Finding Geater’s Beaufighter

gtr70The feature image is Major Arthur Geater’s Bristol Beaufighter which was found in Sept 2013 after being undiscovered for 69 years since it was ditched and sank.  The discovery is a story itself, but so too is Arthur’s.

Reginald Arthur Geater joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) during the Second World War and qualified as a twin-engine pilot, he also served for a long period as instructor and in 27 transport/maritime squadron, flying Venturas and Dakotas.

He was eventually sent to Italy in mid 1944 for operational service with 19 squadron, flying the rocket firing Bristol Beaufighter. During his operational service he flew mostly sorties to targets in the Balkans. Missions consisted of  rocket attacks against enemy shipping, motorised transports,  gun emplacements, buildings and rolling stock.

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His operational tour was very eventful. On his very first combat sortie Arthur was shot down over the sea. He and his navigator survived the ditching and he was eventually able to returned to his squadron after a short ordeal behind enemy lines staying with locals on Greek Islands.  So what happened?

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Painting by Derrick Dickens, SAAF Beaufighters attacking German ships in the Mediterranean. Acrylic on canvass – copyright Peter Dickens.

The attack and ditching 

In the afternoon of September 12, 1944  Bristol Beaufighter KV930 of 19 SAAF (South African Air Force) Squadron took off from Biferno (Italy), along with three other aircraft. On his very first mission was our hero for today, Arthur Geater along with his navigator  Stan Dellow seconded from the Royal Air Force.  Their mission was a simple one, search for enemy shipping amongst the Greek Islands and destroy them.

The sortie of four SAAF Beaufighters comb an area of Greek Islands looking for German military vessels, the search are spans from Preveza in northwestern Greece, located at the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf, then across to Lefdaka Island, then over to Kefalonia island with their mission finally taking them as far as Zakynthos Island.

Late in the afternoon at approximately 17:05 hrs. they reach the northern tip of Ithaki Island and spot a German vessel, it is a “Siebel” ferry, and it was hiding from air attack in one of the fjord-like coves of the island.

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German Navy Siebel ferry

The Siebel ferry was a shallow-draft catamaran landing craft operated by Germany’s Wehrmacht (Army) during World War 2. It served a variety of roles (transport, flak ship, gunboat, convoy escort, minelayer) in the Mediterranean, Baltic and Black Seas as well as along the English Channel. They were originally developed for Operation Sea Lion in 1940, the abortive German invasion of England.

The SAAF Beaufighters immediately started their attack, but were greeted with strong anti-aircraft fire from the heavily armed Siebel. Geater’s Beaufighter was hit with both engines receiving hits from multiple Anti-Aircraft rounds.  Oil and thick smoke erupted from the engines and Arthur Geater took the decision to ditch the aircraft in a controlled sea ‘landing’ before it became an uncontrolled one.

The Siebel sustained heavy damage and according to German records and was eventually beached to avoid sinking.

Remarkably an image of the attack also survives, and here you can see the German ship (ferry) that shot Arthur down from a photograph taken during the attack from the SAAF 19 Squadron Officer Commanding’s gun camera.

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Geater successfully managed to ditch the aircraft and both he and the navigator climbed out the sinking Beaufighter and took to an inflatable dinghy which was on board for just such an eventuality.

Local Greek Islanders who saw the Beaufighter ditch rushed to their fishing boats to rescue the two Allied airmen. Keen as punch to do their bit in the war, and with a disdain for their German occupiers, the local Greeks took great pride in rescuing Allied airmen, one local remembered the time and said, “we would row as fast as possible and would even get into a fight with the other Greeks rushing to the scene in order to reach the airmen first!”

Within thirty minutes of ditching the two Allied  airmen were saved by Greeks and taken to Ithaki island, where they were provided with both food and shelter.  Arthur Geater’s adventure was not to stop there, whilst the two airmen were moved in a small fishing boat to another hiding place on the island, they were stopped at sea by a German patrol combing the area trying to locate the airmen.

Stan Dellow could not swim and remained on the boat, Arthur Geater could and he dived into the water and swam to freedom.  Stan Dellow survived the war, but was caught and spent the rest of the war as a POW (Prisoner of War) at the Sagan POW camp in Poland.

Arthur Greater got away and managed link up with the Greek resistance in Ithaki he eventually managed to return to Italy and re-joined his Squadron.  He was never shot down again and stacked up a number of successful sorties against enemy rolling stock, shipping and buildings.  He even participated in a daring SAAF raid when a German mine layer ship, the “KuckKuck” was sunk.

ss7Arthur was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional service. After the war he had a long and successful career in the printing industry and passed away on 3 November 1992.

Finding Geater’s Beaufighter

Makis Sotiropoulos

Makis Sotiropoulos with his sonar equipment

Makis Sotiropoulos, an experienced scuba diver living on Ithaki Island, as a boy he had heard the story from the local Greek Island elders about “the aircraft which fell out the sky in 1944″ and he took to the challenge of finding it.  After many years of research and obtaining eyewitness reports he surveyed the area using sonar.

In September 2013 his search came to an end when then distinct shape of an aircraft, sitting at the seabed was mapped by the sonar.  Major Geater’s Bristol Beaufighter was found.  The wreck was dived and confined it was indeed the SAAF Bristol Beaufighter ditched on that fateful hat day.

The exact position of the aircraft wreck is however not shared publicly now, and for good reason as it is within diving limits and modern-day trophy hunters and looters would strip the aircraft clean.  According to Makis Sotiropoulos “this aircraft should remain as it was on the day it was ditched. We have the moral obligation to keep the Beaufighter out of harm’s way, as many relic hunters and looters would make a fortune out of her parts, thus destroying History”.

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For prosperity, here are some of the underwater pictures of this most remarkable story and equally remarkable find.


Written an Researched by Peter Dickens.  Thanks to Tinus Le Roux and to Julie Geater for all the information and images.  Extracts from Tinus Le Roux’s dedication website SAAF WW2 Pilots Arthur Geater and from Found and identified: The Beaufighter KV930 shot down on 12 September 1944 By Pierre Kosmidis.

Photos and historical research: Makis Sotiropoulos and George Karelas. Diving and Research Team: Makis Sotiropoulos, Dionyssis Giannatos, Vassilis Medogiannis

Artwork by Derrick Dickens, SAAF Beaufighters  – copyright Peter Dickens.  Schematic artwork by Tinus Le Roux, copyright.

The international ‘Boy’ Scout movement’s wartime origin in South Africa

Ever wondered why South Africa has two separate ‘Boy/Girl Scout’ youth movements, one based on the International Scout movement started by Robert Baden-Powell called the ‘Scouts’ and one called ‘Voortrekkers’ primarily aimed at Afrikaner youth only?

They are both great movements aimed at equipping the youth with life skills and a sense of the ‘outdoors’.  So why the need for a separate Afrikaner one?  Well, it all goes back to The 2nd Anglo-Boer War, and the inspiration for the International Boy Scout movement.

So how did this come about?

Boer Forces lay siege to Mafeking

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Robert Baden-Powell

The start of the Second Boer War in South Africa in 1899, came when the Boer’s declared war on the British and invaded the British Colonies of Natal and the Cape whilst the colonies were relatively weakly defended.

Much sabre rattling over British miner’s citizen rights in the Transvaal and Imperial Expansionism had preceded the invasion and as the clouds of war began to build, without a full expeditionary force or the ‘Causus Belle’ to raise one, the British compromised by building up local regiments of Mounted Rifles made up of citiz­ens in their colonies of Natal and the Cape.  One such commander up for this task, and who was already in South Africa, with experience fighting Zulu and Matabele wars was a certain ‘Colonel Robert Baden-Powell’.

Initially  instructed to maintain a mobile mounted force on the frontier with the Boer Republics. Baden-Powell and his officers had three tasks: to resist any Boer invasion of the Natal Colony, and in the event of an invasion to draw the Boers away from the coastal ports to enable the relieving British expeditionary force to land  and finally by show of force to discourage the local Afrikaners in the Cape and Natal from supporting the Boers of the Orange Free State and Transvaal (ZAR) Republics.

More than just maintaining a mobile mounted citizen force, Baden-Powell used initiative and also amassed stores and a garrison at Mafeking. While engaged in this, he and much of his intended mobile force was at Mafeking when the town was surrounded and laid to siege by a Boer army.

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General Piet Cronje’s 94-pounder Creusot ‘Long Tom’ gun been aimed at Mafeking during the siege.

Mafeking was located right on the boundary where the British Cape Colony and the Boer Transvaal met, it was a ‘frontier town’ and the most remote British town, it could not be more further flung from its capital in Cape Town. It was however still a ‘British’ town and during this Siege of Mafeking, Colonel Baden-Powell and his 2,000 men defended the town as best they could from the 8,000 Boers who continued to shell the town and tried to starve and bomb it into a surrender.

Whilst Baden-Powell and his small force defended Mafeking and sat out the bombardment and starvation, the British amassed their Expeditionary Force destined from the United Kingdom via Cape Town – to take back their besieged towns of Kimberley and Mafeking in the Cape Colony and Ladysmith in the Natal Colony.

This horrendous siege of Mafeking’s civilians and military garrison lasted 217 days from October 1899 to May 1900, and turned Robert Baden-Powell into a national British hero.

The Mafeking Cadet Corps, 1899-1900

Because of the shortage of military manpower in Mafeking, Baden-Powell was quick to put 18 volunteer British adolescents in the Mafeking Cadet Corps to use.  These cadets were used during the siege to support the British troops defending Mafeking.  They were tasked to carry messages around the town and to out­lying fortifications.  They were also used to help with the wounded and act as lookouts, warn­ing the townspeople when the Boer siege guns were aimed and fired at different parts of the town.

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Boer artillery firing on Mafeking

These tasks freed up adult men for military duties and kept these young cadets occupied during the Siege. The boys took their new job with pride, instead of running around collecting used or parts of shells, they now actually participated in the war, and were soon a recognised part of the town defences. The corps was quickly grown from 18 to 38 volunteer white boys below ‘fighting’ age (some sources indicate 40 Cadets).

Their leader was the 13-year-old Warner Goodyear, who became their Sergeant-Major. They were given khaki uniforms and a wide-brimmed hat which they wore with one side turned up (known as a ‘slouch’ hat), and a Glengarry cap, and the towns people easily identified them and often commented on their smartness.

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The original group of Mafeking Cadet Corps

At first the Cadets used donkeys for mobility, but as the siege ran on, food became scarce and the donkeys became dinner. From then on, the cadets used bicycles instead, often cycling in hazardous conditions as they delivered messages whilst under heavy artillery fire. In one famous story, Baden-Powell related the following conversation with one of the cadets: I said to one of these boys on one occasion, when he came in through rather a heavy fire: ‘You will get hit one of these days riding about like that when shells are flying’. And he replied ‘I pedal so quick, Sir, they’d never catch me’.

2010215_warnergoodyearmafekingThe town produced its own postage stamps, known as “Mafeking Blues”, for postage during the siege. Since all the letters were delivered by the Cadets, the town even issued a new stamp in honour of them, the new design showed the leader of the Cadet Corps, Warner Goodyear,  seated on his bicycle. After the siege, the special Mafeking stamps became collectors’ items all over the British Empire.

The Mafeking stamps were unusual among the stamps of the British Empire at that time, because they did not depict the monarch. Warner Goodyear, died in 1912 in a sporting accident at the early age of 26.

Frankie Brown, a 9-year-old boy, was killed by a shell during the siege, and is sometimes claimed as a cadet casualty, although it is unlikely that he was a cadet. The youngest cadets on the nominal roll were aged 11.

The siege was finally lifted on 17 May 1900, when a flying column of some 2,000 British soldiers, including many South African volunteers from Kimberley, commanded by Colonel B. T. Mahon of the army of Lord Roberts, relieved the town after fighting their way in. Among the relieving force was Major Baden Baden-Powell, brother of the town garrison commander Colonel Robert Baden-Powell.

At the end of the siege, 24 cadets were awarded the Defence of Mafeking bar to the Queen’s South Africa Medal.

Inspiration to start the Scouts 

These cadets are considered within the Scouts as the forerunners of the Boy Scout movement because they were one of Baden-Powell’s inspirations in creating the Scout movement in 1907.  Baden-Powell during his early military career in Rhodesia and Natal had started to write on military scouting, and the survival of such military scouts in extreme environments.

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The Mafeking Cadet Corps, published in the book “Petticoat In Mafeking. The Siege Letters of Ada Cock “There are 45 Cadets in the Image, taken some time after the siege had ended.

He had not however turned this thinking to include ‘Boys’, however during the siege of Mafeking  he was sufficiently impressed by the Mafeking Cadets, with both the courage and the equanimity with which they performed their tasks, and he was to use them later as an object lesson in the first chapter of Scouting for Boys.

After the 2nd Anglo Boer War ended in May 1902, Baden-Powell returned to the United Kingdom in 1903 as a national hero.  He was familiar with a organis­ation called The Boys’ Brigade, founded by his friend William Alexander Smith back in 1883.  Members of the Boys’ Brigade were encouraged to combine drill and fun activities with Christian values.  At the same time his manual on military scouting ‘Aids to Scouting’ was selling quite well (no doubt off the back of his new found popularity) and was being used in Britain by teachers and adult leaders of youth organisations.

With encouragement from William Alexander Smith, and inspired by the conduct of the boys in the Mafeking Cadet Corps Baden-Powell decided to re-write ‘Aids to Scouting’ to suit a younger market.

This final document described outdoor activities, character development, citizenship and personal fitness as the core values of boy scouts, and most important, it omitted all military content.

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Two important events also happened in 1907. Firstly Baden-Powell went on an extensive speaking tour arranged by his publisher, Arthur Pearson, to promote the new book. He was well received wherever he travelled in Britain. Secondly Baden-Powell organised a camp on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour Dorset to test out his ideas for a Boy Scout Movement. Only 20 lads turned up: half from local Boys’ Brigade compan­ies and half school boys whose fathers knew Baden-Powell. But in a very important sense, this camp marked the formal beg­inning of the scouting movement.

The next year, 1908, scout packs were established across the country, all following the principles laid out in Baden-Powell’s book.  The first national Scout Rally was held at Crystal Palace in 1909. By 1920, the first worldwide Scout Jamboree took place in Olympia in West Kensington, under Baden-Powell’s leadership. Soon after this event  Baden-Powell was made a Baronet, and the rest – Cubs, Scouts, Sea Scouts, Air Scouts, Girl Guides etc. is history.

Scouting in South Africa

Typical to South Africa, put two of us in the same room and we will come up with three political parties.  This is true when it came to the founding of the ‘Voortrekkers, the Africans equivalent scout movement.  The initial tenants of ‘Apartheid’ did not really form on how to keep Blacks and Whites apart, early Apartheid philosophy focussed on how to keep the Afrikaner and English South African youth on separate socialization trajectories, with their own respective primary and high schools, sports leagues, universities and youth movements/organisations – almost every youth institution was defined as those for the ‘English’ and those for the ‘Afrikaner’.

The original concept of a separate youth scouting movement for Afrikaners was formulated by Dr. C.F. Visser in 1913 in Bloemfontein, and early on in its formulation it was already at loggerheads with the Scout movement started by Baden-Powell.  The formation of the Voortrekkers coincided with the growth of Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa, post the 2nd Anglo Boer War.  The Nationalist were anti-British and for good reason, the British has decimated the Afrikaner ‘Boer’ peoples and sitting deeply in their consciousness then (and now) was hatred, especially fuelled by the British concentration camp system, where disease took hold of deported Boer families, killing thousands of Boer women and children during the war.

The Voortrekkers was formed as the Afrikaans-language alternative in opposition to the largely English-speaking Boy Scout movement, which had a strong and overt British heritage.  The Scout movement was equally nationalistic in its initial appeal to British youth and it carried with it a 2nd Anglo Boer war inspiration and root along with a British Boer War Commander as a founder – all of which was very much despised by the Afrikaner Nationalists.

Even initial efforts by Dr Visser to consolidate the Voortrekkers under the ‘broad church’ of the more global Boy Scout movement met with resistance – both by Afrikaner Nationalists and by the directors of the Boy Scout Movement.

Issues arose over the differences of language, culture and history.  There were also further complications hinging upon religious declarations or beliefs, the religious tone of the Voortrekkers was more than that of the Scouting Movement programme. The values and principles of the Voortrekker organisation ran along Afrikaner Nationalism lines and this proved highly problematic as it politicised the movement. Therefore no agreement could be reached.

The Voortrekkers and Scouts continue to exist in parallel to one another in South Africa, the Voortrekkers still appealing to mainly white Afrikaans youth based on cultural assimilation and the Scouts are now a very multiracial youth movement in South Africa having now undergone some transformation to become more inclusive of communities outside of the ‘white English’ one.

Both are doing an excellent job in building youth skills in the appreciation and arts of outdoor living, basic life skills and value building – but both are going it very much in their own respective way.

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Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Sources and extracts include Wikipedia and The imperial War Museum.  Additional information and images gleaned from South African Scout and Voortrekker official websites.

 

The last South African medal to be issued by a British monarch!

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Queen Elizabeth II

Here’s something on the SADF/SANDF’s John Chard Decoration and Medal series for long service in the Citizen Force, many who even hold the medal may not even know.  But did you know, the John Chard Decoration and John Chard Medal Series was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 (just two short months after she became Queen) and it is the last medal to issued by a British monarch and worn by members in all four South African military formations – Army, Navy, Air Force and Medical Service.

The John Chard Medal was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II on 6 April 1952, during the Tercentenary Jan van Riebeeck Festival, to replace the South African Union Defence Force’s Efficiency Medal and the Air Efficiency Award which had been awarded to members of the Citizen Force between 1939 and 1952.  The John Chard medal series is a ‘service medal’ awarded for pre-determined tenure of service to the statuate South African defence forces.

So why ‘Rorke’s Drift’?

The John Chard medal and decoration was named after John Chard VC, the lieutenant in command of the supply depot at Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War, when it was attacked by Zulus on the 22nd of January 1879.  

For anyone whose seen the landmark movie ‘Zulu’, Lt. John Chard is played by Stanley Baker.  Baker stars alongside Michael Caine who plays Lt. Gonville Bromhead.

The two officers, John Chard and Gonville Bromhead both earned Victoria Crosses’ along with nine others in defending Rorke’s Drift against a Zulu army attack.  This is the largest tally of Victoria Crosses (the ultimate British award for Valour) from one single engagement, per head this battle has the highest concentration of bravery awards and decorations ever received (11 Victoria Crosses, one VC Mentioned in Dispatches and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals).  There were only just over 150 British and colonial troops who successfully defended the missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift against an intense assault by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. It is an act that has never been repeated, and likely never to happen again in future.

So why so many Victoria Crosses for so few defenders?  Well, simply put , a significant part of the British expeditionary force had been annihilated at the Battle of Isandlwana on the same day 22 January 1879, and the little missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift was the last line of defence should the Zulu Army have built on its victory at Isandlwana and invaded the British colony.  The Natal Colony would have been for the most part left defenceless whilst Lord Chemsford and the remaining bulk of British forces searched for the Zulu army in the Zulu Kingdom itself.  The action of these ‘few’ at Rorke’s Drift literally saved an entire British colony.

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The Battle of Isandlwana was an embarrassing defeat for the British. The British Empire suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous foe with vastly inferior military technology. The site today is most interesting, because of the hard ground the British were unable to bury their dead, so they built stone cairns where they fell to cover them instead. These cairns, painted white – are a grizzly reminder of the calamity which took place there and literally map and bring the battlefield into perspective.

So why is John Chard singled out?

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John Chard VC

John Chard was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers who was busy building a pontoon bridge across the river, when he received the news that Isandlwana was under fierce attack.

Leaving his work, Chard rushed to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, here he calmly set about building defensive walls around the hospital using bags of grain and biscuit tins.  Chard took up overall Command to defend the missionary buildings and it was his strategy and tactics during the battle that literally saved the day and helped to avoid complete annihilation of his small force of wounded and sick men, and a sprinkling of some very scared and bewildered Natal Native Continent soldiers.  The redoubt he ordered be built was key to the British success on the day.

For his role in the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift, Queen Victoria awarded the Victoria Cross to him, he also received a promotion to captain (he would retire a Colonel).  To get a modern perspective on this in living image, this compilation from the movie ‘Zulu’ captures the destruction at Isandlwana and the fierce fighting in defending Rorke’s Drift, take the short time to watch it – look out for the concentrated volley fire and the use of the redoubt – a tactic missing from the Battle of Isaldlwana but used to absolute effect at Rorke’s Drift.

Citation 

medalThe citation for Chard’s and Bromhead’s Victoria Crosses says everything:

THE Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention to confer the decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned Officers and Soldiers of Her Majesty’s Army, whose claims have been submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, for their gallant conduct in the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus, as recorded against their names, viz.:—

For their gallant conduct at the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus on the 22nd and 23rd  January, 1879.

Royal Engineers Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) J. R. M. Chard

2nd Battalion 24th Regiment Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) G. Bromhead

The Lieutenant-General commanding the troops reports that, had it not been for the fine example and excellent behaviour of these two Officers under the most trying circumstances, the defence of Rorke’s Drift post would not have been conducted with that intelligence and tenacity which so essentially characterised it.

The Lieutenant-General adds, that its success must, in a great degree, be attributable to the two young Officers who exercised the Chief Command on the occasion in question.

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Painting by Alphonse de Neuville – The defence of Rorke’s Drift

The John Chard Medal set

Even we learn something new everyday, what makes this surprising is that a medal issued by a British Monarch remained in the service of The South African Defence Force for so long, especially after it was reformatted after the National Party took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth and they embarked on a campaign to change the South African military emblems, insignia and medals and rid the SADF of anything “British” (especially the Queen’s crown which now had to go).

In many instances these changes where resisted and a number of civilian force “Regiments” where able to hold onto some of their British heritage – however the medal sets where all changed and new medals instituted, except the John Chard Service medal series which survived the changes.

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John Chard 10 year service medal

The medal was awarded to all ranks of the Citizen Force for twelve years efficient service, not necessarily continuous. After a further eight years a recipient could qualify for the award of the John Chard Decoration (JCD).

This was later changed in 1986 to allow Citizen Force members to earn the John Chard Medal after ten years service, not necessarily continuous and the John Chard Decoration after twenty years.

The John Chard medal comes in heavy brass and the John Chard  Decoration comes in heavy silver, and is not only beautiful to handle, but also fairly valuable. The early medals and awards bore the royal cypher on the rear, while the later ones bore the coat of arms of the Republic of South Africa.

The ribbon also carries the arm of service, crossed swords for the South African Army, a spread eagle for the South African Air Force, an anchor for the South African Navy and a Rod of Asclepius for the South African Medical Service.  A ‘bar’ also existed for The John Chard Decoration, which signified 30 years service.

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John Chard Decoration for 20 years service

The John Chard decoration/medal series continued in the SANDF from 1994, but was finally discontinued in 2003 and replaced by the SANDF’s new long service medals. This was done when the new African National Congress (ANC) political dispensation did a sweeping change to all military emblems and insignia to rid it of anything the ‘nationalists’ or ‘colonialists’ instituted (and lets not pull any politically correct punches – to the Zulu nation Rorke’s Drift is symbolic of British imperialist aggression, land grabbing and expansion into an independent Zulu Kingdom).

The John Chard medal is now superseded by the SANDF’s Medaljie sir Troue Diens and the Emblem for Reserve Force Service.  The John Chard medal (and decoration) is still recognised as an ‘official’ medal issued for a statutory force member, and is still worn very proudly in the South African Reserve by those who have received it.

We can’t but think that each time a new political dispensation brings in its particular sweeping changes into the defence force, something by way of tradition gets lost.

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Photo of General Roy Andersen, the head of The South African Reserve by Cornelius Bezuidenhout, notice the John Chard decoration (with bar) and John Chard medal at the far right hand end of his medal set when looking left to right.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Clip of Zulu taken from YouTube, original movie copyright Paramount Pictures, released 1964 Directed by Cy Enfield and Produced by Stanley Baker.

“Gold may shine; but it has no true light” South African sacrifice on the HMS Edinburgh

British20Navy20HMS20Edinburgh“Gold may shine, but it has no true light” is a quote by Kristian Goldmund Aumann to mean that glittering gold is false when compared to the importance of spiritual light, and nothing is more true in this statement when reviewing the sacrifice and loss on the HMS Edinburgh – it is the subject of a multi-million dollar treasure hunt for gold and the subject of supreme wartime sacrifice, including South African life.

As Simonstown was a British naval base during the Second World War thousands of naval ratings and officers who volunteered to serve in the South African Navy (known as the South African Navy Forces) landed up serving on British vessels. So when one was sunk, as HMS Edinburgh was, inevitably there is an honour roll of South Africans. The sinking of the HMS Edinburgh also carries with it an intriguing story of gold … read on for their story.

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Aerial view of HMS EDINBURGH, ‘Southampton’ class (third group) cruiser in Scapa Flow, October 1941. Imperial War Museum copyright

Operations 

The HMS Edinburgh was a very heavily armed and armoured Town Class light cruiser of the Royal Navy, she saw extensive wartime service during World War 2, including the hunt for the German Battleship Bismarck, however our story picks up from August 1941 when she  escorted convoy WS10 to Simonstown in South Africa.

After some maintenance work in South Africa and taking on some South African Naval personnel the HMS Edinburgh sailed to Malta as part of Operation Halberd. She returned to Gibraltar shortly afterwards, departing from there on 1 October 1941, with supplies and prisoners of war aboard, and bound for the Clyde in Scotland.

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The cruisers HMS EDINBURGH, HMS HERMIONE, and HMS EURYALUS, steaming in line abreast whilst they escort a convoy (Operation HALBERD – convoy not visible).

After repairs at Faslane she joined the Home Fleet on Iceland Forces Patrol duties and from November 1941 to April 1942 provided cover to Arctic convoys bringing aid to the Soviet Union (Russia).

On 6 April, she left Scapa Flow to escort convoy PQ14 to Murmansk. Of the 24 ships in PQ14, 16 were forced by unseasonal ice and bad weather to return to Iceland, and another was sunk by a U-boat. HMS Edinburgh and the remaining seven vessels arrived in Murmansk on 19 April.

Here she took on gold bullion to take back to the United Kingdom, a lot of it, 4.5-long-ton (4,570 kg). The consignment, which had a value of about £1.5 million sterling in 1942 (adjusted for inflation to 2017 pounds, £63,047,983), was a partial payment by the Soviet Union  for the supplies of war material and military equipment from the Western Allies. In total the ship had 465 gold ingots in 93 wooden boxes stored in the bomb-room.

Sinking

On the return leg from Murmansk, HMS Edinburgh was the flagship of Rear-Admiral Stuart Bonham Carter who was commanding the escort of returning Convoy QP 11 involving 17 ships.

On 30 April 1942, a German Submarine U-456 (under the command of Kapitanleutnant  Max-Martin Teichert) on her 5th patrol spotted the HMS Edinburgh and engaged her by firing a torpedo into her starboard side, hitting her just fore of the bomb room, which stored all the gold.

The ship began to list heavily, but the crew reacted quickly and competently by closing watertight bulkheads, which prevented the ship from sinking immediately. Soon after, U-456 put a second torpedo into HMS Edinburghs stern, wrecking her steering equipment and crippling her.

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A photograph clearly showing the severe damage to the stern of HMS EDINBURGH caused by the German torpedo and her listing to port.

HMS Edinburgh was then taken in tow by escorting British ships, and tried to return to Murmansk along with the destroyers HMS Foresight and HMS Forester and four minesweepers. Along the way she was hounded constantly by German torpedo bombers. On 2 May, as she progressed at a snail’s pace under tow and her own power, she was attacked off Bear Island by three large German destroyers – Z7, Z24 and Z25. HMS Edinburgh was cast off the tow, so that she started to sail in circles, fighting off the assault in a fierce sea battle , the Edinburgh even managed to cause such damage to one of the German Destroyers – Z7 Hermann Schoemann that it had to scuttled by her crew and sank.

HMS Edinburgh’s escorts eventually drove off Z24 and Z25, but she was struck by a torpedo amidships, exactly opposite the first torpedo hit from U-456. She was now held together only by the deck plating and keel, which was likely to fail at any time, so the crew abandoned ship. HMS Gossamer took off 440 men and HMS Harrier about 400. Two officers and 56 other ranks on HMS Edinburgh were killed in the attacks.

HMS Edinburgh was doomed at this stage and a last resort the British used HMS Harrier tried to scuttle HMS Edinburgh with 4 inch gunfire, but 20 shots did not sink her. Depth charges dropped alongside also failed. Finally, in a sad farewell to a very strong fighting ship HMS Foresight sank HMS Edinburgh with her last torpedo (the others having been expended against the German destroyers).

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HMS Foresight (FL 4063) Underway.

In an ironic twist of history, HMS Foresight met a similar fate as HMS Edinburgh when she was torpedoed by Italian aircraft whilst on escort duty and had to be sunk by HMS Tartar after breaking her tow.

The fate of U-456, Z24 and Z25

The fate of the German submarine and warships involved in the sinking of HMS Edinburgh, U-456 was eventually sunk on the 12th May 1943 whilst hunting convoys off Ireland she was spotted by a RAF Liberator, she dived but was hit by a ‘new’ American Fido acoustic homing torpedo dropped by the Liberator. U-456 was badly damaged and forced to re-surface. On the following day she was depth charged and sunk on 12 May 1943 by HMS Opportune.

Z24 was a Type 1936 German destroyer and was attacked and completely destroyed and sunk by the Royal Air Force on the 25th August 1944 off Le Verdon.  Z25, also a Type 1936 survived the war and was taken over by the British on the 6th January 1946.

Salvaging the Gold

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Keith Jessop with a gold bar from the HMS Edinburgh

After the war, the wreck of the HMS Edinburgh was classified as a war grave, making salvage operations for the gold which sunk with her difficult.  However ever anxious the British government pressed to recover the gold.  Ostensibly not just because of the value but also because of unscrupulous salvaging operations and because of tensions with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and fear they might salvage it all.

In the early 1980s, Jessop Marine, with the support of Wharton Williams Ltd (a leading global diving company) and OSA (a specialist shipping company) won a contract from the British government to attempt a recovery.  The recovered gold would be divided up between the salvage consortium, the British Government and the Soviet Government.

Cutting into the wreck by divers to get to the bomb room was deemed more appropriate for a war grave than the traditional ‘smash and grab’ explosives-oriented methods. The consortium of specialist companies for the project was then formed on the proviso the recovery be done with dignity.

In April 1981, the wreck was discovered the wreck at about 400 kilometres NNE of the Soviet coast at the Kola Inlet at a very deep 245 metres (800 ft).  The wreck was mapped and on the 30th August 1981 the diving operation began in earnest, by mid September, 431 of 465 ingots had been recovered.

At the time, the 80’s, the haul was worth in excess of £40,000,000 sterling  (£63,000,000 by today’s standard). This bullion recovery project created a World Record in deep diving which stands to this day. A further 29 bars were brought up in 1986 by the Consortium, bringing the total to 460, leaving five unaccounted for.  They also recovered the all important ship’s bell. It was billed as the ‘Salvage of the Century’ and made a rich man the famous treasure hunter Keith Jessop and others, including some Southern African divers on the project.

However, some full credit to these divers, when reaching the wreck for the first time the lead diver on his own accord conducted two minutes of silence underwater in recognition of the war dead, despite the extreme dangers of saturation ‘deep bell’ diving.  They also preformed a wreath laying service at sea on completing the salvage.

The BBC captured this story in a documentary called ‘Gold from the Deep – The Salvage of the Century,’ its well worth a view and contains some outstanding eye-witness accounts of the HMS Edinburgh’s crew.

See YouTube link Gold from the deep – the salvage of the century

“Gold may shine, but it has no true light”

Now, we come back to the quote, “Gold may shine, but has no true light”.  The true light, the true treasure lost were the lives of the 58 Allied personnel lost on HMS Edinburgh in her desperate fight to bring convoys of equipment, food and aid to the Soviet Union in a very desperate time as the Russians soaked up the biggest cost in blood of the war fighting Nazi Germany,  the later Cold War of the 1980’s and gold booty aside, we remember these South African’s whose true light was extinguished in this fight:

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nSouth African Honour Roll – HMS Edinburgh 

DRUMMOND, Valentine W, Able Seaman, 68043 (South African Naval Forces), Missing Presumed Killed
VAN DORDRECHT, William H, Able Seaman, 67851 (South African Naval Forces), Missing Presumed Killed


Written by Peter Dickens, primary source and extracts from Wikipedia, photo copyrights to the Imperial War Museum

The ‘Devil’s Box’

Ever the scientific mind, Jan Smuts inspects a television camera just after World War 2 (cira 1948/9). Knowing Smuts’ he would have fully embraced this new medium given his nature and inquisitive mind, his opposition the National Party saw television very differently – they called it the ‘devils box’ and feared it would unleash corruption of the mind.

Their staunch National Christian principles demanded that television not be brought to South Africa and they resisted the introduction of television until 1976 – nearly 30 years after most the world embraced the technology. Rhodesia introduced TV in 1960 and Rhodesians though South Africa an oddity with no gambling and no TV.

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Dr Albert Hertzog

Dr. Albert Hertzog, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the time, said that TV would come to South Africa “over [his] dead body,” denouncing it as “only a miniature bioscope which is being carried into the house and over which parents have no control.”

He also argued that “South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make Africans dissatisfied with their lot.” The new medium was then regarded as the “devil’s own box, for disseminating communism and immorality”.

The issue of whether to bring television to South Africa was back on the Parliamentary debate when South Africa was about the only country in the advanced world to completely miss Neil Armstrong’s famous worlds and landing on the moon – beamed live on TV to planet earth (except, inter-alia – South Africa) in 1969.  The moon landing and live Apollo missions to the moon into the mid 1970’s had sealed television as the primary media mouthpiece of the foreseeable future – it could simply no longer be ignored.

In 1971, the National Party appointed a “Commission of Inquiry into Matters Relating to Television”, headed by Piet Meyer, chairman of the Afrikaner Broederbond and later of the SABC. itself.  A majority of its members, of whom nine were Broederbond members, recommended that a television service be introduced, provided that “effective control” was exercised “to the advantage of our nation and country”.

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Still taken from ‘Television in Action’ the first Test Broadcast in 1975 which used the SADF as a subject.

Instead of fearing the advancement of communication via television, the National Party now embraced the power of television to mould the nation’s mind in favour their prevailing political narrative – if it was very carefully censored and controlled by the state.  Albeit that they were still very wary as is seen here is John Vosters’ opening speech on the first broadcast on the 5th January 1976.

In the English part of his short bilingual address BJ Vorster went on to say.

‘After years of thorough preparations, we have now reached the stage where television becomes a part of our daily lives,’ Vorster explained. ‘… It is still too early to say or even to predict what influence it is going to have on our daily lives. But what is clear, is that we are dealing with a medium that, as it has already been experienced by all other countries, can have a powerful influence, whether for good or for bad.’

Vorster then outlined his vision for South African television:

The approach should still be that we want to use the medium to provide fresh and correct information, and healthy entertainment, and to be part of the education of the nation … Objectivity and balance should still be our keyword. It is a big task, not only to bring the world to South Africa, but also (and perhaps especially) to show South Africa to the world as it is in its rich diversity and everything it has to offer.

The possibility of using television as a government propaganda tool was thus clear from the beginning. When TV was finally introduced is was very limited to a handful of hours at night for many years split equally between English and Afrikaans and heavily censored and controlled with heavy religious and Afrikaner nationalist cultural content.

Broadcasting started and ended with a Christian Bible reading and prayer which was then concluded with the playing of the national anthem before switching to the ever-present ‘test pattern’.

hqdefaultSunday broadcasts were dominated by a NG Church service streamed onto television and Afrikaans entertainment hours were dominated by ‘Boeremusik’ programming and showcasing ‘boere-orchestras’ and smiliar music shows.  The only news channel was ‘SABC’ News – which was very carefully managed.

In 1976, despite initially denying involvement of the SADF in Angola, world media and soldiers and their families themselves could no longer keep it a secret.  To take the high ground the National Party was very quick to jump on the TV bandwagon to publish a very politically and factually skewed ‘docu-drama’ in 1976 called ‘Brug 14’ to paint the forces of good (SADF) against the forces of evil (Cuban Communism) as an early foray into using the SABC as a propaganda tool.  It proved very successful and set the bench for docu-drama’s and documentaries to come.

By 1978, the British Actors’ Equity ban was extended to television programmes recorded on film.  The ban had first been put on South Africa in the 1960s in protest against Apartheid policies, and stated that Equity members would not perform in South Africa if they were not allowed to play to multi-racial audiences. When the boycott was extended to television, it meant that programmes using a performance by any Equity member could not be broadcast over South African television. This created difficulties in the procurement of shows from overseas, as Britain was an important source of material.

Ever resourceful to keep the ‘business as usual’ sanitised approach, the SABC managed to find their way around the ban by importing programmes from other countries and even by adapting British programmes, for example the animated children’s programme, Rupert the Bear. To get around the ban, the SABC dubbed the programme from English into English, as it originally featured performances by Equity voice artists.

Only by 1982 was television opened up to other languages and cultures, and Black South African audiences could finally enjoy some ‘sanitised’ content aimed at them. ‘Independent’ television from state-owned control – M-Net – was only finally launched in 1986, and only on the proviso that they were not allowed to have a news channel.  It was to be an entertainment channel only, the Nationalists continued to maintain a heavy grip on what South African’s could and could not see by way of how the Apartheid experiment was getting along.

cb_logo_defaultIn 1988, M-Net, keen on doing some kind of news actuality programming, found its way around the ‘no news channel’ clause with the launch of Carte Blanche (meaning ‘anything goes’) a once a week ‘Investigative journalism’ program which they billed as ‘entertainment’.  It is still South Africa’s only real source of real unbiased local TV news broadcasting having uncovered many of South Africa’s most famous scandals of human rights abuse, corruption and consumer affairs.

Very often, this website – The Observation Post, comes under criticism whenever it is mentioned that the Nationalist system skewed history or news or went about covering up tracks – one only has to cast your mind back to the heavy state control of media, especially mass media and the ‘blackout’ of anything broadcasted on a national basis which would counteract state policy.

South Africans were fed a careful diet of Nationalist Afrikaner dogma for decades, and as a result either have limited or no knowledge of our own contemporary history or if we do have some idea it is often connected with an equally skewed state ‘National Christian’ education policy and it is very biased and often very incorrect.

To get more in-depth as to this ‘influence’ on the general mindset of South Africans living under Apartheid, this documentary ‘SABC 20 years – the untold story’ is a must watch, it  looks at the start up of television in South Africa in 1976 and the manner in which it was directly controlled by the Nationalist Party Government to propagate Apartheid ideology.

Given the modern power of state-owned broadcasters and the advent of ‘fake-news’ in our current political narrative, with the SABC now firmly in the hands of the African National Congress (ANC), the ANC have proved themselves to be no different to the old ‘Nats’, as this powerful medium is once again wielded in favour of the prevailing political narrative – this time it’s all about ‘Black African nationalism’ and no longer ‘Afrikaner nationalism’.

The ANC have indeed learned from the previous ‘masters’ as to the power of manipulating TV media to mould the mind of the nation and we as a ‘rainbow’ nation of South Africans still await a truly politically uninfluenced free to air news channel, a full quarter of a decade into ‘true’ democracy later.

The ANC have even gone as far as launching their very own ’24 hour news’ channel in the form of ANN7 owned by the Gupta family which so blatantly biased towards ANC doctrine and their own news information it’s shameful.

In this sense Dr. Albert Hertzog was dead right – it is indeed the ‘Devil’s Box’ but as has been proved – it very much depends on whose Devil is in control of it.

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Written by Peter Dickens, references and extracts from Wikipedia and ‘Television Comes to South Africa’ published by the University of Pretoria  – Bevan, C (2008).  Cartoon copyright Zapiro.  “SABC TV 20 YEARS – the untold story” 1996 copyright Kevin Harris

The iconic Hammersmith Bridge in London remembers a brave South African

74574Next time anyone walks down the iconic green Hammersmith Bridge in London, the halfway mark on the Oxford Cambridge Boat race on the Thames River, look out for and spare a thought for a very brave South African who is forever remembered on a historic plaque on Hammersmith Bridge itself.

So how do we have a South African’s name so honoured on such an iconic London Bridge?  Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood’s story is a very moving one of selflessness and bravery.

Born on 8 December 1891 in Bloemfontein, Charles Campbell Wood was drawn to the military as a young man when World War One broke out, he initially joined the South African Medical Corps as a Private and took part in the German South West African Campaign (now Namibia), for which he was awarded his World War 1, 1914-15 Star on 7 September 1914.

His aspirations later took him to the United Kingdom where he resigned from the South African Medical Corps and by 1919 he had already joined the 9th Brigade of the Royal Air Force as a flying officer and held the rank of Lieutenant.

Two days after Christmas in 1919, Lt. Charles Campbell Wood earned a small place in history, but he earned it the hard way. Near midnight on a cold London winter evening Campbell Wood heard a call for help from the Thames. Rushing onto the western, upriver side of the Hammersmith Bridge, he saw a woman in grave danger, she had fallen in the Thames River, which is a tidal river with a very fast flow.

Caught in the river’s rapid current she was at death’s door. Diving into the river to rescue her from the upstream footway of Hammersmith Bridge, was our hero, Lt Campbell Wood, who in turn saved the woman’s life. But in so doing, he also severely injured his head, this in turn caused him to contract tetanus (the Thames at the time was a known cesspool) and he died in hospital some days later in the new year on the 10th January 1920.

Today the only reminder of his story is a small brass plaque on a handrail, which marks the spot on the bridge where Lt. Campbell Wood dived into the Thames to risk his life to save the life of a complete stranger.

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He was survived by his mother, Mrs Grace Ellen Wood who lived in South Africa and his estate forwarded to her. His death was registered, aged 28 years, in Barnet, Hertfordshire. If you would like to visit him he is buried in Plot I. 16. 136. at East Finchley Cemetery & Crematorium, 122, East End Lane, East Finchley, N2 0RZ.

An iconic space in London will always be the preserve of a selfless and brave South African, yet another one of South Africa’s brave servicemen who we can be eternally proud of, next time you are in London make the journey to Hammersmith and continue his memory.


Written by Peter Dickens with profound thanks to Derek Walker and Andrew Behan for the background research as well as additional reference from Sandy Evan Hanes.  Picture source of Lt Charles Campbell Wood: Record No.7786 of the Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates held at RAF Hendon as published on ancestry.co.uk, content reference www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk – Lieutenant Charles Campbell Wood.

Also see War Graves Project Lt Charles Campbell Wood

Barney Barnato’s legendary grand-daughter

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Barney Barnato

As South Africans many of us are familiar with Barney Barnato, the diamond and gold mining tycoon made rich in South Africa.  His legacy carries with it a rags to riches story in Kimberley, when he joined the diamond rush with barely a penny, he was so broke he had to walk the last leg to get to Kimberley.

What follows is a stella consolidation of mining plots, and he was best known for his competition with Cecil John Rhodes for overall control and consolidation of all the Kimberley diamond mines.  Rhodes’ cheque to Barnato to buy him out is in the economic history annuals as the biggest single instrument to settle a purchase, it made him a mining tycoon, and he was again at it making millions on the Rand’s Gold Mines in the Transvaal.  He even had enough financial clout to threaten Paul Kruger and his Transvaal government not to execute members of Rhodes’ failed Jameson Raid for treason, and won the day.

His mysterious death on the 14 June 1897 whilst on passage from South Africa to the United Kingdom carries with it all the intrigue of murder versus suicide, he ‘fell overboard’ and his body was later recovered.  The interesting part for this story is where his millions went.

So how was this great personal wealth generated by South African gold and diamonds spent, how do we as humanity benefit from Barnato’s legacy today?

Woolf Barnato 

Happily some of this financial legacy ends well, a significant part of the Barney Bernato estate went to his son, Woolf Barnato, who used part of the multimillion-pound fortune he inherited at the age of two, to become a pioneer racing driver in the 1920s.

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Woolf Barnato

Woolf was one of the so-called Bentley Boys he pioneered racing engineering and speed.  He even went on to achieve three consecutive wins out of three entries in the 24 Hours Le Mans race.

During the war, from 1940 to 1945, Woolf Barnato was a Wing-Commander with the Royal Air Force responsible for the protection of aircraft factories against Nazi  Luftwaffe bombing raids.

This racing fuelled jet setting son of Barney, transferred his passion for pushing speed limits, record-breaking and the fearlessness needed to do it to his daughter, Diana – and it is here, in the grand-daughter of Barney that the Bernato legacy really shines through.

Diana Barnato Walker MBE FRAeS

Diana Barnato was born on 15 January 1918, she was destined to become a pioneering female aviator.  Diana Barnato and her sister, Virginia, enjoyed the pleasures of high society, though Woolf separated from their mother when Diana was four.

While their mother brought the girls up she maintained an amicable relationship with their father. Diana was educated at Queen’s College in Harley Street, London, until 1936, when she came out as a débutante and ‘did the season’ having been presented to King Edward VIII at Buckingham Palace.

From an early age, she became interested in aircraft and at age 20 she decided to become a pilot. Her initial training was in Tiger Moths at the Brooklands Flying Club, the aerodrome being located within the famous motor racing circuit in Surrey. She showed a natural aptitude for flying and made her first solo flight after only six hours of dual instruction.

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In terms of family she had some legacy, as we know Diana’s father was Woolf Barnato (1895-1948), he eventually became the Chairman of Bentley Motors and his first wife was Dorothy Maitland Falk (1893-1961), an American from White Plains, New York, who were married at the Ritz Carlton in London.

As we know her paternal grandfather was Barney Barnato (1851–1897) and her maternal grandparents were American stockbroker Herbert Valentine Falk and Florence Maude Whittaker. While married from 1915-1933, her parents had two children, Virginia Barnato (1916-1980) and Diana.

Red Cross Service during World War 2 

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Diana volunteered to become a Red Cross nurse. In 1940 she was serving as a nurse in France before the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and later drove ambulances in London during the Blitz.

One of the ‘female few’: ATA Service 

In early 1941 she applied to become one of the first women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and successfully took her initial assessment flying test at their headquarters at White Waltham, Berkshire, on 9 March 1941 with the ATA’s Chief Flying Instructor, A.R.O. Macmillan, in the Tiger Moth’s rear seat.

Diana was admitted to the ATA’s Elementary Flying Training School at White Waltham on 2 November 1941. After a lengthy period of intensive flight instruction and tests in primary training aircraft, she joined her first ATA Ferry Pool (FP), No.15 FP at RAF Hamble, Hampshire, on 9 May 1942. She soon began to deliver low-powered single engine aircraft from factory or repair base to storage units and RAF and Naval flying units.

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Further advanced training permitted her to deliver several hundred Spitfires, Hurricanes, Mustangs, Tempests and other high performance fighter aircraft. After yet further training, Diana became eligible to deliver twin-engined aircraft and delivered Whitleys, Blenheims, Mosquitos, Mitchells and Wellingtons, normally flying solo when doing so. She continued intensive flying with the ATA until the organisation was disbanded in late 1945. By that time she had flown 80 types of aircraft and had delivered 260 Spitfires.

The ATA’s pilots ferried all types of military aircraft, from trainers to bombers, from factories to RAF stations or from maintenance units to squadrons. They had minimal pilot’s notes and no radios, and often flew in marginal weather conditions. 

Diana had her share of incidents. While flying a Supermarine Walrus air-sea-rescue amphibian, her least-liked aeroplane, from Cosford to Eastleigh on 19 September 1944, the windscreen was obscured by oil from the failing engine as she approached the Southampton balloon barrage at 1500 feet. Without power she could only push down the nose to prevent a stall and make a steep descent into the sea fog. Luckily she missed the balloon cables and emerged from the cloud a few feet above Eastleigh’s grass airfield.

Three weeks after Barnato first met the battle of Britain fighter ace Squadron Leader Humphrey Trench Gilbert in 1942 they became engaged, but days later he died in a flying accident. Two years later, on 6 May 1944, she married another pilot, Wing Commander Derek Ronald Walker, and was docked three months’ pay for making an unauthorized honeymoon flight to Brussels four months later in a Spitfire, accompanied by her husband in another. Derek Walker was killed in a flying accident shortly after the war’s end, on 14 November 1945.

Diana vowed never to marry again. For 30 years she was the lover of Whitney Straight, also a pilot and a pre-war champion racing driver, like her father. In 1947, the couple had a son and named him after his great-grandfather on his mother’s side: Barney Barnato Walker.

As part of the ATA Diana would have stood shoulder to shoulder with another famous and remarkable South African pioneer aviator Jackie Moggridge, for more on her, follow this link South African Battle of Britain Heroine -Jackie Moggridge

Women’s Junior Air Corps

After the war’s end, Diana continued to fly and gained her commercial flying licence. For many years she was a volunteer pilot with the Women’s Junior Air Corps (WJAC), later the Girls Venture Corps Air Cadets (GVCAC), giving flights to air-minded teenage girls to encourage them to enter the aviation industry. Here she accumulated many happy hours in the corps’ Fairchild Argus and Auster aircraft. 

On 11 July 1948, at White Waltham aerodrome in England, she had just taken off in a newly acquired Argus aircraft for the Air Corps when it burst into flames. Rather than bale out and lose a valuable aeroplane, she switched off the fuel and glided back to the airfield, where the flames were put out.

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Diana Barnato Walker receiving the Lennox Trophy from Lord Brabazon, 1963

In 1963, for her work with the corps, she was awarded the Jean Lennox Bird trophy, presented annually to a British woman pilot.

Air Speed Record 

On 26 August 1963 she flew a Royal Air Force English Electric Lightning T4 to Mach 1.6 (1,262 mph or 2,031 km/h) after convincing the Air Minister to let her fly it with Squadron Leader Ken Goodwin as her check pilot, and so became the first British woman to break the sound barrier. She also established by this flight a world air speed record for women.

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Shortly after her record-breaking flight in 1963, Diana was found to have cancer, and subsequently had three operations, ultimately winning the battle against the ‘Big C’.

Legacy

Diana Barnato Walker was awarded the MBE in 1965 for services to aviation, and was a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In later years Diana Barnato Walker took up sheep farming and was master of the Old Surrey and Burstow foxhounds for thirteen seasons, while continuing to fly for the Women’s Junior Air Corps (renamed in 1964 the Girls’ Venture Corps). She also became commodore of the Air Transport Auxiliary Association. She died of pneumonia on 28 April 2008 aged 90 in a hospital near her sheep farm in Surrey, and was survived by her son, Barney.

There you have it, Barney’s decision to break the family poverty cycle and make his fortunes in South Africa has ultimately left us with a person who pioneered female equality and has become an icon for many women, especially those who have entered the field of aviation – what a wonderful journey we weave.

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Researched by Peter Dickens, main source and extracts from Wikipedia.

Little known WW2 fact – the South Africans liberated Florence!

Did you know it was elements of South African armoured formations which were the first to enter the Italian city of Florence and given the honour of liberating it?  Chances are most people would not have a clue, the honour given to military formations of liberating capital and regional capital cities like Florence during World War 2 was a very big deal, but sadly in South Africa this very big feather in our military cap is lost to the majority.

The very fact that the iconic worldwide heritage bridge in central Florence – the Ponte Vecchio – still stands is thanks to South African armoured regiments who were the first to get to it and secure it, when all the other iconic historic bridges of Florence were blown into smithereens by the retreating German forces.

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Civilians clambering over the ruins of the Ponte Alle Grazia, one of the bridges over the River Arno destroyed by the Germans before evacuating Florence.

The latter half the Italian campaign during World War 2 was all about the race of various units and ‘nations’ to liberate a city, a great emphasis was placed on the ‘honour’ that a particular formation would receive for doing it, the American’s had the honour of liberating ‘Rome’ it was given to the American 5th Army who secured the centre, the American 1st Armored Division (old ironsides) liberated Milan and Bologna’s liberation is given to the Eighth Army’s Polish II Corps’ 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division.

So, unknown to many South African’s our military has the honour of liberating Tuscany’s regional capital – Florence, an honour simply not placed on the country’s ‘national christian’ education curriculum of the old national party (who regarded the whole episode of South Africa’s WW2 campaign as one of Smuts’ folly and treachery) and now not even on the radar for any young South African studying our history.

In setting the narrative straight and re-kindling this honour, let’s have a look at what happened and ‘whodunnit’.

The Liberation of Florence

In a nutshell, the South African 6th Armoured Division, fighting at the crucible of the Italian campaign against Nazi German forces, spearheaded the Allied advance into Florence in August 1944. They were followed closely by the New Zealanders and then the British forces – as this short news clip from United News at the time recalls.

On 20 July General Kirkman XIII Corps commander, issued orders for a “…powerful thrust to seize all crossings across the River Arno to the west of Florence.” This effort was to be concentrated on the 6th South African Armoured Division front. The advance was to be led by the South African Division with the 4th Infantry Division to its right, supported on the flanks by the 6th British Armoured Division and the 8th Indian Infantry Division.

The Allies advanced through Greve and were stopped by the German 4th Parachute Division on the River Greve on 24 July. The Allies had, however, outflanked the German Parachute Division, who then withdrew during the night of 24/25 July, allowing the South African, New Zealand and Indian Divisions to advance to the Paula Line which was reached on 28 July.

General Kirkman again placed the South African and New Zealand Divisions as the spearhead of his Corps advance, this time to break the Paula Line and to take Florence. By the 3rd of  August columns of South African, New Zealand and 4th Infantry Divisions were advancing towards Florence. By 4 August, advance parties of South Africans and New Zealanders were exploring the outskirts of Florence to find that all bridges across the Arno River viable for military transport had been destroyed by the retreating Germans.

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View of the damage to the Ponte Vecchio from the east. The German forces destroyed all of the bridges over the River Arno with the exception of the Ponte Vecchio before evacuating Florence.

A South African armoured patrol, made up of the South African Imperial Light Horse and the Kimberley Regiment raced into central Florence and found the smaller (and iconic) Ponte Vecchio bridge intact, they crossed it under heavy shelling, entering into the centre of the city at 4 am on the 4th August 1944, to be crowned as the first Allied troops to enter Florence.

This wonderful image captures the moment, here a Sherman artillery OP tank of the 22nd Field Regiment, South African 6th Armoured Division, enters Florence through the Porta Romano, 4 August 1944.

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South African 6th Armoured Division entering Florence through the Porta Romano, 4 August 1944.

In Conclusion 

Over the years New Zealand have laid the claim of liberating Florence, and in that country it is a very big deal, however not to detract the New Zealand sacrifice (they were shoulder to shoulder with the South Africans in this particular fight) but is a sad fact is that nobody has really challenged New Zealand on this claim such is general apathy and lack of national pride in South Africa for our World War 2 sacrifice and battle honours.

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South African tank crew in Florence, Italy on 7 August 1944 shakes the hands of cheering Italians welcoming liberation. From The Digital Collections of the National WWII Museum

The truth (and historic fact) is that it was a South African armoured regiment that secured the Ponte Vecchio bridge and entered the city first, it was the South Africans who were charged with the main spearhead and it is on both the historical record and media record at the time that the South Africans have the honour of liberating Florence.

So there you have it, another ‘Inside the Chappie wrapper’ interesting fact for the day and another reason to stand proud of South Africans.  The beautiful and historic city of Florence, the jewel of Tuscany and its central pride, the medieval Ponte Vecchio – all now enjoyed by a grateful nation and the world at large as an international heritage site, and it’s largely thanks to a heroic bunch of South Africans.

florence-ponte-vecchio


Researched and written by Peter Dickens.  Primary sources – Wikipedia and the Imperial War Museum.  Images, Imperial War Museum copyright.

Movie Clip copyright.  National Archives and Records Administration – ARC 39132, LI 208-UN-1013 – Allies Liberate Florence (1945). Series: Motion Picture Films from “United News” Newsreels, compiled 1942 – 1945.