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

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

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

World War 1

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

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

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

World War 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cold War

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

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

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

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John Howe in the SAAF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Howe in a vertical dive flying a RAF EE Lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fear no man

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


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

My recollection of events

By Arthur Douglas Piercy

Honouring another true South African hero – this is SAAF pilot Arthur Douglas Piercy’s crashed Mirage, here is his story:

This is my recollection of events leading up to the accident.

“It was approximately 1500B (local) on 27 September 1987 when all hell broke loose. There had been numerous call-outs previously which proved to be nothing at all, so when the hot line started ringing there was very little reaction. However this time the call wasn’t to go on cockpit standby like before, but rather to scramble immediately.

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The letter home I was writing went flying as I scrambled to get into the cockpit. In a matter of minutes we were screaming down the runway. I was lucky I was number two in the formation as it was about 45 deg C outside and the take-off was hair raising. How numbers three, four, five and six got airborne I don’t know.

19679125_1987189094843412_4188581052706242754_oAfter take-off we remained low level and set heading for the combat zone. It was our intentions to remain low level for as long as possible to avoid being detected by the Angolan radar’s.

The order came to pitch about 10 minutes after take-off and up we soared like homesick angels. We leveled of at about 30 000′ and the mission controller sounded like a horse racing commentator with all the instructions he was giving us to intercept the targets. Next came the order to jettison the drop tanks. This command is a little strange for me, because one never throws the tanks away in training so only when I saw a 1 200 liter tank falling away from the lead aircraft did I know this was no training sortie. It was serious. The adrenaline was flowing.

The next thing I saw was a Mig 23 flying through the formation about 300′ below us. My first reaction was WOW what a great looking aircraft. This was the first time I had seen one in the flesh so to speak. When he started turning only then did I see the second Mig. I called the engagement and started turning. I was doing Mach 1.3 (about 1600 km per hour) and he was going like hell so the turn was so wide I almost lost sight of him.

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This where I get a little frustrated. For 10 years I have trained for this day and the majority of the fight I cannot recall. WHY! Anyway the next thing I remember is this Mig coming head on at me from about my one, two o’clock position. Still turning towards him I remember flicking the trigger safety over to the cannon position. If he was going to fly through my sights I was going to squeeze off a few rounds. Unfortunately for me he got off the first shot.

There was a bright orange flash from his left wing and then this incredibly fast telephone pole came hurtling towards me trailing a solid white smoke trail. What more is that it was cork screwing so I was never sure where it was going.

In all our training we were taught to break towards the missile. This could or should create a tracking problem for the missile and cause it to possibly overshoot.

But faced with reality I found it took a lot of willpower to fly towards something I knew was trying to kill me. However, I kept breaking towards it and I watched it corkscrew over my right wing and disappear behind me. I thought it had missed until I I heard a dull thud and felt a light bump on the aircraft. I immediately scanned all the gauges but there was not indication of any damage. When I looked up again the Mig flew over the canopy and disappeared behind me as well.

I immediate informed the leader that I thought I might have been hit and his reaction was: “OK let’s go home.” I did not need a second invitation and I rolled the aircraft onto its back and headed for the ground.

With hindsight it appeared that the whole fight whole fight lasted no more than 60 seconds from the time we pitched until I got the ‘go home’ command.

This is perhaps where I got a fright for the first time. I had not retarded the throttle any and I was rushing at the ground in a vertical dive. When I pulled the stick into my stomach to recover from the dive all that initially happen was the aircraft changed attitude but not direction. The momentum was so great the aircraft carried on descending. Just when I thought that is the end of me, the aircraft bottomed out just above the trees.

With all this rolling and diving I was separated from my leader and had no idea where he could be. Just then I started getting a radar warning audio in my helmet from my 6 o’clock (from behind). Some radar was looking at me. Was it the anti aircraft batteries or was it the Mig? I radioed to the boss that I thought someone was behind me. His reaction was to tell me get as low as I can, as fast as I can and not to turn to look behind me.

My first reaction was – I was so low I was raising a dust cloud like those crazy American Road Runner cartoons. The leader said he could set any dust trails so I eased the aircraft lower. The radio alt read 50′ and the speed approximate 730-740 knots.

At this stage I was beginning to think that I’d over-reacted and that I might not have been hit. Had I got out of the fight too early? The aircraft was performing as if there was nothing wrong with it. No vibrations and no handling difficulties. Oh well tomorrow I’ll be back I thought.

19667589_1987189318176723_754693072696350782_oIt was now about five minutes later and half-way home when the first warning light flashed on. EP pump failure. Instinct must have taken over because I thought my first reaction was to call the boss and tell him I have a failure. He pulled out his emergency check list, and started reading the failure procedures for me. All the necessary switches had be set. I don’t remember doing them.

While he was reading the EP pump failure I got the second failure, a right hand fuel pump failure. This is not too serious under normal operating conditions as the engine can gravity feed. While the boss was reading the fuel pump failure procedure and I was confirming that they were done the following light on the warning panel appeared. A HYD 2 system failure.

This caused a little concern initially as the aircraft’s main systems use hydraulic fluid. Undercarriage, flaps, controls, airbrakes and of course wheel brakes. After a quick and careful analysis of the situation I relaxed a little. The HYD 2 system is basically a standby system for the main HYD 1 system. All I had really lost with the HYD 2 failure was the nose-wheel steering. It could have been worse.

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Artwork of the incident by Ryno Cilliers

By now we were far enough away from the combat zone and the dangers associated with it, so I started to climb to try and conserve fuel.

The next thing that happened is that I was getting an audio warning but no visual warning when I looked at the panel. The hours of simulator training came into action – a pending OIL failure. This concerned me a little more than the rest of them. There are two critical components that use oil. The throttle and the nozzle flaps on the engine.

Flying the aircraft on the emergency throttle (electrically operated) is not easy. The throttle is very slow and unresponsive.

At this time the leader pulled in next to me to inspect for any damage. He reported fuel leaking out the aircraft and the drag chute was missing. As he said that the 500 liter warning light came on. The fuel gauges still read 1700 liters so now which one is right. A little more pressure was applied to little old me.

19621295_1987189214843400_4368832538098416481_oLanding a perfectly serviceable aircraft on a 7500′ runway requires some work. I was going to have to do it on emergency throttle and without a drag chute – a task I felt I could handle.

I planned to land the aircraft short on a new stretch of runway that was being constructed. This would give me an additional 500′ to play with on the landing roll. I got her down at the threshold but when I applied the brakes the only thing that happened was the expression on my face changed. I pulled the nose higher so that there would be some form of aerodynamic braking but this did not help. About a 1500′ from the end of the runway I applied the emergency hand brake with little effect. The arrester bed or sand pit at the end of the runway was my next hope of stopping this machine.

The aircraft went through the arrester bed like a hot knife through butter. No braking effect whatsoever. The next ‘obstacle’ was the security fence.

Where does ones sense of humor come from in at a time like this? I was about to go AWOL (absent without leave) with a multimillion rand aircraft. The board of enquiry are probably going to ask me who authorized this illegal departure from the security area. At the same time I was scared I was going to drown in the river just beyond the fence. My seat has a land survival pack in it and not an inflatable dingy!!

When I went through the fence I remember putting my hands in front of my face. It was at this precise moment that there was a loud bang. I remember smelling cordite or gunpowder and then everything went black. I felt the rush of wind over my face and the feeling of silk on my cheek. With hindsight I realized that when the ejection seat went off, my helmet must have come off as well and the silk I felt on the cheek was the ejection seat’s stabilizing parachute and not my personal parachute.

19780759_1987189404843381_7792459567201945123_oWhen I regained my senses I was lying in the sand on my right hand side. The first thing I attempted to do was to roll onto my back and when I pushed on the sand with my left arm there was this incredible piercing pain in my arm. The left arm was broken just above the elbow. I then looked down at my legs to see why they had not moved and I could not feel them at all. I realized that the ejection seat was still strapped to my back and thought that this might have something to do with the lack of movement in my legs. I had no idea that the neck was dislocated.

I then started looking around and the first thing I saw was that I was lying directly in front of my aircraft. Here was a F1 Mirage pointing straight at me. The problem wasn’t that the aircraft was pointing at me but rather that there was a fire just behind the left air intake. I know there is a fuel tank there but even worse was the fact that the ammo bins (with over a hundred rounds of 30mm ammunition) was just under the fire. If those rounds started going off I was in the line of fire.

When the fire brigade arrived on the scene they naturally came to my aid first. My immediate advice to them was that no one touches me until a doctor pitches up and that they immediately tend to the fire on the aircraft. There is no way that I want to be shot at by my own aircraft.

When the doctors arrived with the ambulance my first concern was they treat my arm for pain, then they can worry about the rest. Even after 2 morphine injections there was still not relief from the pain. I was later told that the adrenaline in the body was so high that the morphine had no effect.

Just before they pushed me into the back of the ambulance I passed out only to wake up in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria 10 days later.

It was another seven months before I left the hospital with a C6, C7 fracture of the neck and permanently confined to using a wheelchair”.

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Posted on behalf of Arthur Douglas Piercy, image copyrights – Arthur Douglas Piercy.  Artwork image copyright Ryno Cilliers

 

A rose for a South African war hero, honoured every week in Italy, forgotten in South Africa!

This is the story of Lt. Samuel Schneider, a South African SAAF hero who evaded captivity in Italy only to join the Italian Resistance as a Partisan and fight the war on the ground.  He is honoured every year in Italy as a national hero where a red rose is regularly laid at his headstone by a grateful nation.  Whereas in South Africa, his homeland, there is now scarce recognition of him.

Lieutenant Samuel Schneider, was born in Springs in South Africa, he was a 1 Squadron South African Air Force pilot of Jewish heritage, and is buried at Faenza’s Allied War Cemetery. On his headstone it reads “He lived and died nobly” on the base, under a Star of David on the top, and his is a very interesting story.

His story is intertwined in Bologna where he fought and died in a famous battle between rebel Italian Partisans and Nazi-fascist forces on November 7, 1944 – called the Battle of Porta Lame.  However because he used a pseudonym name to fight with the Partisans ‘ John Klemlen’ and kept his identity secret – so some confusion on his identity and burial-place arose.

An anniversary is annually dedicated to the fallen of the Battle of Porta Lame and for the Italians commemorating it the true identity of their hero Partisan ‘John Klemlen’ and his burial-place became quite important.  They approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to find him.  The CWGC and the South African military archive where able to trace John Klemlen to Lt. Samuel Schneider and how his joining of the Partisans came about.

During the afternoon of August 22, 1944,  Lt. Schneider was part of a patrol of four SAAF 1 Squadron Mk IX Spitfires.  Their mission was to search out enemy communication structures and destroy them. Flying north of Bologna, and flying very low looking for targets, Lt. Schneider’s Spitfire was struck by anti-aircraft fire which damaged the cooling system and he had to abandon his aircraft.

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SAAF 1 Squadron MK IX Spitfire in Italy, bombed up with 500lb bomb

In enemy territory and thanks to some local farmers in the area he received civilian clothes to disguise himself to get back to his squadron, he was saved by the local Partisan Resistance who had managed to hide him, staying with farm families in the Calderara area. To avoid detection and keep those helping him safe he used the false identity of John Klemlen. 

The Partisans, known as Gruppi d’azione (abbreviated to GAP) or “Patriotic Action Group” in English,  were small teams of resistance fighters trained in the use of revolvers and explosives. They approached enemy forces with a quick strike and moved away equally as quickly – almost always on bicycles.

The Partisans gave Lt. Schneider an offer, to be escorted over enemy lines and possibly be caught or to stay,  They pleaded for him to help them and fight with them.  He gave in and chose to join the Bolognese Partisans, who then gave him an Italian ‘battlefield’ name – Gianni.  

The Battle of Porta Lame is an episode of Italian resistance during World War II. It was fought on November 7, 1944 near Porta Lame in Bologna and saw detachments of the 7th GAP (Gruppi d’azione) Partisans engage German Nazi forces and Italian Fascist forces. Despite the superiority of the German and Italian forces, the partisans managed to escape the progressive encirclement of their positions.

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William Michelini, a Partisan, remembered John Klemlen (Samuel Schneider) well, riding a bicycle and the pistol in his pocket for some or other mission on the streets of Bologna.  He recalled a very brave South African officer, who at the height of the Battle of Porta Lame in the afternoon, was surrounded by enemy fire, remaining behind giving cover fire for retreating Partisans.  He was wearing a leather jacket and a fur collar – an aviators jacket.  He was killed in action later that day – November 7, 1944.

His name is recalled every 7th of November during the ceremonies dedicated to the anniversary of the battle and a beautiful garden inside the ‘Parco del Cavaticcio’ park is named in his honour.

Other South African pilots, like Lt Cecil William Emil Blake who escaped from a POW camp, also fought with Italian Partisans and he got the Army Military Cross for his ground action.  It’s well about time we honoured these men in South Africa and if this article goes some way to raising awareness so much the better.

Every Sunday, for many years now, the local Italians who either remember Lt. Samuel Schneider and those who honour his memory in the liberation of Italy from Fascism and Nazism, bring him a flower and place it on his headstone.  

The honour role of Italian Partisans who fell at the Battle of Porta Lame

084018836-269df416-536b-4317-9e69-a21bcb2003a6Oddone Baiesi 21
Oliano Bosi 23
In Casali 17
Enzo Cesari 18

Ercole Dalla Valle 17
Guido Guernelli 38
Lt. Samuel Schneider (aka John Klemlen) SAAF
Ettore Magli 19
Rodolfo Mori 19
Alfonso Ricchi 19
Alfonso Tosarelli 41
Antonio Zucchi 19

Grave Reference: VII. B. 3.Cemetery: Faenza war cemetery. Son of Abraham and Celia Schneider, of Springs, Transvaal, South Africa.

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens


Master image featured ‘The Battle of Porta Lame’ by Tullio Ravenda (copyright).  References – Wikipedia, Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Resistenzamappe.  Corriere Di Bologna, La Vera Storia Di Schneider, Aviatore Eroe A Porta Lame. Photo of SAAF 1 sqdn Spitfire IX copyright Johnny Seccombe, colourised by Tinus Le Roux

Authors note: My most sincere thanks to Fabio Liverani, a subscriber to The Observation Post Facebook Page for highlighting this most brave and honoured South African and bringing this history to our attention.

South Africans destroy 101 Enemy Aircraft in East Africa

This is an interesting photograph of South African Airforce personnel celebrating a significant milestone.

The photo was taken during the East Africa campaign in 1941. Pilots and ground crew of No 3 Squadron, South African Air Force, chalk up their 101st enemy aircraft destroyed on the fuselage of a captured Italian CR 42 fighter.

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It must however be noted that this milestone was not 101 aircraft destroyed in air combat, and would be inclusive of aircraft destroyed whilst on the ground.  Nonetheless it provided for good propaganda and moral.  “Tiny” South Africa and a bunch of very brave airmen, in conjunction with The Royal Air Force and other Commonwealth Air Forces, decimated a European ‘superpower’s’ Air Force.

The East African Campaign – also known as the Abyssinian Campaign, started on 13 June 1940, with an Italian air raid on the base of 1 Squadron Southern Rhodesian Air Force (237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF) at Wajir in Kenya.

The campaign  continued until Italian forces had been pushed back from Kenya and Sudan, through Somaliland, Eritrea and Ethiopia in 1940 and early-1941.

The SAAF No.3 Squadron campaign began on 14 January 1941 the squadron was equipped with the Hawker Hurricane. It was used to support the invasion of Italian Somaliland, then after the fall of Mogadishu (25 February) took part in the advance into Ethiopa, moving to Jigigga on 24 March.In late October 1941.

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SAAF No.3 Squadron gained a second flight. This formation had originally been formed as No.41 Squadron Fighter Detachment, and was equipped with the Curtis Mohawk. This detachment was moved from Nairobi to the border town of Aiscia, where on 5 October 1941 it achieved the only Mohawk victory in Africa, shooting down a supply plane attempting to reach the isolated Italian garrison of Djibouti. Only after this did the detachment become ‘B’ Flight, No.3 Squadron.

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At the end of 1941 the squadron returned to South Africa before been redeployed to North Africa.


Feature image copyright IWM Collection. Reference, Wikipedia and the historyofwar.org.

“Tomorrow I am going to die”

This is what Captain Walter ‘Jack’ Webb told his fellow 40 Squadron pilot, Lt. Michael Welchman, on the day that Mike snapped this photograph.

“Tomorrow I am going to die”

The very next day, 4/11/1942, Jack was shot down over the Alamein front whilst doing a tactical recce sortie on enemy positions. He forced landed on friendly territory but unfortunately landed in a mine field with tragic consequence that ended his short life.

19105707_10154760075403269_1391824141783588154_nJack was a survivor of three times being shot down but returned to the squadron unscathed every time . When he did not return after this particular sortie no one in the squadron were too much worried as they were confident he will pitch up on foot soon, but it never happened.

Jack was promoted to the rank of captain just days before his death and was recommended for an immediate DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) award.

What a poignant and sad image of someone clearly philosophical of his fate, and resigned to it.

May South African heroes like Capt. Walter John Stanley Alexander Jack’ Webb forever Rest in Peace. In the full knowledge that they are not forgotten and their sacrifice is a direct reason for all our modern-day liberties and freedoms.

He is buried in Egypt at the El Alamein War Cemetery. Grave Reference: Plot XXIII. Row A. Grave 8


Image colourised and caption researched by Tinus Le Roux – with kind thanks

Photo credit to Michael Welchman (left) who is still around and lives in Hermanus, this is the original shot he took (right) of Captain Jack Webb.  Headstone image courtesy Brett Fennell.

A lost SAAF legacy

Rare colour image of South African Air Force 22 Squadron Venturas on the right in a formation flight over Table Bay in 1959.  Of interest, if you look closely is that their markings have just been changed, compare it to the SAAF Ventura on the left.

These three on the right are seen flying in the revised SADF livery which had just been introduced at the time i.e the Springbok inside an image of the Castle of Good Hope – introduced a year earlier in 1958 – which replaced the traditional Commonwealth aircraft identifier roundel – which had an orange Springbok in the centre of it.

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Commonwealth aircraft rondel markings, left to right – Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa.  Note, Australia and New Zealand still use this rondel marking to this day as a nod to maintaining their Commonwealth heritage.

These Ventura are Ventura PV-1 an American aircraft made by lockheed and were extensively used during World War 2 by the Allies. The SAAF also operated the aircraft during the war and continued to do so after the war for many years.

The changes formed part of the Nationalist government’s wish to break the SADF’s military identity and association from its British Commonwealth historical legacy. The changes where far reaching and included insignia, rank terminology, uniform changes, disbandment and reformulation of infantry regiments, renaming of institutions and bases, military hardware deals, new medal orders etc. etc.

Note: these changes to the defence force livery occurred before South Africa ‘resigned’ from the Commonwealth of Nations, so the plans to make this change were entirely domestically driven by the government of the day.

Note, the Springbok in the centre was further changed again to an eagle in line with the new SADF composite mark.

Funnily, and rather tragically to many parts of our military heritage and legacy – this is a process which seems to repeat itself historically whenever South Africa changes political dynasties.  The SAAF livery was changed again in response to the new SANDF re-branding the armed forces – literally everything connecting the past has to go (rank, uniform, medals etc), the military structures changes again (the Commandos went), the ruling edict is to break its connection and legacy with National Party’s “Apartheid” South Africa.  These changes were initiated in 2003.

I can’t but think that military tradition is been lost through the political epochs and this initial fundamental re-vamp of the SAAF emblems by the National Party and their resignation from the Commonwealth means that the new revamp, done when South Africa had re-joined the Commonwealth, has lost sight with its very rich military tradition and legacy.

When the emblems came under review in 2003 no consideration to the proud legacy of South African involvement in WW2 (and especially our Air Force) was given at all, so far had it receded from collective consciousness by this stage.  Again, I can’t but think that the loss of general public awareness and the military of this very proud moment in South African history is nothing short of tragic – especially considering the sacrifice of Black and White South Africans alike to it.

‘Tradition’ and maintaining ‘memory’ of those who have served is a fundamental cornerstone of soldiering, but unfortunately this was not a political priority – to either National Party or to the African National Congress.

An iconic shot

Just because it’s just such an iconic photograph – taken by the late and much loved Herman “the German” Potgieter and it adorned the room of many a small boy as a poster in the 80’s.

SAAF Mirage IIIEZ 831 firing a ripple of 68mm SNEB High Explosive Unguided Rockets.

Taken in 1978 at Roodewal. Derek Kirkland flying the Mirage and Herman Potgieter took the photo in a D2Z chase piloted by the late Chris Britz.

Photo copyright Herman Potgieter.

War in Eritrea heats up with the SAAF in the front!

The Allied invasion of Eritrea began on 17 January 1941. No.1 Squadron (SAAF) was used to escort RAF Wellesley bombers, and became one of the first Allied units to move into Eritrea, moving to Tessebei airfield during January.

No. 1 Squadron SAAF The squadron took part in the fighting around the key Italian fortress at Keren, which fell on 27 March, and then in the advance on Asmara, which surrendered on 1 April.

Within days of the surrender of Asmara the squadron moved from the “East African” theatre of conflict to the “North African” theatre in Egypt, arriving just in time to take part in Operation Brevity (15 May 1941), the first attempt to lift the siege of Tobruk.

Typical of the East African campaign during World War 2 was the unrelenting heat.  Clearly seen in the featured image is a South African Air Force pilot of No. 1 Squadron SAAF is doing a pre-flight check as he prepares for a sortie in his SAAF Hawker Hurricane Mark I. The picture was taken at a forward landing ground close to the front line in Eritrea, circa 1941.

Note the crew shelter in the foreground, taking some prime shade on offer under the stark thorn tree, it is situated there so the crew can stay out of the relenting heat and its complete with all the comforts and “mod cons” you would expect on a front line – furniture made from petrol cans and duckboards.

Image copyright: Imperial War Museum

WW2 SAAF Pilot drives for show and putts for dough – Lt. Bobby Locke

With a very special Masters finishing this weekend and Sergio Garcia achieving what has become one of golf’s truly special wins (especially on fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros’  birthday)  .. I am now reminded of a very famous South African golfer and war veteran – Bobby Locke, seen here taking some time off at a Services Golf Tournament held in Rome during World War 2.

When World War 2 interrupted Locke’s burgeoning career as a golfer, he joined the South African Air Force as a bomber pilot, serving in both the Mediterranean and the Western Desert theatres of combat.

At the end of the war Locke returned to golf, famously playing in a series of matches in the USA against Sam Snead.  Bobby Locke’s legacy is remarkable, triumphant and tragic. He was a four-time Open Champion Champion and winner of 72 professional tournaments, but a car accident in 1960 damaged him physically and mentally and had an ultimately devastating affect on his wife and daughter.

In terms of the game of golf Locke quickly realised: “No matter how well I might play the long shots, if I couldn’t putt, I would never win”.  He therefore became a magnificent putter, in many people’s opinion (including Gary Player’s) the best there has ever been.

His unorthodox playing style translated to his putting, trapping the ball and imparting a hooking, top spin to it.  He later coined the often used golfing maxim: “You drive for show but putt for dough”.

It was on the greens that this remarkable South African truly excelled. He used an old rusty putter with a hickory shaft and employed his unorthodox technique, echoing his wider approach to life. He was an extrovert who sported baggy plus fours with shirt and tie on course. He liked singing music-hall numbers and played the ukulele.

Bobby – or “old muffin face” as he was known (because he never changed expression) was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1977.  He was only the second non-USA or United Kingdom entrant after his fellow South African Gary Player (1974) to be inducted.

Featured photograph above shows: Lieutenant Bobby Locke during the war, now serving in the South African Air Force, playing while Private Tommy Bolt, the American golfer looks on – note: on this occasion as he is in the Air Force he is not playing in his legendary baggy plus fours.

Feature image – Imperial War Museum Collection copyright.  Reference Bobby Locke: From Triumph to Tragedy by Fergus Bisset.

Dick Lord – the combat legend who took learnings from the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm to the SAAF

Richard Stanley Lord (nickname “Dick”) was born on June 20 1936 in Johannesburg, and educated at Parktown Boys’ High School.  His fascination with flying took hold playing “Biggles” high up in Johannesburg’s famous jacaranda trees.

In the late 1950’s Dick Lord wanted to join the South African Air Force.  However at the time the governing National Party had targeted South Africa’s defence forces for “transformation”, effectively ridding the defence arms of all their “British” heritage and socially engineering the forces using job reservation, political appointment and nepotism to progress white Afrikaners.

In this changing political environment Dick Lord was despaired of a career in the SAAF, his Afrikaans was limited and his strong “English” heritage was against him in the now Afrikaner-dominated South African Services.

So instead he, joined the Royal Navy. His initial naval training was at the Royal Naval Engineering College, Manadon, and he gained his wings in the Fleet Air Arm in June 1959, flying Sea Venom and Sea Vixen fighters from the aircraft carriers HMS Centaur, HMS Victorious, HMS Hermes and HMS Ark Royal.

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A very eventful FAA Legacy

In 1966 Dick Lord found himself in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm flying from Ark Royal off Beira, Mozambique, to enforce the oil blockade of Rhodesia following its Unilateral Declaration of Independence. After one mission to intercept a suspected blockade-runner, he returned to find that the carrier had been overtaken by a tropical storm and that her flight deck was pitching through 65ft: his aircraft caught the third arrester wire and damaged its undercarriage – reckoned a near perfect landing in the conditions.

An American “Top Gun”

Dick Lord was instrumental in the development of America’s Top Gun fighter pilot academy, made famous by the film of the same name. He established his unusual role in 1968, when he was the foremost British instructor sent on exchange at Miramar, California, to train American pilots then suffering significant losses at the hands of MiG-21s flown by the North Vietnamese.

While some criticised the performance of America’s multi-million dollar Phantom jet, Lord concentrated on sharpening his pupils’ Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) skills to improve their odds in a dogfight.

He and a handful of other Fleet Air Arm graduates of the Royal Navy’s gruelling Air Warfare Instructors (AWI) school in Lossiemouth, Scotland, introduced rigorous new methods for recording and scrutinising the performance of trainees during exercises.

Lord, for example, scribbled notes on a pad on the knee of his flight suit during mock dogfights, which he then exhaustively analysed on a blackboard at post-flight debriefs.
Such was the trust placed in Lord that he was granted access to classified American military documents comparing the performance of US aircraft against that of enemy fighters. This access allowed him to write, with others, the US Navy’s Air Combat Manoeuvring manual.

A year after Lord’s arrival, the tuition and methods introduced by British pilots, all graduates of the AWI school at Lossiemouth, made their way into the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, which was set up in 1969. Better known as Top Gun, it remains the most famous programme in the history of naval aviation. Soon after it was established a Phantom flown by one of its first students shot down a MiG-21, the first time a US Navy aircraft had succeeded in aerial combat in two years.

Lord enjoyed the film Top Gun, but mused that it was “remarkable that any history book studiously avoids mention of any British involvement” and added that the film had not “given us due justice”. He remained proud of his involvement, however, and during his time at Miramar had insisted on using the call sign “Brit 1”. This meant that his wingman, though American, was forced to use the call sign “Brit 2”.

Dick Lord’s wife June Beckett, a BOAC air-hostess said of the movie “Top Gun” that while Dick complained about it, she contended that the film’s portrayal of big-talking fighter pilots was extremely true-to-life, and she should know.

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On his return to the Royal Navy he was senior instructor with 764 Naval Air Squadron where he passed on the skills and confidence that had made such an impact in America.

Back to South Africa

Dick yearned to return to South Africa, he resigned from the Royal Navy and in 1970 returned to South Africa where he converted to commercial flying and became a civil aviation instructor pilot.

However the Royal Navy would intervene in his life again, this time after a visit to Cape Town by HMS Ark Royal where a “deep chord” was struck in Dick’s heart, rekindling his love of more adventurous military flying.

Joining the SAAF

Although Dick Lord was still unable to pass the Afrikaans language test, he was able to join the South African Air Force this time due to capability gaps in SAAF caused by all their social engineering and transformation policies, it was also now at war and in need of very skilled and experienced military pilots.  Conscription in the SADF had also been implemented by this time, and it involved both English and Afrikaans speaking white South Africans, so policies had to be softened somewhat.

During South Africa’s involvement in the South West Africa (Namibia)/Angola Border War and whilst in the SAAF Dick Lord flew Impalas, Sabres and Mirage Ills.

Dick Lord’s leadership skills were quickly apparent and he ultimately commanded No 1 Squadron SAAF from 1981 to 1983, later directing SAAF operations during the Border War from Oshakati and Windhoek as well as flying SAAF Mirage F1AZs.

He ended his career in charge of the Air Force Command Post in Pretoria, where he was given high accolade for his role in helping to organise the rescue operations that saved all 581 passengers and crew of the Greek cruise-liner Oceanos, which sank off South Africa’s eastern coast on August 4 1991.

Another highlight of his career was to organise, in 1994, the fly-past at the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa. Lord then retired as a Brigadier General and began writing about his life as an aviator.

He also wrote a number of books including

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Fire, Flood and Ice (1998) about SAAF Search and Rescue missions
From Tailhooker to Mudmover (2000) – a biography
Vlamgat (2000) – a history of the Mirage fighter jet in South Africa
From Fledgling to Eagle: the South African Air Force during the Border War (2008)

Apart from flying, his passion was military music, his favourite piece being Sarie Marais, the march of the Royal Marines, which is based on an Afrikaner folk song.

Brigadier General Dick Lord died on the 26th October 2011 after a long illness.  He is still sorely missed to this day.

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Researched by Peter Dickens.  References:  The Daily Telegraph, Article on Dick Lord by Rostislav Belyakov. Military History Journal Vol 15 No 4 – December 2011.  Feature photo via Dean Wingrin.  Painting of Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm Sea Vixens in the masthead by Derrick Dickens, copyright Peter Dickens.