Recommended for the Victoria Cross; Battle of Britain hero; Percy Burton

Today we highlight an act of bravery by a South African during the Battle of Britain which could have earned him the Victoria Cross but unfortunately did not – heralded and remembered in the United Kingdom, his act is hardly known of in South Africa.

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Flight Officer Percival Ross-Frames Burton

So let’s have a look at this remarkable South African and his action, and lets remember what ‘sacrifice’ actually meant to the small group of South African airmen defending the last bastion European modern democracy and liberty against the invasion of a Nazi totalitarian tyranny.

There is truth in the words of Sir Winston Churchill when he said “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” – and in truth Percy Burton’s death epitomises exactly the type of sacrifice made by these ‘few’.  His action is astounding and it’s one which reflects the desperate nature of the fight between young men on both sides and in so it is as deeply tragic as it is liberating  – this is the true ‘Price’ paid.

Background

Percival (Percy) Ross-Frames Burton was born in 1917 in Cape Province, South Africa.  A military man from the outset, during peacetime he initially joined the South African Coast Garrison and Citizen Force in 1935.

Before the start of the Second World War, Percy decided to read Jurisprudence at Oxford University attending Christ Church College in 1938. An active sportsman’ he took part in the University’s rowing team and boat races and was the reserve cox for the Oxford crew.

Whilst at Oxford, Percy Burton also learned to fly with the University’s Air Squadron.  At the onset of war in October 1939 he volunteered and took up a commission in Royal Air Force Reserve (Service Number 74348), and after completing his training at Flight Training School Cranwell he arrived at 6 OTU, Sutton Bridge on the 22nd June 1940 to convert to Hawker Hurricanes.

After one month of training on hurricanes Flight Officer (F/O) Percival Ross-Frames Burton found himelf in RAF No. 249 Squadron.  Just in time to walk straight into The Battle of Britain which kicked off in earnest from the 10th July 1940, and he was to fly alongside another great South African hero in the Battle of Britain – Albert ‘Zulu’ Lewis DFC and Bar.

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249 Squadron – Left to Right P/O Percival Ross-Frames Burton; Flt/Lt Robert ‘Butch’ Barton; Flt/Lt Albert Gerald ‘Zulu’ Lewis; P/O Terry ‘Ossie’ Crossey; P/O Tom ‘Ginger’ Neil; P/O Hugh John Sherard ‘Beazel’ Beazley; Sqn/Ldr John Grandy C/O; P/O George Barclay Flt/Lt Keith Lofts. (Colourised by Doug)

A ‘successful’ days’ action

On the morning of 27th September 1940, No.249 Squadron was scrambled into action. Burton took off from North Weald in Hurricane V6683 at about 08:50am with eleven other No.249 Squadron Hurricanes.

RAF 249 Squadron’s Hurricanes rendezvoused with Hurricanes RAF 46 Squadron and they began to patrol Wickford before being vectored to the Maidstone area where enemy activity had been reported.

When they got to Maidstone they encountered German aircraft in two defensive formations heading south at low-level.  A defensive circle of German Luftwaffe Bf 110s were spotted over Redhill and above them German Luftwaffe Bf 109 fighters were sighted higher up. Flight/Lt Butch Barton rallied No.249 Squadron into a diving attack the Bf 110 formation from out of the sun and individual combats (dogfights) then ensued.  The German Bf 109 fighters flying top cover for some reason did not get into the ensuing dogfight – it was later assumed they had not seen the attacking RAF Hurricanes.

It was a successful day for 249 Squadron, when the Squadron’s Hurricanes returned to North Weald they claimed an impressive eight enemy aircraft destroyed and a further five probables, but it came with a price and Flying Officer Percy Burton had paid the ultimate price.  However he had done so in a manner which simply breathtaking.

Cutting a Bf 110 in two

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Hauptmann Horst Liensberger

During the action Percy Burton locked onto and vigorously pursued a Bf 110 flown by Hauptmann Horst Liensberger in a desperate engagement which covered  a distance of about forty miles (64 kilometres), weaving around at an extremely low altitude, often little more than treetop height.

Percy Burton chased the Bf 110 at this low-level, until they arrived over Hailsham, Sussex when Burton’s ammunition had all been fully expended, with silent guns Percy Burton continued the chase and the two aircraft skimmed over the rooftops. The Bf 110 simply could not shake Burton off.

At this point Percy Burton was flying slightly above and behind the twin-engined BF 110 light bomber aircraft when suddenly, and in an unprecedented manoeuvre, he banked his Hurricane, dived down and collided with the Bf 110 in mid-air, literally chopping the Bf 100 into two.

The Bf 100’s Empennage (the tail assembly including the flying surfaces – rudder and elevator) dropped out of the sky and fell into a field, it was followed by the remainder of the severed enemy aircraft’ (the wings, dual engines and cockpit) falling uncontrolled out of the sky into the field – along with Burton’s wingtip.

The Bf 110 pilot Hauptmann Horst Liensberger his rear-gunner, Uffz Albert Kopge, were killed outright. Flying Officer Percy Burton’s Hurricane, now missing its wingtip was also out of control and he crashed into a huge oak tree on New Barn Farm.  The impact of hitting such a large oak tree was so excessive it threw Burton out and clear of his Hurricane.

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A powerful artists impression showing the ultimate sacrifice by Percy Burton of 249 Squadron as he rams the Stab-V LG1 Bf110C of Horst Liensberger/Albert Koepge.

Burton was killed and his Hurricane burned out. Eye-witness reports indicated that Percy Burton had deliberately rammed the Bf 110 in a final act of valour.  Percy’s body was found riddled with bullets, which led to speculation that Percy Burton was severely wounded in the attack and had consciously pursued and rammed the Bf 100 knowing he was not coming back.

As to a conscious decision to ram the Bf 100, fellow RAF pilot Tich Palliser who had also witnessed the collision from the air reported:

“I saw his contortions, then I saw him straighten out and fly straight into the German aircraft. I was close enough to see his letters (squadron code-markings), as other pilots must have been who also confirmed the incident, which in itself caused me to realise that my young life and its future, if any, had jumped into another dimension.”

The German witness also tells a tale young lives sacrificed, A colleague and friend of the Bf 110 pilot, wrote at the time of the incident:

“I regarded Horst Liensberger highly as my commander and as a human being… Over the radio we heard his last message: ‘Both engines are hit … am trying to turn … it’s impossible … I will try to land.’ Then nothing more.” 

Recommendation for a VC

249-SqdrnAs all the eye-witness reports indicate strongly that Percy Burton deliberately rammed the Bf 110 in an act of sacrifice. In a letter from Fighter Command to the Hailsham ARP Chief, Percy Burton was recommended that for this action, bravery and sacrifice at Hailsham that he receive a posthumous Victoria Cross.

However, because of the speculated issues surrounding his action, and much to the outrage, displeasure and disappointment of his fellow pilots in No. 249 Squadron, Percy Burton did not receive the VC or any gallantry award for that metter and he was only ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’.

Remembrance 

If you wish to visit another brave South African in a foreign field, Percy Burton is buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, Tangmere, England (Plot E, Row 1, Grave 480). In 1980 a road in a housing estate near the crash site was named ‘Burton Walk’ in his memory. There is also a humble memorial plaque dedicated to Burton’s memory at Hailsham near the oak tree that he hit.

The two German crew were initially buried in Hailsham Cemetery but were exhumed after the war and buried elsewhere.

42677047_745687879101397_8494527446912073728_oLooking at this recently colourised image of Percy Burton by Doug, we are reminded of just how young these brave men were, Percy Burton was just 23 years old when he boldly sacrificed his life.  In perspective he was the ‘millennial’ of his time, however it is very difficult to imagine a modern millenial facing the hardship, morality, bravery and sacrifice that this – the ‘greatest generation’ – faced.

No similar such acknowledgements or symbols of remembrance to Percy Burton exist in South Africa today, it’s also very possible that almost no South Africans even know of his existence or the brave action that nearly earned him the Victoria Cross – and he is not alone, the South Africans who took part in the Battle of Britain remain obscured and his story is one of many.  Their stories left to the wayside after 1948 as seismic political forces over-shadowed these brave South Africans fighting to preserve a liberated world in the sky over England during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

In our small way, The Observation Post hopes to keep this history alive, knowing in the full grace of time that these South African men and their very brave deeds are captured and not forgotten.  The Observation Post salutes and remembers you Flight Officer Percival Ross-Frames Burton.


Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Stories and Links

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

Ray Davis A USA claimed South African born ‘Battle of Britain’ Fighter Ace

Frederick Posener South African Battle of Britain “Few” – Frederick Posener

Stapme Stapelton ‘Stapme’ the handlebar moustached South African & Battle of Britain icon

Sailor Malan Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

David Haysom The South African Battle of Britain “Few” – David Haysom DSO DFC

References and extracts

The Battle of Britain monument, London – on-line.  Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  Colourised images by Doug and DBC Colour.

‘Hurricat’ Hero

There are pilots, and then there are ‘Hurricat’ pilots – they are truly a breed apart, and as usual in a mustering of elite pilots we find a South African.  So what’s a ‘Hurricat’?  Even to many of the most ardent South African aviation fans, these pilots and this aircraft nickname and type would be relatively unknown.  Well, during World War 2, a ‘Hurricat’ was a Hawker ‘Sea’ Hurricane fighter which was specifically adapted to be catapulted off a ship with RAM boost, hence the combination of ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Catapult’ – Hurricat.’

So why so special?  Simply put this concept of protecting ships with a singular Sea Hurricane fighter came about when there was an urgent need for convoy protection from the air, but the problem was there were usually no places to land them once launched, no handy aircraft carrier deck around and nowhere near a shore and a nice strait landing strip – once catapulted off the ship in a blaze of rocket charge the Hurricat fighter pilot found himself alone, without vast fighter support or wingmen to take on the enemy, and if he survived that singular suicide mission – he then had to find his back to his fleet with the limited navigation aids available to him.  If he made it that far, there was more hazard to come, he then had to ditch his aircraft in the ocean (crash it in effect) to be hopefully safely found and plucked out.

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Big seas breaking over the catapult aircraft of a catapult armed merchant (CAM) ship as seen from the bridge. Specially strengthened Hawker Sea Hurricanes are used.

These  men are truly special, men of extreme bravery and there are very few of them, and one South African Hurricat pilot stands out – Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC.  Now not too many South Africans have heard of him, and they should, this is one very remarkable South African, with bravery in buckets – this is his story.

Background 

Alistair Hay was born in Johannesburg on the 13 September 1921, son of Frederick John Gordon Hay and Catherine, nee Metherell.  Alistair was educated at Christian Brothers’ College in Pretoria. As a young man he was also a member of Boys Naval Brigade.  At the onset of World War 2 joined up and was part of the General Botha Cadet Draft and attended the SATS General Botha from 1937-8 (Number 928).

The South African Training Ship (SATS) General Botha (named after General Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa) started out as River Class Cruiser the HMS Thames and was donated to South Africa by T B Davis, a philanthropist extraordinary, as a full-time institution for the sea training of South African Naval Cadets.

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After leaving the SATS General Botha, Alistair James Hay joined the Union-Castle Company, in which he remained until 1940.  Like Sailor Malan who followed a similar path before him on the SATS General Botha, he also enlisted with the Royal Air Force in 1942 as a Volunteer Reservist.  He joined the RAF initially as a Sergeant and was promoted as Commissioned Officer (Pilot Officer) on 18th May 1942, eventually becoming a Flight-Lieutenant on 18th May 1943.

He then signed up for what was one of the most dangerous jobs around, and because of his nautical background on the SATS General Botha he found himself seconded to the Navy again in service as a RAF fighter pilot on a Catapult Armed Merchantman (in short a ‘CAM’).

CAM

During the Second World War, German U Boats nearly won the war all on their own sinking merchant and fighting ships at a phenomenal rate starving the Allies of troops and supplies, and in a desperate attempt to close the gap in the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea that could not be covered by British aircraft flying from England i.e over the U-Boat hunting fields due to range, the concept of the Auxiliary Fighter Catapult Ships (FCS) under the White Ensign, and the Catapult Armed Merchantmen (CAM ships) sailing under the Red Duster was conceived and born.

CAM 1

The Hawker Sea Hurricane being catapulted from the catapult armed merchant (CAM) ship at Greenock. Note the long flame from the rocket assistors.

The idea was simple, one of the ships in the Merchant Fleet had an aircraft to protect the convoy.  The CAMs were equipped with a single fighter aircraft, and had no flight deck with a single catapult structure fitted to the ship’s bow.  To take off the catapult consisted of a girder framework and a trolley, connected by wire ropes and pulleys to the ram of a cylinder. The cylinder was connected by a pipe to the chamber in which a charge was exploded, causing the ram to push the aircraft forward in a blaze of charge and with sufficient velocity to make it air-borne at the end of its very short take-off run.

The merchantmen CAMs were allocated 50 Hawker Hurricane fighters with specially trained RAF crews.  However launching a ‘Hurricat’ usually meant the fighter did not return, it would be ‘lost’ – either be shot down by the attacking enemy or it would be lost to sea when the pilot ditched it, they were a one way and very costly mission.  In spite of the inevitable early heavy losses and the sheer waste of perfectly good aircraft, the catapult ships remained in vital service until 1943.  By 1943 large numbers of Allied aircraft carriers had been built and they in turn took up the role of closing the air cover gap to protect merchantmen at sea.

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A Hawker Sea Hurricane Mk IA on the catapult of a CAM [Catapult Armed Merchant] Ship at Greenock.

Back to our hero, an article was later published in the “South Africa” newspaper on 14 March 1942 relates just what a special pilot Alistair Hay was:

The hazards of the sea are apparently not enough for the young gentleman trained in the S.A.T.S. General Botha. pilot-officer A.J. Hay, Royal Air Force, from Pretoria, just back from a successful cruise, tells me that his special duty is to be ‘loaded’ into a catapult that will shoot him and his fighter plane from the deck of the ship as soon as his services are needed to attack enemy aircraft. he describes the sensation as thrilling ‘until you are accustomed to it”

The HMS Empire Lawrence 

P/O Alistair Hay, on the 27th May 1942, found himself  serving as the ‘Hurricat’ Catapult Pilot aboard the CAM, HMS “Empire Lawrence”, little did he know that by the end of the day he would be a decorated hero.  The HMS Empire Lawrence was the CAM ship forming part of the Russian PQ16 convoy to Murmansk just east of Bear Island (the southernmost island of the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago) when the convoy was attacked by German seaplanes.

To fight off the attack, Pilot Officer Hay jumped into his Sea Hurricane and was blasted off the ship to take the approaching formation of German aircraft head on singlehandedly.  The approaching attack was made up of a formation of six German Heinkel 111 and 115.  These Heinkel aircraft were adapted seaplanes for long-range patrolling and whose mission was to sink Merchantmen using torpedos which they dropped in low flight bombing runs.

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HMS EMPIRE LAWRENCE, circa 1941. Note the catapult and Sea Hurricane on the bow

Alistair Hay’s mission was to disrupt the torpedo bombing runs and destroy as many enemy aircraft as possible.  He diverted the attack and in the process destroyed one German aircraft and damaged a second one.  In a six against one attack it was inevitable that he would come under extreme fire, and as a result he was severely wounded in the attack, shot in the thigh and bleeding heavily he had to bale out of his aircraft.

The action in the air was recounted by an eyewitness, a naval officer – Neil Hulse, who had been smoking with Alistair Hay on the bridge as the attack unfolded, he recalled: 

He (Hay) butted out his cigarette and put it in his flying jacket. He had no hope of landing on friendly territory. We watched as he took off and remained in communication with him. On the speaker we could hear him going in, and hear his cannon fire in the cockpit of the plane. He got one and there was smoke trailing from the other. Then we heard his cry that he had been hit.

Spotting his parachute, he was picked up from the icy waters within ten minutes by one of the convoy’s escort ships, the HMS Volunteer, who came to his rescue, and funnily enough the Commander of HMS Volunteer was none other than another South African and fellow SATS General Botha graduate – Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Shubrook Pomeroy.  The rescue itself was also very dramatic as the HMS Volunteer also came under attack whilst they were hoisting Alistair Hay aboard and HMS Volunteer had to make some dramatic evasive manoeuvres.

Volunteer

HMS Volunteer underway – Imperial War Museum

Lt/Cmdr Arthur Pomeroy recalled the incident of reusing his fellow South African when he wrote:

“Let me tell you how I met him (Alistair Hay) in the Arctic. Our station was on the port bow of the leading ship of the port column, the ‘Empire Lawrence’, which was fully loaded with explosives and ammunition. Mounted on her forecastle was a catapult with a Hurricane fighter aircraft piloted by Alastair hay. On the first day of intense bombing, he was shot off into the air to engage single-handed the squadrons of Heinkel III and Junkers 88s.

Eventually, wounded, he had to bale out, as there was no carrier to land on. I lowered a boat to pick him up, and just as the boat’s falls were hooked on again for hoisting, two torpedo-bombers came at us low down from the North. With the boat still only a few inches out of the water and my hair standing on end, I ordered Full Ahead and Hard-a-Starboard to steady course to comb the tracks of the torpedoes, which we could see, one on each quarter.

This took us on an exact collision course with the ‘Empire Lawrence’ . There was just time to alter to port ahead of the port torpedo, and then both of them struck her and she disintegrated in an immense explosion, just a grating and a few bits of wood left floating”

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Nazi Luftwaffe Heinkel He 115 in flight

DFC

For his gallant actions P/O Alistair Hay was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and his citation (Supplement to the London Gazette, vol 35605 pg 2756) reads:

DFCLG“Pilot Officer Hay was pilot of the Hurricane on board a ship fitted with a catapult. On the approach of enemy aircraft he was catapulted off and immediately proceeded to attack and drive off a formation of six Heinkel 111’s and 115’s which were preparing to deliver a torpedo attack on the port bow of the convoy; not only did this prevent synchronisation with an attack which developed from the starboard bow, but he destroyed one Heinkel 111 and slightly damaged another. Pilot Officer Hay was himself wounded and he then baled out and was picked up by one of His Majesty’s ships of the convoy escort. He showed great gallantry and his spirited attack was a great encouragement to all the convoy and escorts, and cannot but have been a great discomfort and surprise to the enemy.”

The Battle of the Falaise Gap

Alistair Hay DFC recovered from his bullet wound, and there was still more fight in him.  He was to join Royal Air Force No. 182 Squadron to take part in the liberation of  Europe  flying Typhoon 1b’s.

Flying Typhoons was particularly dangerous at this phase of the war, they 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.  As a result they were frequently subjected to intense ground fire, for this reason alone, flying in a Typhoon squadron was very high risk.

Typhoon 1b

RAF Typhoon Mk1b

During the Normandy invasion, the defending German were surrounded on three sides into a pocket called the ‘Falaise Gap’, trapped in the pocket they chose to fight their way out with a staggering loss of personnel and equipment, it was a desperate battle as the only way the German forces in Europe could remain in contention was to retreat from the trap and reform – which they ultimately managed to do.

The Falaise Gap was ideal territory for Typhoons as they strafed and rocketed the high congestions of German personnel, trucks, armour, artillery and tanks trying to escape the pocket, but also highly dangerous as they came up against a very desperate defence.

fllt.-alistair-james-hay-dfc-67093-rafvr-age-22-grave-w760Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC was tragically killed on the 18 August 1944 whilst taking part in the Battle of the Falaise Gap flying RAF Typhoon, serial number JP427 and he encountered flak near Vimoutiers and was shot down.

He lies today in France at the St Desir War Cemetery in Calvodos, near Caen, Grave reference V.D.4. should anyone want to visit and salute one very brave son of South Africa.

In Conclusion

So why don’t South Africans know much about these remarkably brave ‘Hurricat’ pilots, their aircraft and their near suicide missions, why has someone like Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC and his rescue by his fellow SATS General Botha fraternity not entered our realm of standout South African military heroes or even into our general discourse and understanding of World War 2 and South Africa’s involvement?

His story like many others is just confined to the SATS General Botha old boys fraternity, his name on their Honour Roll.  We all know the reason as its politics as usual, Smuts sending South Africans to war was bad enough for the Afrikaner nationalists, serving in the ‘hated’ British Armed services was akin to treason in their eyes.  This history was buried after the nationalists came to power and it remains relatively buried to this day as more seismic political forces have over-taken it.

In a small way, we hope to keep this history alive, knowing in the full grace of time that these men and their very brave deeds are captured and not forgotten.  The Observation Post salutes and remembers you Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC – one of our bravest, lest we forget.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Related Work – links

South African Naval Sacrifice in WW2  The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’

South African  Sacrifice in the Fleet Air Arm South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm

Fleet Air Arm The first man to land on an aircraft carrier at sea was a South African

References

Llarge extracts and references from The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek – Alistair James Hay. Hurricane Catapult Pilot from the Transvaal June 19th 2013.  Reference for Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Shubrook Pomeroy’s memories – published in General Botha’s Old Boy Association newsletter, May 2005, Part Two.  Also referenced is the History of 182 Squadron on-line and The South African War Graves Project.  Images – copyright Imperial War Museum where indicated.  Colourised image on the header by Deviant Art.

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’.

222 squadron

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.

Lardner-Burke

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.

IWM Hurricanes

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.

Shooting down enemy FW 190 at “point blank range” – SAAF hero; Albert Sachs

Here is a another fantastic colourised photograph of a South African WW2 hero with an extraordinary tale of heroism. Lieutenant Albert Sachs – a member of the South African Air Force (SAAF) who was seconded to No. 92 Squadron of the Royal Air Force.  Here he is seen sitting on his Supermarine Spitfire Mark VIII at Canne in Italy.

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This very heroic South African, known as ‘Bertie’ to his friends is best explained in his own Sortie Reports and Squadron Reports:

30 November 1943

‘I was flying Yellow 3. At 0935 I saw 10+ 109s and 190s which we had been warned of by Control, bombing along the secondary road parallel with the Sangro River towards the River mouth.

I dived on them and as I approached they turned and began straffing the road towards the mountains. I closed in on a 190 and fired several bursts from quarter astern and astern from 250 – 50 yds. He dived N.W. along the side of the mountain and after seeing strikes on the cockpit I saw the A/C (aircraft) half roll and it crashed in the vicinity of H.1898.

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German FW 190

I then broke slightly up as a Warhawk was on the (Me) 190s No 2s tail. The Warhawk fired several shots none of which hit the E/A. He then broke up and I closed in on the 190 and fired a burst at quarter astern from 100 yds. getting strikes on the wing roots, as I was firing the Warhawk flew through my sights so I broke away and then lost sight of the 190. I then rejoined the Patrol.

I claim One F.W 190 destroyed. One F.W 190 damaged.’

Editors Note: the Warhawk referred to here is another Allied aircraft – the Curtiss P-40 – see below, the variants flown by the RAF and Commonwealth forces knew it as a ‘Kittyhawk’ (some variants also became knows as ‘Tomahawks’), the United States Air Force and other US armed forces called it a ‘Warhawk’ – see below.

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American Curtiss P40 Warhawk

5 December 1943

On the 5th of December 1943 Lt. Albert Sachs scored the 99th and 100th victories for his Squadron when he shot down two Focke Wulf Fw 190s near Pescara, before colliding with a third Fw 190 and being forced to bale out.

The Officer Record Brief entry for 92 Squadron provides the following, detailed insight into this engagement:

‘Lt. Sachs destroyed two FW 190s and probably destroyed another. His story is an epic. He positioned himself behind the twelve-plus fighter-bombers while two others attacked the fighter cover. After destroying an FW 190 with a one-second burst, Lt. Sachs saw another on the tail of a Spitfire, so he turned into it, firing a 30-degree deflection shot, then fired again from point-blank range astern.

The aircraft blew up, and portions hit Sachs’ windscreen, smashing it, while another large piece struck his starboard wing.

FW 190s were then diving on him from both sides and one shell exploded on his tail plane, blowing off his starboard elevator. He turned toward another FW 190 which as attacking him at point-blank range on his port side, and felt a jar as he collided with it. The enemy aircraft dived away out of control minus its fin and rudder.

The attack continued and finally, after his elevator and aileron control were useless, Lt. Sachs was forced to bail out. He landed safely in his own lines within 60 yards of the wreckage of his Spitfire.’

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Royal Air Force Spitfire Mk VIII

He was discovered by ‘friendly’ Italians and was able to return to his Squadron to fight another day.  After a period as a flying instructor in the United Kingdom, Sachs, now a Major, returned to Italy to command No. 93 Squadron RAF from September 1944 to February 1945.

In September 1944 No.93 Squadron was moved from operations covering the D-Day (Operation Overlord) forces and moved to Italy, where it operated as a fighter-bomber squadron until the end of the war. At the end of the war the squadron took part in the occupation of Austria, before being disbanded in September 1945.  Albert Sachs was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

Here pilots from No. 93 Squadron RAF Detachment under Albert Sachs command leave their dugout for a scramble at Nettuno, Italy. Leading the way, from left to right, are: Flying Officer E Stewart of Ipswich, Suffolk; Lieutenant J Marais SAAF of Johannesburg, South Africa, and Sergeant D Karck of Cockerham, Lancashire.

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Salute to ‘Bertie’ Sachs, another very notable, brave and successful South African Air Force pilot of World War 2.


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Photographer: Flying Officer B. Bridge B, Royal Air Force official photographer. Image and caption courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, image and affectional caption work obtained from Colourising World War 2.

Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day

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

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

Operation Overlord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Churchill:Smuts D-Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

Related Work and Links

Churchill’s desk and Smuts; Churchill’s Desk

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

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


Written by Peter Dickens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Related Links and work on South Africans during D-Day

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

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

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

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

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

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

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


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