Edwin Swales VC DFC, a South African Hero whose legacy has been eroded!

Edwin (Ted) Swales VC DFC is one of South Africa’s greatest sons,  yet the South African politicians  of today,  have removed his name from the well known “Edwin Swales Drive” named in honour of him in Durban and re-named it after a contemporary “struggle” cadre.  The legacy of Maj. Swales VC DFC is under threat, and there is very good and noble reason not to forget him, this is his story, kindly contributed to by David Bennett.

A very short biography :    Major Edwin Swales, VC, DFC, SAAF (1915 – 1945)  by David Bennett

Edwin Essery Swales : Born in Inanda, Natal, 3 July 1915. Attended Durban High School, Jan. 1930 to Dec.1934. Worked for Barclay’s Bank, DC&O, in Durban 1935 to 1939. He joined the Natal Mounted Rifles, 1935 and left 31 May 1939 as a W.O.II. Rejoined N.M.R. on 4 September 1939.

He served in Kenya; Abyssinia; Italian Somalia; British Somalia and Eritrea. Then (1941) in North Africa. In 1942, he left the army to join the S.A. Air Force. Swales received his wings at Kimberley in 1943. Then seconded to the Royal Air Force in 1943, he attended Flying Training School at  R.A.F. Little Rissington, 1944. Later sent to the elite R.A.F. Pathfinder Force, 582 Squadron, Royal Air Force, at Little Staughton in July 1944.

Swales was awarded an immediate D.F.C. on 23 December 1944 following a bombing raid on Cologne. After a raid on Pforzheim on 23 February 1945, Swales was killed in action, crashing near Valenciennes, France and he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Swales is now buried in the War Cemetery at Leopoldsburg, near Limburg, Belgium, Plot No.8, Row C, Grave No.5. (Although he had originally been buried at Fosse’s USA Cemetery). The headstone of Swales’ grave shows the Springbok head, common to the graves of all South Africans, as well as the Victoria Cross engraved on it. The legend on the headstone states:

Edwin Swales was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, on 23 December, 1944.  The citation reads:

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following award in recognition of gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations:-

Captain Edwin Swales, (6101V) S.A.A.F. 582 Sqn. :-

The Distinguished Flying Cross:

“This Officer was pilot and Captain of an aircraft detailed to attack Cologne in December, 1944. When approaching the target, intense anti-aircraft fire was encountered. Despite this, a good bombing attack was executed. Soon afterwards the aircraft was attacked by five enemy aircraft. In the ensuing fights, Capt. Swales manoeuvred with great skill. As a result his gunners were able to bring effective fire to bear upon the attackers, one of which is believed to have been shot down. Throughout this spirited action Captain Swales displayed exceptional coolness and captaincy, setting a very fine example. This Officer has completed very many sorties during which he has attacked a variety of enemy targets.”           (Official D.F.C. Citation)    

Edwin Swales was killed on 23 February, 1945, and he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the 3rd and last Pathfinder pilot to be so honoured (all alas, posthumous). It had been Swales’ 43rd operational flight for 582 Squadron, R.A.F. Here is the citation:

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on

the under-mentioned officer in recognition of the most conspicuous bravery:-

Captain Edwin Swales, DFC (6101V) S.A.A.F. 582 Sqn. (deceased):

 “Captain Swales was ‘Master Bomber’ of a force of aircraft which attacked Pforzheim on the night of February 23, 1945. As Master Bomber he had the task of locating the target area with precision and of giving aiming instructions to the main force of bombers in his wake.

Soon after he reached the target area he was engaged by an enemy aircraft and one of his engines was put out of action. His rear guns failed. His crippled aircraft was an easy prey for further attacks. Unperturbed, he carried on with his allotted task; clearly and precisely he issued aiming instructions to the main force. Meanwhile the enemy fighter closed the range and fired again. A second engine of Captain Swales’ aircraft was put out of action. Almost defenceless, he stayed over the target area issuing his aiming instructions until he was satisfied that the attack had achieved its purpose. It is now known that the attack was one of the most concentrated and successful of the war.

Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged. Its speed had been so much reduced that it could only with difficulty be kept in the air. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working. Determined at all costs to prevent his aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands, he set course for home. After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud. He kept his course by skilful flying between the layers, but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, by now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; it was losing height steadily. Realising that the situation was desperate Captain Swales ordered his crew to bale out. Time was very short and it required all his exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of his crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety. Hardly had the last crew-member jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth. Captain Swales was found dead at the controls.

Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life that his comrades might live”

(Official V.C. Citation)

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, KCB, OBE, AFC, Chief of Bomber Command, Royal Air Force, following the loss of Edwin Swales, wrote a letter to Swales’ mother, Mrs. Olive Essery Swales, saying, inter-alia:

…… On every occasion your son proved himself to be a determined fighter and resolute captain of his crew. His devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety will remain an example and inspiration to us all …..

Memorial to Edwin Swales at the secondary school he attended as a student, Durban High School (DHS)

In conclusion 

It is our humble opinion, that whilst it is important to segments of South Africa’s population to remember their heroes it should not come at the expense of other national heroes.

Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, after whom Edwin Swales VC Drive is now named,  was a operative of the African National Congress militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and whilst it is important to the current ANC ruling party to highlight the sacrifice of its heroes, it should not come at the sacrifice of Maj. Swales’ legacy – one of a handful of South African World War 2 Victoria Cross winners, and one whose extremely brave deeds were awarded in a war which was to liberate the entire western world of tyrannical and rather deadly racial political philosophy as well as dictatorial megalomaniacs supporting such ideology.

In fact to rectify the situation, the Durban City Council should actually consider a monument or statue in the centre of Durban to Edwin Swales and allow him to take his rightful place as a true son of South Africa and one of our all time greatest military heroes, as is the case for many Victoria Cross winners the world over.  That his actions and deeds are taught to South African youth, pride in our WW2 history established and his sacrifice not forgotten.  Lets hope they see their way clear to do this.

Note:    The papers from the South African Air Force, promoting Edwin Swales from Captain to Major, only reached the British authorities after his death, and after the award of the Victoria Cross was gazetted, hence the rank of “Captain” being used in the VC citation. However, he is referred to as a Major.

Thank you to David Bennett for both photograph and content contribution.

John Nettleton VC – an unknown South African Victoria Cross recipient

Rare that we see an image of a South African Victoria Cross recipient in action, but this is one such image. Flying this exact Avro Lancaster bomber is a Natal lad – Squadron Leader John Dering Nettleton VC.  Now, not many South Africans have heard of him – and why is that?

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Lancaster B Mark I, L7578 ‘KM-B’, of No.97 Squadron RAF, piloted by Squadron Leader J D Nettleton of No. 44 Squadron RAF, flying at low-level over the Lincolnshire countryside during a Squadron practice for the low-level attack on the M.A.N. diesel engineering works at Augsburg. 97 Squadron lent L7578 temporarily to 44 Squadron, who repainted the aircraft with Nettleton’s unit code-letters. Nettleton actually flew R5508 on the operation.

Nettleton is another true South African hero and recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. His VC was one of five awarded to South Africans in World War 2 – however very little is known of their stories in South Africa.

Of South Africa’s VC winners during World War 2 only two are commonly referred to, they are Quentin Smythe VC – see Profiling a true South African Hero – Sgt. Quentin Smythe VC  and Edwin Swales VC – see  Edwin Swales VC DFC, a South African Hero whose legacy has been eroded! The reason these two are more commonly known is largely because Quentin Smythe VC served in The South African Army and Edwin Swales VC – although a SAAF member attached to the Royal Air Force, had strong ties to his Alma Mater – Durban High School (DHS) who have largely driven his legacy in Durban.  But what of the other three; George Gristock VC, Gerard Norton VC and our hero today, John Nettleton VC?

Simply put, after the war, the National Party came to power in 1948 they almost immediately dismissed all South Africans who had served in the war as ‘traitors’ to the country for supporting what they saw as ‘Britain’s war’.  During the war the Nationalists had vocally supported Nazi Germany (as Germany had supported the Boer cause during the 2nd Anglo Boer War and Afrikaner nationalism was grounded on punitive British measures taken out on the Boers during this war), many Nationalists had even adopted national socialism and embarked on sedition during the war (see “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag).

For the Nationalists, on the top of the list of ‘traitors’ were the South Africans who distinguished themselves winning Victoria Crosses whilst serving in ‘British’ Regiments or Arms of Service.  These were men, who in the eyes of the Nationalists, served the hated British and were not to heralded as heroes, lest their deeds specifically influence young South Africans.  For this reason very little in South Africa is named or honoured in the names of Gristock, Norton or Nettleton.

So lets pull away this veil and reveal some true South African heroes whose very noble exploits and deeds in ridding the world of Nazism all of us as can stand very proud of.  What better way to start with John Nettleton VC – this is his story.

John Nettleton

Avro Lancaster flown by Squadron Leader J D Nettleton, about to cross the western perimeter of RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire with bomb doors open during a practice run.

John Dering Nettleton was born on 28 June 1917 in Nongoma, Natal Province, South Africa, the grandson of Admiral A T D. Nettleton, he was educated at Western Province Preparatory School (WPPS) in Cape Town from 1928-30, Nettleton served as a Naval cadet on the General Botha training ship and then for 18 months in the South African Merchant Marine. He took up civil engineering, working in various parts of South Africa.

Commissioned in the Royal Air Force in December 1938, he then served with Nos. 207, 98 and 185 Squadrons before joining 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron flying the Handley Page Hampden. He took part in a daylight attack on Brest on 24 July 1941 and in a series of other bombing raids and was mentioned in dispatches in September 1940.

John

John Dering Nettleton VC

Nettleton was promoted Flying Officer in July 1940, Flight Lieutenant in February 1941 and was a Squadron Leader by July 1941. No. 44 Squadron was based at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire at this time and had taken delivery of Lancasters in late 1941

.In 1942 a daylight bombing mission was planned by RAF Bomber Command against the MAN diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Bavaria, responsible for the production of half of Germany’s U‑boat engines. It was to be the longest low‑level penetration so far made during World War II, and it was the first daylight mission flown by the Command’s new Avro Lancaster.

Nettleton’s citation for his Victoria Cross is quite explanatory of the attack and the rest of the story picks up from here:

Citation:

medalSquadron Leader Nettleton was the leader of one of two formations of six Lancaster heavy bombers detailed to deliver a low-level attack in daylight on the diesel engine factory at Augsburg in Southern Germany on April 17th, 1942. The enterprise was daring, the target of high military importance. To reach it and get back, some 1,000 miles had to be flown over hostile territory.

Soon after crossing into enemy territory his formation was engaged by 25 to 30 fighters. A running fight ensued. His rear guns went out of action. One by one the aircraft of his formation were shot down until in the end only his and one other remained. The fighters were shaken off but the target was still far distant. There was formidable resistance to be faced.

With great spirit and almost defenceless, he held his two remaining aircraft on their perilous course and after a long and arduous flight, mostly at only 50 feet above the ground, he brought them to Augsburg.

Here anti-aircraft fire of great intensity and accuracy was encountered. The two aircraft came low over the roof tops. Though fired at from point blank range, they stayed the course to drop their bombs true on the target. The second aircraft, hit by flak, burst into flames and crash-landed. The leading aircraft, though riddled with holes, flew safely back to base, the only one of the six to return.

Squadron Leader Nettleton, who has successfully undertaken many other hazardous operations, displayed unflinching determination as well as leadership and valour of the highest order

Citation ends.

Nettleton survived the incident, his damaged Lancaster limping back to the UK, finally landing near Blackpool. His VC was gazetted on 24 April 1942.

Nettleton

Squadron Leader J D Nettleton VC signing his autograph for a factory worker on a visit to open a munitions factory, North Wales.

Nettleton died on 13 July 1943, returning from a raid on Turin in Italy by 295 Lancasters. His Lancaster took off from Dunholme Lodge and was believed to have been shot down by a fighter off the Brest peninsular. FW 190s of 1./SAGr.128 and 8./JG 2 scrambled from bases near Brest in the early hours of 13 July, and at 06:30am intercepted the bomber stream.

A total of eight bombers were claimed, and at least three Lancasters were almost certainly shot down by the German fighters, one of whom was Nettleton. His body and those of his crew were never recovered. All are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 92988) The Acting Commanding Officer of No. 44 Squadron RAF, Squadron Leader J D Nettleton (sitting, second from left) and his crew, photographed on their return to Waddington, Lincolnshire, after leading the low-level daylight attack on the M.A.N. diesel engineering works at Augsburg on 17 April 1942. For his courage and leadership during the raid Nettleton was gazetted for the award of the Victoria Cro... Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205127125

Group photograph of Squadron Leader J D Nettleton (sitting, second from left) and his crew, photographed on their return to Waddington, Lincolnshire, after leading the low-level daylight attack on the M.A.N. diesel engineering works. 17 April 1942.

The truly unfortunate thing about these heroes is that due to political prejudice – starting with the National Party from their election to power in 1948 (post WW2) and now the current political dispensation in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) – these VC recipients are almost unclaimed and unknown.   The result is that very little is commemorated to their memories in South Africa today.

With no known grave there are very few memorials to John Nettleton VC in South Africa, no roads or state institutions are named after him, nothing really significant in his own country acknowledges him (other than the General Botha training ship which have a acknowledgement to this one of the two ‘sailor’ airmen to serve in the RAF).  Like his fellow General Botha training ship compatriot ‘Sailor Malan’, this ‘sailor’ – John Nettleton was also proud to wear the ‘South Africa’ shoulder title on his Royal Airforce uniform (as with all the South African pilots who served in the RAF – see The RAF ‘South Africa’ title worn during The Battle of Britain) and by that simple gesture there is no doubt to where his heart and loyalty lay.

His link to South Africa is so lost to memory that it has even been lost to the British, his name was not even included in the South Africans listed on the Victoria Cross Winners dome at the Commonwealth Gates memorial in central London.  It’s not just John Nettleton’s name that is missing from this memorial, there is a very long list of other South African VC recipients unaccounted for on this memorial, such has been the complete disregard.

As South Africans (in South Africa and in the United Kingdom) this has to be addressed, we should hang our collective heads in shame in the way we have treated our national heroes, and if this website goes a way to helping increase awareness of these unsung South African heroes then so much the better.

Nettleton 3

Head and shoulders War Commission portrait of Squadron Leader John Nettleton. He wears his RAF tunic, bearing the medal ribbon of his Victoria Cross, as well as his South Africa shoulder badge. At this time Nettleton commanded 44 Rhodesia Squadron.


Researched and written by Peter Dickens, references and extracts wikipedia and Imperial War Museum.

Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum