Here’s an extraordinary tale of someone who started out as a Johannesburg ‘boytjie’ and attained the heady heights of not only a very senior Commander of forces during World War 2 and the Cold War but also became a Knight of the realm.
In South Africa many of our military heroes are lost to time or politics, especially those who found their way into the British Armed Forces during World War 2. In fact to our Grandparent’s or even parent’s generation taking part in the war there were a number of significant and highly decorated men from South Africa who eventually went to very senior positions of command of His Majesty’s Armed Forces (British) during WW2, let alone South African forces – and this is one of them – Air Chief Marshal Sir H.W.L. “Dingbat” Saunders GCB, KBE, MC, DFC & Bar, MM
Now, a ‘Air Chief Marshal’ and a ‘Knight’ of the British Realm – a ‘Marshal’ and a ‘Sir’, that’s something significant for some kid from Johannesburg with the nickname of ‘Dingbat’, not withstanding the gallantry decorations of a Military Cross, two Distinguished Flying Cross’ and a Military Medal. So who the heck is ‘Dingbat’ and how did he get there?
A true blue South African
Hugh “Dingbat” Saunders was born in Johannesburg South Africa on the 24th August 1894 – the son of Fred Saunders, in fact he came from Germiston (now not too many people in Germiston today know that their humble city has spawned a Knight), Dingbat was educated at the Marist Brothers college in Johannesburg. How he got the nickname ‘Dingbat’ is lost to time, by English definition a ‘Dingbat’ is someone who is a little ‘odd’ a little out of the ordinary. As an odd or off-set kind of person Dingbat was destined to live up to the nickname certainly for a kid from Germiston.
Like many South Africans graduating he was just in time to answer the call when World War 1 broke out, joining up in August 1914.
Initially he joined the South African Army starting off as a simple private, serving with the Witwatersrand rifles and then found his way to the South African Horse, he took part in ground action even winning the Military Medal (MM) for bravery whilst a soldier in the Union of South Africa’s Armed Forces.
However his love and passion was the whole new world of flying, as South Africa did not have an Air Force in World War 1 (it was very early days for idea of flying let alone using it for combat), Dingbat had no choice but to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, (as did a number of other South Africans choosing this new field of combat). The Royal Flying Corps was the ‘Army’s’ air-force and it was the beginning of what was to become The Royal Air Force towards the end of World War 1.
Starting at the bottom rung commissioned officer rank of an Officer Cadet, Dingbat Saunders was promoted to temporary 2nd Lieutenant (on probation) on 2 August 1917 and posted to 84 Squadron in November 1917. Here’s his military career started to really ‘take flight’. He was posted to fly SE5a’s with No 84 Squadron during the German offensive of March 1918 when their aircraft were fitted with bombs as well as machine guns. They operated throughout the day in pairs harrying the Germans at any and every opportunity – incidentally 84 Squadron was also the home of a South African Victoria Cross recipient – and South Africa’s most highest decorated person, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC & Bar, DFC.
By the time he left 84 Squadron in August 1918 he had been credited with 15 victories and was the senior flight commander on the squadron.
During his time he picked up the Military Cross in 1918, a gallantry decoration and his citation cementing his reputation as an ‘Ace’ says just about everything:
T./2nd Lt. Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M.M., Gen. List, attd. R.A.F.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During recent operations he destroyed five enemy machines and shot down four out of control. He showed great courage and skill in engaging enemy aircraft, and did splendid service.
Now promoted to Captain, he was at it again towards the end of World War 1 displaying an unbelievable degree of boldness and bravery, picking up the Distinguished Flying Cross along the way, again his citation for his DFC says everything:
Lieut. (T./Capt.) Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M,C., M.M.
An officer of exceptional courage, who, since he was awarded the M.C., has destroyed five enemy aircraft and shot down two balloons in flames. While on patrol he observed a formation of seven hostile scouts below him. Diving to attack he engaged the leader and firing shoot bursts at close range shot him down nose foremost; the remainder of the formation scattered in all directions.
During the period between World War 1 and World War 2, Hugh Saunders decided to remain with the fledgling Royal Air Force and make a career of it. He had attained a formidable reputation as a combat aviator, so he begun more formal training at the RAF Staff College in 1928 attaining his first command of RAF 45 Squadron in 1932. After more staff officer training at the Imperial Defence College in 1938, Dingbat found his way to New Zealand as the Chief of Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and was holding this post at the on-set of World War 2.
World War 2
When the Second World War had moved into full swing, Hugh Saunders made his way back to the United Kingdom and into the thick of commanding RAF operations in Europe. In February 1942 he joined Fighter Command HQ as a AOA (Air Officer Administration), but was soon in a leading post during the war in Europe as the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, Fighter Command.
No small task for Dingbat, No. 11 Group Fighter Command had been the epicentre of fighter operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and was responsible for the defence of London and the English South East, and operated from famous ‘Battle of Britain Bunker’.
By the time Dingbat Saunders joined No. 11 Group Fighter Command as AOC on the 28th November 1942 the Battle of Britain was over, but Britain was no means out of the woods. Prior to 1942, Air Vice Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, had overseen a thorough overhaul of the Operations Room within the Battle of Britain Bunker.
The old ‘Battle of Britain’ plotting system of wooden markers and wooden croupier-style pushing sticks were replaced with metal plotting markers and magnetic sticks, and the old tote system of light-indicators was replaced with a slat-board system with hanging information.
No.11 Group was by now largely occupied with air operations over occupied Europe (although defensive operations over British airspace continued also). It conducted fighter sweeps over enemy territory and these would continue throughout the war along with bomber escort missions. In August 1942 fighter operations during the Dieppe Raid were controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker. Dingbat Saunders was still holding the position of Air Officer Commanding No.11 Group Fighter Command in June 1944, and oversaw RAF fighter operations during Operation Overlord (the D-Day landings), which were also controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker.
By late 1944 Hugh Saunders had advanced to the position of Director-General of Personnel in the Air Ministry, but with the war in Europe nearing an end a new appointment back in the thick of things in Burma fighting the Japanese awaited him. On the 1 August 1945 he attained the rank of Air Marshal Commanding the Royal Air Force in Burma.
Burma was relatively straightforward to deal with, much of the colony had been re-conquered several months before the end of the war in the big British offensive against the Japanese in the summer of 1945. That gave ACSEA crucial breathing space to start getting the colony back on its feet before the massive increase in occupation duties postwar occurred.
RAF Burma was well established under Air Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders. At the end of the war, it had 28 squadrons under its control. This quickly reduced as the demobilisation of all fighting forces in Asia really kicked in. The transport squadrons saw the largest amount of work, evacuating POWs and internees and supplying garrisons and the civilian population. Second to the transport squadrons in workload were the photo reconnaissance aircraft. The opportunity was taken to complete the process of surveying South East Asia from the air, and using the survey to bring maps up to date.
After the war and his South East Asia appointment, Hugh Saunders was sent back to the United Kingdom when in January 1947 he became the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for Bomber Command.
He went on to become Inspector-General of the Royal Air Force (1949-1950), being promoted Air Chief Marshal in 1950. In February 1951, Saunders was again in the thick of it during the Cold War, and here he played a significant role in NATO, he assumed the mantle of Commander-in-Chief of the Air Forces in Western Europe (all of them, not just the RAF). By April 1951 he was the Air Deputy to the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR), none other than the famous Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh ‘Dingbat’ Saunders bid farewell to his astounding military career on the 27th July 1953, having attained what is arguably one of the highest ranking positions in world military aviation, and he is certainly the only South African to reach such a high level of aviation command.
Following a series of fatal accidents in the newly established Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF), Hugh Saunders was invited to serve as a special advisor to the Minister of Defence of Denmark in 1954, in order to reorganise and, it was envisioned, bring the number of accidents in RDAF down. Saunders indeed reorganised the RDAF and, realising that most of the equipment/planes were of a tactical nature, established Tactical Air Command Denmark as the supreme HQ of RDAF. In addition, a number of specialist commands were established, training improved and gradually the accident rate fell. He served in Denmark until 1956 and received the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog for his service
The Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog aside – in the ‘Order of Bath’, our Johannesburg lad racked up a Knight Grand Cross (GCB) on 1 June 1953 (having already attained his Knight Commander KCB on 2 Jan 1950, and Companion to the order CB obtained in June 1943).
Also knighthoods go, under the Order of the British Empire ‘Dingbat’ was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) on 14 June 1945 (having already obtained his Most Excellent Order of the British Empire officer CBE in July 1941).
In addition he also received Commander’s Cross with Star from Poland, a Commander of the Legion of Merit from the United States and an Officer of the Legion of Honour in France.
Not bad for a Boytjie called ‘Dingbat’ from with a humble beginning in Johannesburg South Africa, you have to admit to that. Dingbat died in the United Kingdom after a very long life aged 92.
Yet, in South Africa today he is an enigma, not known and unappreciated, the victim of political one-upmanship to bury all our World War 1 and World War 2 heroes in a Nationalistic fervour to rid our military identity and history of its British heritage starting in 1948 by Afrikaner Nationalists and continuing from 1994 by African Nationalists – even at the expense of South Africans who have risen to some of the most commanding positions in military history and who have played such pivot roles in the outcome of not only World War 1, but World War 2 and even in the case of ‘Dingbat’ here – in moulding the modern Western European defence landscape.
Related Links and work
Jan Smuts and the RAF: The Royal Air Force’s 100th Birthday and its founder – Jan Smuts
South African WW1 Aces; Kimberley’s local baker was also a WW1 Flying Ace
South African’s in RAF 74 Squadron; Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference ‘Air of Authority’ – an on-line history of the Royal Air Force organisation. Imperial War Museum.