The origin of SAAF 1 Squadron’s nickname – “Billy Boys”

Spitfire Mk IX of South African Air Force’s 1 Squadron preparing for take-off from a Sicilian airfield, perhaps Pachino on 1943, these are the famous “Billy Boys”.  How they got their nickname is actually quite interesting and distinctively South African.

This squadron had an incredible success rate and whenever one of it’s pilots had an aerial victory shooting down an enemy aircraft his fellow South African pilots would all shout “Jou BIELIE” down their radios.

The term “bielie” is an Afrikaans term for a prime example e.g. ‘n bielie van ‘n bul, meaning a prime example of a bull. Calling someone “‘n bielie” is a term of recognition of something special. Calling a pilot that after a successful aerial shoot down would have been equal to saying that he is a prime example of a fighter pilot. “Jou bielie van ‘n skut” meaning “you cracking shot”.

The British Royal Air Force pilots who where on the same frequency as the South Africans where slightly perplexed by the term thinking they where calling out “Billy” instead of “Bielie”, so they quickly started to refer to the SAAF 1 Squadron pilots as “Billy Boys”. The nickname stuck.

To give an idea of the success rate 1 SAAF Squadron total for the war was 165.5 kills, the highest scoring SAAF squadron.

Here are South African Air Force 1 Squadron Hurricanes taking off from Msus, Libya. Image copyright Imperial War Museum.

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Feature image of SAAF 1 Squadron Spitfire Mk IX colourised and copyright to Tinus Le Roux

“War is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror”

There is an old saying: “War is 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror” and here we see exactly that – aircrews sitting around waiting for instructions, once up in the air, literally in an hour or two they will be in full combat with all the stressors involved in it for only a quarter of an hour or so.

Here aircrews of No. 16 Squadron South African Air Force  and No. 227 Squadron Royal Air Force sitting in a dispersal at Biferno, Italy, prior to taking off to attack a German headquarters building in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. A Bristol Beaufighter Mark X, armed with rocket projectiles stands behind them. 14 August 1944.

The Bristol Beaufighter (often referred to simply as the “Beau”) is a multi-role aircraft developed during the Second World War by Bristol Aeroplane Company in the UK. It was originally conceived as a heavy fighter variant of the Bristol Beaufort bomber. The Beaufighter was a versatile aircraft used in service initially as a night fighter, and later mainly in the maritime strike and ground attack roles; it also replaced the earlier Beaufort as a torpedo bomber.  This tough and versatile fighter bomber served in almost all the major Allied forces of the war: Britain, The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Image and caption copyright Imperial War Museum Collection, additional references Wikipedia.

A tank called Jannie Smuts

Italy 1944, a crew of the Pretoria Tank Regiment, 6th South African Armoured Division, christen their Sherman tank with the names of Prime Minister, Field Marshal Jan Smuts, during their advance north of Rome.

Jan Smuts and his wife, Isie K. Smuts affectionally known as “Ouma” (Grandmother) by the troops proved incredibly popular to South African servicemen during the Second World War.  In part because of the compassion shown to the troops via the South African Gifts and Comforts Fund run by “Ouma” Smuts and the annual gift packs sent to all in service during the war.

The Pretoria Regiment featured here in Italy, went on claim great status as a fighting Armoured Regiment.  It was formed in Pretoria on 1 July 1913 as the 12th Infantry (Pretoria Regiment) – a unit of the Active Citizen Force – by the amalgamation of several units: the Pretoria Company of the Transvaal Scottish, the Central South African Railway Volunteers, the Northern Mounted Rifles and the Pretoria detachment of the Transvaal Cycle and Motor Corps. In 1928, it was renamed The Pretoria Regiment.

On 24 October 1930 it was once again renamed, to The Pretoria Regiment P.A.O. (Princess Alice’s Own). During World War II, the Regiment was converted to an armoured formation attached to the 11th South African Armoured Brigade, South African 6th Armoured Division.

In Italy the Pretoria Regiment (PAO) was the armoured regiment for the British 24th Guards Brigade (Grenadiers, Coldstream and Scots Guards) in the 6th SA Armoured Division. At the end of six months together, in honour of fighting prowess of the Pretoria Regiment (POA), the Brigade Commander obtained King’s permission for award to the Pretoria Regiment (PAO) of a theatre honour in the form of stylised wings in Guards Brigade colours.  This is carried on the Pretoria Regiment’s insignia to this day.

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After the Second World War the unit was demobilised, and in 1946 it was re-organised as a part-time force, consisting of two separate regiment-sized formations. These were re-integrated in 1954. After the establishment of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, the unit was again renamed The Pretoria Regiment by the South African Defence Force.

Since the end of compulsory national service in 1994.  As part of the SANDF Reserve the Pretoria Regiment now recruits volunteers from among former Reserve and Regular Force soldiers and focussing on University of Pretoria students, men and women.

Image Copyright Imperial War Museum Collection.  Image of insignia courtesy Dudley Wall. Reference – The Pretoria Regiment by Brig Gen (Ret) D Fourie and wikipedia

A Beaufighter, a Bible and a Badge

55908_146382762236864_626950629_oHaving known Lt. Steve Stevens DFC, I remain in total awe of his generation.  I met him in Wothing in England and Steve was 96 years young bed-ridden, in pain and weak – but he was no less the man, and this famous featured image of him firing rockets from his South African Air Force (SAAF) Beaufighter during WW2 says everything about him as a fighter pilot, but he was also a devout Christian who pioneered missionary aviation, leading a rich and interesting life.  This is a little of his very remarkable story.

Steve Stevens was born on 27th August 1919 in Amesbury, Dorset. His father George was gassed in Salonica during WW1 and was sent to a special medical facility in Aberdeen for mustard gas victims, and he met and married Dora, one of the VAD’s.

Steve’s father was not expected to live past 40. However, in typical Stevens fashion George Alexander Stevens took no notice of this pronouncement and his health improved enough for him to take up a new assignment in the British Army of Occupation in Germany. The family was billeted in a huge house complete with stables, and young Steve was delighted to be placed in the care of a beautiful young fraulien. Steve adored her, and from her learned to speak German better than he could speak English.

However, George’s health deteriorated and after the family was moved around from Switzerland (where Steve became proficient in skiing, jumping and skating), Italy and Ireland on various Army assignments, on medical advice it was agreed that George Stevens’ lungs would not survive the wet European climate, it was recommended that he was to be invalided out of the army and moved to somewhere nice and warm and dry.

So it was that the family left for a life on a farm in South Africa in November 1929. George’s health improved, but Steve’s mother Dora suddenly fell ill and died of a brain tumour when Steve was only 14.

When World War 2 broke out Steve was at the Bible Institute of South Africa. With the decision to close the college for the duration, some of the students joined the Ministry, and Steve joined the South African Air Force (SAAF). Steve was convinced that the prayers offered three times a day by his father and stepmother would keep him safe during the war. Steve joined the SAAF as a trainee air photographer, but soon re-mustered as aircrew.

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A Beaufighter

During the War Steve flew air strikes over Yugoslavia with SAAF 19 Squadron, based at Biferno in Italy. These strikes included the daring raid on the occupied walled town of Zuzenberk. The image of Steve firing his rockets is one of the two iconic Beaufighter images of the war. It is astonishing to realise that Steve could accurately hit a target as small as a 44 gallon fuel barrel with his rockets.  In Steve’s words;

“This photograph is widely recognised as one of the most famous Beaufighter air- strike photo of WWII. It shows my plane attacking the Nazi-held medieval walled town of Zuzenberk, Yugoslavia.  The attack by the South African Air Force resulted in the Yugoslav Partisans recapturing their town that very day.”   

10419987_398890630280675_310774668078404600_nAnd this is the photograph, the SAAF Bristol Beaufighter TF Mark X of No. 16 Squadron South African Air Force seen in the image is been flown by Lt Steve Stevens as he releases its rocket projectiles at an enemy target in the town of Zuzemberk.

The photograph was taken by Lt. Schonveld flying just behind Lt. Stevens (SAAF 19 squadron) who’s Beaufighter is in view while attacking a target in Zuzemberk Feb 1945. Schonveld was a keen photographer and positioned his aircraft in a perfect position behind Stevens to capture this epic shot with the nose camera, but he flew a bit too close and ended with dents in his wings from spent 20mm shell cases from Steve’s aircraft.

Take the time to watch this short video interview of Steve Stevens by Tinus Le Roux, as to how this photograph was taken. It is as insightful as it is fascinating.

Copyright Tinus Le Roux

This photograph is historically well-known and has been published in many writings. It shows the aircraft, fired rockets and target simultaneously in a perfect balanced setting, indeed very rare.

Luckily for all of us, we get to preserve unique insight as both SAAF 16 and 19 Squadrons had unofficially mounted F.24 camera’s in the nose of their Beaufighters which took photographs during their attacks so that reconnaissance  aircraft did not have to over fly later to asses the battle damage.

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In another raid Steve also photographed Major Tilley attacking the armed German warship SS Kuckuck as Tilley’s number two. It was a desperate sortie which Steve and his fellow pilots fully expected to be a suicide mission. The rockets holed the target under the waterline. The pilots had been briefed by the Partisans that they would face the fire from 140 anti-aircraft guns. Remarkably all four planes returned safely.

Tinus Le Roux interviewed Steve Stevens to capture this attack on the SS Kuckuck, his short video is fascinating, a capture of a man and a time that is truly remarkable, take the time to watch it (many thanks to Tinus for bringing this experience to us)

Copyright: Tinus Le Roux

A Bible

Lt Steve Stevens DFC had a very remarkable life, deeply God-fearing, religion was a very central pillar in all of it.

After the war ended, in 1946, as liaison officer between the South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force in Khartoum, Sudan Steve saw how badly the Christian missionaries needed a plane, not only just to spread the word of Christ, but also to get aid (medicines, foodstuffs and equipment) to remote communities.  He joined the MAF, the ‘Mission Aviation Fellowship’ – a group of pilots dedicated to Christian missionary becoming MAF’s first operational pilot to be based in Sudan in 1950.

Early-WingsIn Sudan, Steve flew a de Havilland Rapide – an eight-seater twin-engine wood and fabric covered biplane – not best suited for flying in Africa, but the best MAF could find and afford at that juncture. Over time, more and more airstrips were hacked out of jungle, bush, desert and grasslands, and Steve began to fly to other places where no planes had ever been before.

At the end of 1951, Steve experienced some problems with his vision, diagnosed as a detached retina and he lost the sight in one eye.  He was grounded , however Steve still felt that his call was still to aviation missionary work so he and his family moved to the UK. He re-established MAF’s UK HQ and worked tirelessly to raise financial, staff and prayer support for the ministry.

29351857_2114964225399231_7455946665119351885_oIn 1970, after more than twenty years of service to the MAF cause, Steve and his wife Kay moved on to become early members of the National Festival of Light, forerunner of today’s CARE organisation. Steve later became Executive Director of Australian Festival of Light.

A Badge 

Steve Stevens remained a great advocate and supporter of  veterans associations, the MAF and his Christian charities and institutions, throughout his life and was active in his backing all of them until age and frailty forced him to slow down a little, but not entirely, Steve even continued to use the internet and podcasting Christian messaging from his frail care bed.  He also actively ran his own website to sell his work and outreach his messages, he became an avid author of all his adventures,  his book on his time in the war called “Beaufighter over the Balkans” is a welcome addition to anyones library.

12274761_1701525626743095_268284195502034384_nI met Steve Stevens, when the South African Legion of Military Veterans initiated an outreach to him to see if there was anything we could do to help him as a frail care WW2 veteran in his 90’s, I was astounded when he replied that he was at peace with himself and how could he help the Legion instead.  Steve then kindly donated signed copies of his books to the Legion so that we could fundraise for other initiatives.  Cameron Kinnear and I visited him at his home in England and awarded him a lifetime honoury membership of the South African Legion, and we pinned his SA Legion ‘veterans badge’ on his lapel.

Steve passed away in June 2016 and is survived by his children – Merle, Pam, Coleen and Tim – in addition to his grandchildren.  His veterans badge was given back to the SA Legion by his family and, as means of keeping people like Steve in living memory his badge was loaned to me to wear.

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This was an extraordinary man you can easily attribute words and values which would describe him as ‘noble’, ‘selfless’, ‘adventurous’, ‘brave’, ‘humble’ and most importantly a man with a solid backbone, unwavering in his belief and demonstrating that rare value of spiritual self actualisation ‘completely at peace with himself and the world’.

This man was cut from a very different cloth to the rest of us mortals, and it is with the greatest pride that I wear his veterans badge and an even bigger privilege that I am allowed to carry his memory.

Capt. Peter Dickens (Retired)


Written by Peter Dickens. Image Copyright: Imperial War Museum. Information Tinus Le Roux and Sandy Evan Haynes.  Thanks to Cameron Kinnear for the extraction from his visit with Steve Stevens. Video (SA Legion UK stories: South African Legion UK and EU), “SAAF Beaufighters attack a German Ship – WW2 Pilot Steve Stevens DFC” Produced and Directed by Tinus Le Roux, copyright Tinus Le Roux. “How one of WW2’s greatest rocket air strike photographs was taken: Steve Stevens DFC” Produced and Directed by Tinus Le Roux, copyright Tinus Le Roux.

SAAF Pilot single handedly captures his captors – Lt. Peter During’s amazing story

This colorised image captures a must read story about a South African Air Force pilot who escaped from becoming a Prisoner of War (POW) by capturing his own German captors during WW2.  The image shows South African Air Force (SAAF) Fighter pilot Lt. Peter During (SAAF 7 squadron) with German prisoners in Italy April 1945, and this is the story of how he came capture them.

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Lt. Peter During was shot down behind enemy lines in Italy right at the close of the war,  he survived a crash landing and was promptly taken prisoner by the Germans.  Whilst been escorted to a German Lufwaffe Prisoner of War (POW) camp (he was a pilot and thus his interrogation and imprisonment was the responsibility of the German airforce), he opened a conversation with his captors.

He was quickly able to establish that they could already see the writing on the wall, that the war was at an end and Germany would loose it.  The Germans agreed with him that the best way for them to survive the war was to make it over to the Allied lines and surrender.  He then convinced his four German escorts that he was their ticket to survival and to become his prisoners.  They agreed and then changed direction and headed for the Allied lines instead.

It was a simple agreement really – if challenged by any German or other Axis Forces along the way the German’s agreed to say they were transferring an Allied pilot and continue on their way, and if challenged by Allied troops or the Italian Resistance fighters, Lt. Peter During would be given their MP-40 machine pistol and state he was transferring German prisoners.

On their way they stopped at several Italian houses for food and wine. One of the Germans had a camera and hence the photograph. In the feature picture you can see Peter has the MP-40 machine pistol while they enjoy a glass of wine with a rural Italian family hosting this odd group of men, whilst in other pictures the MP-40 has changed hands. Proof positive that there is some humanity in the craziness of war.

They made it over to the Allied lines, Peter During wrote them a note as to their good conduct which he gave to them as they went into captivity.  The camera was given to Peter for safekeeping as its owner knew it would fall into the wrong hands and be lost once going into captivity.

Despite trying on numerous occasions to track down these men Peter had “saved” after the war ended, he was unable to find them, thank them and reunite the camera with its original owner.  He printed the role of film to discover this priceless snippet of history.

If you want to hear this remarkable story from Peter himself, take the time to watch this video interview he did with Tinus Le Roux, it’s an absolute gem of South African military history.


Written by Peter Dickens. The photograph is from Peter During’s collection and it was given to Tinus le Roux, who has also done this fantastic job colourising it. Photo copyright Peter During and colouring credit to Tinus le Roux.  Video copyright and my deepest thanks once again to Tinus.

South African troops liberate Castiglione dei Pepoli and put an end to massacres in the area

Some little known South African military history that we can all be very proud of, take the time to read how South Africans are still appreciated to this day in Italy for saving a small town’s civilian population from been totally massacred by the Nazi SS.  This from 2008 issue of The Roman Forum magazine:

Marzabotto – An Italian town’s appreciation to South African troops for rescuing them from total annihilation after the massacre nearby townspeople by Nazi SS during World War 2.

Today, deep in the heart of Italy’s Apennine mountains between Bologna and the Po valley, in the communities of Castiglione dei Pepoli, Monte Stanco, Grizzana Morandi and the surrounding area local people gather annually not only to celebrate their towns’ emancipation from Nazi forces in the autumn of 1944 by the 6th Armoured Division from South Africa, but even to raise the South African flag in ceremony.

Their gratitude is so great, because this area was the site of the biggest, yet least-known, massacre of innocent civilians in Italy during WWII: the Marzabotto Massacre.

It was an exceptionally bleak atrocity for Italy, as it involved the extinction of an entire ‘race’- on 3 October 1944, German and Austrian SS troops were ordered to purge the entire area of Monte Sole and Monte Ruminci, because the townspeople of Marzabotto, Grizzana Morandi, and Monzuno were suspected of helping and supplying Italian partisans along the Gothic Line, which Hitler himself had ordered to be kept at all costs to sever south Italy and Allied forces from the industrialised and developed north.

Here Allied and German SS forces saw out the last winter of WWII, tired, cold, depleted, neither able to advance or retreat. Here is where the Allies eventually broke through the following Spring, spelling the end of the war in Italy. Before that, Nazi troops literally marched into every town and exterminated every living thing in sight. Women, children, young babies and the elderly alike were killed by gunfire and with grenades.

By sunset 3 October, Marzabotto’s and Monzuno’s unique population of mountain people, nearly two thousand people, were entirely exterminated.

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The SS then started moving into Grizzana Morandi and Monte Stanco herding the townspeople into two groups in no particular order. The first group (half the population) were slaughtered that night, the remaining group was to be executed the next morning.

On 4 October 1944, the executions had already started, when out of nowhere a group of Allied soldiers who had been sent to patrol and scout the area, unaware of the purge, appeared and engaged the SS in combat. After a long battle they managed to drive the Nazis off well behind the Gothic Line, saving the few remaining people of Monte Sole. This group of soldiers was the 6th Armoured Division of South Africa.

The South Africans had been the first Allied troops to arrive in the area; British, American, New Zealand, Rhodesian, Australian, and Indian troops arrived some three days later from the nearby American base in Livergnago (dubbed ‘Liver & Onions’ by soldiers) with food and supplies for the towns’ afflicted victims and set up Allied camps along what is today one of Italy’s most famous war commemoration sites – the Gothic Line.

Hence, the people of Monte Sole celebrate South Africa every year, because the few survivors (some even today), owed their lives to the 6th Armoured Division.

A new street connecting Castiglionei dei Pepoli and the entire area with the Bologna-Modena highway was unveiled in November 2007 was named in honour of the South African 6th Armoured Division.

(May 2008 issue of The Roman Forum magazine)

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Tanks of the South African 6th Armoured Division firing on German positions at Monte Sole and Montebello at the start of the attack which ended in the breakthrough to Bologna. April 1945.

Aftermath

The Marzabotto massacre was a mass murder of at least 770 civilians by Nazi Germans.  It is the worst massacre of civilians committed by the Waffen SS in Western Europe during the war.   The massacre was in reprisal for the local support given to the Italian Partisans and Resistance by the townspeople between 29 September and 5 October 1944,  SS-Surmbannfuher Walter Reder led members of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichesfuhrer-SS to systematically kill hundreds of people in Marzabotto. They also killed numerous residents of the adjacent villages of Grizzana Morandi and Monzuno.

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Walter Reder’s Trial

The Allies tried two Nazi Germans for the massacre, Max Simon and Walter Reder.  Simon received the death sentence which was changed later to life in prison, he was released in 1954 and died in 1961.  Reder was handed over to the Italians sentenced to life in prison, and released in 1985, he died in 1991

Remembrance

Claudio Chiste’, the Chairman of the South African Legion of Military Veterans – England branch visited the area to pay homage to this incident in October 2017 – here is the mausoleum and plaque dedicated to the 6th South African Armoured Division by a grateful local population for their rescue from systematic German massacre (note the triangular symbol which was the 6th South African Armoured Division’s insignia).

 


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary extract May 2008 issue of The Roman Forum magazine), additional source – wikipedia. Photo copyright and much thanks to Claudio Chiste’ for his dedication.  Additional image copyright, Imperial War Museum.