The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 15 No 3 - June 2011


By Captain Leon Steyn Historian, South African Air Force Museum

A memorial service of special significance was held on Saturday, 19 February 2011 at the South African Air Force Memorial at Bays Hill. The beautiful and tranquil surroundings of the Wall of Remembrance painted the backdrop to the occasion, during which the casket containing the ashes of the late Sir Pierre and Lady Betty van Ryneveld were placed in a newly dedicated niche inside the Wall of Remembrance.

At the memorial service

After Van Ryneveld's death in 1972, the founding father of the South African Air Force (SAAF) was cremated and his ashes, together with those of his wife, were placed inside a casket at the Koedoespoort Memorial. This memorial, erected close to the actual landing site, commemorated the epic pioneering flight of Van Ryneveld and Brand across Africa from England in March 1920.

In recent years, though, the Memorial has suffered neglect and the casket containing the hallowed ashes was subsequently removed and kept in safe custody at the Chief of the Air Force's office at Air Command. Through the efforts of the Director Air Force Heritage, Brig Gen Derrick Page, and the SAAF Association, plans wene made to 're-inter' the ashes in a more appropriate and safe environment, which, at the same time, would be more accessible to family and friends. The Wall of Remembrance at the SAAF Memorial was the obvious choice, honouring those who served in the Air Force.

Emphasising the importance of the event, the Memorial Service was attended by the Chief of the Air Force, several Air Force Board members, as well as ex-Chief of the Air Force, Lt Gen Dennis Earp. Padre Don Watson, in his eulogy, highlighted the many achievements of Sir Pierre van Ryneveld and the big investment he made through his gallant conduct in establishing the South African Air Force ninety years ago.

Many proud members of both the Van Ryneveld and Brand families attended the memorial service. The granddaugher of Sir Pierre, Ms Linda van Ryneveld, thanked the Chief of the Air Force for the effort to save not only the ashes but also the memory and heritage of Sir Pierre and Lady Betty van Ryneveld. In his address, Tony van Ryneveld, a nephew of Sir Pierre, made mention of his uncle's steely determination and fighting character, how he triumphed over several obstacles to establish the South African Air Force and, ultimately, of his tenure as Chief of General Staff of the Union Defence Forces and the turbulent times of the Second World War.

After the placement of the casket, a lone trumpeter sounded the Last Post and Reveille. The niche was then closed and a Dakota and Harvard from the SAAF Museum flew past in a fitting salute to the man who founded the South African Air Force.

Following the ceremony, tea and light refreshments were enjoyed by all at the SAAF College's General House.

The memorial inscription

Sir Pierre van Ryneveld - Father of the South African Air Force

Helperus Andrias van Ryneveld was born in Senekal on 2 May 1891. He was educated at Grey College, Bloemfontein, and obtained a BA degree from the University of the Cape of Good Hope (today known as Unisa). Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, he studied and acquired a BSc degree from the University of London. With the outbreak ofthe First World War, Van Ryneveld initially joined the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, but transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1915 as a pilot. He attained the rank of lieutenant colonel and became Officer Commanding 11 th Army Wing within four years of service and earned the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross. His brother, John, also a pilot, was killed during the First World War.

Van Ryneveld, together with Quintin Brand, were the first to fly from England to South Africa, establishing an air route across the African continent. Between 4 February and 20 March 1920, they flew in a Vickers Vimy called the 'Silver Queen', a second Vimy dubbed 'Silver Queen II' and eventually arrived in South Africa in a De Havilland DH-9 aircraft called 'Voortrekker'. Both men were knighted for the feat.

At the same time, Van Ryneveld was commissioned by General Jan Smuts to organise the establishment of the South African Air Force with Kenny van der Spuy as his deputy in 1920. Van Ryneveld was appointed Director Air Services (today known as Chief of the Air Force) from 1920 to 1933 and, with his strong personality and practical approach, he was instrumental in the establishment of a well-trained and equipped Air Force. He served as Director Air Services for thirteen years; today, it is common practice for the Chief of the Air Force to serve in this capacity for five years.

A true pioneer and aviator, Van Ryneveld became the first person to fly from Pretoria to Cape Town nonstop in 1927 and he was also the first person in South Africa to jump out of an aircraft with a parachute. He was appointed Chief of General Staff (which today is known as Chief of the South African National Defence Force) in 1937 and led the South African war effort in the Second World War, serving until his retirement in May 1949. After retiring, he settled on his farm Spitzkop in the Bronkhorstspruit area. He died on 2 December 1972 at the age of 81. He had one son, John, also a SAAF pilot.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /