Churchill’s epic ‘Boy’s Own’ Adventure in South Africa

Winston Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’ from Boer captivity during the ‘South African War’ (1899 to 1902) – also referred to as the ‘2nd Anglo-Boer War’ is the stuff of a ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure book. Boy’s Own was a Victorian period magazine featuring great fictional adventures and deeds of Empire.

Boys_Own_Magazine_Feb_1855Because Churchill’s exploits in the South African War were marketed as a grand adventure, it vaulted this failing politician into the annuals of British heroism and resuscitated his career in a manner that can only be described as ‘stellar’.

It was this escape from a POW holding pen in Pretoria during the South African War that set up and ultimately forged Churchill into the juggernaut politician and statesman he was to become, without it Great Britain may never have had its great wartime leader and ‘saviour’ during World War 2 and by the same token the disaster at Gallipoli during World War 1 may even have never taken place.

So, let’s have a look at why South Africa is the epicentre of Churchill’s revived career and why by association this country gave the world a man who in 2002 was voted as the ‘Greatest Briton of all time’ placing him at the top of the most influential people in British history.

Let’s also examine why a lot of people would frankly have been very happy if the Boers had shot and killed him on the fateful day he was caught in Natal (an outcome which very nearly may have happened).  On the way we’ll also unravel some truths and myths.

Churchill’s South African ‘Adventure’

Young Churchill

Known as ‘Copperknob’ a colourised young Churchill at Harrow

To say Winston Churchill was an ambitious young man would be a classic example of English understatement. By the age of 25, the freckled-faced redhead had already written three books, run unsuccessfully for Parliament and participated in four wars on three continents. He was even nicknamed “Pushful, the Younger” because of his ambition, Churchill hungered for fame and glory unwavering in his belief that he would one day become Prime Minister. “I have faith in my star that I am intended to do something in the world,” he wrote to his mother.  Unknown to him at this stage his ‘star’ was to align and bring him fame in South Africa.

Winston Churchill initially took part in the South African War as a ‘war correspondent’ for The Morning Post.  Some war correspondents (like Churchill) tended to be retired commissioned officers with military experience attached to British Regiments or Formations, their reporting was intended to toe the military line.

Churchill as a war correspondent was generally disliked by the British upper officer class, they found him highly critical of their strategy, tactics and actions, they also found him impertinent, arrogant and nothing more than a meddling glory monger.  His ‘upper class elite’ and ‘political class’ heritage presented him as a double-edged sword to any Regiment or Division’s officer elite and they had no choice, simply put they had to just put up with him.

True to form, Churchill’s activities in South Africa literally read like a ‘Boys Own’ Adventure Novel. Within two days of the Boer Republics declaring war on Great Britain on 11th October 1899, Britain started to mobilise their forces at home, in the Cape Colony and Natal their forces were relatively small frontier garrison forces supplemented by citizen force members (which they began to muster anticipating the coming hostilities), and they were hopelessly under-strength.

18056649_10155221467369476_6950152090307411838_nIt a ‘myth’ that Britain had built up large forces to invade the Boer Republics before the start of the war.  The ‘truth’ is they were relatively unprepared and much weaker than the well equipped Boer forces – ‘Black November’ illustrates this perfectly.  The Boers had banked on a swift victory whilst Britain was weak, hence their ultimatum was followed immediately with a surprise Boer invasion of the British colonies – Natal and the Cape Colony.

The British decided to initially send General Sir Redvers Henry Buller and a small contingent of officers, a detachment of troops and a gaggle of journalists off to South Africa on a fact-finding mission to gauge troop strength ahead of sending any major expeditionary force requirements, they left on the Dunottar Castle on 14th October 1899.

Churchill had planned to publish his magnum opus in October 1899, “but when the middle of October came, we all had other things to think about”. He said, “the Boer ultimatum had not ticked out on the tape machines for an hour” and he was on his way to the Cape Colony, appointed as the principal War Correspondent of the Morning Post. He was to be paid £250 per month for four months (£ 1000 was a small fortune at the time), all expenses paid and he retained the copyright on his articles.

Churchill was first in with Buller’s fact-finding mission anticipating his big ‘scoop’.  Sailing with great haste and at high-speed, Churchill called the voyage with Buller as “a nasty, rough passage” and wrote his mother that he had been “grievously sick.” The passage aside, in typical form Churchill even took his valet with him and a vast liquor cabinet that included 18 bottles of Scotch Whiskey also went in tow.

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Illustration of General Sir Redvers Buller on the Dunottar Castle, steaming at haste to Cape Town departing Britain on 14 Oct 1899

In those days before radio, they were completely cut off from the world while at sea. Approaching the Cape, a passing ship held up a blackboard on which was written: BOERS DEFEATED, THREE BATTLES, PENN SYMONS KILLED. A staff officer ventured to address Buller. “It looks as if it will all be over, sir.” Buller only said,“I dare say there will be enough left to give us a fight outside Pretoria.”

Churchill arrived with Buller in Cape Town on 31 Oct 1899, by this stage the siege of the British frontier town of Ladysmith was well underway, and the initial message of Boer ‘defeat’ was very incorrect.  Churchill could not believe his good fortune and endeavoured to be become the first British journalist to get to Ladysmith – against all odds – ahead of Buller’s fact-finding mission and way ahead of any sizeable expeditionary force (which only was to start landing in Cape Town from 10 November 1899).  In effect he was going to be the first to ‘ascertain’ the situation for the very apprehensive Britons back home, not Buller.

Churchill immediately teamed up with journalistic colleague John B. Atkins of the Manchester Guardian to go to the front at Ladysmith before any other journalists could do so.

They took a 700-mile undefended train ride up north to the Cape Colony’s frontier near Port Elizabeth, then they boarded a small steamer bound for Durban and promptly sailed into the teeth of a violent Indian Ocean storm. After several harrowing days in very high seas, the pair arrived at Durban.  This ‘adventure’ had started to play out in an extraordinary way.

Capture 

Still determined to get to see the Boer forces’ siege of Ladysmith ahead of any advancing forces, Churchill and Atkins made another dangerous train ride of 60 miles to within hearing range of the artillery fire from the Boer guns on Ladysmith. Churchill, still keen on getting closer to the action accompanied a scouting expedition on an armoured train.

The train was ambushed by the Boers and on 15 November 1899 using field artillery and heavy rifle fire, whilst trying to manoeuvre out of fire, the front truck hit an obstruction which was placed by the Boers on the track and it was tossed from the tracks. The Boers then opened up on the stalled train with field guns and rifle fire from a vantage position. With the front truck overturned, the engine and rear trucks remained on the tracks, still coupled to them.

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The wrecked part of the armoured train Churchill was travelling in

As shells roared around him and bullets pinged the sides of the armoured train, Churchill’s instincts as a trained military officer took over from his ‘journalist’ side, possibly even more in self-preservation. Acting like a decorated commander, Churchill braved the line of fire for more than an hour as he directed the soldiers to free the train. He also instructed the train driver, a civilian, who was injured and hiding to return to his post (he lied and convinced him that odds are it was not possible to get wounded twice in one day).  He became involved in un-coupling the section of the train which was not completely de-railed, the idea was to use this part of the train still on the tracks as a shield for the soldiers as they retreated to safety.

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Colourised image of Churchill next to the ambushed train – taken later in the war. Colourised by Tinus Le Roux

After some 70 minutes of action the Boers swept down the hillside, Churchill by this time had become separated from the part of the train on the tracks as it retreated. A number of men were taken prisoner, but a large section of the train, now loaded with men, had escaped.

Churchill made for cover to try to escape and found himself alone in a gully near the track. A Boer rode up and seated on his horse raised his rifle to bear at a range of 40 yards. Churchill went for a Mauser pistol he was carrying in his belt but it wasn’t there, whilst clearing the train he had taken it off and left it on the train, it was now safely making its way back without him and Churchill was unarmed.  So, as myths go Churchill was not simply an ‘unarmed’ journalist and as other myths go he also did not fire the pistol during the attack, but he certainly had every intension of shooting the Boer horseman (at his own admission).

In a flat dilemma, Churchill considered his idol – Napoleon who said, “When one is alone and unarmed, a surrender may be pardoned.”  So he obeyed the Boer to surrender and walked out.  Whilst walking into captivity next to the Boer horseman Churchill suddenly realised he had two magazine clips on his person for the Mauser Pistol, which were loaded with ‘soft-nosed’ ammunition. Figuring this may get him into a lot of trouble (soft-nose ammunition makes a bigger striking wound than hard-nosed ammunition and was generally not thought of Kindly by soldiers – it still isn’t), he realised he had to get rid of them fast.

Churchill silently got rid of one magazine, whilst trying to dispose of the second the Boer caught him in the act and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’.  Quick thinking, Churchill gave a whopping lie and replied, “What is it?’ I picked it up”.  The Boer took the pistol magazine and threw it away.

With that Churchill went into captivity, protesting that he was just a civilian war correspondent and therefore not subject to a Prisoner of War status and should be released immediately.  The Boers would have none of it, they had captured a ‘great prize’ who had not behaved under fire in characteristically ‘civilian’ manner.

Passing Majuba 

Whilst his POW train passed Majuba hill on its way to Pretoria Churchill had time to think.  Majuba was the site of the British defeat in the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) twenty years earlier, to understand the deep causes of The South African War (2nd Anglo-Boer War), we need to understand the 1st Anglo-Boer War (like the 2nd World War is World War 1 Part 2, so too the case with the two Anglo-Boer Wars).

As inconvenient truths go the Transvaal was annexed by the British in 1881 at the invitation of the Boers to save them from an African revolt, the Boers did not take to British administration, especially as to how they dealt with the Black African’s claims and taxes and so kicked them out, this cumulated in the Battle at Majuba – and all this happened long before Gold was discovered in the Transvaal – think about that.

Mjuba

Graffiti scrawled by both sides in a house recaptured by the British in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. The Boer graffiti reads: ‘Don’t forget Majuba, Boys’. British graffiti reads: ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’. Imperial War Museum image

This act of defeat and subsequent ceasefire agreement from the battle at Majuba was described by Churchill as “a disgraceful, cowardly peace” as he pondered it whilst passing Majuba hill in his POW train going into captivity.  The general sentiment at the time amongst the British was that the South African War i.e. 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899 to 1902) was going to settle the disgrace and tentative ‘ceasefire’ of the 1st Anglo-Boer War (1880 to 1881) once and for all.

How history twists 

In one of the most ironic twists in history, after The South African War (1899 to 1902), when Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, Churchill was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Louis Botha.  Churchill began with his story of his capture, Botha replied ‘Don’t you recognise me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’

Churchill highly respected and valued Louis Botha after the war, he found the Union of South Africa’s first Prime Minister as “an acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude”.

In another strange twist of history, Kmdt Dolf De la Rey was in command of forces attacking the train is also credited with capturing Churchill (amongst others), much later on De la Rey in 1950’s, as an ageing Boer veteran of The South African War, joined Sailor Malan in his Torch protests against the National Party, such is the rich tapestry of Afrikaners against Apartheid.

Prisoner of War

Although the Boers allowed prisoners-of-war to purchase newspapers, cigarettes and beer, the future British Prime Minister despised his imprisonment “more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life”. What frustrated Churchill even more than the loss of control was the possibility that he was missing out on further opportunities for glory. “I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement,” he lamented.

Winston Churchill POW

Group of British Prisoners of War, with Churchill on the right. Imperial War Museum image

So, he decided to do something about it and escape, and the ramification of doing so would have massive historical consequence.  Here Winston Churchill himself sums up the randomness and sheer ‘luck’ this would all bring him.

“I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff”.

Churchill’s ‘Great Escape’

In December 1899 Churchill’s plan to escape took shape.  He was held in a prison dedicated to British officers, it was a State Model school in central Pretoria converted to hold Prisoners of War.

He wrote.“The State Model Schools stood in the midst  of a quadrangle, surrounded on two sides by an iron grille and on two by a corrugated-iron fence about ten feet high, these boundaries offered little obstacle to anyone who possessed the activity of youth, but the fact that they were guarded on the inside by sentries, fifty yards apart, armed with rifle and revolver, made them a well-nigh insuperable barrier” he then adds “No walls are so hard to pierce as living walls”.

In cohorts with two officers, Captain Haldane and Lieutenant Brockie (who was in fact a Sergeant Major who passed himself off as a Lieutenant in order to get better quarters).  They had noticed a ‘blank spot’ in the movements of Boer guards behind the latrines.  After a first attempt at escape was aborted, they had another go the next day.  Churchill was to go first followed by the other two.

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Churchill’s departing note

On the night of his escape, December 12, 1899 Churchill even had the gumption and cheek to leave a ‘Dear John’ departing note on his pillow thanking the Boer Republic for its hospitality, it read in part:

 “… I wish in leaving you thus hastily and unceremoniously to once more place on record my appreciation of the kindness which has been shown me and the other prisoners by you, the Commandant and Dr Gunning and my admiration of the chivalrous and humane character of the Republican forces.”

‘Churchill entered the small circular lavatory, waited some time monitoring the guards from the lavatory, he waited until the guards had turned their backs and this was his moment, he hesitated twice and then went for it, he scaled the wall and jumped, initially snagging himself on the ornamental metal spikes on top of the wall.

Once free he hid himself in a nearby shrub in the adjacent garden and waited for his partners, who did not arrive, he lay here for an hour with great impatience.  He overheard them speaking in Latin gibberish and mentioning his name, he risked a cough and they told him the game was up on the guard movements and they were not able to join him.

So, there he was, he considered going back and instead undertook to press on with his escape.  The escape was very poorly planned, he had only figured out how to get out of the prison, no real further thought had been given other than to head east. Churchill the ‘fugitive’ had no map, no compass, no intimate local knowledge, no ability to speak the local languages and just “four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pocket for food.  The compass and food had been with his colleagues, but he still possessed a seemingly superhuman level of self-belief that he could safely navigate the 300-mile journey through enemy territory.

On the ‘run’

Contrary to many myths, Churchill did not scarper out of Pretoria as a running fugitive only to ‘forge the mighty Apies’ river to freedom (that was all media hype).  In fact, he casually walked out of Pretoria.  He figured so as not to draw attention to himself he would just amble along in the middle of the road, in full view, humming a tune, pretending to be just a regular ‘Burgher’ on his way home.  He would later joke with Jan Smuts that there was a good chance he just walked straight past him.

Without ‘forging’ any river, he eventually found himself strolling along looking for a railway line, he figured he would follow the easterly tracks, the idea was to get to neutral Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique).  When he reached the eastern suburbs of Pretoria he sat down on a small bridge and for a little while contemplated as to how his ‘adventure’ was now panning out.

He resolved to turn South and eventually he struck a railway heading in an easterly direction, following it, all the while reasoning with himself that he would jump aboard a train and hide.  A coal train passed and he jumped aboard hiding amongst the sacks, and promptly went to sleep.  He awoke hungry and thirsty and needed sustenance, and to get a bearing (he was not sure the coal train had in fact run east) so he disembarked by jumping off.

His next effort to find another train proved entire futile, hungry, tired and thirsty he marched on with increasing hopelessness. By now he was desperate, that night he spotted a fire, thought it a Black African hamlet and hoped to fall on their tender mercy.  On approaching the fire, it turned out to be a railway siding and he overheard Dutch-Afrikaans been spoken.  But desperate and miserable he then resolved to ‘give up the game’ and approach a nearby house.  Chuck it all in, whatever comes, he hoped against hope there would be a sympathetic owner to his plight.

Winstons Wanted Poster

Churchill’s ‘Wanted’ Poster

Meanwhile back in Pretoria and in the United Kingdom, news of his escape broke.  The British public and media shifted into a mode that can only be described as ecstatic, news stories broke on the ‘bravery’ of Winston Churchill giving the Boers the old ‘Agincourt salute’!

Good old stiff upper lip resistance stuff – in a sea of negative news on the heavy British battle losses over November and December this made for the only media ‘great news’ and positive propaganda for a public desperately keen on anything good coming from the war to date – and all thanks to only one man – Winston Churchill. The Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (The South African Republic) , also known as the ‘Transvaal’ Republic (abbreviated ‘ZAR’), went on the man-hunt and immediately put a bounty on Churchill’s head – £25 for the return of Churchill ‘Dead or Alive’.

The Transvaal Police (ZARP) circulated a telegram after Churchill escaped from prison and it gives a very accurate description of Churchill demeanour, it is also very telling of the saga unfolding for Churchill.  It read:

“Englishman 25 years old about 5 foot 8 inches tall medium build walks with a slight stoop. Pale features. Reddish-brown hair almost invisible small moustache. Speaks through his nose and cannot pronounce the letter S. Had last a brown suit on and cannot speak one word of Dutch.”

Throwing the dice 

Churchill, now in sheer desperation, cautiously approached the house and knocked on the door.  His odds were really 50/50 and he knew it, to dispel another myth, The South African War was not a clean-cut affair between the British and Afrikaners facing each other.

The South African Republic (ZAR) was rammed full of tens of thousands of mainly British mine workers and managers, who also worked the mining support infrastructure – like rail (they were the cause Britain cited as the Casus Belli for war in the first place), there were more Britons living along the Transvaal gold reef’s towns in the Republic than Boers.  Equally there were more Afrikaners with British Cape Colony citizenship in the Cape Colony than Britons.

At the beginning of the war, English and Afrikaners with citizenships on either side of the fence, if caught siding with one or other cause were generally executed for treason by either the British or Boers – this kept most of them at bay and non-hostile one way or the other. Also, there were many Afrikaners living in the two Boer Republics and most in the Cape Colony who were in fact sympathetic to the British cause, as there were also many English ZAR citizens sympathetic with the Boer cause.  The next phase of Churchill’s ‘adventure’ illustrates this perfectly.

On knocking on the door, a light came on and a man asked in Dutch-Afrikaans “Wie is daar (Whose there)”. Winston went into shock, the game was up, so he immediately lied and said; “I want help; I have had an accident”. The door opened, and the man said in English this time “What do you want?” Not sure of the status of things Winston carried on lying and said; “I am a burgher, I have had an accident. I was going to join my commando at Komati Poort. I have fallen off the train. We were skylarking. I have been unconscious for hours. I think I have dislocated my shoulder”.  He had in all honestly no clue what to say next.

The stranger regarded Winston intently and ushered him in pointing to a room with one hand whilst holding a revolver in the other.  Winston Churchill half expected to be shot in the back of the head there and then.  He chose to come clean and said; “I am Winston Churchill, War Correspondent of the Morning Post. I escaped last night from Pretoria. I am making my way to the frontier. I have plenty of money. Will you help me?”

Now here’s where Winston just got lucky, his host responded; ‘Thank God you have come here! It is the only house for twenty miles where you would not have been handed over. But we are all British here, and we will see you through.”

Brave words from the host, and here’s why, it turns out that Churchill’s new host was John Howard, an Englishman managing Transvaal Collieries. He had become a naturalised citizen of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek and he had bribed the local Boer Field Cornet, so he would not be called up to his Commando and fight the British.  His team was all of British heritage and had been allowed to stay if they remained ‘neutral’.

‘Verraaiers’ (traitors) everywhere!

John Howard and some of his compatriots resolved to hide Churchill under-ground in a nearby coal mine whilst they figured out the next move.  They ran a tremendous risk, had they been caught they would have been shot as traitors and collaborators, especially John Howard who would have been shot outright.

Churchill sat it out in a mine shaft with food provisions given to him, his only company the many rats.  On the fifth day of his escape, John Howard hatched an escape plan for Churchill.  In the neighbourhood of the mine there lived an Afrikaner named Burgener, who was sending a consignment of wool by rail to Delagoa Bay on the 19th December.  Burgener was an Afrikaner ZAR citizen sympathetic to the British cause.

Howard had secretly met with Burgener, told him of Churchill and they agreed to smuggle Churchill into a specially adapted wool bale on the train and take him to safety.  Phew, supreme treason this, had this Boer ‘turncoat’ been caught he would surly have faced a ZAR firing squad or noose.  Burgener was also to accompany Churchill all the way to Portuguese East Arica and safely see him through – now not many people know this part of the narrative, it’s inconvenient to highlight a ‘Afrikaner’ collaborator in all of this.

What all this skullduggery means, the idea of broad partisan loyalty to the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek’s cause is simply a myth – thousands of ZAR citizens, English and even some Afrikaans were not behind Kruger’s politics or his cabal.

Do you know who I am?

In the middle of the night on the 19th December, Churchill was taken the train loaded with wool bales, Howard pointed the spot made available for Churchill to hide and Winston snuck away into the centre of the specially modified wool bale (with enough space to sit up in), he was given a revolver and food (chicken, meat and bottles of cold tea) – a small space enabled him to see out.  Off the train trekked, final stop, Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

Once safely over the border into neutral Portuguese territory, he emerged from his wool bale sang and shouted in jubilation whilst firing his revolver into the air.

Once in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), he carefully disembarked the train and saw Mr Burgener (the Afrikaner who had helped him), Burgener then pointed him to the British Consulate.  He marched in expecting a rousing reception – he got none of it.  Instead a terse British civil servant told him to ‘Be off,‘ the Consulate was closed, he added; ‘The Consul cannot see you to-day. Come to his office at nine tomorrow, if you want anything.’

At this point Churchill spat his dummy in the reception area, in a typical ‘do you know who I am’ rant he demanded to see the Consular who was duly called, happily the weekly streamer to Durban was leaving that night, he embarked immediately and arrived in Durban to the jubilant reception he was expecting.

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Churchill addresses the crowd at Durban following his escape from Pretoria and return via Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique)

Becoming a ‘Caesar’

In Durban, Sir Redvers Buller was preparing his next push to relieve the siege at Ladysmith, Winston decided he wanted to re-engage his military commission and get into the fight properly as a British Army officer.  His problem, his contract with the Morning Post,which did not allow him as a correspondent to take part in soldering, and Buller who had a strict military only doctrine.  So, he struck a unique agreement with Buller, he would do both jobs, the Morning Post would pay him and the British Army would not.  In another first, Churchill became the world’s first ’embedded’ journalist.

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Colourised portrait of Winston Churchill as part of the South African Light Horse

With that he eagerly found himself back in uniform and off to war, with a lieutenant’s commission in the South African Light Horse.  In his words; “I stitched my badges of rank to my khaki coat and stuck the long plume of feathers from the tail of the sakabulu bird in my hat, and lived from day-to-day in perfect happiness”.

Churchill took part in the famous battle of Spionkop outside Ladysmith from 23-24 January 1900, he acted as a courier to and from the summit at Spionkop and Buller’s headquarters and made a statement about the scene:“Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The splinters and fragments of the shells had torn and mutilated them. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.”

He fought a number of skirmishes and battles to relieve Ladysmith, watching the final attack on the Boer position by the Irish Brigade, a desperate affair and out of twelve hundred Irish who assaulted, both colonels, three majors, twenty officers and six hundred soldiers had fallen killed or wounded.  The path to Ladysmith was clear, and Churchill was front and forward riding into Ladysmith in triumph, he said; “We all rode together into the long beleaguered, almost starved-out, Ladysmith. It was a thrilling moment”.

This highlights another inconveniently overlooked fact of The South African War (especially in context of Boer and Black concentration camps later in the war), British civilians, women and children included, suffered heavily under Boer siege tactics, they were forced to live in nearby caves and bunkers (in Ladysmith) and in mine shafts (Kimberley) to avoid the indiscriminate shelling of their cities, many died of shrapnel and disease brought about from the ravages of war.  At near starvation they were emancipated.  They were described by their liberators as ‘ghosts’. Churchill’s account of entering Ladysmith recalls; “Suddenly from the brushwood up rose gaunt figures waving hands of welcome”.

Besides his harrowing images at Ladysmith, in Churchill’s writings during the campaign, he chastised British hatred for the Boer, calling for them to be treated with “generosity and tolerance” and urging a “speedy peace”.  His call was to fall on deaf ears, especially Kitchener’s who only got he ‘speedy peace’ part.

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British dead in their tench on top of Spionkop, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Fighting on into the Orange Free State Republic, he was nearly captured again when he found himself well forward and isolated observing Boer movements, they attacked his position and his horse bolted under fire, Winston ran for his life under heavy fire with bullets whizzing around him, his savour came when another officer rode up to him, gave him a stirrup, hoisted him up, the horse was wounded but they still rode with Winston in tandem out of immediate danger.

He was front and forward again when the British eventually marched on Pretoria in June 1900.  He watched the last Boer fighting forces leaving Pretoria on a train and he and his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough, took the opportunity to get ahead of the rest of the troops and he rode into Pretoria like a conquering Caesar.  He immediately found his way to the State Model School POW prison, the very prison he had escaped from at the beginning of the war, here he demanded and received the surrender of 52 Boer prison camp guards.  The relieved British officers in the prison produced a British Union Jack (flag), they took down the Transvaal ‘Vierkleur’ and hosted the British Union flag – the first time a British flag re-appeared flying over Pretoria since Pretoria was annexed by Britain as a colony at the invitation of the Boers (see 1st Anglo-Boer War) in 1880, twenty years earlier.

14516334_10154528497944476_6692268421857196301_nAfter the victory in Pretoria, Winston returned to Cape Town and sailed for Britain in July 1900, on the very same ship he had arrived on, the Dunottar Castle. While he had still been in South Africa, his Morning Post despatches had been published as London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, and they sold like wildfire.  He arrived a national hero, nearly god-like, adored by millions.

A future fan base

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Portrait of a young Winston Churchill during his MP days, 1904

There’s a lot not to like about Churchill, his warmongering nature and ability to lie at will, dithering between politician, journalist and army officer all for personal advancement for starters.  But there’s a lot to like in addition when you consider this.

What a Victorian Boy’s Own adventure! Think about it; the story starts with bang! The hero heads off to war on an urgent sea passage to the Cape Colony, braving high seas and a tropical storm to get to Durban.  In Natal he then single-handedly saves an entire British armoured train and its troop from certain death.

Captured by a skilful and determined enemy, he then escapes a POW prison in Pretoria with a ‘dead or alive’ bounty on his head, the subject of an extensive man-hunt for 300 miles and eventually – intrigue, he’s smuggled out the country to freedom by a group of traitors.

He promptly then re-joins the fight and takes part in the epic Battle of Spoinkop, then he’s on to relieve the starved and besieged British folk in Ladysmith riding in triumph. He then fights his way up Africa to take the enemies ‘prize,’ the capital city of Pretoria.

In a perfect ending to the adventure our hero races in to relieve imprisoned British comrades from the same prison he escaped from, and it all ends with the raising the first British Union Flag of the war flying high above the conquered capital.

In all the hero risks being shot in the head on more than five separate occasions, bravery on an almost unsurpassed level – all for Queen and Empire.

You could not make this stuff up! How Churchill did not earn a Victoria Cross is a matter of conjecture (and a topic of many discussions). To the average Victorian prepubescent boy this was an epic ‘Boy’s Own’ adventure, the difference with fiction, it was all true – and a generation of Churchill fans was born.

A fall from Grace

With a stellar career in front of him, as World War 1 churned on Churchill found himself as the 1st Lord of Admiralty, he asked the Prime Minister “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Churchill, believed he had the solution for breaking the impasse—a second front.

Churchill fancied himself a military strategist, he said. “I have it in me to be a successful soldier. I can visualize great movements and combinations,” He proposed attacking the Dardanelles in Turkey and opening a second front.  This was Churchill’s ‘soft underbelly of Europe’ theory – and ironically he made the same mistake with the Italy Campaign of the Second World War, and like Italy later, Turkey proved a ‘tough old gut’ in World War One.

The Gallipoli campaign was an outright failure, the Battle of Gallipoli became a slaughter and quickly morphed into a stalemate just as bloody, just as pointless as that on the Western Front.

In May 1915, Churchill was demoted to an obscure cabinet post. “I am the victim of a political intrigue,” he cried to a close friend. “I am finished!”

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Churchill (right), back from the trenches in WW1 wearing a French Adrian helmet; the officer to his left is Maj. Archibald Sinclair

Displaying his typical dogmatic determination, he resigned to make good his character, and he did this is a most remarkable way, he joined the Army again and chose to spend his time in his ‘political wilderness’ fighting in front line trenches in France, slogging in the blood and mud as a Lt. Colonel with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. After several brushes with death, he returned to politics in 1917 as the Munitions Minister, from his experiences in the front lines he wrote of the urgent need for the armoured ‘tracked caterpillars’ to traverse the mud and ‘no-mans land’ – his involvement with a group of innovators to resolve the problem led to the development of the battle tank and warfare was forever changed.

Destiny 

Churchill became the Chancellor of Exchequer (Cabinet Minister) in 1924 upon re-joining the Conservative Party. Churchill was outspoken on a number of issues, such as the danger of Germany’s re-armament after World War One. His warnings against Hitler were largely ignored, but at the outbreak of the Second World War, his foresight was acknowledged, and he became the war-time Prime Minister. His speeches and military strategy were a great encouragement to the British, and he is regarded today as one of the greatest Britons of his time.

It is largely due to Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War that Britain was not invaded by Hitler’s Nazi forces at the on-set of the Battle of Britain, that Britain (and Western Europe for that matter) is the modern European democracy with the freedoms it enjoys today is largely thanks to Churchill (whether his detractors, of which there are many, like it or not, it remains a fact), and here’s another obscure fact – South Africa had a big role in shaping Churchill, his ‘adventure’ in South Africa took him from a minor politician to a political giant with a near demigod status, even failures like Gallipoli could not unseat his destiny – South Africa both directly and indirectly shaped this future.

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Winston Churchill (Colorised by Mads Madsen)

Related Works and Links

Winston Churchill and Louis Botha: The Battle of Spionkop shaped 3 future leaders – Churchill, Botha & …. Gandhi

The 1st Boer War; Boers; ‘Don’t forget Majuba, boys’. Brits; ‘No fear, Boere, no fear’.

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: A true statesman, Jan Smuts addressing the British Parliament – 1942

Winston Churchill and Jan Smuts: “The force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”- the death of Jan Smuts.

Winston Churchill and Tobruk; “Defeat is one thing; Disgrace is another!” South Africa’s biggest capitulation of arms – Tobruk

Winston Churchill and Smuts; Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

The Transvaal; Vive la rue du Transvaal, vive la France


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts

My Early Life. A Roving Commission. Author: Churchill, Winston S, published October 1930. The Daring Escape That Forged Winston Churchill by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel, November 2016. Winston Churchill’s World War Disaster by Christopher Klein – for the History Channel. Churchill’s capture and escape – November-December 1899, blog by Robin Smith. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.

Londoners sheltering during the ‘Blitz’ owe their saving grace to a South African engineer.

During the Second World War, Londoners used the “Tube” underground rail system for air raid shelters, highly effective the tube system saved thousands of lives, but did you know that Londoner’s owe their saving grace to a South African – James Henry Greathead (6 August 1844 – 21 October 1896)?

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James Henry Greathead

Greathead was born in Grahamstown, South Africa; of English descent, Greathead’s grandfather had emigrated to South Africa in 1820. He was educated at St. Andrew’s College, Grahamstown and the Diocesan College private school in Cape Town. After migrating to England in 1859, he completed his education from 1859 to 1863 at the Westbourne Collegiate School, Westbourne Grove.

He returned briefly to South Africa before finally moving to London in 1864 to serve a three-year pupilage under the civil engineer Peter W. Barlow, from whom he became acquainted with the shield system of tunnelling.

He spent some time (around 1867) as assistant engineer on the Midland Railway between Bedford and London (working with Barlow’s brother, William Henry Barlow).

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Barlow-Greathead Shield

Soon after, in 1869, he rejoined Barlow and they began work on designs for the Tower Subway, only the second tunnel to be driven under the river Thames in central London. Barlow was the engineer for the tunnel and Greathead was in charge of the actual drive.

The tunnelling shield for driving the Tower Subway, while designed by Greathead, was inspired by Barlow’s ideas for a circular tunnelling shield which he had patented in 1864 and 1868.

The Barlow-Greathead shield consisted of an iron cylinder 7 ft 3 in (2.21 m) in diameter fitted with screw jacks which enabled it to be jacked forward. In use, the shield was inched forward as the working face was excavated, while behind it a permanent tunnel lining of cast iron segments was fitted into place, itself an important innovation.

Greathead patented many of his improvements including the use of compressed air and forward propulsion by hydraulic jacks, both of which are now standard features of tunnel construction.  Without Greathead and his patents, London would simply not have the underground tube system it has, and it was this very system that ironically also provided ideal shelter from German bombing raids on London.

The tube tunnel system was accessible from just about anywhere in central London, the stations were well-known to just about every Londoner and it was deep enough so as to provide ideal cover from bombing.

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The mage shows a London Underground Station during the “Blitz”. This was one of London’s most popular shelters is that which is to be found in a section of the London underground system which has been converted by tearing up the tracks. The advertisements remain pasted on the wall. Hats and coats are hung on nails which have been driven in between the bricks on the wall. People sleep on the platform and on the space which was formerly the track, this part stretching for a quarter of a mile.

The featured image shows London’s Aldwych underground tube station being used as a bomb shelter in December 1940. The image illustrates just how basic and uncomfortable the facilities were, but considerably safer than being above ground during the London Blitz.

During the war, Aldwych station was a major air raid shelter which could accommodate up to 1500 people and was equipped with first aid facilities and a canteen. The train service to Holborn was suspended on the 22nd September 1940 from when the station was used as a shelter.

In all 79 tube stations were used as air raid shelters by Londoners.


Researched by Peter Dickens. Photo – Imperial War Museum copyright, reference Wikipedia. Colourised featured IWM Photo – Colourised by Royston Leonard, copyright

A USA claimed South African born ‘Battle of Britain’ Fighter Ace

In all the United States lay claim to eleven (11) American pilots who took part in Battle of Britain, but one of them is a pilot who was not born or educated in America at all, he was born in South Africa and he took up British citizenship after he was educated in England.  The link, both his parents were American – so by default he’s an American too. Not to detract at all from the praise of any of these pilots by splitting hairs over birthright and citizenships, all of them deserve our highest acclamations regardless, so let’s look at another South African born military hero.Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 17.51.57

Flight Lieutenant Carl Raymond (Ray) Davis DFC (30 July 1911 – 6 September 1940) was a South African born flying ace of The Battle of Britain, having claimed nine enemy aircraft (and one shared) destroyed, four (and one shared) probably destroyed, and four damaged, before he was himself shot down and killed in action.

Early Life

Ray was born in Krugerdorp, South Africa to American parents, he was educated in England at Sherborne School and read a Bachelor of Arts at Trinity College Cambridge.  He continued his studies at McGill University in Canada qualifying as a mining engineer.

53412846_1496615028When he turned 21 in 1932, he applied for and became a British citizen.  From a very well to do family background he met and married Anne Hope, Anne was the sister of Sir Archibald Hope. The marriage was celebrated in the local media such was the profile of the families.

601 Squadron

d386c471cd5f723b8f0bf177e9b09b7bRay learned to fly whilst visiting his sister in New Jersey and returned to the United Kingdom in 1935.  Living in London he joined 601 squadron, to serve along with his now brother in law, Sir Archibald Hope. He was commissioned in 601 Squadron in August 1936.

The Royal Air Force’s 601 Squadron was something apart from other RAF Squadrons, it was known as the ‘Millionaires Squadron’ and some notable pilots flew in it, Roger Bushell, another South African who became ‘Big X’ in The Great Escape (see earlier Observation Post article on him The Great Escape … led by a South African!), Billy Fiske another American who was a Bobsleigh champion and Max Aitken, the future Chairman of the Express Newspaper Group.

601 Squadron was formed when a group of wealthy aristocratic young men, all of whom were amateur aviators, decided to form themselves into a Reserve Squadron of the RAF after a meeting in White’s Club, London. The original officers were picked by the first commanding officer, Lord Edward Grosvenor, youngest son of Hugh Grosvenor, the 1st Duke of Westminter.  Grosvenor tested potential recruits by plying them with alcohol to see if they would behave inappropriately as gentlemen when drunk. They were required to consume a large amount of port. Gin and tonics would follow back at the club.

Grosvenor wanted officers of sufficient presence not to be overawed by him and of sufficient means not to be excluded from his favourite pastimes, eating, drinking and White’s (Gentlemen’s club).

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Ray Davis in 601 Squadron

The nickname “the millionaires squadron”, was gained because of the Squadron’s reputation for filling their ranks with the very ‘well-heeled’, and not just aristocrats but also sportsmen, adventurers and self-made men.

There would be no time for petty rules or regulations. But Grosvenor was nonetheless intent on creating an elite fighting unit, as good as any in the RAF and the pilots took their flying and fighting very seriously. Had it not been their reputation as very good, effective and efficient fighting unit, they would never have got away with all the flamboyant antics they got up to (some wealthy enough to buy cameras, the pilots even took to filming their escapades).

Most of these affluent young pilots had little regard for the rigid discipline of the regular service; they lined their uniform tunics with bright red silk, wore red socks and wore blue ties rather than the regulation black. They played polo on brand-new Brough Superior motor cycles, drove fast sports cars and most of the pilots owned their own private aircraft.

Becoming a ‘Ace’

When war broke out Ray Davis was called to full-time service on 27 August 1939. On 27 November 1939, he flew one of the six 601 Squadron initial Blenheims (they were later equipped with Hurricanes), which attacked the German seaplane base at Borkum.

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The feature image above shows “Hurricane Mk I UF-K of No 601 Squadron RAF while it is been serviced on the perimeter dispersal at RAF Exeter in mid-September 1940. This aircraft saw success with both Sgt Leonard N Guy and F/O Carl Raymond Davis.

On 11 July 1940, he shot down his first German Messerschmitt Bf110, and he added two more Bf 110s a month later on 11th August 1940 and quicky followed that with three more Bf 110s on the 13th August 1940.  With that his status of ‘Ace’ was secured.

Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

DFCLGHe awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross later that month on the 30th August 1940.  His citation reads:

“Flying Officer Davis has been engaged on operational service since 3rd September 1939.  He has taken part in nearly all patrols and interceptions carried out by his squadron.  He has been a section leader for the last two months, and on several occasions led his flight. F/O Davis has personally destroyed six enemy aircraft, and severely damaged several others. He has shown great keenness and courage”.

Ray went on to down five more German aircraft before his last fateful mission.

Ray’s last flight

F/O Carl Raymond Davis DFC was killed in action on the 6th September 1940.  Combat took place over Redhill, Gatwick, and Hayfield.  11 Hawker Hurricans from 601 Squadron were on patrol, including Ray flying in Hawker Hurricane P3363 code UF-W.

About 9am in the morning 50 German Messerschmitt 109’s were spotted at 20 000 feet, no enemy bombers were in the area.  The weather was very good and the 601 Squadron RAF fighters climbed to attack, a series of dog fights followed.   Ray was shot down by one of the Me109’s, he was killed instantly by two bullets to the head, his Hurricane crashed while inverted, with this his aircraft burned out in the back garden of Canterbury Cottage at Matfield near Tunbridge Wells. He was 29 years old.

He is buried near his family home in Storrington, West Sussex at St.Mary’s Church.

A brave man, a son of South Africa and one of Churchill’s ‘few’ who laid down his life for freedoms we enjoy today.  Lest we forget.

 


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Sources, Wikipedia, Aircrew remembers and 601squadron.com.  Featured image Imperial War Museum copyright, Colour By Doug Banks

 

South African Battle of Britain Heroine -Jackie Moggridge

This is a very special South African military heroine. Jackie Moggridge (born Dolores Theresa “Jackie” Sorour), during the Second World War she left South Africa for England and joined the ATA Hatfield Ferry Pool on 29 July 1940, being the youngest of the female pilots to take part in the Battle of Britain, aged just 18.

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The ATA “The Air Transport Auxiliary” was charged with delivering new and repaired aircraft to front-line Royal Air Force squadrons and were flown by civilian commercial pilots and female pilots excluded from flying roles deemed as “combative” service at the time.

The initial plan was that the ATA would carry personnel, mail and medical supplies, but the pilots were immediately needed to work with the Royal Air Force (RAF) ferry pools transporting aircraft. By 1 May 1940 the ATA had taken over transporting all military aircraft from factories to Maintenance Units to have guns and accessories installed. On 1 August 1941 the ATA took over all ferrying jobs. This freed the much-needed combat pilots for combat duty. At one time there were 14 ATA ferry pools as far apart as Hamble,  Southampton, Portsmouth, and Lossiemouth near Inverness in Scotland.

The ATA recruited pilots who were considered to be unsuitable for either the Royal Air Force or the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm by reason of age, fitness or gender. A unique feature of the ATA was that physical handicaps were ignored if the pilot could do the job, thus there were one-armed, one-legged, short-sighted and one-eyed pilots, humorously referred to as “Ancient and Tattered Airmen”. However, most notably, the ATA allowed women.

Initially, to comply with the Geneva Convention, as many of the ferry pilots were nominally civilians and/or women, aircraft were ferried with guns or other armament unloaded, however I due course after encounters with German aircraft in which the ferried aircraft were unable to fight back, RAF aircraft were ferried with guns fully armed.

As part of unique and very brave bunch of pilots, mainly women, Our South African hero, Jackie safely handed over 1,500 aircraft during the war, 83 different types and 200 more than any other ATA pilot.

She had a very lucky escape on 5 January 1941 when ferrying an Oxford Mk I to RAF Kidlington, Oxfordshire, with no R/T to meet up with 1st O Amy Johnson who was bringing one in from Blackpool. Both went off course in adverse weather conditions, with Johnson following the rules, bailing out and drowning in the Thames Estuary. Sorour went down to a few hundred feet and found herself over the Bristol channel with 20 minutes fuel remaining. She claimed that she did not want to take to the chute because she had broken her leg during a parachute jump in 1938.

16195937_1899005106995145_1188220574573390828_nJackie also encountered a V-1 flying bomb in the air over Surrey while flying a Tempest. She altered course, fully intending to attempt to topple it with her wing tip but failed to catch up to it.  The standard practice in dealing with a ‘doodlebug’ (as the V1 was nicknamed) was a wingtip topple, it threw the flying bomb’s gyro off its intended target and sent it into open countryside instead of a city.  However the trick was to fly faster than the rocket to do it.  The picture featured shows this remarkable manoeuvre between a Spitfire and an unmanned V1 flying bomb.

Jackie was also the first woman in South Africa to make a parachute jump. (4,000 feet). She was South Africa’s youngest pilot of her time age 17 years. November 1959 was awarded Jean Bird trophy as Woman of the Year . She flew Lancasters, Spitfires and a variety of other planes as a RAF pilot during World War 2. She logged over 4,000 hours flying over Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

She is best described by her Daughters “Jackie was like two women in one: artistic, romantic, forgetful and disorganised, but when she climbed into an aeroplane she became focused, calm and very capable – not our mother at all! She loved many things: singing, dancing, sewing and painting, but her main passion in life was flying. Up in the sky is where she belonged.”

“She really was two women in one. She was a real battler for women to get on in life and just could not imagine that there was anything she could not try to achieve. But she knew, and said, that as a woman she had to have the best results to be taken seriously.”

21265949._UY630_SR1200,630_She was a member of one very elite group and one of only five women to be awarded full RAF wings during the war, Jackie even campaigned to become the first woman to break the sound barrier but was prevented from doing so by the powers that be.

The actions of the ATA are best summed by Lord Beaverbrook in 1945 who said;

“Without the ATA the days and nights of the Battle of Britain would have been conducted under conditions quite different from the actual events. They carried out the delivery of aircraft from the factories to the RAF, thus relieving countless numbers of RAF pilots for duty in the battle. Just as the Battle of Britain is the accomplishment and achievement of the RAF, likewise it can be declared that the ATA sustained and supported them in the battle. They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront.”

After she died, aged 81, in 2004, Jackie took to the skies one last time, for her ashes were scattered from the ‘Grace’ Spitfire ML407.

She is now proudly acclaimed as one of ‘The Female Few’ whose actions in The Battle of Britain and for the duration of the war brought us the freedoms we know today.


Reference Jackie Moggridge’s obituary and Wikipedia.   Researched by Peter Dickens. The stunning colouried photograph of Jackie Moggridge by Paul Kerestes

South African Battle of Britain “Few” – Frederick Posener

P/O Frederick Hyam POSENER, born on the 11th August 1916 in East London South Africa, a Jewish lad, son of Jack and Cissie Posener.  His father was an insurance agent and the family traveled regularly between South Africa and the Great Britain. He was educated at St. Andrew’s College, Grahamstown.

15284901_10210159757088884_3824330762325074957_nIn 1938 Frederick moved to Great Britain and joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) on a short service commission as part of the Empire Flying Training Wing.

He trained at 3 Flying Training School, South Cerney flying Hawker Harts, on completing his training he joined No. 152 squadron on the 1st October 1939, which was equipped at the time with Gloster Gladiators.

No 152 Squadron became the gift squadron of Hyderabad and took as its badge the head-dress of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Motto “”Faithful ally”

Frederick Posener was one of the first seven Pilot Officers to join the Squadron, and on the 25th November 1939 the “Blue Section” of B Flight, 152 Squadron went to Sumberg to reinforce the Orkney Islands 100 Wing.

On the 15th December 1939 Blue section at Sumberg was handed over to Coastal Command, however in the same month, on the 23rd December, whilst flying Gloster Gladiator N5701, Posener overshot on landing and spun in from 100ft, he was seriously injured in the accident and on recovery he rejoined 152 Squadron at Acklington.

Posener transferred with the Squadron on the 12th July 1940 to the forward Fighter Station at RAF Warmwell in Dorset, the squadron by this time had been equipped with Mk 1 Spitfires.

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Taking a break: July 1940, Pilots of 152 squadron based at RAF Warmwell in Dorset

Death

On the 20th July 1940 in Spitfire K9880 P/O Frederick Posener took off at 12:45 as “Green 3” of B Flight to cover petrol convoy Bosom just off Swanage, 7 miles south east of the coast line in the English Channel, he was acting as a “weaver”.

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He was seen still in his position at 10,000ft as the convoy was reached, he was about 200 to 300 yards behind RAF Spitfire “Green 2”.  At this position he was shot down by Oberleutnant Homuth flying Messerschmitt Bf 109 3/JG 27, the lasts word heard from him was “tail”, he then baled out of his Spitfire which then crashed into the sea. He was seen to land on his parachute in the sea near to the convoy but to the rear and starboard of it, this went unseen by the convoy and he was never seen again, he was 23.

Gerhard_HomuthOberleutnant Gerhard Homuth was one of the top scoring German Luftwaffe aces in the Second World War. He scored all but two of his 63 victories against the Western Allies whilst flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109, especially in North Africa, he was later promoted to the rank of Major.  He was last seen on 2 August 1943 in a dogfight with Soviet fighters in the Northern sector – Eastern Front whilst flying a Focke Wulf 190A. His exact fate remains unknown.

P/O Frederick Posener is named on the Runnymede memorial, Panel 9, one of the “South African FEW”, lest we forget.

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Researched by Peter Dickens

Reference: The Kent Battle of Britain Museum and Battle of Britain London Monument and Wikipedia.  The featured image shows P/O Frederick Posener on the left, E.S. Hogg and W. Beaumont are to the right of him.

‘Stapme’ the handlebar moustached South African & Battle of Britain icon

Squadron Leader “Stapme” Stapleton DFC Dutch FC was born on May 12th 1920 in Durban, South Africa, he died on April 13th 2010, aged 89.  He was truly one of the most remarkable characters ever to fly for The Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, D Day and Operation Market Garden, as this Daily Telegraph “Aircrew Remembered” obituary column outlines:

1307_10153714899566480_6236182998249877025_n“Tall, blond and sporting a splendid handlebar moustache, Stapleton was the epitome of the dashing fighter pilot. As the Battle of Britain opened in July 1940, he was flying Spitfires with No 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron and saw action off the east coast of Scotland. He shared in the destruction of two German bombers before his squadron moved to Hornchurch in late August as the Battle intensified.

Within a few days Stapleton had engaged the enemy fighter force escorting the Luftwaffe’s bombers, and was credited with probably destroying two Messerschmitt Bf 109s. By the beginning of September No 603 was one of the most heavily involved squadrons, and Stapleton accounted for a Dornier bomber on September 3 and a Bf 109 two days later – the latter flown by Franz von Werra, who later became famous as “The One who Got Away”, being generally regarded as the only Axis PoW to escape from Canada and make it back to Germany.

On September 7 Stapleton’s Spitfire was hit by enemy fire, but he managed to force-land his badly damaged aircraft. A young couple having a picnic in an adjacent field gave him a restorative cup of tea before driving him back to his airfield.

On September 15 (Battle of Britain Day) Stapleton shot down a Dornier bomber and damaged a fighter. By the end of the Battle on October 31, he had destroyed two more Bf 109s and probably a further three. On November 11 he gained his final success when he shot down a Bf 109 over Ramsgate. A few days later he was awarded a DFC.

During that summer of 1940, 13 of his colleagues were killed and others seriously wounded – including his friend Richard Hillary (later the author of The Last Enemy), who was badly burned.

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A day with No. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Fighter Squadron who have 128 German aircraft to their credit. The picture shows: Pilots of City of Edinburgh Squadron with their latest addition, a Spitfire presented by natives in Persia.

When reflecting on the Battle in later life, Stapleton observed: “Despite the casualties, when I look back, I recall we also had great fun. It was an exciting time and we made the most of our opportunities to live it up. We tended to treat each occasion as if it were our last.”

Basil Gerald Stapleton was born in Durban, South Africa, on May 12 1920 and educated at King Edward VI School in Totnes, Devon. He entered the RAF on a short service commission in January 1939 and, after a brief spell flying Blenheim night fighters, joined No 603 Squadron.

It was while he was with 603 Squadron that Stapleton got his nickname, “Stapme”. It derived from the exclamation habitually uttered by the newspaper cartoon hero “Just Jake” whenever he spotted an attractive girl. Much to the irritation of his flight commander, Stapleton would pin the daily cartoon strip to the squadron’s notice board.

Stap Me

Captain A.R.P Reilly-Ffoull was from the wartime cartoon strip ‘Just Jake’. Just Jake ran for 14 years in the Daily Mirror newspaper.

In March 1941 Stapleton was rested, but he soon volunteered to fly Hurricanes catapulted off the deck of a merchant ship sailing with the North Atlantic convoys. He completed four trips without seeing any action before embarking on a second tour of operations as the flight commander of a Hurricane squadron (later Typhoon), flying bomber escort operations over France.

In August 1944, after a period as a gunnery instructor, he was put in command of No 247 Squadron, operating from advanced landing grounds in Normandy – where he discovered ample supplies of Calvados; he not only enjoyed drinking it, but also found it effective fuel for paraffin lamps and his Zippo lighter.

He soon arranged for the squadron intelligence officer, an excellent artist, to paint a logo on the nose of his Typhoon. It showed a Nazi swastika topped by a burning eagle – the result of a strike by a 60lb rocket in the centre of the swastika. He named it “Excreta Thermo”, but the more prudent intelligence officer did not include this wording in case Stapleton crash-landed in enemy territory. In the event, this proved a wise decision.

Stapleton flew his first operation on August 27, when his rocket-firing Typhoons attacked barges on the river Seine. Within days, No 247 started heading eastwards to occupy abandoned German airfields as the Allied armies advanced towards Paris and Brussels. Stapleton and his pilots attacked enemy transports and armour against fierce anti-aircraft fire.

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Ground crews loading 3-inch rocket projectiles onto Hawker Typhoon Mark IB, MN317 ‘ZY-B’, of No. 247 Squadron RAF at B2/Bazenville, Normandy.

On September 17 the squadron was briefed for “a very important task”: the support of the airborne operations at Nijmegen and Arnhem. Stapleton led the initial attack by eight Typhoons against German gun positions threatening the British Second Army’s advance along the road to Eindhoven.

Over the next two days Stapleton led more formations against the enemy, but bad weather forced some sorties to be aborted. The squadron then moved to Eindhoven, where the Typhoons landed between the bomb craters.

After a rowdy night, when much champagne was consumed, his Jeep ran out of fuel returning from the officers’ bar and he had to jump clear as the following vehicle failed to stop in time. Stapleton hit his head on the kerb and needed eight stitches above his eye.

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For the next two months Stapleton led many formations against gun emplacements, road and rail traffic and ferries before the German Army launched its counter-attack in the Ardennes on December 17. For days the weather prevented any flying; but finally it cleared sufficiently for eight Typhoons to carry out an armed reconnaissance sortie on December 23.

Despite still dreadful weather, Stapleton pressed on and attacked a train at low level with rockets; but the flying debris from the exploding steam engine punctured the radiator of his Typhoon and his engine failed. He was fortunate to find an area of open farmland in which to make a forced landing.

He had come down two miles on the wrong side of the battle lines and was taken prisoner. He was taken to Stalag Luft I, and remained a PoW until May 2, when the camp was liberated by the advancing Russian Army.

On January 1 1946, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands awarded Stapleton a Dutch Flying Cross for his part in the operations at Arnhem. A month later he left the RAF, believing that he would not fit in with a peacetime air force.

Stapleton joined BOAC, flying West African routes for three years before returning to South Africa. There he spent six years as a technical representative with Dunlop, then seven years as works engineer with Sprite Caravans. Whilst living in Botswana he escorted tourists on photographic safaris in southern Africa before returning to Britain in 1994.
DSC_0208_galleryTo many people Stapleton was one of the real “characters” to survive the war. His favourite aircraft was the Spitfire, and when a colleague described it as “beautiful and frail, yet agile, potent and powerful” Stapleton responded: “I always wanted a lady like that.”

He was a great supporter of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, and in 2007 one of the Flight’s Spitfires carried his personal markings. He was also a regular at many Battle of Britain commemorative events; but his greatest devotion was to the No 603 Squadron Association. With his flamboyant ties, large floppy hat and luxuriant moustache, he was immensely popular at the many events he attended.


Researched by Peter Dickens.

Main extracts from a biography, “Stapme” by David Ross, was published in 2002″. Reference Daily Telegraph Obituary Column, wikipedia, Image copyright Imperial War Museum

The South African Battle of Britain “Few” – David Haysom DSO DFC

Celebrating South Africa’s ‘Few’ who tool part in the Battle of Britain.  Here we see South African Durban High School Old Boy, Wing Commander Geoffrey David Leybourne Haysom DSO DFC, during the Battle of Britain in the leading Hurricane. Read on for his remarkable story.

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David Haysom was born in Durban, South Africa in 1917. He was educated at Durban High School (DHS) and then went on Natal University College and Edinburgh University in 1936, where he gained a BSc. He intended to continue his studies in medicine, but after enjoying a chance opportunity to fly an airplane, flying became his passion. He gave up medicine in early 1937 and enrolled as a cadet officer in the Royal Air Force. He was commissioned in late 1937 and began his initial training on 18th March 1937.

Haysome went to No. 1 RAF Depot Uxbridge on 18th May for a short induction course before being posted to 2 FTS Brize Norton on 5th June. After completing his training he joined the staff of the School of Naval Co-operation at Ford on 8th January 1938. He joined 79 Squadron at Biggin Hill on 1st November 1938.

Haysom was detached from 79 Squadron to the School of Air Navigation St. Athan on 6th May 1940 for No. 6 Short Navigation Instructors Course. He rejoined 79 Squadron on 31st May.

Near Abbeville on 8th June 1940 Haysom shot down a Me109 over Le Treport. He was appointed ‘B’ Flight Commander on 17th June with the rank of Acting Flight Lieutenant. He took temporary command of the squadron from 7th to 11th July after the CO, S/Ldr. JDC Joslin, was killed.

On 15th August Haysom claimed a Me110 shot down, on the 28th he made a forced-landing at Appledore Station, near Tenterden, when his glycol system was damaged in combat over Hythe.

On 30th August he probably destroyed a Me109, on the 31st shot down another and on 1st September damaged a Do17. Haysom shot down a Ju88 on 20th November 1940 which had been photographing damage caused in the German raid on Coventry.

DFCLGOn 1st April 1941 he destroyed a He111 and on the 4th he shared in damaging another. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross DFC (gazetted 29th April 1941) and commanded 79 Squadron from June to 25th September 1941, when he was posted away to 51 OTU at Debden for Controller duties.

His DFC Citation:
“This officer has been engaged on operational flying since the war began. He has displayed great keenness in his efforts to seek and engage the enemy and has destroyed at least five of their aircraft.”

In mid-1942 Haysom was posted to the Middle East and he joined 260 Squadron on 19th July, possibly as a supernumerary to gain experience on Kittyhawks. Three days later he was promoted to Acting Wing Commander, to become Wing Leader 239 Wing in the Western Desert. At the end of his tour Haysom was awarded the Distinguished Service Order DSO (gazetted 16th February 1943), being then credited with at least six enemy aircraft destroyed.

His DSO citation:

“Wing Commander Haysom has been on operational flying since the commencement of the war. He has destroyed at least six enemy aircraft and has twice been shot down himself. He has led his wing on many fighter-bomber and long distance flights. He has always displayed the utmost determination. The success achieved by the wing has been largely due to this officer’s skill and courage.”

Distinguished_Service_Order_correctHe went on to the Italian Campaign where he was working in operations command, and privy to the Ultra Secret. Here he devised the air-born strategic planning system that became known as “Rover David”  – an instant success that was used against enemy aircraft in the invasion of 1944. (Called “Rover Joe” it is still used by the United States Air Force, which acknowledges David Haysom as the originator of the air support system.

He ended the war at the rank of Group Captain (the Royal Air Force equivalent of Colonel in the Army) and was released from the RAF in 1946.

A typically unassuming hero, he never spoke to his children of his war experience, he never considered himself a hero or boasted about being an fighter ace. He died in 1979.

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The featured image shows three Hawker Hurricane Mark IIBs of No 79 Squadron RAF based at Fairwood Common, Glamorgan, flying in ‘vic’ formation above South Wales. The pilots were, the South African Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader G D Haysom (leading aircraft, Z3745 ‘NV-B’), and his flight commanders, Flight Lieutenant R P Beamont (nearest aircraft, Z2633 ‘NV-M’), and Flight Lieutenant L T Bryant-Fenn (furthest aircraft, Z3156 ‘NV-F).


Researched by Peter Dickens.

Image copyright – Imperial War Museum. Geoffrey David Leybourne Haysom – Spitfire Society Trust ZA by John Mackenzie