South African Air Force

While most Dominions responded quickly to the United Kingdom’s entry into the war in the name of solid defense of the Empire, the Union of South Africa’s position was more complex. Indeed, the white population and the political class are deeply divided on the question of the alliance with the Empire. A debate was soon organized within the South African Cabinet, but it did not clarify the situation, since Prime Minister Jan Smuts succeeded in rallying only six members to the proposed declaration of war. Finally, a decision was taken to consult Parliament, and after three days of intense debate, the declaration of war was voted on the night of 6 September 1939 by 80 votes to 66. However, in order to obtain a favorable vote, the Prime Minister Jan Smuts is forced to grant several concessions to the nationalists, including the prohibition of conscription and a service strictly reserved for the African continent. He then proposes to send a contingent to Kenya in order to take part in the conflict which will soon break out against the Italians. This participation also corresponds to foreign policy vis-à-vis Italy, since in 1936 the Union of South Africa was the only member of the League of Nations to wish to impose heavy sanctions, including military sanctions, during the conquest of Ethiopia.

For its part, the United Kingdom is in favor of this participation, which enables it to recover troops accustomed to living and working conditions in this conflict zone, as well as to the various tropical diseases (1). This was also true that, during the First World War with the campaign against the German possessions of South-West Africa (Namibia) and East (Tanzania), the South African troops had demonstrated high efficiency.

The participation plan agreed in January 1940 concerns the sending of 20 000 men forming the fully-motorized (not really true) 1st South African Brigade, supported by ten armored companies (in practice only eight can be set up) and by a large air force.

The main problem is that, at the declaration of war, South Africa has only a small force of 264 officers and 4 453 troops, weakly equipped and only trained in guerrilla warfare such as the one carried out during the Anglo-Boer War, and almost all of which had been recruited to reduce unemployment linked to the economic crisis (2).

The situation of the SAAF (South African Air Force) is not very different. If she can claim an ancient creation (1921) with grandiose plans, the reality is more cruel. Thus, at the time of entry to the war, she has only a handful of modern aircrafts : four Hurricanes Mk.I, a Fairey Battles and a Bristol Blenheim Mk.I. The rest consists of outdated biplans like the Hawker Fury, Hart and Hartbees (local modification of Hawker Hart). In addition, SAAF can count on the mobilization of SAA aircraft (South African Airways) with eleven Ju.52 destined for transport and eighteen Ju.86 transformable into bombers or maritime patrol (3).

Nevertheless the Pirow plan, established in 1936 following the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy, allowed the progressive constitution of a reserve of pilots and mechanics which will allow the creation of several Squadrons at the end of 1940.

At the beginning of 1940, Lieutnant Peter Ffytche-Hogg was sent to the local RAF command to recognize the available airfield, as well as install the necessary fuel depots and ammunition. At the same time, he is responsible for collecting maps of the area. The latter will be totally outdated. Dating from the first exploration missions of the beginning of the century, they often fail to report many natural obstacles such as mountains of 2 000 meters, or sometimes more than 25 km from their actual position.

Finally, a decision was made to send the No.1 (SAAF) Bomber Brigade with Lieutnant-Colonel Stephen Melville at its head.

In May 1940 the personnel of the only remaining Fighter Squadron, No.1  (SAAF) Squadron, (with 19 pilots and 24 ground personnel) were recalled from Durban to Waterkloof. The unit was then under the command of Major Noel Niblock-Stuart, with Flight Commanders Captain Schalk van Schalkwyk, Lieutnant Brian Boyle and Servaas van Breda Theron. The group is ordered to embark on the 13th in three Valentia of No.50 (SAAF) Squadron (4) in the direction of Cairo. They must be trained on Gloster Gauntlet, first, before being equipped by the RAF with Gloster Gladiator (5). The Hawker Hurricane and Fury remaining in South Africa due to engine problems.

In early June 1940, some of the pilots left for Nairobi (Kenya) with their Gloster Gladiator, while Lieutnant Servaas van Breda Theron (OC 3 Flight) was instructed to join the same base, from South Africa, with the Hurricanes Mk.I and six Hawker Fury between 22 and 24 May. It should be noted that three other Hurricanes (one being made unavailable) will be quickly dispatched to Port Reitz aerodrome in order to protect the port of Mombasa.

On 19 May, No.11 (SAAF) Squadron, under the command of Major Robert Preller was ordered to leave Pretoria to head north. According to Lieutnant Cornelius van Vliet, the Squadron was ordered on 6 May 1940 to head north with its Hawker Hartebees. On 19 May, 24 aircraft leave the base of Waterkloof to start the long journey, according to the following flight plan :

  • 19 mai : Waterkloof – Pieterburg – Bulawayo
  • 20 mai : Bulawayo – Salisbury – Broken Hill
  • 21 mai : Broken Hill – Mpika
  • 22 mai : Mpika – Mbeya – Dodoma – Moshi
  • 23 mai : Moshi – Nairobi 

According to Lieutnant Cornelius van Vliet :

« Although the hops were short it must be remembered that the Hartebees only had a range of about three hours and that tradition and etiquette (‘presumably from World War I’, says Corry) demanded that the CO took off last and landed first. Conversely the most junior pilot took off first and landed last. Each flight formed vics of three and there were seven vics of three to form up before setting course (the advance flight having gone on ahead, as noted previously). Corry recalls, ‘Invariably someone had trouble starting, so it took some time before the Squadron set course. Being on the outside of the Squadron the most junior officers had far more throttle movement to keep position and accordingly used far more fuel. It was, therefore, a nail-biting exercise when you got to your destination to await your turn to land, knowing you only had minutes of fuel left. Some pilots did break sequence but it was a matter of pride not to do so as tradition had to prevail at all costs. I well remember the landing at Mpika where I had about two minutes fuel left when I started my approach, with absolutely no prospect of going round again. Fortunately I made a good landing, but as I started to taxi in, my engine cut. I was well and truly bawled out by Major Preller for cutting it so fine – but tradition had been upheld ! » (6)

Finally, on 22 May 1940, No.12 (SAAF) Squadron, under the command of Major Charles Martin also departed for East Africa from the Waterkloof aerodrome. The Ju.86 are then divided into three Flights of five aircraft, the first two taking off at 07h45,  and flying together to Bulawayo (South Rhodesia, Zimbabwe today) and then continuing separately to Nairobi, while the third will join at a later date.

The Squadron is based at Eastleigh, although divided into three Flights (unrelated to those of the transfer) and distributed over the different airfields in Kenya. Captain Denis Raubenheimer’s A Flight is sent to Dar-es-Salaam where he is responsible for maritime surveillance patrols, while B Flight (Captain Douglas Meaker) leaves for Mombasa to fulfill the same role. The C Flight, Major Danie du Toit remains with the rest of the Squadron in an offensive position.

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(1) The latter will cost, very dear to the Italians. Thus, in the battle against the last bastions, at the end of 1941, nearly two-thirds of the Italian defenders will be reported as affected and weakened to varying degrees by these diseases.

(2) It must be noted that South Africa can rely on its military reserve formed by the City Regiments and the Rural Regiments, which are obliged to integrate all white and mixed (coloured) young people aged 17 to 25 years, with a total of 13 000. But here again, the only military equipment consists of one rifle per man and training to know how to drills.

(3) It should be noted that this transformation will pose a slight problem, since the technical personnel will realize that the bomb bay can not house the English bombs. Finally, the bomb bay will be transformed into an additional tank and racks installed under the wings.

(4) No.50 (SAAF) Squadron was created on 18 March, under Major F. C. Elliot-Watson, in Zwartkop thanks to the delivery by the British of 7 Valentia.

(5) RAF will initially agree to deliver 18 Gloster Gladiator, 32 Gloster Gauntlets (part of which will eventually be sent to Finland) and 22 Hawker Fury, all of which have been removed from the service because of their age.

(6) TIDY, D.P. Major Cornelius Arthur van Vliet, DFC. Military History Journal, 1973, december, Vol 2, No.6. Available : http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol026dt.html

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