South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


We were very privileged to have as our speaker on 12 February 2009 Major Stewart Finney, DFC and Bar, a SAAF war hero who commanded No 2 Squadron in Italy from 21 March 1944 to 2 June 1945. His wartime service was in both North Africa and Italy.

His talk consisted of a series of episodes, memorable, sometimes funny, but all fascinating, which illustrated and understated the very real dangers experienced by the speaker.

Major Finney recalled his first shuttle flight to the Middle East. One of his fellow passengers was a British Army Brigadier who found it extremely difficult to accept the fact that, whilst on board, the aircraft, the pilot in command, was......a lowly SAAF lieutenant! By the time the aircraft reached Nairobi, the first night stop, it became clear that the very unpleasant brigadier was terrified of flying.

On the next stage, as the aircraft was approaching Kisumu, the pilot decided to give the brigadier a fright. He opened the cockpit door and came into the passenger compartment. The agitated brigadier was unconsoled by the news that "George" (the automatic pilot) had taken over and the pilot was, for the time being, superfluous. After the next stop, the brigadier disappeared! No more aircraft for him!

On his second shuttle flight from Zwartkop AFB in a Dakota, the combination of a bumpy flight and the smell of an anti-mosquito spray made Maj Finney feel so nauseous that he spent most of the flight on the toilet but fortunately he was not ill. Modern flights are a bit more civilized!

On his third shuttle flight, he decided to counteract the anti-mosquito spray by taking a bottle of eau de cologne with him. This had been purchased for him by one of the WAAF fairy godmothers in Pretoria, whose important task it was to purchase various items for mothers, wives and/or girlfriends. His fellow passengers could think of only one reason why he produced a handkerchief smelling of eau de cologne greeted him with wolf whistles!

Maj Finney joined the SAAF as a pupil pilot in August 1940. After initial training in South Africa, he moved to Gwelo in Southern Rhodesia for more advanced training, ending up at 22 Service Flying Training School. The daily programme required the pupil pilots to get up in the dark and do their physical training, followed by coffee and then flying training.

The combination of icy cold winter mornings and hot coffee made it essential to"spend a penny" while in the air! Doing this in the cockpit of a Harvard was not easy and involved the use of a pilot's relief tube funnel. Maj Finney described what happened when, after struggling to unbutton his flying suit and the woolies thereunder, he discovered that a practical joker erk (Air Mechanic) had blocked the bottom end of the funnel! The malicious chuckles from the flying Instructor who had seen what was going on were 'rewarded' when some of the relief tube's contents slopped over him when the Harvard did a slow roll as Maj Finney tipped the contents of the tube over the side of the aircraft!

Another story relating to a similar topic concerned the shortage of toilet paper. The instructions issued to resolve the problem stated that three sheets would be issued to each man daily - one up, one down and one to shine!

While at the Central Air Force training Depot at Roberts Heights in Pretoria, weekly inspections had a serious importance and our speaker and the other pupil pilots devoted themselves with considerable zeal to the weekly task of preparing for the all-important inspection. The floor of the bungalow was highly polished. One of their number used to go out the night before the inspection and drink himself into a stupor. In the early hours of the morning he would vomit all over the polished floor. This continued despite numerous requests that he open the window and get sick on the veranda. Finally, his room mates waited until he was asleep and carried him, bed and all, on to the veranda of the bungalow. This was the only occasion that he remembered to open the window - and the polished floor was once again......!

In addition to the hazards of flying and the enemy, SAAF pilots also had to contend with snakes which from time to time chose to take up residence in aircraft cockpits. The snakes were not poisonous but, to say the least, it disconcerting to have to contend with reptiles while in the air and possibly in a combat situation. The ground crew also found this disconcerting, one erk fainting when faced with a snake in the cockpit of an aircraft he was servicing. Lieutenant Hastie found one curled round his sight and grabbed it and threw it overboard.

Maj Finney explained that the Western Desert was not all soft sand, as in the film Beau Geste. A large portion was extremely hard rock. Being flat, navigation was not a simple matter. He recalled Major (later Colonel) Snowy Moodie's surprise when, one morning, a Wellington bomber landed and taxied up to the ops tent. The pilot, obviously very lost, came up to him, saluted and asked "is this Africa?" When assured that it was, he got back into his aircraft and took off!

Letters from home meant a lot to our servicemen and women up north. Maj Finney recalled his surprise when he saw a colleague open an empty envelope! When he raised his eyebrows, his colleague explained "she isn't talking to me!"

Maj Finney's first operational service was in North Africa where he served with No 1 Squadron SAAF. The squadron was heavily involved in both ground attack work and combat with Luftwaffe fighters while on sweeps and also while escorting bombers. He told the story of a young and very Afrikaans pilot who survived a near fatal attack by an enemy fighter. When asked how he had managed to survive, his answer was "I just sat narrow in the cockpit!"

In one engagement, Maj Finney's radio stopped working and when he saw smoke pouring from his engine, he thought his end was near. Fortunately the fire in his engine extinguished itself and he was lucky enough to survive a crash landing into a pothole. He was sent to a casualty clearing station and then evacuated to Alexandria in the hospital ship Llandovery Castle. Here it was decided not to operate and the bits of shrapnel in his old wounds still worry him today. Hew was eager to return to operational flying but learnt to his surprise that some wounded pilots preferred to return to the Union.

While in the desert, Maj Finney's airfield was bombed by the Germans every night for a week. So the engineers were asked to construct a dummy airfield complete with dummy aircraft some distance from the real airfield, in the hope that this would attract the enemy's attention. The Luftwaffe was not deceived. They dropped a quantity of dummy bombs on the dummy airfield and then, in the words of our speaker," they bombed the hell out of us". The dummy airfield was then dismantled!

Maj Finney described the tense days up to and during the Battle of El Alamein. He recalled sitting with his squadron mates in the mess tent waiting to be scrambled. As they sat reading and listening to the radio, they heard a four year-old boy saying "Daddy tickles me". A small thing like this relieved the tension and greatly amused the waiting pilots.

It did not often rain in the desert but, when it did, the Western desert could turn into a sea of mud. A very important morale booster was ISH, issue brandy sent up from South Africa. He described how 30 gallon overload tanks were carefully steam-cleaned, fitted to the aircraft and filled with ISH! The aircraft then flew up to the muddy front, at that time near Derna, where there was huge relief when the precious cargo arrived in time for Christmas.

Maj Finney served with No 73 Operational training Unit at Abu Suier in Egypt from March to September 1943. Here he witnessed many Tomahawk crashes caused by the fact that their airspeed indicators had not been corrected from kilometres to miles.

Maj Finney then returned to operational duties with No 1 Squadron in Sicily and Italy and with No 2 Squadron in Italy as OC. Most operations involved armed reconnaissance flights looking for something to shoot at or dive bombing Army support operations. There was not too much in the way of combat with enemy fighters.

Our speaker remembered an occasion when a flight of SAAF fighters were scrambled to search for a bogey (enemy aircraft) some 40 miles north of Venice. They were guided to the bogey by radar and, when the flight leader reported sighting the bogey, they were surprised to hear a very American voice say "Ah is no bogey. Ah is a citizen of the US of A". A very lost US Thunderbolt!

On another occasion he recalled an American pilot who had lost his way and was running out of fuel. A tired South African pilot advised him "ag man, just bail out", a statement which did not please Lt Col Loftus, the wing leader!

Maj Finney recalled bailing out and described the steps necessary for this to be done successfully. He described his relief at being picked up by an Indian Army Regiment. He was entertained to breakfast by the OC Lt Col West and said that this was the only time that he had Post Toasties for breakfast in the entire war!

Despite the fact that he was OC of 2 Squadron, Maj Finney shared the duty of Orderly Room Officer with his fellow officers. These were not onerous and included inspecting the erk's (ground crew) food and censoring letters home. He recalled that one airman had initially been very enthusiastic about the winter snow, recalling the snow on European Christmas cards and explaining that there were no red Robins about. By the time he wrote his third letter he was complaining about "three feet of bloody snow"!

He recalled Timothy operations which required flights of fighter bombers to cruise at altitude, waiting for a call from a ground observer who would have radio contact with the aircraft. The observer would use special maps as carried by the pilots to guide the aircraft down to their targets, usually heavy machine guns, mortars, anti-tank guns, tanks or similar targets holding up the advance. These would then be bombed or strafed, thus assisting the ground troops. A very efficient form of air support to the ground troops.

During question time, Maj Finney gave more details about how ground attack missions were carried out. He was also asked how various aircraft were rated. The Hurricane was superior to the older Italian aircraft such as the CR42 or G50. The ME109 was superior to the Hurricane and Spitfire V, as well as the American Tomahawk and Kittyhawk. The newer Italian Macchi fighters were equal to the Spitfire V. The Spitfire VIII and IX were superior to all types of ME109 but by then the Germans were using FW190s.

Maj Finney rated the German pilots as good opponents and well able to use their aircraft to best advantage. Cdr Mac Bisset thanked Maj Finney for a particularly interesting talk and presented him with the usual gift.



Our secretary Ray Hattingh is making good progress and we were happy to see him at the last meeting.

Subscriptions are now due and Annual renewal forms are included with this newsletter. Some 32% of our members have already paid. Early payment helps to make my job a lot easier!

We are always looking for new members so, if you know of someone who might have an interest in military history, bring him along to a meeting or otherwise persuade him or her to join. We in the committee will do our best to provide interesting talks!