GENERAL SIR HESPERUS ANDRIAS (PIERRE) VAN RYNEVELD, KBE CB, DSO AND MC
Van Ryneveld was born on 2 May 1891 at Senekal in the Orange Free State. After matriculating at Grey College School in Bloemfontein he trained as engineer in London.
In July 1915 he joined the Royal Flying Corps (forerunner of the RAF), and served in WWI as a pilot.
General Smuts, Prime Minister of the then Union of South Africa, decided that South Africa must establish its own air force, and for this purpose the 27 year old van Ryneveld was selected. In 1919 General Jan Smuts recalled him from Cologne where he was serving as a squadron commander.
With effect from 1 February 1920, van Ryneveld was appointed as Director of Air Services, and was instructed to form an air arm that would be part of the army.
He rejected the idea of the Air Force being a division of the Army, and consequently the South African Air Force SAAF was formed as an independent unit.
In 1919 Great Britain agreed to allocate to the Union of South Africa 100 surplus military aircraft, (48 De Havilland DH9s, 30 Avro 504Ks and 22 SE 5a scouts), complete with spares and maintenance equipment. This became known as the Imperial gift, and was instrumental in getting the fledgeling SAAF off the ground.
In 1921 the SAAF bought a site east of Roberts Height (later Voortrekkerhoogte and now Thaba Tswane), near Pretoria, and it was here that the first aerodrome for the SAAF was established and was named Zwartkops.
The Silver Queen
In 1920 the London Times offered a prize of £10 000 for the first person to fly from London to Cape Town. Within a short space of time a Vickers Vimy, piloted by Captains S Cockerell and F C Broome, accompanied by Dr Chalmers Mitchell of the Zoological Society, set off.
However, General Smuts wanted South African aviators to blaze this trail, and authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy at a cost of £4500.
It was named the Silver Queen, and commanded by Lt Col van Ryneveld with First Lt Quinton Brand as the co-pilot. They took off from Brooklands (England) on 4 February 1920. After an exciting night crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, they arrived at Derna the next morning.
The Silver Queen was however wrecked during a force landing in bad weather at Korosko in Sudan.
A second Vimy F8615 was purchased from the RAF in Cairo, and the Silver Queen II left Cairo on 22 February. This aircraft crashed at Bulawayo (in Zimbabwe) on 6 March.
Fortunately, with some of the “Imperial Gift” aircraft already in Pretoria, a DH9 called Voortrekker was put together, and dispatched post haste to Bulawayo. Van Ryneveld and Brand were therefore able to complete their flight to Cape Town where the arrived at Young’s Field on 20 March 1920 after a total flying time of 109 hours and 30 minutes.
Both van Ryneveld and Quinton Brand were knighted for this achievement.
In 1929 Van Ryneveld became the officer commanding at Robert’s Heights (Thaba Tswane) and Commandant of the S.A. Military College, but remained Director of Air Services. The post of DAS was abolished on 30 April 1933 and on the following day Col Pierre van Ryneveld was promoted to Brigadier-General and appointed Chief of the General Staff. There was thus no chief of the SAAF and it remained under Van Ryneveld’s direct control until 30 June 1939.
South Africa’s military aimed at greater things, and in September 1939 the Chief of Staff, van Ryneveld, proposed the formation of a Mobile Field Force.
It was intended to be made up of two infantry divisions (each of three infantry brigades), a mounted brigade and an armoured regiment. Together with supporting artillery and coastal defence forces, 140,000 men would be required
Even though it was not formally accepted, the proposal set the prototype for a later mobilisation and force structure. In October 1939, van Ryneveld, as Chief of the General Staff, approved a plan known as the Peace Expansion Scheme, under which a total of 720 aircraft were acquired – 336 of which were fighters.
When Italy entered the war in 1940, South African squadrons were sent to East Africa, later to be supplemented by more modern aircraft. The SAAF played a remarkable role in the victory over Mussolini’s African Empire.
Van Ryneveld retired on 2 May 1949. The distinguished and highly decorated SAAF pilot died in 1972.
(All images from Vincent van Ryneveld)