were always important and my dad always taught us about treating people correctly and with respect.
“He was married to my mom for over 60 years and they were really an example to us. He was also very strong on education and our parents gave each of us the tools for life” said Glen.
His mother died in 2020.
Bill’s grandson, Tyrone, recently became the third generation of Brights to graduate from UKZN, achieving his master’s cum laude in mechatronic engineering this year.
Independent on Saturday