Sir ‘Dingbat’ the Knight

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

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

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

A true blue South African

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RAF SE5a of 84 Squadron

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

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

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

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

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

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

84 Squadron

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

Inter-War period

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

World War 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post War

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

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

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

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

Post Retirement

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

Knighthoods 

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

Related Links and work

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

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

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


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

 

Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force

August 2017 marks the centenary of the report to form the Royal Air Force (RAF), the idea of an independent Air Force from Navy or Army control is now officially 100 years old, and one key South African statesman, General Jan Smuts, gave birth to it.

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Smuts in WW1

Today, if you walk into the Royal Air Force Private Club in Mayfair, London you are greeted by a bust of Jan Smuts in the foyer, it stands there as an acknowledgement to the man who founded what is now one of the most prestigious and powerful air forces in the world – The RAF.

So how did it come to be that a South African started The Royal Air Force and why the need to have a separate and independent arm of service?

Simply put, during World War 1, the British Army and the Navy developed their own air-forces in support of their own respective ground and naval operations. The Royal Flying Corps had been born out of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and was under the control of the British Army. The Royal Naval Air Service was its naval equivalent and was controlled by the Admiralty.

However, the use of air power in World War 1 was developing beyond the immediate tactical use of aircraft by the Navy and the Army. In Great Britain the civilian population had been on the receiving end of extensive German bombing raids dropped from flying Zeppelin airships, the public outrage and the psychological effects of this bombing was having a significant impact on British politicians.

In reaction to this, the politicians proposed the creation of a long-range bombing force both as a retaliation and also as a means of disrupting enemy war production. There were also continuing concerns about aircraft supply and priorities between the services.

The British Prime Minister, Lloyd George asked General Jan Smuts to join his War Cabinet (the supreme authority governing Great Britain and her Empire’s forces in World War 1). Lloyd George then commissioned General Jan Smuts to report on two issues:

Firstly to look into arrangements for Home Defence against bombing and secondly, air organisation generally and the direction of aerial operations.  Smuts is generally accredited with improving British air defence and answering the first priority.

7960001505000118_fillHowever it was ‘Smuts report’ of August 1917 in response to the second of these questions that led to the recommendation to establish a separate Air Service. In making his recommendations Smuts commented that

“the day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principal operations of war, to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate”.

Given this new dimension he commented that it was important that the design of aircraft and engines for such operations should be settled in accordance with the policy which would direct their future strategic employment. On these grounds he argued there was an urgent need to create an Air Ministry and that this Ministry should sort out the amalgamation of the two air services.

The War Cabinet accepted this recommendation to amalgamate the two separate air forces under one single and independent Air Force.  Smuts was then asked to lead an Air Organisation Committee to put it into effect. The Air Force Bill received Royal assent from the King on the 29 November 1917, which gave the newly formatted Air Force the prefix of ‘Royal’ (up to that point the idea was to call it the ‘Imperial Air Force’).

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The War Cabinet during WW1, Smuts seated bottom, far right

The RAF was officially formed on the 1 April 1918 with the amalgamation of the Royal Naval Air Service and  the Royal Flying Corps. Following which Lord Rothermere was appointed on 3 January 1918 as the first Secretary of State for Air and an Air Council established.

To emphasise the merger of both army and naval aviation in the new service, to appease the ‘senior service’ i.e. the Navy, many of the titles of officers were deliberately chosen to be of a naval character, such as Flight Lieutenant, Wing Commodore, Group Captain and Air Commodore.

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Royal Air Force

The newly created Royal Air Force was the most powerful air force in the world on its creation, with over 20,000 aircraft and over 300,000 personnel (including the Women’s Royal Air Force). It now qualifies as the oldest independent Air Force in the World.

General Smuts was to take his recommendations and findings across to form an independent South African Air Force (SAAF).  Smuts appointed Colonel Pierre van Ryneveld as the Director Air Services (DAS) with effect from 1 February 1920 with instructions to establish an air force for the South African Union. This date is acknowledged as marking the official birth of the SAAF.  The SAAF now qualifies as the second oldest independent Air Force in the world.

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South African Air Force

In a nutshell, both the RAF and SAAF as we know them today, were given to us by Jan Smuts as a founding father.  Funnily, Smuts was often criticised domestically as ‘Slim’ Jannie (clever little Jan), a term Smuts hated as it was coined by the Hertzog Nationalists to mean that Jan Smuts was too clever for his ‘volk’ (peoples) and therefore out of touch, it was done for political expediency at Smuts’ personal expense.  Smuts disliked the term as it as it ironically belittled the Afrikaner and positioned his people as ‘simpletons’, something Smuts fundamentally disagreed with, and something they most certainly are not.

That said, domestically Smuts’ political adversaries in the opposition National Party carried on with this belittling ‘Slim Jannie’ nickname to further criticise his ability to command at a strategic level, stating that his approach was too ‘intellectual’ for effective command.

All modern military strategy is formulated on joint arms of service with an independent air arm. You only have to look to any modern military construct of any military superpower today to see just what a visionary and strategist Jan Smuts was. The proof of his ability to command strategically is in the pudding.  Smuts’ ground-breaking report in August 1917 now guides all modern strategic military planning by simple way of how the arms of service are now constructed (Army, Navy, Air Force i.e. ground, sea, air), how they co-ordinate with one another and how they are commanded.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens.  References – Birth of the Royal Air Force (Royal Air Force Museum), Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia.  Images copyright, Imperial War Museum.

Connecting Zeppelins, Marlene Dietrich and South Africa’s favourite biscuit – Romany Creams!

Grab your packet of Romany Creams from the pantry, bite into South Africa’s top-selling chocolate biscuit then settle down and to read some very rich South African World War 1 history.  History is often connected by remarkable ‘golden threads’ and this one takes you on a wonderful journey – all the way from shooting down Zeppelin’s bombing England to your favourite tea time ‘choccy biccy’.

Our story starts with a young South African, Ian Vernon Pyott.  Ian was the son of a Scotsman named John Pyott. John, was born in Dundee, Scotland and was a baker’s apprentice at aged 10.  Due to ill-health, John was advised to move to a better climate – so he packed off to Cape Town, South Africa and in 1880 he moved to Port Elizabeth where he manufactured sweets, cakes and jams before later moving into bread and biscuits. On 1 December 1900, Pyott converted his business into a limited liability company and named it “Pyott Limited”.  Highly successful, between 1898 and 1924, the Company was to receive no fewer than 70 medals at various exhibitions across the country

Captain Ian Vernon Pyott DSO

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Capt. Ian Pyott DSO

Ian Pyott was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on August 31, 1895. He grew up in Port Elizabeth. He was educated at Grey High School, South Africa and Watson’s College in Edinburgh, Scotland, returning to South Africa after completing his education here he trained as a miller in the family owned ‘Pyott Limited’ business.

At the outbreak of hostilities which was to become World War 1, Ian Pyott returned to England in February 1916, enlisting in the Machine Gun Corps ‘MGC (Tanks)’. He transferred into the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) three months later in June, after attending flying school, he was posted to 36 Squadron’s ‘A’ Flight, based at Seaton Carew and assigned to fly a two-seater Royal Aircraft Factory BE 2c, No 2738 biplane.

Little did he know that in a couple of months he was about to become one of the heroes of the war.  He was about to meet a German Zeppelin airship on a high altitude night bombing raid, November 27, 1916, designated number L-34.

Two groups of Zeppelin airships set out from Germany to bomb England that fateful night, with the first group of five ships crossed into England near Scarborough while the second group of four flew toward the Tyne River mouth.

Zeppelin L-34 was massive, 148 metres long and a diameter of about 15 meters (on average).

Lt. Ian Pyott was flying out of Seaton Carew aerodrome, he was on his second patrol of the night. Tasked with looking for Zeppelin airships and destroying them, he took off at 10.30pm and although his BE 2C normally carried an observer he flew solo this time, this  weight saving allowed him more fuel and therefore more flying time.

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L34 Caught in Search-Lights

L-34 crossed the coastline into England in the neighbourhood of Blackhalls, a handful of miles north of Hartlepool.  Turning Southwards towards Tees it was spotted and searchlights brought to bear on it.  Once spotted L-34 immediately started dropping bombs in an attempt to neutralise the search-lights.   In all it dropped 13 bombs near Elwick – a little village just west from West Hartlepool.  The bombing proved ineffectual with minimum damage on the ground (two cows were injured).

Now under attack from anti-aircraft fire L-34 turned seawards ​passing over the thickly populated area of West Hartlepool. At this stage Lt. Pyott had been in the air for 1 hour when he saw the Zeppelin heading in his direction.

He reported that he was at 9800 feet and the Zeppelin was a couple of hundred feet below him, he attacked the Zeppelin at right angles to the middle of the airship, firing all the way and then flying underneath it. The airship turned east and Pyott and the Zepplin’s machine gunners dueled for about 5 more miles.  Eventually Pyott got some tracer rounds into left side of the Zepplin’s envelope and the Zepplin was rapidly engulfed in frames.  On fire, it continued east over Hartlepool, broke in half and plunged nose first into the Trees river mouth.

The virtually instantaneous combustion of 45,000 cubic metres of hydrogen on board used to inflate the airship ensured there were no survivors, only two bodies were found, the rest sadly incinerated or lost.

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Death of L 34

Shooting down a Zeppelin was a very big deal in World War 1, they were heavily armed, flew at incredibly high altitudes for the day and very formidable.  When Pyott landed, all the members of his base ran out to cheer him, he promptly collapsed, not due to injury, but because he was frozen stiff from fighting at such a high altitude.  They took him from the cockpit and carried him aloft on their shoulders in victory, taking him off to warm up no doubt.

Following the victory Ian Pyott was to become a national hero, wined and dined by the British elite.

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Lt. Ian Pyott besides the BE 2c he was piloting when he shot down Zeppelin L34

Just over a week later, 15th December 1916, it was announced in the press that Pyott had been awarded a ‘Companion of the Distinguished Service Order’ (DSO), in part his citation read “in recognition of conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty connection with the destruction of an Enemy Airship”.

Pyott was also promptly promoted to Captain. His proud father, the Bakery owner of Pyotts Limited in Port Elizabeth, sailed from South Africa to be present when King George V presented Capt. I.V. Pyott his DSO at Buckingham Palace.

488658_c201ce2a008c406ca35dc5c7993f99d3~mv2Such a big deal was made of this victory, that a special commemorative coin was even stamped to celebrate Capt. Pyott’s actions and resultant DSO.  Zeppelins were so feared by the British public they were branded ‘Baby Killers’ as the bombing of civilians carried with it such a public outrage. The commemorative medal carried Capt Ian Pyott’s profile, the year and the letters DSO, it was presented to him at Hendon Aerodrome in England by none other than General Jan Smuts.

But there was more to come from this very brave South African. He was again Mentioned in Despatches (London Gazette 25 January 1917), whilst subsequently serving with No 55 Squadron on the Western Front. He also claimed another air victory on 23 April 1917 while returning from a bombing raid, a formation from No 55 Squadron was attacked by nine hostile aircraft that dived upon them. Pyott and his observer, 2nd Lt A D Taylor, in DH4 A2147, claimed an German Albatros scout plane over Boue.

Marlene Dietrich

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Marlene Dietrich

So where does the Hollywood Superstar actress and singer, Marlene Dietrich, fit into all of this?  Simply put the Commander of Zeppelin L-34 on that fateful night in September 1916, was Marlene’s uncle.

Kapitanleutnant Max Dietrich commanded Zeppelins in his short career, and was regarded as a particularly experienced commander, in all he had a total of 41 sorties in Zeppelins.  Because only two bodies were recovered from L-34, Marlene and her family lived for a little time in the hope that Max Dietrich could somehow have survived.

She said of the incident,

“We knew the Zeppelins had gone out on an errand of war, but we did not know their destination. My uncle never came back. My aunt was broken-hearted, but she would not believe her husband had really gone. She insisted that he would come back. But the years passed, and there was no news. At last she lost hope and bowed to the hand of fate. It is very sad but of course, in Ger­many my Uncle Max was mourned as a hero. He gave his life for his country”.

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Max Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich, was born in Berlin and came from a strong military family. She was a Hollywood superstar actress and singer who held both German and American citizenship.  Her performance as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel (1930) brought her international fame. Marlene Dietrich starred in many Hollywood films, significantly Morocco (1930), Shanghai Express (1932), and Desire (1936).

During World War 2, she became the ‘darling’ for both British and German troops, whilst holding this rather unique position she recorded a popular German love song by Lale Andersen called ‘Lili Marleen’ in English, it was done as a morale boost for American, British and Commonwealth troops and it became an instant hit.

marlylyEspecially for the South Africans, The song was published in South Africa in a wartime leaflet, with an anonymous English translation, as ‘Lili Marleen: The Theme Song of the Eighth Army and the South African 6th Armoured Division’ (quite ironically).

In a wonderful turn of fate, it was not unusual in the Second World War for British, American and South African troops to be heard singing along to the English version of Lili Marleen on a record player and for German troops to be singing along to her German version on the opposite lines within hearing distance of one another.

Romany Creams

So how do Romany creams fit into this story?  Well, after the war our hero Capt. Ian Pyott returned to South Africa and took up a position in his Dad’s bakery business.

John Pyott died in 1947. His other son, Robert, became Chairman and held this position until his death in 1964. During this period, the decision was made to concentrate solely on biscuits and from October 1949, Pyott Limited thus specialised, enabling it to increase its biscuit range even further. Following Robert Pyott’s death, his brother, our Zeppelin shooting hero, Ian Pyott, was appointed to the position of Chairman and Managing Director.

The early 50s saw the beginning of the fight for market share between the three major competitors in the biscuit industry – Bakers, Baumanns and Pyotts.

Under Ian Pyott, in mid 1965, Pyott Limited collaborated with Cadbury’s Chocolates in Port Elizabeth to produce a chocolate variation of a traditional English treat known as “Gypsy creams”, which consisted of two round-topped biscuits sandwiched together with a creamy white filling. Gypsy Creams were not a very big seller for any of the British manufacturers.

Screen Shot 2017-07-22 at 18.20.47Innovative as ever, the biscuit part was shaped the same as for “Gypsy Creams”, but the biscuit part (referred to as the shell) was improved and it was sandwiched with a chocolate filling instead, no doubt provided by Cadbury’s Chocolates.

The line immediately proved a winner.  They chose the name “Romany” to carry the ‘Gypsy’ connotation across from Gypsy Creams (named after the Romany travelling community).

Bakers Ltd then made a competitive product and called it Tuscany Creams, but it was Pyott’s Romany Creams that really held the market.

In 1969, Ian Pyott, was now getting old and he resigned from the position of Managing Director of Pyott Limited. He died shortly afterward in 1972 whilst the company was been sold to Nabisco Inc.  Many buy-outs and takeovers later, what was Pyott Limited found itself part of the Anglovaal Industries Group.

In 1994 Bakers, Pyotts and Baumanns were regrouped under the collective title of “Associated Biscuits”. In 1996, the member companies of National Brands Ltd. (NBL) were combined into a single company. This transformation included combining Willards with Associated Biscuits to form the Biscuit and Snack Division of National Brands.

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Today, the familiar Pyott’s logo on Romany Creams has been replaced with their old competitor’s logo – the Baker’s logo. The range of flavours has expanded and the packaging design has changed, but the ‘original’ flavour chocolate Romany Creams developed by one dapper, Zeppelin shooting South African fighter pilot and war hero, Capt. Ian Pyott DSO, are still the best seller.

In Conclusion

I’ll bet the modern Marketing Managers at National Brands have little to no idea of the heritage this product has. Wouldn’t it be nice, if in the centenary of the end of WW1, that a special commemorative packaging be designed to Capt. Ian Pyott DSO and his legacy re-presented to a South African public largely unaware of the WW1 heroes this country has, and what they have given to the country.

I hope you have munched your way through the entire packet of Romany Creams by now and richer in chocolate and sugar no doubt, but you also are much richer in the knowledge now that you bitten into the type of fantastic journey South African military history has to offer. History that often lies so hidden away because seismic political events in South Africa have over-taken it.  Think of it as a ‘secret filling’ that will make for an interesting titbit to impress your friends with, next time the Romany Creams appear on a coffee table.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens

Enjoyed this, have a look at another famous South African military history treat, the Hertzoggie vs. the Smutsie.

‘Bake-off’ South African style!


My sincere thanks to Sandy Evan Hanes for pointing out this interesting golden thread to me.  References: Wikipedia, Shooting Down of Zeppelin L-34 by Ivor Markman.   On-line discussion forums.  South African Legion Facebook group forum.

South Africa’s own WW1 Flying Ace

Honouring South African heroes and this is one of South Africa’s greatest. Many people don’t know that South Africa has it’s own World War 1 flying ace and Victoria Cross winner, and this is him!

Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor was the highest scoring South African ace during the First World War, claiming 54 victories. He was an engineering student at Cape Town University when war broke out, but left his studies to join the the Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Rifles, seeing action in German South-West Africa before being discharged in 1915.

After completing his studies, Beauchamp-Proctor joined the Royal Flying Corps, going to France with 84 Squadron in September 1917. He claimed his victories in 1918 and was particularly known for destroying German observation balloons. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his many victories and excellent service record after also being awarded the DSO, MC and bar, and DFC. He died in a flying accident in 1921.

Image copyright Imperial War Museum Collection.