The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal
Vol 15 No 3 - June 2011

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

'The search for a Puma helicopter lost at Mapai, 6 September 1979', Military History Journal Volume 15 No 2, December 2010

A reader responds:

... The article on the search for the Puma Helicopter lost on 6 September 1979 has an interesting sequel.

A couple of months after my first reading of the issue, I again read the article as 'something' triggered a need to re-visit it. The 'something' was the realisation that, on first seeing the article, I had not really registered the significance of a name on the Roll of Honour on the memorial cross planted at the scene of the action by the party on the search. The name was that of the pilot, Capt Paul Velleman, South African Air Force.

The name Velleman is unusual, actually originating in Flanders, and happens to be that of my neighbour in the retirement village where I live ... I took the article to him - he is 92 and has never displayed any interest in military matters and mostly we just exchange greetings. I asked him if he thought the name might be a relative. Hearing nothing from him for a couple of days, I forgot about it until he knocked at the door, returning the journal and showing me a 31-year old card from a memorial service for Capt Paul Denzil Velleman, the pilot who, as it turned out, was a nephew. The family had never been given any information whatsoever barring the 'missing, believed killed in action somewhere on the Border' story.

Being a little surprised that it was a SAAF Puma which was involved in the Mapai incident - having lived under the impression that the SAAF had only provided Allouette Gunship support to the Rhodesians and recalling the great published jubilation when they received their coup of obtaining a dozen 'Huey's', Bell 205's, breaking the arms embargo - I attempted to find out a little more about the Mapai incident.

My only source was in my copy of the story of the Rhodesian SAS, Barbara Cole's The Elite (Three Knights Publishing, ISBN 0 620 07420 5) in which she describes the September 1979 attack on the Mapai logistics base of FRELIMO. Nowhere could I find any reference to the fact that the SAAF were supplying any assistance. In fact, the book makes no mention of any South African involvement other than to acknowledge that SADF 'Recces' were operational as 'D' Squadron SAS.

It seems to me that the Mapai SAAF helicopter tragedy might only be the tip of the iceberg and thus it may be time for something to be forthcoming about South African Defence Force involvement in the Rhodesian Bush War. Cole states that some 28 helicopters were to be deployed during the attack on Mapai: ' including the Bell 205's ... ' She makes no mention anywhere in the book of Puma helicopters. Two days prior to the Puma crash, a Bell 205 had been shot down during the same operation (Uric) near Barragem.

Going back to the incident, Cole in her book refers to the soldiers' deaths, one being their commander, a South African, Captain Joey du Plooy, and does not mention the SAAF crew at all. The story that I revealed for my neighbour went some way to help the family get some closure as it came in time to be made known at a family reunion in Potchefstroom, when a long lost relative from the United Kingdom was visiting, in March 2011.

Colin D Harris
Edenvale
April 2011

For a brief description of the Mapai incident and SAAF involvement in the Rhodesian Operation Uric, see Brig-Gen Dick Lord, From Fledgling to Eagle: The South African Air Force during the Border War (30 South Publishers, Johannesburg, 2008), pp 127-9. According to this source, fifteen Pumas and two Frelons from 19 and 15 Squadrons respectively, supported the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) and the Rhodesian Light Infantry during the operation. The SAAF Puma and a Rhodesian Bell (Huey) helicopter were shot down during the assault on Mapai. Additional information will no doubt come to light in 30 South Publishers' latest offering, The Search for Puma 164: Operation Uric and the Assault on Mapai by Neill Jackson and Rick van Malsen, which can be ordered from the publishers' website - Ed.


The mysterious death and burial of Lieutenant Victor Potgieter, South African Engineer Corps

Wartime is redolent with small tragedies and many mysteries. Nearly seventy years after being killed in action, the mystery of Victor Potgieter's death demands an answer. His service record is unremarkable. A Wits engineering graduate, he joined up, went north and ended up drilling wells. His last recorded posting was in May 1943 - to the 104 water boring section of the SAEC. Two further movement orders are recorded in October 1943, but only the FO numbers are given. There are no further entries until his date of death was recorded, first as 8 September 1944, and then amended to 9 September 1944. So where was he between May 1943 and September 1944? The last entry on his DD 293 is a movement on 8 April 1943, to 8th Field Squadron, Helwan. It seems as if his DD for any movements after April 1943 was 'lost'.

How then did he come to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery in a communal grave with ten American and British servicemen, a fact unknown until 1981? One source states that he was on a course and died in a USAAF Liberator which crashed as a result of enemy action during a 'routine flight' in Greece on 9 September 1944. However, the following tantalising questions remain: Were there 'routine' flights in Greece in 1944? Why is his date of death recorded as 10 September 1944 on his headstone? Why is his cause of death given as 'accident'?

A little initial research reveals a possible clue. One of the American victims was Major Linn Farish, aka Lawrence of Yugoslavia, the chief American secret agent in the Balkans. During his leave two months before his death, Victor told his brother Ben that he was involved in clandestine operations and had volunteered to 'photograph bridges that were to be blown up'.

I wonder if there is anyone who knows why Victor Potgieter died in an American bomber in Greece all those years ago and why no details of his death came to be recorded in his service record? His family were unaware of his fate until the early 1980s.

Five Afrika Korps graves in Cape Town

Here is another little mystery/tragedy for military history enthusiasts.
Feldwebel Friedrich Gatze, Gefreiter Willi Kalz, Gefreiter Theodor Karcher, Unteroffizier Martin Krause, and Leutnant Gerhard Lang were, until recently, buried in a plot at Woltemade Cemetery in Cape Town. In 1966, Mr Morris, a former teacher, claimed he had given the order to shoot the German prisoners of war when they had tried to escape from captivity aboard a ship in Simon's Town. They had been trying to reach a neutral vessel. Another source says that they were beaten to death on the beach after escaping. There may have been two separate incidents, as three died in May and two in August 1942.

It is not unusual for POWs to die in wartime, but what is the truth? Why were the men shot and killed when they could have been rounded up - or is there more to it than meets the eye? Were neutral vessels permitted in Simon's Town harbour in wartime?

Klaus Kuhne
Johannesburg

Editor's note: Since receiving this letter from Klaus Kuhne, the editor was able to trace additional information regarding the mysterious fate of the young South African, Lieutenant Potgieter, buried at Arlington, in an article, 'A visit to Arlington' by Lyonel Capstickdale, published in the Jock Column, Magazine of the Transvaal Scottish Regimental Association, June 1994, pp 1-4. Quoting from a report of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and with the cooperation of Colonel P I Wilkins, Air and Assistant Defence Attache in the South African Embassy in Washington DC at the time, Capstickdale explains that Lieutenant Potgieter was killed when the aircraft in which he was travelling, a Dakota C47 attached to the 51st Tactical Combat Wing of the US Army Air Force, crashed near Stevenikon, Greece, on 9 September 1944. The bodies of the twelve men on board - six Americans, four Britons, one South African, and one Yugoslavian resistance fighter - were buried in a common grave as it had not been possible to separate and positively identify the individuals. On 5 September 1945, the remains were reburied in Phaleron War Cemetery in Athens. On 22 May 1951, the bodies were re-interred in Arlington in keeping with the American policy of bringing home their war dead. At the time, the American authornies incorrectly assumed that Lieutenant Potgieter was a British national. Both Klaus Kuhne and Lyonel Capstickdale's research concur that the South African may have been involved in a clandestine Allied operation in conjunction with the Yugoslav Resistance Movement to photograph a strategically located bridge,when he lost his life. Readers are welcome to provide additional details to help clear up either wartime mystery described above.


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