The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 18 No 4 - June 2019

South African air crews remembered … 1949-2019
The 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift

Claudia Samlenski

Photographs by courtesy of the Defence Section,
Embassy of the Republic of South Africa, Berlin

The relationship between the armed forces of the Republic of South Africa and the Federal Republic of Germany today is a very sound one, defined by a strong bond, close friendship and partnership based on trust and respect. Both armed forces can look back at many years of countless bilateral military initiatives, cooperation, joint exercises, training and operations. One endeavour, however, which is deeply embedded in the collective mind of all Germans, is South Africa’s contribution during the Berlin Airlift.

Between 1948 and 1949 the Western Allies, with aircrews from the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and the South African Air Force, flew supplies to the people of West Berlin after the Soviet Union had blocked railway, road, and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Western control. Over 200 000 sorties were flown in one year, providing to the West Berliners with up to 12 941 tons of necessities, such as fuel and food, in a day. To help with the Airlift, South African Air Force pilots were deployed to Bassingbourn, where they trained on Royal Air Force aircraft before they reported for duty at the British Air Force Base.

As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift, the month of May saw a series of Airlift-related wreath laying ceremonies, receptions, and festivities. The South African Defence Attaché accredited Germany, Capt (SAN) T S B Mkhwanazi represented the Republic of South Africa at all of the above and interacted with the respective dignitaries and high-ranking Bundes wehr officials. The anniversary opened on 7 May 2019 with a very exclusive wreath laying ceremony hosted by HRH The Prince of Wales and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, attended only by the Mayor of Berlin and the Defence Attachés of the above-mentioned countries.

The Minister Plenipotentiary,
South African Embassy in Berlin, Germany, Adv M A Cassimjee,
with Capt (SAN) T S B Mkhwanazi, the South African Defence Attaché,
at the wreath-laying service.

Seeing that SAAF pilots had flown together with the Royal Air Force, HRH The Prince of Wales especially thanked Capt Mkhwanazi for South Africa’s contribution.

On 12 May 2019, the city of Berlin hosted a wreath laying ceremony to commemorate the end of the Airlift at the Airlift Memorial. A wreath was laid on behalf of the South African people. Together with the Mayor of Berlin, Federal Ministers, high- ranking politicians, representatives of the diplomatic corps as well as veterans, Capt Mkhwanazi stood in silence remembering the immense contribution of the South African pilots, their incredible service, their heroic selflessness and sacrifice.

The wreath-laying ceremony at the Airlift Memorial.

Following the wreath laying ceremony, Capt Mkhwanazi attended a reception hosted by the Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller, who thanked the very exclusive and high-ranking group of invitees from countries involved in the airlift for their armed air forces’ contribution to this unique humanitarian act and logistical masterpiece. In his welcoming speech, the Mayor once again reminded everyone of the incredible act of solidarity shown by the countries involved and carried out by the respective air crews. He stated that the city of West Berlin would not have been able to survive without the help of each and every one of those pilots, who tirelessly flew food and coal to the city, thus preventing its people from starving and, at the same time, bringing them something just as important, namely ‘hope’ and ‘strength’. During the reception, Capt Mkhwanazi liaised with the host and the other guests and together they reflected on the significance of this humanitarian act during the Cold War.

After holding the official and exclusive events, the city of Berlin commemorated in style and had invited the public to a whole day of political, military and cultural activities at the Tempelhof Airfield. Some 50 000 members of the public came out to show their appreciation and celebrate their friendship with the countries that had ensured their survival 70 years ago. The heroic contribution of the South African pilots was presented on a huge billboard, including the extraordinary achievement of SAAF pilot Joe Joubert, a shining example of how remarkable the pilots operated under at times severely difficult circumstances. As a navigator during the Berlin Airlift, on 9 July 1949 he and the radio operator had been ordered to jettison 63 sacks of coal as the aircraft could not gain height in a severe thunderstorm. They succeeded in a remarkable six and a half minutes and he later received a medal for his outstanding performance.

The Airlift Memorial at Tempelhof, Berlin, pays tribute
to all who gave their lives to save the people of West Berlin
during the Soviet blockade of Berlin.

The South African National Defence Force and the Bundeswehr have come a long way and now have their eyes set firmly on the future. The DAO is working towards the fostering of the deep friendship with the German armed forces and enhancing cooperation. However, every now and then it is worthwhile to look at the past, to think of moments that have laid the foundation for our friendship and to remember those who have made that possible.

The Germans’ hearts still today go out to the South African pilots who flew during the Airlift. Their effort, their service and their sacrifice will not be forgotten!

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