South African Military History Society

NEWSLETTER No.263 Cape Town Branch


AIRCRAFT OPERATIONS IN THE GERMAN COLONIES 1911 - 1916 was the topic at our November 1999 meeting, presented by John Mahncke.

When it became clear at the beginning of this century that extended military operations in Germany's two major colonies, East-Af rica and Southwest-Africa, would require more than ground based reconnaissance, a number of interest-groups examined the question if Luftfahrzeuge might be used for this purpose. It took almost twelve years of buck-passing between various ministries, government departments and officials, for the concept to come to fruition. In the meantime, private initiative sent a Doppelpfalz aircraft, pilot Bruno Buechner, to Southwest-Africa in May 1914, and he performed a number of show flights to the delight of the locals, proving that aircraft could indeed fly in the tropics, although with certain reservations due to climatic conditions. From there he sailed to East Africa, was surprised by the war, and offered his aircraft to Lt.Col.v.Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the Schutztruppe. Unfortunately, Buechner could not fly long. Wounded by the fire of two Royal Navy gunboats during a scouting mission, (probably the same boats that took part in the bombardment of the German cruiser Koenigsberg, sheltering in the Rufiji Delta), he crashed and was hospitalized.

The first military pilots to arrive in Southwest-Africa during May and June 1914 with two bi-planes (Aviatik and Roland-Taube), were Lts.v.Scheele and Fiedler. They were well trained and their planes sufficiently equipped, so when war began in August 1914, and South African troops under Gen. L.Botha crossed the border, they started scouting immdiately in the north and south of the colony. They also harassed the South African troops with home-made bombs, returning with bullet holes in aircraft wings and body more than once, and also photographed camps and installations, supplying valuable information to the German command. On one occasion Lt.Fiedler crossed into Union territory and photographed troop concentrations near Steinkopf. For ten months the slowly deteriorating planes and engines, not really designed for this type of work, faced the dangers of an inhospitable country, enemy fire and engine and technical breakdowns, which resulted in emergency landings and crashes with injuries. But they carried on flying with great success until almost the end of the war in Southwest in July 1915, and with their courage and determination wrote a magnificent chapter in South African military history, albeit from the other side.

The roots of the South African Aviation Corps go back to December 1913. In August of that year, ten government candidates learnt to fly on two Paterson biplanes of the Paterson Aviation School at Alexandersfontein, Kimberley. Unfortunately, one pupil crashed with fatal results, and the plane was wrecked. Six of the group, who obtained their FAI certificates, were selected to travel to Britain for further training, and in June 1914 Kenneth v.d. Spuy became the first South African qualified military pilot. Early in 1915 v.d.Spuy and three other pilots were asked to form the SAAC in England with a view of fighting in Southwest-Africa to assist General L.Botha, and a proclamation by the Department of Defence in Pretoria established the Corps on 29 January 1915. Facing the less than helpful officers of the War Office, the RFC and the RN, they still mananged to procure six all-steel Farman aircraft and all equipment, and in May 1915 arrived in Southwest. Gen.L.Botha, who accompanied v.d.Spuy on a demonstration flight, afterwards declared enthusiastically: "Now I can see for hundreds of miles." But by then the war in the colony was almost over, no aerial engagement took place between the opposing aircraft, and the SAAC had to be content with scouting missions and random bomb drops. Two months later the unit was sent back to England to become No.26 (South African) Squadron of the RFC. Having been equipped with B.E.2c aircraft, they were shipped to East Africa, arrived in Mombasa in Jan 1916 and went into operation at once. For the rest of the year they were almost constantly on the move, flew photo/reconnaisance, bombed troops, bridges and railways, and kept up intercommunications in the thick bush and mountains. But the exhausting, fever-ridden climate took its toll, and aircraft and pilots of 26 Squadron, or what was left of it, returned to England at the end of 1916 and were disbanded.

Whereas Zeppelins were not directly involved in any of the colonies' battles, there was the daring operation of Navy airship L 59. On 21 Nov 1917 it left its base in Bulgaria with 14 tons of weapons and medical supplies for delivery to General v.Lettow-Vorbeck who still held out in the Makonde highlands against much stronger British forces. The 5.800 km trip of 4-5 days across a trackless void under a blistering sun was considered nearly impossible, and a return flight not expected. Two days later, and just west of Khartoum, they received a recall saying that the Schutztruppe had surrendered. However, the information was wrong, and v.Lettow-Vorbeck held out until the end of the war. The airship returned and arrived back at base after flying 95 hours and 6 700km non-stop, a superb achievement.

The most colourful career of any German pilot on an oversea's station was that of Oberleutnant z.See Guenther Plueschow, who was sent to the city of Tsingtau in the leasehold Kiautschou in Southwest China in June 1914. Two Rumpler-Taube aircraft arrived by boat, and the pilot acclimatized himself to the different flying conditions. Japan declared war in August and began shelling the city. Plueschow undertook scouting trips for the governor, but soon crashed when his engine cut out during landing. Since much of his second aircraft had disintegrated in the zinc crates, building a new plane from the remains of two, was a back-breaking job. When it was completed, Plueschow continued scouting, but with the final Japanese attack threatening in early September, he was told to fly out of the city to safety. He ditched his aircraft in a rice paddy 250 km on, and began an extraordinary voyage half around the world, ending in a POW camp in Britain. He escaped and returned to Germany in July 1915. It can be said in honour and memory of those flimsy, vulnerable, early aircraft, whether flying on the German or Allied sides, that they proved their worth beyond all doubt and under almost any condition, and their pilots' courage will never lose that specific nostalgic magnificence.


Although subscriptions for Associate Membership have remained the same for two years running, your Committee has been forced to raise subs slightly for this year. They are now R 35.- or R 40.- resp., mainly due to a rise in postage charges. Full Members will be asked to pay R 115.-or R 130.-, including increases from Johannesburg for printing costs of the Journal. Membership Renewal Forms will be sent with the next Newsletter.


13 January 2000

mainly Malaya, but incl. Vietnam and Singapore
Talk by the Rev. William Goble

10 February 2000

Talk by Prof.Kay de Villiers

9 March 2000

Talk by Maj Anthony Gordon


The well-known historian and researcher, Dr.Arthur Davey, died on 10th December 1999 after a tragic accident. Arthur Davey was known to many military- and other historians throughout the country. He had published a number of books on military history subjects, including the sieges of Ladysmith and Mafeking, and also the definitive work on "Breaker Morant". He had just finished a book for the Castle of Good Hope series on the Cape Town Guards during the Anglo-Boer War. He was a most prolific researcher and a great helper, encouraging many students, especially when he was Professor of History at UCT. His work on many aspects of the War Graves, The Simon's Town Historical Society and Museum, and his wonderful work for the Van Riebeeck Society will leave a big void to be filled. Our condolences go to his wife Elizabeth (van Heiningen), also an eminent historian, and all his family.

Meetings are held on the second Thursday of every month at 20h00, in the Recreation Hall of the SA LEGION'S ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road, Rosebank, opposite Rosebank Railway Station, below the line. Visitors are welcome. Tea and biscuits will be served. John Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) Tel.: (021) 797 5167

John Mahncke, (Vice-Chairman/Scribe), (021) 797 5167

South African Military History Society /