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WWII model ambulance under hammer

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Wooden vehicle the work of German POW

A mysterious wooden ambulance which, if it could speak, could tell a poignant story is among the wide selection of unusual and sought-after collectables assembled for Cannons Auctioneers sale in Hilton on July 31 at 9am.

Apart from four highly collectable early 20th-century petrol pumps or “bowsers”, the lots for the sale at the Quarry Centre in Hilton include an unusual model ambulance, apparently built by a World War II German prisoner of war in a POW camp on the Highveld.

The metre-long ambulance with its traditional red cross is about 35cm wide and 40cm high and made from wood and “vark pans” (pig pans, slang term for the metal dishes used to feed soldiers). It is inscribed “Randfontein No. 1”, ostensibly for a military hospital that served the POW’s camp.

It is unclear where the POW was held, but after the Allies defeated the German-Italian army in Libya and Abyssinia, tens of thousands POWs were held in South Africa far from potential escape routes to Europe.

The men were kept in camps in what was then the Transvaal, particularly in the Zonderwater POW camp near Pretoria. But these were nearly all Italians – German POWs were usually here only for short stays in transit to Canadian camps.

To add to the mystery, the seller who consigned the ambulance to Cannons knows little of its provenance except that it was made by a German POW. He bought the model on auction some years ago in Joburg.

Irrespective of where interned, soldiers – suddenly finding only time to kill – used the scant resources of a military camp to make beautiful items that later advanced careers.

With so many skilled European craftsmen imprisoned, beautiful paintings, leather-bound books, silver and pewter jewellery, and meticulously carved wooden items, even including violins for music evenings, were created.

Edoardo Villa, the acclaimed Italian sculptor, honed his trade while imprisoned at Zonderwater.

By all accounts, the POWs were generally humanely treated and could sell their work at camp craft markets with the proceeds going towards the prisoners’ needs.

Hospitals were short-staffed during the war years with many doctors fighting abroad, so the man who carved the little ambulance on auction on July 31 must have felt that he was doing his bit to raise funds to keep an emergency vehicle based in Randfontein – perhaps serving 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria – running.

Cannons expects the prisoner’s labour of love to be snapped up by war collectors for up to R5000.

Regarding other matters military, Cannon’s sale coincidentally includes a collection of 50 boxed sets of handmade painted lead model soldiers commercially produced by a company called The Colonial Factor. Each set comprises soldiers from different eras and Cannons expects a top bid of about R20000 for this mini-army.

Other noteworthy items on offer include:

* Three 22ct Krugerrand gold coins.

* Lifetime collection of model Mercedes-Benz model vehicles.

* Multi-diamond cluster ring with two 2.5ct diamonds.

* George ll silver tea kettle on stand with burner.

* Victorian silver partner’s ink stand.

* Burmese 18th-century bronze Hintha bird opium weights.

* Wide variety of antique furniture.

For more information and full catalogue, see or email

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