South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 12 July 2012 was Mr Michael Schoeman, the author of five books in the series Springbok Fighter Victory (with a sixth and final volume to be published towards the end of the year). His topic paralleled the theme of his books - an illustrated outline and concise history of the S.A. Air Force fighter squadrons in World War 2.

Our speaker introduced his talk by pointing out that the record of a mere ten SAAF fighter squadrons in combat, three more at home and the equivalent of four or five more in seconded pilots, does not seem to be of much consequence in the larger story of the Second World War, in which hundreds of squadrons were deployed by the major participants. Nevertheless their achievements were important and significant.

Three SAAF fighter squadrons, without any form of fighter control organization, won air superiority in East Africa in 1940/1941 and played a vital role in the first conclusive Allied victory in WW2.

In North Africa during the years 1941 to 1943, the four SAAF fighter squadrons constituted about 20% of the fighter force, largely RAF, but they helped to win air superiority and prevented the Axis forces from capturing the Suez Canal and the oil fields that lay beyond.

In the subsequent Sicilian and Italian campaigns of 1943 to 1945, our seven fighter squadrons (with a large number of pilots seconded to RAF and other squadrons) and five more guarding the eastern Mediterranean flank, also made a significant contribution to the final allied victory. Many pilots seconded to RAF squadrons served in Northwest Europe and in the Far East during 1940 to 1945. There were also South Africans in the Fleet Air Arm. This contribution has not always been properly acknowledged in many of the books written about the air war.

In spite of unsuitable aircraft and other restrictive factors, the SAAF fighter pilots scored some 500 victories during WW2, over 400 of these by the SAAF squadrons and the rest by attached or seconded pilots.

Mr Schoeman explained that Maj John "Jack" Frost was the SAAF's top-scoring fighter ace. He pointed out that the term "ace" for a pilot with five or more confirmed victories to his credit was not formally accepted by the SAAF at that time. Those fighter pilots whose characteristics were good leadership and discipline, coolness under fire and technical acumen were the men who counted in the eyes of the SAAF.

Considering that there were only six SAAF fighter squadrons which saw more or less continuous combat service, as well as the seconded pilots, the number of 23 "aces", albeit with low scores, is quite good by WW2 standards considering that, in the latter part of the war, there was little or no opposition from the enemy air forces and much of the action was in the form of fighter-bomber sorties. There were 160 other pilots with scores of between 3 and 5, several with additional shared victories. Of course many of the aircraft shot down were repaired and taken back into use, by both sides.

When the Union went to war in 1939, the SAAF was little more than an enlarged flying club. Advertising by the British RAF in local newspapers had already attracted numerous aspirant pilots, such as Adolph "Sailor" Malan, "Dutch" Hugo and Marmaduke Thomas St. John "Pat" Pattle (famous names in the years to come) as there was very little chance of getting into the SAAF under the restrictions imposed by the pre-war economic depression.

The number of fighters in the SAAF was ridiculously small. Six bi-plane Hawker Furies had been purchased in 1936. A small number of early production Hawker Hurricane Mark 1s arrived in Durban in February 1939. Flight times from Durban to Waterkloof AFB were about 70 minutes. The first SAAF pilots to feel the shock of air combat were mostly Permanent Force personnel. The large number of wartime volunteers only saw action from 1941 onwards.

Nobody had realized that the basics of air combat are immutable so the combat experience acquired by the South Africans veterans who had served in the RFC/RAF in WW1 was regarded as out of date.

When Italy declared war in June 1940 her forces quickly conquered British Somaliland. The RAF had only a few obsolete aircraft and one flight of fighters and they were quickly reinforced by the SAAF, with its few obsolescent aircraft and bombers converted from South African Airways Junkers Ju-86 airliners.

The SAAF were supplied with Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters and some Hurricane Mk 1 fighters. Some Gladiators were sent to the Sudan and Egypt in May 1940 and the rest of the Hurricanes and Furies remained in Kenya. There was no air control or radar coverage apart from a few South African designed radar sets, and hand-built in South Africa, stationed at Mombasa and later at Mogadishu. These were used for early warning only.

In this campaign, fought over an area nearly the size of the Russian front, the three SAAF fighter squadrons carried out patrols, fought the Italians in the air over their key points and strafed their airfields, destroying aircraft on the ground before they could take off. The SAAF pilots claimed more than 70 aircraft shot down in the air and about 90 more destroyed on the ground.

Our speaker showed us a number of slides of captured Italian and SAAF aircraft, as well as a picture of the "state of the art" early warning system in use in East Africa at the time - an askari up a tree with a Hurricane parked in the scanty shade under the tree. The East African campaign was the last fought with a largely bi-plane fighter force.

Mr Schoeman then discussed some of the difficulties encountered by the SAAF during the campaign. Their aircraft were exposed to the blazing sun and the men were housed in tents. Ground crews were often not available and pilots sometimes had to refuel their own aircraft using 10 gallon/45.5L cans. They had to load their own ammunition belts at night, taking care not to cause stoppages. Aircraft spares were usually not available and great ingenuity in effecting repairs was usually required. Lt Lockhart, No. 3 Squadron's engineer officer, replaced damaged Gladiator propellers with trimmed-down Savoia propellers - this improvised field remedy actually increased the Hurricanes' speed! Pay, fuel - and beer -stocks were frequently a problem. The well-known service grouse was "one per day, per man, perhaps".

In addition, there were the wild animals prowling and growling close to the SAAF camps and the nuisance of having the motor transport vehicles getting stuck in the mud when it rained.

Regia Aeronautica pilots had served in Spain and during the conquest of Abyssinia. Capt St Elmo Truter (later well known as "The Saint") won the first air battle when he hit a Fiat CR-42 fighter which had attacked him. It crashed whilst trying to make a forced landing. Flight-Lieut. Blake, a South African serving in the RAF, gained the second victory when he shot down a Caproni CA-133.

Major Laurie Wilmot, the senior SAAF fighter pilot, was shot down by a Fiat during a strafing mission and was captured but released when his Italian captors were overrun by SA ground forces. As a colonel later in the war he commanded a wing of three RAF fighter squadrons. The East African campaign quickly increased the SAAF's "learning curve" of combat knowledge. The SAAF's greatest feat in East Africa was Capt Jack Frost's defence of a Transvaal Scottish encampment during which he shot down four out of five Italian aircraft, including three bombers.

Our speaker then discussed the North African campaign and SAAF fighter pilots taking part in this. SAAF pilots attached to the RAF were in action in North Africa from 1940 onwards. Bob Talbot became the first South African serving with an RAF squadron to become an ace before the SAAF in East Africa had scored five victories in total. Our speaker showed a slide of a Messerschmitt Bf-109F which was restored by No. 7 Squadron and which is now in the Ditsong National Museum of Military History (Johannesburg War Museum). He explained that the German fighters in North Africa were superior to those of the RAF in 1941 and 1942. The standard RAF fighters were the Hawker Hurricane and the Curtis P-40 Tomahawk and the slightly faster Curtis P-40 Kittyhawk.

The Luftwaffe fighter pilots did not indulge in dogfights, using their superior speed; they dived on Allied aircraft, fired and pulled up accelerating into the clouds, using the accumulated energy of their dives to get away. The RAF/SAAF fought better on a horizontal plane.

Our speaker showed us a slide of SAAF Kittyhawks taking off in line abreast formation and explained that this was the only way you could take off in the desert and avoid the obscuring dust clouds thrown up by the aircraft propellers, the erosive effect of which had considerable impact on shortening the combat life of aircraft engines.

Mr Schoeman then described the role of SAAF fighters as bomber escorts. Although our fighters lacked the margin of performance to aggressively sweep ahead of bombers, engaging enemy fighters attacking the bombers, SAAF Tomahawks and Kittyhawks would usually spot the 109's in time and, on numerous occasions, their excellent deflection shooting kept the Germans at bay.

In the skies above the critical Gazala and First Alamein battles of June/July 1942, most of the bomber missions were flown by the three SAAF bomber squadrons with a few by RAF Baltimores. Most of the escort work was done by Nos. 2, 4 and 5 Squadron's embattled Tomahawks and Kittyhawks and 250 Squadron's Kittyhawks. They were very effective and only one bomber was shot down by German aircraft during that critical summer of 1942. This was the greatest contribution by SAAF fighters during WW2. They flew many other missions in the Desert in 1941 and 1942, including patrols and fighter sweeps. Radar cover was less than perfect and fighter control was sometimes poor.

Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers were usually escorted by 109's and these gave the intercepting Western Desert Air Force (WDAF) fighters a hard time while they were concentrating on the Stukas. Despite this, the SAAF shot down three successive commanders of one of the Stuka units, 1./StG 3 (No. 1 Group/Stuka Squadron 3).

Our speaker detailed a number of instances in which the German records differed greatly from our record of the same events. One of the best-known of these was the SAAF's "Stuka Party" on 3 July 1942, directly above the 1st SA Division box at El Alamein. Cdt Bertie Simpson wrote in his history of the Rand Light Infantry (RLI) that there were so many Stukas crashing that one did not know which one to watch. No. 1 Squadron was credited with 13 confirmed victories but German records reflect no such losses on that day!

Mr Schoeman showed a slide of 5 Squadron mechanics shaving in the desert and pointed out that the RAF Officer Commanding (OC) of No. 233 Wing had the squadrons living in the open without tents in the interest of "mobility" even when they had their backs to the wall at the time of First Alamein in July 1942. Where he thought they would be going to nobody knows!

Wing-Commander Beresford RAF, in No. 233 Wing, sometimes complained that the SAAF pilots made too many belly landings when their fighters were damaged. Veterans have advised Mr Schoeman that nobody would readily belly-land his aircraft. Those who attempted to land a battle damaged fighter normally risked being tipped over, trapped and in some circumstances being badly burnt or burnt to death.

No. 1 Squadron finally got Spitfires (only Mark 5's) and they were the first in the DAF to shoot down a FW190. During the Battle of Alam el Halfa in September 1942, No. 7 Squadron lost most of two formations of Hurricanes in quick succession. Only one pilot, "Boots" Botha, survived to fly back to base on both occasions.

Our speaker next described the very difficult single-seat fighter rescue behind enemy lines in which Lt. Bob Kershaw rescued Maj. Jack Frost despite the narrowness of the cockpit. Lt. Kershaw was awarded the DSO for this feat. At least four other SAAF pilots repeated similar rescues in the Western Desert and three of these were under direct enemy fire. These rescues in the desert were particularly dangerous because the aircraft's undercarriage could easily be damaged on the rough and uneven surface of the desert floor.

Air Marshall Coningham described No. 5 Squadron's record as the "most proudly gallant in the WDAF'. They were the top-scoring squadron in the battle of Gazala. Lt. Deryck White of No. 4 Squadron was shot down above a British armoured brigade. His aircraft was in flames but he stayed in it to avoid crashing on the brigade's concentration. This cost him his life as he baled out too low. The brigade wanted to recommend him for a posthumous GC, but all he received was a Mention in Despatches.

The SAAF claimed more than 340 air-to-air victories during the North African campaign of 1940 to 1943, for a loss of about 200 aircraft. Some 200 others were lost on operations due to weather, flak, accidents, etc.

In September 1943, No. 7 Squadron fought in their by then outclassed Spitfire V's against the latest German Messerschmitt Bf-109G's over the island of Cos in the Aegean sea. They claimed at least 10 enemy aircraft shot down but lost seven of their own Spitfires, The Luftwaffe enjoyed the advantage of surprise because the RAF had not been able to set up their radar sets before Cos fell to the Germans.

No. 1 Squadron took part in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. The Italian campaign lasted until the end of the war in Europe, but most of the missions were flown against ground targets. More than 300 SAAF fighters were lost, mostly to flak, and many more were damaged by flak or in flying accidents. Many of the losses were due to the highly vulnerable liquid-cooled engines of the Spitfires, Mustangs and Kittyhawks. Even a rifle calibre round passing through the cooling jacket could lead to loss of coolant - which was sufficient for the aircraft's engine to seize or even catch fire. Many shot-down SAAF fighter pilots, however, successfully evaded capture, often with the help of Italian civilians or Yugoslav partisans to safely reach the Allied lines to again fight another day.

Both No. 7 and 8 Wings, SAAF, won many plaudits from the British and American armies for their close air support strafing and bombing missions in support of ground operations. They also attacked a variety of targets behind the German lines, including bridges and vehicles.

No. 1 Squadron, the first in the SAAF with Spitfire Mk VIII and IX variants, scored most of the air victories over the few German fighters encountered over the east coast of Italy and was the top scoring SAAF squadron with 165 kills.

No. 4 Squadron had the honour of being involved in the last aerial combat by a South African fighter squadron in 1945 when a section of four aircraft were engaged by some 20 Fascist Italian Me 109s, losing one aircraft while escorting No. 12 Squadron Marauders. More than 60 aircraft were shot down over Italy and the Balkans by the SAAF and seconded SAAF pilots. Numerous enemy aircraft were also caught on the ground in Yugoslavia (called "Jugland" by the pilots).

Seconded SAAF pilots serving in RAF squadrons were successful in aerial combat over the Tyrrhenian Sea on Italy's west coast and over the Anzio beachhead. The seconded pilots included major Albert Sachs who attacked a flight of Fw 190's on his own and Major John Gasson with five victories, who was described by his Group Captain as 'one of the bravest men I ever knew'.

One of the seconded pilots, Ray Veitch, came down in the Adriatic in a P-51 Mustang on three occasions, being rescued each time, twice by the same Catalina. The AOC of Desert Air Force made him Honorary Commodore of the DAF Yacht Club, should this ever be formed!

A small number of the seconded SAAF pilots took part in the memorable siege of Malta. Keith Kuhlman was the top scorer with four confirmed victories, followed by "Zulu" Swales and "Baby Face" Bartelman. Swales arrived on the island as a lieutenant and, a few months later, became the first SAAF pilot to command a RAF squadron as a major. On Malta you either learnt to survive or you were dead!

Some seconded SAAF fighter pilots were sent to Singapore shortly before it fell and to the Dutch East Indies in 1942. In India and Burma some 50 SAAF pilots served in Buffaloes, Hurricanes, Spitfires and Thunderbolts in the years 1942 to 1945. Here the RAF and SAAF fighter pilots had to use the German "dive - zoom - climb" tactic against the Japanese fighters which had such incredibly low wing loadings that they had a tighter turning radius so that they could easily turn inside their opponents - so combat by dogfighting on a one-on-one basis was tantamount to suicide.

Some SAAF pilots were attached to the Chindits in Burma as air liaison officers. One of these, Buck Rogers, was ordered by Brig "Mad" Mike Calvert to eliminate some Japanese positions. You did not argue with Calvert! Our intrepid pilot - without any infantry training - carried out the order, to Calvert's satisfaction. Only much later when Rogers asked for a transfer to Spitfires, did Calvert realize that this was no army officer but an air liaison officer. His only comment was, as he later wrote in his book about the Chindit operations, "...he did a good job, and if they will wear the pips of an army captain, they must expect things like that". (SAAF pilots' rank structure has since its inception and up to the present day been the same as that of its army counterparts and did not follow the example of the RAF rank structure and nomenclature, as did most Commonwealth countries do. The USAF - like the SAAF - is also an exception to this rule.)

Mr Schoeman penultimately discussed the work of the home defence squadrons, who never fired a shot in anger. In this context he mentioned the Yokusuka E14Y1 "Glen" reconnaissance seaplane which was launched from a Japanese I-100 class submarine. It is thought (but as yet not confirmed) that one of these undertook reconnaissance flights - undetected - over Durban (and possibly East London and Port Elizabeth as well).

He concluded his well-illustrated talk with a brief account of the seconded SA Naval Force fighter pilots who served in the Fleet Air Arm. Some flew Grumman Hellcats and one of them, Lt E T Wilson DSC, had the best scoring rate of any South African fighter pilot in either World War in any air arm. He met the Japanese on only four occasions in 1944/5 but scored on each of them, with 3 full, 3 half and 1 one-third victories.

Mr Schoeman praised the hard work and dedication of the ground crews who kept the fighters flying. The wartime SAAF and SANF personnel who fought the enemy (some 340 were killed) were all volunteers and we should honour their memory.

Cdr Mac Bisset thanked our speaker for his most comprehensive and interesting talk. He pointed out that Mr Schoeman's SAAF Fighter History series of books contains information drawn from squadron war diaries in the SANDF archives, pilots' log books and personal interviews with veterans. Many of the excellent photographs have never been published before. Cdr Bisset praised Mr Schoeman' dedication and hard work and said that he had performed a great service to South Africa in honouring our gallant fighter pilots. He then presented him with a gift on behalf of the society.

* * * * * * *


We welcome our speaker of this evening, Mr Michael Schoeman, who has joined the branch and hope to see him at our meetings in the future. He previously was a member of the Gauteng branch and in fact was one of the earliest members of the society, having joined within the space of a few months after the formation of the society in Johannesburg in 1966.

* * * * * * *


In line with our own local initiative to include at least two lectures per year as from next year to deal specifically with the coming centenary of WWI, a national initiative has also been launched which will include a broad spectrum of role-players, from historical societies to museums, governmental agencies and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, amongst others. It entails coordinating thoughts and activities to prepare a nationwide programme and coordinate it with international events. Your branch committee has already had discussions in this regard prior to the latest developments and will obviously discuss further means and ways through which we can be involved and contribute to a coordinated endeavour. Members are also encouraged to contribute or offer suggestions via the branch committee. Correspondence received in this regard will be attached as annexures to the current newsletter.

* * * * * * *



Our speaker for the evening will be fellow-member Robert (Bob) Buser, who will discuss various little-known aspects in the defence of the island, as well as the air and sea offensive actions undertaken from the island once the tide of battle turned in the favour of the Allies.

During World War Two the British Empire had three primary considerations: the home defence of the British Isles, the protection of the strategic outposts of the Empire that lay at its foundation, and the protection of the sea lanes that were critically important to sustain both the British Isles and the Empire, the one more often than not, at the cost of the other. The British Empire's strategic considerations were legion and caused many headaches as well as calling for many a heartrending decision which put the strategic interest of the Empire above that of loyal subjects of the Crown in some far-flung corner of the world. These interests started virtually on the doorstep of the British Isles and stretched halfway around the world: The English Channel, the North Sea, the North Western Approaches, the Atlantic Convoys, the "Rock" of Gibraltar, Malta, the Suez Canal, the Cape Defences, Ceylon, Singapore and Hong Kong, amongst others. Each has generated its own legends, its share of heroism, tragedy and steadfast endeavour. None, however, more so than Malta. Yet, paradoxically, very few people realise the full extent of Malta's heroic defence and the struggle of soldier and civilian alike to overcome all odds to survive. This is the story of Malta, the only piece of real estate under British suzerainty, and its people, to be honoured for valour by the collective award of Britain's George Cross during WWII.

The award was made by King George VI to the Governor of Malta by letter dated 15 April 1942, and worded:
To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history.

(Sgd) George R.I.
It will be an illustrated talk.


Maj Römer-Heitman's annual strategic review of the military and political situation in Africa is always well-received and this year again it should be no exception, especially in view of the fluidity of events in North, Central and East Africa. In addition to the standard geopolitical review of the continent's security status quo, Maj Heitman will also focus on the internal situation and a forecast of the future through analysing and discussing the current SANDF Defence Review.

Time permitting; Maj Heitman will also briefly discuss some little-known aspects regarding Special Operations in the Second World War, the topic of which will be: GERMAN SPECIAL OPERATIONS DURING WWII.

From the attendance figures of his previous talks it is easy to predict that the September meeting will result in a record turnout - please bear in mind that we have only limited parking and seating available, therefore arrive early, so as to avoid disappointment.

* Please note that due to the fact that the 2nd Thursday of August - our normal date for the monthly meeting - fell on the 9th, which was a public holiday. THE MEETING HAS BEEN POSTPONED FOR A WEEK, UNTIL THIS COMING THURSDAY, THE 16TH OF AUGUST.

BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /