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Library Reference Number: 190

The South African Air Force In World War Two

Ernest Wall, OBE, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.
Additional research by Jack Burgess, Editor

Having been awarded my ‘S’ brevet, I had been posted to Egypt en route to operational flying I knew not where. At this point, I had flown in three types of aircraft: Rapide and Proctor at RAF Madley, and Avro Anson at El Ballah where I obtained my ‘AG’ brevet. Realising I might never be able to visit this area again, I explored every historic site possible in Egypt and Palestine. I then experienced a highly significant event. I stupidly fell asleep on a beach during a visit to Tel Aviv and woke up in hospital suffering from heat stroke. While recuperating, I spotted a note inviting volunteers for the South African Air Force. Having missed my posting to OTU, I arrived at Gambut in the Western Desert with no operational training in early May 1944 to join No.24 (SAAF) Squadron.

Almost the first thing I noticed was a horrifyingly large two-engined bomber taking off that I subsequently discovered was a B26 Marauder. I had never even heard of a Marauder, somewhat unfairly dubbed by the Americans as "The Widow Maker." Despite this ominous description, I managed to survive an operational tour of 69 missions and which, on reflection, was double what I would have been required to do in the UK.

Elsewhere in these volumes, I have contributed several eye-witness accounts of operations I carried out as a member of the South African Air Force. During those operations, I also gathered knowledge of the extent of the wide involvement of the SAAF in World War Two. It has therefore always puzzled me that after hostilities ceased, other Air Forces received wide coverage of their global activities but little attempt had been made to acknowledge or record the considerable part played by members of the SAAF.

This being so, I decided to extend my remit of personal eye-witness accounts and to include a brief summary of other squadrons of the SAAF which up to this point have had little mention in aviation circles or literature.

When the recently formed Liberator Squadrons of the SAAF arrived in central Italy in May 1944 to supplement the RAF Halifax, Wellingtons and Liberators of 205 Group at Foggia, little did they realise the immediate hazardous tasks they would face. First, the Squadrons participated in the very tricky operations in dropping mines into the River Danube in Northern Europe to thwart German attempts to use river barges to carry oil supplies from the Romanian oilfields into Germany. This required precision flying to about 30 feet above the water at an airspeed of 190 mph in straight and level flight. Each mine with random timings had to be dropped at 3 second intervals. Those raids were so successful that AVM Keith Park of Bomber Command in London sent a message of congratulations to the SAAF Commander of the group.

Other duties included being sent to assist Italian Partisans in the Italian Alps. As can be imagined, flying conditions here were quite hazardous in maintaining ground contact in mountainous areas. Six SAAF Liberators were lost on those operations in October 1944.

One of the many noteworthy achievements of the SAAF I discovered was their involvement in the Warsaw Airlift. With the Soviet Army on the outskirts of Warsaw, at 17:00 on 1 August 1944, General Bor-Komorosky, the partisan leader, ordered the AK to rise against the oppressors and the die was cast. Fierce fighting erupted in most parts of Warsaw. The element of surprise aided the AK which, after five days had seventy percent of the city under its control. There was, however, no sign of the promised Russian help. The well-armed Germans received reinforcements and gradually stemmed, then turned, the tide, but not without heavy losses. The Poles were running low on food and ammunition but still no assistance from the Soviets was forthcoming. The Russians, indeed, did not even so much as reply to the Poles' call for help. The Polish government exiled in London and other Allied countries appealed to the Russians for help or simply co-operation but Stalin flatly refused even to grant permission for aircraft based in Britain to land behind Russian lines.

From August 4th, the Western Allies had begun supporting the Warsaw Uprising with air drops of munitions and other supplies. Initially the air raids were carried out mostly by 1568 Polish Flight of the PAF stationed in Bari and Brindisi in Italy flying Liberators, Halifaxes and Dakotas. Later, on at the insistence of the Polish government-in-exile, they were joined by the Liberators of 2 Wing - 31 and 34 Squadrons of the SAAF based at Foggia in Southern Italy, and Halifaxes, flown by 148 and 178 Squadrons of the RAF. The drops continued September 21. The total weight of Allied drops was 104 tons.

Warsaw is about 910 miles (1,464 km) from Britain on the 'Great Circle Course' but in order to avoid German air defences within the Reich, a detour had to be taken which made the journey closer to 1,100 miles (1,770 km). The return journey of 2,200 miles (3,540 km) was, of course, out of the question. Churchill then ordered that relief be flown to Warsaw from Italy which is a little closer, some 815 miles (1,311 km) on the Great Circle. This route also involved flying over heavily defended points. The task was allocated to 205 Group.

General Durrant went to see Air Marshal Slessor and was surprised to be admitted to the presence of Winston Churchill himself who was in an adjoining office. General Durrant pointed out to Churchill that an airlift of 1,000 miles (1,609 km), most of it over enemy occupied territory, could hold no hope of military success and that the loss of airmen and aircraft would be tremendous. Although Churchill agreed with him, he nevertheless insisted that the operation be proceeded with, if only for reasons of propaganda and morale.

It is perhaps appropriate at this point to provide a brief technical description of the Consolidated B24 Liberator in which the Group's crews were to undertake the Warsaw Airlift. For the job in hand, it was the best of the big allied bombers since the enormous Boeing B29 Superfortress had not yet made its appearance. The Avro Lancaster was fast and had a large payload but its range was shorter than that of the Liberator and, furthermore, there were none of them in Italy. The Handley Page Halifax had a smaller payload and shorter range than the Liberator although they were used in the Warsaw Airlift by the RAF and the Poles. The legendary, but overrated, Boeing B17 Flying Fortress had neither the speed nor the payload capacity of the Liberator. For those reasons, the B24 aircraft of the South African Air Force Liberators made a much greater impact during this vital mission. In addition to ammunition, oil and crew, the Liberator could carry a further disposable load of 2,600 pounds ((1,180 kg) which was made up of petrol and payload. Her maximum permitted take-off weight was 33 tons.

Sadly, the airlift failed in its purpose with the SAAF alone losing 11 Liberators around Warsaw, but it served to cement a bond between Poles and South Africans based on mutual respect and sincere friendship. Evidence of this are the annual commemoration services arranged by the local Polish community and in South Africa. There is further evidence, and in this lies a wonderful story. A letter from the Director of Information Services of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, tells of a selfless and public-spirited Pole, one Bronislaw Kowalski, who has, on his own initiative, and over a period of years, erected a shrine in the woods near the village of Michalin, some thirty kilometers south-east of Warsaw. The shrine marks the exact spot where a SAAF. Liberator crashed in flames at midnight on 14/15 August 1944. All but one of this crew survived and were eventually repatriated via Moscow. Source: The South African Military History Society.

Between April 1941 and May 1943 the eleven squadrons of the SAAF flew 33,991 sorties and destroyed 342 enemy aircraft. In North Africa, the SAAF fighter, bomber and reconnaissance squadrons played a major part in enabling the Allied "Desert Air Force" to attain total air superiority over the Axis air forces by the beginning of 1942. Its single most memorable feat in North Africa was probably the "Boston Shuttle Service", during which eighteen aircraft of 12 and 24 Squadrons showered hundreds of tons of bombs on the Afrika Korps as it relentlessly pushed the Eighth Army back towards Egypt during the "Gazala Gallop" in the first half of 1942. After the Battle of Alamein, too, the SAAF’s North African squadrons played a vital role in harassing the German forces retreating towards the Tunisian border.

Thereafter, the SAAF Squadrons participated in the invasion of Sicily, a campaign which ended in August 1943, and in the support of the Eighth Army’s advance up the Adriatic coast of Italy during 1943 to May 1945. By May 1944, the SAAF had 27 Squadrons of fighters, fighter/bombers and medium bombers operating in Italy, and comprising one third of the RAF strike force in this theatre. All the Squadrons assisted in the relentless attacks on the German strong points in northern Italy, harassing the enemy on their long retreat up the mainland of the country until the capitulation in May 1945. South Africa emerged from the Allied victory with its prestige and national honour enhanced as it had fought tirelessly for the Western Allies.

Taking all the above into account, it does seems surprising that so little credit has been given in aviation circles, or anywhere else where records of air operational history are displayed.

Finally – A Historical Note: South Africa as a whole, played a most important role in the British war effort and only entering World War Two by a very narrow vote seen as an unpopular decision in many quarters. General Smuts, who had been appointed Prime Minister after the Nationalistic leader had resigned, thereafter offered training facilities all under the Joint Air Training Scheme. South Africa trained 33,347 aircrew for the RAF, SAAF and other Allied Air Forces, a total exceeded only by Canada. The Training Scheme remains the single largest aviation training program in history and was responsible for training nearly half the pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers of the Commonwealth air forces during the Second World War.

South Africa also provided a safe sea passage for British reinforcements to the Middle East after Italy entered the war in 1940. The SAAF is the second oldest independent Air Force in the world, having been formed in February 1920 assisted by a large gift of World War One aircraft from the RAF. For domestic political reasons, the SAAF did not take the ‘Royal’ prefix like other Commonwealth Air Forces and had its own roundels of orange, white and blue. The SAAF also retained Army rankings and somewhat different brevet designs. I was presented with the brevet AG/LK when I joined 24 Squadron. Members were, however, awarded British decorations and medals.

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