South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 10 May 2012 was Professor Derek Dickens whose subject was 2 Squadron SAAF in Korea 1950 to 1953. This was a follow on to his talk in April which gave a broad overview of the Korean War, with an emphasis on the air war and which was summarized in our May 2012 newsletter.

On the morning of 25 June 1950 the North Korean Army crossed the 38th Parallel in a full scale invasion with the objective of taking the whole of South Korea. This was possible as the North Koreans could field an army of 11 divisions, supported by 260 aircraft and 280 tanks. The South Koreans had only 38 000 men, ill-organized and ill-equipped with only 10 aircraft.

On 25 June 1950, the United Nations condemned the North Korean invasion and, two days later recommended that member nations should provide military assistance. Sixteen nations promised troops, some member nations offered medical assistance and the United States, Australia, Britain and South Africa promised aircraft.

The United States were first off the mark with troops from Japan and air force units from Japan, Guam and Formosa (now Taiwan). Other United Nations forces followed but the invasion proceeded south until it was stopped at the beachhead of Pusan. (Refer to last month's account of the Korean land and air war in general.)

On 4 August 1950, the South African government made 2 Fighter Squadron SAAF available for service in Korea. A squadron with a distinguished record in WW2, it was under-strength and required volunteers to bring it to full-strength. 200 men were required and some 1 426 volunteered for service. These were all men who had served in the SAAF during WW2. Training started and plans were made to move the squadron half-way around the world to Korea. The squadron, commanded by Cmdt S van Breda Theron and comprising 38 pilots, 12 general duties officers and 157 other ranks, set sail from Durban on 27 September 1950 in the Royal Inter Ocean liner Tjisadane. The allies by this stage had launched a vigorous counter-attack and the South Africans were worried that the war might be over before they reached Korea.

On 1 November 1950, the squadron landed at Yokohama to be welcomed by Gen Sir Horace Robertson, C-in-C of Commonwealth Forces, and Gen Pitcher USAF, together with an all-Negro band - a special gesture to the South Africans who were assumed to be black, being from Africa. Training started immediately and the squadron was supplied with a vast amount of tools, winter clothing and anything else that could possibly be needed. They were to be equipped with the propeller-driven, single-seat Mustang F-51D of WW2 fame. The aircraft had been in storage and needed a fair amount of maintenance. Four days later flying training started. The Americans assumed that the South Africans were novices but, after a display of aerobatics by Cmdt Theron, soon changed their attitude, having realised that all the SA pilots were in fact experienced fliers and to boot, combat veterans. By 15 November, nine pilots had been converted and 13 officers and 21 men were flown to Pusan K9 base with Cmdt Theron and his flight commanders, Captains Davis, Lipawsky, Odendaal and Badenhorst, who flew the first Mustang F-51Ds to K9.

This aircraft could reach a maximum speed of 760 kmh/475 mph at 6 095 m/20 000 feet and had an armament of 6 Browning 12,7 mm/0.50in machine guns, 8 rockets and 2 napalm tanks. It had one weakness - it was vulnerable to ground fire as its inline engine was water-cooled and its radiator was situated under the fuselage. It was used mainly for ground attack, aided by Corsairs from the aircraft carriers. The Americans used Harvards for forward air control, known as "mosquitos". The "mosquitos" would mark concentrations of enemy troops by firing smoke rockets and the fighter bombers would do the necessary.

On 19 November the first sorties were flown by Cmdt Theron and his flight commanders. As more Mustangs and pilots arrived the sortie rate rose and soon six sorties in the morning and six more in the afternoon were being flown. These were directed largely at the large number of Chinese now in action. The Chinese did not conceal their troop movements very well so large numbers of their men were killed on the roads as they were easy targets.

The South Africans were now part of the US 18th Fighter Wing and had moved to Pyongyang East airfield, known as "K24". K24 was nearer to the frontline but was attacked by North Korean aircraft. Many of these attacks were made at night by Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. These puttered round the airfield, too slow to detect, every so often dropping a small bomb. They were considered to be more of an irritating nuisance than a threat as it forced the ground crew to take cover and interrupted their work. More importantly, it kept the pilots awake, resulting in making them irritable and forcing them to lose concentration due to lack of sleep. When flying dangerous combat missions, lack of concentration and dulled reflexes could be fatal, as proved tragically to be the case on a number of occasions while serving in Korea.

The missions to be flown were set out by the OC of 18th Wing as being the following: close support of troops, offensive strikes, maximum range reconnaissance, interdiction of Chinese/North Korean lines of communication and escort duty,

The Chinese had launched their counter attack and the Flying Cheetahs moved back to K13 and then to K10. Part of a four-squadron wing, the South Africans flew in mixed flights with the Americans on general reconnaissance and close support missions. The first aircraft was lost on 5 December 1950 when Capt Davis crash-landed in a rice paddy. He was rescued by two Americans, Lewis Miller and Jim Lawrence, in a Cessna O-1 Bird Dog liaison and observation aircraft. The weather was icy cold and there was heavy snow with the airmen living in tents.

In January 1951 the Chinese launched a major offensive and recaptured Seoul in spite of heavy air attacks on their supply lines. General Ridgeway's policy was to retreat slowly and give up ground, while battering the Chinese supply lines and delaying their advance. The Chinese Air Force made its presence known with some 650 aircraft, including 250 MiG-15s. Their armies were losing troops at an unsustainable rate and they realized that they needed their air force to provide ground support as well as air cover to counter the UN air forces and control their air space. More MiGs and better pilots were needed. Meanwhile the SAAF were heavily engaged in attacking trains north of Seoul.

The Chinese operated from Manchurian airfields and others in the northern parts of North Korea and, by the end of January 1951; they controlled the airspace in the north-west. 2 Squadron's Mustangs often encountered MiGs. Missions were now often flown with top cover from F-80 Shooting Stars and F-86 Sabres. On occasion the Mustangs would be attacked by MiGs but could out-turn them as they, being slower, had a smaller turning radius than the must faster MiGs.

Operations carried on throughout the winter and, as maintenance was carried out in the open the cold began to take its toll on the ground crews. Armourers who sat on the wings reloading magazines started to suffer from piles. There were few replacements available and the problem of piles was solved by providing each armourer with his own air force-issue cushion.

The South Africans had a well-deserved reputation for accurate ground-attacks. In January 1951, the Americans had been trying to destroy a bridge just south of Pyongyang but to no avail. The OC of the 18th Wing gave the job to 2 Squadron and the bridge was destroyed by four Cheetah pilots who, with typical, but uncanny accuracy, hit the bridge with every bomb dropped.

The period January to November 1951 saw the heaviest fighting of the war and 41% of all SAAF Mustang sorties were flown in this period. The SAAF extended its operations to attacking road transport, gun positions, stores, supply dumps and tanks. These involved low flying and the Chinese developed "flak traps". A nice juicy target would be parked on a road for all to see and many light anti-aircraft guns would be hidden on the hillsides round about. The Mustangs would spot the target and attack, whereupon the anti-aircraft would open fire, often firing down onto the attacking aircraft. By 20 February 1951, the Cheetahs had flown 899 sorties with only one loss sustained. Cmdt Armstrong arrived with the first draft of replacement pilots on 24 February 1951 to take over command from Cmdt Theron.

But March 1951 saw a change to this record. A number of experienced pilots, including two flight commanders, Captains Davis and Badenhorst, were killed. The months January to December 1951 saw 23 pilots killed in action or missing. 43 Mustangs were lost in this period. UN forces launched counter-attacks in March, recapturing Seoul.

In April 1951 the Chinese launched their "Fifth" offensive but human wave tactics without air support did not succeed against the well-organized UN forces, well supported by artillery and air power. On 23 April the Cheetahs returned to K10 to find that many improvements had been made to the base, including a PSP1 runway. Replacements for tour-expired pilots were now arriving at six-weekly intervals.

Maj Jan Blaauw was awarded the American Silver star. When Lt Vernon Kruger was shot down, Blaauw crash-landed next to him as he was injured and stayed with him under enemy fire until they were rescued by an American helicopter. In June 1951 Lt Hector McDonald became the first South African prisoner of war.

Cmdt Dick Clifton took over command in January 1952. In May 1952 he found himself carrying a fused bomb which was ready to explode if there was any violent manoeuvre. After landing safely it was found that his aircraft had been sabotaged. The saboteur - a North Korean sympathiser - was caught.

Many pilots distinguished themselves and were decorated for their efforts. One of these was Capt. James Sweeney (incidentally a member of the Cape Town Branch of our Society) who was awarded the DFC for a low-level attack while under heavy anti aircraft fire. With complete disregard for his own safety, he persevered with his attack until he had destroyed his targets.

A high level of morale was maintained by the regular arrival of mail and individually addressed parcels from the Gift and Comforts Fund. The strain on the pilots was tremendous and something more was needed to relieve this strain.

There was an American Officers' club but this, although comfortable and friendly, was judged to be lacking in atmosphere. So a pub was started by Lt Mickey Rorke, first in his tent, then in another tent and finally in a wood and iron building. To access this one had to cross a storm water drain on a plank. Here the pilots could party and get rid of their anxieties. But after the party ended, pilots had to cross Rorke's Drift on the plank. Pilots who had imbibed too freely often landed in the ooze and slime and their fellows did not give them a chance to forget this. Lt Rorke was unfortunately killed in a flying accident in May 1951.

In June 1951 the Soviet Foreign Minister called for peace talks and these started first at Kaesong, then at Panmunjom. They carried on until an armistice was signed on 27 July 1953. The communists had realized that their casualties were too high to sustain and the war was one that they could not win.

The opposing sides dug in along the existing frontline and the war changed to an almost WW1 scenario. The frontline was static and became a war of attrition. Attacks were launched by both sides on a limited scale, to improve their positions and defend vulnerable points. Fighting was at times intense. The Chinese moved troops forward under cover of the truce and the UN forces continued their air attacks to neutralize airfields and destroy transport networks. Attacks were also made on power plants and industrial complexes. Attacks were now concentrated on industrial plants, communication centres and concentrations of supplies and troops, also frontline positions. Bombs were used in place of napalm. The sortie rate during the last four months of 1952 was less than it had been.

The Chinese Air Force now had 525 MiGs and was becoming more aggressive, The USAF needed more airfields near to the front on which to base more Sabre squadrons. 18th Wing was selected to convert to Sabres. On 27 December 1952 the last Mustang operation was flown and the Mustangs were returned to the USAF.

The SAAF had purchased 95 Mustangs, of which 74 had been lost. 34 pilots were listed as killed or missing in action. 2 980 missions consisting of 10 597 sorties were flown from 15 November 1950 to 27 December 1952.

In early 1953, 2 Squadron were converted to the F-86F-30, a ground-attack version which could also be used for interception. It could carry 2 x 225 kg/1 000 pound bombs and had a range of 890 km/570 miles, a climb rate of 3 050 m/10 000 feet per minute and a ceiling of 15 240 m/50 000 feet. The squadron now was reorganized into two flights instead of the previous four.

The MiG had a ceiling of 17 070 m/56 000 feet, a superior rate of climb but slower in level flight, but was an unstable gun platform and also became unstable at high speed approaching the speed of sound, which made the aircraft liable to spin out of control without any warning.

Training started on Lockheed T-33 Shooting Stars, then on Sabres. The first South Africans to fly solo on the F-86 were Cmdt Ralph Gerneke and Major Stan Wells, as well as within eight days, the rest of the 28 pilots had done likewise. Training concentrated on interception as the Chinese now had 950 MiGs. Cmdt Gerneke flew the first operational sortie on 22 February 1953 and the squadron was fully operational on 12 March 1953, with four counter-air patrols being flown along the Yalu River. The Cheetahs were the first SAAF squadron to convert to combat with jets.

At first the Cheetahs flew counter-air missions but, after training in air to ground tactics, ground attack missions were flown against troop concentrations and supply routes and close support missions against frontline targets and airfields. Eight aircraft took part in a raid on Radio Pyongyang, a propaganda station which had survived two previous attacks by B-29 bombers.

Operational flying reached its peak in June 1953 when 400 sorties were flown in support of ROK forces near Kumsong. Only one Sabre was lost in combat and this was shot down by anti-aircraft fire. On 27 July 1953, 41 combat sorties were flown by the squadron at a rate of 2.93 sorties per aircraft. The American squadrons only managed a sortie ratio of 1.92 and 1.76. The South Africans were well-known for their aggressive flying and high sortie rate which exceeded anything the USAF could achieve. In February 1952, Cmdt Clifton noticed two unfamiliar USAF officers in the dispersal area near some unattended Mustangs belonging to one of the USAF squadrons. They introduced themselves as 5th Air Force Inspectors. At that very same moment a SAAF Mustang landed and taxied in. A swarm of SAAF ground crew and mechanics converged on the plane and scarcely had the propeller stopped turning when armourers and fitters were opening panels, replenishing the spent ammunition and refuelling the aircraft. A tractor was hitched to the aircraft and the pilot had barely time to climb out before the aircraft was on its way to the service bay. The senior American, a colonel, turned to Cmdt Clifton and said "Commandant, there is the reason why your serviceability is just plain superior."

This is a well-earned tribute to the expertise, determination and hard work of the squadron's technicians and armourers. The armistice was signed on 27 July 1953. The war was over during which the Cheetah pilots flew 11 843 sorties and the Sabres subsequently returned to the USAF. A final formation was flown with Meteors of 77 Squadron RAAF to bid farewell to their Commonwealth friends. The last South Africans left for home on 29 October 1953, thus ending South Africa's magnificent involvement in the Korean conflict. The US lost 54 000 men in three years of fighting compared to 58 000 in eleven years in Viet Nam. South Africa lost 34 out of 209 pilots - a loss rate of 18%. 74 Mustangs were lost flying 10 373 sorties and five Sabres flying 1 470 sorties. Eight pilots ended up in Chinese POW camps until the armistice.

Some 826 South Africans served in Korea and all contributed to a combat record unequalled by a force of similar size in previous conflicts. Their bravery, professionalism and fighting spirit is reflected in the decorations earned, which included 3 Legions of Merit, 2 Silver Stars, 50 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 40 Bronze Stars, 176 Air Medals, 152 clusters to the Air Medal, 797 Korean War Medals and 1 Soldiers Medal. Both the United States and Korea presented the squadron with Presidential Unit Citations. Was it all worth it? South Korea is today a free, prosperous and developed state ranking among the leading industrial powers in the world.

Our Treasurer, Mr Bob Buser, thanked our speaker for a memorable talk and highly informative talk which has provided a better understanding of 2 Squadron SAAF's role in Korea. He presented Professor Dickens with the customary gift.

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We regret to announce the passing away of our member CDR R T Sharpe recently. Our condolences are extended to his family.
We would like to welcome new members Capt T Johnson, Mr C E G de Bruyn, CDR P Brown and Mr G Pullin to our ranks. We look forward to their company at our regular monthly meetings.

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Derek Stuart-Findlay will be speaking on Colonel J.G. (Jack) Rose, the man who set a world speed record by cycling almost 48 km/30 miles in an hour on the Green Point Track in 1898 and as a captain in the Cape Colony Cyclist Corp during the Anglo-Boer War, pioneered the use of 'rail cycles' for railway reconnaissance work. He was a pioneer motorist in the Cape and in 1915 was appointed by General Smuts to salvage the transport problems facing both the southern invasion force in the desert conditions of German South-West Africa and the invasion forces in the equatorial conditions of German East Africa. He was highly decorated for his initiatives and by the end of the war was clearly a world authority on motorised military transport. At the start of World War II Rose was appointed as Director of Transportation with the rank of Colonel and served in East Africa and Abyssinia and was again highly commended. When released from service at the age of 66, Colonel Jack Rose had matched General Smuts' record of serving with distinction in the Anglo-Boer War and both World Wars.

Derek Stuart-Findlay has co-written 'The Motorist's Paradise', a book on early motoring in the Cape and writes a monthly column for a club magazine (known as the Crankhandle Chronicle), titled 'Tales of Our Cape Motoring Pioneers'. He is of the belief that Colonel Jack Rose, who died in 1973 at the great age of 97, is one of South Africa's most unappreciated military leaders.

It will be an illustrated lecture.


Michael Schoeman is well-known amongst the aviation interest fraternity, such as historians and aircraft enthusiasts. He is renowned, almost legendary, for his encyclopaedic knowledge of military aviation in general and the SAAF Fighter Squadrons in World War Two, in particular. His knowledge on the subject, however, has not gone to waste as all the energy and resources which he single-mindedly and laboriously ploughed into his life-long passion and ambitious undertaking over a number of decades, culminated in a six-volume series of books on this particular subject, five of which was published over the past ten years. The sixth volume is due to appear before the end of this year. We as a society is indeed fortunate to have Mr Schoeman address us on this particular occasion: Not only is it his first public appearance since he has finished this mammoth project, but it is also a singular honour for the Cape Town Branch to host him as he was one of the earliest members of the Society, having joined the Society soon after it being formed in 1966.

1 Pierced Steel Planking, also known as "Marsden Matting" is standardized, perforated steel matting material originally developed by the United States at the Waterways Experiment Station shortly before World War II, primarily for the rapid construction of temporary runways and landing strips. The material is also commonly known as Marston mats (or Marston Plate) for a town in North Carolina adjacent to Camp Mackall airfield where the material was first manufactured and used in November 1941. The material was also used in the Korean and Vietnam Wars where its common name, from its NATO Stock Number nomenclature, is pierced (or perforated) steel planking (PSP). BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

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