The winner of the Mirage digital art raffle displayed in the PE SAAF Museum reception during the air show is Sally Soule of Port Elizabeth.
Well done and thank you to all those kind donors who supported the raffle – your contributions have been invaluable.
Willie (Buskruit) Burger
Velddrif Dec 2014
SAAF Boats – Short History
THE NOW ALMOST INVISIBLE BOND BETWEEN THE NAVY AND THE AIR FORCE
By 1940, when the first South African forces were deployed in East Africa, the Mediterranean Sea was under German and Italian control. The Suez Canal was thus an ambush, just waiting to happen. The Cape sea-route was the longest but safest route to East Africa and Egypt. By the middle of 1941, Japanese forces had overrun so much of the Eastern Indian Ocean territory that it was obvious that Australia would fall next. Japan made contact with the Vichy-France government in Madagascar and Japanese aircraft deployed to this “permanent aircraft carrier”. It is a fact that Japanese reconnaissance aircraft flew over Durban on two occasions.
Under these circumstances, it became necessary for the Royal Navy, British ground forces and the South African Air Force to invade Madagascar. The campaign did not last long, but few people realise how close the War came to South African shores. But, German U-boats and surface raiders still sank 153 Allied ships within 1 600 km of the South African coast.
In 1939/40, the patrolling of the sea-route was carried out with commandeered SAA Junkers Ju-86 airliners. When these aircraft were needed in East Africa as bombers, the reconnaissance and patrolling of the long coastline was taken over by Avro Ansons of 32 Flight at Brooklyn Air Station, (now Air Force Base Ysterplaat – Cape Town). The Anson was made mainly of wood and canvas, it had a range of 1 050 km and could carry 4 X 40 kg anti-submarine bombs.
In December 1939 a unit was formed at Youngsfield, to operate a 40 foot (12 metre) armoured target boat in False Bay. The MALGAS was used as a target on the bombing and gunnery range at Strandfontein. Seven tonnes of armoured steel were fitted to the deck and sides to protect the crew and engines. A second armoured boat (MALGAS II) and a high speed rescue launch (MALMOK) arrived at Cape Town in March 1940. The unit was visited by General Pierre van Ryneveld, Chief of the Air Force, who gave the order that the unit should be known as the SAAF Motorboat Wing. The first military craft of this type, to operate on our coast, was thus under the control of the Air Force, and would remain so for almost 30 years.
The Motorboat Wing received 19 “Crash Boats” between May 1941 and May 1944. They were built in Florida, USA, and were 63 feet (19 m) long. They could maintain a speed of 40 knots (74 km/h) for 15 minutes, but their cruising speed was 22 to 25 knots (41-46 km/h). They had a range of 500 nautical miles (926 km), and they were all equipped to handle six casualties/patients. They were numbered R1 to R20. (Superstition regarding the number 13 caused the number to be omitted). The nineteen boats were distributed between Durban, Port Elizabeth, Gordons Bay, Cape Town and Donkergat (opposite Langebaan).
(In 1961 and 1962, two German built, Krogerwerft (29,3 metre) Crash Boats – R30 and R31 were delivered . These were the forerunners of the T-craft, now used by the Navy in the air-sea rescue role.
In 1942, the war in North Africa was at its peak, and the front moved backwards and forwards, as Allied and Axis forces attacked and counter-attacked. All supplies to the Allied forces in Egypt had to pass round the Cape by sea. The antiquated Ansons could not cope with the defence of the sea route any more, and a Royal Air Force Squadron, number 262, started operating from Durban’s Congella Base, using Catalina flying boats for the long flights, to assist shipping against the U-boat threat. Langebaan lagoon was used regularly by the Catalinas, and in 1943 a detachment of Dutch Navy Catalinas was also active in Saldanha Bay. Congella Air Station (Langebaan Detachment) was built in this period, where Langebaanweg is situated today.
The Catalina flying boats needed support boats during daily operations. At Lake St Lucia, Richards Bay and Langebaan, the motorboat squadrons had to operate five other boat-types, to support the flying boats, viz, Seaplane Tenders, (for towing the Catalinas and later the Sunderlands), Safety boats, Refuelling boats, Fire Tenders and Marine Tenders, which were also used as bomb-scows, for the transport and loading of bombs and depth charges.
For the sake of continuity, the term “flying boat” is used throughout this narrative. The British preferred the term “sea-plane”, but the SAAF used “flying boat – vliegboot” in daily conversation. By the American definition, an aircraft with a boat shaped lower fuselage was termed a flying-boat, and an aircraft with added-on floats was regarded as a “float-plane.”
The loss of life in South African waters, as a result of enemy action, was very high. The NOVA SCOTIA was 34 km off St Lucia, when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. 750 people, mostly Italian prisoners of war, went down with the ship. But on the positive side, it is a fact that the crash boats were able to rescue almost 500 lives during the war.
To supplement the search and rescue ability, the Air Force acquired Lockheed Ventura Mark 1& 2 bombers. The first arrived at Brooklyn Air Station in 1942. The Ventura had a range of 3 100 km at a speed of 450 km/h.
Lockheed manufactured a maritime version of the Ventura; the PV-1 patrol bomber. Except for the American forces, the SAAF operated more Venturas than any other country. Between 1942 and 1960, the SA Air Force operated 130 B-34 bombers and 134 PV-1 maritime patrol bombers.
After the war, the number of crash boats was decreased, but the Motorboat Squadron at Donkergat and Langebaan survived. The boats remained under Air Force command and control until November 1969. With the bombing range at Tooth Rock (Jacobsbaai) in daily use, it was necessary to have a crash boat on constant stand-by just outside the danger area. There were accidents and incidents and the crews were seldom bored. The Navy took over the crash boats in 1969, and got rid of all but two of them. This was not because the sea-rescue ability was no longer necessary, but the arrival of the helicopter drastically changed the whole perspective.
The maritime role of the SA Air Force did not change or end after the Second World War. Remember that 262 Squadron (RAF) and the Dutch Navy, patrolled the territorial waters and coastline with Catalina flying boats. As the RAF crews returned home after their tours of duty, more and more South Africans were absorbed into 262 Squadron. Number 35 Squadron (SAAF) was born out of 262 Squadron, (in February 1945) before the end of the War. The new squadron’s 8 Catalinas were supplemented, and eventually replaced by 15 Sunderland flying boats, and anti-submarine warfare remained a priority until the end of the War. The emblem of 35 Squadron was a Pelican standing on the map of Africa. The Motto then was SHIYA AMANZI; which was Zulu for “Rise from the Water”.
After the War, 35 Squadron remained at Congella. The boats which served the Sunderlands, Catalinas and Anson, were Air Force boats, and remained in service until the Sunderlands were withdrawn in the mid–fifties. Yes, the Squadron also had an Anson float-plane. This Anson with floats, was the only one in the world.
The Squadron moved to Ysterplaat (Cape Town), and from there continued its tasks – coastal patrols and search and rescue, using PV-1 Venturas. In 1957/58, the Avro Shackleton MR-3 long range, maritime reconnaissance bomber replaced the Ventura. The Squadron Motto then changed to SHAYA AMANZI; which was Zulu for “Strike the Water”.
ENTER THE SHACKLETON
Eight Shackletons were acquired by the SAAF in 1957/58. Not long after they arrived, they made headline news when one of the aircraft flew non-stop, right around South Africa in 14 hours. In 1958, one of the Shackletons remained in the air for 21 hours and 10 minutes. The Shackleton had a take-off mass of almost fifty tonnes, of which just over 14 tonnes was fuel. The total fuel capacity of a Shackleton was 17 802 litres.
The sight and sound of an approaching Shackleton, must have been the most beautiful thing on earth, to many a shipwrecked sailor. With the bomb-bay doors closed, the Shackleton could carry a SARO 3 airborne lifeboat. The metal boat could be dropped by parachute and it had an inboard engine, mast and sail, supplies and emergency equipment. However, the airborne lifeboat was never used in an actual rescue mission. The drag limited the aircraft’s range drastically, and Lindolm-gear was carried instead. The Lindolm-gear consisted of three rope-linked canisters, each with its own parachute. One canister contained a ten-man dinghy, and the other two contained water, provisions, food and blankets.
In later years, when the Cold War (between East and West), had the World in its grip, no ships, of any country, sailed round the Cape without being observed, photographed and documented by Shackleton or Albatross crews. The twin-engined Albatross was acquired to supplement the Shackleton. The “Trossies” were used for close, inshore work, leaving the Shacks to take care of the long distance calls for surveillance and help.
Willie (Buskruit) Burger
Velddrif Dec 2014
The SAAF Museum extends its thanks to Lionel Barnard and CS AUTO BODY, Vehicle Specialists of note for their kind donation of CIC anti-corrosion products.
These products will be used to preserve & protect the Museum aircraft at the Ysterplaat & PE Museums.
The Museum is growing from strength to strength. This growth is made possible by the kind sponsorship of Individuals, Companies and Associations.
Among the individuals who contribute to this website, the following stalwarts assist with historical and other queries, advice and support:
Regular Advisors: Brig-Gen Derrick Page, Chris Teale, Steve McLean, John Coutts, Greg Pullin, Dean Wingrin, Kirk Kinnear and the late Kevin Furness and Eric Tyler.
Photographers: Jans Schmidtgen, Kirk Kinnear, Nic Wonfor, Greg Pullin. Alan Wienburg, Irene McCullagh, Monique Lyons and Dean Wingrin.
We would like to thank the following companies in particular for their unstinting assistance and support in many different areas:
The South African Aviation Foundation Museum (Association Incorporated Under Section 21) is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and display of the history and aircraft of the South African Air Force (SAAF).
It’s stated Goal is: To promote the SAAF Museum and aviation in general as well as to raise funds to achieve the objectives of the Foundation.
The Foundation is run by civilians and does not receive any funds from the SAAF or the government. Thus, we rely solely on fund-raising activities in order to achieve our aims.
The organisation is also registered as a Non-Profit Organisation with the South African Department of Social Development (registration number 016-007 NPO). The company registration number is 2000/029820/08
Our kind sponsors include:
The professional distributor of Engineering & Industrial Plastics, Signage and Glazing materials,
Digital Print Media, Aluminium Sign Systems and Point of Purchase components to the Southern Africa industry.
ER24 is a national, private emergency medical care provider that provides fast and efficient medical care to everyone in South Africa.
3M – Staunch supporters of the Museum’s restoration projects
Southern X have kindly provided sponsorship for the Team working on the Sabre.
Denel Aviation are proud sponsors of the South African Air Force Museum
Goodyear Aviation have provided a superb sponsorship in the form of tyres for the 6832 Restoration Project.
SABAT have provided batteries and support for our restoration projects.
Duram Paints have kindly provided us with materials to refurbish “The Tunnel.”
A BIG THANK YOU TO URBAN ESPRESS.
The PE SAAF Museum and Friends of the SAAF Museum extend our gratitude to Donovan McLagan of Urban Espress for assisting us at the 11th hour with a coffee making machine and coffee during the Baywest Air Show.
Without the Urban Espress help our VIP’s would have gone without coffee.
Thank you for saving the day and helping to make the air show a success.
By Geoff Hamp-Adams.
With the cessation of hostilities in May 1945, aircraft in their hundreds lined the runways of both friend and foe right across the expanse of Europe and the Far East, and the problem of de-mobilisation of personnel was compounded by the recovery and disposal of aircraft and related equipment.
South Africa was no exception, and the 20 bomber, fighter, coastal, and strike squadrons deployed in Italy, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and in West Africa were left at RAF maintenance units, while their air and ground crews returned to the Union their thoughts focused on rebuilding their careers in a world at peace.
At home, the Joint Air Training Scheme, the equivalent of the Empire Air Training Scheme had been summarily brought to a close, and the aircraft pushed into the hangars on the airfields where they had been based.
Ansons, Masters, Tiger Moths, and Oxford trainers, as well as utility aircraft such as the Fairey Battle were shut away to gather dust.
The raison d’etre of the Operational Training Units (the O.T.U’s) with their Hurricanes and Kittyhawks had disappeared.
After VE Day 29 Squadron was disbanded, and its ground crews and Ventura aircraft formed the nucleus of a Transport Wing , with the express purpose of repatriating servicemen from the Middle East.
35 Squadron discontinued its operations , and concentrated on working up on the new Sunderlands in anticipation of operations in the Far East.Both 17 and 27 Squadrons at Gianaclis in Egypt were similarly preparing to carry the offensive to the Far East with their Vickers Warwick GR V aircraft.
The Marauders, Mustangs, Beaufighters, Liberators, and Spitfires were left behind as were half of the Warwicks. 60 Squadron crews ferried 10 PRMk.XVI Mosquitoes (a gift from the U.K.Government) back to the Union, and 17 Squadron brought back 16 Warwick G.R.V’s
It was, to coin a phrase, wishful thinking that there was any likelihood of examples of the aforementioned combat aircraft apart from the ones returning to the Union being given to the Commonwealth Forces, for their respective museums, as the priorities at the time, concentrated around the issues of demobilisation.
The Dakotas of 28 and 44 Squadrons continued to transport repatriated servicemen from Cairo to the Union and remained in South Africa when the task was over.The Lodestars which had borne the brunt of the transport task prior to the arrival of the Dakotas, were returned to their rightful owners South African Airways, so that the internal air services which had been interrupted by the war could be re- introduced.
The South African Air Force Directorate had a post-war air force to plan which would have to be based on the airworthy aircraft available in the country at the time.
The Director General South African Air Force Conference minutes for the 26th of November 1946 listed the following aircraft as those held by the SAAF on that date
TYPE TOTAL REQUIRED SURPLUS
Anson 480 200 280
Auster 6 6 –
Catalina 15 – 15
Dakota 78 78 -
Harvard 250 150 100
Hawker Hart 4 – 4
Hurricane 82 – 82
Kittyhawk 58 – 58
Mosquito 10 10 -
Oxford 342 50 292
Tiger Moth 115 100 15
B34 Ventura 62 62 –
PV1 Ventura 86 86 -
Warwick 16 – 16
York 1 1 -
For reasons unknown, the 15 Short Sunderlands were excluded, but the aircraft surplus to requirements totalled a staggering 862, and the disposal of of these airframes took place over the course of the years 1947 to 1949.
As can be seen from the above listing the SAAF selected Harvards, Tiger Moths, Venturas, Dakotas, and Sunderlands, for its post war equipment. Some of the Harvards and Dakotas surviving to the present day, having been maintained in tip top condition.
On the 16th of July 1946 authority came through for the last 2 Catalinas of the 15 survivors of the war years dismantled in Durban, to be scrapped, and so, not a vestige of any of these memorable aircraft remains in South Africa today!!
For front line purposes the SAAF needed a fighter, and with so much experience gained on the Spitfire during the war, it was the logical choice.
In 1947, a total of 136 Mk IXe’s were delivered by sea and air to South Africa, in December 1947, and into 1948. These aircraft served on as the SAAF’s frontline fighter force, and were issued to 1, 2 and 60 Squadrons, CFS, and the Bombing Gunnery and Air Navigation School, as well as one or two other units.
The Spitfires were used to train and prepare the pilots of 2 Squadron for combat in Korea between 1950 and 1952, finally being withdrawn on the 7th of April 1954.
(The efforts to subsequently restore, and fly Spitfires across the world have met with resounding success, with the exception of South Africa.)
The details of the projects in the form of Spitfire MA793 ”Evelyn” and the SAAF Museum’s “gate-guard” Spitfire 5553 K AX(5518) have been well documented elsewhere, and suffice to say, the outcome of which, did not put South Africa in the fore- front as far as the preservation “scene” is concerned.
At 2AD Alexandersfontein near Kimberley 182 of the 252 Miles Masters, were gathered together and sold to Metal Smelters and Machinery Merchants of Johannesburg on the 21st of December 1946.
The Master is totally extinct in the world today!!!
A similar fate awaited the 58 Kittyhawks, the bulk of which were at 2AD. In 1985 all that remained of a Kittyhawk airframe found at St. Albans in Port Elizabeth, was the complete rear cockpit canopy section being used as a ‘porch’ over a door propped up with two pieces of brandering!!
The 280 Avro Ansons, and 292 Airspeed Oxfords, were progressively sold off on auction, fetching prices ranging from as little as 2 pounds sterling up to 5 or 10 pounds, some even with fuel in the tanks!!!!!
Many individuals bought aircraft, cut off the wooden wings, towed the airframes to their farms and homes, where they stood as children’s playthings, and a source of nuts, bolts, screws, tubing, aluminium, wood and so on.
The 10 Mosquito Mk XVI’s brought back to the Union as related, and incorporated into the SAAF, saw limited service, and after a fatal crash in June 1947 as a result of glue failure, all the Mosquitoes were grounded.
None of the Mk XVI’s survived, and the only one that still exists, is a Mk IX in the S.A.National War Museum Saxonwold in Johannesburg.
As a youngster, in the early 1950’s, the writer recalls the numerous occasions when travelling from Cape Town to Somerset West by car via Kuils River, the familiar sight of 60 odd Avro Ansons on private property without wings, standing on their noses, being slowly reduced to produce over the course of time.
In Port Elizabeth something of the order of 38 Hawker Hurricanes ended up in the storage yard of B.Friedman &Co. during 1947-48. According to records most of these airframes were complete in most respects, and eventually ended up being disposed for scrap, with no components remaining .
The Avro York 4999 operated by the VIP Flight from Waterkloof, saw little service in the SAAF, and was sold to Tropic Airways in 1952.
The following Air Schools 62, 68, 69, and 70 had intact aircraft such as follows:
Wapiti, Hart, Fury, Gloster Survey, Envoy, Tutor, Battle, Nomad, Master, Maryland, Kittyhawk, Mohawk, Tomahawk, and Hurricane as instructional airframes, and their fate?—–the scrapyard.
There was some effort to put aircraft on display like Harvard 7731 at the SAAF Gymnasium at Valhalla, while Vampire FB5 –205 (now on display at the P.E.Branch of the SAAF Museum) was initially displayed at the School of Technical Training at Snake Valley in a totally spurious camouflage scheme reminiscent of that used by Japanese aircraft during World War 2!!!!
However, as Spitfires were struck off charge (SOC) in 1955 a large number ended up being axed and cut up on the dumps, whilst a few precious airframes –13 on record, found their way to the private sector.Through the wisdom and fore-sight of the late Lt.Gen. Bob Rodgers former Chief of the Air Force , Spitfire 5518 was placed on display at AFB Waterkloof where it remained for 23 years.
At least, at that stage the SAAF had something to show for its association with this remarkable aircraft!!
So, apart from 5501 at the Saxonwold War Museum the remaining airframes slowly disappeared to destinations as far afield as Vancouver, U.K., Florida, Portugal, Queensland, Sao Paulo and so on.
In March 1955 it was the turn of 35 Squadron to dispose of some of their fleet of Sunderlands, and 8 airframes went to the scrapyard. By late 1957 only 2 aircraft remained, and after a costly major overhaul 1710 RB-D made the last flight on the 8th of October 1957 which was a test of all the systems, and after two hours airborne, returned to base.
Barely weeks later 1710 together with 1703 ended up in the scrapyard. Apart from bits and pieces over the years, nothing remains of these magnificent machines.!!
During the mid-sixties a senior officer at Defence Headquarters Colonel Peter Mcgregor, one- time 24 Squadron Marauder pilot, and better known as a SAAF Historian and co-author of “Per Noctem per Diem” had commenced lobbying support for the idea of a SAAF Museum, over and above his official duties at Defence Headquarters.
About this time, the restorable airframe of Hawker Hurricane 5214 which had lingered on at CFS Dunnottar for many years, was brought over to Pretoria, by HQ to be restored, and placed on a plinth next to Spitfire 5518 at Waterkloof.
There was an Officer Commanding change in the interim, and the new OC had no interest in the aircraft, and it lay decaying in the transport yard.It was then transferred to 15 AD where it was sold as scrap to National Scrap Metals in 1971!!
Once again, a precious airframe of great historical value was lost for all time because of reckless and irresponsible attitudes, and above all lack of “coms” between departments in the SAAF.
The proposals to establish a SAAF Museum, received much favourable support, and a great deal of opposition, the main reasons for objections have never been really clear, and in the light of the SAAF’s track record up to that point, to say the least—extremely negative and confusing to say the least!!
On the 26th of October 1973 the Minister of Defence Mr P.W.Botha gave his approval to establish the SAAF Museum as an official department in the SAAF.
At long last an official effort was being made to save and conserve the Air Force Aviation Heritage, and Col. Peter McGregor rightly so, became the First Commanding Officer.
With his boundless enthusiasm Col. Mcgregor, with a small staff –less than a dozen personnel, and limited storage place at 15 Air Depot Snake Valley, the SAAF Museum came into being.
Over the course of time the historical hangars at Swartkop, were restored, and aircraft began to fill up the spaces, and other aviation artifacts and memorabilia started to arrive.
An indication of the indifference to preservation in the SAAF, was the near destruction of the first helicopter to grace South African skies in the form of
Sikorsky S-51- A1 rescued from a plinth at a Cape Town scrapyard in 1978 and the sale of the 3 Sikorsky S-55’s A4, A5, and A6 to Autair (Pty) Ltd !!
August 1979 saw the Canadair CL13B Sabre jets withdrawn from service due to high attrition, and according to reports mainspar fatigue cracks were found. Yet in 1982, 10 Sabres were sold to Flight Systems of California for use as target drones, and reports came through to the effect that Sabre 365 had been seen at numerous air shows in the U.S. flying in SAAF colours?!!
381 went via France in 1988, and ended up in the U.S. as N40CJ—flying?
Col.Mcgregor with his tremendous fore-sight realised that the Museum would be incomplete without an aircraft to represent the Wartime Air Training Scheme.Only bits and pieces remained of Ansons around the country—so what about an Airspeed Oxford?
After negotiating a deal with the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in the U.K.in 1983, Lockheed B34 Ventura 6130 was exchanged for Airspeed Oxford GAITF which is being currently being restored at the SAAF Museum in Port Elizabeth.
On the 23rd of November 1984, a memorable and sad moment as 3 majestic Shackletons roared over D.F.Malan Airport in a final salute, after 27 years of amazing service, and what has been preserved of the 7 remaining aircraft?
1716—costly re-spar, and lowest hours—crashes in the Sahara desert 13-07-94
1717—costly re-spar, on display Midmar Dam now in Stanger,— scrapped?
1718—written off in Stettynsberg mountains 08-08-63
1719—displayed Cape Town waterfront—neglected–and scrapped (a disgrace)
1720— SAAF Museum Ysterplaat—scrapped 2013— because of neglect
1721— SAAF Museum Swartkop – intact
1722—SAAF Museum Ysterplaat—intact—ground runs are still done
1723—painted in Coca-Cola red, and displayed with 35 Squadron’s badge
on top of garage at “Uncle Charlies” Johannesburg (a disgrace)
*1723—exchanged for Vickers Viking, which is part of SAA collection
About the same time Col. Mcgregor was on the lookout for an aircraft to represent our wartime operations in either North Africa or Italy, and at the time the only avenue to pursue was to conclude an exchange deal.
Eventually, one was concluded with the Portugese Air Force for a Bristol Beaufighter Mk X RD 220 in exchange for a composite Spitfire rebuild. The Beaufighter served the SAAF in 16 and 19 Squadrons with distinction, and so a very interesting and unique exhibit arrived in South Africa, one of only 8 known survivors worldwide at the time.
Five years down the line, a magnificent composite Spitfire (5563) resplendent in Portugese Air Force finish was handed over to the Portugese Air Force in 1989.
The Beaufighter needed a great deal of repair and metal treatment, this was carried out byAtlas, over the course of months. However, pressure of work, and commitment to the Air Force in servicing and repairing aircraft for duty in the Bush War, necessitated postponing work on the Beaufighter. Having seen the Beaufighter fuselage at Swartkops, the writer was impressed at the quality of the work that had been carried out at that stage.
Then came the devastating news, that the Beaufighter had departed our shores to Scotland for good, to The Museum of Flight in East Lothian. Whatever the circumstances, the acquisition of the Beaufighter had taken the best part of 5 years to obtain, and this action must be a first ever internationally—where an aviation museum negotiates a deal with another for a very rare aircraft to represent a period in its history, and then disposes of it!!!
What an insult to the late Colonel Peter Mcgregor and all his efforts!!
In concluding this series, the 26th of October 1995 bears mention for the spectacular send-off of the Harvard with 50 years of service in the SAAF, at Air Force Base Langebaan, now the C.F.S. The sight of 50 of these celebrated machines in “diamond” formation, flying over the base, landing in stream, and once all the aircraft were lined up with engines running, switching off one by one until there was dead silence—was something to remember by those who flew and serviced them.
Finally, the fact that there is a good Harvard representation in the SAAF, as well as the aircraft of the Harvard Club of South Africa, are hopefully the ‘flagships’ for the future preservation of our Aviation Heritage, however, only time will tell!
So, as things stand at present, if we want to see real ‘warbirds’ operating at airshows we have to rely on the local enthusiasts in the private sector, and alternatively we will have to go to the USA, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, to appreciate how things are organised!!
He acknowledges the following people and enthusiasts who, over the years strove to bring the importance of aviation heritage not only to the private sector but also officialdom, and in the case of the latter often dealing with bureaucratic indifference.
Their recollections, and records accumulated , are the source of information for this article, to which the writer is indebted, and he apologises for any errors and omissions.
The late Colonel Peter M.J. Mcgregor –First O. C. of the SAAF Museum
The late Major David St H Becker –Historical Research Officer SAAF Museum
The late Major Ronald R.Belling—Official War Artist of the SAAF
The late Major Ivan R.D. Spring—ex SAAF/RAF author and historian
Dr. Dennis Hoskin rtd—- (SAAFA)—ex 60 Squadron Mosquito crew member
The late Major Des Eden– (SAAFA)—ex 35 Squadron—Catalina crew commander
Mr Steven Mclean —Aviation Author
“Squadrons of the South African Air Force and their Aircraft “
“The Spitfire in South African Air Force Service”
Friends of the SAAF Museum Port Elizabeth
Historian and Researcher
The story of Colonel “Oom Vuil” Fred Potgieter.
When the SAAF bought the farm at Ondangwa to establish an air force base there was pretty much nothing but an open expanse of savanna grasslands. When the Mobile Radar Unit moved in to establish themselves, this convoy of trucks drove into the new base and stopped. There was pretty much naught but a huge big single Camel thorn tree. A grand daddy of all Camel thorn trees. It provided the only shade for miles around and there was no way it was getting cut down so, with the shady shadow it cast, it became the center point of the base. A place where the guys could hang out when they took a break in the middle of the day. It became the social center of the base to be and would remain the social center from that point on.
In fact it stands there to this day 17.8887136S, 15.947131E, despite attempts, accidental and deliberate, to inflict injury on it … it still stands.
The tree became a favorite place and so, it became a home to a bar counter that was erected in its shadow. And behind the counter, one needs a bar man. It was my lifetime mate Victor Frewen, that was the barman at Ondangwa. We grew up together. Were in school together, were in the SAAF together, Rode for the same bike club, shared the same adventures … and not out of choice or design, but because fate always seemed to let us gravitate towards each other.
The barman needed fridges and shelves behind him so those were brought in and tents were erected, to the north.
To the opposite side was the lounge with easy bush chairs in clusters around tables made of tree stumps. The bar and the counter and the lounge were open to the sky.
To the south was the kitchen, to the east was the officers mess, and to the west was the noncom mess. A plan that is retained to this day if you look at it from above, though the cross is now made of brick and metal and offset a bit so as not to interfere with the tree, for the tree is sacred to all. And if you look real close, you can just see the wall of the social circle peeping out to the side.
But back then, the cross was made of tents, and the tree was smack bang dead center of the cross.
X marked the spot. It was not called pub tree for nothing.
In the evening we would come and hang out in the bar and drink and sing and tell stories. The ranking order began at the left with the lowest ranks and ended on the right at the highest ranks, an unwritten rule that was strictly enforced. You always stood to the left of a senior officer and to the right of a junior when facing the bar. The barman’s priority of service always began on the right and he would work his way down, privates were served last, that was if he got to them before any of the seniors finished their drinks. Then he would start up at the right, again, and a private was lucky if he got served at all.
The result was that the bar always gravitated towards a natural balance of more senior base personnel and troepe went straight to B stores to collect their dop and go back to their tents when the bar reached a certain number. If there were less senior officers, the place would fill with more junior personnel but never more people in a bar than a single barman could serve in the time it took to down a round.
There were fixtures in the bar. The ATC (Air traffic controller) was one of them. He would sit there every night with his portable 2 way radio on the counter in front of him and in amongst the singing and the shouting and the laughing, the moment that radio came to life, there was immediate silence.
And I do not ever recall a single aggressive incident in the bar at Ondangwa ever. Yes there were the verbal disagreements over this or that but never anything physical ever. A senior could never strike a junior nor could a junior ever strike a senior and no one used first names. Everyone addressed each other by rank during socials. First names were reserved for when there was work to be done.
Sometimes if there were 4 majors in the lapa, a surname would creep in, but never a first name. Familiarity bred contempt.
It was Sir or rank upwards and rank downwards. ‘Could you pass us the Ice please Captain’ … ‘Here you are corporal’ … ‘Thank you sir.’ You minded your manners and you knew your place, and you did not socialize upwards or downwards unless it was with your immediate crew. Physical contact or gestures of familiarity were not tolerated ever, nor was any form of disrespectful talk. But we sang along, and told our stories, and drank together like the best of mates as long as you knew your place. And no-one was ever banned or shouted at or anything like that ever. No one had to prove anything to anyone … we did that all day long and we knew exactly what the pecking order was.
Sometimes, very late at night, the last few diehards might shuffle closer together or sit in a circle, but the rules remained … and no matter where, whether it was a seat at the table or a seat at the bar or a seat in the circle or at one of the lounge tables, you always asked before taking up a perch. It was a social sin to just come and sit uninvited, even if it was a senior officer joining a group of lower ranks … he still asked. Not that anyone ever refused, but you always asked.
And so, this fateful evening, it is about 7 or 8, just after sunset, the bar is in full swing. Singalongs and drinking. Recorded music was forbidden in the bar. No hi-fi’s no speakers, no tapes, no players. Because, no matter what was played, someone always wanted to listen to something else, so canned music was banned from the start. You drank along, and chatted along and you sang along or else you got lost. You could listen to your own canned music in your own tent.
Then suddenly the ATC’s portable comes to life. A squadron of choppers is inbound from the operational area. No problems, no cassevacs, no body bags, just a routine patrol coming home from somewhere up north.
‘Look up to the south guys, and we’ll give you a show.’ says the squadron leader.
So, everyone in the bar is up on the tables and bar counter looking out to the south for this squadron of Puma’s to give us a fly over.
‘There they are …’ says someone, and a line of brilliant stars approaches from the south. The choppers have their searchlights on, and are shining them straight at us from 2 or 3 kilometers out as they circle the base on their circuit.
Then they turn towards us and each gunner turns his spotlight onto the chopper next to him and this squadron of brilliantly illuminated choppers, line abreast like a string of pearls approaches us growing larger and larger in the night sky.
Then, so low, we can see the grinning faces of the pilots and the gunners they are upon us and over us, and gone and the whole bar and the tents shudder with the noise and the downdraught and the chachachacha bass of the chopper blades … I even felt the ground shudder under my feet. … and a sudden violent mini dust storm is blown up in the bar and loose light things like sheets of paper and hats go flying around.
We rush out of the bar to watch them pull up to the north, and peel off to come in for a single file landing while they now keep the spotlights aimed at us around the bar.
I tell you, there is nothing more intimidating than having a squadron of Puma gunships focus their spotlights on you, when you know that there is a gunner with a 50 cal behind each spotlight.
So they land, and we drift back into the bar babbling excitedly about what a brilliant shoot up that was and how that was the lowest flyby we had ever seen and so on and on and on.
Now, I mentioned that there were certain fixtures in the bar. Permanent residents, night after night after night, like clockwork they were there, and one was an old colonel, who was regarded by the SAAF as being to old to fly combat, and maybe it was because he was mates with his other senor staffers that dated back to the second world war, and maybe they didn’t want to loose him in a combat mission, even though he wanted to keep on flying … so they gave him a Dakota and the daily milk run from Ondangwa to Katima Mulilo and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted to as he got the job done without stuffing anything up.
He was actually a great old man, and many nights we would sit around at the end of the evening, listening to his stories of how he took on Rommel and his fighters and bombers and how he got shot down and how he escaped across the desert through enemy lines, by burying himself till the tanks and trucks had gone past, till the battle line had moved over him. Of how his squadron, low on everything including ammo and planes, built the biggest home made cannon ever made and blew half the bloody Luftwaffe out of the sky with it…
Us youngsters, then 18,19,20, were his captive audience, we loved his stories and he loved his audience, and we would hang on every word of his virtually till the light of dawn. And then, after breakfast, after about a gallon of coffee, he would send a runner for his co-pilot, and then he would instruct us …
‘Carry me to my plane!’
And arm in arm, the old colonel and us would take a stroll up to his plane, no we did not carry him, but we steadied him if he wobbled a bit. And off he would go on the milk run, to return that afternoon late, to once again take up his spot in the bar, and god help anyone if they were on his perch on the right hand end of the counter when he waked in.
And you could see how he would sit an listen in envy as the new young chopper pilots told their tales of action and he would almost challenge them as to the hairiness factor of having a gunner shoot a gook for you from hundreds of meters away if he was carrying an AK 47, as opposed to taking on 4 Messerschmitt’s with a Spitfire.
‘You young wippersnappers dont know shit … You wait till I chase your arse all over the sky with 8 Browning’s and then, if you get away from me matey, then you can come and brag in the bar … but don’t talk to be about a hairy day when a gook takes on your kite with an AK47 and your gunner takes him out while all you need to do is fly straight and level so as not to upset the aim of your gunner. Balderdash.’
So, the banter flew back and forth … and it was good for a laugh … it was good natured … and he put one or two uppity chopper pilots in their places … but you could tell that it cut a bit when he got chirped right back again with remarks like ‘save your war stories for the young’uns Colonel, they’ll believe anything you say!’ … ‘ you just stick to your milk run and leave the real work to us real pilots that go out to get the job done’ and such like. And so the banter would fly back and forth, sometimes very funny, and sometimes very very bitchy.
It was therefore quite obvious that when the chopper pilots walked into the bar they were the center of attraction and the old Colonel, sitting right at the end of the bar, on his unassailable perch, looking down at his whiskey, did not say anything as all. He conceded them their 15 minutes of fame, their moment in the sun so to speak.
And it might just have remained so, had some YDFC chopper pilot, carried away in the exuberance of the moment, not slapped the Colonel on the back and said, ‘How was that for some low flying Old Man’ The bar came to an absolute standstill and the chopper pilot, realizing he had committed several cardinal sins in one stupid move stood back. He had physically struck a senior officer, he had encroached into an area of the bar that his rank did not belong, he had socialized upwards without invitation, and he had addressed a senior officer with a level of familiarity that did not become his status or relationship with that officer.
It was so quiet you could hear the tree growing, and that in itself is a fairly quiet process.
And it was early evening, it was still many hours away before the Colonel hit his stride … He was to all intents and purposes, as sober as a judge. he looked at the chopper pilot and stood up in front of him, straight and tall, and it was actually a surprise to note how tall he actually was when he stood up straight like that … and he said …
‘Young man, I will pardon you your social faux pax and put it down to the exuberance of the moment, but that, you little prick was not low flying … if you want to see some night time, low flying … I will show you some low flying you and your squadron will never forget. …’ he turned to his one pip loot co-pilot, the only officer that sat out of sequence at the bar in his permanent position next to his chief pilot … ‘KOBUS … escort me to my aeroplane!’
He stalked out of the bar with his co-pilot in tow, as the bar remained in deathly silence … The chopper pilot turned to his other squadron members,
‘Sorry mates, I stuffed up there’
‘Damn right, but don’t worry, buy him a whiskey when he gets back and you will all be best of mates by the end of the evening …’
And so, life in the bar returned to normal.
It was about 15 minutes later when we heard the Dakota motors fire up. and the bar became quiet …
‘Ondangwa Tower this is Mike One’ came his voice on the 2 way radio in the bar.
‘Go ahead Mike One.’
‘Fuck the takeoff clearance … you guys want a show … I will give you a show …’ And we all poured out of the bar onto the open ground outside as the Dakotas motors went to full power at the start of the runway .
He held it there for about a minute or so … and then released the brakes.
The empty Dak surged forward down the long runway
About a quarter of the way, the tail came up, and then up a bit more
About half way, the Dak had long passed takeoff speed and was running balls to the wall full tilt tail high down the runway
Three quarters down, and the tail came down a bit
And as it reached the end of the runway, people were expecting the biggest prang they ever saw, the tail went down, the nose came up and the Dak went vertical, straight up, through an almost vertical barrel roll, and leveled out as it approached the stall, then it joined the same holding pattern that the choppers had an hour or so earlier … and it descended through the turn and then with all lights on, came straight for the pub, lower and lower and lower …
‘He’s too fucking low …’ shouted one of the pilots
‘The tree … he is going to hit the tree ..’
‘YOU ARE GOING TO HIT THE TREE!’ shouted the ATC into the mic.
‘Now wont that be low flying …’ came the reply.
‘Brush!’ said another
‘Brush!’ shouted the ATC into the mic
‘What about it?’ said the colonel
‘Watch the masts at BRUSH!!!!’
‘Fuck yes’ came the reply … ‘Just you watch them!’
‘Oh my god, he is going to hit the masts!’ I was standing on the earthen embankment next to the road, which was maybe the height of a single story house when he went over the embankment with very damned little margin for error. I watched the guys in the bar scatter in all directions … Some of the brave chopper pilots had reckoned bullshit … This was just going to be another low showoff flyby … They did not know how low till it was too late … and then it was too late.
The Dak scraped over the top of the tree, both blades trimming the top … it was into the tree, through the tree, and out the other side … and then, dead ahead there was BRUSH, ‘Bush Recon Unit Signals Headquarters’ with its array of some 10 to 15 masts … all lit up with hazard lights … and the Dak went right wing down in a snap roll, faster than I had ever see a plane do a snap roll in my life before … it went right wing down and full left rudder and arse end down and it crabbed nose high, tail down, straight through the middle of the mast farm at BRUSH, with wingtip feet off the ground, he flew straight through BRUSH and out the other side and leveled out and once more did a climbing victory roll before joining the circuit and coming in for a perfect three pointer landing.
As the Dak taxied back to the apron, we ran out to meet it. It was an absolute mess. The antennas had been ripped away under the belly. There was camel thorn in the motors, in the cowlings, in the gear, in the tail wheel … there were thorns in the cockpit and even in the closed toilet in the back of the plane.
Most interesting of all were the several lines of antenna wire wrapped around the wing, which had till a few short minutes before, been strung between the masts at BRUSH.
We went back to the bar, and the Colonel walked in to a standing ovation from all the chopper pilots who were still picking leaves and thorns out of their flight suits and hair … and choruses of ‘And he’s a jolly good fellow’
The Colonel waked up to the chopper pilot that started it all, put his arm around his shoulder and said …
‘So, what do you think sonny, how’s that for some low flying … reckon the old dog as still got a bit of a bite left in him or what ?’
The chopper pilot handed the Colonel the whiskey and ice he had been holding pending the Colonels return.
‘To your very good health SIR!’ he said snapping to attention.
‘And yours as well lieutenant’ said the Colonel raising the glass and holding it till all the glasses in the bar were raised.
After that, when the Colonel gave a chirp to any chopper pilot that got too big for his boots, and the chirp was returned … his mates would stop him right there … with comments like …
‘No no no lieutenant … don’t go there … its been tried before and it did not end well … ‘
I guess that was what the old Colonel needed, was just a chance to prove that he still had it … and he seemed changed after that.
But we still hung out with him in the pub into the late hours of many a night and listened to his stories. He was a bit of a hero figure to us, and he was our connection … when we needed transport, anywhere, any time, we could hop on board with him and he would even make small detours for us. Weekends saw us hopping over to Rundu to park on the beach for 2 days, or over to Katima to the Zambezi lodge and so on.
One day, his ground crew, and don’t ask me how they fucked up, but they did, had loaded his Dak with a double load of cargo. They loaded it once … and then somehow, a duplicate load was loaded on board.
He always used to pull this stunt of holding the Dak down to the last minute, and the hauling it hard up into the sky … only this time it did not haul up, it barely lifted … but it did lift , and barely made it over the perimeter fence and he flew it all the way to Katima … trying to figure out why the old bird was not performing like her usual self.
When he landed in Katima, they offloaded the cargo intended for them, and found the plane still half full. The investigation found that he was something like 1.7 times overloaded and the plane should never have gotten off the ground, let alone flown … but his stunt of revving the plane down the full length of the runway till the last moment, something he loved to do is what pulled it off.
‘I always knew that trick would come in handy one day, I never figured that it would save me and my plane the way it did.’ He was a cool guy and a great pilot. I remember him and the stunts he pulled and the stories he told.
But that is a story of Colonel ‘Oom Vuil (Uncle Dirty)’ Fred Potgieter, as best remembered. ends:
Film of Fleet Air Arm exercise in South Africa. Film includes Wingfield, Marmon Herrington Armoured Cars, and PV1.