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

AG8.jpg.opt310x457o0,0s310x457At a ceremony held in Cape Town on the 13th February 2018, the Ambassador of France to South Africa, his excellency Christophe Farnaud, bestowed the signet of Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Legion d’Honneur (Knight in the Legion of Honour), France’s highest honour on one of the last surviving South African D Day veterans, General Albert (Albie) Götze.

So how is it that Albie Götze is awarded France’s highest honour and how did it come about?  In a nutshell, the French government decided that all World War 2 ‘Allied’ veterans who took part in the D Day landings and liberation of France should be given their highest honour for military and civil merit, the  Légion d’honneur, (LdH) and they announced this on the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June 2014 as a special thank you those who fought and risked their lives to secure France’s liberation during the Second World War.

Simply put, Albie ‘was there’ on D-Day.  As a young South African Air Force pilot he was seconded to the Royal Air Force and he took part in D-Day operations flying a Spitfire doing beach sweeps and patrols.


Iconic image which captures the moment, Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade land on Queen Red beach, Sword area, c. 0840 hours, 6 June 1944 (D-Day)

Albie Götze’s story is something else, he was born in January 1923 in Prieska, a tiny town on the south bank of the Orange River, situated in South Africa’s Northern Cape.   In mid 1942 he volunteered to take part in World War 2 and  joined the South African Air Force and subsequently was selected for fighter pilot training.

After he finished  flying training he was sent to the Middle East  where he was seconded to the Royal Air Force and joined up with RAF No.127 Spitfire squadron in April 1944.

In April 1944, the squadron moved to England in preparation for Operation Overlord where it was assigned to 132 Wing (Norwegian) of the 2nd Tactical Air Force and operated as a UK defence unit. They flew patrols and bomber escorts to mainland Europe as well as some fighter-bomber work. During this time Götze was involved with shooting down four German V-1 flying bombs.


Albie with 127 squadron, seated 2nd from the right.

127 Squadron arrived at North Weald on 23 April 1944, where it was equipped with the Spitfire IX. Operations began flying fighter-bomber missions over France on 19th May 1944.  The squadron played its part in the D Day landings and subsequent days, and Albie and his colleagues found themselves flying sweeps of the landing beaches, escorting bombers, armed recces and dive bombing specific targets.

On 21st August 1944 127 Squadron moved to the European continent where it flew fighter-bomber missions from various airfields in France, Belgium and Holland, eventually basing itself at B.60 Grimbergen, in Belgium.  Albie flew his last Spitfire mission for 127 Squadron from B.60 on the 03 August 1944.

127 Albie2

No 127 Squadron Spitfire XVIE (RR255/9N-Y) has its daily inspection in a sea of mud at Grimbergen (B-60).

Later in August 1944, owing to the high attrition and demand for pilots flying Hawker Typhoons, Albie was transferred to RAF No.137 squadron flying this notorious Typhoon ground attack aircraft. In Typhoons he participated in Operation Market Garden and other Rhine crossing operations.

Operation Market Garden (17–25 September 1944) was an unsuccessful Allied military operation, fought in the Netherlands and Germany, using mainly airborne and land forces with air support to liberate the Dutch cities of Eindhoven and Nijmegen but failed in keeping their further positions in and around the city of Arnhem with its strategically important bridge over the river Rhine, the action there resulted in high rates of attrition of Allied forces trying to hold one side of the bridge, forcing an eventual withdrawal.

RAF 137 Squadron almost always operated at low altitude (“on the deck”) and was mainly employed  to attack targets such as armour, anti-aircraft installations, specific buildings, transports and enemy personnel. For this reason, flying in the Typhoon squadron was dangerous and high risk. According to Albie, flying the Typhoon at this time was regarded by Allied officers as the “most dangerous job that these buggers could ever have volunteered for”.


137 ‘Rocket’ Typhoon Squadron, 24 December 1944, Albie is in the middle row, third from the right.

The losses were extreme and hence replacement pilots were usually filled with volunteers.  To illustrate just how dangerous this was, Albie goes on to say “we lost a 151 pilots flying this thing (Typhoons), on Operation Market Garden alone, in just one single day we lost 21 pilots on Typhoons”. Combat was brutal in its simplicity, according to Albie it was as simple as “That guys gotta be shot down (the enemy), not me!”

The Typhoon missions, although very dangerous were also very formidable.  Albie describes that aside from the rocket firing capability it could also deliver a wall of lead, consider this own words “Can you imagine yourself flying over there, (Typhoons) have two 20mm guns, each one has 4 bloody spouts .. now, the 20mm shoots 600 shots a minute, can you imagine 600, 4 of them, that’s 2400, and there’s not just that one, there’s another Typhoon behind him (the wingman), that is 4800 bullets you have coming towards you (as the enemy)”

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

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

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

Typhoons of 137 squadron.

Hawker Typhoon Mk IBs of No. 137 Squadron RAF on the ground at B78/Eindhoven, Holland, as another Typhoon flys over.

After the war Albie participated as a navigator in the Berlin Airlift of 1949 where they flew around the clock supply flights from West Germany – for which he recently received a campaign medal from a grateful Royal Air Force and Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

The Berlin Air Lift was an extraordinary event where Allied crewmen risked their lives to save the citizens of Berlin after World War 2.  The new ‘Soviet’ states (East and Central European states drawn into the advancing Soviet/Russian army) in a bid to remove Allied presence from within what was known as the  ‘Communist Iron Curtain’ initiated a blockage to Berlin, the Allied forces had half the control of Berlin, a city now situated far inside the newly defined ‘East Germany’.

The Soviet’s blocked the land-bridge to the city, literally starving the Allied part of the city of food, fuel and supplies, the only way to keep citizens in fuel and food was to fly it in and create a ‘air-bridge’.  A number of SAAF pilots and South African pilots seconded to the RAF took part in this very humanitarian mission, in essence they saved the city.

In 1951 Albie completed a combat tour with SAAF No. 2 squadron to Korea as part of a US Air Force formation where he flew F-51D Mustangs, and he has again received recent honours and thanks from the South Korean government for his involvement in the Korean War. To many, the South African participation in the Korean War is relatively unknown, but as part of United Nation contributions to the war effort South Africa sent a squadron to South Korea to fight in the Korean War.  2 Squadron SAAF (known as the ‘Flying Cheetahs” was sent and they were initially based at K10, Chinhae Airbase in South Korea during the war.

At the beginning of the Korean War fully armed SAAF F51D Mustangs set off from this base (K10) in ground support roles, mainly in close support of American troops.  Bombing enemy defensive positions in close support of ground troops is often sarcastically referred to as “mud moving” and highly dangerous as the aircraft has to get right into the battle at very low altitude and speed. The high attrition of South African pilots lost in this role during the war is again testimony to that (see. The SAAF’s Mustangs baptism of fire and the urgent need for jet powered fighters).

Albie had a long and successful career in the SAAF, serving in South West Africa (Namibia) during the Border War and ended with the rank of Brigadier General. He was responsible for the introduction and implementation of the South African air defence system with the underground head station at Devon. He was also responsible for the system to be fully computerised.

Albie was also the personal secretary of the State President of South Africa for 4 years and he retired from the Air Force in 1978.

Albie’s Legion d’Honneur 

Getting Albie his due recognition and his Legion d’Honneur (LdH) from the French government for his participation in Operation Overlord was also a journey in its own right.


Peter Dickens (left), the French Ambassador to South Africa his excellency Christophe Farnaud (middle) and Albie Götze (right) – note his LdH pinned by the Ambassador above his medals

It started when Tinus Le Roux, a renowned SAAF historian and filmmaker, contacted the author of this article – Peter Dickens and asked if the South African Legion’s branch in England could follow-up on Albie’s LdH application, he had assisted Albie with it and there had been no response on the application for some months and they were concerned.  Quick to the mark Cameron Kinnear, also from The South African Legion engaged Lorie Coffey at Project 71, a veteran’s charity in the United Kingdom, to look into the matter.

bokclear3Indeed there had been an administrative oversight and Albie’s LdH application was kick-started again by the South African Legion, and finally Project 71 was able to get a LdH issued by the French Ambassador to the United Kingdom, her excellency Sylvie Bermann.

saafa6-600x400-91With an LdH finally in hand, and in South Africa,  Philip Weyers from the South African Air Force Association (SAAFA) was contacted to arrange a suitable medal parade for a handover, Philip and SAAFA were also able to engage the French embassy in South Africa, who very keenly agreed to undertake the official presentation to General Götze.

After all the ceremonies and official presentations were done, the French invited all to attend a small lunch, it later turned out that the French Ambassador to South Africa, his excellency Christophe Farnaud, was a keen modeller of aircraft and had built Typhoon models as a child.  The Ambassador stayed to the end of the lunch to see a print of a painting of a Typhoon by the late Derrick Dickens presented to Albie in appreciation by his son, Peter Dickens. Looking at the painting Albie opened up with all sorts of harrowing tales of fighting and flying in a Typhoon much to delight of the Ambassador and the remaining guests and journalists.


Typhoon ‘full frontal’ by Derrick Dickens

It was a journey, and highly rewarding, the right man received the right recognition and it was awarded in the right way.  It is a journey that we as Legionnaires stand by our motto ‘not for ourselves, but for others’ and we are proud to have played a role.

Albie’s testimony 


The Legion d’honneur

Albie’s tour of service is well worth a watch, and this short documentary produced by Tinus Le Roux on his tour is an outstanding capture of one of South Africa’s D Day heroes , a snippet of history that needs to be preserved and told and retold, take the time to watch it and feel free to share it.

There are very few of these South African’s left, lest of which our D-day veterans, national (and international) heroes of which there are only a precious three left in South Africa, and Albie is one of these men – the last of an outstanding legacy of South African men whose bravery and honour literally saved the world from a world of extreme evil empires and ideologies, Albie’s LdH and France’s greatest honour well-earned.


Written by Peter Dickens.  Image copyright, Karen Dickens, references attributed to Dean Wingrin and Tinus Le Roux.  Video interview with Albie copyright and sincere thanks to Tinus Le Roux.  Painting ‘Typhoon Full Frontal” artist Derrick Dickens, copyright Peter Dickens.  Images were referenced copyrighted to the Imperial War Museum.  Albie’s personal images used with thanks to Albie Götze and Tinus Le Roux, copyright Albie Götze.

The featured image shows Typhoon Mark IB, MN234 ‘SF-T’, of No 137 Squadron RAF with a full load of 60-lb. rocket-projectiles beneath the wings, running up on an engine test at B78/Eindhoven, Holland – copyright Imperial War Museum.


Finding Geater’s Beaufighter

gtr70The feature image is Major Arthur Geater’s Bristol Beaufighter which was found in Sept 2013 after being undiscovered for 69 years since it was ditched and sank.  The discovery is a story itself, but so too is Arthur’s.

Reginald Arthur Geater joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) during the Second World War and qualified as a twin-engine pilot, he also served for a long period as instructor and in 27 transport/maritime squadron, flying Venturas and Dakotas.

He was eventually sent to Italy in mid 1944 for operational service with 19 squadron, flying the rocket firing Bristol Beaufighter. During his operational service he flew mostly sorties to targets in the Balkans. Missions consisted of  rocket attacks against enemy shipping, motorised transports,  gun emplacements, buildings and rolling stock.

Arthur Geater s cr.jpg.opt856x378o0,0s856x378

His operational tour was very eventful. On his very first combat sortie Arthur was shot down over the sea. He and his navigator survived the ditching and he was eventually able to returned to his squadron after a short ordeal behind enemy lines staying with locals on Greek Islands.  So what happened?


Painting by Derrick Dickens, SAAF Beaufighters attacking German ships in the Mediterranean. Acrylic on canvass – copyright Peter Dickens.

The attack and ditching 

In the afternoon of September 12, 1944  Bristol Beaufighter KV930 of 19 SAAF (South African Air Force) Squadron took off from Biferno (Italy), along with three other aircraft. On his very first mission was our hero for today, Arthur Geater along with his navigator  Stan Dellow seconded from the Royal Air Force.  Their mission was a simple one, search for enemy shipping amongst the Greek Islands and destroy them.

The sortie of four SAAF Beaufighters comb an area of Greek Islands looking for German military vessels, the search are spans from Preveza in northwestern Greece, located at the mouth of the Ambracian Gulf, then across to Lefdaka Island, then over to Kefalonia island with their mission finally taking them as far as Zakynthos Island.

Late in the afternoon at approximately 17:05 hrs. they reach the northern tip of Ithaki Island and spot a German vessel, it is a “Siebel” ferry, and it was hiding from air attack in one of the fjord-like coves of the island.


German Navy Siebel ferry

The Siebel ferry was a shallow-draft catamaran landing craft operated by Germany’s Wehrmacht (Army) during World War 2. It served a variety of roles (transport, flak ship, gunboat, convoy escort, minelayer) in the Mediterranean, Baltic and Black Seas as well as along the English Channel. They were originally developed for Operation Sea Lion in 1940, the abortive German invasion of England.

The SAAF Beaufighters immediately started their attack, but were greeted with strong anti-aircraft fire from the heavily armed Siebel. Geater’s Beaufighter was hit with both engines receiving hits from multiple Anti-Aircraft rounds.  Oil and thick smoke erupted from the engines and Arthur Geater took the decision to ditch the aircraft in a controlled sea ‘landing’ before it became an uncontrolled one.

The Siebel sustained heavy damage and according to German records and was eventually beached to avoid sinking.

Remarkably an image of the attack also survives, and here you can see the German ship (ferry) that shot Arthur down from a photograph taken during the attack from the SAAF 19 Squadron Officer Commanding’s gun camera.


Geater successfully managed to ditch the aircraft and both he and the navigator climbed out the sinking Beaufighter and took to an inflatable dinghy which was on board for just such an eventuality.

Local Greek Islanders who saw the Beaufighter ditch rushed to their fishing boats to rescue the two Allied airmen. Keen as punch to do their bit in the war, and with a disdain for their German occupiers, the local Greeks took great pride in rescuing Allied airmen, one local remembered the time and said, “we would row as fast as possible and would even get into a fight with the other Greeks rushing to the scene in order to reach the airmen first!”

Within thirty minutes of ditching the two Allied  airmen were saved by Greeks and taken to Ithaki island, where they were provided with both food and shelter.  Arthur Geater’s adventure was not to stop there, whilst the two airmen were moved in a small fishing boat to another hiding place on the island, they were stopped at sea by a German patrol combing the area trying to locate the airmen.

Stan Dellow could not swim and remained on the boat, Arthur Geater could and he dived into the water and swam to freedom.  Stan Dellow survived the war, but was caught and spent the rest of the war as a POW (Prisoner of War) at the Sagan POW camp in Poland.

Arthur Greater got away and managed link up with the Greek resistance in Ithaki he eventually managed to return to Italy and re-joined his Squadron.  He was never shot down again and stacked up a number of successful sorties against enemy rolling stock, shipping and buildings.  He even participated in a daring SAAF raid when a German mine layer ship, the “KuckKuck” was sunk.

ss7Arthur was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional service. After the war he had a long and successful career in the printing industry and passed away on 3 November 1992.

Finding Geater’s Beaufighter

Makis Sotiropoulos

Makis Sotiropoulos with his sonar equipment

Makis Sotiropoulos, an experienced scuba diver living on Ithaki Island, as a boy he had heard the story from the local Greek Island elders about “the aircraft which fell out the sky in 1944″ and he took to the challenge of finding it.  After many years of research and obtaining eyewitness reports he surveyed the area using sonar.

In September 2013 his search came to an end when then distinct shape of an aircraft, sitting at the seabed was mapped by the sonar.  Major Geater’s Bristol Beaufighter was found.  The wreck was dived and confined it was indeed the SAAF Bristol Beaufighter ditched on that fateful hat day.

The exact position of the aircraft wreck is however not shared publicly now, and for good reason as it is within diving limits and modern-day trophy hunters and looters would strip the aircraft clean.  According to Makis Sotiropoulos “this aircraft should remain as it was on the day it was ditched. We have the moral obligation to keep the Beaufighter out of harm’s way, as many relic hunters and looters would make a fortune out of her parts, thus destroying History”.


For prosperity, here are some of the underwater pictures of this most remarkable story and equally remarkable find.

Written an Researched by Peter Dickens.  Thanks to Tinus Le Roux and to Julie Geater for all the information and images.  Extracts from Tinus Le Roux’s dedication website SAAF WW2 Pilots Arthur Geater and from Found and identified: The Beaufighter KV930 shot down on 12 September 1944 By Pierre Kosmidis.

Photos and historical research: Makis Sotiropoulos and George Karelas. Diving and Research Team: Makis Sotiropoulos, Dionyssis Giannatos, Vassilis Medogiannis

Artwork by Derrick Dickens, SAAF Beaufighters  – copyright Peter Dickens.  Schematic artwork by Tinus Le Roux, copyright.

South Africa’s one-legged fighter pilot


Capt. Doug Rogan DFC

Did you know that during World War 2, South Africa had a one-legged fighter pilot?  This is the extraordinary story of Capt Douglas Smith “Doug”/”Shorty” Rogan DFC.

2 Squadron SAAF

Doug Rogan Joined the South African Air Force as a Permanent Force pilot and he served with SAAF 2 Squadron from September 1941 in the North African theatre of operations.  2 Squadron were known as the ‘flying cheetahs’.

He almost immediately started seeing some success when on the 12th October 1941, he damaged a German Bf-109 flying a SAAF Tomahawk Mk.IIb, however in the engagement he took some damage.  He had another success later that month, when on the 22 October he logged his first confirmed kill of a German Bf-109F near Gasr el Arid, during the battle his SAAF Tomahawk Mk11b again took on some heavy damage, however he managed to get home and score his first combat victory.

By the next month on the 06 November he had further success in the Tomahawk and recorded his second confirmed kill, that of an Italian S.79 short down in the Matruh area.    The S.79 had taken some punishment from other SAAF pilots, but Doug finished it off, so was accredited with the kill.



SAAF 2 Squadron Tomahawks in action by Derrick Dickens

Luck ran out for Doug late in November 1941.  By this time he logged  60 “operation” flying hours,  however during a routine operation on the 24th November he was Wounded In Action (WIA) when his Tomahawk received anti-aircraft ground fire, a  20mm AA shell struck Doug in his right leg.  Severely wounded and losing blood, Doug turned for home and against the odds managed get both himself and his stricken aircraft back to base.  So severe was the wound to Doug’s leg that his leg had to be amputated


Douglas Bader

Recovering in South Africa, Doug took inspiration from Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE, DSO (Bar), DFC (Bar).  Douglas Bader was the famous Royal Air Force pilot who was a double leg amputee during the war, he was credited with 22 aerial victories. Bader had joined the RAF in 1928 and in 1931, while performing some aerobatics he crashed and lost both his legs. When war broke he insisted on flying, even as a double amputee. His determination saw him become a Battle of Britain icon using a “Big Wing” of fighters to attack enemy formations over England. He also became a Prisoner of War after he was shot down over France later in the war, and despite his disability he frustrated his German captors by embarking on a number of escape attempts.

With this proof positive account that pilots who had suffered leg amputations could still perform in combat, Doug focussed on getting back to flying, and back to combat flying.  Col. Laurie Wilmot promised Capt. Doug Rogan that if he could be passed the “fit for flying” test with only one leg, he would see to it that Rogan got a posting “up North” again (i.e. back to the theatre of Operations in North Africa and Italy).

1 Squadron SAAF

Fitted with an artificial leg Doug resumed flying fighters with 6 Sqdn on home defence in the following year. After a check ride he passed his fit for flying test and was returned “up north” as promised.  Back in combat flying he was posted to SAAF 1 Squadron in November 1942, known as the ‘Billy Boys’.


SAAF 1 Squadron Spitfire by Derrick Dickens

His return to operations was marred by a couple of errors up front, one occasion he took off with a mechanic still hanging on to his tailplane but managed to land without damage to either the mechanic or his Spitfire. Also, once landing in a dust storm his Spitfire hit that of another pilot’s already on the ground. He however began scoring again later that same month on 13th December 1942, he damaged a Bf-109G whilst flying a SAAF Spitfire Mk.V.   By 1943 his victories started to stack up flying in the famous Spitfire Mk. V,  12th Jan he shot down a Bf-109G (probable), 21st Jan he shot down a MC.202 (probable) in the Castel Benito-Tarhuna area.  By 27th March he attained a confirmed kill of a German Me 210 near Gabes. On the 08 May he is recorded as damaging an Italian Re.2001.

He was “Returned To Union” (RTU – meaning returned to the Union of South Africa) after his successful tour on Spitfires in August 1943, by this time he was with SAAF 1 Squadron in Sicily. In all is final score from the war: 3 Kills, 2 Probable, 3 Damaged.

On the 19th of March 1943, Doug was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions and bravery.   In later life he became an air fighting instructor at 11 O.T.U. When he retired from the Air Force he took up residency in the beautiful little coastal town of Knysna.

Another unassuming South Africa hero not known to many now, a true role model and inspiration to any South African, those who have disabilities and even those who do not.

Written by Peter Dickens.  Scorecard comes courtesy of Sandy Evan Hanes’ SAAF Data base. Story content and image provided by Tinus Le Roux on his SAAF Heritage site. Research provided by Sandy Evan Hanes and Warren Williamson.   Artworks of 1 Squadron and 2 Squadron by Derrick Dickens (artist), copyright Peter Dickens.


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.

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.


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?


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.

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.

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.

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.”


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.

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


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

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

smutsThere are still a handful of conservative ‘Afrikaner nationalist’ white people in South Africa who would still toe the old Nationalist line on Smuts, that he was a ‘verraaier’ – a traitor to his people, his death welcomed.  However, little do they know that many of the old Nationalist architects of Apartheid held Smuts in very high regard.

DF Malan, on the day of Smuts’ death, 11th September 1950, was the Prime Minister of South Africa, his Nationalist party had defeated Smuts’ United party two years earlier in 1948 whilst pushing the Nationalist proposals to further entrench racial segregation with a concept they called Apartheid.  Smuts on the other hand, foresaw the need to extend the ideas of ‘Union’ which had brought Afrikaner and Briton together to include Black South Africans. On voting rights, he had made his views clear to Hertzog as early as 1920 when in a private meeting he proposed a Qualification Franchise (not a Universal one though) for black South Africans (Hertzog was an ardent Nationalist and rejected the idea outright).

Smuts was born into a system of ‘Empire’ and that was the socio-political sphere everyone understood, including Smuts.  Over time Smuts’ views on racial segregation gradually evolved from the generally understood divided evolution edicts of his day (based on where nations stood on the ‘civilisation’ continuum).  On the international stage by the mid 1940’s, when Smuts was outside of the pressures of South Africa’s race politics (even from inside of his own political party) and not toeing his party’s line, here his views started to really shape up.

By the middle of World War 2 he had taken on a deep sense of individual liberty for all mankind, emancipation and freedom from any sort of oppression (including State).  These views, based on what he termed man’s universal “spirit” for freedom forged by two world wars, they were consolidated in his work on the United Nations and exposed on an international stage in a number of speeches.

Back in South Africa after the war, as a precursor to these views on universal liberty, Smuts had already changed from his old positions on segregation and proposed ‘integration’ instead of ‘separation’ and he had also already promised black community leaders greater political representation if they supported his war effort, voting rights under Smuts were already secure for South Africans of Indian origin and the Cape Coloured community.  On the Nationalists proposals of Apartheid he once said:

“The idea that the Natives must all be removed and confined in their own Kraals is in my opinion the greatest nonsense I have ever heard”.

The nationalists touted a fear of ‘black danger’ under this more democratically minded Smuts if he won, and it struck a cautionary chord with many white voters and the Nationalists won the day, surprisingly and against the odds, and not by a majority mind – but on a constitutional seat basis.

On losing the election Smuts made one of his greatest speeches in 1949 at the inauguration of the Voortrekker Monument to a largely Afrikaner crowd, it says everything of where he stood on integration and the future of South Africa, he said:

“Only on the basis of taking from the past what was beautiful could ‘fruitful co-operation and brotherhood’ between the two white communities be built. And only on this basis could a solution be found for the greatest problem which we have inherited from our ancestors, the problem of our native relations”. He went on to say, that this was “the most difficult and the final test of our civilization.’

Simply put, the country’s white community at Smuts’ death was very split down the middle on the issue of ‘Apartheid’ and what it would bring, the majority of South Africans did not favour it and they had heeded Smuts’ warnings of what entrenched race politics would bring to South Africa’s future.

The death of Jan Smuts


DF Malan

DF Malan was attending a National Party political rally to the party faithful and whipping up support for the edicts of Apartheid when Smuts’ died.   An aide walked up to him and handed him a note with the news of Smuts’ death, what he does next would surprise even the hardest right-wing Afrikaner Nationalist.

Instead of gleeful celebration of the demise of this most hated enemy of the Apartheid cause, the man repeatedly called a ‘traitor’ by the Nationalists, a man who had the ‘blood’ of Jopie Fourie on his hands, the ‘hansopper’ and ‘joiner’ turncoat who favoured the union of the Afrikaner with the hated British to heal South Africa over and above separationist Afrikaner rule, the King’s ‘hanskakie’ puppet, old ‘slim Jannie’ who put global interests and governance ahead of his ‘volk’ (white Afrikaner peoples) – no Dr. Malan’s reaction to the news was somewhat different to what most people now would even think.

DF Malan immediately turned pale, he slowly sat down, slumped over and cupped his hands to his face. He had lost a lifelong and very close friend.  Their political positions aside, Malan had a deep sense of admiration for his old friend.

He had to be helped up to stand at the microphone, where he announced that “a great figure of our time” has just died, he called the Nationalists to silence and then cancelled the rally.  His colleagues reporting that they had never seen Malan so distressed.

DF Malan’s reaction says a lot about Smuts, the importance he had in the formation of South Africa, he was the original ‘reconciler’ of the warring nations in South Africa, his idea of union based his philosophy of holism – all parts of the sphere make the whole, made the state of South Africa as we know it, he was quite literally the ‘father’ of the South African nation, and now he was lost.


The universal appreciation of Smuts at the time, both by his supporters and his detractors, would see a nationwide and even worldwide outpouring of grief, Smuts’ funeral was something else, a funeral not seen since in South Africa and only seen again when Nelson Mandela died.

To even begin to contemplate Smuts’ importance to not only South Africa, but to the free world consider what Winston Churchill wrote to Isie (Ouma Smuts), his wife, expressing his condolences, and what he wrote sums up the loss perfectly.

“There must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior-statesman and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its suffering and perils than anyone who ever lived in any country during his epoch.”

In his lifetime, Smuts had advanced to a level of greatness that is more substantive and more far-reaching to the modern human race than any South African before and even after him (with all respect to Nelson Mandela and his legacy).

Add to this what King George VI wrote Ouma Smuts and you start to see a pattern.  He wrote:

“the force of his intellect has enriched the wisdom of the whole human race”.

To understand his impact to humankind by way of an obituary to his milestone accolades, consider the following:

The birth of South Africa

The establishment of the state of South Africa in 1910. His proposal of ‘Union’ with the British colonies of the Cape and Natal brought South Africa out of the devastation of the Boer War and the resultant decimation of the Boer nation. Despite winning the war, in just four years of Colonising everything, Britain had handed all control of her colonies in South Africa to an independent parliament to Westminster, able to make its own laws to forge its own destiny, headed up by two Boer Generals of which Smuts was one.

The Boers had lost their two small Republics to war and now, thanks to Smuts’ skill and British confidence in his vision and him, the Boer commanders were very quickly back in governance of both their ‘old’ Republics and in addition, both the British Colonies as well – without a shot been fired.  To quote Smuts ‘they gave our country back’.  He reflected that at no time in Britain’s long history had such a ‘miracle of trust and magnanimity’ ever happened.

British ‘meddling’ and ‘warmongering’ in South Africa would never happen on the same scale again, and in fact they were making reparations for the damage they had caused by way of economic support.

The League of Nations and United Nations

He played a key role in the establishment of the League of Nations, the exact design and implementation of which relied upon Smuts, he even drafted the outlines for the The Treaty of Versailles. His outline was not fully followed and he warned the League of a future calamity with Germany – how prophetic he was.

With the demise of the League of Nations (the USA left it), Smuts still held the view that a more robust world peace body was required involving all nations holding each other to account.  He later urged the formation of a new international organisation for peace: The United Nations (UN).

Smuts wrote the first draft of the preamble to the United Nations Charter, and was the only person in history to sign the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations (see earlier Observation Post link Jan Smuts drafted the Preamble to the United Nations Charter).


Smuts signing the United Nations Charter


The British Commonwealth of Nations

He sought to redefine the relationship between the United Kingdom and her colonies, he helped establish the concept of a ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ based on devolved British authority instead of a ‘British Empire’ and by doing so he served to end Britain’s ‘Empire. He in fact came up with the term ‘Commonwealth’ and it was to his recommendations that the King listened.

The birth of Israel

In 1932, the kibbutz Ramat Yohanan in Israel was named after him. Smuts was a vocal proponent of the creation of a Jewish state, and spoke out against the rising anti-Semitism of the 1930s.  His relationship with the Jews and Israel did not stop there, he was one of the driving forces behind the Balfour Declaration which established the state of Israel (see earlier Observation Post A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts.)

World Wars and Military Milestones

He became South Africa’s only Field Marshal, having taken South Africa to both World Wars on the side of democracy and freedom.  The Second World War alone launched the manufacturing might of South Africa largely due to the support of the war effort.  By the end of WW2, South Africa, a muddle of small colonies and republics just 40 years earlier, now stood as a key contributing world player.

He was the only person with in-depth military experience to join The British War Cabinet, at the insistence of the King, during World War 1 (the rest were Politicians) and in so played a key role in guiding the outcome of World War 1.

He gave birth to the idea of an independent Air Force free from Navy or Army control in 1917, that saw the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF), the oldest independent air arm in the world and in addition carried this over to form The South African Air Force, the second oldest. Modern military construct now still follows The Smuts Report on the use of air power (see earlier Observation Post link Centenary of the ‘Smuts Report’, the instrument which gave birth to the Royal Air Force).

Smuts had a long string of successful military command, notwithstanding his Command of a Boer Commando during the Anglo-Boer war, evading defeat for the entire duration of the war.  He founded the South African Defence Force after Union, commanded UDF forces alongside Botha in taking German South West Africa during WW1, the first ‘Allied’ victory of the war.  He went on to command all the British and Commonwealth Forces in the East African campaign during WW1, chasing General Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck’s forces all over East Africa, and in so doing he captured Dar-es-Salaam, the German East Africa capital. However, to really put Smuts in perspective, when he heard that his old enemy, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck had fallen into destitution after WW2, it was Smuts who personally extended aid and food to him (to Smuts war was not a personal thing amongst soldiers).

During the Second World War he was appointed to the British King’s Privy Council.   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, Smuts would replace him, however this idea was never tested as Smuts would have need to have been made a peer and constitutional issues would have prevented it.  Whether possible or not it does give an idea of just how close Smuts was to Churchill and how indispensable he had become.

Again, as a member of the British War Council, he played a key role in the outcome of World War 2 and the Allied Victory.  He even accompanied Winston Churchill shoulder to shoulder to oversee Operation Overlord (D Day) and the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe.


Smuts and Churchill in France overseeing Operation Overlord (D Day)


Many historians would now even point to the notion that Churchill regarded Smuts’ advice above anyone else’s advice on his war effort and strategy (see related Observation Post story Smuts’ keen sense of smell detects Germans hiding nearby).

Domestic acclaim


Emily Hobhouse

The deep-seated pain of the Boer War concentration camps and how it affected Afrikaner identity was also something that Smuts actively addressed (Ouma Smuts was herself interned in a concentration camp, and Smuts had also tragically lost family to the system).  He became a friend and confidant of Emily Hobhouse in addressing the issue with the British over many years. The Magnolia seeds she gave him in friendship now stand as a full botanical statement to this outside his house in Irene.

He brought the government to take measures to bring the treatment of Indians in South Africa into line with the provisions of the United Nations, putting them to the same equality and status of the ‘Cape Colourds’ who already enjoyed an equal universal franchise in South Africa at the time.  In doing so he became a life-long admirer of Mahatma Ghandi, who in turn also regarded Smuts as one of the greatest statesmen of his time.

To illustrate this admiration, Before Gandhi returned to India in 1914, he presented General Smuts with a pair of sandals made by Gandhi himself. In 1939, on Gandhi’s 70th birthday, Smuts returned the sandals with the following message:

“I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”

(see earlier Observation Post story “… I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man”).

In domestic policy, Smuts instituted a number of social security reforms. Old-age pensions and disability grants were extended to ‘Indians’ and ‘Africans’ respectively (although there were still differences in the level of grants paid out). He also instituted the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1941 and the Unemployment Insurance Act of 1946.

International acclaim

55bfc5b0ef884389cd7a9bddf3645bd8Smuts was honoured by many countries and on many occasions, as a standout Smuts was the first Prime Minister of a Commonwealth country (any country for that matter) to address both sitting Houses of the British Parliament – the Commons and the Lords during World War 2.  To which he received a standing ovation from both houses.

Such was the admiration of Smuts that his statue stands outside Westminster on Parliament Square in London for his contribution to world politics and as a great reformer.

Now he stands alongside the likes of Ghandi, Mandela and Abraham Lincoln as the only other ‘foreign’ statesmen honoured in the square.  Whilst, ironically, in South Africa his legacy has taken an absolute battering and his statues removed.

Take the time to listen to Smuts’ speech to both houses of Parliament, note his views on all mankind’s basic freedoms and what he envisions as the future by way of fundamental reforms.  Also note the short praise by Winston Churchill when Smuts concludes his speech and the reaction of the British Parliament, a reaction that has not been seen in British politics since, it is very unique.



In 1921 Smuts, along with Field Marshal Haig, established The Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) in Cape Town.  The RCEL sought to consolidate war veteran’s charities all over the world to care for the returning military service personnel in the Commonwealth.  It saw the establishment or re-purposed institutions which now play a significant role in care for servicemen worldwide, The Royal British Legion, The Royal Canadian Legion, The Returned Services League Australia and The South African Legion to name a few.

He also made South Africa available to Jewish orphans escaping the Pogroms of Eastern Europe (despite resistance from South African nationalists).  For a full story on this remarkable chapter, see an earlier Observation Post 200 Jewish orphans saved, the story of Jan Smuts and Issac Ochberg

He again made South Africa available to Polish orphan children escaping the Nazi German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, establishing a grateful and thriving small Polish community in South Africa (see earlier Observation Post South Africa provides sanctuary for Polish refugee children during WW2 ).


Smuts was also an accredited philosopher, his work on Holism brought him high acclaim from his Philosopher peers.  Holism can be defined as “the fundamental factor operative towards the creation of wholes in the universe” and was published in 1926.  For Smuts it formed the grounding behind his concepts of the League of Nations and United Nations.

Smuts was also an accredited Botanist, his books and illustrations on South African grasses (veld) are still regarded as the definitive work.

21731360_2020995841462737_816238144166127637_nWhilst studying law at Christ’s College at Cambridge University, he was rated as one of the top three students they have ever had (Christ’s College is nearly 600-year-old).  The other two were John Milton and Charles Darwin.

His intellect was unsurpassed, to pass an exam at Cambridge he learnt Greek (fluently) in just 6 days. His wife was no intellectual slouch either, later in life Jan Smuts and Ouma Smuts used to tease one another when one would recite a Bible verse and the other would be expected to recite the following one, from memory, in Greek!

In 1948, Smuts was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the first real non-Briton outside of British Royalty to be elected to the position in the 800 year-old history of Cambridge University.


Smuts’ idea of ‘Union’ and vision for South Africa was that of a ‘United States of South Africa’ including countries like Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the Union.  It was to be a significant player on the world stage drawing on Africa’s vast resources to see it as a leading political and economic power block (much like the USA is now).  Can you imagine if Botswana and Rhodesia voted to join the Union (they chose not to at the time), what a different history we would have seen in Southern Africa – ‘Apartheid’ may never have happened just for starters.

A humble man

Personally, Smuts was a God-fearing, frugal and humble man. He chose as his house an old rickety, uninsulated, fully corrugated iron, transportable military head office.  He preferred to sleep outside on the ‘stoup’ (veranda) on a small single hard wood bed, his garden was the natural veld. There were no stately mansions or ‘Nkandla’ with ‘fire pools’ for Smuts and he would not have had it anyway.


The National Party in a sinister move, gradually and over the long period of Apartheid insidiously smeared Smuts and his legacy, erasing from the general consciousness of just what a great South African Smuts had become. Modern South Africans grew up with almost no regard for Smuts, and if you had to ask a young Black South African today who Smuts was he’ll probably say he was one of the white Apartheid monsters, the white English children will have no idea and the White Afrikaans ones may remember something about him been traitor to Afrikaners.  A student in Canada studying world politics would have a better grip on Smuts than a South African student.

Luckily this is beginning to change, and landmark Biographies are being written now which start to fully explore who and what Jan Smuts was, and it is both fascinating and eye-opening.  It is very hard to sum up all the greatness Smuts was to attain, and certainly for his time his deeds set him well apart from any of the other Statesmen South Africa has produced, certainly if you consider all the subsequent South African Premiers other than Mandela. We have a wonderful story in Smuts, and what we have a character of force – a polyglot, philosopher, botanist, intellectual, lawyer, politician, statesmen, reformer and warrior –  a story and a man who is best summed up by Alan Paton who said:

“Even the great thought he was great.”

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References: Jan Smuts reconsidered Hermann Giliomee 26 January 2016, Richard Steyn’s Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness 2015.  Video footage copyright Associated Press.  My deep thanks to Philip Weyers for the Smuts family insight and access.

This article serves to highlights Smuts’ achievements by way of an Obituary.  There are other issues any national leader faces that highlight decisive but ‘unpopular’ action depending on the affected party’s point of view.  For more related articles in The Observation Post on  Jan Smuts please have a look at this link:

South Africa’s very own Communist Revolution – The Rand Revolt of 1922


Four Israeli pilots stopped the Egyptian invasion of Tel Aviv. One was a South African.

When Israel became an independent nation on May 14, 1948, the armies of four Arab neighbours — Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — immediately invaded the new country to prevent its creation. Desperate to defend themselves the Israelis lacked many modern weapons and aircraft.

The Israelis did however have a small fleet of Avia S-199 fighters, made in Czechoslovakia with parts left over from the WW2 German Lufwaffe. The aircraft was poorly constructed and it was extremely unpopular with pilots who called it a Mezek (mule), another name for it was the ‘Messer’ (meaning ‘Knife’ and because the frame was that of the WW2 German Bf109G Messer-schmitt) the engine came from a Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111H bomber, and the Israeli pilots sarcastically also called it a ‘Messer-shit’.

Avia S-199

Within this tiny newly formatted Israeli Air Force were a number of very brave Jewish pilots, from the world over, some with WW2 combat experience.  One such pilot was a South African, Eddie Cohen.  This is his story.

Edward (Eddie) (Shlomo) Cohen came from South Africa.  He was the only child of Victor, Edward Cohen was born in Johannesburg on 2nd July 1922 into a well-to-do family. He grew up in an assimilated background, completed high school and began his studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Eddie Cohen

World War II changed his plans, and he joined the South African Air Force (SAAF), qualifying as a fighter pilot with the rank of Lieutenant.  He flew with 2 Squadron, SAAF and subsequently 4 Squadron SAAF in Italy during the war.

Upon his discharge from the SAAF at the end of the war, he did not return to his university studies, and took an office job in his father’s business in Johannesburg. He loved playing sports with his friends: rugby, tennis and golf. He was also very fond of music and excelled at that, too.

His meetings with Zionist friends aroused his interest in his religious roots, and their beliefs awoke something in him which led him to follow in their footsteps to Palestine.

He arrived in Palestine in 1947 and joined his friends at Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch. On a trip to Tel Aviv, he bought a number of books on archaeology and the history of Palestine, and in these scholarly works he found a new life, and began to take an interest in Judaism and his historical homeland.  He wrote to his mother:

“Today, Shabbat, I spent the whole day studying the history of the Jews and surrounding nations, using the Bible and other books. It is the most interesting study I have ever undertaken, as the area around this part of the world was the cradle of western civilization. My greatest regret is that I did not think of studying this branch of history earlier in my life, as so much can be learnt from it…”

Later, in 1947, the survival of the Zionist settlers called Eddie back into military service, he joined ‘Sherut Avir’, the forerunner of the Israeli Air Force, which formed on the 27th of December 1947.  Eddie Cohen, Boris Senior, Ezer Weizman, Modi Alon, and six others made up the new Tel Aviv Squadron.

On January. 15, 1948, Eddie Cohen took part in the Sherut Avir’s first co-ordinated multiple-plane mission: a pre-dawn aerial resupply of the besieged Gush Etzion settlements, using outdated Tiger Moths and Cargo planes.

Eddie Cohen was then trained at Ceske Budejovice in Czechoslovakia as one of ten pilots earmarked for the initial S-199 training course. He flew back to Israel on May 20 with the other graduates and the first batch of Avia S-199 fighters.

On 29 May 1948, Cohen flew in the first S-199 mission, regarded as the first mission of the newly formatted Israeli Air Force (IAF). The Egyptian advance on Tel Aviv had been stalled by a blown bridge 32 km south Tel Aviv by the lightly armed remnants of the Israeli Givati Brigade.

The Israeli Defence Force issued Operation Order No. 26 to the IAF Command that very same day and ordered an attack (even though the first Avia S-199 fighters were theoretically air-worthy they were not yet properly tested).  Four pilots, Eddie Cohen (South African), Modi Alon (Israeli), Ezer Weizman (Israeli) and Lou Lenart (American) took off from Ekron at 19:45 in their Avia’s bombed up with two 70-kg bombs each, and armed with ‘untested’ cannons and machines guns, they set off bound for the Egyptian army column near Ashdod.

Lou Lenart Israeli Air Force
Lou Lenart

Of the mission, Lou Lenart said, “There is no making light of this moment. Behind us is Israel, the Jewish people hanging on by a thread. Ahead of us is the enemy, advancing to destroy everything we love.”

The four pilots alone faced 6,000 Egyptian troops — consisting of seven infantry battalions, six hundred vehicles (including tanks), and formidable anti-aircraft weapons.

Lenart and Modi Alon shared unofficial command of the new fighter squadron and Lenart led the first mission. The wingman pair of Lenart and Alon took off first, followed by Weizman and Cohen. Lenart, however, was unfamiliar with the country and once in the air realized he didn’t know the way to Ashdod. The first two S-199s had no radios so he used hand signals to indicate direction requirements to Alon, who in turn pointed in the proper direction.  In order to avoid any enemy fighters the formation flew over the sea (west of the column) and turned east when it reached Ashdod.


Israeli Air Force Ezer Weizman
Ezer Weizman with his S-199

They spotted the Egyptian column between Ashdod and Gas’ser Ishdod, which had just stopped on the southern side of the destroyed bridge.  At this point all four pilots using machine guns and cannons strafed the concentrations of Egyptian armed forces and bombed them.

Once ammunition and bombs had been exhausted they all headed back to Ekron, Eddie Cohen had a radio and was in radio contact with base. On his way back he reported that all was OK, that he saw the base and that he was about to land. From Ekron, he was not observed and he did not land there. At another nearby air base at Chatzor an aircraft was observed engulfed in flames trying to crash-land about two and a half kilometers away from Chatzor.

The Israeli army at Chatzor dispatched two infantry platoons immediately to rescue the pilot but the Egyptian forces were the first to reach the location. Eddie Cohen had mistaken Chatzor for Ekron and tried to land there with his damaged airplane.

Tragically Eddie Cohen was killed in the crash. Eddie’s S-199 had taken an anti-aircraft gun hit which started a fire that he apparently hadn’t initially noticed.

The bold strike left the Egyptian forces dumbfounded and vulnerable. That night, Jewish ground troops took advantage of the situation by attacking the Egyptians’ flank. The Egyptians were thrown into disorder. Israeli intelligence intercepted this dispatch from their brigade commander to Cairo: “We were heavily attacked by enemy aircraft and we are scattering.”

Despite the loss of Eddie and one aircraft, the mission was a success, it seems that the attack had a profound psychological effect on the Egyptian forces, and they halted their advance completely. The bridge where they stopped was later named ”Ad Halom” bridge, meaning ”no further”.

The Egyptian Army later deflected to the east, in order to link with other Arab forces besieging Jerusalem. Tel Aviv was saved, and so was too was the new nation of Israel.

Israeli Air Force, David Ben-Gurion, Modi Alon
Modi Alon (centre with sunglasses) and David Ben-Gurion (right)

After the Israeli War of Independence finished, in prisoner exchanges with the Egyptians for the remains of the Fallen, Eddie’s body was identified by the then Chief Army Chaplain, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and in 1949 Israel recovered Eddie Cohen’s remains near the small airfield, at the time of his death in Egyptian hands. Edward Cohen’s mother came from Johannesburg for the re-interment at the Mount Herzl military cemetery on the 8th of November 1951.

Eddie Cohen Is regarded as the first combat casualty of the first fighter squadron (101 Squadron) of the new Jewish State of Israel, and is a national hero in Israel (in South Africa he is hardly remembered at all).  On 29th September 1949, on the orders of the Israeli Chief of Staff, Edward Cohen was posthumously promoted to the rank of Flight Commander in the IAF.

Researched by Peter Dickens. Source: The Jerusalem Post, the history of 101 squadron and wikipedia

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.

smuts ww1

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’).

Imp Cabinet WW1

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.

Royal Air Force WW1

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.


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.