The day the SAAF nearly killed Jan Smuts

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

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

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

East African Campaign

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

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

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SAAF 1 Squadron Hawker Fury

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

Blue and Blue

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

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

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

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

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SAAF Ju-86

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

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

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

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

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

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SAAF Ju-86

Close Call

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

Related work

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

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

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


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

South Africans destroy 101 Enemy Aircraft in East Africa

This is an interesting photograph of South African Airforce personnel celebrating a significant milestone.

The photo was taken during the East Africa campaign in 1941. Pilots and ground crew of No 3 Squadron, South African Air Force, chalk up their 101st enemy aircraft destroyed on the fuselage of a captured Italian CR 42 fighter.

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It must however be noted that this milestone was not 101 aircraft destroyed in air combat, and would be inclusive of aircraft destroyed whilst on the ground.  Nonetheless it provided for good propaganda and moral.  “Tiny” South Africa and a bunch of very brave airmen, in conjunction with The Royal Air Force and other Commonwealth Air Forces, decimated a European ‘superpower’s’ Air Force.

The East African Campaign – also known as the Abyssinian Campaign, started on 13 June 1940, with an Italian air raid on the base of 1 Squadron Southern Rhodesian Air Force (237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF) at Wajir in Kenya.

The campaign  continued until Italian forces had been pushed back from Kenya and Sudan, through Somaliland, Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1940 and early-1941.

The SAAF No.3 Squadron campaign began on 14 January 1941 the squadron was equipped with the Hawker Hurricane. It was used to support the invasion of Italian Somaliland, then after the fall of Mogadishu (25 February) took part in the advance into Ethiopa, moving to Jigigga on 24 March.In late October 1941.

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SAAF No.3 Squadron gained a second flight. This formation had originally been formed as No.41 Squadron Fighter Detachment, and was equipped with the Curtis Mohawk. This detachment was moved from Nairobi to the border town of Aiscia, where on 5 October 1941 it achieved the only Mohawk victory in Africa, shooting down a supply plane attempting to reach the isolated Italian garrison of Djibouti. Only after this did the detachment become ‘B’ Flight, No.3 Squadron.

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At the end of 1941 the squadron returned to South Africa before been redeployed to North Africa.


Feature image copyright IWM Collection. Reference, Wikipedia and the historyofwar.org.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image copyright: Imperial War Museum

Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

Did you know that “The Comrades Marathon” has a shared spirit and a shared history with The South African Legion of Military Veterans?

As the oldest military veterans organisation in South Africa, the South African Legion was formed at the 1921 Empire Conference (28 February to March 4) in Cape Town as the British Empire Services League (BESL, South Africa) by joining two organisations together – the “Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association” and the “Comrades of the Great War”, which co-incidentally is the organisation after which the term “Comrades” in Comrades Marathon is given.  In the course of history the “BESL South Africa” came to be called “The South African Legion of Military Veterans”.

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In the same year – 1921 – Vic Clapham, a World War 1 veteran himself approached the “Comrades of the Great War” with a vision that would result in the worlds greatest ultra marathon nearly one hundred years later.

His idea was that if infantrymen, drafted into the armed forces from sedentary jobs, could endure forced marches over great distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban without great difficulty. Clapham, like the Legion, also wanted to remember those who had fallen in the war, and he felt the best way to honour this was by the ultimate testing of body and mind, and triumphing.

The Natal athletics body was not interested in the idea of a ultra marathon, and thought Clapham was quite mad, so undaunted by the set-back Clapham approached the British Empire Services League of South Africa (now known as the South African Legion), and asked permission to stage the race under their auspices. They ultimately agreed and financially underwrote the first race.

The first 1921 Comrades Marathon was run by Vic Clapham and included a field of 34  runners, of them Sixteen runners completed the 87, 9km (55 mile) downhill race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The race was won by Bill Rowan who finished in a time of 8:59:00 and his name is now given to the sub 9 hour medal in today’s race.

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Left to Right “Modern” Comrades medals

A gold medal for the top 10 finishers
A Wally Hayward for a sub-6 hour time
A Silver for a sub-7:30 time
A Bill Rowan for sub-9
A Bronze for sub-11 and finally
A Vic Clapham for sub-12

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextAlthough The Comrades Marathon is an independent commercial concern now, The South African Legion has continued its association to the Comrades Marathon over the  years and encourages all participants to wear a Remembrance Poppy in recognition of this history and the sacrifice of the fallen.  In this respect the Comrades Marathon is still in fact a “living memorial” to the Great War (World War 1).

Related Work and Links

Living War Memorial: Comrades Marathon A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Living War Memorial: Red Cross Children’s Hospital A war memorial in Cape Town which saves children’s lives

Comrades Marathon; Bill Payn Comrades legend, Springbok and war veteran – the remarkable Bill Payn


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Proper South African Gladiators

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

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

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

The Gloster Gladiator’s combat record  in East Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The naked Gladiator pilot

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

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

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

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

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

The South African Air Force’s highest scoring Ace – Jack Frost

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

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Born in Queenstown, South Africa on 16 July 1918. This son of Richard H. Frost and Ada M. Frost joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) in 1936, little did they know they had given birth to legendary fighter ace.  Awarded the Sword of Honour at the conclusion of his training at the Military College in 1938, Jack Frost was to prove this accolade correct the minute he got into combat.

East Africa Campaign

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

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

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Maj Jack Frost, colourised image by Tinus Le Roux

His wartime record is considerable considering his short life, he entered the East African Campaign to fight against Italian Forces, on  22 February 1941, Frost destroyed four Fiat CR-42  fighters, an action for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

On 15 March 1941, Frost was shot down by anti-aircraft fire while strafing Diredawa  airfield. His wingman, Lieutenant Bob Kershaw landed his aircraft in a nearby field, while other 3 Sqn pilots fired on Italian infantry attempting to capture the pair. Kershaw escaped in his aircraft with Frost sitting on his lap, an action for which Kershaw was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

The campaign ended effectively in November 1941 with the final defeat of Italian Forces in East Africa. The squadron returned to South Africa and was disbanded.

North African Campaign

Frost, promoted to Major was appointed commander of No. 5 Squadron flying P-40 Kittyhawks.  From March 1942 the squadron participated in the North African Campaign, with the Desert Air Force. No. 5 Squadron joined No. 2 and No. 4 Squadrons in No. 233 Wing; the main role of the SAAF fighters at the time was highly dangerous bomber-escort  missions, supporting No. 3 (Bomber) Wing SAAF.

The squadron was assigned to the Sollum-Mersa Matruh sector. On 11 May, Frost and his wingman Lt. Ken Whyte shared the destruction of a lone Heinkel He 111 bomber attacking a convoy bound for Malta.

Whyte described the action: “I remember our first combat together. While on a shipping patrol we were vectored on to a He 111. Jack made his favourite three-quarter attack which had brought him success in Abyssinia. I attacked from the rear. We each claimed half a share in its destruction.” On 16 May, Frost destroyed a Junkers Ju 88 for his ninth victory, but was hit by cannon fire damaging his port elevator.

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Three of South Africa’s most legendary fighter pilots in the North African theatre of operations during WW2, all of which were ultimately killed in action. Major J E “Jack” Frost, Commanding Officer of No. 5 Squadron SAAF sits between two of his most experienced pilots, Lieutenant Robin Pare (left) and Captain Andrew Duncan, at LG 121, Egypt.

To read up more on the above unique image of South African heroes, follow this Observation Post link 3 Legendary South African fighter pilots who never came home

On 28 May 1942, he was involved in a shared victory over a Messerschmitt Bf 109, his first. (The pilot, Feldwebel  Willi Langer was killed.) At this stage, Frost’s total tally stood at 15 Axis aircraft destroyed.

Frost was appointed commander of No. 233 Wing on 31 May, but his replacement at 5 Squadron, Andrew Duncan, was shot down and killed by Oberleutnant Otto Schulz.

On 16 June, whilst escorting Douglas Bostons, Frost and other P-40 pilots encountered Bf 109s from Jagdgeschwader 27 near Bir Hakeim, Egypt. Rod Hojem, one of the South African pilots involved in this combat commented: “There was one hell of a dogfight, and after it was over I can clearly remember Jack calling up the squadron on the R/T, he said “Form up chaps I am heading North”, and that was the last we heard of him.”

Frost’s aircraft and remains have never been found, and his fate remains unclear. Some sources suggest that Frost fell victim to one of the most prominent German aces, Hans-Joachim Marseille scored six of his 158 victories that same day.  To learn more on this remarkable German Ace and his unique South African connection follow this Observation Post Link German WW2 Fighter Ace befriends a Black South African POW and defies the Nazi status quo!

It has also been suggested that another German Experte, Gunter Steinhausen (who claimed four kills that day) may have shot down Frost.

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Researched by Peter Dickens.  Extracts taken from Wikipedia.  Image colourising and copyright Tinus Le Roux with much and grateful thanks.  Image of Frost climbing into his cockpit Copyright IWM Collection.

See more on Tinus Le Roux great work on his website’s tribute pages by clicking this link WW2 SAAF Heritage Tribute Pages 

Also refer SA Military History