South Africans destroy 101 Enemy Aircraft in East Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image copyright: Imperial War Museum

Proper South African Gladiators

Wonderful colourised image by Tinus Le Roux of South African Air Force pilots during the East Africa campaign in WW2.

Here are No. 2 Squadron pilots in East Africa 1940-’41 (Gladiator aircraft in the background). From left to right: Lt. Pieter Fritz, Lt. Adrian “Coley” Colenbrander, Lt. Basil Guest. Only Lt. Guest will survive the war.

Lt. Colenbrander was a popular member of the squadron and was shot down and killed in 1942 just after the El Alamein break-through as 2 squadron’s Officer Commanding.

The Gloster Gladiator’s combat record  in East Africa

In Eastern Africa, it was determined that Italian forces based on Ethiopia posed a threat to the British Aden Protectorate, thus it was decided that an offensive would be necessary, under which the Gladiator would face off against the Italian biplane fighters: Fiat CR.32s and CR.42s. On 6 November 1940, in the first hour of the British offensive against Ethiopia, the Fiat CR.42 fighters of the 412a Squadriglia led by Capt. Antonio Raffi shot down five Gloster Gladiators of 1 SAAF Sqn; among the Italian pilots was the ace Mario Visintini. Tactically, the SAAF aircraft erred by engaging the CR.42’s in a piecemeal fashion and not en masse, and were anyway heavily outnumbered.

Early on in the action, Gladiators of No. 94 Squadron performed various offensive actions against the Italian forces; typical targets included airfields, supply depots, and aircraft. They were also assigned the mission of defending Aden airspace at day and night, as well as to protect Allied shipping operating in the vicinity. It was in the latter role that saw a single No. 94 Gladiator, piloted by Gordon Haywood, be responsible for the surrender and capture of the Italian Archimede-class submarine Galilei Galileo

On 6 June 1941, the Regia Aeronautica had only two serviceable aircraft remaining: a CR.32 and a CR.42, therefore air superiority was finally achieved by Gladiators and the Hurricanes. The Gladiator’s last air combat with an Italian fighter was on 24 October 1941, with the CR.42 of Tenente Malavolti (or, according to historian Håkan Gustavsson, sottotenente Malavolta). The Italian pilot took off to strafe British airfields at Dabat and Adi Arcai. According to the Italian historian Nico Sgarlato, the CR.42 was intercepted by three Gladiators and managed to shoot down two of them, but was then itself shot down and the pilot killed.  Other authors state that Malavolti managed to fire only on the two Gladiators before being shot down.

According to Gustavsson, SAAF pilot (no. 47484V) Lieutenant Lancelot Charles Henry “Paddy” Hope, at Dabat airfield, scrambled to intercept the CR.42 (MM7117). Diving on it, he opened fire at 300 yards. Although the CR.42 pilot took violent evasive action, Hope pursued, closing to 20 yards and firing as it tried to dive away. There was a brief flicker of flame and the last Italian aircraft to be shot down over East Africa spun into the ground and burst into flames near Ambazzo. The next day the wreckage was found, the dead pilot still in the cockpit. Hope dropped a message on Italian positions at Ambazzo:

“Tribute to the pilot of the Fiat. He was a brave man. South African Air Force.”

But operational record books of the Commonwealth units in the area state that they did not suffer any losses on this date. The dedication of the posthumous Medaglia d’oro al valor militare states that Malavolti shot down a Gladiator and forced another to crash land, but was himself shot down by a third Gladiator. This was the last air-to-air victory in the East African campaign.

Original black and white Photograph from the SAAF museum Colourised photo copyright and courtesy of Tinus Le Roux, and my thanks to Tinus for the caption reference.  Reference – wikipedia

Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

On 21 February 1917, during World War I, this chartered troopship – the SS Mendi – containing a full battalion of South African Native Labour Corps men and officers on its way to the western front was rammed in fog conditions in the English Channel. The SS Mendi sank in 25 minutes with the loss of 616 South Africans and 30 British.

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The greatest tragedy was yet to come as due to racial prejudice this event was somewhat down-played through the years and not enough recognition given to these men, something the South African Legion and the South African National Defence Force is now working very hard at redressing.

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Darro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

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SS Daro

Darro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge.

They were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha who called them together to die like warriors and brothers – what he said is now legendary.

He said “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

They took off their boots, picked up imaginary spears and shields and performed an African war dance, a dance of death.

Thus, together, as brothers they chanted and danced on the tilting deck, facing death with unparalleled bravery until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

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British officers going aboard the Mendi in Calabar, November 1916.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water. A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived. The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

The sinking was described first hand by Captain Lewes Hertslet of the Royal Army Medical Corps who survived the sinking when he was pulled out of the water by black South African troops and gave his account of the incident in 1940.

“I remember the jump into the bitter cold sea, the sinking below the surface, and the coming up again, the swimming to the boat that had been let down from our ship, and then cut adrift,  I felt my hands gripping the side as the rowers drew alongside us.” Hertslet remembers himself saying “Goodbye, my strength has gone” and then feeling the strong hands of a black trooper gripping his wrists and holding him up. “Then several others caught me around the chest and shoulders and dragged me, nearly dead, into the boat and so I am saved. Nearly 200 others were also saved, and all of us who are still alive remember the Bantu and Europeans who went bravely to their deaths on that black day of the last war.”

Although the then Prime Minister Louis Botha brought the South African Parliament to attention in remembrance of the tragedy and the impact to the community, convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom. South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable.

Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decades.

After World War 1, none of the black servicemen on the Mendi, neither the survivors nor the dead, or any other members of the South African Native Labour Corps, received a British War Medal or a ribbon. Their white officers did (i.e. commissioned and non commissioned South African Labour Corps officers – whites only).

The War Medal was issued by the British to all who participated in World War 1 fighting for Britain and her Empire. The decision not to award it to Black South African servicemen was a South African government decision and South African government alone. Black members of the South African Labour Corps from the neighbouring British Protectorates of Basutoland (modern Lesotho), Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Swaziland did receive medals, as the government in these territories approved the issue.

Initial approaches are now been made to the British government by the SANDF Attache in London to see if this issue can be redressed and medals struck (this initiative and continuous drive must come from the South African government, time will tell whether they will achieve this), a memorial “commemorative” medal have also been struck for surviving family members and will make up part of the Centenary commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi.


The British War Medal with King George V bust, the medal in question and King George V who is seen here inspecting N.C.O.’s of the South African Native Labour Corps at Abbeville, 10 July 1917.

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

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Rev. Isaac Williams Wauchope Dyobha (1852-1917) – see insert picture, our hero who called all to the death dance on the SS Mendi was a rather remarkable man – he was a prominent member of the Eastern Cape African elite in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Congregational minister, political activist, historian, poet and ultimately the legendary hero in the Mendi disaster.

As a Lovedale student he joined a missionary party to Malawi, he was instrumental in founding one of the first political organisations for Africans, a staunch ally of John Tengo Jabavu and an enthusiastic campaigner for the establishment of the University of Fort Hare. For over 40 years, from 1874 to 1916, he was a prodigious contributor to newspapers, submitting news, comments, announcements, poetry, hymns, history and biography, travelogues, sermons, translations, explications of proverbs and royal praise poems. He used nom de plume Silwangangubo, Dyoba wo Daka and Ngingi and published The Natives and their Missionaries in 1908.

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This is a recent picture of a diver on the wreck of he SS Mendi and an artefact recovered from the wreck.

The Mendi sinking is considered one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the South African military, and was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century in British waters.

For South Africans this is especially important as there are very few physical reminders of this tragedy, such as this photograph BASNC plate courtesy of David Wendes.

Some small things can be seen on the wreck, such as some of the plates that the men would have eaten off. It was the crest of the British and African Steam Navigation Company on some of these plates that allowed divers to identify the wreck as the Mendi.

For many years in South Africa the only memorial to these men was a life ring with the words “SS Mendi” on it on a railing in Simonstown, South Africa and the Hollybrook Cemetery Memorial which listed all the names of the SS Mendi missing in Southampton, England.

Happily this suppression of Black South African contribution to WW1 is no-longer the case, after 1994 memorial statues to the SS Mendi memorials now exist in Pretoria, Cape Town and Johannesburg.  Memorial services are held countrywide and form part of the SANDF’s Armed Forces Day (Mendi Day).  Awards and decorations for Bravery in the name of the Mendi have been issued, and the South African Navy has named two ships – the SAS Mendi (a Valour class Frigate) and the SAS Isaac Dyobha (a Warrior class Strike-craft).  Memorial services are also regularly held overseas in Southampton England and Noordwijk Netherlands.  A dedicated exhibit now also takes up place at Delville Wood in France.

The image to the left of the Atteridgeville memorial is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and President Nelson Mandela unveiling the memorial to the SS Mendi in Soweto, South Africa.

The immediate recognition of this event by the British government in 1995 was one of the first acts by the Queen on her return to South Africa – she had last been in South Africa in 1947 and was prevented from visiting again as South Africa had “resigned” from the Commonwealth in the intervening years of Apartheid.

Once South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994, such was the importance and urgent need to recognise this tragic event as a fundamental building block to nation building it took centre stage of Royal visit not seen in South Africa for 47 years.

The Centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi passed in February 2017, and after all was said and done by way of ceremonies aboard the SAS Amatola and at Hollybrook in England and all the speeches and praises by visiting politicians to the United Kingdom completed, it was the military veterans (who were largely left out of the fanfare), who continue to carry this flame of remembrance for their ‘brothers’.

This point was most poignantly expressed by The South African Legion of Military Veterans in deed, after the SANDF and fanfare returned home, the SA Legion performed a most subtle but very striking dedication when the wreck was dived in an official dedication ceremony held in August 2017 by the SA Legion; England Branch Chairman – Claudio Chistè (a ex SA Navy Diver) doing the honours.  They then placed a plaque on the wreck itself in dedication and in permanent memory of their ‘brothers’.

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Wartime beach defences and legendary hospitality

During the Second World War South Africa became a central destination for British, South African as well as other Commonwealth nurses, soldiers, sailors and airmen for a little ‘R&R” (Rest and Recuperation) – especially Durban and Cape Town. Seen here in this famous LIFE magazine image are servicemen on South Africa’s beaches enjoying some of the prettier sights and sun that South Africa has to offer.

In fact many veterans fondly remember South Africa’s hospitality during the war years as the country really opened their arms and welcomed them.

Note during wartime even both the strategic ports of Cape Town and Durban’s beaches were heavily guarded against invasion with barbed wire beach obstacles.

Image copyright – LIFE Magazine

 

German Fighter Ace befriends a Black South African POW & defies the Nazi status quo!

This is an extraordinary featured photograph for a variety of reasons. This is Hauptmann (Captain) Hans-Joachim Marseille, the German WW2 Fighter Ace known to the Axis Forces as “The Star of Africa” on the extreme left and Corporal Mathew ‘Mathias’ Letulu, a South African Prisoner of War who was pressed into becoming his ‘batman’ (personal assistant to an officer) in 1942 but eventually became his close and personal friend, is seen on the extreme right of the photograph.

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It’s quite intriguing that Hans-Joachim Marseille had a South African assistant on the one hand when on the other hand he was the most feared of the German Pilots in the North African campaign, arguably one of the best combat pilots the world has ever seen,  he clocked up quite a number of South African Air Force “kills” in his enormous tally of destroying well over 100 Allied aircraft – consisting mainly of aircraft from the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the South African Air Force (SAAF).

It’s equally a measure of Hans-Joachim Marseille as a man in that he directly baulked against the Nazi policies of racial segregation and openly befriended a Black man, especially amazing considering his role as a senior commissioned officer in the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and hero of the Reich.

Over time, Marseille and “Mathias” Letulu became inseparable. Marseille was concerned how Letulu would be treated by other units of the Wehrmacht and once remarked

“Where I go, Mathias goes.”

Marseille secured promises from his senior commander, Neumann, that if anything should happen to him (Marseille) Cpl “Mathias” Letulu  was to be kept with the unit. Unusual behaviour for a German officer in the Third Reich, but Marsaille was no card carrying member of the Nazi party, in fact he despised them.

No ardent Nazi

In terms of personality Hans-Joachim Marseille was the opposite of highly disciplined German officer, he was “the funny guy” and almost kicked out of Luftwaffe several times for his antics. The only reason he wasn’t was because his father was a high ranking WW I veteran and an army officer and Hans-Joachim Marseille tested how far this protection would go.

If you look “misbehaving scoundrel” in dictionary there should be an image of Hans’ smirking face next to it. On one occasion he actually strafed the ground in front of his superior officer’s tent. He could have been court marshalled for that alone, but by  then he was starting to demonstrate his superior pilot skills as an upcoming Fighter Ace.

He hated Nazis and he despised authority in general and always had strained relations with his authoritarian father who was the model of a strict Prussian officer. Hans was truly the opposite of his father.

His American biographers Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis recall in ‘The Star of Africa’ that he once landed on the autobahn simply to relieve himself. Tired of his undisciplined behaviour, a superior officer had him transferred to North Africa in 1941. Here he thrived, his dazzling record earned him the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, and acclaim at home. But the record suggests he was no ardent Nazi.

He listened to banned Jazz music openly, drank a lot and sometimes showed up to service smelling of booze and in hangover, he was a known womanizer, going against Nazi ideology in every possible manner – and getting away with it.

An incident happened which really shows the metal and attitude of the man. It occurred when Hans-Joachim Marseille was summoned to Berlin as Hitler wanted to present him with decorations.  As a gifted pianist Marseille was invited to play a piece at the home of Willy Messerschmitt, an industrialist and the designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter Marseille had achieved so much success in.

Guests at the party included Adolf Hitler, party chairman Martin Borman, Hitler’s deputy and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. After impressing them with a display of piano play for over an hour, including Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, Marseille proceeded to play American Jazz, which was considered degenerate in Nazi ideology. Hitler stood, raised his hand, and said “I think we’ve heard enough” and left the room.

Magda Goebbels found the prank amusing and Artur Axmann recalled how his “blood froze” when he heard this “Ragtime” music being played in front of the Führer.

But a more telling incident of his attitude to Nazism was to come. On one occasion when he was summoned to Germany, he noted that Jewish people had been removed from his neighbourhood (including his Jewish family Doctor who delivered him) and grilled his fellow officers as to what happened to them – what he then heard were the plans for the Final Solution – the extermination of the Jews of Europe. This shocked him to the core and he actually went AWOL (Absent without Leave), he became a de facto deserter and went to Italy were he went into hiding ‘underground’.

The Nazi German Gestapo (Secret Police) however managed to track him down and forced him to return to his unit where other pilots noticed that he appeared severely depressed, concerned and wasn’t anything like his normal happy self that they were used to.

Friendship with Corporal Mathew Letulu

Marseille’s friendship with his ‘batman’ (personal helper) is also used to show his anti-Nazi character. In 1942 Marseille befriended a South African Army prisoner of war, Corporal Mathew Letulu. Marseille took him as a personal helper rather than allow him to be sent to a prisoner of war camp in Europe.

“Mathias” was the nickname given Corporal Mathew Letulu by his captors. Cpl Letulu was part of the South African Native Military Corps and was taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) by the Germans on the morning of 21 June 1942 when Tobruk and the defending South Africans under General Klopper were overrun by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

‘Black’ POW where treated differently to White ‘POW’ by Nazi Germany, instead of mere confinement under the conventions, Black POW were but to unpaid ‘labour’ assisting the Nazi cause, resistance to which was a grim outcome.  Letulu was put to work by the Germans – initially as a driver. The vehicle belonged to 3 Squadron of Jagdgeschwader – or Fighter Wing – 27 (JG 27) based at Gazala, 80km west of Tobruk. Here, Letulu came to the attention of the reckless and romantic Hans-Joachim Marseille.

By this time Letulu had advanced a little in his lot to a helper in 3 Squadrons club casino, where he took a particular liking to Marseille.  In need of personal assistants for officers (known in the military as a “batman”) some POW’s where snapped up by German Officers, Hans-Joachim Marseille was no different and Cpl Letulu was taken on initially as his batman, but very quickly became a close friend.

Marseille knew that as his kill score grew, the chance of him being pulled from the front lines increased every day, and if he was to be taken away, Cpl “Mathias” Letulu, who because he was a black man, might be in danger given the Nazi racial philosophy. With utmost seriousness, he had his fellow pilot Ludwig Franzisket promise to become Mathias’ protector should Marseille lose the capability to be in that role.

Corporal Letulu also knew that by sticking with Marseille he stood a better chance of surviving the war and eventually escaping, and because they viewed each other in an extremely positive light, Letulu made Marseille’s life in the combat zone as comfortable as possible.

The following on their unique bond comes from “German Fighter Ace – Hans-Joachim Marseille, The life story of the Star of Africa” by Franz Kurowksi.

“Through few odd twists of fate Hans had Mathew assigned to his personal assistant but he treated him in every way like a friend, having long talks with him and possibly even sharing alcohol and listening to music together, just hanging out like a couple of friends who happened to be in a war and on different sides.

Besides Mathew, Hans would often see other captured Allied pilots and talk to them in English and socialise. Hans would also violate a direct order not to notify the enemy of the fate of their pilots – he would take off solo with a parachute note explaining the names of the captured pilots and that they were alive and well.  As he flew over enemy airfields to drop these notes he would be attacked by AA fire, so he was risking his life to let the families of his enemy pilots know that the pilots were alive and well – or dead, removing their MIA (Missing in Action) status.  According to various sources he was like that. Person who believed in chivalry who’s country was taken over by Nazis.

Eventually Hans would become even protective of Mathew especially against the Nazis”

The “Star of Africa”

Hans-Joachim Marseille’s record of 151 kills in North Africa where nothing short of staggering – he destroyed Allied (RAF, SAAF and RAAF) squadrons shooting down One Hundred and One (101) Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk/Kittyhawk fighters, 30 Hawker Hurricane fighters, 16 Supermarine Spitfire fighters, Two Martin A-30 Baltimore bombers, One Bristol Blenheim bomber; and One Martin Maryland bomber.

color Hans-Joachim Marseille with Hawker Hurricane MkIIB of 274. Squadron RAF, North Afrika - 30.3.42 (coloured)

Hans-Joachim Marseille with Hawker Hurricane MkIIB of 274. Squadron RAF, North Afrika – 30 March 1942 (coloured)

As a fighter pilot Marseille always strove to improve his abilities. He worked to strengthen his legs and abdominal muscles, to help him tolerate the extreme ‘G forces’ of air combat. Marseille also drank an abnormal amount of milk and shunned sunglasses, to improve his eyesight.

To counter German fighter attacks, the Allied pilots flew “Lufbery circles” (in which each aircraft’s tail was covered by the friendly aircraft behind). The tactic was effective and dangerous as a pilot attacking this formation could find himself constantly in the sights of the opposing pilots. Marseille often dived at high-speed into the middle of these defensive formations from either above or below, executing a tight turn and firing a two-second deflection shot to destroy an enemy aircraft.

Marseille attacked under conditions many considered unfavourable, but his marksmanship allowed him to make an approach fast enough to escape the return fire of the two aircraft flying on either flank of the target. Marseille’s excellent eyesight made it possible for him to spot the opponent before he was spotted, allowing him to take the appropriate action and manoeuvre into position for an attack.

In combat, Marseille’s unorthodox methods led him to operate in a small leader/wingman unit, which he believed to be the safest and most effective way of fighting in the high-visibility conditions of the North African skies. Marseille “worked” alone in combat keeping his wingman at a safe distance so he would not collide or fire on him in error.

In a dogfight, particularly when attacking Allied aircraft in a Lufbery circle, Marseille would often favour dramatically reducing the throttle and even lowering the flaps to reduce speed and shorten his turn radius, rather than the standard procedure of using full throttle throughout. Emil Clade said that none of the other pilots could do this effectively, preferring instead to dive on single opponents at speed so as to escape if anything went wrong.

Marseille’s  South African associations went beyond his bond with Cpl “Mathias” Letulu and was far more lethal in respect to South African pilots.  In the weeks before the two met, Marseille is credited with shooting down three SA Air Force pilots west of Bir-el Harmat on May 31, including Bishops’ old boy Major Andrew Duncan (who was killed), and three days later, another six South African Air Force “kills” in just 11 minutes, three of whom were high-scoring aces. One of them, Robin Pare, was killed in the combat.

Death of Hauptmann Hans-Joachim Marseille

On 30 Sep 1942, Marseille’s brilliant total record of 158 career-kills came to an end (151 of them with JG 27 in North Africa).

After the engine of his Bf 109G fighter developed serious trouble, he bailed out of the aircraft close to friendly territory under the watchful eyes of his squadron mates. To their horror, Marseille’s fighter unexpectedly fell at a steep angle as he bailed out, the vertical stabilizer striking him across the chest and hip. He was either killed instantly or was knocked unconscious; in either case, his parachute did not deploy, and he struck the ground about 7 kilometers south of Sidi Abdel Rahman, Egypt.

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Messerschmitt Bf 109F-4 , Hans Joachim Marseille, colorised picture.

His friend and fellow JG 27 pilot and Knights Cross recipient Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket along with the squadron surgeon Dr. Winkelmann, were the first two to arrive on the scene, bringing Marseille’s remains back to the base.

Mathias was the first to greet them, and the following is accounted from a memoir by Wilhelm Ratuszynski.

Although the heat didn’t encourage any activity, something told Mathias to wash Hans’ clothes. Hans liked to change into a fresh uniform after the flight. He always liked to look presentable. Mathias opted to use gasoline this time. They wash would dry in just few minutes.

Usually, this was done by scrubbing uniforms with sand to rid it of salt, oil and grime. Everything was in short supply. Being a personal batman for Hans-Joachim Marseille, the most famous Luftwaffe pilot, had its advantages. For instance he was given a little of aircraft fuel for washing. Mathias liked being Jochens servant and he liked Jochen himself.

They were friends. Mathias had barely started his chore, when the sound of approaching aircraft signaled to ground personnel to change torpidness for activness. Mathias put the lid on the soaking uniforms and started to walk towards the landing aircraft. He was looking for familiar plane which supposed to have number 14 painted in visible yellow on fuselage. It was supposed to land last. He noticed that three planes were missing, and last one to touch down had different number on it.

Unalarmed, he turned toward Rudi who had already jumped on the ground from wing of his 109. He saw Mathias coming and cut short his conversation with his mechanic. His face was somber when he looked at Mathias and slowly shook his head. And Mathias understood immediately. He kept looking straight into Rudi’s face for few more seconds, slowly turned and walked away. He noticed a strange sensation. No anger, sorrow, grief, nor resignation. He was calm yet something gripped his throat. Muscles on his neck tightened and he found it hard to swallow. He walked for few minutes without noticing others who were staring at him. He came to Jochen’s colorful Volks (volkswagen car) called “Otto” and sat behind steering wheel. For a moment he looked like he wanted to go somewhere, but climbed out and approached the soaking uniforms.

He looked at the canvas bag with initial H-J.M laying right beside it. He reached into his breast pocket for matches. Slowly but without any hesitation he struck a match and threw it on the laundry. Flames that burst out added to the already scourging heat. At that moment last rotte was flying in. Mathias intuitively lifted his head, following them. The lump in his throat got bigger.

While the entire squadron was devastated at the loss of such a great fighter ace, Mathias, despite having known Marseille only for a short time, was deeply depressed at the loss of a dear friend.

Marseille was initially buried in a German military cemetery in Derna, Libya during a ceremony which was attended by leaders such as Albert Kesselring and Eduard Neumann. He was later re-interned at Tobruk, Libya.

 Ludwig Franzisket

After Marseille’s death,  as promised to his friend, Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket took Cpl Letulu in, and in turn he became his personal servant. Cpl Letulu remained with the Squadron even after Franzisket was forced to bail out whereby he too struck the vertical stabilizer, shattering a leg in the process. After been nursed to health, Franzisket returned to his Squadron and Cpl Letulu continued serving him in Tunisia, Sicily, and finally Greece.

By the summer of 1944 the situation there had grown critical with a British invasion of the Greek continent imminent. The chance had come to “smuggle” Cpl. “Mathias” Letulu into one of the hastily established POW camps, where he could then be “liberated” by the British. Franzisket planned this coup together with Hauptmann Buchholz. “Mathias “became “Mathew” again and was a corporal in the South African Division. Everything went off without a hitch. He was set free by British troops in September of 1944 and allowed to return home at the end of hostilities.

Reunion 

By coincidence, after the war, former members of JG 27 learned that Cpl “Mathias” Letulu was still alive. They immediately sent him an invitation, paid for the journey and other expenses, and finally, at the tenth reunion of the Deutsches Afrikakorps in the fall of 1984, they were once again reunited with their old South African friend.

The former pilots were elated to see him and invitations rained from all around. The following words, spoken in German as a tribute to Hans-Joachim Marseille by “Mathias” Letulu at the happy conclusion of his odyssey, and it gives some insight into the bond which had united Letulu with his German friend:

“Hauptmann Marseille was a great man and a person always willing to lend a helping hand. He was always full of humor and friendly. And he was very good to me.

In 1989, a new grave marker and a new plaque was placed at his grave site; Marseille’s surviving Luftwaffe comrades attended the event, including his Allied friend – Mathew “Mathias” Letulu who flew out specifically from South Africa to attend the ceremony.

Related work and links:

Rommel’s aide-de-camp;  Rommel’s aide-de-camp was a South African

Jack Frost, The South African Air Force’s highest scoring Ace – Jack Frost


Researched by Peter Dickens

Skin colour is irrelevant in a foxhole!

The culture of owing a debt of gratitude to South Africa’s military veterans is sorely lacking – for all of them, then and now.  But especially to these very forgotten South African “Black, Indian and Coloured” WW1 and WW2 heroes of which the current generation really does have little or no understanding.  It’s truly a tale of the suppression of history and the fight for recognition.

The featured image is a very rare photograph of South African medics in combat in WW2 during the Italian Campaign, dramatically caught running stooped under intense fire to stretcher bear a wounded man out of the combat zone. What is even more interesting is the make-up of these South African 6th Armoured Division medics. Here we have men from the South African Cape Corps, the South African Native Military Corps and the South African Indian Service Corps all involved in this casualty evacuation.

The politics of the day had an odd philosophy underpinning it. During the Second War the South African Union Defence Force still differentiated and segregated Corps according to race. However such was the odd politics of the time that men drawn from the Cape Coloured and Indian communities into their respective corps could function in combatant roles and carry firearms – as well as non combatant roles – such as a medic. However Black men drawn into the Native Military Corps (NMC) could not function in a combatant role and where not allowed to carry firearms – although they could carry a spear when on guard duty. They could however step into harms way in combat and put their lives on the line, as is seen here doing stretcher bearing as a medic.

All this politically driven segregation mattered not a jot when the bullets started flying around. This picture stands in stark testimony to this.

The separation of these men became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances combat units quite quickly also “unofficially” issued firearms to their NMC members

As is often the case in combat, and many veterans will attest to this, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

There is certainly no such thing as segregation when it comes to your fellow countrymen from across the racial spectrum risking their lives to save one of their own countrymen in a full blown firefight – as is so demonstrably shown here. These are all South African heroes – it’s that simple.

During the Second World War Black, Coloured and Indian South African community and political leaders, agreed to support the South African Union government’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany and send members of their community into the fight. The hope was that it would buy them more political currency and leverage at the negotiation table after the war for extended rights and political representation. Initially it looked like this would pay off as Jan Smuts and his United Party proposed giving qualified franchise votes to Black citizens whose service in the military was also deemed as such a qualification.

Unfortunately this very progressive way of thinking did not sit well with the National Party and their supporters and they used it as a Political “race” card in their campaigning in the 1948 elections. So much s that they rather unexpectedly and very narrowly won the elections and ousted Jan Smuts and the United Party.

The true tragedy was yet to come.  Not only was all this sacrifice and valour in vain – the National Party went to great lengths to further marginalise these soldiers – denying them medical aid, reduced pensions and excluding them as veterans from Remembrance and Military Parades, as well as denying them access to veterans facilities and organisations.

It was not unusual to find a small grouping of Native Military Corps veterans sitting under a tree away from the national parade with their medals proudly flickering in the sunlight, telling their war stories to anyone prepared to take the time to listen to them.  Excluded, forgotten and vanquished as traitors for serving “Britain” by the reigning Nationalists.

The political philosophy of the time substantially down-played the contribution of “non white” servicemen lest heroes be made of them. History in South Africa would record both the First and Second World War’s as a white man’s one – when nothing can be further from the truth.

It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published – which was that 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”. In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.

This forgotten and “lost” valour is something South Africa’s oldest and most prestigious veterans organisation – The South African Legion of Military Veterans, has been fighting for from day one; at times the Legion went to serious loggerheads with the government of the day over pensions and representation for these men. The South African Legion eventually won the fight on pensions by the late 1980’s, when equal pensions where finally awarded these men.

We as South Africans need to work to address the historic void created by political posturing at the detriment of the country’s forgotten WW1 and WW2 heroes. This is why the recognition of the sinking of the Mendi and other commemorations becomes so important – it’s our duty as South African veterans to uphold honour where honour is well due. Not only to these men, but to anyone who has served in South Africa’s defence forces.

Image – SANDF Archive, Researched by Peter Dickens