Why the Comrades Marathon is called the ‘Comrades’

Did you know that “The Comrades Marathon” has a shared spirit and a shared history with The South African Legion of Military Veterans?

As the oldest military veterans organisation in South Africa, the South African Legion was formed at the 1921 Empire Conference (28 February to March 4) in Cape Town as the British Empire Services League (BESL, South Africa) by joining two organisations together – the “Returned Soldiers and Sailors Association” and the “Comrades of the Great War”, which co-incidentally is the organisation after which the term “Comrades” in Comrades Marathon is given.  In the course of history the “BESL South Africa” came to be called “The South African Legion of Military Veterans”.

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In the same year – 1921 – Vic Clapham, a World War 1 veteran himself approached the “Comrades of the Great War” with a vision that would result in the worlds greatest ultra marathon nearly one hundred years later.

His idea was that if infantrymen, drafted into the armed forces from sedentary jobs, could endure forced marches over great distances, trained athletes could cover the distance between the two cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban without great difficulty. Clapham, like the Legion, also wanted to remember those who had fallen in the war, and he felt the best way to honour this was by the ultimate testing of body and mind, and triumphing.

The Natal athletics body was not interested in the idea of a ultra marathon, and thought Clapham was quite mad, so undaunted by the set-back Clapham approached the British Empire Services League of South Africa (now known as the South African Legion), and asked permission to stage the race under their auspices. They ultimately agreed and financially underwrote the first race.

The first 1921 Comrades Marathon was run by Vic Clapham and included a field of 34  runners, of them Sixteen runners completed the 87, 9km (55 mile) downhill race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. The race was won by Bill Rowan who finished in a time of 8:59:00 and his name is now given to the sub 9 hour medal in today’s race.

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Left to Right “Modern” Comrades medals

A gold medal for the top 10 finishers
A Wally Hayward for a sub-6 hour time
A Silver for a sub-7:30 time
A Bill Rowan for sub-9
A Bronze for sub-11 and finally
A Vic Clapham for sub-12

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextAlthough The Comrades Marathon is an independent commercial concern now, The South African Legion has continued its association to the Comrades Marathon over the  years and encourages all participants to wear a Remembrance Poppy in recognition of this history and the sacrifice of the fallen.  In this respect the Comrades Marathon is still in fact a “living memorial” to the Great War (World War 1).

Related Work and Links

Living War Memorial: Comrades Marathon A ‘Living’ War Memorial, The Comrades Marathon

Living War Memorial: Red Cross Children’s Hospital A war memorial in Cape Town which saves children’s lives

Comrades Marathon; Bill Payn Comrades legend, Springbok and war veteran – the remarkable Bill Payn


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

In Vlaandere se Velde

This is the Afrikaans text version of the landmark WW1 poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Lt Col John McCrae as translated into Afrikaans for the 100 year anniversary of The Battle of Delville Wood and the Somme Offensive in July 2016.

As the Battle of Delville Wood involved South Africans of both British and Afrikaner origin, and it was the battle which forged the young Union of South Africa’s identity, it was felt that it would be appropriate to translate ‘In Flanders Fields’ into Afrikaans and read it at the centenary ceremony.  The poem up to that point had already been translated into a variety of languages, but not Afrikaans.

This Afrikaans translation is the result of a dedicated collaborative effort.

In Vlaandere se Velde – Deur Lt. Kol John McCrae

In Vlaand’re wieg papawers sag
Tussen kruise, grag op grag,
As bakens; en deur dit alles deur
Die lewerikke tjilpend in dapper vlug,
Skaars hoorbaar bo die grofgeskut van kanonne.

Ons is die Dooies.
Dae gelede het ons geleef
die dagbreek en sonsondergloed beleef.
Was bemind en was verlief,
nou lê ons in Vlaandere se velde.

Veg voort my Kind met alle mag;
neem uit my hand die lig,
met krag moet jul die fakkel dra, met eer.
Wie durf Ons dood verloën, onteer –
ons sal steeds dwaal, ons sal nie slaap,
solank papawers groei in Vlaandere se velde.

P62__BYTOWN_MUSEUM_28891023The original English version, composed by Colonel McCrae after he buried Alexis Helmer, a close friend, who was killed during the battle of Ypres. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died. The next day, he composed the poem while sitting in the back of an ambulance at an Advanced Dressing Station just outside the town of Ypres. This location is today known as the John McCrae Memorial Site.

Here’s what he wrote:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

supporting-poppy-appealThe poem was kindly translated into Afrikaans by Hendrik Neethling and Walter E. Vice as a collaboration on behalf of the South African Legion and The Royal British Legion.  It was arranged and read by Karen Dickens at the Legion’s Centenary Service of the South African sacrifice on the Somme and the Battle of Delville Wood.  This landmark occasion was held at the Thiepval Memorial to the missing in France on 10th July 2016.

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Posted in memory of the co-author of this translation – Hendrik Neethling, may he Rest in Peace.

Related Links and Work

Springbok Valour Some 100 dedication – Thiepval Memorial ‘Springbok Valour’… the Centenary of Delville Wood

Delville Wood 400 shells/min – upwards to 600/min fell on the Springbok positions, imagine “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”


Written by Peter Dickens with thanks to Theo Fernandes for the image and my wife Karen Dickens for her dedication in translating ‘In Flanders Field’ into her Mother Tongue.

 

Two fellow members of The South African Legion – Churchill and Smuts

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextThe interesting part of digging up all the “hidden” history of the South African veteran movements after World War 2, is that occasionally you come across some hidden history about the military veterans organisation which you belong to. Did you know that both Jan Smuts AND Winston Churchill are both members of the South African Legion of Military Veterans?

Well – they are. Field Marshal Jan Smuts was awarded the “Gold Life Membership Badge of the South African Legion of the BESL” in November 1945, and Sir Winston Churchill received the same Gold Life Membership Badge to the South African Legion in July 1948.

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And here they are – two fellow Legionnaires, the two great prime ministers of Great Britain and South Africa, Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Jan Smuts, at the British Embassy in Cairo, 5 August 1942.

Did you also know that Jan Smuts played a pivot role in not only formulating the South African Legion, but also in bringing all the primary war veterans organisations from Britain and around the British Commonwealth under one oversight body? It was formed in 1921 in Cape Town and called The British Empire Service League (BESL) under patronage of the King.  This organisation still exists to this day as the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCESL) with Queen Elizabeth II as the head Patron, located at The Royal British Legion’s head office at Haig House in London – and South Africa is still a founding member (represented by the South African Legion).

413928_141126095245_DSC_0380This is a standard South African Legion blazer Badge with “Kings crown” from the 2nd World War period.  Note the BESL at the bottom – which stands for the “British Empire Services League” – the South African Legion along with the Royal British Legion, Royal Canadian Legion, Royal Scottish Legion, New Zealand Returned Services Association and the Australian Returned Services League are all founder members of it.

embroidered_nModern South African Legion blazer badge – note the use of modern BESL the RCEL “Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League” and Queen’s Crown” for Queen Elizabeth II who is the current Patron.

The RCEL mission and objective is to provide aid and support to any members of the British Commonwealth who have served under ‘crown’ in British Armed Forces or Commonwealth Armed Forces whilst under British Patronage.  These include South Africa’s old World War 2 veterans and newer veterans who have served under the Commonwealth agreement in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in recent conflicts like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Related Work and Links 

Legions and Poppies: Legions and Poppies … and their South African root

Churchills Desk: Churchill’s Desk

Jan Smuts, Churchill and D-Day: Jan Smuts, Winston Churchill and D-Day


Researched and written by Peter Dickens

Image copyright – The Imperial War Museum. Reference “Not For Ourselves” – a history of the South African Legion by Arthur Blake.

 

Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

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Sailor Malan

The featured image shows Group Captain Adolph Gysbert “Sailor” Malan DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar (24 March 1910 – 17 September 1963), the South African World War 2 flying ace in conversation here with Flight Sergeant Vincent Bunting at Biggin Hill in 1943 on the left, and it says a lot about Sailor Malan.

Vincent Bunting was one of a small group of ‘black’ British and Commonwealth pilots in full combat roles during the Second World War – he was born in Panama in June 1918 and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. He joined the RAF at No 1 Recruitment Centre, Uxbridge, on 26 July 1940. Selected for flying training he went on to become a fighter pilot mainly with RAF 611 Squadron.

An integrated Air Force

During the Battle of Britain, the British relied on pilots from the Commonwealth to make up a critical pilot shortage, Sailor Malan was one of these pilots and with him came pilots from all over the world, of all colours and of all cultures (there was no such thing as a ‘colour bar’ in the Royal Air Force) – from commonwealth countries like India, Burma, Rhodesia, Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, as well as pilots from Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and the USA.  They made up almost one-third of the RAF pilots involved in the Battle of Britain (to believe the image so often created of these men as a bunch of tea drinking ‘tally-ho’ young white English gentlemen is to completely misunderstand the Battle of Britain).

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Jamaican Pilots during  the Battle of Britain

The featured image of early racial recognition is testament to Sailor Malan as not only one of the most highly regarded fighter pilots of the war, but the future signs of Sailor Malan as a political fighter and champion for racial equality.

Fighter Ace

Much has been written on Sailor Malan as a Fighter Ace, his rules for combat and his command of 74 Squadron during the Battle of Britain which played such a pivot role in winning the Battle (see ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan) .  His combat record, promotions and decorations alone are simply astonishing.

He first took part in evacuation of Dunkirk.  During this battle he first exhibited his fearless and implacable fighting spirit. To demonstrate his nature, in one incident he was able to coolly change the light bulb in his gunsight while in combat and then quickly return to the fray.

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Sailor Malan’s gun camera showing the destruction of German Heinkel He 111 over Dunkirk

When the Battle of Britain begun, 74 Squadron (known as ‘The Tigers’) was to take the full heat of the battle in what was known as ‘hell’s corner’ over Kent, the squadron was eventually based at the now famous ‘Biggin Hill’ aerodrome in the thick of the battle.

Sailor Malan was given command of 74 Squadron, with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader at the height of the Battle of Britain on 8th August, 1940. Three days later the Squadron was in battle. The day became, for ever, “Sailor’s August the Eleventh”. The order was received at twenty minutes past seven to intercept a hostile raid approaching Dover. Little did the squadron know that they would participate in four seperate air battles that day. When the Squadron, weary, sweaty and oily, finally returned to base after the fourth sortie, they had downed an astounding 38 enemy aircraft.

Sailor Malan said later, in one of his masterly understatements: “Thus ended a very successful morning of combat”. For the first day of action under his command it was successful even by 74 Squadron standards.

Sailor Malan also worked on public relations to keep the British morale high.  Here is a rare radio interview (follow Observation post link Sailor Malan – “in his own words”)

By D Day (i.e. Operation Overlord, the liberation of France and subsequently Western Europe), Sailor Malan was in command of 145 (Free French) Fighter Wing and was himself leading a section of the wing over the beaches during the landings in Normandy.

In all 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.  The Citations for the DSO’s and DFC’s say everything about his combat prowess:

The London Gazette of the 11th June, 1940, read:

DISTINGUISHED FLYING CROSS

DFCLGFlight Lieutenant Adolph Gysbert Malan. (37604), Royal Air Force.

“During May 1940, this officer has led his flight, and on certain occasions his squadron, on ten offensive patrols in Northern France. He has personally shot down two enemy aircraft and, probably, three others. Flight Lieutenant Malan has displayed great skill, courage and relentless determination in his attacks upon the enemy.”

On Christmas Eve, 1940, the London Gazette had recorded:

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER

Distinguished_Service_Order_correctActing Squadron Leader Adolph Gysbert Malan, DFC (37604), Royal Air Force, No.74 Squadron.

“This officer has commanded his squadron with outstanding success over an intensive period of air operations and, by his brilliant leadership, skill and determination has contributed to the success obtained. Since early in August 1940, the squadron has destroyed at least 84 enemy aircraft and damaged many more. Squadron Leader Malan has himself destroyed at least eighteen hostile aircraft and possibly another six.”

And on 22nd July, 1941:

BAR TO DISTINGUISHED SERVICE ORDER

Acting Wing Commander Adolph Gysbert Malan, DSO, DFC (37604) Royal Air Force.

“This officer has displayed the greatest courage and disdain of the enemy whilst leading his Wing on numerous recent operations over Northern France. His cool judgement, exceptional determination and ability have enabled him to increase his confirmed victories over enemy aircraft from 19 to 28, in addition to a further 20 damaged and probably destroyed. His record and behaviour have earned for him the greatest admiration and devotion of his comrades in the Wing. During the past fortnight the Wing has scored heavily against the enemy with 42 hostile aircraft destroyed, a further 15 probably destroyed and 11 damaged.”

Also awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross.

In addition, “Sailor” was awarded the following decorations by Allied Governments:

The Belgian Croix de Guerre with bronze Palm, The Czecho-Slovakian Military Cross, The French Legion of Honour, in the degree of Officer and The French Croix de Guerre.

Bill Skinner DFC, with whom Sailor often flew, summed up Sailor Malan very well as to his leadership:

“He was a born leader and natural pilot of the first order. Complete absence of balderdash. As far as he was concerned, you either did your job properly, or you were on your way. He inspired his air crews by his dynamic and forceful personality, and by the fact that he set such a high standard in his flying.”

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Sailor Malan (centre) with pilots of 72 Squadron

He was the outstanding British Fighter Command fighter pilot of the 1939-45 war, and by the end of 1941 was the top scorer – a record which he held for three years. But he was much more than an individual performer. He had assimilated the fierce and fanatical “tiger spirit”, and this spirit he inspired in others so that he carried the Squadron to great deeds with him.

Freedom Fighter 

The Battle of Britain and D Day moulded Sailor Malan as a champion for freedom, he simply held the view that shooting down Nazi aircraft was good for humanity, and this translated into his personal politics.  Not much is known of Sailor’s political career post war, and it’s an equally fascinating to see him in the context of a ‘Freedom Fighter’ in addition to his fighter ace accolade.

Sailor Malan left the Royal Air Force and returned to South Africa in 1946. In the 1950’s he formed a mass protest group of ex-servicemen called the ” Torch Commando” to fight the National Party’s plans to implement Apartheid and call for an early election to remove what they regarded as ‘fascist’ government from power.

In Sailor Malan’s own words, The Torch Commando was: “established to oppose the police state, abuse of state power, censorship, racism, the removal of the coloured vote and other oppressive manifestations of the creeping fascism of the National Party regime”.

To understand why the returning war veterans felt this way about the National Party, consider that during the war the National Party had aligned itself with pro Nazi movements inside South Africa as well as taking a neutral stance on the Smuts’ declaration of war.  To understand the men now in power and the prevailing political mood of war veterans in 1950 follow these links to related Observation Posts:

“Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag

South Africa’s Nazi Spy or “Struggle Hero”? – Robey Leibbrand

South African Pro Nazi movements – Oswald Pirow’s New Order

Pro Nazi movements in wartime South Africa – the SANP “Greyshirts”

The Torch Commando can best be described as a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and in its manifesto it called for Liberty, Freedom of Speech, Liberty from Tyranny and Freedom of Religion. Sailor Malan’s personal politics (which he brought into the Torch) revolved around universal franchise and addressing poverty in the black community and economic empowerment as a priority to political reform. Ironically, Sailor Malan was years ahead of his time in this regard, as it is only now that politics in South Africa is focusing on economic emancipation ahead of political emancipation.

The key objective underpinning the Torch was to remove the National Party from power by calling for an early election, the 1948 ‘win’ by The National Party was not a ‘majority’ win, but a constitutional one, and the Torch wanted a groundswell to swing the ‘service’ vote (200,000 in a voting population of a 1,000,000).  The Torch at its core was absolutely against The National Party’s Apartheid ideology and viewed their government as  ‘unconstitutional’ when they started implementing policy.

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Torch Commando protest – note the slogans ‘this government must go’ and ‘they plan a fascist republic’.

Other issues also sat at the core of the Torch, one issue was the Nationalist’s headstrong policy to make South Africa a Republic, whereas the ‘servicemen’ had fought alongside the British commonwealth and the ‘Allies’ (mainly Britain, United States and Russia) in the Second World War – and they wanted South Africa to retain its Dominion status, remain a ‘Union’ and remain part of the Commonwealth of Nations.

As a pro-democracy’ movement it regarded the National Party’s policies as ‘anti-democratic’.  The Cape Coloured franchise removal was the first action of the National Party to implement the edicts of Apartheid, so it stood to reason that this was the first issue to protest against.

The Cape Coloured franchise was protected in the Union Act of 1910 by an entrenched clause stating there could be no change without a two-thirds majority of both houses of Parliament sitting together. The Nationalist government, with unparalleled cynicism, passed the High Court of Parliament Act, effectively removing the autonomy of the judiciary, packing the Senate with NP sympathisers and thus disenfranchising the Cape Coloureds.

Inserted is a picture of a rare manifesto artefact of Torch Commando manifesto (freedom been the central theme) and Sailor Malan at a Torch Commando Rally in Cape Town with 10,000 South African WW2 veterans on protest.

Sailor Malan famously accused the national party government at this rally of:

depriving us of our freedom, with a fascist arrogance that we have not experienced since Hitler and Mussolini met their fate”.

Wartime singing icon Perla Gibson also attended the Torch Commando anti apartheid rally in Cape Town and sang to the protesters in support. Perla was known as the ‘Lady in white” and sang to incoming and outgoing troops in Durban harbour during WW2 to beef up morale.

Insert – Kmdt Dolf de la Rey (left) and Perla Gibson (right) at the Cape Town Torch Rally

Of extreme interest was co-leader of the Torch Commando rally in Cape Town – Kmdt. Dolf de la Rey – he famously captured Winston Churchill during the Boer War fighting for the Boers and became an anti-apartheid activist after WW2, another one of the rich tapestry of Afrikaner war heroes in conflict with National Party politics and philosophy.

Follow the below two links to view film footage of The Torch Commando in action:

The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!

‘New’ rare footage of The Torch Commando in action, the first mass protests against Apartheid by WW2 veterans.

During the Cape Town “Torch” 50,000 civilians joined the 10,000 veterans when the protest moved to hand over a petition at the Parliament buildings in Cape Town. The police barred the way and a scuffle broke out. 160 Protesters where injured along with 15 Policemen.

In a speech at a massive Johannesburg Torch rally involving over 75,000 war veterans and civilians (try and envisage that – 75,000 people on an anti-apartheid protest in downtown Johannesburg – a protest that size had never been seen before), standing outside City Hall in Johannesburg,  Sailor Malan made reference to the ideals for which the Second World War was fought:

“The strength of this gathering is evidence that the men and women who fought in the war for freedom still cherish what they fought for. We are determined not to be denied the fruits of that victory.”

The Torch Commando fought the anti-apartheid legislation battle for more than five years. At its height the commando had 250 000 members, making it one of the largest protest movements in South African history.

DF Malan’s nationalist government was so alarmed by the number of judges, public servants and military officers joining the organisation that those within the public service or military were prohibited from enlisting, lest they lose their jobs – in the long-term this pressure led to the gradual erosion of the organisation.

Also the National Party government, being extremely concerned about the influence this movement might have, especially under the leadership of the war hero tried to discredit the Torch Commando and its leaders through means of negative propaganda. For the rest of his life, Sailor would be completely ignored by the government. The National Party press caricatured him as “a flying poodle”, dressed in his leathers and flying goggles, in the service of Jan Smuts and the Jewish mine-bosses, who were referred to as the “Hochenheimers”.

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Torch Pin

Despite this, Sailor continued to fight against the violation of human rights in South Africa with the same passion and moral fibre that allowed him to fight so vigorously against fascism and racism during the Battle of Britain. His dream of a better, democratic life for all in South Africa not only urged and carried him forward, but also caused him to be shunned by and isolated from his white National Afrikaner countrymen who were blinded by the short-sighted racial discrimination of their government.

He would become known to them as a traitor and an outsider of “another kind”. DF Malan, during his term as Prime Minister, would refer to him as “an imported British officer” and it was due to his own integrity that he would, towards the end of his life, turn his back on the oppression and immorality of the country he loved so much. His individual brilliance as the Spitfire fighter pilot during the heroic battle in the skies above London and the British Channel were not enough to bring victory in this struggle.

In 1963, Sailor Malan, one of the most famous fighter pilots in the history of the Royal Air Force, lost his fight against Parkinson’s Disease and died at the young age of 52. The funeral service was held at St. Cyprians Cathedral and he was laid to rest in his beloved Kimberley.

An inconvenient truth

It is to the embarrassment now as to his treatment as a South African military hero that all enlisted South African military personnel who attended his funeral were instructed not to wear their uniforms by the newly formatted SADF (the government did not want a Afrikaaner, as Malan was, idealised in death in the fear that he would become a role model to future Afrikaaner youth).

All requests to give him a full military funeral were turned down and even the South African Air Force were instructed not to give him any tribute. Ironically this action now stands as testimony to just how fearful the government had become of him as a political fighter.

In the national obituary issued to all newspapers by the government, no mention was made of his role as President of the Torch Commando and his very strong anti apartheid views.

This systematic removal of Sailor Malan’s legacy by the National Party and the education curriculum is also tragic in that Sailor’s role in the anti-apartheid movement is now lost to the current South African government.

It would be an inconvenient truth to know that the first really large mass action against Apartheid did not come from the ANC and the Black population of South Africa – it came from a ‘white’ Afrikaner and a mainly ‘white’ war veterans movement, which drew it members from the primary veterans organisations in South Africa – The Springbok Legion, the South African Legion and Memorable Order of Tin Hats (for its impact on these veteran organisations to this day see The Torch’s impact on the South African military veteran diaspora!).

The simple truth – the Torch Commando preceded the first ANC “Defiance Campaign” by a couple of years, an inconvenient truth for many now and very conveniently forgotten.

To those who served with the Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron anytime between 1936 and 1945 Sailor Malan was the greatest leader of them all. As a small token of their esteem, 28 of those remaining presented a ceremonial sword to the Squadron in July, 1966, at Headquarters Fighter Command, in proud memory of Sailor and in honour of his exceptional service to the Squadron.

It was intended that this Sword should serve as an inspiration to those coming after, so that his high standards of courage, determination and leadership shall live on.

To remember Sailor’s calm and heroic line going into battle “Let’s cut some cake. Let ’em have it!” is to remember a man of remarkable courage.  A man who in all honestly lived by  his beloved squadrons motto, and can say in all truth;

19437652_1982409038654751_1420497074088337846_n“I Fear No man”

A motto that holds true to him as one of the greatest ‘fighter pilots’ of the war, but equally so as a ‘freedom fighter’ standing up against a morally corrupt government for human rights.

Concluding video

To conclude Sailor Malan, visuals often better reflect words, and this is a landmark video on Sailor Malan which balances his fighting and political deeds.  This time Sailor’s legacy has been carried forward by “Inherit South Africa” in this excellent short biography narrated and produced by Michael Charton as one of his Friday Stories – this one titled FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend.


Story for The Observation Post, written and researched by Peter Dickens

References Wikipedia. South African History On-Line (SAHO), South African History Association, Wikipedia ,Neil Roos: Ordinary Springboks: White Servicemen and Social Justice in South Africa, 1939-1961.  Kimberley Calls and Recalls. Life Magazine, 25 June 1951.  Video footage, Associated Press – source Youtube.  Images – Imperial War Museum copyright and Associated Press copyright.  Friday Story video copyright Inherit South Africa – Michael Charton.

A Beaufighter, a Bible and a Badge

55908_146382762236864_626950629_oHaving known Lt. Steve Stevens DFC, I remain in total awe of his generation.  I met him in Wothing in England and Steve was 96 years young bed-ridden, in pain and weak – but he was no less the man, and this famous featured image of him firing rockets from his South African Air Force (SAAF) Beaufighter during WW2 says everything about him as a fighter pilot, but he was also a devout Christian who pioneered missionary aviation, leading a rich and interesting life.  This is a little of his very remarkable story.

Steve Stevens was born on 27th August 1919 in Amesbury, Dorset. His father George was gassed in Salonica during WW1 and was sent to a special medical facility in Aberdeen for mustard gas victims, and he met and married Dora, one of the VAD’s.

Steve’s father was not expected to live past 40. However, in typical Stevens fashion George Alexander Stevens took no notice of this pronouncement and his health improved enough for him to take up a new assignment in the British Army of Occupation in Germany. The family was billeted in a huge house complete with stables, and young Steve was delighted to be placed in the care of a beautiful young fraulien. Steve adored her, and from her learned to speak German better than he could speak English.

However, George’s health deteriorated and after the family was moved around from Switzerland (where Steve became proficient in skiing, jumping and skating), Italy and Ireland on various Army assignments, on medical advice it was agreed that George Stevens’ lungs would not survive the wet European climate, it was recommended that he was to be invalided out of the army and moved to somewhere nice and warm and dry.

So it was that the family left for a life on a farm in South Africa in November 1929. George’s health improved, but Steve’s mother Dora suddenly fell ill and died of a brain tumour when Steve was only 14.

When World War 2 broke out Steve was at the Bible Institute of South Africa. With the decision to close the college for the duration, some of the students joined the Ministry, and Steve joined the South African Air Force (SAAF). Steve was convinced that the prayers offered three times a day by his father and stepmother would keep him safe during the war. Steve joined the SAAF as a trainee air photographer, but soon re-mustered as aircrew.

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A Beaufighter

During the War Steve flew air strikes over Yugoslavia with SAAF 19 Squadron, based at Biferno in Italy. These strikes included the daring raid on the occupied walled town of Zuzenberk. The image of Steve firing his rockets is one of the two iconic Beaufighter images of the war. It is astonishing to realise that Steve could accurately hit a target as small as a 44 gallon fuel barrel with his rockets.  In Steve’s words;

“This photograph is widely recognised as one of the most famous Beaufighter air- strike photo of WWII. It shows my plane attacking the Nazi-held medieval walled town of Zuzenberk, Yugoslavia.  The attack by the South African Air Force resulted in the Yugoslav Partisans recapturing their town that very day.”   

10419987_398890630280675_310774668078404600_nAnd this is the photograph, the SAAF Bristol Beaufighter TF Mark X of No. 16 Squadron South African Air Force seen in the image is been flown by Lt Steve Stevens as he releases its rocket projectiles at an enemy target in the town of Zuzemberk.

The photograph was taken by Lt. Schonveld flying just behind Lt. Stevens (SAAF 19 squadron) who’s Beaufighter is in view while attacking a target in Zuzemberk Feb 1945. Schonveld was a keen photographer and positioned his aircraft in a perfect position behind Stevens to capture this epic shot with the nose camera, but he flew a bit too close and ended with dents in his wings from spent 20mm shell cases from Steve’s aircraft.

Take the time to watch this short video interview of Steve Stevens by Tinus Le Roux, as to how this photograph was taken. It is as insightful as it is fascinating.

Copyright Tinus Le Roux

This photograph is historically well-known and has been published in many writings. It shows the aircraft, fired rockets and target simultaneously in a perfect balanced setting, indeed very rare.

Luckily for all of us, we get to preserve unique insight as both SAAF 16 and 19 Squadrons had unofficially mounted F.24 camera’s in the nose of their Beaufighters which took photographs during their attacks so that reconnaissance  aircraft did not have to over fly later to asses the battle damage.

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In another raid Steve also photographed Major Tilley attacking the armed German warship SS Kuckuck as Tilley’s number two. It was a desperate sortie which Steve and his fellow pilots fully expected to be a suicide mission. The rockets holed the target under the waterline. The pilots had been briefed by the Partisans that they would face the fire from 140 anti-aircraft guns. Remarkably all four planes returned safely.

Tinus Le Roux interviewed Steve Stevens to capture this attack on the SS Kuckuck, his short video is fascinating, a capture of a man and a time that is truly remarkable, take the time to watch it (many thanks to Tinus for bringing this experience to us)

Copyright: Tinus Le Roux

A Bible

Lt Steve Stevens DFC had a very remarkable life, deeply God-fearing, religion was a very central pillar in all of it.

After the war ended, in 1946, as liaison officer between the South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force in Khartoum, Sudan Steve saw how badly the Christian missionaries needed a plane, not only just to spread the word of Christ, but also to get aid (medicines, foodstuffs and equipment) to remote communities.  He joined the MAF, the ‘Mission Aviation Fellowship’ – a group of pilots dedicated to Christian missionary becoming MAF’s first operational pilot to be based in Sudan in 1950.

Early-WingsIn Sudan, Steve flew a de Havilland Rapide – an eight-seater twin-engine wood and fabric covered biplane – not best suited for flying in Africa, but the best MAF could find and afford at that juncture. Over time, more and more airstrips were hacked out of jungle, bush, desert and grasslands, and Steve began to fly to other places where no planes had ever been before.

At the end of 1951, Steve experienced some problems with his vision, diagnosed as a detached retina and he lost the sight in one eye.  He was grounded , however Steve still felt that his call was still to aviation missionary work so he and his family moved to the UK. He re-established MAF’s UK HQ and worked tirelessly to raise financial, staff and prayer support for the ministry.

29351857_2114964225399231_7455946665119351885_oIn 1970, after more than twenty years of service to the MAF cause, Steve and his wife Kay moved on to become early members of the National Festival of Light, forerunner of today’s CARE organisation. Steve later became Executive Director of Australian Festival of Light.

A Badge 

Steve Stevens remained a great advocate and supporter of  veterans associations, the MAF and his Christian charities and institutions, throughout his life and was active in his backing all of them until age and frailty forced him to slow down a little, but not entirely, Steve even continued to use the internet and podcasting Christian messaging from his frail care bed.  He also actively ran his own website to sell his work and outreach his messages, he became an avid author of all his adventures,  his book on his time in the war called “Beaufighter over the Balkans” is a welcome addition to anyones library.

12274761_1701525626743095_268284195502034384_nI met Steve Stevens, when the South African Legion of Military Veterans initiated an outreach to him to see if there was anything we could do to help him as a frail care WW2 veteran in his 90’s, I was astounded when he replied that he was at peace with himself and how could he help the Legion instead.  Steve then kindly donated signed copies of his books to the Legion so that we could fundraise for other initiatives.  Cameron Kinnear and I visited him at his home in England and awarded him a lifetime honoury membership of the South African Legion, and we pinned his SA Legion ‘veterans badge’ on his lapel.

Steve passed away in June 2016 and is survived by his children – Merle, Pam, Coleen and Tim – in addition to his grandchildren.  His veterans badge was given back to the SA Legion by his family and, as means of keeping people like Steve in living memory his badge was loaned to me to wear.

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This was an extraordinary man you can easily attribute words and values which would describe him as ‘noble’, ‘selfless’, ‘adventurous’, ‘brave’, ‘humble’ and most importantly a man with a solid backbone, unwavering in his belief and demonstrating that rare value of spiritual self actualisation ‘completely at peace with himself and the world’.

This man was cut from a very different cloth to the rest of us mortals, and it is with the greatest pride that I wear his veterans badge and an even bigger privilege that I am allowed to carry his memory.

Capt. Peter Dickens (Retired)


Written by Peter Dickens. Image Copyright: Imperial War Museum. Information Tinus Le Roux and Sandy Evan Haynes.  Thanks to Cameron Kinnear for the extraction from his visit with Steve Stevens. Video (SA Legion UK stories: South African Legion UK and EU), “SAAF Beaufighters attack a German Ship – WW2 Pilot Steve Stevens DFC” Produced and Directed by Tinus Le Roux, copyright Tinus Le Roux. “How one of WW2’s greatest rocket air strike photographs was taken: Steve Stevens DFC” Produced and Directed by Tinus Le Roux, copyright Tinus Le Roux.