When the SAAF went to Warsaw, we Remember – 1st August 1944

Take a few minutes out of your day today to remember the 1st August 1944 and watch “The Men Who Went to Warsaw”: The Warsaw Uprising Airlift 1944 – a short dramatisation and interviews of the brave South African men who actually went on this mission.

Produced by Tinus le Roux as a non commercial historical archive, this film and others he has produced, all aim to capture the stories of South African Airmen in WW2 before they are lost.

70 Years ago, 13 August 1944; the first South African Air Force Liberators took off on a suicidal mission to Warsaw. This was the start of arguably one of the most daring and tragic series of missions ever flown by heavy bombers as they had to fly at night only 450 feet high at landing speed over the enemy infested city.

Watch and learn their story.

South African D-Day Hero: Tommy Thomas MC

Today we profile another one of those South African heroes who served with the Royal Navy Commandos on D Day and who went on to win a Military Cross for Bravery – Lieutenant D.C. “Tommy” Thomas MC from Maclear in the Transkei.

12074843_501711933331877_2278790879846881223_nHis most painful recollection of D-Day was the stormy passage he and his contingent had to undergo in crossing the Channel in their landing craft.The seas were running high, and hardly a man escaped sea sickness. They landed in the second wave at first light, their boat receiving a direct hit as they approached the shore, half-a-dozen men being killed, and Thomas found himself up to his neck in water after having jumped form the landing craft as it struck the beach.

The Commandos, having “dumped” their steel helmets, promptly donned their green berets as they went ashore, it being “more comfortable”.  They had a specific job to do which was to connect up as soon as possible with the paratroops who had dropped further inland, and encountered fire, but “did not wait to deal with the resistance at the coast, pushing inland instead with all speed”.

28947594_1680931308655261_7193057698211176449_o

Royal Marine Commandos attached to 3rd Division move inland from Sword Beach on the Normandy coast, 6 June 1944.

It was “tough going through the minefields but they got there”. “And were the paratroops glad to see us!” remarked Lt. Thomas, who further remarked that for the next few days none of them knew much of what was happening, and could not be sure whether the invasion was a success or not.

All they knew was “that in their own sector on the left flank of the beach-head they were kept hard at it”, and the toughening they had had in advance was to prove more than useful.

According to plan, they kept on the move all the time -”frigging about” as it was called in Commando terminology, snatching some much-needed sleep in slit-trenches during the day, while at night they were patrols or raids to be carried out. It was while returning from one of these ”nocturnal excursions” that Lieutenant Thomas shared with his sergeant and another man “the benefit of a German hand-grenade”, and was to later return to England with several “little shrapnel souvenirs still in his leg”, but otherwise was “none the worse for wear”.

Commenting on how the Normandy landings compared to his time in North Africa, Lt. Thomas was to say that “it was worse”, elaborating that “for one thing, in the Desert, you could see whom you were fighting, but in Normandy most of the time you couldn’t.”

Lt. Thomas was also to add that he was wondering how he would “be able to settle down on the family farm in the Maclear district of the Transkei after all this excitement”.

Military_CrossLt Thomas won the Military Cross (MC) for his actions in World War 2.  A significant decoration, it is awarded for gallantry in combat. The MC is granted in recognition of “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land to all members, of any rank in Our Armed Forces”.

The unfortunate truth is that it was highly likely that his participation in D Day ultimately killed him years later. After the war but he developed an alcohol dependency problem whilst suffering with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), very sick he eventually shot himself when he was also diagnosed with cancer. A real tragedy and the end of a fine South African hero, close family and fiends described him as an AMAZING man, brave, humble and very caring.

People who knew him well said he was never the same after the war, and today we honour his extreme sacrifice and we will remember him.

Related Links and Work of South Africans during D Day:

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

Lyle Mckay South African bravery on D Day, Capt. Lyle McKay.

Cecil Bircher South African D Day Hero: Lt. Cecil Bircher MC

Anthony Large South African D Day hero: Anthony Large BEM

Royston Turnball Supreme South African heroism on Omaha Beach, Lt. Royston Turnbull DSC


Posted by Peter Dickens. Reference – Two South African “Royal Marine” Commandos and the D-Day Landings, June 1944 By Ross Dix-Peek.

Photo of Tommy courtesy and copyright of his old girlfriend – Mrs A Mason (from Mrs Mason’s personal album), with grateful thanks.

Pride in “Rooi Lussies”(red tabs), branded “Rooi Luisies” (Red Lice) by some.

WW2 South African propaganda poster, promoting the ‘Red Oath’ and the special volunteer epaulette flash worn by all who took the oath and volunteered for service during World War 2.

This poster is designed to swing opinion in the Afrikaans community where the wearing of the red flash was seen as an oath to the British and viewed by some as betrayal. In these sections of the Afrikaans community they where called ‘Rooi Luisies’ (Red Lice) instead of ‘Rooi Lussies” (Red Tabs), as a means of degrading those who volunteered.

The Red Oath was devised by the Union government to legally allow South African Forces to serve in the war.

The first German General to surrender his forces in WW2 – surrendered to the South Africans

Nugget of South African military history, the very first German General to formally surrender his forces to the Allies during the Second World War – surrendered to the South African forces in the North African theatre of operations.

Generalleutenant Artur Schmidt was the first German General to formally surrender to a Allied General which was General De Villiers (Commissioner of the South African Police) and Commander of the South African 2nd Infantry Division.

As part of General Rommel’s skillful retreat in December 1941 to the El Aghelia – Marda strongpoint in Libya, key defensive actions where set up at Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Bardia. On 30 December 1941, South African troops supported by a heavy air, sea and land bombardment began their attack on Bardia. A counterattack on the city’s perimeter slowed the advance, but supported by tanks the South Africans launched their final assault on 02 January 1942 to take the city. Seen here on that day is General Schmidt formally surrendering himself and the Italian and German forces under his command to the South Africans.

Ironically the South African 2nd Infantry Division would themselves all become captured at the Fall of Tobruk by Rommel’s German Afrika Korps and other Axis forces on 21 June 1942.

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 14.14.16Note the identification patch of the South African 2nd Infantry Division on the person standing on the far right of the image.

Not to be confused with the “capture” of Generalleutnant Johann von Ravenstein a couple of months earlier by New Zealand soldiers.   There is a big difference between a formal surrender of forces to an opposing force, than simply been randomly ‘captured’ driving around in a staff car and taking a wrong turn as General von Ravenstein was. General von Ravenstein did not “surrender” himself nor did he surrender any German forces.

Ironically General von Ravesnstien served the first part of his POW life in South Africa before been shipped of to Canada.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens. Thank you to Sandy Evan Haynes for the background information and to Marc Norman for the image.

The worst maritime loss off Durban’s coast; The sinking of the SS Nova Scotia

This rare colour image of U Boat 177 is at the heart of one of the worst maritime losses off South Africa’s coast during WW2 – this is the story of the sinking of the troopship SS Nova Scotia just off Durban by U177.  An “own goal” really as the SS Nova Scotia was returning with fellow Axis Force “Prisoner of War” Italian servicemen.

crew uboat watchout guard tropical binocular2

Rare original colour image of German submariners on the coning tower of U-177 conducting a watch.

During the Second World War, Durban was the embarkation and disembarkation port, first for the East African and Abyssinian campaigns and later for those in the Middle East and Italy. A large military hospital operated at Springfield and hospital ships plied between the port and the theatres of war in the north.

One such ship was the 6 796 ton SS Nova Scotia, belonging to the Furness Withy Group which had been converted into a troop carrier, operating mainly between Durban and ports along the African east Coast all the way up to the Suez. She carried troops from Durban to the “North” and on the return passage carrier Italian Prisoners of War (POW) to South Africa.

Nova-Scotia

SS Nova Scotia

SS Nova Scotia sailed from Massawa, in Italian East Africa (modern day Eritrea), on 15 November 1942 carrying 765 Italian POW’s, 134 British and South African guards and 118 crew.

Just after 06:00 on 28 November 1942 the Commander of U-boat 177, Kapitanleutnant Gysae, apparently sighted smoke from the SS Nova Scotia off the Zululand coast of Natal. Just after 09:00 U177 fired three torpedoes which struck the SS Nova Scotia who sank within 7 minutes. It appears that only 1 lifeboat was successfully launched leaving the rest of the survivors clinging to bits of the wreck.

U177 surfaced to establish the identity of the ship that they sank, but was unable to do so due to the chaotic situation. Two survivors were taken aboard for intelligence. German U-boat Command did inform the Portuguese authorities of the sinking of the SS Nova Scotia. As a result of this, the Alfonso de Albuquerque out of Lourenco Marques reached the scene of the sinking on 29 November 1942 and managed to rescue 190 survivors. Another survivor was picked up by a Destroyer three days later while a fortunate Italian POW floated ashore at Mtunzini two weeks after the incident.

Many of the casualties were washed ashore on the Natal (Kwazulu-Natal) beaches. 118 of the Italian POW’s were buried in a common grave in the Hilary Cemetery, Durban. Three crosses initially marked the grave, but in 1982, using a donation from the survivors of the SS Nova Scotia still living in Mozambique a new memorial was erected. This comprised a circular tomb topped by a broken stele rising from the waves inscribed with the words “To the memory of the Sons of Italy who were overcome by the ocean in the sinking of the S/S ‘Nova Scotia’ XXVIII-XI-MCMXLII The survivors sheltered in Mozambique”.

Since then the 118 casualties from the “SS Nova Scotia” have been exhumed from the Hilary Cemetery and along with the remains of the 35 Italian POW’s who died in the Natal Province are now buried in the grounds of the “Master Divinae Gratiae” Church, Epworth Road, Mkondeni, Pietermaritzburg. The church was built by Italian POW’s in 1944 and is today a South African National Monument.

The only woman to survive the ordeal was Alda Ignisti (later Lady Taylor) who, along with her daughter Valcheria, was on her way to Durban having been stranded in in Italian East Africa (modern day Eritrea) following the death of her husband.

U-177 also met with a watery grave – on 6 February 1944, she was sunk in the Atlantic west of Ascension Island, in position 10°35′S 23°15′W Coordinates: 10°35′S 23°15′W, by depth charges dropped by a PB4Y aircraft from US Navy Squadron VB-107. 50 men were lost; 15 survived, they were picked up by USS Omaha.

Similar to the sinking of the SS NOVA SCOTIA, here is U 177 again – however this time the ship shown sinking in the photo is the American ship MS ALICE F. PALMER – sunk by U-177 south of Madagasgar off the east coast of Africa on the 10th of July 1943.

supporting-poppy-appeal


Information source –  Charles Ross, additional research by Peter Dickens. The colour photo of U-177 is from the personal album of Burkhard Heusinger Von Waldegg who was the first watch officer of U-177 – here is an image of him above – seen standing on the right.

Sailor Malan; in his own words!

Sailor Malan – a true South African WW2 flying ace and national hero “in his own words” – and here is a very rare recorded interview with him.

This is a fantastic historical record of a personal interview with the great WW2 South African fighter ace Adolph “Sailor” Malan, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar.

Note in this recording, clearly taken as a public relations exercise to install confidence in the British public in the Royal Air Force and it’s pilots by the public broadcaster (there were a series of these interviews involving other pilots).  Because of this, Sailor Malan comes across as a little over-confident and quite flippant.  Its intentional and designed to make killing Germans sterile and combat adventurous.

He also adopts a very plummy British ‘officers’ accent so common to the tone and manner of speaking of this particular officer class during the war, both in Britain and in the Commonwealth.  His ‘flat vowel’ South African accent sneaks in here and there, but in all Malan was a very well-educated and travelled man and his command of the English language was exemplary (as was his command of Afrikaans).

Also noteworthy is Sailor Malan’s WW2 era cultural expressions, delivery and sayings which were so typical to Allied Air Force officers at the time – terms like:

“Hun” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term insinuating barbarism dating to the First World War.
“Squirt” – meaning a short burst of gun or cannon fire.
“Jerry” – meaning Germans – a derogatory term pertinent to the Second World War.
“Pumping Lead” – meaning a high rate of machine gun or cannon fire ‘pumped’ into the enemy to kill him
“Tally Ho” – a British fox-hunting term meaning to spot a target and call to action.
“Cut yourself a slice of cake” – a favourite term used by Sailor Malan (and other pilots) meaning to get into the fight and have a piece of the action.

Related work on Sailor Malan:

Sailor Malan’s role in the Battle of Britain and the Torch Commando: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

Sailor Malan’s Ten Rules of Air Combat: ‘Ten of my rules for air fighting’ – Sailor Malan

The Torch Commando – footage and history: The Torch Commando led South Africa’s first mass anti-apartheid protests, NOT the ANC!


Researched and written by Peter Dickens

Reference: YouTube.  Painting by Derrick Dickens, copyright Peter Dickens.  Photograph copyright – Imperial War Museum

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.

Steve Stevens cr.jpg.opt854x383o0,0s854x383

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.

ss7

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.

ss4

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.