A farewell tribute to General Gotze LdH

On the 8th September 2018 in Hermanus, South Africa, the South African Legion, Memorable Order of Tin Hats and South African Air Force Association said farewell to General Albie Gotze LdH in a fitting way,

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For those who wish to read my tribute at his service, and learn a little more about him, here it is:

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Farewell to General Gotze

I first met Albie in my role of Chairman of the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the United Kingdom. Along with Tinus Le Roux we obtained a mobi-chair for him from the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund – it was the start of a friendship and a bond that is central and very specific to all military veterans.

I have a personal pledge to any veteran I meet who fought in World War 2 – I buy them a beer – it’s a simple gesture and a fellow warrior’s thanks to another who has sacrificed so much in what was the greatest bloodletting war mankind has ever seen – before or since.

Like Albie, I am also a pilot and we connected with our joint love of flying. I had borrowed a very powerful 745 BMW from my buddy ‘Aussie Matt’ – you guessed, he’s Australian, I figured I would take Albie to the Gecko Bar for his beer on me in Matt’s beamer. Driving there I realised Albie, as a pilot would still harbour in him that basic truth to all pilots – THE NEED – THE NEED FOR SPEED.

On the backroads, with Albie’s permission and a very tempting massive engine we decided to give the BMW a full whellie and put the boot to it – I opened up the BMW’s 4.5 Lt engine to full throttle, maximum torque, pushed back in the seats I noticed Albie’s right hand push an imaginary aircraft throttle to full tilt, and instead of scaring the heck out him all I saw was a massive smile on his face and sheer joy – in Albie’s mind he was back in one of the most powerful single engine war-birds ever built.

There’s a lot to be said for a person like Albie, but in his heart was an extremely courageous man, completely unafraid of danger – a fighter pilot – the bravest of the brave, and even in his twilight years a man still built of stronger stuff than most mortals would ever aspire to.

We got talking over that beer, and one story stands out – it’s one which demonstrates just what a man he was and his wry sense of ‘dark humour’ – a humour military veterans share as it comes from extreme adversary.

During the Second World War, Alibe had transferred from flying Spitfires during D-Day – the liberation of France, to flying the extremely fearful all rocket firing fire breathing Typhoon – in his quest to liberate Belgium and Holland as part of Operation Market Garden.

Both the Typhoon and Operation Market Garden were BEASTS in the extreme, the Typhoon was unforgiving on pilots, its massive engine, body frame and incredible amounts of power and torque took special pilots, and the Typhoon on its own claimed some of them. But the biggest claim on Typhoon pilots was Operation Market Garden, it was one of the most bloodiest encounters of the war, the toll on Typhoon pilots was extreme. Albie would later say that the fact he did not die he put down to a basic human dichotomy experienced by all men who have seen war;

… I survived because of sheer luck alone … with God’s grace.

During Operation Market Garden Albie served with RAF 137 Squadron and almost always operated at low altitude (“on the deck”) mainly employed to attack targets such as armour, anti-aircraft installations, specific buildings, transports and enemy personnel. For this reason alone, flying in the Typhoon squadron was dangerous and high risk.

Please excuse the language in the house of God, but this comes from a warrior fighting a war in the  extreme speaking to military truisms. According to Albie, flying the Typhoon at this time was regarded by Allied officers as – and I quote;

“the most dangerous job that these buggers could ever have volunteered for”.

The losses and dangers were extreme. To illustrate just how dangerous this was, Albie said

“we lost a 151 pilots flying this thing (Typhoons), on Operation Market Garden alone, in just one single day we lost 21 pilots on Typhoons”.

Combat was brutal in its simplicity, according to Albie it was as simple as;

“That guys gotta be shot down (the enemy), not me!”

The Typhoon missions, although very dangerous were also very formidable. Albie describes that aside from the rocket firing capability it could also deliver a wall of lead, consider his own words

“Can you imagine yourself flying over there, in Typhoons you have two 20mm guns, each one has 4 bloody spouts .. now, the 20mm shoots 600 shots a minute, can you imagine 600, 4 of them, that’s 2400, and there’s not just that one, there’s another Typhoon behind him (the wingman), that is 4800 bullets you have coming at the enemy”

Albie’s aircraft was hit on many occasions and he made a few crash landings with damaged aircraft. He recalled on such incident as if they were yesterday, this is a very brave account of combat flying, honest, harrowing and even a little funny (in the darkest manner of ‘military humour’).

“I got shot one day, as a matter of fact I was watching this guy shooting at me, with a 88 mm, he shot at me and I looked and I said to myself ‘this bastard is going to kill me’ … he shot me at the back of the fuselage, but, the 88mm did not explode for some unknown reason, God must have said ‘I not gonna put this fuse on’, But it did cut my trim-wire to my rudder and all it does is that your aircraft just rolls over and you go strait in, but fortunately I was able to ‘catch it’ (arrest the aircraft roll with opposite ailerons);

… but I could only fly at an angle a friend radioed and said ‘Albie are you in trouble?’, I said to him ‘yes’, I can’t see out, at this time as I got down into the cockpit and grabbed hold of the rudder bar in order to keep on flying, otherwise I would go down. He said “I will fly on top of you”, been down there you can’t see out of the cockpit, all I could see was up, he brought me home like that, him flying on top (as a visual marker), me underneath. When I did the crash landing, that scoop on ‘the typhoon’ is full of oil and it sparked and catches fire quickly, I was so scared, before the plane came to a stop, I was out of the cockpit and I ran so fast that the ambulance could not catch me”.

Wow, there’s everything in that story, drama, bravery, camaraderie, action and comedy … and this was one of many many simiar stories Albie could relate, not just from WW2, but the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and the Angolan Border War … this was a man who had truly seen life and death, he had endured some of the greatest blows in history and survived. His testimony is the testimony of true Christian soldier, one of God’s most fearsome and most benevolent of men.

Albie was one of the last of the ‘few’ as Winston Churchill called the brave pilots who saved Britain and liberated Europe and the world of Nazi tyranny, he was also one of a small number of South Africans to take part in D-Day and he’s one of only three South Africans to receive France’s highest award – the Legion de Honour in recognition and grateful thanks from the entire country of France for the freedom they enjoy today. This was a very special man and as a Legionnaire I was extremely proud to be involved in the granting of the Legion de Honour to him.

It is always appropriate when a pilot passes on, for a fellow pilot to recite a poem written by a Royal Air Force pilot – John Gillespie during World War 2 It’s called High Flight and he penned just before he was tragically killed in combat over France in his Spitfire … and I am honoured to read it for Albie today;

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

You would have witnessed today military people saluting Albie – but what is the salute? The British style of salute – long way up and short way down with open palm has an ancient medieval root – it was used to signify to another warrior that you do not have your sword in your right hand, its empty – you honour a fellow warrior by recognising him, you mean no harm to him and you come in peace. You are a friend.

Brigadier General Albie Gotze Legion de Honour . May you Rest In Peace, your memory will not be forgotten as long as the bond of brotherhood and friendship exists between military personnel. It is in this peace – and with this honour mind, that I as a fellow officer wish you well in your final flight to touch the face of God …. And I salute you.

Peter Dickens

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Links to Albie on the Observation Post “This bastard is going to kill me”; Albie Götze’s Legion d’Honneur

Painting of ‘Typhoon Full Frontal’ on the masthead, artist Derrick Dickens, copyright Peter Dickens

An iconic Spitfire’s Birthday and her remarkable South African legacy

This beautiful war-bird turned 75 years old recently, hitting the 75th milestone in August 2018, still airworthy she’s been a regular on the Battle of Britain Heritage Flight line ups and air-shows for decades, she’s even a movie star, she made her most famous film appearance in what is regarded as the best WW2 film ever made ‘A Bridge Too Far’, where she flies over the young Dutch boy on a bicycle and waggles her wings.

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Supermarine Spitfire IX – MH434 in flight

But little known to the tens of thousands of admiring fans in Britain that have seen her flying overhead in countless commemorations is her remarkable South African wartime heritage, she’s the Spitfire which saw one very brave South African fighter ace fly her into combat.

Little known to many South Africans, who do not have an airworthy Spitfire in any collection in South Africa anymore, is that there is in fact a South African’s Spitfire still flying today – they can take some comfort in that.

Royal Air Force Spitfire MH434 is arguably one of the most famous flying Spitfires around, she was built in 1943 at Vickers, Castle Bromwich. What’s remarkable about her?  She is remarkably original, having never been subject to a re-build and still flying in her original paint scheme.  For her inaugural flight in August 1943 was also noteworthy, MH434 was air tested by the legendary Alex Henshaw – a record-breaking pilot from pre-war days and Chief Test Pilot for Supermarine.

But what is more remarkable is her first war-time pilot, South African – Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar and the Squadron she cut her teeth in – the Royal Air Force’s 222 Squadron – the ‘Natal Squadron’.

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Flight Lieutenant Laurie of No. 222 (Natal) Squadron, Royal Air Force starting up Supermarine Spitfire Mark V, BM202 ‘ZD-H’ “Flying Scotsman”, at North Weald, Essex during WW2

222 (Natal) Squadron

222-squadronFormed during WW1, 222 Squadron was reformed at the onset of WW2 at Duxford on 5 October 1939 and in March 1940 the squadron re-equipped with Spitfires. It initially took part in the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain. Later in the war it would participate in Overlord and the D-Day landings as well as Operation Market Garden.

The Natal Squadron is named as such as it was regarded as the Natal Province ‘gift’ Squadron to the Royal Air Force.  During the war funds were raised to ‘sponsor’ Spitfires in Natal and equip this squadron. As a representative of the South African province and old British colony, the squadron emblem consisted of wildebeest which is Natal’s official animal and was represented in the Natal province emblem. The squadron motto was ‘Pambili Bo’ (Go straight ahead). The wildebeest also symbolises speed.

Flt Lt Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar

Now, MH434’s first combat pilot was truly special, Pat Lardner-Burke was born on 27 June 1916 in Harrismith, Orange Free State, South Africa. He joined the Royal Air Force at the onset of the war in spring 1940.

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Pat Lardner-Burke was posted to No.19 Squadron in early 1941 where he flew Spitfires and thereafter Hurricanes with No. 46 squadron.  In June the Hurricane Squadron left the UK for Malta forming No.126 Squadron. In the extensive combat and defence of Malta, Pat would see considerable action in the air, mainly against Axis force Italian Regia Aeronautica bombers as they attempted to bomb Malta into submission.

On the 19th August 1941, flying his Hurricane high above Malta Pat sighted enemy aircraft flying at 23,000 feet, turning in to attack the formation of 12 Italian Macchi 200 fighters, Pat fired a short burst which saw one Macchi go down. Pat climbed out of the attack and engaged another Macchi shooting it down in addition to the first.

A week later Pat would destroy another Macchi 200 near Sicily, when the Italian fighter broke off from the its main formation and he pursued it in a steep dive towards the coast of Sicily, shooting it down.

Then on the 4th September 1941 he would claim another as nine Hurricanes met approximately 16 Macchi 200 fighters flying at 22,000 feet to the east of Malta.  He spotted an enemy Macchi on the tail of a fellow Hurricane pilot in hot pursuit of another Macchi and destroyed it – effectively saving his colleague’s life.

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Royal Air Force Hurricanes – Malta 1941

Bravery and survival in the extreme 

On the 8th November 1941, Pat became an ‘Ace’ (which requires a tally of 5 enemy aircraft to qualify), but it came with a most extraordinary act of bravery and nearly killed him.

Pat’s Squadron was involved in one of the biggest dogfights seen over Malta. 18 Italian Macchi were intercepted whilst they were escorting their bombers bound for Malta. Flying Hurricane BD789 he engaged and shot down a Macchi 202 near Dingli, but as he was engaging the Macchi another one engaged him from behind. The result was a 12.7 mm bullet from the Italian fighter which penetrated his seat armour and passed out of his chest.

With a punctured lung and bleeding heavily, Pat drew on all his skill and managed to land his Hurricane at his aerodrome on Malta. A fellow officer, Tom Neil witnessed his landing, ran to the aircraft and pulled Pat free from the damaged Hurricane, he remarked later;

“The pilot still had his face mask attached but I recognised him immediately as Pat Lardner-Burke. I heard myself shouting, ‘Are you all right?’ – then knew immediately that he wasn’t. Pat’s head was bowed and his shoulders slumped”.

Pat was laid onto a stretcher, an ambulance took him to hospital. Tom Neil then took time to inspect Pat’s hurricane, several bullets that had hit the side of the aircraft behind the cockpit. However Tom was shocked as he noted one had punched a hole in the armour-plate and penetrated the back of the seat, where it had passed right through Pat and carried on through the cockpit’s dashboard and then through some more armour-plate in front. Neil and the other pilots in the squadron were literally shaken by the knowledge that the Italian’s were using some very powerful ammunition.

Pat survived and received the Distinguished Flying Cross, his citation reads;

Distinguished Flying Cross

DFCLGPilot Officer Henry Patrick LARDNER-BURKE (87449), RAFVR, No. 126 Squadron.

In November 1941, this officer was the pilot of one of 4 aircraft which engaged a force of 18 hostile aircraft over Malta and destroyed 3 and seriously damaged 2 of the enemy’s aircraft. During the combat Pilot Officer Lardner-Burke, who destroyed 1 of the enemy’s aircraft, was wounded in the chest and his aircraft was badly damaged. Despite this, he skillfully evaded his opponents and made a safe landing on the aerodrome; he then collapsed. Throughout the engagement, this officer displayed leadership and courage of a high order. He has destroyed 5 enemy aircraft over Malta.

Back in the fight

Fully recovered from his wounds in England by May 1942, Pat went strait back into the fight, initially as instructor in the Gunnery Instruction Training Wing.

Pat Lardner-Burke’s combat record in MH434

By August 1943, Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar had transferred to 222 (Natal) Squadron as a temporary Squadron Leader and was allocated MH434 code letters ‘ZD-B’ as his regular mount.  MH434 first took to the sky in anger on the 7th August 1943.

On the 27 August in the St Omar area over France, Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke, flying in our heroine ‘Spitfire MH434’ clocked up her first kill, flying high escort cover he shot down a German Focke-Wulf FW-190 and damaged a second during a mission escorting USAAF B-17 bombers on their way to bomb the St. Omer Marshalling Yards.

During the mission, 13 Spitfires of No.222 Squadron and 13 Spitfires of No.129 Squadron spotted nine German Focke-Wulf 190s dive on the American B-17 Fortresses and engaged them.  Pat shook a FW 190 off his bomber attack damaging it on the starboard wing and tail. Pat then turned onto another FW 190, and at close range he engaged it, shooting it down.

On the 5 September 1943, Pat again shot down another FW-190 in the Nieuport area, on this mission 222 (Natal) Squadron’s Spitfires were acting as high escort to 72 B-26 Marauders which were to bomb the Marshalling Yards at Ghent/Meirelbeke.

On completing the bombing run, the Marauders were attacked by approximately 20 German Focke-Wulf (FW) 190s. Pat climbed to head off half of the FW 190 fighters, one German FW 190 turned in front of his Spitfire’s nose and he promptly shot it down in flames and it went into the ground in an uncontrollable spin.

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S/L Ernest “Cass” Cassidy, F/L Philip VK “Phil” Tripe and F/L Henry P “Pat” Lardner-Burke (left to right) of No 222 Squadron RAF and their ‘Natal’ squadron scoreboard

Again on the 8 September 1943 Pat claimed a half share in the downing of a Messerschmitt Bf-109G in Northern France. On this mission 25 Spitfires of 222 (Natal) squadron were flying as high cover to a formation of Allied bombers that were detailed to attack targets in the Boulogne area in France.  They spotted and engaged 12 German Messerschmitt 109Fs, two of which dived away from their formation.  F/Lt. Pat Lardner-Burke and his wing-man F/O. O. Smik dived down on the leading enemy aircraft taking turns firing on it until the starboard wing tip fell off and it dived straight into the ground.

Give the man a bar!

For his actions and bravery flying in 222 (Natal) Squadron – flying our heroine MH434, Acting Squadron Leader Henry ‘Pat’ Lardner-Burke DFC received a DFC Bar to his existing DFC decoration.  His citation reads;

This officer continues to display a high degree of courage and resolution in his attacks on the enemy. Recently, he has led the squadron on many missions in the Ruhr area and throughout has displayed great skill and tenacity. Squadron Leader Lardner-Burke has destroyed seven enemy aircraft in air fighting. He has also most effectively attacked enemy targets on the ground.

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Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar received a new posting to Fighter Command’s Head Quarters, at Stanmore, serving with Group Captain Bobby Oxspring, DFC and two Bars, who said of his new South African recruit’s typical South African demeanour;

“The third desk was the domain of Pat Lardner-Burke, a rugged South African who, with Hornchurch sweeps and Malta behind him, displayed a refreshingly irreverent attitude to all senior officers with whom he disagreed”.

In April 1944 Pat took command of the Royal Air Force’s No.1 Squadron, and finally taking command of RAF Horsham St Faith airfield and then RAF Church Fenton as a Wing Commander.

Give the man another ‘bar’

After the war this remarkable South African fighter ace settled on the Isle of Man with his wife, Mylcraine, where they ran a pub (an English ‘Bar’).  Pat tragically died at a relatively young age on the 4th February 1970 of renal failure.

MH434’s career after Pat Lardner-Burke DFC & Bar

In 1944 MH434 was transferred to 350 Sqn. Hornchurch, before being returned to 222 Sqn. Pat Lardner-Burke had by now been posted on, and the aircraft was next assigned to Flt Sgt Alfred ‘Bill’ Burge. He flew another 12 operational sorties in the aircraft before the Squadron’s existing Mk IXs were exchanged for a modified variant that could carry rockets. After over 80 operational sorties, MH434 was stood down in March 1945.

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MH434 in a hangar at Imperial War Museum Duxford

Post War Movie Star

After the Second World War, Spitfire MH434 was transferred to the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 1947. After a crash-landing in Semarang, Java she spent some time in storage, repaired she flew again in Holland on the 10 March 1953.

The Belgian Air Force became the next owner of this Spitfire, on the 26 March 1956 MH434 was put up for sale and bought and brought back to Britain by airline pilot Tim Davies. Overhauled the aircraft was flown purely for pleasure and took part in its first movie role, Operation Crossbow.

November 1967 saw MH434 join the motion picture airforce of Spitfire Productions Ltd, where she starred in the ‘Battle of Britain’ in 1968. At the end of the movie MH434 was sold again to Sir Adrian Swire, Chairman of Cathay Pacific Airways, had the Spitfire painted in 1944 camouflage colour scheme with his initials AC-S, as squadron codes.

There were several film and television appearances during this period, including her iconic role in ‘A Bridge Too Far.’

The opening of a Bridge Too Far sees a young Dutch boy cycling along a road when MH434 does an extremely low fly over after reconnoitring a German Panzer (tank) placement nearby. To the entertainment of the young Dutchman she waggles her wings in acknowledgment of his waving . It’s an iconic firm history moment as to the boy the Spitfire symbolises liberty from German occupation – it’s his first sighting of ‘freedom’ and it arrives with its Merlin engine in full song – if you’ve not seen the movie here’s the clip:

In April 1983 MH434 was sold at auction to it’s most illustrious owner, Ray Hanna (Nalfire Aviation Ltd). MH434 has become a regular movie co-star and airshow performer and when not in make up for a role she is now flown in the authentic 222 (Natal) Sqn, with the Codes ZD-B, Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke’s call sign.

A lasting legacy

Today Spitfire MH434 is located at the Duxford Imperial War Museum near Cambridge.  MH434 is still painted in No.222 ‘Natal’ Squadron markings with the code letters ‘ZD-B’. The name ‘Mylcraine’ which Squadron Leader Pat Lardner-Burke christened her in August 1943 (named after his wife) is still painted on her, so too is Pat Lardner-Burke’s personal ‘scoreboard’ which have been painted on the port side of the cockpit – all to replicate this South African’s markings in 1943.

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His victories, in all Pat Lardner-Black shot down five Italian MC200’s, two MC 202’s, three German FW 190’s and one German Me109 achieving the status of ‘fighter ace’. – one of a handful of South Africans to achieve this.

RAF Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX MH434 is and remains one of the most beautiful aircraft ever built, and we hope it continues bringing entertainment, joy and awe to thousands of admirers, but more importantly we remember her very proud South African legacy and a very remarkable South African hero whose soul lives on in her.


Researched by Peter Dickens, with additional assistance from Sandy Evan Hanes.

Related Work and Links – South Africans in the RAF

Sailor Malan; Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Zulu Lewis; ‘Ace in a Day’ TWICE! … Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis

Pat Pattle; One of the greatest Allied fighter pilots of WW2 was a little known South African! Meet Pat Pattle.

JJ Le Roux; Three times winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross – Johannes Jacobus Le Roux

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

References include; Man and Machine by Christopher Yeoman 2011.  Clip from ‘A Bridge Too Far” Joseph E. Levine Productions, United Artists.  The Old Flying Machine Company – Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434, history on-line.  Photo copyrights include Imperial War Museum and John Dibbs.

Forgotten history – South Africa at its humanitarian best – the ‘Berlin Airlift’

Currently the 70th anniversary of The Berlin Airlift is in full swing, but did you know that as South Africans we can also hold our collective heads high, having played a key role in saving the civilians of war-torn Berlin from starvation and death after the Communist ‘Iron-Curtain’ descended?

For those unaware of what The Berlin Air Lift was, and why it was so important as the saviour of West Berlin’s civilians from certain starvation and death, and even how South Africa played a role of in averting this humanitarian crisis, here’s a quick overview.

Background to the ‘Berlin Air Lift’

After the Second World War ended in 1945, Germany was divided into control zones by the victorious Allied armies so as to prevent Germany from ever re-starting another world war, however, the very act of dividing Germany did start another world war, this time “The Cold War” – and this ideological and economic war to be fought between ‘Eastern’ Communism and ‘Western’ Capitalist Democracy.

The Cold War is misunderstood to many today, as they see it as an ideological one and not a deadly one, a ‘war’ as such was never declared – and by the time the millennium came around the new generation could not understand why such a big deal was made of it.

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However truth be told  – The Cold War was very deadly and was to be fought in proxy wars all over the planet, and it resulted in the greatest stand-off of mutually assured  nuclear annihilation ever seen – with zero dialogue or even a simple telephone line between the main belligerents – Russia (and it’s bloc Allies) one the one side and the United States of America (and its bloc Allies) on the other.  The epicentre of the ‘Cold War’ began with the act of the Berlin blockade in 1948 and subsequent Airlift, and the very first casualties of the Cold War in terms of sacrifice of members of statute forces – also began with the Berlin Airlift.

So what’s with the divide?

Simple put, at the conference on the 5th February 1945 towards the end of World War 2 between the ‘Big Three’ (The US, UK and Russia) at Yalta, Stalin made it clear to America and Britain that Russia was never to exposed to an attack from ‘the west’ again, they had endured the French when Napoleon invaded Russia and then endured the Germans when Hitler invaded Russia, with a massive bloodletting.  In fact Russian bloodletting and sacrifice in World War 2 exceeds the British & Commonwealth, the French and American bloodletting all combined.  Simply put, Stalin wanted a ‘buffer’ between Russia and Europe and everything East of Germany would become a satellite communist state to provide exactly that – with Moscow calling the shots.

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The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.

With that the independent Parliaments, Kingdoms and Democracies of ‘liberated’ small states like Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and Poland all but disappeared into a block of ‘puppet’ Communist satellite states.

In dividing up Germany to manage it post war, the ‘Western’ coalition of British, French and American Zones effectively made up what was to become ‘West Germany’ and the ‘Eastern’ Russian coalition zone (the Soviet Union) made up what was to eventually become ‘East Germany’.  The capital of Germany – Berlin, was strategically important to Germany itself and although it was located well inside the ‘Soviet’ bloc it also needed to be divided into ‘West’ and ‘East’ in a similar way.

So Berlin itself had a Western sector which was divided into control zones by the Western allies – The United Kingdom, France and the United States of America, and an Eastern sector which was controlled by the Russian coalition the USSR – The Soviet Union.  As Berlin was 100 miles into ‘Communist’ territory it was fed by a secured road and rail corridor which stretched from West Germany well into East Germany.

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Berlin’s zones as defined after the end of WW2

Berlin, with its ‘western sectors’ was a ‘blot’ in the middle of Stalin’s ‘buffer’, it undermined his complete communist barrier splitting Europe in half (a barrier Churchill tagged very aptly as ‘The Iron Curtain’). Berlin was an island of Capitalism in the middle of a sea of Communism, a beacon of Western democracy contrasting to the ideals of socialist conformity – it simply had to go.

The ‘Trigger’

In June 1948, Britain, France and America united their zones into a new country, West Germany. On 23 June 1948, they introduced a new currency – the Deutschmark, which they said would help trade and aid West Germany’s war debt repayments by pulling it out of recession and the ‘cigarette economy’ it was in.

The Soviets, however, hoping to continue the German recession, refused to accept the new currency, in favor of the over-circulated Soviet Reichsmark. By doing so, the Soviets believed they could foster a communist uprising in postwar Germany through civil unrest. By March 1948 it was evident that no agreements could be reached on a unified currency or quadripartite control of Germany. Both sides waited for the other to make a move.

 

The Soviets, trying to push the west out of Berlin, countered this move by requiring that all Western convoys bound for Berlin travelling through Soviet Germany be searched. The “Trizone” government (Britain, France and the USA), recognising the threat, refused the right of the Soviets to search their cargo. The Soviets then cut all surface traffic to West Berlin on June 27. American ambassador to Britain, John Winnant, stated the accepted Western view when he said that he believed “that the right to be in Berlin carried with it the right of access.” The Soviets, however, did not agree. Shipments by rail and the autobahn came to a halt. A desperate Berlin, faced with starvation and in need of vital supplies, looked to the West for help.

The Soviet Union’s unprecedented move to prevent the introduction of the new currency and cut off East Germany from West Germany by way of a blockade – was the ‘trigger’ and less so the ’cause’, the much-anticipated Soviet Communist ‘Iron Curtain’ finally fell dividing the whole Europe.

As Berlin sat in East Germany, the blockade isolated the western half of the city from supply of vital coal and fuel (for heating and transport) and food. The Western Allies saw this blockade as an aggressive and ‘illegal’ Soviet move to absorb West Berlin into the Soviet Union, and the precursor to starting a 3rd World War with the Western Allies (the Cold War had begun in effect).

The Plan 

The restrictions prevented the supply of food and materials by road from the British, American and French occupation zones in West Germany to their zones in West Berlin. So the Western Allies overcame the problem by creating an air bridge instead and came up with a very ambitious plan to ferry in supplies using transport aircraft – the air-space over East Germany to Berlin was not contested, and the Allies gambled that the Soviet Union would not make the error of initiating an act of war against the West by shooting one down.

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British and American air force officers consult an operations plan giving routes and heights of all aircraft in and out of the Berlin area during the Airlift.

An airlift on this scale had never been attempted before (and has never been achieved again).  It required military transport aircraft to fly into Berlin round the clock for weeks on end, until the Soviet resolve was broken.  It was also critical, the city of Berlin had been destroyed during the Second World War, many of its citizens living hand to mouth.

Logistics 

Nothing short of a logistics miracle to heat and feed West Berlin by air and during the around-the-clock airlift (in the end some 277,000 flights were made), many at 3 minute intervals, flying in an average of 5,000 tons of food and fuel each day.

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Air corridor map to Berlin from the Western Allied controlled part of Germany to the Berlin in the Soviet controlled part of Germany.

The American military government, based on a minimum daily ration of 1,990 kilocalories (July 1948), a total of daily supplies needed at 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese. In all, 1,534 tons were required each day to sustain the over two million people of Berlin. Additionally, for heat and power, 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and petrol were also required daily.

To complete the task the Western Allied Command turned to the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF), Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) for the ‘British’ contribution, the French Air Force (FAR) for the ‘French’ contribution and the United States Air Force (USAF) for the American contribution.

This would be the greatest humanitarian mission ever implemented, and South African pilots, navigators and other air-crew were right at the centre of it.

The Airlift

Operations began on 24 June 1948. The order to begin supplying West Berlin by air was approved by U.S. General Lucius Clay on June 27 with USAF AC-47s lifting off for Berlin hauling 80 tons of cargo, including milk, flour, and medicine. When the blockade first started, the city of Berlin had around 36 days worth of food.

The first British aircraft flew on 28 June 1948. At that time, the airlift was expected to last three weeks.  Nothing would be further from the  truth, the Airlift was to progress through a very cold winter to come.

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Short Sunderland GR Mark 5 of No 201 Squadron, Royal Air Force, moored on Lake Havel in Berlin, Germany. Lake Havel was used by Coastal Command Sunderlands from July until mid-December 1948, when the threat of winter ice suspended further use.

President Truman, wishing to avoid war or a humiliating retreat, continually supported the air campaign. Surviving the normally harsh German winter, the airlift carried over two million tons of supplies in 277,000 flights, and would continue well into the new year, only to finally officially end in September 1949.

To keep the aircraft coming in at the rate of supply needed, fast turnaround was expected on the ground in Berlin.  Pilots and crews generally did not leave their aircraft and were provided with snacks and meals. The German civilian population got into ensuring the airlift was a success and to make up for shortages in manpower. Crews unloading and making airfield repairs at the Berlin airports were made up of almost entirely by local civilians, who were given additional rations in return for their assistance.

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USAF Dakota transport with a cargo of flour during the Berlin Airlift

As the crews experience increased, the times for unloading continued to fall, with a record set for the unloading of an entire 10-ton shipment of coal from a C-54 in ten minutes, later beaten when a twelve-man crew unloaded the same quantity in five minutes and 45 seconds.

The Candy Bombers

At the very beginning of the air-lift Gail Halvorsen, and American pilot arrived at Tempelhof on 17 July 1948 on one of the C-54s and walked over to a crowd of children who had gathered at the end of the runway to watch the aircraft and handed out his only two sticks of Wrigley’s Doublemint Gum to the children.

The children quickly divided up the pieces as best they could, even passing around the wrapper for others to smell. He was so impressed by their gratitude and that they didn’t fight over them, that he promised the next time he returned he would drop off more. Before he left them, a child asked him how they would know it was him flying over. He replied, “I’ll wiggle my wings.”

The next day on his approach to Berlin, he rocked the aircraft and dropped some chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief parachute to the children waiting below. Every day after that, the number of children increased and he made several more drops. Soon, there was a stack of mail in Base Ops addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings”, “The Chocolate Uncle” and “The Chocolate Flier”.

The Allied Command was so impressed by this gesture of goodwill and its ‘public relations’ value that the mission was expanded into “Operation Little Vittles”.  Up to this point the children of Berlin only knew that American and British aircraft brought bombs, fire, death and destruction.  Now, in a pure expression of humanity the aircraft would bring happiness to children in what was to them a break and traumatized time, the Western Allies would now drop candy instead of bombs.

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Children of Berlin wave to a ‘Candy Bomber’ to get the attention of the air crew.

The other air-lift pilots joined in, and when news reached the United States, children all over the country sent in their own candy to help out. Soon, major candy manufacturers joined in. In the end, over twenty-three tons of candy were dropped on Berlin the “operation” became a major propaganda success. German children christened the candy-dropping aircraft “raisin bombers”.

On December 20, 1948 “Operation Santa Claus” was also flown from Fassberg, with gifts for 10,000 children.

Sacrifice 

The airlift was not without its hazards, with that many aircraft on that type of complex operation flying in all sorts of conditions – instrument and visual, and weather, so there we bound to be accidents.

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There were 101 fatalities recorded during the Airlift. The number includes 40 British and Commonwealth air-crew and 31 American air-crew. The majority died as a result of accidents resulting from hazardous weather conditions or mechanical failures. The remainder is composed of civilians who perished on the ground while providing support for the operation or who lost their lives when aircraft accidents destroyed their homes. As aircraft losses go 17 American and 8 British aircraft crashed during the Berlin Airlift.

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In honor of the pilots and aircrews who were lost the Berlin Airlift Monument was created from a fund established by the former Federal Republic of Germany and private donations. It was dedicated in 1951. All together there are three matching monuments: at Rhein-Main Air Base near Frankfurt, at Wietzenbruch near the former British airbase Celle, and at the Luftbruckenplatz (Airbridge Place) Berlin-Tempelhof airfield. The base of the monument at Tempelhof reads, “They gave their lives for the freedom of Berlin in service for the Berlin Airlift 1984/1949.” The location at Tempelhof is presently being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

South African service personnel in the airlift

The full list of South African pilots and aircrew is hard to come by as the commitment of South Africans in the Berlin Airlift is not generally part of the South African national consciousness anymore – whereas in countries like the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada it is.

On the 27th September 1948, Union government of South Africa committed 50 South African Air Force (SAAF) crew to the Berlin Airlift, in all the SAAF would provide two contingents of air-crew to the air-lift, most seconded to RAF Transport Command and even one SAAF registered C-47A Dakota transport aircraft (No. 6841) made its way to Berlin to be put into service.

South Africans known to us at the moment who took part in the Berlin Airlift include Steve Stevens, who participated in WW2 as a SAAF Beaufighter pilot, Albie Gotze who participated in WW2 as a seconded SAAF pilot in RAF Typhoons and Spitfires.  Joe Hurst, John Clifford Bolitho, Duncan Ralston, Jenks Jenkins, Pat Clulow, Tom Condon, Johnnie Eloff, Mickey Lamb, “Shadow” Atkinson, Jannie Blaauw, Piet Gotze, Wilhelm Steytler, Vic de Villiers, Mike Pretorius, Nic Nicholas, Jack Davis,  Dormie Barlow, Tienie van der Kaay ‘Porky’ Rich, Ian Bergh (flying Sunderlands in the RAF) are all South African and SAAF pilots and air-crew recorded as taking part.

In addition SAAF pilot Joe Joubert also took part and was even commemorated for his actions during the Berlin Airlift.  Joe Joubert flew as a navigator in the Berlin Airlift and on the 9th July 1949 he and the radio operator were ordered to jettison 63 sacks of coal as the aircraft could not gain height in a severe thunderstorm. This was achieved in a remarkable six and a half minutes and he received a commendation for this remarkable act. This act was certainly helped by the fact that in his spare time Joe practiced weight lifting.

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Joe Joubert (right) – a SAAF pilot in the Berlin Airlift to earn a special commendation

Flt Officer Kenneth Reeves is South Africa’s only casualty during the Berlin Airlift, and he symbolises the greatest sacrifice we as a nation can give.   Kenneth was a navigator on board a RAF CD-3 (Dakota) which crashed in the Soviet Zone near Lübeck, killing all the crew.

Light at the end of the tunnel

By the spring of 1949, the airlift was clearly succeeding, and by April it was delivering more cargo than had previously been transported into the city by rail. On 12 May 1949, the Soviet Union finally realised the futility of the road and rail blockade of West Berlin and lifted it, however tensions remained.

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Air crew of the Royal Air Force (RAF), Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) and South African Air Force (SAAF) enjoy an off-duty drink in the officers’ bar at RAF Lubeck. IWM Copyright.

The airlift however continued until 30th September 1949, at a total cost of $224 million and after delivery of 2,323,738 tons of food, fuel, machinery, and other supplies. The end to the blockade was brought about because of countermeasures imposed by the Allies on the Soviet blockade by way of the airlift and because of a subsequent Western embargo placed on all strategic exports from the Eastern bloc. As a result of the blockade and airlift, Berlin became a symbol of the Allies’ willingness to oppose further Soviet expansion in Europe.

In conclusion

There can be little doubt that the Airlift was a success on many levels. It saved millions of lives and preserved the freedom of the city of Berlin. Veterans’ groups world over still celebrate the victory by gathering around the bases of the monuments and laying wreathes and flowers in memorial for those who paid the ultimate cost.  This act of remembrance made even more important on the 70th Anniversary.

However little recognition is given to the Berlin Airlift in South Africa, These are truly “unsung” heroes of South Africa we can be very proud of and not to be forgotten. The South Africans who took part in the Berlin Airlift are icons in Germany, and hardly known in South Africa, such is the strange politics we as South Africans tend to weave.

The Berlin Airlift marks South Africa’s first sacrifice in the ‘Cold War’ – further sacrifice was to come in the other future ‘Cold War’ proxy wars  – fought by South African statute forces against Soviet Allies in Korea, Namibia, Angola and Mozambique.

To many of the South African air-crew and SAAF members who took part in this momentous period in world history, the saving of a city from near starvation, the Capital City of a former enemy now vanquished by the war, with this act of sheer human philanthropy and benevolence was to really end South Africa’s “war” on a very humane high.

We leave the Cold War where it started and in one fitting epitaph the last British pilot to leave Berlin had chalked on the side of his aircraft the words, “Positively the last flight…Psalm 21, Verse 11” That psalm reads:

If they plan evil against you, if they devise mischief, they will not succeed.”

Related links and work

Jan Smuts Barracks Berlin Smuts Barracks; Berlin


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.

Source The South African Air Force Museum.  The Imperial War Museum.  Image copyrights (see watermark) – Imperial War Museum.

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

One of the most prestigious fighter Squadrons in the history of the Royal Air Force was 74 Squadron, known as the ‘Tigers’.  However, three South Africans played a key role in forging the great fighting legacy of the Tigers, two of them commanded the squadron, one during World War 2 and one took the squadron into the jet age.

So let’s look at these three remarkable South Africans and how they have come to influence not only 74 Squadron, but The Royal Air Force itself.

World War 1

19424342_1982409011988087_4980834163001230819_n74 Squadron was formed during World War 1,Its first operational fighters were S.E. 5as in March 1918, and served in France until February 1919, during this time it gained a fearsome reputation and was credited with 140 enemy planes destroyed and 85 driven down out of control, for 225 victories. No fewer than Seventeen aces had served in the squadron, including one Victoria Cross Winner Major Edward Mannock.  In this line up of aces was one notable South African, and this man came from Kimberley, Capt. Andrew Cameron Kiddie DFC, and he came from unassuming beginnings – he was one of Kimberley’s local bakers.

Captain Kiddie became a flight commander of 74 Squadron in the summer of 1918 and scored fifteen aircraft shot down victories by the end of the war. For this he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and  the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

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To read more in-depth about his remarkable South African follow this link to a previous Observation Post story Kimberley baker was a South African WW1 Flying Ace.

World War 2

malan1World War 2 would shape 74 Squadron as one of the best in The Royal Air Force.  It became the front-line squadron which took the brunt of the attacks during The Battle of Britain, and this time the squadron was commanded by a formidable South African, Group Captain A G ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO & Bar DFC & Bar.

Arguably one of the best South African pilots of the Second World War and certainly one of the best Royal Air Force pilots during the Battle of Britain – now one of the much idolised ‘few’ who, along with his command of 74 Squadron, turned the tide of the war, and he did it based on a set of rules he drew up, now famously known as “Ten of my rules for air fighting”.

Sailor Malan’s rules of air combat were readily adopted by pilots in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, these rules saved many a pilot and brought down many enemy aircraft, they are directly attributed to the success of the Battle of Britain and in so keeping Britain in the war.

Sailor Malan was given command of 74 Squadron, which by this stage was flying the iconic Spitfire, Sailor, now with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader took command at the height of the Battle of Britain on 8th August 1940. Three days later on August the 11th, the Squadron was in battle, and it was a battle that help turn the tide of the Battle of Britain.  When Sailor finished the day’s combat The Royal Air Force had downed an astounding 38 enemy aircraft.  This day is forever marked now in the history of the Battle of Britain and the squadron history as “Sailor’s August the Eleventh”.

In all, by the end of the war Sailor Malan scored 27 enemy aircraft kills, seven shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and 16 damaged. He was to receive the Distinguished Service Order decoration – not once, but twice and well as the Distinguished Flying Cross decoration, again not once – but twice.

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Much has been written on Sailor Malan on this website, so for an in-depth profile on this most exceptional South African please follow this link: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

The Cold War

But that is not the end of 74 Squadrons remarkable commanding officers, one South African was to take the squadron into the jet age and himself achieve the dizzy heights of Air Vice-Marshal in the Royal Air Force.

21414618_10214639016195019_6362419216829534532_oAir Vice-Marshal John Howe was one of the RAF’s most experienced and capable Cold War fighter pilots, whose flying career spanned Korean war piston-engined aircraft to the supersonic Lightning and Phantom.

Howe was appointed to command the RAF’s No 74 Tiger Squadron in early 1960, the squadron had just been issued one of the fastest fighter aircraft ever built, the EE Lightning and Howe was going to put it through its paces. Once again, we find a South African Lion leading a squadron of Tigers. So how did a South African land up in such a position of Command in the Cold War?

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John Howe in the SAAF

John Frederick George Howe was born in East London, South Africa, on March 26 1930 and educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown. As soon as he left school, he joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) and trained as a pilot. In early 1951 he joined SAAF No 2 Squadron, known as the Flying Cheetahs. John along with 2 Squadron became part of the South African commitment to United Nations to take part in the Korean War.  Here his prowess as fighter pilot took root.

During his first tour of duty in Korea for the South African Air Force he flew the American made  Mustang F-51D fighter-bombers in front-line action.  One notable action took place on June 24, when Howe took off with three others. They responded to an emergency call for air support by a surrounded ground force. In the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, the four Mustangs attacked gun emplacements a number of times. Howe did not expect to survive, but the four aircraft returned to base. All four South African pilots received US gallantry awards. A month later, Howe was forced to crash-land and was rescued by a helicopter.

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In September, as a 21-year-old second lieutenant, he was the leader of four aircraft instructed to attack enemy troops that were threatening friendly forces. Fierce enemy fire damaged Howe’s aircraft but he continued to lead his formation against the target. The US authorities awarded him an immediate DFC, the citation recording:

“He displayed a standard of leadership above and beyond that normally expected.”

After completing his flying tour, Howe remained in Korea on a second tour as a ground based Forward Air Controller for the SAAF, serving with US Infantry and operating in the thick of the fighting. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal from the United States for his service during these actions.

Returning to South Africa after the war, Howe found himself in a changed political landscape.  The National Party had come to power in 1948 with its policies of Apartheid and entrenched hatred of anything British (a legacy given them from the Boer War), by 1954 the political situation in South Africa became more difficult and extreme, especially for senior officers of English origin in the South African defence forces, who were by-passed for Afrikaans officers instead. As was also the case with Dick Lord, John Howe would now find his future in The Royal Air Force (RAF) instead, so in 1954 he decided to resign from the SAAF and moved to England where he transferred to the RAF with the rank of Flying Officer (Service No. 503984) to fly early types of jet fighters.

In April 1956 he joined Royal Air Force No 222 (Natal) Squadron flying the Hunter. When a volunteer was required for forward air controller duties with No 3 Commando Brigade in late 1956, Howe’s experience in Korea helped to land him the job. He sailed with the Brigade for the ill-fated Suez campaign and, at dawn on November 6, landed on the beaches at Port Said with No 40 Commando, to direct aircraft on to targets in the area. In the event, the campaign was short-lived.

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Howe returned to his squadron before joining No 43 Squadron as a flight commander, still flying the Hunter. He was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air, receiving a second two years later. In June 1959 he started training to take command of his Lightning squadron – No. 74.

Based in Norfolk. The aircraft represented a great advance in technology and performance, with a remarkable rate of climb to heights in excess of 60,000 ft and capable of flying at twice the speed of sound.

With no simulator or two-seat training version of the aircraft, Howe made his, and the squadron’s, first flight on June 14 1960. A few weeks later he was instructed to provide a four-aircraft formation for the annual Farnborough Air Show.

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Despite the inevitable early teething troubles with the complex aircraft, Howe and his pilots flew on all but one day of the show. The squadron was made the RAF’s official aerobatics team for 1961 and was in demand for appearances at British and European shows. For the Farnborough event that year, Howe trained and led a “diamond nine” formation.

Howe realised that air shows were good for publicity and potential international sales of aircraft, but the time devoted to them hindered the development of full operational capability. He drove himself, and others, hard, but he was a highly respected leader. The squadron’s high morale helped it to reach operational status within the first 10 months despite the many problems that had to be overcome. At the end of his tour, Howe was awarded the AFC.

He said of the Lightning: “It was one of the most exhilarating aeroplanes, even by today’s standards.”

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John Howe in a vertical dive flying a RAF EE Lightning

Howe remained in the fighter business, including a tour of duty with the USAF which gave him an opportunity to fly the latest American fighters, including the Phantom. In 1968 he was appointed to command the RAF’s operational conversion unit that saw the introduction of the Phantom into RAF service, his unit being responsible for the conversion of the first squadron crews.

After a staff tour he became the station commander of RAF Gutersloh, the home of two Lightning squadrons and a support helicopter squadron. His fighter squadrons, based a few minutes’ flying time from the border with Warsaw Pact forces, mounted a continuous quick-reaction capability. He rarely missed an opportunity to maintain his fighter pilot proficiency.

After attending the Royal College of Defence Studies he served at HQ 11 (Fighter) Group, and on promotion to air commodore was appointed the commandant of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC). The organisation had a fine record, but Howe justifiably believed that it was in need of modernisation and a more robust attitude. He set about applying the same exacting standards to the ROC that he did to his flying. By the time he left in 1980, the efficiency of the Corps had risen sharply.

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In May 1980 he was appointed the air officer commanding the Southern Maritime Region, a departure from his previous fighter experience and where his usual forceful approach was much in evidence.

His final appointment in the RAF was the dual role of Commandant General RAF Regiment and Provost Marshal of the RAF. He retired in November 1985. He was appointed CB (1985) and CBE (1978).

In his younger days, Howe was a high-spirited officer who knew how to enjoy life – his South African roots never left him and his “Zulu war dance” at social functions was a speciality. But on duty he was utterly professional and he set himself and those around him difficult goals.

22046893_10214639202959688_8200957218336099859_nIn retirement he was a sheep farmer in Norfolk, where he was known as the “supersonic shepherd”; he retired in 2004. He was a capable skier and a devoted chairman of the Combined Services Skiing Association. A biography of him, Upward and Onward, by Bob Cossey, was published in 2008. John Howe married Annabelle Gowing in March 1961; she and their three daughters survive him.

Air Vice-Marshal John Howe, was born March 26th 1930, he died 27th January 2016 aged 85. He remains another one of South Africa’s finest military exports, another South African who truly carries the 74 Squadron motto:

I fear no man

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For some video footage of Air Vice-Marshal John Howe in action and the equipping of 74 Squadron with Lightnings, have a look at this rare footage:


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary reference and extract on Air Vice-Marshal John Rowe taken from his Obituary in The Telegraph and Wikipedia.  Images of Air Vice Marshal Howe thanks to Alan Mark Taylor

Three times winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross – Johannes Jacobus Le Roux

Squadron Leader Johannes Jacobus Le Roux – DFC & Two Bars, Commanding Officer of No 602 Squadron RAF in the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire Mark IXb “Betty” MJ584 LO-A, at B11/Longues, Normandy. 10-12 July 1944

Le Roux, a South African, joined No. 73 Squadron RAF in France in 1940. He was shot down twelve times, but enjoyed better luck with No. 91 Squadron in 1941 and 1942, shooting down eight enemy aircraft before joining No. 111 Squadron RAF in North Africa. He ended his second tour in command of the Squadron. Following a rest from operations he was given command of No. 602 Squadron in July 1944. Le Roux is generally credited as the pilot who attacked and badly wounded Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel in his staff car on the road between Livarot and Vimoutiers on 17 July 1944, the day on which he also destroyed two Messerschmitt Bf 109s and damaged two more to bring his victory score to 23.5.

He won the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) not once, but three times, here are the citations:

Distinguished Service Cross
Awarded 17th October 1941
Citation:

“This officer has carried out over 200 operational sorties which have included shipping reconnaissances, during which much valuable information has been obtained, and numerous attacks on shipping and enemy aerodromes in the face of heavy enemy fire. Flight Lieutenant Le Roux has destroyed 3 hostile aircraft in combat and at least 1 on the ground.”

Distinguished Service Cross – First Bar
Awarded 11th December 1942

Citation:

“Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross this officer has destroyed a further five enemy aircraft. In addition to his air victories he has attacked shipping and targets on the ground with considerable success. At all times Flight Lieu- tenant Le Roux has displayed a fine fighting spirit”

Distinguished Service Cross – Second Bar

Awarded 9th July 1943
Citation:

“Sqn. Ldr. Le Roux’s magnificent leadership has played a large part in the many successes attained by his squadron. He has personally destroyed 14 enemy aircraft and damaged many others, and has also inflicted much damage on enemy shipping.”

Ultimately, however, like several other truly great fighter pilots, he was not destroyed by enemy gunfire, but by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding a fateful cross-channel flight on 29 August 1944. It seems that he had taken off from France and was attempting to make his way through appalling weather taking alcohol back to his squadron at Tangmere. He never reached the coast and crashed into the Channel. According to Paddy Barthropp, ‘Chris’ Le Roux was without a dinghy and was sitting on numerous bottles of champagne, which, as Barthropp points out, do not float. It was indeed a tragic end to one of South Africa’s most popular and gallant fighter pilots.

His cheerful personality and good looks had made him one of South Africa’s most popular fighter pilots, and he was mourned by all who had known him. The No.111 Squadron Operations Record Book contains a magnificent “line” which remains as a fitting memory of one as young, as gallant and as gay (happy) as Chris le Roux. It quotes him as relating the story of his having made a good landing in very dirty weather and the mud described earlier, and finishes up: “I didn’t realise I was down until I heard the ground crew clapping!” He was a very worthy member of “the gayest (happiest) company who ever fired their guns in anger.”

Le Roux was to leave behind an English wife and two children, the family resident at the time in Shropshire.

(Image courtesy of the IWM, CL 784) Royal Air Force official photographer F/O A. Goodchild

(Colourised by Benjamin Thomas from Australia), caption courtesy WW2 Colourised photos

‘Ace in a Day’ TWICE! … Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis

1175140_393292020800596_1329593818_nSecond to Sailor Malan, Albert Gerald Lewis was the next best performing South African pilot flying for the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain.  To earn the title “Ace in a Day” a pilot had to shoot down 5 or more aircraft in a single day.  Only a handful of Allied pilots achieved this during World War 2, and “Zulu” Lewis is one of them.  Here’s the astounding bit, he achieved this ‘Ace in a Day’ status, not just once – but twice! He is also on the top ten Royal Air Force Ace list, having shot down 6 aircraft in 6 hours.

Albert Gerald Lewis ended the war with the rank of Squadron Leader and for his bravery earned the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). He was born in Kimberley South Africa on 10 April 1918 and the  attended Kimberley Boys’ High School, he had an interest in flying and took private lessons in South Africa before taking his pilot licence to Britain to join the RAF.

He was gazetted as a Acting Pilot Officer with effect from 29th of October 1938 and posted to No. 616 South Yorkshire Squadron Auxiliary Air Force, which had been formed on 1st of November 1938 as a Bombing Squadron.

When he arrived, the Squadron flew Gauntlets, Tutors and Battles. After some time he was transferred to an even duller job as a ferry pilot in No 12 Group Ferry Pool.  On 16th of December 1939 Lewis was transferred again. This time to No 504 Squadron, Debden. The Squadron flew Hurricanes, which was a great leap upwards for Lewis.

30th of January he flew the first of many single “Trawler Patrols”. This day marked his first meeting with the enemy, when he spotted and chased a German Blohm & Voss Seaplane.

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France – 85 Squadron RAF

“The Phoney war” in France had changed to real war and Lewis was transferred to No 87 Squadron the 26th of April 1939 – only to be transferred the day after to No 85 Squadron under Squadron Leader “Doggie” Oliver.

Under intense stain of combat flying during “The Battle for France” on the 12th of May flying VY-E, Lewis shot down – not only his first enemy aircraft – but also his second:
A Messerschmidt 109 and a Heinkel He111.

First: Ace in a Day

18th or 19th of May – due to all the Squadrons reports got lost in the evacuation of the Squadron a few days later, there is some differences here – flying AK-A (an aircraft borrowed from 213 Squadron) he got 5 confirmed kills in a day:

Two Messerschmidt 109s on the first patrol in the morning and three more on the evening patrol. This fight had been witnessed by his CO and the squadron.  This action resulted in his first DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) for bravery:

Awarded on: June 25th, 1940, the  Citation reads:

“Pilot Officer Lewis has, by a combination of great personal courage, determination and skill in flying, shot down five enemy aircraft, single-handed, in one day. He has destroyed in all a total of seven enemy aircraft, and by his example has been an inspiration to his squadron.”

On the 21st of May Lewis flew back to England in one of the only 3 Hurricanes still usable from 85th Squadron.

Lewis in the Battle of Britain

28th of June the Squadron moved to Castle Camp – a satellite airfield to Debden, which were to be their base for the early part of the Battle of Britain. Lewis is now flying VY-Z.
Peter Townsend became CO of the squadron and soon gave Lewis his nickname: Zulu, as he had also christened his great chum, South African Caesar Hull in No. 43 Squadron, the squadron from which Townsend originally came.

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Lewis and his fellow 85 Squadron friend Richard “Dikie” Lee DSO (Lee was sadly lost on the 18th August 1940).

From the 1st of July operations started in earnest, and three or four sorties a day were flown, usually convoy patrols from Martelsham Heath. On 18th of August – flying VY-D on a solo patrol, Lewis destroyed a Me110 and on 31st of August –-flying VY-N – he got a Me 109 after being scrambled in a hurry.

By 5th of September, 1940 the 85 Squadron was exhausted and rotated out of the battle line, but not Zulu Lewis who still had still some fighting ahead of him. Squadrons in the south of England were in desperate need of veteran pilots and Lewis went south again, joining 249 Squadron.

England – 249 Squadron RAF

14th of September Lewis was posted to the top scoring 249 Squadron at North Weald.
It was all out action at North Weald – sorties three, four or five times a day when Lewis arrived – and the very first day in the new Squadron, he shot down a Heinkel He111 and shared a probable destruction of another.

The day was one of the hardest days in the long hot summer, and were by many regarded as the turning point of The Battle of Britain.  By the 18th of September Lewis got his twelfth confirmed enemy aircraft.

Ace in a Day – Second time: 6 confirmed kills and two probables

27th of September – flying GN-R –  Zulu Lewis DFC shot down eight enemy aircrafts in one day!

Lewis combat report from the morning:
“Sighted circle of Me110’s over area near Redhill. Attacked out of the sun and fired two short bursts into e/a following a Hurricane down. He billowed smoke and went down steeply.

Again attacked circle and put a burst into another Me110 – starboard engine out of action and on fire. Climbed into the sun again delivered attack on remains of circle. Hit one who dropped out of fight, heading towards coast and, with starboard engine out of action, tried to get home. Forced him down in vicinity of some hills near Crowhurst. He burst into flames on landing at farmyard”

Once rearmed and refueled, seven Hurricanes lead by Lewis, (The Squadron Leader was reported Missing in Action) were ordered to patrol Maidstone before carrying a sweep of Hawking to Canterbury along with 46th Squadron.

Lewis combat report:
“As 249 Leader, sighted formation of Me109’s to north-east of Estuary. Climbed to 15.000 feet to 20.000 feet but were attacked by second 109 formation from above.
In ensuing dogfight was attacked by two 109’s, one of which I hit in belly as he passed overhead. He crashed into wood near Canterbury. Put burst into second 109, which attacked soon after the one I shot down, also in belly.

I did not observe this one hit the ground but went down smoking, where after smoking fires near the wood in vicinity of Canterbury could have been other aircraft destroyed, as there were no bombers.”

Later the same day.

Lewis combat report:
As green Leader, attacked formation of Ju88’s with Blue Section, and one just dropped out with starboard engine damaged. Closed in and carried out two beam attacks from slightly above and put engine on fire. kept after it as it went down steeply toward coast near Selsey Bill. Crashed into sea just near coast.

Shot down one Me109 which crossed my sights after engagement with Ju88. Went down in flames, then followed a second Me109 down which I attacked from above and it crashed in woods near Petworth. This is confirmed by Sgt. Hampshire of Green Section.
Fired short bursts of approx two to three second bursts at Me109’s and a faily long burst at another Ju88.”

Lewis was awarded his second DFC for this day. Awarded on October 22nd, 1940, the Citation reads:

“One day in September, 1940, this officer destroyed six enemy aircraft; this makes a total of eighteen destroyed by him. His courage and keenness are outstanding.”

Awarded as a bar for on the ribbon of the first DFC.

He thus got 11 confirmed victories in two days – 19th of May and 27th of September.
Which is believed to be a record for single-engine British fighters.

Shot down – England

28th of September – only the very next day – the Squadron was flying patrol over Maidstone, and Lewis was shot down in flames while flying the same aircraft GN-R.

The Squadron was in a gentle dive, with Lewis weaving above them, when he was hit from behind by cannon shells and set on fire.  Lewis baled out of his burning Hurricane. Jimmy Crossey following him down, circling the parachute to prevent him being shot at.

Lewis landed safely, but was severely burned and was taken to Faversham Cottage Hospital. Blind for two weeks, with a piece of shrapnel in his leg and severe burns on the face, throat, hands and legs.

He received his little golden caterpillar with his name engraved on the back while in hospital, this little ‘silk worm ‘caterpillar’ confirmed his membership of the selected band of pilots who had their lives saved by a parachute (hence the ‘silk).

He returned to the Squadron in December, 1940, having been promoted Flight Lieutenant on 29 November. He was flying by 17 January 1941, and became “A” Flight Commander, and was awarded a bar to the DFC.

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King George VI conferring a Bar to Flying Officer A G Lewis’s DFC in an awards ceremony at Duxford, Cambridgeshire.

Overseas Service

Lewis volunteered for overseas service and was posted to 261 Squadron in January 1942.
Via Sierra Leone he went to Tricomalee in China bay, Ceylon to take command of 261 Squadron – a Squadron famous for it’s defence of Malta earlier in the war.

Lewis recalls that the force consisted of himself as CO, 6 Flt Lts, 3 FOs, 8 Pos, 1 WO pilot and 34 Sgt. Pilots. Most of the force were Australians and New Zealand pilots with a few Canadians and an American.

China Bay was a grass airfield – or rather – a clearing in the jungle. Everything was “under construction” and very primitive. Malaria was bad. Typhoid was caused by foul water supplies and after a Japanese bombing, all waterborne sanitation was smashed and cholera added to their troubles.

Shot down – China Bay

On the 9th of April – the day before his 24th birthday, Lewis led his Squadron to intercept a Japanese raid and as he was taking off, his aircraft was hit by fire from one of the Japanese Zeros. He was wounded in the left shoulder and can not use his arm.

On fire – once again – he bales out at only 200 feet, with his parachute opening just in time. He could see his base was under heavy attack and for six hours he lay suffering from shock until he was found by some natives, who revived him with coconut milk, and helped him back to the base.

In June 1942 he returns to Britain via South Africa.

After the war

Lewis left Royal Air Force on 16th of February 1946, having been an Acting Squadron leader since 22nd of April 1943. After the war Lewis started farming. First in Britain – but in 1947 he went back home to South Africa and continued to farm in his homeland. He also became deeply religious, joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormons).

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Albert G Lewis, with his wife, children (+ wives/husbands) and grandchildren. The picture is from the seventies.

To quote his religious convictions at the end of his life:

“As my mind reflects on The Battle of Britain and on the many wonderful characters who formed a part of that scene and died a quarter of a century ago in order that the world might be a better place to live in – as did those in The First World War – and indeed all righteous people from the beginning of time – I wonder, have we achieved lasting peace?

If we are not to disappoint ourselves and all of those who have come before, we need a plan – one that is practical and embraces all mankind. I sincerely believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the only plan which can embrace the world so that all who desire to – may live in peace.”

Albert Gerald Lewis died on the 14th of December 1982 – 64 years old.

These dramatic images outline Zulu Lewis in action at the peak of the Battle of Britain, taken by LIFE magazine who did an interview and profile story on him at the time.

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Peak of battle in the ‘Battle of Britain’, South African Pilot Officer Albert G Lewis of No. 85 Squadron grabs his flying helmet from the tailplane of his Hurricane, P2923 VQ-R, as a member of the ground crew warms up the engine prior to a sortie, Castle Camps, July 1940. Photo Copyright IWM Collection.

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Hawker Hurricane Mk I, P2923, VY-R, flown by Pilot Officer A G Lewis landing at Castle Camps, RAF Debden’s satellite airfield, July 1940.

Researched by Peter Dickens


Sources:  Wikipedia, www.thefedoralounge.com, Hurricane 501 (website), Brian Cull: “249 at War.”Short history.  Colourised images by ‘Doug’, Imperial War Museum Copyright

 

 

Lt. Blake, one remarkable SAAF pilot … more than just a photo

The official Imperial War Museum caption of this photo is “crew of Douglas Boston Mark III, W8376 ‘C’, of No 24 Squadron, South African Air Force, walking away from their aircraft on an airfield in Libya after a sortie.” But there is so much more to this.

It’s assumed this photo was taken whilst 24 Squadron who were at Zuara airfield in Libya. (The “colourised” image of Boston seen here is incorrectly branded in RAF colours and not SAAF – the flash on the tail should be orange not red).

In August ’42 No.12 Squadron, SAAF, arrived from Kenya, and the two squadrons were formed in No.261 Wing. They were soon joined by No.14 Squadron, SAAF and in October the wing was renumbered as No.3 (S.A.A.F.) Wing. At about the same time No.24 Squadron withdrew to convert to the Douglas Boston.

But the story of this photograph does not end there, seen here are:

Air Sgt. Stakemore (Air Gnr) – SAAF
Lt. G.A. Marshall (Observer) – SAAF
Lt. C.W. Blake (pilot) – SAAF
Sgt. Atkinson (Air Gnr) – Royal Air Force

They were shot down in the aircraft behind them Boston Mk.III “C” W8376 on 23.11.1941 by Obfw Espenlaub of 1/JG.27 – a Luftwaffe Ace.

All were made Prisoners of War. Lt. Blake pulled two crew members out of the wreckage the fourth had baled out successfully.

After escaping the PoW camp, Lt. Blake went on to be awarded the Military Cross later for ground action with Partisans in Italy, he was the only SAAF pilot to be so awarded for WWII.

This was after his fifth escape attempt, he was recaptured in the first four.

Photo courtesy Imperial War Museum, colourised by “WW2 Colourised Photos”and additional information provided by Sandy Evan Hanes with great thanks.