John Nettleton VC – an unknown South African Victoria Cross recipient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Nettleton

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

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

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

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John Dering Nettleton VC

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

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

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

Citation:

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

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

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

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

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

Citation ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Image copyrights – Imperial War Museum

‘Proccy’ – South Africa’s ‘Bravest of the Brave’

Honouring South African heroes and this is one of South Africa’s greatest – in fact he is the highest decorated South African in our military history. Many people don’t know that South Africa has its own World War 1 flying ace and Victoria Cross winner, and this ‘small’ hero comes with some very ‘big’ credentials, he is regarded as the all time highest decorated South African in terms of sheer seniority of the bravery decorations he won (there is a distinction between ‘most’ decorated i.e. number of decorations and medals –  and the ‘highest’ decorated).

Proc1Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor, known to his colleagues and friends simply as ‘Proccy’, was South Africa’s leading First World War flying ace, claiming a staggering 54 aerial victories to his name.

He was born on 4 September 1894 in Mossel Bay, South Africa, and was studying engineering at the University of Cape Town when war broke out. He joined the Union of South Africa Army – the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles and took part in the German South West Africa campaign, before being demobilised in August 1915 with an honorable discharge. He promptly went to work with the South African Field Telegraph and re-enrolled in university. He managed to complete his third year of college before re-enlisting again, this time with the Royal Flying Corps (he was one of “The Thousand” – the first South Africans to go to England for combat service on the Western Front).

Royal Flying Corps

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor joined the Royal Flying Corps in March 1917, he was commissioned upon his arrival in England and underwent pilot training.  Despite being only 5′ 2″ tall, so short that he had to use two leather cushions in order to see out of a standard cockpit, he proved an excellent pilot and on completion of training was posted to 84 Squadron in late July 1917.  The squadron, commanded by Major William Sholto Douglas (who would later become OC Fighter Command during the Second World War) was equipping with the then-new S.E.5a.

On 23 September 1917, the 84 Squadron went to France and became one of the most effective scout squadrons in the RFC/RAF (Royal Air Force) during 1918. The squadron would be credited with a victory total of 323 aerial victories, and would produce 25 aces. However, Beauchamp-Proctor would be pre-eminent, with almost triple the number of successes of the second leading ace. He was not particularly esteemed as a flier, but was a deadly shot.

Beauchamp-Proctor’s piloting skills can be judged by the fact he had three landing accidents before he ever shot down an enemy plane. He continued to fly the SE5 with modifications to the aircraft’s seat and controls, something his Philadelphia-born American squadron mate, Joseph “Child Yank” Boudwin, who stood only two inches taller also had to use. The alterations to relatively primitive controls could have contributed to Beauchamp-Proctor’s poor airmanship.

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Captain Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor by Ivan Berryman

His initial confirmed victory did not come until the turn of the year. On 3 January 1918, he sent a German two-seater ‘down out of control’. He then claimed four more victories in February, becoming an ace on the final day of the month. Only one of his five victories resulted in the destruction of an enemy; the others were planes sent down as ‘out of control’.

March brought four more victories; three of them were scored within five minutes on 17 March. He tallied one kill in April.

proccyAmong his 11 victories for the month of May were 5 on 19 May. On that morning, he knocked an enemy observation plane out of the battle; fifteen minutes later, he destroyed a German Albatros D.V. scout. That evening, at about 6:35 PM, he downed three more Albatros D.Vs. By 31 May, his roll had climbed to 21 victims—16 fighters and five observation aircraft. By this point, he had destroyed six enemy planes single-handed, and shared the destruction of two others. He drove ten down out of control, and shared in another ‘out of control’ victory. Two of his victims were captured. Certainly a creditable record, and like many other aces, with no conquests over balloons.

The next day marked a change of focus for him; he shot down an observation balloon. Balloons, guarded by anti-aircraft artillery and patrolling fighter airplanes, were very dangerous targets. Commonly they were hunted by coordinated packs of fighters. For the remainder of his career, he would choose to try to blind the enemy by concentrating on shooting down kite balloons and observation aircraft. Also notable is the drop in his “out of control” victories; from here on out, the record shows destruction after destruction of the enemy. His June string would only run to 13 June, but in that time, he would destroy four balloons, an observation two-seater and a fighter. Only one fighter went down out of control. On 22 June, he was awarded the Military Cross (MC).

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July would pass without incident. On 3 August, he was granted one of the first ever Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC).

The break in his victory string lasted almost a month, as he went on home leave and helped a recruitment drive for the RAF. On 8 August, he returned and resumed with tally number 29, another balloon.

On 9 August, Beauchamp-Proctor was leading No. 84 Squadron on a patrol over their base at Bertangles, with the diminutive American Joseph “Child Yank” Boudwin and a ‘Giant’ – the six-foot-four tall fellow South African from Germiston – Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders as his wingmen (‘Dingbat’ Saunders would go to become another South African ace, Air Marshal and Knight of the realm – but that is a different story for another day).

This unusual threesome of two very short chaps ‘Proccy’ and ‘Child Yank’ ‘and one very tall chap ‘Dingbat’ got involved in a heated engagement at 2:00 pm, that involved them in combat against Fokker D.VII fighters of JG I , led that day by the future Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.

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Hermann Göring in his Fokker D.VII fighter during WW1

After World War 1, Hermann Göring was to become Adolf Hitler’s right hand man and one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi party that ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945 and took Germany to its darkest place in history.  But that was well in the future, over the western front battlefields of World War 1 Göring was a veteran fighter pilot, and fighter ace, he was even a recipient of the The Blue Max (the highest German bravery award). He was also eventually the last commander of  the famous ‘flying circus’ Jasta 1, the fighter wing once led by ‘The Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen.

Unfortunately for both our two South Africans ‘Proccy’ and ‘Dingbat’ and the American ‘Child Yank’ – and the entire world really, none was unsuccessful at bagging Herman Göering and adding him to their kill totals.

‘Proccy’ would eventually claim an additional 14 aircraft, and by the end of the month of August with his claims list extended to 43. One memorable day was 22 August; he attacked a line of six enemy balloon over the British 3rd Corps front. He set the first one afire with his machine guns and forced the other five to the ground, the observers taking to their parachutes. His 15 kills for August would include 5 balloons, all destroyed, and two more two-seater planes. He was now up to 43 victories.

His September claims would be all balloons – four of them.

In the first few days of October, he would destroy three more balloons and three Fokker D.VII  fighters, one of which burned. Another D.VII spun down out of control.

On 8 October, he was hit by ground fire and wounded in the arm, ending his front line service. In all ‘Proccy’ Beauchamp-Proctor’s victory total was 54; two (and one shared) captured enemy aircraft, 13 (and three shared) balloons destroyed, 15 (and one shared) aircraft destroyed, and 15 (and one shared) aircraft ‘out of control’ His 16 balloons downed made him the leading British Empire balloon buster.

On 2 November, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, followed by the Victoria Cross on 30 November.  His Victoria Cross citation explains in detail:

Victoria Cross (VC)

Between 8 August 1918, and 8 October 1918, this officer proved himself victor in 26 decisive combats, destroying 12 enemy kite balloons, 10 enemy aircraft, and driving down 4 other enemy aircraft completely out of control. Between 1 October 1918, and 5 October 1918, he destroyed 2 enemy scouts, burnt 3 enemy kite balloons, and drove down one enemy scout completely out of control.

medalOn 1 October 1918, in a general engagement with about 28 machines, he crashed one Fokker biplane near Fontaine and a second near Ramicourt; on 2 October he burnt a hostile balloon near Selvjgny; on 3 October he drove down, completely out of control, an enemy scout near Mont d’Origny, and burnt a hostile balloon; on 5 October, the third hostile balloon near Bohain. On 8 October 1918, while flying home at a low altitude, after destroying an enemy 2-seater near Maretz, he was painfully wounded in the arm by machine-gun fire, but, continuing, he landed safely at his-aerodrome, and after making his report was admitted to hospital.

In all he has proved himself conqueror over 54 foes, destroying 22 enemy machines, 16 enemy kite balloons, and driving down 16 enemy aircraft completely out of control. Captain Beauchamp-Proctor’s work in attacking enemy troops on the ground and in reconnaissance during the withdrawal following on the Battle of St. Quentin from 21 March 1918, and during the victorious advance of our Armies commencing on 8 August, has been almost unsurpassed in its brilliancy, and as such has made an impression on those serving in his squadron and those around him that will not be easily forgotten.

Capt. Beauchamp-Proctor was awarded Military Cross on 22 June 1918; D.F. Cross on 2 July 1918; Bar to M.C. on 16 September 1918; and Distinguished Service Order on 2 November 1918

The bravest of the brave

To make him the ‘highest’ decorated South African in history, as there is already a small group of South Africans who won the ‘highest decoration’ i.e. Victoria Cross in World War 1 (14 officially in total) and World War 2 (5 in total), Beauchamp-Proctor would also need to have another ‘next’ most senior decoration, he did this with obtaining a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and a Military Cross (MC).  This puts him on the same level as Percy Hansen, who also won a VC, DSO and MC, the difference, the one which places Beauchamp-Proctor at the top, is that he won the Military Cross twice (with bar) in addition to another decoration – the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

The citations for these decorations are impressive enough on their own, there are as follows:

Military Cross (MC)

MilitaryCrossWW1For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. While on offensive patrol he observed an enemy two-seater plane attempting to cross our lines. He engaged it and opened fire, with the result that it fell over on its side and crashed to earth. On a later occasion, when on patrol, he observed three enemy scouts attacking one of our bombing machines. He attacked one of these, and after firing 100 rounds in it, it fell over on its back and was seen to descend in that position from 5,000 feet. He then attacked another group of hostile scouts, one of which he shot down completely out of control, and another crumpled up and crashed to earth. In addition to these, he has destroyed another hostile machine, and shot down three completely out of control. He has at all times displayed the utmost dash and initiative, and is a patrol leader of great merit and resource.

MC citation, Supplement to the London Gazette, 22 June 1918

Military Cross (MC) Bar

barFor the award of a Bar to the Military Cross ( MC ) i.e. winning a second Military Cross in addition to Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor’s first MC.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty while leading offensive patrols. He has lately destroyed three enemy machines, driven down one other completely out of control, and carried out valuable work in attacking enemy troops and transport on the ground from low altitudes. He has done splendid service.

London Gazette, 18 September 1918

Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

Lt. (T./Capt.) Andrew Weatherby Beauchamp-Proctor, M.C.DFCLG

A brilliant and fearless leader of our offensive patrols. His formation has destroyed thirteen enemy machines and brought down thirteen more out of control in a period of a few months. On a recent morning his patrol of five aeroplanes attacked an enemy formation of thirty machines and was successful in destroying two of them. In the evening he again attacked an enemy formation with great dash, destroying one machine and forcing two others to collide, resulting in their destruction.

DFC citation, Supplement to the London Gazette, 3 August 1918

Distinguished Service Order (DSO)

Distinguished_Service_Order_correctA fighting pilot of great skill, and a splendid leader. He rendered brilliant service on 22 August, when his Flight was detailed to neutralise hostile balloons. Having shot down one balloon in flames, he attacked the occupants of five others in succession with machine-gun fire, compelling the occupants in each case to take to parachutes. He then drove down another balloon to within fifty feet of the ground, when it burst into flames. In all he has accounted for thirty-three enemy machines and seven balloons.

DSO citation, Supplement to the London Gazette, 2 November 1918

That’s a lot of hefty decorations for gallantry and bravery and it makes Beauchamp-Proctor ‘the bravest of the brave’ when it comes the very bravest men South Africa has ever produced.

Post War

Proc2He was discharged from hospital in March 1919 and embarked on a four-month-long lecture tour of the USA, before returning to England and qualifying as a seaplane pilot with a permanent commission as a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF.

After his VC investiture at Buckingham Palace in November 1919 he was awarded a year’s leave, and this enabled him finish his BSc degree in Engineering.

Beauchamp-Proctor died during a training accident at RAF Hendon in England, on the 21st June 1921 whilst preparing for an air-show.  His aircraft went into a vicious spin after performing a slow loop, and he was killed in the ensuing crash. At least one observer remarked that the loss of control and subsequent crash of the aircraft could have been linked to Proctor’s diminutive size, as noted earlier because of his size, Beauchamp-Proctor had to sit on a cushion to operate his aircraft and the cushion fell out during the loop, rendering him in a difficult position to adequately operate his aircraft and recover the manoeuvre.  He was buried in Mafeking (his home town) in South Africa, following a state funeral.

In Conclusion

There still exists a little confusion over Beauchamp-Proctor’s given name. For decades he was listed as “Anthony” but more recent scholarship indicates “Andrew”, which  is the name on his tombstone.  Whether ‘Proccy’ was an Andrew or Anthony, it matters not a jot, this man epitomised ‘dynamite in a small package’ – ‘Proccy’ was and still remains the bravest of all South Africans to have been awarded gallantry decorations – without any doubt – the ‘Bravest of the Brave’.

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Links to other South African World War 1 Victoria Cross recipients

Reginald Hayward VC  “Superhuman powers of endurance and courage” Reginald Hayward VC

William F. Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

Sherwood Kelly VC “…. a Herculean of Irish-South African origin with a quite remarkable disregard for danger”.

Percy Hansen VC One Lucky Charm wins the Victoria Cross; Percy Hansen VC, DSO, MC

Other South Africans in 84 Squadron during WW1

Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders – Sir ‘Dingbat’ the Knight


Researched and written by Peter Dickens

Image copyright Imperial War Museum Collection.  Portrait by Cowen Donson, Imperial War Museum collection copyright.  Painting Captain Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor by Ivan Berryman – Granston Fine Art.

The Great Escape … was led by a South African!

Those watching ‘The Great Escape’ re-run on British television this long Christmas weekend – thinking it was an all American and British affair, here’s some more back of the Chappie gum wrapper trivia – the mastermind behind it was a South African, and the escape had very little to do with Americans.

ffdf05478514b3273afec71b503fc0f8Here is another great South African (seen here at Stalag Luft III). Squadron Leader Roger Joyce Bushell RAF – AAF (30 August 1910 – 29 March 1944) was an Auxiliary Air Force pilot who organised and led the famous escape from the German prisoner of war camp, and also victim of the Stalag Luft III murders when participants in the famous escape were executed by the German Gestapo.

The escape was used as the basis for the film The Great Escape. The character played by Richard Attenborough, Roger Bartlett, is modelled on Roger Bushell. The story about the “Great Escape” was one of the most famous escape stories during WW2.  The Great Escape movie is now an institution in The United Kingdom and the United States.  Made famous by the swagger of Steve McQueen and his fictional attempted escape attempts culminating in a cross-country motorbike chase (McQueen’s preferred sport) with Nazi Germans in pursuit.

The backdrop of the movie is however a true story and it involves a South African as its leader and not a plucky Briton.

The Real Story of The Great Escape

In the spring of 1943, Roger Bushell masterminded a plot for a major escape of Prisoners of War from Stalag Luft III. Being held in the north compound where British airmen were housed, Bushell as commander of the escape committee channelled the escape effort into probing for weaknesses and looking for opportunities. Falling back on his legal background to represent his scheme, Bushell called a meeting of the escape committee in the camp and not only shocked those present with its scope, but injected into every man a passionate determination to put every energy into the escape. He declared,

“Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time. By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

The simultaneous digging of these tunnels would become an advantage if any one of them were discovered by the Germans, because the guards would scarcely imagine that another two could be well under way. The most radical aspect of the plan was not merely the scale of the construction, but also the sheer number of men that Bushell intended to pass through these tunnels. Previous attempts had involved the escape of anything up to a dozen or twenty men, but Bushell was proposing to get over 200 out, all of whom would be wearing civilian clothes and possessing a complete range of forged papers and escape equipment. It was an unprecedented undertaking and would require unparalleled organisation. As the mastermind of the Great Escape, Bushell inherited the codename of “Big X”. The tunnel “Tom” began in a darkened corner of a hall in one of the buildings. “Harry”‘s entrance was carefully hidden under a Stove. The entrance to “Dick” had a very well concealed entrance in a drainage sump. More than 600 prisoners were involved in their construction.

Bushell also organised another mass break out, which occurred on 12 June 1943. This became known as the Delousing Break, when 26 officers escaped by leaving the camp under escort with two fake guards (POWs disguised as guards) supposedly to go to the showers for delousing in the neighbouring compound. All but two were later recaptured and returned to the camp, with the remaining two officers being sent to Oflag IV-C at Colditz for attempting to steal an aircraft.

After the discovery of Tom, construction on Harry was halted. but it resumed in January 1944. On the evening of 24 March, after months of preparation, 200 officers prepared to escape. But things did not go as planned, with only 76 officers managed to get clear of the camp. Among those left behind was 21-year-old RAF Flight Lieutenant Alan Bryett, who refers to Bushell as “the bravest man I ever knew”.

Roger and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer, among the first few to leave the tunnel, successfully boarded a train at Sagan railway station. They were caught the next day at Saarbrücken railway station, waiting for a train to Alsace, which had been annexed from France by Germany.

Bushell and Scheidhauer were murdered three days later by members of the Gestapo.  This was a breach of the Geneva Convention and so constituted a war crime. The perpetrators were later tried and executed by the Allies. Fifty of the 76 escapees were killed in the Stalag Luft III murders on Hitler’s direct orders.

In an ironic twist Bushell’s executioner was himself executed at the end of the war for his crime (see this story on the Observation Post As they like to say in the military “Karma is a Bitch!”).

It unfortunately was not just Roger Bushell as a South African to suffer this fate, three more South Africans participated and escaped with Roger Bushell in The Great Escape. Lieutenants Gouws, Stevens and McGarr (all South African Air Force) were also recaptured and executed illegally by the Gestapo.

Bushell was posthumously mentioned in Despatches on 8 June 1944 for his services as a POW.  This award was recorded in the London Gazette dated 13 June 1946. His name also appears on the war memorial in Hermanus, South Africa, where his parents spent their last years and where they were buried.

Roger Bushell was born in Springs South Africa on the 30th November 1910.  He was first schooled in Johannesburg at Park Town School but later moved to England, and in 1929 he spent his first year at Cambridge University where he studied law. His talents however extended far beyond a career in law, as an athlete he had the honour of representing the University, both as a skier and rugby player. He excelled at skiing and during the early 1930’s he was declared the fastest Briton in the downhill category.

In South Africa the memory of Roger Bushell lives on in Hermanus. His name is among those on the War Memorial above the Old Harbour, Roger’s parents were living in Hermanus at the time of his death and his parents also made a presentation to the Hermanus High School, in remembrance of their son who (incidentally) could speak nine languages. The two coveted Roger Bushell prizes for character are still awarded annually at the prize-giving of the school. One prize is awarded annually to the student who has shown the most exemplary signs of character during the year and second one is for the school boy chosen by his fellow students as the best leader.

Roger Bushell’s memorial plaque on the War Memorial in Hermanus, South Africa.


Researched by Peter Dickens, with reference and help from Buskruit Burger and Sandy Evan Hanes.

Sailor Malan; in his own words!

Sailor Malan – a true South African WW2 flying ace and national hero “in his own words” – and here is a very rare recorded interview with him.

This is a fantastic historical record of a personal interview with the great WW2 South African fighter ace Adolph “Sailor” Malan, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar.

Note in this recording, clearly taken as a public relations exercise to install confidence in the British public in the Royal Air Force and it’s pilots by the public broadcaster (there were a series of these interviews involving other pilots).  Because of this, Sailor Malan comes across as a little over-confident and quite flippant.  Its intentional and designed to make killing Germans sterile and combat adventurous.

He also adopts a very plummy British ‘officers’ accent so common to the tone and manner of speaking of this particular officer class during the war, both in Britain and in the Commonwealth.  His ‘flat vowel’ South African accent sneaks in here and there, but in all Malan was a very well-educated and travelled man and his command of the English language was exemplary (as was his command of Afrikaans).

Also noteworthy is Sailor Malan’s WW2 era cultural expressions, delivery and sayings which were so typical to Allied Air Force officers at the time – terms like:

“Hun” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term insinuating barbarism dating to the First World War.
“Squirt” – meaning a short burst of gun or cannon fire.
“Jerry” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term pertinent to the Second World War.
“Pumping Lead” – meaning a high rate of machine gun or cannon fire ‘pumped’ into the enemy to kill him
“Tally Ho” – a British fox-hunting term meaning to spot a target and call to action.
“Cut yourself a slice of cake” – a favourite term used by Sailor Malan (and other pilots) meaning to get into the fight and have a piece of the action.

Related work on Sailor Malan:

Sailor Malan’s role in the Battle of Britain and the Torch Commando: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Sailor Malan’s Ten Rules of Air Combat: ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan

The Torch Commando – footage and history: The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!


Researched and written by Peter Dickens

Reference: YouTube.  Painting by Derrick Dickens, copyright Peter Dickens.  Photograph copyright – Imperial War Museum

Maj. Edwin Swales VC – a true South African hero’s legacy now under threat

A very notable South African hero and Victoria Cross winner, Captain Edwin (Ted) Swales VC, DFC (pictured in the centre with his crew) was born in Inanda, Natal, South Africa, he went to Durban High School (DHS) and then joined Natal Mounted Rifles, seeing action in Africa before he transferring to the South African Air Force and then went onto serve with the Royal Air Force (RAF).

In 1945, while with the RAF Pathfinders (No. 582 Squadron), Captain Swales was the Master Bomber and captain of Avro Lancaster III PB538. On 23 February 1945, the very same day as his D.F.C. award was gazetted, Swales led the bombing raid on Pforzheim, Germany.

Swales’ Victoria Cross citation:

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

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

It is now known that the attack was one of the most concentrated and successful of the war. Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged. Its speed had been so much reduced that it could only with difficulty be kept in the air. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working. Determined at all costs to prevent his aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands, he set course for home.

After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud. He kept his course by skilful flying between the layers, but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, by now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; it was losing height steadily. Realising that the situation was desperate Captain Swales ordered his crew to bail out. Time was very short and it required all his exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of his crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety.

Hardly had the last crew-member jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth. Captain Swales was found dead at the controls. Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life that his comrades might live”

Citation ends:

Although often referred to as being a “Captain” at the time of his last flight,  Swales was in fact an ‘Acting’ Major. The S.A.A.F. was using the army ranking system, hence the ranks of ‘Captain’ and of ‘Major’. At the time of his death on 23 February 1945, Swales was aged 29 years. In 1958, the British Air Ministry wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission informing them that the South African Air Force authorities had confirmed that at the time of his death, Swales had in fact held the rank of Major.

A Personal View

It is a great pity that in South Africa that the main Highway in Durban – Edwin Swales Drive has been renamed in support of some of other political narrative rather than to continue to acknowledge such a massive contribution to South Africa’s “honour” by this truly international hero – in whose memory the naming of the highway was originally intended.  This is how South Africa’s military heritage is destroyed and it’s how the country’s multi cultural fabric is insidiously removed to support one groups political ideology over that of another.

My personal view.  Part of the problem is also the “allowist” nature of South Africans with British roots for whom this man is a hero, they would rather put the issue into a “too hard box” and pursue individual security instead – they themselves are “allowing” this insidious rot to fester rather than really challenging it in a manner South African politicians today are accustomed.

Take a leaf out of the “Student Handbook” if you want things changed in South Africa – I’m not condoning violence in any way – but as a community, students really know how to mobilise in the digital and media age and challenge the status quo. People who want things like this changed and would like to impact a real difference should take a leaf out of that book.