War in Eritrea heats up with the SAAF in the front!

The Allied invasion of Eritrea began on 17 January 1941. No.1 Squadron (SAAF) was used to escort RAF Wellesley bombers, and became one of the first Allied units to move into Eritrea, moving to Tessebei airfield during January.

No. 1 Squadron SAAF The squadron took part in the fighting around the key Italian fortress at Keren, which fell on 27 March, and then in the advance on Asmara, which surrendered on 1 April.

Within days of the surrender of Asmara the squadron moved from the “East African” theatre of conflict to the “North African” theatre in Egypt, arriving just in time to take part in Operation Brevity (15 May 1941), the first attempt to lift the siege of Tobruk.

Typical of the East African campaign during World War 2 was the unrelenting heat.  Clearly seen in the featured image is a South African Air Force pilot of No. 1 Squadron SAAF is doing a pre-flight check as he prepares for a sortie in his SAAF Hawker Hurricane Mark I. The picture was taken at a forward landing ground close to the front line in Eritrea, circa 1941.

Note the crew shelter in the foreground, taking some prime shade on offer under the stark thorn tree, it is situated there so the crew can stay out of the relenting heat and its complete with all the comforts and “mod cons” you would expect on a front line – furniture made from petrol cans and duckboards.

Image copyright: Imperial War Museum

Proper South African Gladiators

Wonderful colourised image by Tinus Le Roux of South African Air Force pilots during the East Africa campaign in WW2.

Here are No. 2 Squadron pilots in East Africa 1940-’41 (Gladiator aircraft in the background). From left to right: Lt. Pieter Fritz, Lt. Adrian “Coley” Colenbrander, Lt. Basil Guest. Only Lt. Guest will survive the war.

Lt. Colenbrander was a popular member of the squadron and was shot down and killed in 1942 just after the El Alamein break-through as 2 squadron’s Officer Commanding.

The Gloster Gladiator’s combat record  in East Africa

In Eastern Africa, it was determined that Italian forces based on Ethiopia posed a threat to the British Aden Protectorate, thus it was decided that an offensive would be necessary, under which the Gladiator would face off against the Italian biplane fighters: Fiat CR.32s and CR.42s. On 6 November 1940, in the first hour of the British offensive against Ethiopia, the Fiat CR.42 fighters of the 412a Squadriglia led by Capt. Antonio Raffi shot down five Gloster Gladiators of 1 SAAF Sqn; among the Italian pilots was the ace Mario Visintini. Tactically, the SAAF aircraft erred by engaging the CR.42’s in a piecemeal fashion and not en masse, and were anyway heavily outnumbered.

Early on in the action, Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron performed various offensive actions against the Italian forces; typical targets included airfields, supply depots, and aircraft. They were also assigned the mission of defending Aden airspace at day and night, as well as to protect Allied shipping operating in the vicinity. It was in the latter role that saw a single No. 94 Gladiator, piloted by Gordon Haywood, be responsible for the surrender and capture of the Italian Archimede-class submarine Galilei Galileo

On 6 June 1941, the Regia Aeronautica had only two serviceable aircraft remaining: a CR.32 and a CR.42, therefore air superiority was finally achieved by Gladiators and the Hurricanes. The Gladiator’s last air combat with an Italian fighter was on 24 October 1941, with the CR.42 of Tenente Malavolti (or, according to historian Håkan Gustavsson, sottotenente Malavolta). The Italian pilot took off to strafe British airfields at Dabat and Adi Arcai. According to the Italian historian Nico Sgarlato, the CR.42 was intercepted by three Gladiators and managed to shoot down two of them, but was then itself shot down and the pilot killed.  Other authors state that Malavolti managed to fire only on the two Gladiators before being shot down.

According to Gustavsson, SAAF pilot (no. 47484V) Lieutenant Lancelot Charles Henry “Paddy” Hope, at Dabat airfield, scrambled to intercept the CR.42 (MM7117). Diving on it, he opened fire at 300 yards. Although the CR.42 pilot took violent evasive action, Hope pursued, closing to 20 yards and firing as it tried to dive away. There was a brief flicker of flame and the last Italian aircraft to be shot down over East Africa spun into the ground and burst into flames near Ambazzo. The next day the wreckage was found, the dead pilot still in the cockpit. Hope dropped a message on Italian positions at Ambazzo:

“Tribute to the pilot of the Fiat. He was a brave man. South African Air Force.”

But operational record books of the Commonwealth units in the area state that they did not suffer any losses on this date. The dedication of the posthumous Medaglia d’oro al valor militare states that Malavolti shot down a Gladiator and forced another to crash land, but was himself shot down by a third Gladiator. This was the last air-to-air victory in the East African campaign.

Original black and white Photograph from the SAAF museum Colourised photo copyright and courtesy of Tinus Le Roux, and my thanks to Tinus for the caption reference.  Reference – wikipedia

The naked Gladiator pilot

This is a colourised version of a famous original black and white Bureau of Information photograph called “The naked Gladiator pilot” with a caption which reads;

“South African Contingent in East Africa. a SAAF fighter pilot in Kenya preparing to take off to meet enemy raiders. He has removed his shirt because of heat.”

The Gloster Gladiator (or Gloster SS.37) was a British-built biplane fighter. It was used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) , the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) (known as the Sea Gladiator variant) and the South African Air Force (SAAF).

It was the RAF’s last biplane fighter aircraft and was rendered obsolete by newer monoplane designs even as it was being introduced. Though often pitted against more formidable foes during the early days of the Second World War, it acquitted itself reasonably well in combat due to high degrees of manoeuvrability.

Photograph obtained from the SAAF museum. The colourised photo copyright belongs to Tinus Le Roux, and my deep thanks to him for sharing it.

A Legendary Fighting Hornet – Jack Frost

The Legendary South African Ace – Captain J E “Jack” Frost climbs into a Hawker Hurricane of No. 3 Squadron SAAF at Addis Ababa, after rejoining his unit as ‘A’ Flight commander following an attack of appendicitis.

Jack Frost was the most successful fighter pilot in the SAAF. He joined the South African Permanent force in 1936 and after a spell as a flying instructor was posted to No. 1 Squadron SAAF in 1939. In 1940 he was posted to the Newly-formed 3 Squadron SAAF as a flight commander and saw considerable action in Somaliland and Ethiopia.

He was evacuated with acute appendicitis on 22 May 1941 but rejoined his unit in June and was given the command of No. 5 Squadron SAAF the following month. He led the unit through the heavy fighting in Egypt in May and June 1942, but was eventually shot down and killed while escorting bombers over the El Adem area on 16 June. He was the SAAF’s top scorer of the war with 16 confirmed victories and was regarded as an outstanding pilot and leader.

Note 3 Squadron’s unit emblem on the side of the nose.  This is a comparison with the SAAF 3 Squadron emblem as it eventually evolved to.

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Image Copyright IWM Collection

South Africa at war against … the French!

Many people don’t know it, but South Africans also fought against the French in World War 2.

A key part of the East African and Asian campaigns in WW2 was the Allied occupation of the former French colony of Madagascar and South African units took part in the operation.

The purpose was to prevent the strategically important island from being used by Axis Pact powers – Japan, Germany and Italy primarily .

Problem was, at the onset of the war many French colonies and troops did not join the ‘Free French’ and remained loyal to the French government who where now under occupation and in control of the Germans. This newly defined French Vichy government was sympathetic to the fascist cause and signed on with the Axis pact – in effect they changed sides and fought on the side of Germany.  Madagascar was just such a French colony.

The Allies had heard the rumours of Japanese plans for the Indian Ocean and on 27 November 1941, the British Chiefs of Staff discussed the possibility that the French Vichy government might cede the whole of Madagascar to Japan, or alternatively permit the Japanese navy to establish bases on the island. British naval advisors urged the occupation of the island as a precautionary measure.

The Battle of Madagascar  began with Operation Ironclad, the seizure of the port of Diego Suarez from the French near the northern tip of the island, on 5 May 1942 by British and Commonwealth forces.  A subsequent campaign to secure the entire island, “Operation Streamline Jane”.  Ground operations where supported by the 7th South African Motorized Brigade which arrived on 24 June 1942 and the South African Air Force which had been involved at the onset in reconnaissance roles.

After capturing Majunga, Tamatave and other key towns and points, British and Commonwealth troops took the capital, Altananarivo and pursued French Vichy troops defending Madagascar deep into the heart of the island. Fighting ceased and an armistice was granted on 6 November 1942.

Feature picture shows: A South African armoured car crew snatching a quick meal during their rapid drive on Tananarive during the Battle of Madagascar – while radio contact is kept up all the time.  Note the armoured car is a South African manufactured Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car.

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Insert Image: British amphibious craft landings on Madagascar

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British troops talking to French inhabitants of Madagascar after the surrender.

Image copyright IWM Collection, source Wikipedia

Christmas Pants

Loving this ‘Christmas card’ – it just oozes South African inventiveness, innovation and that unique brand of dark military humour soldiers the world over share and understand.

The soldier who sent this ‘Christmas Card’ home was Ronald Bidgood, 1st South African Irish, whilst fighting in East Africa during World War 2. Not having much in the way to make a Christmas card in a combat zone, he used a little imagination – his folks must have been quite amused when they received this.

So here is today’s Christmas card historical artefact – enjoy.

Thanks to Stefaans Conradie for the image.

The SAAF’s Fighting Hornets in East Africa – No. 3 Squadron

1941, East African Campaign. Major J D Pretorius, the Commanding Officer of No. 3 Squadron South African Air Force, briefs his pilots in front of a SAAF Hawker Hurricane Mark I at Addis Ababa, during mopping-up operations in Abyssinia.  Note 3 Squadron’s unit badge of a hornet with boxing gloves on the starboard side of the Hawker Hurricane’s nose, this is the original “fighting hornet,” the later version used by the SAAF is a little more refined.

Photo copyright – Imperial War Museum Collection.