The South African pilot who earned ‘Ace in a Day’ – TWICE! Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis DFC and Bar

Second to Sailor Malan, Albert Gerald Lewis was the next best performing South African pilot flying for the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain.  To earn the title “Ace in a Day” a pilot had to shoot down 5 or more aircraft in a single day.  Only a handful of Allied pilots achieved this during World War 2, and “Zulu” Lewis is one of them.  He is on the top ten Royal Air Force Ace list, having shot down 6 aircraft in 6 hours.

Albert Gerald Lewis ended the war with the rank of Squadron Leader and for his bravery earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). He was born in Kimberley South Africa on 10 April 1918 and the  attended Kimberley Boys’ High School, he had an interest in flying and took private lessons in South Africa before taking his pilot licence to Britain to join the RAF.

He was gazetted as a Acting Pilot Officer with effect from 29th of October 1938 and posted to No. 616 South Yorkshire Squadron Auxiliary Air Force, which had been formed on 1st of November 1938 as a Bombing Squadron.

When he arrived, the Squadron flew Gauntlets, Tutors and Battles. After some time he was transferred to an even duller job as a ferry pilot in No 12 Group Ferry Pool.  On 16th of December 1939 Lewis was transferred again. This time to No 504 Squadron, Debden. The Squadron flew Hurricanes, which was a great leap upwards for Lewis.

30th of January he flew the first of many single “Trawler Patrols”. This day marked his first meeting with the enemy, when he spotted and chased a German Blohm & Voss Seaplane.

France – 85 Squadron RAF

“The Phoney war” in France had changed to real war and Lewis was transferred to No 87 Squadron the 26th of April 1939 – only to be transferred the day after to No 85 Squadron under Squadron Leader “Doggie” Oliver.

Under intense stain of combat flying during “The Battle for France” on the 12th of May flying VY-E, Lewis shot down – not only his first enemy aircraft – but also his second:
A Messerschmidt 109 and a Heinkel He111.

First: Ace in a Day

18th or 19th of May – due to all the Squadrons reports got lost in the evacuation of the Squadron a few days later, there is some differences here – flying AK-A (an aircraft borrowed from 213 Squadron) he got 5 confirmed kills in a day:

Two Messerschmidt 109s on the first patrol in the morning and three more on the evening patrol. This fight had been witnessed by his CO and the squadron.  This action resulted in his first DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for bravery:

Awarded on: June 25th, 1940, the  Citation reads:

“Pilot Officer Lewis has, by a combination of great personal courage, determination and skill in flying, shot down five enemy aircraft, single-handed, in one day. He has destroyed in all a total of seven enemy aircraft, and by his example has been an inspiration to his squadron.”

On the 21st of May Lewis flew back to England in one of the only 3 Hurricanes still usable from 85th Squadron.

Lewis in the Battle of Britain

28th of June the Squadron moved to Castle Camp – a satellite airfield to Debden, which were to be their base for the early part of the Battle of Britain. Lewis is now flying VY-Z.
Peter Townsend became CO of the squadron and soon gave Lewis his nickname: Zulu, as he had also christened his great chum, South African Caesar Hull in No. 43 Squadron, from which Townsend came.

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Lewis and his fellow 85 Squadron chum Richard “Dikie” Lee DSO (Lee was sadly lost on the 18th August 1940).

From 1st of July operations started in earnest, and three or four sorties a day were flown, usually convoy patrols from Martelsham Heath. On 18th of August – flying VY-D on a solo patrol, Lewis destroyed a Me110 and on 31st of August –-flying VY-N – he got a Me 109 after being scrambled in a hurry.

By 5th of September, 1940 the 85 Squadron was exhausted and rotated out of the battle line, but not Zulu Lewis who still had still some fighting ahead of him. Squadrons in the south of England were in desperate need of veteran pilots and Lewis went south again, joining 249 Squadron.

England – 249 Squadron RAF

14th of September Lewis was posted to the top scoring 249 Squadron at North Weald.
It was all out action at North Weald – sorties three, four or five times a day when Lewis arrived – and the very first day in the new Squadron, he shot down a Heinkel He111 and shared a probable destruction of another.

The day was one of the hardest days in the long hot summer, and were by many regarded as the turning point of The Battle of Britain.  By the 18th of September Lewis got his twelfth confirmed enemy aircraft.

Ace in a Day – Second time: 6 confirmed kills and two probables

27th of September – flying GN-R – he shot down eight enemy aircrafts in one day!

Lewis combat report from the morning:
“Sighted circle of Me110’s over area near Redhill. Attacked out of the sun and fired two short bursts into e/a following a Hurricane down. He billowed smoke and went down steeply.

Again attacked circle and put a burst into another Me110 – starboard engine out of action and on fire. Climbed into the sun again delivered attack on remains of circle. Hit one who dropped out of fight, heading towards coast and, with starboard engine out of action, tried to get home. Forced him down in vicinity of some hills near Crowhurst. He burst into flames on landing at farmyard”

Once rearmed and refuelled, seven Hurricanes lead by Lewis, (The Squadron Leader was reported Missing in Action) were ordered to patrol Maidstone before carrying a sweep of Hawking to Canterbury along with 46th Squadron.

Lewis combat report:
“As 249 Leader, sighted formation of Me109’s to north-east of Estuary. Climbed to 15.000 feet to 20.000 feet but were attacked by second 109 formation from above.
In ensuing dogfight was attacked by two 109’s, one of which I hit in belly as he passed overhead. He crashed into wood near Canterbury. Put burst into second 109, which attacked soon after the one I shot down, also in belly.

I did not observe this one hit the ground but went down smoking, whereafter smking fires near the wood in vicinity of Canterbury could have been other aircraft destroyed, as there were no bombers.”

Later the same day.

Lewis combat report:
As green Leader, attacked formation of Ju88’s with Blue Section, and one just dropped out with starboard engine damaged. Closed in and carried out two beam attacks from slightly above and put engine on fire. Keept after it as it went down steeply toward coast near Selsey Bill. Crashed into sea just near coast.

Shot down one Me109 which crossed my sights after engagement with Ju88. Went down in flames, then followed a second Me109 down which I attacked from above and it crashed in woods near Petworth. This is confirmed by Sgt. Hampshire of Green Section.
Fired short bursts of approx two to three second bursts at Me109’s and a faily long burst at another Ju88.”

Lewis was awarded his second DFC for this day. Awarded on October 22nd, 1940, the Citation reads:

“One day in September, 1940, this officer destroyed six enemy aircraft; this makes a total of eighteen destroyed by him. His courage and keenness are outstanding.”

Awarded as a bar for on the ribbon of the first DFC.

He thus got 11 confirmed victories in two days – 19th of May and 27th of September.
Which is believed to be a record for single-engine British fighters.

Shot down – England

28th of September – only the very next day – the Squadron was flying patrol over Maidstone, and Lewis was shot down in flames while flying the same aircraft GN-R.

The Squadron was in a gentle dive, with Lewis weaving above them, when he was hit from behind by cannon shells and set on fire.  Lewis baled out of his burning Hurricane. Jimmy Crossey following him down, circling the parachute to prevent him being shot at.

Lewis landed safely, but was severely burned and was taken to Faversham Cottage Hospital. Blind for two weeks, with a piece of schrapnel in his leg and severe burns on the face, throat, hands and legs.

He received his little golden caterpillar with his name engraved on the back while in hospital,which confirmed his membership of the selected band of pilots who had saved their lives by parachute.

He returned to the Squadron in December, 1940, having been promoted Flight Lieutenant on 29 November. He was flying by 17 January 1941, and became “A” Flight Commander, and was awarded a bar to the DFC.

Overseas Service

Lewis volunteered for overseas service and was posted to 261 Squadron in January 1942.
Via Sierra Leone he went to Tricomalee in China bay, Ceylon to take command of 261 Squadron – a Squadron famous for it’s defence of Malta earlier in the war.

Lewis recalls that the force consisted of himself as CO, 6 Flt Lts, 3 FOs, 8 Pos, 1 WO pilot and 34 Sgt. Pilots. Most of the force were Australians and New Zealand pilots with a few Canadians and an American.

China Bay was a grass airfield – or rather – a clearing in the jungle. Everything was “under construction” and very primitive. Malaria was bad. Typhoid was caused by foul water supplies and after a Japanese bombing, all waterborne sanitation was smashed and cholera added to their troubles.

Shot down – China Bay

On the 9th of April – the day before his 24th birthday, Lewis led his Squadron to intercept a Japanese raid and as he was taking off, his aircraft was hit by fire from one of the Japans Zeros. He was wounded in the left shoulder and can not use his arm.

On fire – once again – he bales out at only 200 feet, with his parachute opening just in time. He could see his base was under heavy attack and for six hours he lay suffering from shock until he was found by some natives, who revived him with coconut milk, and helped him back to the base.

In June 1942 he returns to Britain via South Africa.

After the war

Lewis left Royal Air Force on 16th of February 1946, having been an Acting Squadron leader since 22nd of April 1943. After the war Lewis started farming. First in Britain – but in 1947 he went back home to South Africa. He also became deeply religious, joining  The Church of the Latterday Saints (Mormons).

To quote his religious convictions at the end of his life:

“As my mind reflects on The Battle of Britain and on the many wonderful characters who formed a part of that scene and died a quarter of a century ago in order that the world might be a better place to live in – as did those in The First World War – and indeed all righteous people from the beginning of time – I wonder, have we achieved lasting peace?

If we are not to disappoint ourselves and all of those who have come before, we need a plan – one that is practical and embraces all mankind. I sincerely believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only plan which can embrace the world so that all who desire to – may live in peace.”

Albert Gerald Lewis died 14th of December 1982 – 64 years old.

The featured image shows King George VI conferring a Bar to Flying Officer A G Lewis’s DFC in an awards ceremony at Duxford, Cambridgeshire. Lewis had just returned to service with No. 249 Squadron RAF, after being shot down and badly burnt on 28 September 1940.

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Peak of battle in the ‘Battle of Britain’, South African Pilot Officer Albert G Lewis of No. 85 Squadron grabs his flying helmet from the tailplane of his Hurricane, P2923 VQ-R, as a member of the ground crew warms up the engine prior to a sortie, Castle Camps, July 1940. Photo Copyright IWM Collection.

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Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P2923, VY-R, flown by Pilot Officer A G Lewis landing at Castle Camps, RAF Debden’s satellite airfield, July 1940.

Sources:  Wikipedia, www.thefedoralounge.com, Hurricane 501 (website), Brian Cull: “249 at War.”Short history

 

 

The Forces Sweetheart & The Lady in White, two iconic women of WW2

On the 100th birthday of Dame Vera Lynn, we look at two iconic women from the Second World War, one British and one South African. both friends and both famed for singing to troops on quaysides. Here is Dame Vera Lynn (known to the troops as “The Forces Sweetheart”) on the left and Perla Siedle Gibson (Known to the troops as “The Lady In White”) on the right whilst Vera Lynn was on tour in South Africa in the 1950’s.

This photo was taken at the M.O.T.H. Headquarters in Durban (Warrior’s Gate), in the centre between these two iconic women is South African military veteran Harold William (Nobby) Clarke who was a Custodian of Warrior’s Gate.

Dame Vera Lynn, DBE (born Vera Margaret Welch on 20 March 1917), widely known as “The Forces’ Sweetheart”, she is an English singer, songwriter and actress whose musical recordings and performances were enormously popular during the Second World War. During the war she toured Egypt, India and Burma, giving outdoor concerts for the troops. The songs most associated with her are “We’ll Meet Again”, “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “There’ll Always Be an England”.

She remained popular after the war, appearing on radio and television in the UK and the US and recording such hits as “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart” and her UK Number one single “My Son, My Son”. Her last single, “I Love This Land”, was released to mark the end of the Falklands War. In 2009, at age 92, she became the oldest living artist to top the UK Albums Chart.

She has devoted much time and energy to charity work connected with ex-servicemen, disabled children, and breast cancer. She is held in great affection by veterans of the Second World War to this day and in 2000 was named the Briton who best exemplified the spirit of the 20th century.

On 20th March 2017, Dame Vera celebrated her 100th birthday.

Perla Siedle Gibson was a South African soprano and artist who became internationally celebrated during the Second World War as the Lady in White, when she sang troopships in and out of Durban harbour.

Gibson was born in Durban in 1888. In the early twentieth century she studied music and art in Europe and the US and gave recitals in London and New York. Her youngest brother was Jack Siedle, the South African Test cricketer.

During World War 2 Durban was an extremely busy waystation for convoys of ships en route to the fronts in North Africa and the Far East. Gibson became famous among thousands of Allied troops when she serenaded them as their ships passed in and out.

She went on to sing to more than 5,000 ships and a total of about a quarter of a million Allied servicemen. Clad in white with a red hat, she would stand at a spot at the mouth of Durban Bay where ships entering and leaving the harbour pass quite close, and sing patriotic and sentimental songs through a megaphone from a torpedoed ship, which grateful British soldiers had given her.

She died in 1971, shortly before her 83rd birthday. The year later a bronze plaque donated by men of the Royal Navy was erected to her memory on Durban’s North Pier on the spot where she used to sing. In 1995 Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a statue of Perla Gibson near the Ocean Terminal in Durban harbour.

The debt of gratitude owed by a collective world free of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan and Facist Italy to both these women is massive – it cannot be accounted such is the value.

Travers Barret Photographer copyright and grateful thanks to Kevin Lamprecht for sharing his Grandfather’s photograph and memories.

The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags

Here’s another interesting back of the chappie gum wrapper fact – Guess which is the correct South African flag South Africans fought under during WW1?  Bet most people will think of the old “Orange White and Blue” South African flag, but that would be wrong.

As a serving officer in the South African Army I had to be familiar with flag protocol and etiquette, it’s a key part of soldiering when national flags go on parade. However the funny thing in South Africa is just how poor our collective knowledge is of our own national flags.

These are in fact all of South Africa’s national flags:17309179_1539170599434728_8929150928988660165_nMany times in military veteran circles there is steaming debate on when to use the “old” national flag and in what context – however few people in South Africa know what flag to use, what they really mean and even less know what the first South African flag actually looked like.

Here is a classic case of the misunderstandings surrounding South African national flags – This is the painting the “Birth of the Union” James E McConnell.  The painting was so poorly researched he used the wrong flag.

Birth of the Union of South Africa

This is a modern day photo-shop version of McConnell’s painting and it shows his original on the left and a more correct South African Union flag at union on the right.

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The flag he used for his painting was the oranje-blanje-blou (known more commonly as the “OBB”) which all South Africans will recognise. However the flag of South Africa at the time of Union in 1910 at Union was the South African “ensign flag” (British Union Jack top left and the South African National Coat of Arms inserted bottom right). Known as a “Red Duster” – now not too many South Africans today have ever seen that flag.

To show what the first South African national flag, the “Red Duster,” actually looked like here it is:

threeIt is very doubtful that there would have been huge public elation of Boers and Brits embracing one another under this National Flag as depicted in the painting, although this was the National Flag that South Africa fought under during the First World War (there where two versions of this ensign flag which they used – one Red and one Blue).

Ironically, the Boer Commandos that joined the South African Union’s Defence Force at Union in 1910, used and fought under this “South African Ensign” in the South West African and the East African campaigns of World War 1 from 1914 to 1918.

As noted, there was another variant of the “Red Duster” which is an ensign with the respective nation’s emblem against a Blue Background and a British Union flag in the left hand corner (you’ll still see this variant used in New Zealand and Australia for their National flag).

Both South Africa’s “Ensign” flags – Red and Blue qualify as the de facto South African national flags from 1910 to 1928, however the Red one was more common.

The Red Duster variant was the primary flag adopted by South Africa and Canada (Canada used their ensign version during WW1 and WW2 – it was only changed to the Maple Leaf in 1965)

Slide4Given the Ensigns were the flags usually adopted for British “Colonies” and “Dominions”, the South African Union government (which was in fact an independent Parliament to Westminster and made its own laws) felt differently. To the South African Union the national flag of 1910 was “still born” and not reflective of the history of the Boer Republics which made up the other half of the “Union” nor did it adequately reflect on South Africa’s Dutch colony origins.

The oranje-blanje-blou (“OBB”) was adopted by the South African Union Parliament as the “new” national flag in 1928. It was proudly flown as the flag of “Union” representing the old British Colonies of the Cape and Natal and the old Boer Republics of the Transvaal (South African Republic) and the Orange Free State. The use of the British Union flag inserted in the OBB, placed closest to the flag mast/pole (the most honoured and senior position for any “inserted” national flag on any flag format) ahead of the two Boer Republic flags, which take a lessor position, calmed down and appeased the “English” detractors who objected to such a dramatic flag change away from the standard Dominion Red Duster.

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However, confusion as to South Africa’s national flag to use even reigned at this time.  Here Jan Smuts makes the front cover of a late 1940’s edition of “Time” magazine with the National Flag in the background and this time they are incorrectly using the “old” blue ensign flag and should have been using the”new” OBB.

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So here’s another fun fact, the OBB is not the “Apartheid” flag, the National party when they came to power in 1948 put forward a proposal to have it amended and remove what they called the “Bloed Vlek” (Blood Stain) which was the British Union Flag inserted in the OBB. This was a National party pet hate as it reminded many Afrikaner nationalists of British decimation of Boer families and farms during the Boer war – the campaign to change the OBB flag was stepped up by the National Party under Hendrik Verwoerd when South Africa became a Republic and when he withdrew South Africa from the British Commonwealth of Nations in 1961.

However broader public pressure at the time prevented the initial National Party proposals for a flag change from been passed by the South African Republic’s Parliament and the idea was eventually shelved. In effect the initial campaign to change the OBB died with Verwoerd in 1966, but the National Party attempts to change the OBB to a “new” Republic flag did not stop there.  In 1968, the National Party Prime Minister, John Vorster, again proposed the adoption of a new flag to replace the OBB from 1971, the rational was to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the declaration of a Republic.  Even though a National newspaper campaign was run asking the public for suggested flag designs, Vorster’s proposal did not get momentum in Parliament and the flag change never materialised.

Historically speaking, although the hardline National Party members hated the “OBB” and its inserted British “Union Jack”, but they disliked the original South African ensign “Red Duster” national flag with its massive “Union Jack” even more, so much it was literally erased from the South African collective consciousness and very few examples of it survive to this day. It certainly was not top of mind when McConnell painted his “Birth of the Union” painting in 1976.

That the flag of South African Union was kept during the implementation of Apartheid by the National Party from 1948 to 1994 is unfortunate as it detracts from it’s rich heritage as the flag of the South African “Union” and as such it is not the flag of the South African “Republic”nor was it ever intended to be a Republic’s flag – it especially detracts from all the kudos that South Africa received during World War 2 fighting alongside British and American forces under the South African Union’s OBB.

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The “new” (new) South African flag adopted in 1994 was actually  intended as a “five year interim” flag, however it proved so highly popular it became the national flag almost instantly and was officially adopted by the government of South Africa on the election day, 27th April 1994.

According to its designer Fred Bromnell – It is actually a combination of the two “Colonial era” flags – The national flag of the Netherlands (Dutch flag) – Red, White, Blue and the the British Union flag – Blue, White, Red.  Then the two former Boer Republic flags – the South African Republic (Transvaal) “Vier Kleur” – Green, Red, White and Blue and the Orange Free State Republic Flag (using the Dutch insert flag and the white) and then finally the African National Congress (ANC) Flag – Black, Green and Gold (colours also present in the Inkatha Freedom Party  and Pan African Congress flags).

The V symbolises inclusion and unification. In essence it is another flag of “Union” (unity) only this time acknowledging the county’s Black population and its historical heritage.  Symbols considered in the design of the “new” flag included Catholic and Anglican Priest’s Classic Chasubles, the universal symbol of Peace and the married Zulu female traditional head-dress.

There are some claims that the “New” South African flag is just a “design” with no meaning or symbolism – but that’s not the opinion of the man who actually designed it – Frederick Gordon Brownell.  Also, I find that whenever that when this argument is used  its usually to deny meaning to the new South Africa flag to degrade the country, describing it as “jockey Y front underpants,” when in fact the truth is the opposite and the flag is stuffed full of meaning and symbolism.

In fact the “New” South African flag reflects all the old flags of South Africa, these exist right there for all to see, plain as day to the trained eye (even the untrained eye) – symbolically placed in the new flag – and that’s an inconvenient truth to both the “new” flag’s detractors and the detractors of the old OBB.

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The funny thing is the “New” (new) flag was only meant to be an interim one, hence the mash of historical South African flags.  The irony kills me whenever I see the “new” South African youth and current South African political class with the flag they are now saluting, flying and even wearing – and it consists of their much despised “Colonial” Dutch, British and Boer Republic flags – irony lost on them but not on me.

Here’s the another irony – the “old” South African flag i.e. the “OBB” Union flag was born out of the ideals of Union led by Smuts and Botha. Not under the Apartheid ideals of Verwoed and Malan. I personally see a lot of irony when hard-line right wing Afrikaners slam Jan Smuts and brand his values of consolidation and union with the British as an act of treason to the Afrikaner people – when at the same time they fully support, and at times even fly, the very flag created in honour of his Unionist ideal – with its British “Blood Stain” symbolising Smuts’ reconciliation in full and proud senior position.

Furthermore it is ironic that after many years of trying to change the National flag after South Africa was declared a Republic, it was the National Party that finally achieved its goal in February 1994 when they, the National Party government, briefed Frederick Gordon Brownell at the government’s own heraldry department to design a new flag (funnily in some sort of déjà vu – they had to involve the National Herald this time after another newspaper campaign for designs from the public had failed, albeit 20 years later).  The result is the current flag we see today.  It was designed literally in a week and the only change in the decades long National Party narrative on changing the OBB this time was that both FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela had to approve the new design.

So, lump it or leave it – there is nothing in “Union” flags that appeal to “all” people and everything in “Union” flags that appeal to “all” people.

All I can say is that the “new” South African flag has been the most cross cultural flag ever composited in South African history and it has been the least controversial i.e. it has been the most universally accepted by all South Africans (the very vast majority) with the least amount of disgruntled political posturing to change it.

To the “old” South Africa OBB supporters I say:

  1.  The OBB was not the only South African national flag both Afrikaner and English South Africans fought under prior to 1994.
  2. The OBB pays a very high homage to The British Union National Flag in terms of the Vexillology of Flags and Flag Etiquette, especially in terms of the superior/senior position it takes relative to the two Boer Republic flags.
  3. The OBB symbolisers the Union of Afrikaners and English races – a central philosophy of Jan Christiaan Smuts and that of  “Union” Political Coalition partners and Governments.  Not those ideals of nationalist Afrikaners like Malan, Verwoed and Vorster, whose central political premise was that of an independent “Republic” and”Apartheid”.
  4. The OBB, although a flag of Union, is now very dated.  Times and history changed since South Africa declared itself a Republic, so too the demographic and even social landscape of South Arica.  It cannot work as a current national flag in modern South Africa, change was inevitable – even Smuts would have seen that, and knowing his way of governance he would have welcomed a new flag to reflect it had he been around (in his time he served and lived under four different national flags).
  5. Many key Commonwealth countries have traded in their “Colonial” ensigns and Union flags – Canada, Jamaica, Kenya, Singapore, Hong Kong to name a few, and those still holding onto theirs – Australia and New Zealand, are under strong popular pressure to change them ahead of changing times.

To the “new” South Africa, current National flag supporters I say:

  1. The OBB is the flag of “Union” and it is one of the two Union flags used to bring   South Africa into existence as a country on the central principles of “reconciliation” and “tolerance” between two previously warring races (Boers and Brits), it is not the flag of “Apartheid”- in fact it was developed long before Apartheid came into existence, even as an idea, and symbolically its the complete opposite of Apartheid.
  2. Even the hard line Apartheid Nationalists hated the OBB so much they wanted to change it – and eventually they did, and ironically it is the flag you now support, salute, fly and even wear – ironically designed by a brief from the outgoing Apartheid Nationalist government in its final throws of office.
  3. The “new” flag very strongly and powerfully associates the flags of South Africa’s “Colonisers” and “Boers” in its design and in fact it celebrates this history – in addition to celebrating the history of the Black peoples of South Africa.
  4. The “new” South African flag does an excellent job balancing South Africa’s history and is very relevant to the current time.  I can’t possibly think of a better solution, and if the ANC and EFF one day decide to change it because of its “colonial” and “white” legacy, I would hate to see what some Gupta owned design agency in India comes up with.

This is why I allow myself a wry ironic smirk every-time South African flags are so hotly debated.

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Featured image by James E McConnell, Watercolour on Board 1973, photo-shopped version and background information courtesy Nicholas Pnematicatos.

Edwin Swales VC DFC, a South African Hero whose legacy has been eroded!

Edwin (Ted) Swales VC DFC is one of South Africa’s greatest sons,  yet the South African politicians  of today,  have removed his name from the well known “Edwin Swales Drive” named in honour of him in Durban and re-named it after a contemporary “struggle” cadre.  The legacy of Maj. Swales VC DFC is under threat, and there is very good and noble reason not to forget him, this is his story, kindly contributed to by David Bennett.

A very short biography :    Major Edwin Swales, VC, DFC, SAAF (1915 – 1945)  by David Bennett

Edwin Essery Swales : Born in Inanda, Natal, 3 July 1915. Attended Durban High School, Jan. 1930 to Dec.1934. Worked for Barclay’s Bank, DC&O, in Durban 1935 to 1939. He joined the Natal Mounted Rifles, 1935 and left 31 May 1939 as a W.O.II. Rejoined N.M.R. on 4 September 1939.

He served in Kenya; Abyssinia; Italian Somalia; British Somalia and Eritrea. Then (1941) in North Africa. In 1942, he left the army to join the S.A. Air Force. Swales received his wings at Kimberley in 1943. Then seconded to the Royal Air Force in 1943, he attended Flying Training School at  R.A.F. Little Rissington, 1944. Later sent to the elite R.A.F. Pathfinder Force, 582 Squadron, Royal Air Force, at Little Staughton in July 1944.

Swales was awarded an immediate D.F.C. on 23 December 1944 following a bombing raid on Cologne. After a raid on Pforzheim on 23 February 1945, Swales was killed in action, crashing near Valenciennes, France and he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Swales is now buried in the War Cemetery at Leopoldsburg, near Limburg, Belgium, Plot No.8, Row C, Grave No.5. (Although he had originally been buried at Fosse’s USA Cemetery). The headstone of Swales’ grave shows the Springbok head, common to the graves of all South Africans, as well as the Victoria Cross engraved on it. The legend on the headstone states:

Edwin Swales was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, on 23 December, 1944.  The citation reads:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following award in recognition of gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations:-

Captain Edwin Swales, (6101V) S.A.A.F. 582 Sqn. :-

The Distinguished Flying Cross:

“This Officer was pilot and Captain of an aircraft detailed to attack Cologne in December, 1944. When approaching the target, intense anti-aircraft fire was encountered. Despite this, a good bombing attack was executed. Soon afterwards the aircraft was attacked by five enemy aircraft. In the ensuing fights, Capt. Swales manoeuvred with great skill. As a result his gunners were able to bring effective fire to bear upon the attackers, one of which is believed to have been shot down. Throughout this spirited action Captain Swales displayed exceptional coolness and captaincy, setting a very fine example. This Officer has completed very many sorties during which he has attacked a variety of enemy targets.”           (Official D.F.C. Citation)    

Edwin Swales was killed on 23 February, 1945, and he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the 3rd and last Pathfinder pilot to be so honoured (all alas, posthumous). It had been Swales’ 43rd operational flight for 582 Squadron, R.A.F. Here is the citation:

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on

the under-mentioned officer in recognition of the most conspicuous bravery:-

Captain Edwin Swales, DFC (6101V) S.A.A.F. 582 Sqn. (deceased):

 “Captain Swales was ‘Master Bomber’ of a force of aircraft which attacked Pforzheim on the night of February 23, 1945. As Master Bomber he had the task of locating the target area with precision and of giving aiming instructions to the main force of bombers in his wake.

Soon after he reached the target area he was engaged by an enemy aircraft and one of his engines was put out of action. His rear guns failed. His crippled aircraft was an easy prey for further attacks. Unperturbed, he carried on with his allotted task; clearly and precisely he issued aiming instructions to the main force. Meanwhile the enemy fighter closed the range and fired again. A second engine of Captain Swales’ aircraft was put out of action. Almost defenceless, he stayed over the target area issuing his aiming instructions until he was satisfied that the attack had achieved its purpose. It is now known that the attack was one of the most concentrated and successful of the war.

Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged. Its speed had been so much reduced that it could only with difficulty be kept in the air. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working. Determined at all costs to prevent his aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands, he set course for home. After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud. He kept his course by skilful flying between the layers, but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, by now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; it was losing height steadily. Realising that the situation was desperate Captain Swales ordered his crew to bale out. Time was very short and it required all his exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of his crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety. Hardly had the last crew-member jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth. Captain Swales was found dead at the controls.

Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life that his comrades might live”

(Official V.C. Citation)

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, KCB, OBE, AFC, Chief of Bomber Command, Royal Air Force, following the loss of Edwin Swales, wrote a letter to Swales’ mother, Mrs. Olive Essery Swales, saying, inter-alia:

…… On every occasion your son proved himself to be a determined fighter and resolute captain of his crew. His devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety will remain an example and inspiration to us all …..

Memorial to Edwin Swales at the secondary school he attended as a student, Durban High School (DHS)

In conclusion 

It is our humble opinion, that whilst it is important to segments of South Africa’s population to remember their heroes it should not come at the expense of other national heroes.

Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, after whom Edwin Swales VC Drive is now named,  was a operative of the African National Congress militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and whilst it is important to the current ANC ruling party to highlight the sacrifice of its heroes, it should not come at the sacrifice of Maj. Swales’ legacy – one of a handful of South African World War 2 Victoria Cross winners, and one whose extremely brave deeds were awarded in a war which was to liberate the entire western world of tyrannical and rather deadly racial political philosophy as well as dictatorial megalomaniacs supporting such ideology.

In fact to rectify the situation, the Durban City Council should actually consider a monument or statue in the centre of Durban to Edwin Swales and allow him to take his rightful place as a true son of South Africa and one of our all time greatest military heroes, as is the case for many Victoria Cross winners the world over.  That his actions and deeds are taught to South African youth, pride in our WW2 history established and his sacrifice not forgotten.  Lets hope they see their way clear to do this.

Note:    The papers from the South African Air Force, promoting Edwin Swales from Captain to Major, only reached the British authorities after his death, and after the award of the Victoria Cross was gazetted, hence the rank of “Captain” being used in the VC citation. However, he is referred to as a Major.

Thank you to David Bennett for both photograph and content contribution.

John Nettleton VC – an unsung South African Hero

The Observation Post

Rare that we see an image of a South African Victoria Cross recipient in action, but this is one such image. Flying this exact Avro Lancaster bomber is a Natal lad – Squadron Leader  John Dering Nettleton VC

He is another true South African hero and recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. His VC was one of five awarded to South Africans in World War 2 and this is his story.

John Dering Nettleton was born on 28 June 1917 in Nongoma, Natal Province, South Africa, the grandson of Admiral A T D. Nettleton, he was educated at Western Province Preparatory School (WPPS) in Cape Town from 1928-30, Nettleton served as a Naval cadet on the General Botha training ship and then for 18 months in the…

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