An iconic Spitfire’s Birthday and her remarkable South African legacy

This beautiful war-bird turned 75 years old recently, hitting the 75th milestone in August 2018, still airworthy she’s been a regular on the Battle of Britain Heritage Flight line ups and air-shows for decades, she’s even a movie star, she made her most famous film appearance in what is regarded as the best WW2 film ever made ‘A Bridge Too Far’, where she flies over the young Dutch boy on a bicycle and waggles her wings.

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Supermarine Spitfire IX – MH434 in flight

But little known to the tens of thousands of admiring fans in Britain that have seen her flying overhead in countless commemorations is her remarkable South African wartime heritage, she’s the Spitfire which saw one very brave South African fighter ace fly her into combat.

Little known to many South Africans, who do not have an airworthy Spitfire in any collection in South Africa anymore, is that there is in fact a South African’s Spitfire still flying today – they can take some comfort in that.

Royal Air Force Spitfire MH434 is arguably one of the most famous flying Spitfires around, she was built in 1943 at Vickers, Castle Bromwich. What’s remarkable about her?  She is remarkably original, having never been subject to a re-build and still flying in her original paint scheme.  For her inaugural flight in August 1943 was also noteworthy, MH434 was air tested by the legendary Alex Henshaw – a record-breaking pilot from pre-war days and Chief Test Pilot for Supermarine.

But what is more remarkable is her first war-time pilot, South African – Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar and the Squadron she cut her teeth in – the Royal Air Force’s 222 Squadron – the ‘Natal Squadron’.

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Flight Lieutenant Laurie of No. 222 (Natal) Squadron, Royal Air Force starting up Supermarine Spitfire Mark V, BM202 ‘ZD-H’ “Flying Scotsman”, at North Weald, Essex during WW2

222 (Natal) Squadron

222-squadronFormed during WW1, 222 Squadron was reformed at the onset of WW2 at Duxford on 5 October 1939 and in March 1940 the squadron re-equipped with Spitfires. It initially took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain. Later in the war it would participate in Overlord and the D-Day landings as well as Operation Market Garden.

The Natal Squadron is named as such as it was regarded as the Natal Province ‘gift’ Squadron to the Royal Air Force.  During the war funds were raised to ‘sponsor’ Spitfires in Natal and equip this squadron. As a representative of the South African province and old British colony, the squadron emblem consisted of wildebeest which is Natal’s official animal and was represented in the Natal province emblem. The squadron motto was ‘Pambili Bo’ (Go straight ahead). The wildebeest also symbolises speed.

Flt Lt Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar

Now, MH434’s first combat pilot was truly special, Pat Lardner-Burke was born on 27 June 1916 in Harrismith, Orange Free State, South Africa. He joined the Royal Air Force at the onset of the war in spring 1940.

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Pat Lardner-Burke was posted to No.19 Squadron in early 1941 where he flew Spitfires and thereafter Hurricanes with No. 46 squadron.  In June the Hurricane Squadron left the UK for Malta forming No.126 Squadron. In the extensive combat and defence of Malta, Pat would see considerable action in the air, mainly against Axis force Italian Regia Aeronautica bombers as they attempted to bomb Malta into submission.

On the 19th August 1941, flying his Hurricane high above Malta Pat sighted enemy aircraft flying at 23,000 feet, turning in to attack the formation of 12 Italian Macchi 200 fighters, Pat fired a short burst which saw one Macchi go down. Pat climbed out of the attack and engaged another Macchi shooting it down in addition to the first.

A week later Pat would destroy another Macchi 200 near Sicily, when the Italian fighter broke off from the its main formation and he pursued it in a steep dive towards the coast of Sicily, shooting it down.

Then on the 4th September 1941 he would claim another as nine Hurricanes met approximately 16 Macchi 200 fighters flying at 22,000 feet to the east of Malta.  He spotted an enemy Macchi on the tail of a fellow Hurricane pilot in hot pursuit of another Macchi and destroyed it – effectively saving his colleague’s life.

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Royal Air Force Hurricanes – Malta 1941

Bravery and survival in the extreme 

On the 8th November 1941, Pat became an ‘Ace’ (which requires a tally of 5 enemy aircraft to qualify), but it came with a most extraordinary act of bravery and nearly killed him.

Pat’s Squadron was involved in one of the biggest dogfights seen over Malta. 18 Italian Macchi were intercepted whilst they were escorting their bombers bound for Malta. Flying Hurricane BD789 he engaged and shot down a Macchi 202 near Dingli, but as he was engaging the Macchi another one engaged him from behind. The result was a 12.7 mm bullet from the Italian fighter which penetrated his seat armour and passed out of his chest.

With a punctured lung and bleeding heavily, Pat drew on all his skill and managed to land his Hurricane at his aerodrome on Malta. A fellow officer, Tom Neil witnessed his landing, ran to the aircraft and pulled Pat free from the damaged Hurricane, he remarked later;

“The pilot still had his face mask attached but I recognised him immediately as Pat Lardner-Burke. I heard myself shouting, ‘Are you all right?’ – then knew immediately that he wasn’t. Pat’s head was bowed and his shoulders slumped”.

Pat was laid onto a stretcher, an ambulance took him to hospital. Tom Neil then took time to inspect Pat’s hurricane, several bullets that had hit the side of the aircraft behind the cockpit. However Tom was shocked as he noted one had punched a hole in the armour-plate and penetrated the back of the seat, where it had passed right through Pat and carried on through the cockpit’s dashboard and then through some more armour-plate in front. Neil and the other pilots in the squadron were literally shaken by the knowledge that the Italian’s were using some very powerful ammunition.

Pat survived and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, his citation reads;

Distinguished Flying Cross

DFCLGPilot Officer Henry Patrick LARDNER-BURKE (87449), RAFVR, No. 126 Squadron.

In November 1941, this officer was the pilot of one of 4 aircraft which engaged a force of 18 hostile aircraft over Malta and destroyed 3 and seriously damaged 2 of the enemy’s aircraft. During the combat Pilot Officer Lardner-Burke, who destroyed 1 of the enemy’s aircraft, was wounded in the chest and his aircraft was badly damaged. Despite this, he skillfully evaded his opponents and made a safe landing on the aerodrome; he then collapsed. Throughout the engagement, this officer displayed leadership and courage of a high order. He has destroyed 5 enemy aircraft over Malta.

Back in the fight

Fully recovered from his wounds in England by May 1942, Pat went strait back into the fight, initially as instructor in the Gunnery Instruction Training Wing.

Pat Lardner-Burke’s combat record in MH434

By August 1943, Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar had transferred to 222 (Natal) Squadron as a temporary Squadron Leader and was allocated MH434 code letters ‘ZD-B’ as his regular mount.  MH434 first took to the sky in anger on the 7th August 1943.

On the 27 August in the St Omar area over France, Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke, flying in our heroine ‘Spitfire MH434’ clocked up her first kill, flying high escort cover he shot down a German Focke-Wulf FW-190 and damaged a second during a mission escorting USAAF B-17 bombers on their way to bomb the St. Omer Marshalling Yards.

During the mission, 13 Spitfires of No.222 Squadron and 13 Spitfires of No.129 Squadron spotted nine German Focke-Wulf 190s dive on the American B-17 Fortresses and engaged them.  Pat shook a FW 190 off his bomber attack damaging it on the starboard wing and tail. Pat then turned onto another FW 190, and at close range he engaged it, shooting it down.

On the 5 September 1943, Pat again shot down another FW-190 in the Nieuport area, on this mission 222 (Natal) Squadron’s Spitfires were acting as high escort to 72 B-26 Marauders which were to bomb the Marshalling Yards at Ghent/Meirelbeke.

On completing the bombing run, the Marauders were attacked by approximately 20 German Focke-Wulf (FW) 190s. Pat climbed to head off half of the FW 190 fighters, one German FW 190 turned in front of his Spitfire’s nose and he promptly shot it down in flames and it went into the ground in an uncontrollable spin.

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S/L Ernest “Cass” Cassidy, F/L Philip VK “Phil” Tripe and F/L Henry P “Pat” Lardner-Burke (left to right) of No 222 Squadron RAF and their ‘Natal’ squadron scoreboard

Again on the 8 September 1943 Pat claimed a half share in the downing of a Messerschmitt Bf-109G in Northern France. On this mission 25 Spitfires of 222 (Natal) squadron were flying as high cover to a formation of Allied bombers that were detailed to attack targets in the Boulogne area in France.  They spotted and engaged 12 German Messerschmitt 109Fs, two of which dived away from their formation.  F/Lt. Pat Lardner-Burke and his wing-man F/O. O. Smik dived down on the leading enemy aircraft taking turns firing on it until the starboard wing tip fell off and it dived straight into the ground.

Give the man a bar!

For his actions and bravery flying in 222 (Natal) Squadron – flying our heroine MH434, Acting Squadron Leader Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC received a DFC Bar to his existing DFC decoration.  His citation reads;

This officer continues to display a high degree of courage and resolution in his attacks on the enemy. Recently, he has led the squadron on many missions in the Ruhr area and throughout has displayed great skill and tenacity. Squadron Leader Lardner-Burke has destroyed seven enemy aircraft in air fighting. He has also most effectively attacked enemy targets on the ground.

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Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar received a new posting to Fighter Command’s Head Quarters, at Stanmore, serving with Group Captain Bobby Oxspring, DFC and two Bars, who said of his new South African recruit’s typical South African demeanour;

“The third desk was the domain of Pat Lardner-Burke, a rugged South African who, with Hornchurch sweeps and Malta behind him, displayed a refreshingly irreverent attitude to all senior officers with whom he disagreed”.

In April 1944 Pat took command of the Royal Air Force’s No.1 Squadron, and finally taking command of RAF Horsham St Faith airfield and then RAF Church Fenton as a Wing Commander.

Give the man another ‘bar’

After the war this remarkable South African fighter ace settled on the Isle of Man with his wife, Mylcraine, where they ran a pub (an English ‘Bar’).  Pat tragically died at a relatively young age on the 4th February 1970 of renal failure.

MH434’s career after Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar

In 1944 MH434 was transferred to 350 Sqn. Hornchurch, before being returned to 222 Sqn. Pat Lardner-Burke had by now been posted on, and the aircraft was next assigned to Flt Sgt Alfred ‘Bill’ Burge. He flew another 12 operational sorties in the aircraft before the Squadron’s existing Mk IXs were exchanged for a modified variant that could carry rockets. After over 80 operational sorties, MH434 was stood down in March 1945.

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MH434 in a hangar at Imperial War Museum Duxford

Post War Movie Star

After the Second World War, Spitfire MH434 was transferred to the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1947. After a crash-landing in Semarang, Java she spent some time in storage, repaired she flew again in Holland on the 10 March 1953.

The Belgian Air Force became the next owner of this Spitfire, on the 26 March 1956 MH434 was put up for sale and bought and brought back to Britain by airline pilot Tim Davies. Overhauled the aircraft was flown purely for pleasure and took part in its first movie role, Operation Crossbow.

November 1967 saw MH434 join the motion picture airforce of Spitfire Productions Ltd, where she starred in the ‘Battle of Britain’ in 1968. At the end of the movie MH434 was sold again to Sir Adrian Swire, Chairman of Cathay Pacific Airways, had the Spitfire painted in 1944 camouflage colour scheme with his initials AC-S, as squadron codes.

There were several film and television appearances during this period, including her iconic role in ‘A Bridge Too Far.’

The opening of a Bridge Too Far sees a young Dutch boy cycling along a road when MH434 does an extremely low fly over after reconnoitring a German Panzer (tank) placement nearby. To the entertainment of the young Dutchman she waggles her wings in acknowledgment of his waving . It’s an iconic firm history moment as to the boy the Spitfire symbolises liberty from German occupation – it’s his first sighting of ‘freedom’ and it arrives with its Merlin engine in full song – if you’ve not seen the movie here’s the clip:

In April 1983 MH434 was sold at auction to it’s most illustrious owner, Ray Hanna (Nalfire Aviation Ltd). MH434 has become a regular movie co-star and airshow performer and when not in make up for a role she is now flown in the authentic 222 (Natal) Sqn, with the Codes ZD-B, Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke’s call sign.

A lasting legacy

Today Spitfire MH434 is located at the Duxford Imperial War Museum near Cambridge.  MH434 is still painted in No.222 ‘Natal’ Squadron markings with the code letters ‘ZD-B’. The name ‘Mylcraine’ which Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke christened her in August 1943 (named after his wife) is still painted on her, so too is Pat Lardner-Burke’s personal ‘scoreboard’ which have been painted on the port side of the cockpit – all to replicate this South African’s markings in 1943.

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His victories, in all Pat Lardner-Black shot down five Italian MC200’s, two MC 202’s, three German FW 190’s and one German Me109 achieving the status of ‘fighter ace’. – one of a handful of South Africans to achieve this.

RAF Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX MH434 is and remains one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built, and we hope it continues bringing entertainment, joy and awe to thousands of admirers, but more importantly we remember her very proud South African legacy and a very remarkable South African hero whose soul lives on in her.


Researched by Peter Dickens, with additional assistance from Sandy Evan Hanes.

Related Work and Links – South Africans in the RAF

Sailor Malan; Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Zulu Lewis; ‘Ace in a Day’ TWICE! … Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis

Pat Pattle; One of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of WW2 was a little known South African! Meet Pat Pattle.

JJ Le Roux; Three times winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross – Johannes Jacobus Le Roux

Albie Gotze; “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

References include; Man and Machine by Christopher Yeoman 2011.  Clip from ‘A Bridge Too Far” Joseph E. Levine Productions, United Artists.  The Old Flying Machine Company – Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434, history on-line.  Photo copyrights include Imperial War Museum and John Dibbs.

A South African invented the mine flail

The mine-flail became a critical anti-land mine device during D-Day (Operation Overlord), it helped open the way for troops and armoured vehicles over the extensive minefields laid by Hitler’s forces to form ‘the western wall’ and prevent invasion.  But did you know the mine flail was invented by a South African?

Inventing the Mine Flail

Technically a mine-flail is a vehicle-mounted device that makes a safe path through a mine-field by deliberately detonating land-mines in front of the vehicle that carries it.  It was usually mounted in front of a tank hull to offer the operators the armoured protection they needed, use of its weaponry and the tracked system to deal with terrain.

Flail

Sherman Crab Mark II minesweeping flail tank, one of Hobart’s ‘funnies’, used to clear already identified minefields.

The mine flail consists of a number of heavy chains ending in fist-sized steel balls (flails) that are attached to a horizontal, rapidly rotating rotor mounted on two arms in front of the vehicle. The rotor’s rotation makes the flails spin wildly and violently pound the ground. The force of a flail strike above a buried mine mimics the weight of a person or vehicle and causes the mine to detonate, but in a safe manner that does little damage to the flails or the vehicle.

0aayzhghjgfjhf9999777_7The idea is commonly attributed to a South African soldier – Captain Abraham du Toit. A test rig was constructed in South Africa and results were so encouraging that du Toit was promoted and sent to England to develop the idea.

Before Capt. du Toit left for England, he described his idea to Captain Norman Berry, a mechanical engineer who had been sent to South Africa in 1941 to evaluate the system.

North Africa

Captain Berry later served in the British Eight Army during the North African Campaign. He had become an enthusiast for the mine flail idea; he lobbied senior officers to commission the development of a flail and carried out his own experiments with mine flails in the spring of 1942 to deal with the extensive minefields laid by Rommel’s forces in the desert campaign.

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A Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 2 November 1942.

Later Major L. A. Girling was given the task of developing a similar device after it had been independently re-invented by another South African officer. When Berry heard of this, he handed over his work to Girling (who had no idea he was duplicating Captain du Toit’s current work in England, as that was still highly secret).

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Captain du Toit (as unaware of developments in North Africa as they were of his), working with AEC Limited developed the Matilda Baron mine flail, using a Matilda tank and a frail for demonstrations and training.

Hobart’s Funnies 

Captain du Toit’s work fell under a program known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, which were a variety of unusually modified tanks operated during the by the 79th Armoured Division  of the British Army or by specialists from the Royal Engineers.

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A Sherman Crab flail tank coming ashore from an LCT during the invasion of Walcheren Island, 1 November 1944.

They were designed to overcome the problems that more standard tanks experienced during the amphibious landings and focussed on the problems of the Normandy D-Day landings. These tanks played a major part on the British and Commonwealth beaches during the landings. They were forerunners of the modern combat engineering vehicle and were named after their commander,  Major General Percy Hobart.

A number of experimental flail tanks were produced, including the Valentine Tank, the M4 Sherman – the Sherman Mark IV and Mark V Scorpions and the “Sherman Lobster”. Eventually one of these, the Sherman Crab, went into full production and saw active service.

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Sherman Crab flail tanks in front of burning buildings in Arnhem, 14 April 1945.

Captain du Toit himself had become a strong advocate of a concept called the parambulator mine flail – a self-contained device with its own engine, that could be pushed ahead of any tank that was available. However, the consensus of opinion favoured special-purpose tanks with a permanently mounted flail system and he returned to South Africa in 1943.

In Conclusion 

After the war ended, so vital was this contribution to the Allied victory and the war effort, that in 1948, Capt. Abraham du Toit would receive an award of £13,000 from the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors for his work on the mine flail (a sizeable award in its day). Nine others (including four South Africans) would share a further £7,000.

And there you have it in truth – South Africa led the way on this most critical device for D-Day, and an old adage stands – faced with a problem like a mine-field – a South African makes a plan!

South Africans continued to ‘make a plan’ in developing and leading anti-mine vehicles which continued well into the Angolan Border War.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

Donald Gray South African D-Day hero (and one-armed movie star): Donald Gray

Albie Gotze “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

Tommy Thomas South African D Day Hero: Lt. D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC

Cecil Bircher South African D Day Hero: Lt. Cecil Bircher MC

Royston Turnball Supreme South African heroism on Omaha Beach, Lt. Royston Turnbull DSC

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

Jan Smuts South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

Jan Smuts and Churchill Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day


Reference

Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia.  Images copyright Imperial War Museum

Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day

It was D-Day+6 when South African statesman, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, was also to cross over to Normandy, accompanying the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill by his side.  To this point Smuts had played a pivot role in not only the planning and strategy behind Operation Overlord and the Normandy campaign, he also played a central role as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor and using his considerable political skill, Jan Smuts was to keep Churchill in line with the wishes and objects of not only Overlord’s military commanders (mainly British and American), but also those of the King of Great Britain – George VI.

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Churchill in the lead up to the Normandy campaign was not in favour of the entire operation, he felt that the focus should remain on the Italian campaign and maintained that any available resources should be concentrated to winning it by entering Germany and Austria via what he termed ‘the soft under-belly of Europe’ and not France. The truth of the matter was that the ‘soft-underbelly’ had turned into a slow and costly grind through mountainous terrain, and instead had become a ‘tough old gut’.  Allied military planners now looked to open a third front to stretch the Axis the forces across an Eastern, Western and Southern front.

Operation Overlord

Smuts was to bring considerable expertise to win Churchill over to backing Operation Overlord and opening the third front via France, but he had another challenge, once won over Churchill insisted on meddling in just about everything to do with the invasion plans, bringing him into direct conflict with General Montgomery specifically. General Montgomery was assigned to command the 21st Army Group which consisted of all Allied ground forces that would take part in Operation Overlord, under the overall direction of the Supreme Commander, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Smuts was to stick to Churchill like glue, never leaving his side, not for a moment – he was to arbitrate and advise not only Churchill, but the entire supreme command, lending a guiding and experienced hand – before and during the campaign itself.  In doing so Smuts was to cement a formidable international reputation as not only a sought after military strategist but also a very skilful politician in forming the vision for a post D-Day invasion Europe and the world at large post war.

Typically Churchill had insisted on personally hitting the beach-heads on D-Day itself (undoubtably Smuts, who was no stranger to danger, would have had no option but to be at his side).  Churchill felt it important that as Prime Minister that he should be ashore with the assault forces leading from the front. His peers, the commanders and the King thought him quite mad and it eventually took an intervention from the King George VI to Churchill to insist he was too valuable to be risking his life on what would have amounted to a Public Relations antic.  Ignoring this, as D-Day approached it took a further letter from King George to literally order Churchill to stand down at the last-minute.

Not to be outdone, Churchill did the next best thing, and with Jan Smuts at his side the two of them on D-Day itself – 6th June 1944 went to the port with journalists in toe to wish Godspeed to British and Canadian troops embarking for the liberation of Europe. The troops waiting on the quayside gave the two Prime Ministers (Smuts and Churchill) a hearty cheer as they went up the gangway.

This Pathé newsreel called ‘over there’ captures D-Day and the beach-head breakout (if you watch to the end you’ll see Churchill and Smuts).

In addition, prior to the departing troops on June 6th, the newspapers of the time noted the following as to Smuts and his involvement in the planning;

“General Smuts also accompanied King George V, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on a visit to General Eisenhower at Supreme Headquarters on ‘D-Day’ and went to the operations room to follow the progress of the battle. Throughout the day General Smuts received independent reports from the highest quarters, of the progress of the invasion operations.”

It was at Eisenhower’s headquarters that, a few days earlier, that Smuts had met the French soldier and statesman General De Gaulle at “a quiet, tree-shaded spot” and that “General Eisenhower, Mr. Churchill and Mr. Eden were there as well.” The group had spent “nearly two hours together, largely in the war room tent of the Allied Supreme Commander, where the walls are hung with detailed maps and the planned liberation of France.”

Not able to keep Churchill and Smuts away from the action for too long, it was a short 6 days into the landing operations (D-Day +6) on 12 June 1944, that the two of them bordered a destroyer, the HMS Kelvin crossing over to France and into the teeth of the fighting.

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12 June 1944,  The boarding party with Field Marshal Jan Smuts (right), Prime Minister Winston Churchill (centre) and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Rear Admiral W E Parry (bottom right).” Crossing to France D-Day +6

The K-Class destroyer is the HMS Kelvin which reached the French coast at 9.30 a.m. and had steamed through the battle fleet during a bombardment and later joined in the shelling of the German north-east flank. Churchill and Smuts were then conveyed to the beach via a “DUKW” amphibious vehicle where they then met Field Marshal Montgomery, where-after they departed in a jeep for Montgomery’s headquarters for a de-briefing of the progress and offer him advise on the next phases.

Whilst at Montgomery’s head quarters, General Smuts took up the role of photographer (the reason he’s not in the picture) and he was to take this world-famous photograph. From left to right: The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke; Mr Winston Churchill; and the Commander of the 21st Army Group, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, at Montgomery’s mobile headquarters in Normandy.

Churchill:Smuts D-Day

Smuts was rather lucky to survive his visit to Normandy, as both he and Churchill could very well have been killed while visiting Monty’s headquarters at Cruelly.

While visiting the headquarters and as senior officers stood outside with the Prime Minister (Churchill), Field Marshal Smuts sniffed the air and said, “There are some Germans near us now…I can always tell!”

And lo and behold, just two days later, two fully armed German paratroopers emerged from a nearby Rhododendron bush, where they had been hiding all along (they had become isolated from their unit, seeing that they were unable to rejoin they chose to surrender). Had they used their guns and grenades on Churchill (and Monty as well as Smuts), everything would have changed.

There you have it, Smuts’ keen sense of smell and intuition is another attribute you can add to the very long list of honours attributed to this great South African.

The below mage shows Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts with  General Sir Bernard Montgomery at his headquarters, 12 June 1944 looking at aircraft activity overhead.

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It is also really amazing when one considers that Smuts, an erstwhile enemy of the British empire during the South African War (1899-1906), was not only to reconcile himself to his former enemy over the succeeding years, but was also to be greatly respected by two British prime ministers: Lloyd George and Winston Churchill during the First and Second World Wars respectively and served on the appointed war councils in both.  During the Second World War he was even appointed to the British King’s Privy Council – finding himself at the epicentre on how the war was to be conducted and fought.

Notwithstanding the fact that South Africa, with Smuts as head of state, played a very key role in the liberation of Europe, Smuts also represented the large contingent of South African Union Defence Force personnel taking part in Operation Overlord seconded to the Royal Air Force, flying all manner of fighters, transports and gliders and the South Africans seconded to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and serving on the many vessels used in the landings and in the ground invasion forces.

In conclusion

The King was even warm to an idea proposed by Jock Colville (Churchill’s Private Secretary) that should Prime Minister Winston Churchill die during the war (which very nearly happened in Normandy), Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have to be a peer and British Parliamentary process would have prevented it. Smuts had also already refused a peerage and South Africa’s constitution would not have allowed him to do anyway as he was already the Prime Minister of South Africa – and politics was such with his National Party opposition accusing him of being a ‘traitor’ at every turn, that Smuts in all likelihood would have refused outright lest he alienate his own very split Afrikaner community completely.

Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become to the war effort – strategically, tactically and politically, he was South Africa’s greatest military export – without any doubt – his council sought by Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Field Marshals and Generals. His role in Overlord would rid the world of Nazism and pave the way to the ‘new’ western democratic order and United Nations order that we know today. Simply put Smuts can easily take up the same mantle as Churchill and can stand the very epicentre of our modern values of liberty and western democratic freedoms.

Related Work and Links

Churchill’s desk and Smuts; Churchill’s Desk

Jan Smuts; South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

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


Written by Peter Dickens.

Photo copyright Imperial War Museum – caption thanks to The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek. Nicholas Rankin,“Churchill’s Wizards, British Genius for Deception 1914-1945”

A South African Air Force D-Day Hero lost: Robert Cumming

Not many people in South Africa today know of South Africa’s involvement in Operation Overlord (D-Day) as the South African forces in Europe at the time were fighting in Italy and not in France.  However there are a small number of South African Union Defence Force members who did take part in the D-Day operations, most seconded to the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines Commandos and the Royal Air Force.

229A number of South African Air Force fighter pilots served during Operation Overlord flying RAF Typhoons and Spitfires and because of the highly treacherous nature of the operations a handful of about five South African Air Force pilots lost their lives.

The first South African sacrifice during Operation Overlord and the D-Day Normandy beach landings was Robert Alexander Cumming, son of Gerald G and Dora E Cumming of East London, Cape Province, South Africa.

Lieutenant Cumming served with 229 Squadron Royal Air Force, 229 Squadron had been stationed in Malta, and was transferred in April 1944 to Britain and re-assembled at RAF Honchurch, on 24 April. During Operation Overlord (the allied invasion of France) it was equipped with the Spitfire IX operating from RAF Detling.

Lt Robert Cumming was providing cover to ‘day-time’ bombers in raids during the invasion period, and also over the beaches to assist the invading forces. Whilst flying Spitfire MJ219 on the 11 June 1944 (D-Day+5), he and his fellow pilot Flight Lieutenant George Mains flying Spitfire BS167 are believed to have flown into the cliffs at Freshwater, Isle of Wight, in heavy fog.

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The driver of a mobile canteen operated by the Church Army offers tea to a Spitfire IX pilot at Detling, Kent.

Robert Cumming can be found here, may he rest in peace, his name will not be forgotten:

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Lieut. CUMMING, R.A. Robert Alexander 133975V Pilot SAAF 22 † Parkhurst Military Cemetery, United Kingdom Plot 11. Grave 207

 

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

Donald Gray South African D-Day hero (and one-armed movie star): Donald Gray

Albie Gotze “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

Tommy Thomas South African D Day Hero: Lt. D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC

Cecil Bircher South African D Day Hero: Lt. Cecil Bircher MC

Royston Turnball Supreme South African heroism on Omaha Beach, Lt. Royston Turnbull DSC

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

Jan Smuts South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light


Written by Peter Dickens. Information from John Bloodworth and Sandy Evan Hanes

 

South African D-Day hero (and one-armed movie star): Donald Gray

Now, not too many South Africans will know that they can count one of their movie star exports as a D-day hero as well.  This one is a special one, a highly successful actor who would land up disabled in the combat fighting in what was Operation Overlord (D-Day), losing an arm he would come back and re-ignite his acting career – becoming very famous in landmark Movies and Television (which unfortunately South Africa did not have until 1976).

34822145_10156216280391480_3719747445647736832_oA one-armed South African war hero movie/television star, Donald Grey was in his lifetime very well-known internationally but less so in his county of birth, he was born Eldred Tidbury to a humble beginning in South Africa and later changed his name.

Eldred Tidbury (Donald Gray) was born on 3rd March 1914 on an ostrich farm at Tidbury’s Toll near Fort Beaufort, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.  A simple kid on a well to do African farm, but it was a talent contest would lead his life and career to some very extraordinary places with life changing twists and turns.

Acting Career 

In 1933, Paramount Pictures to rejuvenate and diversify its contract players, launched a competition known as the “Search for Beauty”; heats took place in nations across the English-speaking world. Elred Tidbury entered in his native South Africa and was selected with Lucille du Toit, a dental nurse from Pretoria as one of the winners.

In total, there were 30 finalists worldwide who were screen-tested and of the 30, contracts were awarded to only 10, Tidbury was selected as the overall male winner with a bonus of USD 1,000 with which he bought a car. The overall female winner was Scottish actress Gwenllian Gill who later followed Tidbury to the United Kingdom and became engaged to him; however, their engagement was broken off during the Second World War.

By late 1935, Tibury wanted out of his ‘locked-in’ contract with Paramount Pictures in America and moved Britain and in 1936 changed his name to Donald Gray. He became an engineering salesman selling a boiler preparation, acted in repertory theatre and appeared in several films  In 1936, he took leading role in ‘Strange Experiment’ and by the outbreak of WW2 in 1938, he was the young lead in famous Korda film ‘The Four Feathers’.

World War 2 and Operation Overlord (D-Day)

When war broke out in 1939, our movie hero decided to join the Army and volunteer, but he was initially turned down for military service due to a duodenal ulcer.  Still determined to join up Donald Gray later managed to enlist in the Gordon Highlanders who had their barracks in Aberdeen, and succeeded in becoming what he called an “ordinary Jock” (having claimed some sort of Scottish ancestry).

In 1941, he was commissioned as an officer in the King‘s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), eventually becoming the battalion’s education officer. Donald Gray (Elred Tidbury) was even given brief leave to appear with Dame Vera Lynn as “Bruce MacIntosh” in the famous film ‘We’ll Meet Again’ (1943).  Not to miss the ‘Big show’ that was D-Day, Donald Gray was back with his Battalion by July 1944 and ready to go to France.

He was with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers when they entered the strategic city of Caen and here he was severely wounded during the intense street to street, house to house fighting that was Caen in July 1944. His left arm was shattered by an anti-tank shell, the limb having to be amputated a few days later at an emergency hospital near the front line.

Here is his unit in action in Caen during July 1944, we see troops of 1 Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB), 9th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, firing a captured Hotchkiss machine gun during street fighting in Caen, 10 July 1944.

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To give an idea of the fighting which led to the loss of Donald Gray’s arm and casualty evacuation here is an extract from 1st Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers war diary, for the 9th July 1944;

“The attack on Caen. The plan. The Canadians were to attack from the West. The RUR’s in the centre from the North and 1 KOSB from the East. The Bn moved off at about 0930 hrs over ring contour “60”, which was under shell fire, to FUP on the Eastern outskirts of CAEN. The ghostlike houses slowly came to life as civilians began to realize we were entering the town. They came running out with glasses and bottles of wine. As the Bn was forming up on the start line and trying to re-establish wireless contact with companies and Bde, four Boche were seen to withdraw towards the centre of the town. Soon afterwards out [our] HQ was mortared leaving 1 killed and 1 wounded. The Bn then proceeded to clear the town. Little opposition was met.

Progress was slowed down by snipers and an occasional MG. Much assistance and information was offered by eager civilians. Debris and cratered streets also made progress extremely difficult. We eventually reached the RV in the Old Town and established contact with the RUR and pushed forward patrols to the river. Patrols met quite heavy fire from across the river and a number of casualties were sustained.”

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Here a colourised image witnesses the fighting of his unit in Caen as seen by Donald Gray and brings the fighting to vivid life. Here is a 6-pounder anti-tank gun of the 1st Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, part of the 9th Brigade of the British 3rd Division, along with two Sherman tanks in Rue Montoir Poissonnerie near St-Pierre Church, Caen. 10 July 1944.

Acting Career continued … 

34598163_10156216281521480_3225118091054678016_oAfter the war, a disability like only having one arm did not stop Donald, he chose to continue his career in film and stage acting and against the odds became even more successful at it. Donald toured South Africa with his own repertory company, appeared in other films, and was contracted by the BBC’s  radio repertory company.

He left South Africa again to appear in Saturday Island (1952) and then returned to the BBC as an announcer.  Then came his very big break. Donald Gray then starred as the one-armed detective Mark Saber in the British TV series of the same name which ran for 156 episodes from 1955 to 1961. It was originally titled Mark Saber, or The Vise in the United States, but was later known as Saber of London and Detective’s Diary. In 1957, The Vise was renamed, redeveloped, and transferred from ABC to NBC  under the new title Saber of London.

Donald Gray would later provide the voices of Colonel White, Captain Black and the Mysterons in the 1960s TV series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

He later returned to South Africa, where he passed away in 7th April 1978.  A truly extraordinary son of South Africa, we unfortunately just missed his whole rise to stardom on Television, because unlike in the USA and Britain, the government in South Africa in the 50’s, 60’s and right up to the mid 70s figured it was the ‘devils box’ and banned it (see and click link The ‘Devil’s Box’)

The bottom line most South Africans now have no idea who Donald Gray was and nor do they know why we should proud of this very remarkable D-Day hero – luckily for all of us media has moved on and his story can now be easily shared.

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

Albie Gotze “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

Tommy Thomas South African D Day Hero: Lt. D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC

Cecil Bircher South African D Day Hero: Lt. Cecil Bircher MC

Royston Turnball Supreme South African heroism on Omaha Beach, Lt. Royston Turnbull DSC

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

Jan Smuts South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Images Imperial War Museum Copyright. Colourised image ‘War in Colour’ – Sergeant Christie No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit
(Source – Imperial War Museum) 
Trevor Jordan’s biography of Gray, Colonel White Meets Mark Saber, 2012.

 

South Africa’s role in giving D-Day the green light

What would be a surprise to many is that aside from the key-note planners of Operation Overlord (D-Day), three key Commonwealth Prime Ministers were included in the final planning sessions for D-Day – Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa, and it all took place in a secret railway siding in the middle of the quaint English countryside.

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On the 2 June 1944, a quiet little railway siding in Hampshire – Doxford, became the location for a highly secret meeting in a specially converted train carriage. The special train was Sir Winston Churchill’s train and temporary Operational HQ called ‘rugged’, the meeting was to agree this next most critical stage of the war.

On this day, in this unassuming train station the “Council of War” convened to decide the outcome of the war for the Western Allies. The Allied Supreme Commander General D. Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, the Allied High Command General Staff and the Prime Ministers of South Africa – Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Canada – William Lyon Mackenzie King, New Zealand – Peter Fraser, Southern Rhodesia – Sir Godfrey Huggins and the Free French Army – General De Gualle – all assembled for the only time during the war to make their most momentous decision, and “D day was on”.

The occasion was commemorated by paperweights cut from the line (called ‘the Churchill line’ after the war) and issued by the Sadler Rail Coach Limited for Droxford Station.

10930895_456531221183282_6814879340665934426_nSo there you have it, both South Africa and even Rhodesia played a key role in agreeing Operation Overlord plans and signing off on this most critical date – D-Day, 6th June 1944 – the date which changed the course of Western Europe’s modern history.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. A big thanks you to Colin Ashby whose grandfather made the commemorative paperweights and provided the images.

VE – Day’s flags of honour

8th May 1945 – Victory In Europe Day, also known as VE – Day – the war in Europe is declared over. VE Day is a day to mark the formal acceptance by the Allies of World War II of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender of its armed forces.

Just a few days before the designated ‘VE-Day’ on 4 May 1945 just east of Hamburg, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, Commander of the 21st Army Group accepted the unconditional surrender of key German forces in Western Europe.

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The surrender preceded the end of World War 2 in Europe, which was later signed in a tent at Montgomery’s HQ on the Timeloberg hill at Wendisch Evern. A second German Instrument of Surrender ahead of the official ending World War 2 in Europe was signed on 7 May at Reims in France and signed again on 8 May with the Supreme High Command of the Red Army (Soviet Union), French and United States representatives in Berlin.

The 8th of May was declared as VE – Day, and an intensely proud day celebrated by the Allies the world over followed, including South Africa (Russia celebrates it the day after on the 9th).  The ‘V for Victory’ sign used to drive support for the Allied cause throughout the war made a full appearance everywhere, and so did the great nation’s flags who had fought so hard, and with such sacrifice to get to this day.

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If you examine the picture of Whitehall closely, all the key nations in support and Allied with Great Britain, massive flags proudly flown from Whitehall next to one another – they included the flag of the United States of America and the flag of the Soviet Union.

In sequence the flags of the key commonwealth countries who had committed so much in resources, people and lives are also seen, these included Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa, and you can see it here, the ‘Orange, White and Blue’ flag of the Union.

Winston Churchill appeared in Whitehall on he Ministry of Heath balcony to address the masses of people assembling there, in part be said;

11050253_445187798984291_7988015998947365041_n“I say that in the long years to come not only will the people of this island but of the world, wherever the bird of freedom chirps in human hearts, look back to what we’ve done and they will say “do not despair, do not yield to violence and tyranny, march straightforward and die if need be-unconquered.” Now we have emerged from one deadly struggle-a terrible foe has been cast on the ground and awaits our judgment and our mercy.”

His views were echoed by King George VI when Winston Churchill appeared alongside him,  the Queen mother and a young Princess Elizabeth (soon to be Queen Elizabeth II) in her uniform.  She had joined the war effort as a subaltern in the women’s Women’s Auxiliary Territorial ServiceKing George said;

“I thank with a full heart those who bore arms so valiantly on land and sea, or in the air; and all civilians who, shouldering their many burdens, have carried them unflinchingly without complaint.”

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What followed was two solid days of partying in central London and the world over.  It had been South Africa’s war too, and South Africans were right at the centre of this massive party in London  – and rightly so. This still from colour film footage shows the street party and general revelling at Piccadilly Circus in London – and it’s marked by some South Africans in the centre proudly waving the South African Union national flag and rejoicing the end of the war in Europe.

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Some people (in fact many) in South Africa would say, oh no not THAT flag (referring the Orange, White and Blue or ‘OBB’)!  But that is to completely misunderstand what this flag meant to the world in 1945 and not 1994.

The South African Union flag was the flag of Smuts’ Union and not really the preferred flag of Malan’s Republic, in fact between Verwoed and Vorster both had proposed re-designing the South African Union flag in line with their ideologies and those of the ‘Republic’ state they created and not Smuts’ despised ‘Union’ (many in Nationalist caucus literally hated the British Union “Jack’ on the flag, they called it the ‘blood-vlek’ as it reminded them of the sufferings of the Boer nation under the British in the 2nd Anglo-Boer War and wanted it removed); for more on this rather ‘inconvenient’ history of South Africa’s national flags see the link at the end of this article.

In fact it’s a great pity the Apartheid government didn’t follow through with their endeavours to change the flag in 1961 and 1971 respectively, when they drove at issue of the Republic they created.  In 1945, South Africa was a Union and a Dominion in the British Commonwealth and this flag, along with Smuts as Head of State was honoured and highly respected the world over, especially at the end of World War 2.

At the time the South African Union flag stood for the almighty sacrifice of South Africans and Jan Smuts’ call to fall behind the Allied nations to rid the world of Nazi and Fascist tyranny. A war against what Smuts referred to as Hitler’s ‘Crooked Cross’ (swastika) an unchristian ideology and heinous symbology.

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The South African Union Flag in 1945 also stood for freedom and victory over ‘violence and tyranny’ as Churchill had aptly referred to in his speech on VE Day, at the time it stood firmly behind this ideal and was flown proudly. That the flag was to be carried over and soiled by the Nationalists and their Apartheid ideology after the war from 1948 and now stands as a symbol of ‘hate’ is unfortunate history.

Old flags have their place, and the South African Union flag should have ended with the Union in 1961 as it symbolised that time, with all its own ups and downs and its own forms of ‘race’ politics, but also its greatest achievement which won it high acclaim – and that was ‘VE-Day’, the Union epoch was in fact very different to the Apartheid epoch in just about every respect.  Also lets face it the Nationalists didn’t bathe themselves in glory with a pinnacle of achievement anywhere close to ‘VE – Day’.

Also,  South Africa is also not alone in this line-up at Whitehall in VE Day of having its flag changed – the flags of the Soviet Union, India and Canada all changed in the wake of new politics and social orders after World War 2.

In any event, we stand on the 8th May and remember Smuts’ South African Union and the lofty role it performed in bringing peace and freedom to the world in 1945, a ‘little country’ by comparison standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the greatest men and super-powers in the world, on an occasion that changed the destiny of almost every country around the world.  A day many South Africans stood with their heads held high and applauded the world over.

12549123_10153755844686480_5840912786017399781_nA beacon of fire symbolising this freedom was lit in Trafalgar Square on VE – Day, by a bunch of very happy and inebriated Canadian servicemen burning war bond advertising boards, it burned so bright, so strong and was so hot it cracked a part of the granite base of Nelson’s Column, a subtle reminder to this day, if you look carefully, to the sheer magnitude of the occasion and what it meant to a relieved and ecstatic British public, Commonwealth and Allied nations and the world at large.

Video

In conclusion, this short Associated Press news reel captures VE-Day perfectly:

Related Work

The South African National Flag; The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags

Churchill’s Heroes; Churchill’s Desk


Written by Peter Dickens.  Reference and thanks to the ‘British and Commonwealth Forces’ Facebook page.  Image of Churchill at Whitehall from the Imperial War Museum. Video commercial copyright Associated Press.