A South African invented the mine flail

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

Inventing the Mine Flail

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

Flail

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

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

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

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

North Africa

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

flail 4

A Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 2 November 1942.

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

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

Hobart’s Funnies 

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

mine2

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

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

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

flail 5

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

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

In Conclusion 

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

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

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


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

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

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


Reference

Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia.  Images copyright Imperial War Museum

Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day

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

smuts2

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

Operation Overlord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10434010_341475366022202_8382299255553455061_n

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

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

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

Churchill:Smuts D-Day

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

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

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

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

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

smuts

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

Related Work and Links

Churchill’s desk and Smuts; Churchill’s Desk

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

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


Written by Peter Dickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34859894_10156218230701480_5043545821853777920_o

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

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

supporting-poppy-appeal

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

 

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

Acting Career 

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

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

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

World War 2 and Operation Overlord (D-Day)

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

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

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

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

KOSB 1

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

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

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

13620394_931511590311967_7703959374844800773_n

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

Acting Career continued … 

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

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

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

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

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

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

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

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

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

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

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

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


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

 

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

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

11393080_456535191182885_8598385993022380044_n

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

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

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

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


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

Sir ‘Dingbat’ the Knight

Here’s an extraordinary tale of someone who started out as a Johannesburg ‘boytjie’ and attained the heady heights of not only a very senior Commander of forces during World War 2 and the Cold War but also became a Knight of the realm.

500px-Royal_Air_Force_Fighter_Command,_1939-1945._CH7956In South Africa many of our military heroes are lost to time or politics, especially those who found their way into the British Armed Forces during World War 2.  In fact to our Grandparent’s or even parent’s generation taking part in the war there were a number of significant and highly decorated men from South Africa who eventually went to very senior positions of command of His Majesty’s Armed Forces (British) during WW2, let alone South African forces – and this is one of them – Air Chief Marshal Sir H.W.L. “Dingbat” Saunders GCB, KBE, MC, DFC & Bar, MM

Now, a ‘Air Chief Marshal’ and a ‘Knight’ of the British Realm – a ‘Marshal’ and a ‘Sir’, that’s something significant for some kid from Johannesburg with the nickname of ‘Dingbat’, not withstanding the gallantry decorations of a Military Cross, two Distinguished Flying Cross’ and a Military Medal.  So who the heck is ‘Dingbat’ and how did he get there?

A true blue South African

Hugh “Dingbat” Saunders was born in Johannesburg South Africa on the 24th August 1894 – the son of Fred Saunders, in fact he came from Germiston (now not too many people in Germiston today know that their humble city has spawned a Knight), Dingbat was educated at the Marist Brothers college in Johannesburg.  How he got the nickname ‘Dingbat’ is lost to time, by English definition a ‘Dingbat’ is someone who is a little ‘odd’ a little out of the ordinary.  As an odd or off-set kind of person Dingbat was destined to live up to the nickname certainly for a kid from Germiston.

Like many South Africans graduating he was just in time to answer the call when World War 1 broke out, joining up in August 1914.

0aayzhghjgfjhf9999777_7Initially he joined the South African Army starting off as a simple private, serving with the Witwatersrand rifles and then found his way to the South African Horse, he took part in ground action even winning the Military Medal (MM) for bravery whilst a soldier in the Union of South Africa’s Armed Forces.

However his love and passion was the whole new world of flying, as South Africa did not have an Air Force in World War 1 (it was very early days for idea of flying let alone using it for combat), Dingbat had no choice but to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, (as did a number of other South Africans choosing this new field of combat).  The Royal Flying Corps was the ‘Army’s’ air-force and it was the beginning of what was to become The Royal Air Force towards the end of World War 1.

Starting at the bottom rung commissioned officer rank of an Officer Cadet, Dingbat Saunders was promoted to temporary 2nd Lieutenant (on probation) on 2 August 1917 and posted to 84 Squadron in November 1917.  Here’s his military career started to really ‘take flight’.  He was posted to fly SE5a’s with No 84 Squadron during the German offensive of March 1918 when their aircraft were fitted with bombs as well as machine guns.  They operated throughout the day in pairs harrying the Germans at any and every opportunity – incidentally 84 Squadron was also the home of a South African Victoria Cross recipient – and South Africa’s most highest decorated person, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC & Bar, DFC.

By the time he left 84 Squadron in August 1918 he had been credited with 15 victories and was the senior flight commander on the squadron.

raf_se5a_f-904_major_c_e_m_pickthorn_mc_raf_no_84_squadron_france_november_1918_wwi_100_years_of_raf_corgi_aa37708_scale_1-48

RAF SE5a of 84 Squadron

During his time he picked up the Military Cross in 1918, a gallantry decoration and his citation cementing his reputation as an ‘Ace’ says just about everything:

T./2nd Lt. Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M.M., Gen. List, attd. R.A.F.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During recent operations he destroyed five enemy machines and shot down four out of control. He showed great courage and skill in engaging enemy aircraft, and did splendid service.

Now promoted to Captain, he was at it again towards the end of World War 1 displaying an unbelievable degree of boldness and bravery, picking up the Distinguished Flying Cross along the way, again his citation for his DFC says everything:

Lieut. (T./Capt.) Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M,C., M.M.

An officer of exceptional courage, who, since he was awarded the M.C., has destroyed five enemy aircraft and shot down two balloons in flames. While on patrol he observed a formation of seven hostile scouts below him. Diving to attack he engaged the leader and firing shoot bursts at close range shot him down nose foremost; the remainder of the formation scattered in all directions.

84 Squadron

Group photograph of No. 84 Squadron RAF, Germany. British Army of the Rhine

Inter-War period

During the period between World War 1 and World War 2, Hugh Saunders decided to remain with the fledgling Royal Air Force and make a career of it.  He had attained a formidable reputation as a combat aviator, so he begun more formal training at the RAF Staff College in 1928 attaining his first command of RAF 45 Squadron in 1932.  After more staff officer training at the Imperial Defence College in 1938, Dingbat found his way to New Zealand as the Chief of Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and was holding this post at the on-set of World War 2.

World War 2

When the Second World War had moved into full swing,  Hugh Saunders made his way back to the United Kingdom and into the thick of commanding RAF operations in Europe.  In February 1942 he joined Fighter Command HQ as a AOA (Air Officer Administration), but was soon in a leading post during the war in Europe as the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, Fighter Command.

No small task for Dingbat, No. 11 Group Fighter Command had been the epicentre of fighter operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and was responsible for the defence of London and the English South East, and operated from famous ‘Battle of Britain Bunker’.

Saunders 2

Senor Montero de Bustamante, Uruguayan Charge d’Affaires, speaking at the ceremony to name a Spitfire (“Uruguay XVI”) sponsored by the people of Uruguay. Air Vice Marshal H W L Saunders, Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group of Fighter Command, is on the extreme left.

By the time Dingbat Saunders joined No. 11 Group Fighter Command as AOC on the 28th November 1942 the Battle of Britain was over, but Britain was no means out of the woods.  Prior to 1942, Air Vice Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, had overseen a thorough overhaul of the Operations Room within the Battle of Britain Bunker.

The old ‘Battle of Britain’ plotting system of wooden markers and wooden croupier-style pushing sticks were replaced with metal plotting markers and magnetic sticks, and the old tote system of light-indicators was replaced with a slat-board system with hanging information.

No.11 Group was by now largely occupied with air operations over occupied Europe (although defensive operations over British airspace continued also). It conducted fighter sweeps over enemy territory and these would continue throughout the war along with bomber escort missions. In August 1942 fighter operations during the Dieppe Raid were controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker.  Dingbat Saunders was still holding the position of Air Officer Commanding No.11 Group Fighter Command in June 1944, and oversaw RAF fighter operations during Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings), which were also controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker.

Saunders 3

Air Vice Marshal Hugh Saunders, the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group RAF, decorating Squadron Leader Wacław Król, the CO of No. 302 Polish Fighter Squadron, with the Distinguished Flying Cross.

By late 1944 Hugh Saunders had advanced to the position of  Director-General of Personnel in the Air Ministry, but with the war in Europe nearing an end a new appointment back in the thick of things in Burma fighting the Japanese awaited him.  On the 1 August 1945 he attained the rank of Air Marshal Commanding the Royal Air Force in Burma.

Burma was relatively straightforward to deal with, much of the colony had been re-conquered several months before the end of the war in the big British offensive against the Japanese in the summer of 1945. That gave ACSEA crucial breathing space to start getting the colony back on its feet before the massive increase in occupation duties postwar occurred.

Saunders

Air Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders (right), stands with Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Allied Air Commander-in-Chief, South East Asia, shortly after arriving in Rangoon to take up his appointment as Air Marshal Commanding RAF Burma.

RAF Burma was well established under Air Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders. At the end of the war, it had 28 squadrons under its control. This quickly reduced as the demobilisation of all fighting forces in Asia really kicked in. The transport squadrons saw the largest amount of work, evacuating POWs and internees and supplying garrisons and the civilian population. Second to the transport squadrons in workload were the photo reconnaissance aircraft. The opportunity was taken to complete the process of surveying South East Asia from the air, and using the survey to bring maps up to date.

Post War

After the war and his South East Asia appointment, Hugh Saunders was sent back to the United Kingdom when in January 1947 he became the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for Bomber Command.

s-l1600

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Saunders – Signed Operations map used during August 1994 RAF European Operations.

He went on to become Inspector-General of the Royal Air Force (1949-1950), being promoted Air Chief Marshal in 1950. In February 1951, Saunders was again in the thick of it during the Cold War, and here he played a significant role in NATO, he assumed the mantle of Commander-in-Chief of the Air Forces in Western Europe (all of them, not just the RAF).  By April 1951 he was the Air Deputy to the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR), none other than the famous Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders bid farewell to his astounding military career on the 27th July 1953, having attained what is arguably one of the highest ranking positions in world military aviation, and he is certainly the only South African to reach such a high level of aviation command.

Post Retirement

Following a series of fatal accidents in the newly established Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF), Hugh Saunders was invited to serve as a special advisor to the Minister of Defence of Denmark in 1954, in order to reorganise and, it was envisioned, bring the number of accidents in RDAF down. Saunders indeed reorganised the RDAF and, realising that most of the equipment/planes were of a tactical nature, established Tactical Air Command Denmark as the supreme HQ of RDAF. In addition, a number of specialist commands were established, training improved and gradually the accident rate fell. He served in Denmark until 1956 and received the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog for his service

Knighthoods 

The Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog aside  – in the ‘Order of Bath’, our Johannesburg lad racked up a Knight Grand Cross (GCB) on 1 June 1953 (having already attained his Knight Commander KCB on 2 Jan 1950, and Companion to the order CB obtained in June 1943).

e09a3dddd5a4ee74ecb795dd7d6883f1

Order of the Bath, G.C.B. (Military) Knight Grand Cross set of insignia

Also knighthoods go, under the Order of the British Empire ‘Dingbat’ was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) on 14 June 1945 (having already obtained his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire officer CBE in July 1941).

In addition he also received Commander’s Cross with Star from Poland, a Commander of the Legion of Merit from the United States and an Officer of the Legion of Honour in France.

In Conclusion

Not bad for a Boytjie called ‘Dingbat’ from with a humble beginning in Johannesburg South Africa, you have to admit to that.  Dingbat died in the United Kingdom after a very long life aged 92.

Yet, in South Africa today he is an enigma, not known and unappreciated, the victim of political one-upmanship to bury all our World War 1 and World War 2 heroes in a Nationalistic fervour to rid our military identity and history of its British heritage starting in 1948 by Afrikaner Nationalists and continuing from 1994 by African Nationalists – even at the expense of South Africans who have risen to some of the most commanding positions in military history and who have played such pivot roles in the outcome of not only World War 1, but World War 2 and even in the case of ‘Dingbat’ here – in moulding the modern Western European defence landscape.

Related Links and work

Jan Smuts and the RAF:  The Royal Air Force’s 100th Birthday and its founder – Jan Smuts

South African WW1 Aces; Kimberley’s local baker was also a WW1 Flying Ace

South African’s in RAF 74 Squadron; Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!

Other South Africans with 84 Squadron during WW1 ‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Reference ‘Air of Authority’ – an on-line history of the Royal Air Force organisation.  Imperial War Museum.

 

South African D-Day Hero: Tommy Thomas MC

Today we profile another one of those South African heroes who served with the Royal Navy Commandos on D Day and who went on to win a Military Cross for Bravery – Lieutenant D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC from Maclear in the Transkei.

12074843_501711933331877_2278790879846881223_nHis most painful recollection of D-Day was the stormy passage he and his contingent had to undergo in crossing the Channel in their landing craft.The seas were running high, and hardly a man escaped sea sickness. They landed in the second wave at first light, their boat receiving a direct hit as they approached the shore, half-a-dozen men being killed, and Thomas found himself up to his neck in water after having jumped form the landing craft as it struck the beach.

The Commandos, having “dumped” their steel helmets, promptly donned their green berets as they went ashore, it being “more comfortable”.  They had a specific job to do which was to connect up as soon as possible with the paratroops who had dropped further inland, and encountered fire, but “did not wait to deal with the resistance at the coast, pushing inland instead with all speed”.

28947594_1680931308655261_7193057698211176449_o

Royal Marine Commandos attached to 3rd Division move inland from Sword Beach on the Normandy coast, 6 June 1944.

It was “tough going through the minefields but they got there”. “And were the paratroops glad to see us!” remarked Lt. Thomas, who further remarked that for the next few days none of them knew much of what was happening, and could not be sure whether the invasion was a success or not.

All they knew was “that in their own sector on the left flank of the beach-head they were kept hard at it”, and the toughening they had had in advance was to prove more than useful.

According to plan, they kept on the move all the time -”frigging about” as it was called in Commando terminology, snatching some much-needed sleep in slit-trenches during the day, while at night they were patrols or raids to be carried out. It was while returning from one of these ”nocturnal excursions” that Lieutenant Thomas shared with his sergeant and another man “the benefit of a German hand-grenade”, and was to later return to England with several “little shrapnel souvenirs still in his leg”, but otherwise was “none the worse for wear”.

Commenting on how the Normandy landings compared to his time in North Africa, Lt. Thomas was to say that “it was worse”, elaborating that “for one thing, in the Desert, you could see whom you were fighting, but in Normandy most of the time you couldn’t.”

Lt. Thomas was also to add that he was wondering how he would “be able to settle down on the family farm in the Maclear district of the Transkei after all this excitement”.

Military_CrossLt Thomas won the Military Cross (MC) for his actions in World War 2.  A significant decoration, it is awarded for gallantry in combat. The MC is granted in recognition of “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land to all members, of any rank in Our Armed Forces”.

The unfortunate truth is that it was highly likely that his participation in D Day ultimately killed him years later. After the war but he developed an alcohol dependency problem whilst suffering with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), very sick he eventually shot himself when he was also diagnosed with cancer. A real tragedy and the end of a fine South African hero, close family and fiends described him as an AMAZING man, brave, humble and very caring.

People who knew him well said he was never the same after the war, and today we honour his extreme sacrifice and we will remember him.

Related Links and Work of South Africans during D Day:

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

Lyle Mckay South African bravery on D Day, Capt. Lyle McKay.

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

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

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


Posted by Peter Dickens. Reference – Two South African “Royal Marine” Commandos and the D-Day Landings, June 1944 By Ross Dix-Peek.

Photo of Tommy courtesy and copyright of his old girlfriend – Mrs A Mason (from Mrs Mason’s personal album), with grateful thanks.