Prior to the outbreak of the First World War the Union Government did not see the need for the appointment of chaplains in the Union Defence Force. Only after war had been declared and representations had been made by various churches, did the Government decide to appoint chaplains. Approximately 150 war-time and forty-one part-time chaplains served within the UDF during the First World War. Many South African chaplains distinguished themselves through their professional conduct, bravery, exceptional efforts and personal sacrifice. One Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and twelve Military Crosses (MC) were awarded to these chaplains. One chaplain was killed in action while another lost his life in the line of duty. Five chaplains were wounded.
The post-war military failed to recognise the contribution of the chaplains. In the 1920s and early 1930s the chaplaincy was allocated an inferior position within the Union Defence Force with only one Afrikaans and one English chaplain being appointed in the Active Citizen Force. It was only in 1938 that the first chaplains were appointed in the Permanent Force.
UDF chaplains during the Second World War were managed by four Principal Chaplains representing the various church denominations and faiths found in the Defence Force. No single Principal Chaplain had seniority over another, and all reported to the Adjutant General directly. A total of 492 UDF chaplains served during the Second World War. Of this total, 283 served as war-time chaplains while 247 served as part-time chaplains. There were thirty-eight chaplains who served both as war-time and part-time chaplains at various stages of the war. Three Military Crosses were awarded while seventeen chaplains became prisoners of war. Two chaplains were killed in action and three others died in service.
The establishment of the SA Corps of Chaplains in 1946 confirmed the permanency of the chaplaincy within the UDF. The appointment of the first Deputy Chaplain General in 1949 did much to ensure effective ministry. The discontinuation of this post in 1954 had a detrimental effect on the chaplaincy. With the establishment of the Department of Physical and Spiritual Welfare in 1966 no clear cut division was made between the responsibility for spiritual (pastoral) care and physical care (social welfare). This anomaly was rectified in 1968 when an independent directorate for the chaplaincy was created and in 1970 when the first Chaplain General was appointed.
The chaplaincy in South West Africa grew from a single chaplain at Walvis Bay in 1963 to an immense organisation with hundreds of chaplains. In 1980 the SWATF Chaplain Service was formed under command of its own director. The presence of SADF/SWATF chaplains in South West Africa ceased in 1989 with the implementation of UN Resolution 435.
The 1990s was a decade of great transition and turmoil for the Chaplain Service. In 1994 the military chaplaincies of the TBVC countries, as well as members from MK and APLA, were integrated into the Chaplain Service. The implementation of the transformation policy of the Department of Defence resulted in the Chaplain Service becoming representative of the communities it serves.