South African Military History 

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Our speaker on 10 July 2014 was Mrs Hilary van der Vyver whose topic was Squadron Leader Marmaduke Thomas St John Pattle, DFC and Bar. Known to his comrades in the RAF as Pat, he was virtually unknown except among his comrades in the desert and in Greece. He however was proven as the top scoring fighter ace in the Allied air forces in World War 2.

Pat Pattle was born on 23 July 1914 in Butterworth in the old Transkei. His parents were Jack and Edith Pattle. His parents were English, his father having served in the British Army during the Anglo-Boer War. After the end of that war his father studied law and started to practice as an attorney in Willowmore [in March 2019 Christo Louw e-mailed "the town is Willowvale"]near Butterworth. He married Edith Brailsford, a nurse at the Butterworth Hospital, in 1912 and they had two sons, Cecil and Pat. When World War 1 started, his father joined up and served in the then German South West Africa campaign. When the war ended, he was offered a commission in the SWA Police and the family settled in Keetmanshoop. The boys went to the local school and, in 1929, Pat qualified to go as a boarder at Graeme College for Boys in Grahamstown. He matriculated in 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, when jobs were few and far between.

He found a job as a garage assistant in a garage owned by his uncle in Komga. He had always been interested in aircraft and flying and applied to join the SAAF, but was not accepted so then attended a commercial college to improve his skills and found a job in a firm selling refrigerators. In 1933 he joined the Sheba Gold Mine in Barberton and worked in the assay office. In 1936 he joined the SSB (Special Service Battalion) with a view to using this as a door to the SAAF. This was not to be. In 1935, the RAF started an expansion scheme and opened this to young men from the Commonwealth countries.

Young Pattle heard of this and applied. The recruiter in South Africa told him that he would have to go for a medical and an interview in London. If he was accepted, he would go for pilot training and, if he passed, he would be commissioned and serve for a four year period. Pattle now had to buy himself out of the SSB and make his way to London. With help from an uncle, he boarded the Llandoverey Castle in East London and, in April 1936, set sail for England.

He was accepted for flying training by the RAF and started his training at the Civil Flying School at Prestwick in Scotland. This was one of many such flying schools which were training as many pilots as they could for the expanding RAF. All of the pupil pilots were English apart from Pattle and he worked very hard to ensure that he would not be left behind. He was successful in this, coming out top in the first written exams, scoring 99% for Gunnery and Bombing and 91% for Airmanship. His first solo flight took place after only 6½ hours of instruction. Flying training continued at a furious pace and he was presented with his A Licence (ie a Qualified Pilot) on his birthday.

The course at Prestwick lasted for two months and numerous examinations in all aspects of service flying were written All of these Pattle passed. His confidential report stated that his air sense is highly cultivated, his flying ability is excellent and he should be an exceptional service pilot. A South African of the better type, conscientious and determined. Prophetic words. Pattle then moved to No 10 Flying Training School at Ternhill, Shropshire. The course consisted of two three-month courses in the Initial and the Advanced Training Squadrons with exams at the end of each of these. Pattle realized that his entire career depended on these months of training as a distinguished pass would give him a good chance of a permanent commission. He passed the Initial stage in third place with an average of 88.5%, above average. He continued his training and proved to be an excellent shot and a well above average pilot. At the end of the Advanced part of the course, he was posted to 80 Fighter Squadron RAF based at Henlow.

This was to be part of 11Group Fighter Command based at Kenley. In May 1937, the squadron, which had been equipped with Gloster Gauntlets, was re-equipping with Gloster Gladiators. This was probably the ultimate biplane fighter – fixed undercarriage, enclosed cockpit and armed with four .303in (7,7mm) machineguns, it was very manoeuvrable and had a top speed of 250 mph. In 1937, it as one of the best fighters in service but, in two or three years, it would be replaced with Hawker Hurricane monoplane fighters with a vastly increased performance and eight machine-guns, designed by Sidney Camm, followed by the Supermarine Spitfire, designed by R J Mitchell. Training in formation flying, gunnery and battle tactics was constant as the squadron became battle ready.

In October 1937, Pattle was appointed Adjutant of the squadron which increased his workload significantly. At the end of 1937, work started on emergency planning and, one morning in March 1938, Sqn Ldr Blockley the OC announced to the assembled squadron that the unit would be moving to the Middle East in a month’s time.

The squadron was a beehive of activity for the next two weeks. The squadron personnel was doubled as they were to be self-contained. The number of aircraft was increased to 42 and all of them overhauled and brought to immaculate, battle ready state. They were then flown to Sealand to be crated and loaded for shipment to Egypt with the 46 vehicles attached to the squadron. At the end of March, the OC could report that the Air Ministry Expansion Scheme F was complete and the personnel were sent on embarkation leave. On 30 April 1938 the squadron set sail for Egypt.

Their base, which was still under construction, was at Ismailia near Lake Timsah. Each flight had its own hanger, workshop, maintenance store, workshop and office, so that each flight was a self-contained unit which could at short notice move out into the desert. 80 was a mobile squadron and flights were sent out to forward bases to patrol the frontier with Libya. Pattle was sent to Palestine with a small detachment to support the Army which was involved in peacekeeping operations. When the Sudeten crisis broke in 1938, the squadron moved to the forward base at Amriya which had few facilities and then moved to the permanent Egyptian base at Helwan.

On 3 September 1939 mobilisation was ordered and for a while nothing much happened. With the arrival of faster bombers it was realized that new tactics were required if the bombers were to be intercepted. There was no radar in the desert at that time. This time of training came to an end on 10 June 1940, when the Italian government declared war on the Allies.

One morning, just after Mussolini’s declaration of war, three Hurricanes arrived and were attached to the squadron. A Hurricane flight was set up and Pattle was one of its members. In July 1940 it was decided to take the war to the Italians and Pattle took B Flight to Sidi Barrani. On 4 August 80 Pattle had his first meeting with Italian fighters while escorting a Lysander. Seven Breda 65 fighters faced four Gladiators. Pattle shot down two Bredas but was himself shot down when a clutch of Italian Fiat CR42 fighters appeared and he had to walk back. He scored another two victories a while later. The Italians had invaded Egypt and the air war continued. In November 80 Squadron were ordered back to Abu Suweir to prepare for a transfer to Greece.

Greece was invaded by the Italians on 28 October 1940. Their forces invaded from Albania and headed towards Floriana and Yanina. The Greeks resisted desperately but were outnumbered. Their equipment and aircraft were vastly inferior to the Italian equipment and aircraft, which in turn was not very modern. The Greeks called for help and the RAF sent three bomber squadrons immediately. The Greeks counterattacked and invaded Albania. 80 Squadron were sent to Eleusis near Athens and B Flight were sent forward to Trikkala. From here they flew over the Albanian border and met their first Italians flying the Fiat CR42s and G50s. The rest of the squadron then came up from Eleusis and a series of patrols over the front and offensive sweeps started.

The squadron moved back to Yanina and winter set in. It was freezing up in the mountains. The air war went on unabated and Pattle methodically continued to increase his tally of Italian aircraft. Pattle was awarded the DFC. The maintenance staff of the squadron managed to keep the Gladiators flying, working in freezing temperatures in the open with inadequate equipment and spares. The squadron moved to Paramythia, a valley airfield close to the Albanian front, and, in February 1941, their Gladiators were replaced by Hurricanes. The first six of these were formed into a flight commanded by Pattle. Their first operation was to escort a large force of Blenheim bombers and every fighter the RAF and the Greeks could assemble, was flung into the fray. This resulted in a major air battle in which Pattle scored his first victory in a Hurricane.

On 12 March 1941, Pattle was promoted to Squadron Leader and given command of 33 Squadron, a big rival to 80 Squadron. His new squadron, equipped with Hurricanes, came from all over the Commonwealth – Rhodesia, Canada, India, South Africa, Kenya and England. They were soon in action and based at Larissa.

Political changes in Yugoslavia in March 1941 resulted in a full-scale invasion by the Germans, who also invaded Greece from the north. Yugoslav resistance collapsed very quickly and the Greeks also had no answer to the German panzer onslaught, tactically supported by the Luftwaffe. 33 Squadron had its first tussle with the latter over Corinth and Pattle shot down his first BF109s. Bomber escorts and fighter sweeps continued unabated.

RAF airfields were strafed on various occasions. The Germans coming south past Salonica had outflanked the Allied forces which were retreating towards Thermopylae. This meant giving up Larissa airfield and others, leaving only three for the RAF. One of these was just south of Thermopylae and the others near Athens. 33 Squadron had to retreat in the pouring rain. Defending the army from just two airfields was a very difficult task, especially as the airfields were under constant air attack. Pattle continued scoring against the enemy aircraft – at this stage his opponents were all German.

The allied troops were now being evacuated from Piraeus harbour and 33 Squadron were providing top cover for this. They were hopelessly outnumbered and the ground crews were working flat out under heavy attack to provide aircraft. Pattle joined a dogfight between a few Hurricanes and a mass of German bombers, Bf109s and Bf110s. Pilot Officer Kettlewell saw Pattle’s Hurricane on fire with the pilot slumped over the controls and diving, with two Bf109s firing at it. He shot down one of the Bf109s but watched as Pattle’s aircraft crashed into the sea south of Eleusis airfield. His body was never recovered.

For many years after the Second World War it was thought that Air Vice-Marshal Johnny Johnson was the highest-scoring ace on the Allied side with 38 victories but later research has shown that Pattle had at least 50.5 victories. This is the total quoted in Christopher Shore’s book Air War for Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete 1940/1941. It is very probably not a final and correct total as many of the records of 33 and 80 Squadron’s records were lost during the evacuation. Other totals quoted are 51 but it is very likely that the correct figure is 60, this in a period 4 August 1940 to 20 April 1941 – some 9 months, a truly remarkable achievement.

Our speaker then spoke of Pattle as a person. He was a sensitive and imaginative person and a very determined personality. At an early age he became interested in flying and aircraft and was set on becoming a pilot. He was intelligent and hardworking and very fit. A quiet person, he drank and smoked very moderately and kept himself fit.

His early life in the then South West Africa developed in him a sharpness of vision and unerring skill with a gun and markmanship that served him well as a pilot. His hard work and dedication turned him into an excellent pilot and administrator. Pattle was a tactician who regularly outsmarted his opponents with clearly thought-out, well-planned manoeuvres. He always took into account the elements of height, surprise and cloud cover and the advantages of his own aircraft vis-à-vis the enemy’s aircraft. But his greatest attribute was his ability to shoot accurately and his mastery of deflection shooting. He had superb eyesight, which he had trained to an exceptional degree through intensive and untiring practice, and always spotted enemy aircraft before anyone else saw them. He had an aptitude for things mechanical and knew how to coax the best out of his aircraft’s engine without overstretching its limitations, his life depended on it.

On the ground, he was a quiet, unassuming and calm person of great integrity. He set himself high standards and commanded the respect of everyone through his own efficiency and example. When he took over 33 Squadron, it was a very tired unit with falling morale and battling against great odds. He has been described by many of those that served with and under him as an extremely efficient and courageous commander that they would have followed anywhere, someone who would have risen high in the ranks of the RAF had he survived. He never tried to be popular but did what was right. Perseverance was his family motto and he never forgot this.

One of his pilots, Jimmy Kettlewell, described Pattle as a fighter pilot par excellence, a true gentleman, whom none of those who served with or under him would forget.

Our speaker showed us a photograph of a plaque in memory of Sqn Ldr Pattle which has been erected at Graeme College. A painting of this plaque is on the walls of the SAAF Museum at AFB Ysterplaat. The Chairman thanked Mrs van der Vyver for her interesting talk and presented her with the customary gift.

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Cui Bono?: Where does the War-Guilt Lie? – Some Historiographical Thoughts from the Editor

The European continent was at peace – somewhat tenuously, but still at peace - on that fateful morning of Sunday 28 June 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie Chotek arrived at Sarajevo railway station. Thirty-seven days later, it was at war. The conflict that began that summer mobilized 65 million troops, claimed three empires, 20 million military and civilian deaths, and 21 million wounded. The horrors of Europe’s twentieth century were born of this catastrophe; it was, as the American historian Fritz Stern put it, ‘the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’. It was the end of an epoch and of old values and alliances. It was beginning of a new era – the age of conflict and mass annihilation.

The debate over why it happened began before the first shots were fired and has been running ever since. It has spawned an historical literature of unparalleled size, sophistication and moral intensity. For international relations theorists the events of 1914 remain the political crisis par excellence, intricate enough to accommodate any number of hypotheses.

The historian who seeks to understand the genesis of the First World War confronts several problems. The first and most obvious is an oversupply of sources. Each of the belligerent states produced official multi-volume editions of diplomatic papers, vast works of collective archival labour. There are treacherous currents in this ocean of sources.

Most of the official document editions produced in the interwar period have an apologetic spin. The fifty-seven-volume German publication Die Grosse Politik, comprising 15,889 documents organized in 300 subject areas, was not prepared with purely scholarly objectives in mind; it was hoped that the disclosure of the pre-war record would suffice to refute the ‘war guilt’ thesis enshrined in the terms of the Versailles treaty. For the French government too, the post-war publication of documents was an enterprise of ‘essentially political character’, as Foreign Minister Jean Louis Barthou put it in May 1934. Its purpose was to ‘counterbalance the campaign launched by Germany following the Treaty of Versailles’. In Vienna, as Ludwig Bittner, co-editor of the eight-volume collection Österreich-Ungarns Aussenpolitik, pointed out in 1926, the aim was to produce an authoritative source edition before some international body – the League of Nations perhaps? – forced the Austrian government into publication under less auspicious circumstances.

The early Bolshevik/Soviet documentary publications were motivated in part by the desire to prove that the war had been initiated by the autocratic Tsar and his alliance partner, the bourgeois Raymond Poincaré, in the hope of de-legitimizing French demands for the repayment of pre-war loans. Paradoxically, contrary to their secretive and politicized dissemination of information in general, the Soviet rulers of Russia’s disclosures are much closer to the truth than any of the other major belligerents’ revelations. However, the Soviet government of Russia erred on one salient aspect – they totally discounted the driving force behind the French and the Imperial Russian governments. During the years before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Britain allowed it to appear that it was her support France and Russia sought for war against Germany. Actually, her diplomatists, with characteristic shrewdness, were using France and Russia in Britain's traditional Continental Balance of Power Policy.

Even in Britain, where British Documents on the Origins of the War was launched amid high-minded appeals to disinterested scholarship, the resulting documentary record was not without tendentious omissions that produced a somewhat unbalanced picture of Britain’s place in the events preceding the outbreak of war in 1914. In short, the great European documentary editions were, for all their undeniable value to scholars, munitions in a ‘world war of documents’, as the German military historian Bernhard Schwertfeger remarked in a critical study of 1929.

If the official documentation and publications served no other purpose than to white-wash each major belligerent’s culpability and exonerate themselves from blame, the truth lies hidden in the mountainous collection of memoirs and biographies published post-WWI by diplomats, politicians, civil servants, high-ranking officers and other role-players. Just listing the already-known or -used sources as reference in literature that focus on the origins of WWI and which appeared from 1919 onwards and to date, will run into a number of volumes.

Of late a more embracing and inclusive number of books discussing the origins of WWI per sé, or as general histories on the conflict, have started to compete for space on the bookdealers’ bookshelves. The distribution and dissemination of knowledge nowadays are far quicker, more accessible and more wide-ranging through the electronic media, than was the case seventy to ninety years ago. But whereas the preponderance of citizens in the western world were somehow touched by, and had an interest in these events a century ago, I venture to say that in modern society the interest in those tumultuous times are much less important and only of passing note to all but a small percentage in the countries directly affected, and especially those countries that were allied as the belligerent alliance known as the “Entente” – the victors of the First Great War.

The Editor
(Cape Town Branch)

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Forthcoming Meetings:


At the end of the long, drawn-out and destructive Rhodesian Bush War – in which our speaker himself participated in one of the elite units – the clear winners were Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF (Chinese-supported) faction on the one hand and Joshua Nkomo and his ZIPRA (USSR-supported) faction on the other. Split along tribal and ideological lines, dissension in the ranks soon surfaced after the newly independent Zimbabwe was established in 1980, with Mugabe’s numerically stronger and Shona-based party dominating the political scene. The Matabele did not take the Shona take-over lying down and soon open conflict and political strife marred the local scene in Matabeleland, starting with the Entumbane (Bulawayo) uprising in November 1980.

In February 1981, there was a second uprising, which swiftly spread to Glenville and also to Connemara in the Midlands. Former Rhodesian security units were called in to stop the bloodletting, which they were able to do only after three hundred lives were lost.

The Matabele unrest led to what has become known as 'Gukurahundi' (Shona: "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains") or the Matabeleland Massacres, which lasted from 1982 until 1985. Mugabe ordered his notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to occupy Matabeleland, crushing any resistance to his rule. It has been estimated that at least 20,000 Matabele were murdered and tens of thousands of others were tortured in military internment camps. The slaughter only ended after Nkomo and Mugabe reached a unity agreement in 1988 that merged their respective parties, creating the Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front.

Mr Stephan Fourie is no stranger to the audiences at the Cape Town meetings of the society, known for his no-holds-barred, first-hand “I was there” accounts, which included amongst others: Combat Group Foxbat's epic Blitzkrieg-like advance across Angola during Operation Savannah in 1975 (Newsletter No. 276, March 2001); the Battles of Ebo and Bridge 14 as some highlights of Operation Savannah (No. 355, June 2008); experiences as a volunteer in the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment (No. 389, July 2011), "Pseudo" Operations in Post-WW II Insurgency Warfare and an account of his time with the Selous Scouts during the Rhodesian Bush War (No. 406, February 2013).

Although his upcoming talk deals with events which he did not witness first-hand, his personal experience of, and interaction with, tribespeople from Matabeleland prior to independence, should make for some unique insights and interpretations when delivered with his normal verve and down-to-earth approach which hall-marked his previous lectures.


Major Heitman’s annual overview of the security situation in Africa at first glance seems to be a re-run of the previous talk, which seems to have had much in common with the preceding year’s, and so on, going back in time, ad infinitum….. While much of this statement is accurate, the actors, scenarios and locations seem to revolve annually like a merry-go-round at the local play-fair. Some of the actors remain the same from year to year, but there are always new geopolitical developments to contend with. Africa and environs are as restless and unpredictable as ever…. Major Heitman will cover the latest hot spots - operational theatres – the issues at stake and the major role-players of each conflict which he deals with.

He has also indicated that if time allows it, he will make a short presentation on a subject of military history interest. If it promises to be as captivating as his previous bonus on the German Special Operations during the North African campaign in WWII, the audience certainly won’t go away disappointed.

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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /