The day the SAAF nearly killed Jan Smuts

Not a lot of people know this, but the South African Air Force (SAAF) nearly killed General Jan Smuts in a ‘Blue on Blue’ incident – military speak for when you fire on your own forces. The incident also says a lot of Jan Smuts’ character – so what happened?

Prior to the war, Oswald Pirow was the Defence Minister under the Hertzog regime, he was also a key player in the establishment of South African Airways (SAA).  As an ardent supporter of Nazi Germany and the Nazi cause himself he had a keen relationship with Nazi Germany.  He toured Germany on military inspections,  also buying German military hardware on a number of occasions.  As a result  both SAA and the SAAF at the beginning of the war found themselves equipped with German-made aircraft.

One particular aircraft was a German-made bomber made by Junkers, and it was used by both Axis forces in World War 2 and by South African forces – it was the Ju-86.  The difference between the two were slight adaptations and markings.

East African Campaign

At the onset of Word War 2, the South African Air Force’s 1 Squadron moved north in May 1940 for operations against the Italians in East Africa, 6 Hawker Fury fighter aircraft were part of the unit’s equipment.  Arriving in Mombasa, Kenya in June 1940, 6 ex-RAF Fury Is were added to their equipment that August, with 16 more arriving between October and January 1941.

On October 27, 1940, the Furies first saw combat for the first time when 4 Italian Ca.133s from 8 Gruppo, and 25 Squadriglia, attacked their airfield.

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SAAF 1 Squadron Hawker Fury

During October, 2 Squadron was formed out of 1 Squadron, with 9 Furies. On October 31, Hawker Furies from this unit came very close to shooting down two SAAF Ju-86s carrying some very important VIP’s travelling to the SAAF air-base to consult on South Africa’s conduct in the war to date.  The VIP’s included General Jan Smuts (South Africa’s Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief), Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, Major General Alan Cunningham, and Major General Galmen-Austen.  So here is what happened.

Blue and Blue

Within twelve hours of arriving at Nairobi, General Smuts, General Cunningham and the Chief of the South African General Staff were on their way by road to Gilgil, here they were given a rousing reception by 2nd S.A. Infantry Brigade Group whose troops were inspected by General Smuts before his party lunched in the Brigade Officers’ Mess. The party then drove on to Nakuru airfield to meet Lieutenant-Colonel S.A. Melville and men of No. 1 Bomber Brigade and 40 Squadron, SAAF.

On 31 October 1940 General Smuts’ party left at sunrise, not in the Lodestar they arrived in but in a Junkers 86 bomber of the South African Air Force piloted by Captain D. B. Raubenheimer and accompanied by a second Junkers 86 carrying war correspondents, the formation also included a Dragon Rapide and an escort of two Hurricanes.

The aircrafts were making straight for Garba Tulla but changed course because General Smuts had been specially asked to fly over Archer’s Post airfield, headquarters of No. 11 Bomber Squadron, SAAF.

Later on 31 October 1940 the  South African Air Force Ju-86 bomber/transports carrying the VIP contingent did not follow specified procedures to identify themselves as ‘friendly’, as they passed over Archer’s Post. The formation did not signal the specified recognition signal, which consisted of lowering the undercarriage and waggling the wings.

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SAAF Ju-86

Under the impression that the formation was Italian, three SAAF Hawker Furies of 2 Squadron’s ‘D’ detachment, led by Captain J. Meaker, were scrambled and intercepted the formation.

Captain Meaker brought his formation into position quickly and closed to open fire on the bombers. As he manoeuvred to engage the right hand aircraft he noticed that it had twin rudders and climbed slightly to look at its markings, which he immediately recognised. He pulled up and away to the right, but Lieutenant Doug Pannell, flying on his leader’s starboard side, took this to indicate that Captain Meaker had finished his attack.

Meaker had no radio so could not warn the other two Fury that they were SAAF aircraft and he watched in horror as Lt. Pannell went in on attack and opened fire, Pannell only realised his mistake as he broke away.

The pilot of the third Fury did not open fire, and fortunately the Junkers was not shot down.

The Ju-86 aircraft were painted green, still in their original Luftwaffe colour. All SAAF Ju-86 had a 600 series number had a solid nose cone.  They however carried the distinctive South African Orange White and Blue markings and the British and Commonwealth roundel scheme.

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SAAF Ju-86

Close Call

When they landed 8 bullet holes were found in the fuselage and wing root of the SAAF Ju-86 Smuts was flying in, one of the bullets had even passed between Jan Smut’s legs.   In Smuts’ typical stoic, calm and implacable nature he even made light of the entire incident and there were no recriminations to the SAAF pilots involved.

Smuts had been in two previous wars, the 2nd Anglo Boer War and the 1st World War, it was not the first time he had come under fire and he understood the hazardous nature of warfare, his horse had even been shot out from under him Moodernaar’s Poort during the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

Later in the Second World War the SAAF aircraft fleet was modernised somewhat and equipped with more distinctive Allied Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire fighters, Smuts was to regularly use an American made Lockheed Lodestar when visiting South African troops on the ground and air-bases.

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Field Marshal Smuts standing in front of the aircraft in which he made his flying visits. It was an ex-South African Airways Lockheed Lodestar, which retained its natural metal finish when it became No 234 of the South African Air Force. IWM Copyright

In Conclusion

There are still some Afrikaners in the South African conservative right who would wish that the SAAF had indeed killed Jan Smuts, but in truth is he was a very popular World War 2 leader.  His popularity did not only extend the Allied forces, mainly British, American and other Commonwealth countries, it also extended to South African forces involved in World War 2 and domestically, especially amongst white volunteers fighting the war, half of which were of Afrikaner extract.

Smuts’ contribution to the outcome of the Second World War is immeasurable, his membership of the Imperial War Cabinet and his position as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor went a long way to winning the war for the Allies.  An early death of Smuts would have had ramifications on how the war was fought and won.

It also remains a fact that even after the war when Smuts still maintained a high degree of popularity domestically, and when he lost the General Election to the Afrikaner Nationalists in 1948, he still commanded a majority vote from the white electorate and only lost the election on a constitutional seat basis.

Related work

Oswald Pirow; South Africa’s ‘Neuordnung’ and Oswald Pirow

Jan Smuts; “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Jan Smuts; A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens,  with thanks and contribution from Sandy Evan Hanes and Warren Williamson.  References include ‘Jan Smuts – Unafraid of Greatness’ by Richard Steyn,  Image copyright of Smuts next to Lockheed – Imperial War Museum, Image of SAAF Ju-86 courtesy Tinus Le Roux’s SAAF Legends website.

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