Category Archives: Publications

SAAF Boats

Article by

Willie (Buskruit) Burger

Velddrif   Dec 2014

SAAF Boats – Short History



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.


A commandeered Junkers Ju-86

A commandeered Junkers Ju-86


Avro Anson

Avro Anson

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.


Air Force Crash Boat R 20

Air Force Crash Boat R 20

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.

Consolidated Catalina

Consolidated Catalina

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.”

Seaplane Tender ST 433 at Langebaanweg in 2002

Seaplane Tender ST 433 at Langebaanweg in 2002


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 B-34 Ventura Mark 2

Lockheed B-34 Ventura Mark 2

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.


Lockheed PV-1 Ventura

Lockheed PV-1 Ventura

PV1-3 ventura


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.

Sunderland Flying Boat taking off from Congella in Durban Harbour

Sunderland Flying Boat taking off from Congella in Durban Harbour

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”.



Shack 1717

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.


Avro Shackleton Mark 3

Avro Shackleton Mark 3

SARO 3 Airborne Lifeboat

SARO 3 Airborne Lifeboat

lifeboat 1


Article by

Willie (Buskruit) Burger

Velddrif   Dec 2014

The story of Colonel “Oom Vuil” Fred Potgieter.

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:



SA Fleet Air Arm Exercises

Category : Film , Posts , Publications


Film of Fleet Air Arm exercise in South Africa. Film includes Wingfield, Marmon Herrington Armoured Cars, and PV1.


[youtube httpv:// ]



68th Anniversary of the Warsaw Flights – Saturday, 8th September 2012

68th ANNIVERSARY OF THE WARSAW FLIGHTS – Saturday, 8 September 2012

Tomorrow we will commemorate the 68th Anniversary of the heroic flights over Warsaw by South African and Allied airmen to drop supplies to the Polish Home Army and civilian population of Warsaw, at that time locked in a mortal struggle for freedom.
Details of the ceremony are as follows:
11: 00 hrs – Religious Service and Wreath Laying at the Katyn Memorial, James and Ethel Gray Park, Melrose Estate, Johannesburg, South Africa The Commemoration will be podcast so you can watch it from anywhere in the world.

The podcast will start at 11am South African Time ( Johannesburg – we have only one time zone in RSA) You can check your local time against Johannesburg on the World Clock on google.

To watch the podcast go to: <> and follow directions from there. Last year I watched the podcast from Kenya and will be watching again this year from Zanzibar. I hope many of you will be able to link in. Vanessa asked about a reunion/get together a long time back, how about at the 69th Anniversary next year, we see how many people can be in Johannesburg for it?

If you cannot tune in tomorrow, just take a minute to Salute the men of 31 and 34 Sq. and make a point of it to tell someone about the heroic work they did.

I post this on behalf of the Organising Committee: Mr A Romanowicz (Chairman)

P.O. Box 905, Northlands, 2116, South Africa – – – Tel. +27 11 788 6577

Tragedy at Kufra


By J J M Coetzee
Member of the ground staff of 15 Squadron from November 1941 to May 1944
(Unless indicated otherwise, photographs are author’s own)

Re-Published with Kind Permission of the South African Military History Society

In the annals of war, great campaigns and battles are often reduced to a few paragraphs, or, at most, a few pages. The minor incidents, those that are normally etched in the mind and memory of an individual or unit, are brushed over or totally ignored. One such minor incident occurred at Kufra during May 1942. This tragedy is a sad chapter in the history of 15 Squadron, South African Air Force. Let us start at the beginning.

We, that is, 15 Squadron, South African Air Force, totalling 436, all ranks, were assembled, with material gathered, at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, at the Rand Airport, Germiston. We were to go ‘up north’. Finally all preparations were completed, and on 19 January 1942 at 12h00 we left Germiston Station for Durban. Here we embarked on the Llandaff Castle, and some of the aircrew on the Elizabethville. As we steamed out of Durban Harbour on 20 January 1942, the ‘Lady in White’ sang us a farewell song.

We arrived at Suez on 13 February 1 942 and boarded a train to take us to Amariya, near Alexandria, from where we were taken to the base camp a few miles further south. The landing ground was a featureless, flat piece of desert from which the scrub had been cleared, and where sandbag blast-shelters, which were to house the aircraft we were to receive, had been built. We were told that we were to be equipped with Bristol Blenheim MK IV fighter aircraft.

Running up the engines of the Bristol Blenheim MKII            (Note the cannons in the nose and the ventral pack.)

These machines were fitted with a 20mm cannon firing through the nose, a ventral gunpack of four .303 Browning machine guns in the left wing and a dorsal turret with two .303 Brownings. In addition, they could carry four 2501b (113,4kg) bombs. They had a radius of action of about 400 miles (640km) and an absolute range in still air of about 895 miles (1 440km). These Blenheims were powered by two Bristol Mercury XV radial air-cooled engines of 995 horsepower each. One of the idiosyncrasies of the engines was that taking off with the cooling gills open was not advisable. Several crashes and near crashes occurred as a result of such an oversight. Although the Blenheim MK IV was obsolescent as a frontline aircraft, it nevertheless remained a suitable choice where enemy air opposition would likely be on a very small scale.

The squadron was also advised that it was to send a detachment to the Kufra Oasis in the south-eastern Libyan desert, which was considered of strategic importance. The Allies considered that this oasis could be used as a base from which offensive and/or defensive reconnaissance and harassing operations could be carried out. However, if not occupied by the Allies, the enemy could use it as a base for hostile air or land action against the Nile valley. That would endanger the whole of the Middle East, as well as the air routes between Egypt and West Africa along which new aircraft were ferried and airfreight conveyed. The ground forces stationed at Kufra must therefore, for strategic reasons, be reinforced with air power with a treble role: to reconnoitre the approaches to Kufra; to give warning of an enemy ground attack; and to take action against such ground forces approaching Kufra. Of all the aircrew, only the commanding officer, Lt Col H H Borckenhagen and Capt J L V de Wet had some desert experience, which they had acquired during the Abyssinian campaign.

Owing to the frequent dust storms at Amariya, the squadron later moved to LG98, situated several kilometres south and out of the dust belt. Meanwhile, final arrangements were made for the departure of the detachment for Kufra, and on 8 April 1942, 2/Lt Hoare and 46 ground staff left by train and river steamer for Wadi Haifa. Three days later, the newly promoted Major de Wet, who was given command of the detachment, flew down to Wadi Haifa to make final arrangements. This included transport and an escort to guide the convoy to Kufra. At Wadi Haifa the ground party assembled with their vehicles and were escorted to Kufra. After a tiresome journey that lasted a week they reached their destination on 25 April 1942.
Meanwhile, back at Amariya, the three best Blenheims were selected and given priority treatment. The flight crews were briefed and given all possible information about the squadron’s first operational assignment since its arrival in Egypt. This would be their first taste of operations in North Africa!

Kufra Oasis is situated in the south-eastern region of the Libyan desert, about 625 miles(1 040km) west of Wadi Haifa, 100 miles (160km) west of the Egyptian/Libyan border and about 530 miles (880km) south of Gazala. Between these points lies a grim and forbidding land, devoid of human habitation, intolerant of the inexperienced, and merciless when it judges the foolhardy. It is called the Sahara.

The Oasis at Kufra

The Desert ‘Road’ to Kufra

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the oasis had been an important refuelling point for Italian aircraft bound for Asmara. In the 1930s, the Italians conquered the Senussi, the local inhabitants, and stationed a garrison there. They built a Beau Geste-type fort, complete with wireless masts, an aircraft hangar, a windmill and a reservoir. The oasis is about 14,5 miles (24km) long and 5 miles (8km) wide, running north-south with numerous palms yielding an abundance of sweet dates. The water of the lake is extremely salty, but sweet water is obtainable by digging a hole a few feet from the edge. Various brackish marshes yield a good supply of salt.

The Senussi tilled the soil, irrigated their patch of ground and produced certain vegetables, a few types of grain, even watermelons, and, of course, dates. During the tenure of the South Africans, a barter trade developed, whereby, for instance, a tin of bully beef was exchanged for two eggs and a tomato, and an old army shirt for six fairly tresh eggs. During 1941, the Free French under General Leclerc made a fantastic 1 000 mile (1 600km) trek from Lake Chad and captured Kufra, ousting the more numerous Italian garrison, which had been stationed there for the previous ten years.

Shae, however scanty, was always welcome in the desert.

Ground convoy to Kufra

At the time of the detachment’s arrival, the garrison at Kufra consisted of a company of Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, and about two companies of the Sudan Defence Force (SDF).

A company of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was expected shortly.

The three aircrews chosen, and their respective aircraft were:
Z7513 Major J L V de Wet
2/Lt J S du Toit
A/Sgt A D Vos
Z7610 2/Lt J H Pienaar
2/Lt F J Reid
A/Sgt W W Oliver
T2252 2/Lt L T H Wessels
2/Lt H Pienaar
A/Sgt S C Shipman

They arrived at Kufra on 28 April 1942. Because the direct course between Amariya and Kufra would traverse enemy territory, all flights were routed via Wadi Halfa. On the same day, a signal was received at 15 Squadron reporting their safe arrival, despite the fact that the direction finding (DF) station at Kufra was not functioning correctly. To Lt Col Borckenhagen, this was a matter of grave concern. As there was no direct communication between the squadron and Kufra, he requested RAF Headquarters to send instructions, on his behalf, to Major de Wet not to undertake any operational flying until the DF station was working satisfactorily. This signal would effectively have grounded the aircraft.

Several days after the arrival of the aircraft, the air officer commanding 203 Group, RAF, visited the oasis. He held discussions with Major de Wet and the commander of the Kufra garrison. The roles and responsibilities of the various forces at Kufra were defined and co-ordinated.

During the morning of 3 May, the NCO in charge of the Kufra point-to-point radio station tested the radio sets of the aircraft for frequencies and reception, and found them to be functioning properly. The ground crews inspected the aircraft thoroughly, and found them to be serviceable in all respects. The amount of fuel, oil, water and rations on board were checked and verified. Each aircraft carried seven-and-a-half gallons (37 litres) of water in two containers, and sufficient rations for four days. In addition, each crew member was to carry two filled water bottles which provided a further two quarts (2,5 litres) of water or liquid.

Officers and ground staff of the first detachment, 15 Squadron, SAAF. (Photo: Courtesy Maj D W Pidsley)

The hangar at Kufra

At 20h00 that evening, Major de Wet briefed the aircrew on a familiarisation flight to be undertaken the next morning. He was determined to use all three aircraft, and not just one, as provided for in the operational instructions.

The route, in the form of a rough square, was to be: Kufra to Rebiana, 83 miles (1 33km) on bearing 269°; Rebiana to Bzema, 51,5 miles (83km) on bearing 358°; Bzema to landing ground 07, 64 miles (1 02km) on bearing 63°; Landing ground 07 to Kufra, 83,5 miles (1 34km) on bearing 162°. With a distance of 283 miles (451 km), and at a true airspeed of 150 miles/hour (240km/h), flying time should be 1 hour 52,5 minutes. They were due back at Kufra at 07h42.

The main object of the flight was to acquaint the aircrews with the surrounding areas and to give them experience in desert flying. The navigators were to take turns in navigating. The radio operators were briefed specifically, and they appeared to be fully conversant with their duties and responsibilities. The signals officer of the SDF was present at the briefing. He was informed of the planned time of take-off, and the estimated time of arrival over each outpost. This information was necessary to enable him to notify the air raid precaution points at the posts mentioned to expect friendly aircraft in the vicinity at the relevant times. Nothing was said about the recognition points on the routes or procedure in the event of a forced landing.

Major de Wet also detailed three armourers—Air Mechanics N St M Juul, R J Swanepoel and C F van Breda to accompany the flight so as to assist with the armament should the necessity arise. Major de Wet did not consider it necessary for the compasses to be swung at Kufra because this had been done at Amariya and should suffice for fourteen days.

Lt Col H H Borckenhagen, Officer Commanding 15 Squadron, SAAF, at the time of the tragedy.

The end of the beginning

Day 1 (4 May):

Very early that morning, a weather forecast covering the period from dawn to dusk, and a radius of 200 miles (320km) around Kufra, was obtained from the main weather station at Almaza near Cairn. A copy of this report was handed to each aircrew. Visibility from the air was expected to be 2,5 miles (4km) with a wind speed at 1 600 feet (488m) of 19—24 miles/hour (30—39km/h) from a direction of 60 °rees. Major de Wet refused a further weather balloon test for wind speed and direction. Just after take-off at 06h00, a further balloon test revealed that the earlier forecast was wrong. The wind speed at 2 200 feet (670m) proved to be 31 miles/hour (50km/h) from a direction of 1290.

The take-off was uneventful. As soon as the aircraft became airborne, the ground-to-air radio station at Kufra carried out preliminary checks with Major de Wet’s aircraft, Z7513, and confirmed that it was correctly tuned to the frequency in use. Thereafter until 07h10, this machine did not acknowledge any signals from Kufra, and neither did the other two. This suggested that either the aircraft were not receiving any signals, or that they were not keeping a listening watch.

Flying at 1 200 feet (366m) above ground level, the outside air temperature stood at 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius) presaging a hot and bumpy flight. One navigator recorded that the air was so turbulent he was unable to take a drift reading.

Although Rebiana kept a sharp lookout for the three aircraft, they were neither seen nor heard. The crews must have searched the desert below and thought they recognised certain hills resembling those on the maps. Satisfied that the first objective was attained, they set course for Bzema at 06h22 with the same result. Three minutes before the estimated time of arrival (ETA) at LG07, a landing ground became visible which the crews assumed to be LG07. Satisfied that this was their objective, the flight turned towards Kufra, where they were expected to arrive at 07h42, according to one navigator, and at 07h33 according to another. According to the testimony of Air Mechanic Juul, the flight was successful, and they returned to Kufra 2,5 hours later. However, having time to spare, they did not land. They flew away again.

What follows reveals a tragic and disturbing litany of human error and failure, compounded by inclement weather and technical problems, and over it all loomed the pervasive presence of a forbidding Sahara. The story also pays tribute to courage, perseverance, endurance and noble endeavour under extreme circumstances.

The end

At 07h10 on 4 May, on the last leg of the flight to Kufra, the base station picked up signals from the Blenheims, and aircraft Z7610 was heard to ask for a bearing. Base responded by requesting the aircraft to transmit calls and dashes so that an accurate bearing could be taken on those transmissions. It received no reply. At 07h27 the leading aircraft requested the DF station at Kufra to give them a course by which to steer. The aircraft’s radio operator stopped sending the necessary dashes before a proper bearing could be obtained, but a snap bearing was taken. The DF station radioed ‘120-3=0527’. That means ‘steer 120° (zero wind) third-class fix, time 05h27 GMT’. The wireless operator in the aircraft appears to have received only the figures 3, 0 and 5.

At the ETA over Kufra, the aircraft changed course to 305°. After flying on this course for an unknown length of time, during which they were heard by the infantry post west of Taizerbo, at 08h10 they turned and flew a reciprocal course of 125°. At about 09h00 the starboard engine of T2252 started to malfunction, and Major de Wet ordered the flight to make a forced landing. This was successfully carried out at 09h15. Later this position would be established at 24°51’N and 24°25’E.

Lieutenant (later Major) J L V De Wet (Photo: Francious De Wet)

The pilots and observers discussed their position, but differed in their findings. Nevertheless, considering all the features of the surrounding landscape, they were convinced that they were no more than 20 miles (32km) from base. in fact, they were lost. Completely lost. Neither did they know that nobody else knew where they were.

Back at Kufra, the point-to-point radio station reported receiving a faint signal from aircraft Z7610 at 11h00, but this was not picked up by the DF station. The two stations took turns calling the aircraft continuously without response.

At 11h00 one crew took off in Z7610 and flew in a south-westerly direction, but returned after 30 minutes without locating Kufra. Repeated attempts were made to establish radio contact with base, but to no avail. Preparations were made for a second flight, and some fuel was transferred from the disabled T2252 to Z7610.

At 14h00, Lt Wessels took off on a heading of 213° for about 24 miles (40km) and returned after about 40 minutes. At 15h35 a further attempt was made on a course of 240° for approximately 130km, but he could not find Kufra. Had he continued on this heading, he would have seen the oasis. After this flight, it was decided not to make further attempts that day, and preparations were made to spend the night in the open.

With increased concern about the fate of the three aircraft, the garrison commander at Kufra signalled Taizerbo, Zighen and LGO6. Only Taizerbo reported hearing aircraft faintly due west at 08h10, but visibility had been bad and it was therefore unable to determine the direction of the flight. In the absence of any message from the Blenheims to say that they had altered course to 305°, Kufra may have assumed that Taizerbo’s report referred to some other aircraft, possibly of enemy origin.

By midday, the garrison realised that the Blenheims were lost and down somewhere in the desert. But where? This concern was shared by 2/Lt Hoare, the cypher officer of the detachment, and now the only commissioned officer remaining. He sent a signal to 203 Group in Khartoum and the DF stations at Heliopolis and Mersa Matruh, requesting news, but with negative results.

Instructions were then given to organise search parties to be sent to Rebiana, Bzema and LGO7. At 13h10, 203 Group was informed that there was still no news about the missing aircraft. The SDF was assisting, but search aircraft were urgently required. The last request was sent to Wadi Haifa. Should the requirement for search aircraft arise, Kufra would signal again at 18h00.

Throughout 4 May the radio stations at Kufra kept a close listening watch for any signals from the downed machines. At one stage a weak signal was received from T2252, but it did not respond to requests from either station. Some snap bearings were obtained from a moving plane, but transmission was terminated before the all-important dash signals, to establish the location of the aircraft, were received.

Doubtful bearings of 042° and 048°, as well as a second class one at 050° were obtained, and Mersa Matruh obtained one at 203°. The intersection of these bearings was plotted, and a position between 60 miles (96km) and 67 miles (112km) north-east of Kufra was established. The garrison commander responded to this information by sending an SDF patrol under command of Bimbashi (an officer in the SDF) Stubbs to search the probable area. Nine members of the detachment accompanied the patrol.

A signal had already been sent to 15 Squadron, reporting that the aircraft had probably forced-landed for unknown reasons. This message greatly disturbed the OC, who decided to wait until the next day, hoping for better news.

A Bristol Bombay a twin-engined high-wing bomber-transport aircraft — had stopped overnight at Wadi Halfa en route to Khartoum. 203 Group sent a coded signal to Wadi Haifa to detain this machine the next morning, and to await the arrival of a Blenheim from Khartoum with search instructions. This signal was received at 21h40 on 4 May, at which time the cypher officer was off duty. Because it was a priority signal, the radio operator at Wadi Halfa made repeated, but unsuccessful, telephone calls to the officers’ mess some seven miles (11 km) from the airfield. There was also no transport available, with the result that the cypher officer only received the coded message at 08h00. But the Bombay had already departed for Khartoum at 08h15. The OC did not recall the aircraft, but it returned of its own accord on receipt of a signal, presumably from the pilot of an approaching Blenheim. The OC was not available to give the pilot new instructions, and so the Bombay returned to Khartoum. On arrival at Wadi Haifa, the Blenheim became unserviceable.

A Bristol Bombay, one of the aircraft involved in the search

Meanwhile, at the site of the three stranded aircraft, no instructions were given concerning water. The men probably assumed that rescue was imminent, and in the blistering heat injudiciously consumed 113 litres by the following morning. If the senior officer had imposed the standard desert ration of 2,5 litres of water! day/man from the beginning, the stock would have been sufficient for at least four days.

Day 2 (5 May):

Major de Wet had all the fuel drained from T2252 and transferred to Z7513. 2/Lt I H Pienaar and his crew took off and searched unsuccessfully on a bearing of 90° from the stranded aircraft for a distance of about 45 miles (72km). On their return, the position was re-evaluated, and Lt Pienaar was instructed to fly on a bearing of 290° for a distance of about 96 miles (160km) because the west was the only direction which had not been searched. Apparently the fuel position became critical, forcing Lt Pienaar to turn back. With the available engine power he forced-landed about 24 miles (40km) north of the stranded party.

At O7h00 that morning, Bimbashi Stubbs and his party, which included the nine members of the detachment, set off from Kufra to search the probable position previously obtained. In the afternoon, they picked up a strong signal from one of the missing Bienheims, and confidence surged that rescue was imminent. The very rough and broken terrain over which they searched compelled them to remain within sight of each other, hampering the effort considerably. Bimbashi Stubbs signalled Kufra to this effect. An air search became essential, in the meantime, the search parties from Rebiana, Bzema and LGO7 returned from an unsuccessful mission.

During the night, Major de Wet and his men fired pyrotechnic light cartridges from the Verey pistols, and at times bursts from the turret guns, to attract the attention of possible searchers. There was practically no shade in which to rest, and the intense heat added to the discomfort of the men. The wind strength also increased, and soon a dust storm was blowing.

Day 3 (6 May):

Major de Wet issued the last water a bottle (about 1,25 litres) per man. Tormented by thirst and the blazing sun, they drank the oil from tins of sardines and the syrup from tins of canned fruit. They were unable to eat anything. In the morning, Major de Wet took off in the last serviceable Blenheim, Z7610, on a bearing of 290°, but returned to the emergency position after a fruitless search. RAF Headquarters ordered three Bristol Bombays from 216 Squadron to proceed from Khanka to Kufra via Wadi Haifa, while 203 Group sent a senior officer to meet them there. But fate intervened. Due to engine trouble, this officer was forced to land next to the railway line. He boarded the first available train, which happened to be a goods train. When he finally arrived at Wadi Halfa, two Bombays had already left. The third had developed engine trouble and had returned.

At 11h00, and approaching Kufra at 3 000 feet (980 metres), the Bombays discovered that a sandstorm had blown up. This reduced visibility at that altitude to 50 feet (16m). They flew blind past Kufra, turned back on a reciprocal heading, hoping to see the oasis. They did not succeed, and proceeded until they could see sufficiently well to make a forced landing. They eventually landed at Kendall’s Dump at 16h30 and at a distance of about 40 miles (64km) south-east of Kufra. Here they waited for the storm to subside. They also did not know the call sign of the newly established DE station at Kufra. The sandstorm kept them grounded for two days, and they were forced to return to Wadi Halfa because their fuel was low and their batteries needed re-charging.


At the stranded aircraft, the plight of the men deteriorated rapidly. The sandstorm had aggravated matters. With no shelter, the dehydrating effect of the hot wind was considerable, and in desperate circumstances desperate men do desperate things. To quench their thirst they broke open the compasses and drank the methyl alcohol ‘which was found to be stimulating’. This euphoria was short-lived and the consequences disastrous. Other members of the party tried to cool themselves by spraying fire-extinguisher foam over their bodies. The relief was momentary. Their flesh erupted into blisters which ruptured, forming raw sores. Gentian violet from the first-aid kits provided no relief from the pain. According to Major de Wet’s diary ‘most of the men started dying at 14h00’. He was still alive: ‘…but very weak, very little water. Van Breda still alive but also very weak — not so much heat as the previous day but one must have water.’ One man in extreme agony had shot himself. According to the diary, Lt Wessels, and air mechanics Swanepoel and van Breda died on 6 May.

The terrain encountered by the ground search parties made an air search imperative.

In the meantime, the ground search party, struggling across broken terrain, had come within six miles (10km) of the given fix, but could go no further. An air search had become imperative.

Day 4 (7 May):

The senior SAAF NCO, Sgt Cox, reported visibility dropping at times to 100 feet (30m). Since no search aircraft had reached Kufra, the garrison commander sent out another patrol under Bimbashi Tarbett to proceed to Jebel Alima and to link up with the previous party. Meanwhile, back at 15 Squadron, Lt Col Borckenhagen grew impatient at the delays and decided to fly to Wadi Halfa. On his arrival, he found it engulfed in a sandstorm. To attempt to reach Kufra under such conditions, and with a questionable DF station, would be courting disaster. He was forced to delay his departure, hoping for an improvement in the weather. He was, however, able to maintain contact with the Long Range Desert Group regarding progress with the search and weather conditions at the oasis.

Towards the evening, RAF Headquarters Middle East reacted sharply to the delays being experienced, and 162 Squadron RAF Bilbeis in the Canal Zone was ordered to provide a Wellington aircraft to assist the search. This machine developed engine trouble, and was forced to return to Bilbeis where another Wellington was provided.

Day 5 (8 May):

The ground search parties under Bimbashis Stubbs and Tarbett made contact in the probable area of the missing aircraft. Joint patrols were carried out during the day – visibility having improved considerably. At one time or another between 5 May and 9 May, the search parties were within two miles (3,5km) of the main stranded group and within five miles (8km) of the third Blenheim. But the nature of the terrain, the sandstorm, and the lack of co-operation from the grounded crews, prevented rescue.

In his diary Major de Wet recorded: ‘Boys are going mad wholesale. They want to shoot each other. Very weak myself. Will I be able to stop them from shooting each other and stop them from shooting me? ……….. give us strength. Six of us left out of 12. No water. We expect to be all gone today. Death would be welcome. We went through hell.’

The second Wellington, piloted by Sqn Ldr D G Warren, left Bilbeis and flew directly to Kufra, arriving there at 14h30. it also experienced difficulties getting bearings from the DF station. It had been given the wrong call sign. After the relevant factors were discussed, the aircraft took off from the oasis to the most likely position previously determined. It did a square search of an area approximately 20 miles (32km) in radius about this point. Nothing was found.

Lt Col Borckenhagen was able to persuade the SDF commander at Wadi Halfa to place a vehicle and driver at his disposal to take him to Kufra. He recalled that: … accompanied by a young British officer in one pick-up van, and led by another manned by a SDF soldier, I left Wadi Haifa at 15h00. The sandstorm continued unabated, reducing visibility to 100 yards (30m). After almost 36 hours of continuous driving, and without changing drivers, we arrived at Kufra at 03h00 on 11 May.

At the stranded aircraft, Major de Wet records in his diary: ‘Only me, Sgt Shipman and A/M Juul are still alive. We can’t last if help does not arrive soon. They know where we are but do not seem to do much about it. Bit of a poor show isn’t it …… but we will stick it out to the very ………..’ From this point it is impossible to know the date.

Day 6 (9 May):

Sqn Ldr Warren took off early on the morning of 9 May and returned to the probably fixed position. After a further 5,5 hours, he spotted the single Blenheim Z7513, located 25° 11′ N/24° 07’E. He landed alongside it and found the bodies of the crew – 2/Lt J H Pienaar, 2/Lt F J Reid and A/Sgt W W Oliver – lying in the shade of a wing. A medical officer who accompanied the flight diagnosed death by exposure and/or thirst, possibly on the previous day. Everything pointed to a fearful struggle to survive.

A/Sgt Wallace William Oliver (Photo: Courtesy Mrs J M Pienaar)

Two empty water bottles, an empty 10-litre tin were found, but no rations. The first aid kit was open and the morphia capsules broken. The gentian violet tubes were empty, and the contents spread over the bodies, possibly to ease the pain of sunburn. All except one oxygen bottle was empty, and the Verey pistol had been fired. No revolvers were found. The fire extinguishers had been broken into, and the liquid extracted. The pilot’s compass was intact, but the bombsight and hand-bearing compass had been removed and the alcohol was gone. There was no fuel in the aircraft’s tanks.

No navigator’s logbook was found — only the rough pencil sketch of a map on which was drawn a prominent hill feature, and from which tracks of 213° and 233° had been marked. From these findings an assumption can be made that the aircraft had landed elsewhere before the final touchdown. The question why the crew did not return to the stranded party remains unanswered.

Using this rough sketch as a guide, Sqn Ldr Warren took off. He searched an area with a radius of about 15 miles (24km). Finding nothing he returned to Kufra, refuelled, and resumed the search on a bearing given by the DF station at Suez Road, but returned after two hours.

In his diary, Major de Wet had written: ‘It is the fifth day. The second without water, and the fifth in a temperature well above 100° Fahrenheit (38°C). But Thy Will be Done, O Lord.’

Day 7(10 May):

At 03h00 on the morning of 10 May, the ground search patrols in the area of the missing Blenheims received a signal informing them that aircraft Z7513 had been found. Bimbashi Tarbett, accompanied by the nine members of the detachment, were directed there. This party searched the whole day, but was unable to locate the aircraft. A signal was sent to Kufra requesting an aircraft to direct them.

Meanwhile Sqn Ldr Warren took off again and searched an area about 100 miles (160km) from Kufra on a reciprocal to 290° on the strength of the information obtained from the sketch map found at the single machine. Finding nothing, he returned to Kufra.

Another Blenheim from 15 Squadron, piloted by Lt Steinberg, was en route from Wadi Halfa to assist with the search. By midday, two Bombays and another Wellington arrived. Sqn Ldr Warren detailed one Bombay to search an area south and east of Kufra, and the other to the Gara Dalmo/Wadi el Blata area about 120 miles (200km) away on a heading of 130°. He himself returned to the area halfway along the Eight Bells Landing Ground/Kufra track. During this flight he noticed certain hill features resembling those shown on the sketch map found at Z7513. He reasoned that the crew had probably mistaken a landmark. By this time it was late in the afternoon and he returned to the oasis.

Day 8 (11 May):

At 07h00 on 11 May, an aircraft arrived over the ground patrol and directed them to Z7513, which they reached at 1OhOO. Here they carried out another thorough check of everything found at the site. Two maps of the Kufra area were later handed to Lt Col Borckenhagen. The bodies of the three crew members were buried next to the Blenheim. The Bombays continued to do square searches in the areas previously allotted to them, and the Wellington searched an area between the Blenheim already found, and Taizerbo.

Sqn Ldr Warren, however, returned to the single Blenheim. From this position he flew in turn courses reciprocal to those shown on the sketch map — 033° and 055° in the hope of finding the main stranded party. The search was unproductive. He returned to the stranded aircraft, and from there set course for the hill feature which he thought resembled that shown on the sketch.

Air Mechanic N St M Juul, sole survivor of the ordeal.

Warren found himself flying on a heading of 166°. He held this course and, after 24 miles (40km), spotted the two machines parked nose-to-nose in the shade of a hill. Their location was 24°49’N/ 24° 1O’E. Close by was an open parachute acting as a marker for searchers. As the Wellington approached, a lone survivor, Air Mechanic N St M Juul, stumbled out of the shade of a wing and started to put out some ground strips to attract attention. He was too weak to pull the trigger of a Verey pistol. The Wellington landed alongside Blenheims Z7610 and T2252. Air Mechanic Juul took a few shaky steps towards his rescuers but collapsed in the hot sand. The medical officer who accompanied the flight promptly attended to him, and he was flown back to Kufra. The bodies of eight men were found lying around the aircraft. Some were shot, others had died of thirst and/or exposure.

Back at Z7513 the ground party prepared to bury the crew near the aircraft. While they were doing so, a Wellington arrived, informing them of the discovery of the other two machines.

The graves of Pienaar, Reid and Oliver at the site of Z7513   (Photo: Courtesy of Mr M W Priday)

At about 17h00 on 11 May, Bimbashi Tarbett and his men set off for the position of the two aircraft, arriving there at 07h00 on 12 May. They found the bodies of Major J L V de Wet, 2/Lts J S du Toit, L T H Wessels and H Pienaar, A/Sgts A D Vos and S C Shipman, and Air Mechanics R J Swanepoel and C F van Breda lying around the aircraft.

The graves of the airmen found at the site of Z7610 and Z2252 (Photo: M W Priday)

Twenty-one empty water bottles, one containing urine, three empty half-gallon (2,5 litre) tins and a considerable amount of unused emergency rations were found. The oil from tins of sardines, and the syrup from some tins of canned fruit, had been used up. All but one first-aid kit had been opened, but apparently only the gentian violet had been used. The morphia capsules were intact. Some of the fire extinguishers had been broken into and the liquid drained. Most of the oxygen bottles were empty. One pilot’s compass and both bombsights had been broken into, and the alcohol was gone. Indications were that the aircraft had taken off and landed several times at this spot. Three revolvers were found, all had been fired and the ammunition expended. One revolver was in the hand of Major de Wet.

At 1OhOO, while the search party made preparations to bury the dead, a Wellington landed with Lt Col Borckenhagen on board. He read the final rites at the burial service. He recalled that ‘it was a very emotional experience’. After the service, all the personal effects of the deceased were handed to the officer commanding and the parties returned to Kufra.

The fate of the aircraft

There is only one, incorrect, report regarding the Kufra incident, it was compiled by the late Maj D W Pidsley and submitted to HQ chief-of-staff in February 1961. It is now preserved at the Air Force Museum at Zwartkops. The reason it is incorrect is that the pages of the Kufra War Diary covering May 1942 were impounded by the Court of inquiry and subsequently filed at the Public Records Office in London. The major never saw these pages when he was given command of the detachment in June 1942. He was taken ill and returned to the squadron almost immediately. According to Maj Pidsley’s report, the two aircraft, Z7610 and T2252, were still in the desert. His report is patently incorrect and must, for the sake of history, be rectified.

Maj D W Pidsley

This is what happened to the aircraft:
The two machines, Z7610 and T2252, were repaired, serviced and flown back to Kufra in May 1942. Aircraft T2252, piloted by Lt C I Harrison, suffered an engine failure during take-off and crashed 2,5 miles (4km) from the oasis. Aircraft Z7610 rendered yeoman service during the following months but was left behind at Kufra when the detachment returned to the squadron on 27 November 1942. It was to have been repaired and flown to an RAF Maintenance Unit at Khartoum. In the meantime, the detachment had been converted to Blenheim Mk Vs (Bisleys).

Aircraft Z7513 was abandoned in the desert where it was found because the engines were over-boosted. After an enemy attack on Kufra on 25 September 1942, this machine was cannibalised and its parts used to repair a Bisley damaged during the raid. In February 1959, a geological field party re-discovered this machine. At that time, it was presumed that the wreck would last for years, protected by the low humidity and engulfed in the drifting sand of the Sahara. The bodies of the three crewman were then exhumed and re-buried in graves numbered 20, 21 and 22, row F, plot XIII in the Knightsbridge Cemetery, Acroma, Libya.

Evidence of the struggle to survive: a partially opened parachute, fire extinguisher, oxygen bottle and ration tin.

In November 2001, Francois de Wet undertook a pilgrimage to Kufra to visit the grave of his uncle, Maj J L de Wet, and the seven other men who died in the desert in May 1942. The ‘hill’,in the shade of which the two aircraft were discovered at that time, had disappeared, and the graves were found in a flat, featureless expanse of desert. Near the graves, the wind had exposed a parachute buried in the sand. When this was unearthed, they found that empty ration tins, oxygen bottles and fire extinguishers were wrapped in it. The labels and directions for use were still legible. The Libyan escort declared that the goods were antiquities and could not be removed.

The centre section of the main spar of the Blenheim Z7513, a sad reminder of the Kufra Tragedy

The search for the derelict Z7513 ended in disappointment. All that was found was the centre section main spar with the engine and undercarriage attachment frames, and sundry items strewn around. The machine had obviously been destroyed by fire. The engines, propellers and undercarriage were gone. So much for the preservation of antiquities!

Francios De Wet at his uncle’s desert grave. He hopes to return here to erect a suitable memorial.

The Aftermath

An inquiry was conducted at Kufra from 1 to 4 June 1942.

The causes of the accident were attributed to:
1. Lack of experience in desert flying by pilots and observers.
2. Failure by observers to keep accurate navigators logs.
3. Inability of wireless operators to carry out their duties in the air.

The reasons for the failure of both ground and air searches were attributed to a lack of accurate information regarding the possible position of the aircraft; difficult terrain; sandstorms; unserviceable aircraft; and poor signal organisation.

The assistance given by the forced-landed crews was:
1. Bad DF procedures even on the ground.
2. Lack of visual signals and smudge fires.

The reasons for the early death of personnel were:
1. Failure to appreciate their plight.
2. Failure to ration water immediately.
3. Unintelligent use of compass alcohol and fire extinguishers.

The responsibility for the forced landing was attributed to the crew of the leading aircraft. To prevent a reoccurrence of such a tragedy, the board made comprehensive recommendations with regard to equipment to be carried on aircraft likely to fly over the desert, and emergency procedures in the event of forced landings. Only experienced crews were to be based at Kufra, and strict procedures were laid down for operations from there.


Fire extinguisher (Used by the desperate men to cool themselves)

Tin of herrings in tomato sauce (The stranded men drank the liquid, unable to eat anything)

Oxygen bottle (emptied)

Tin of Singapore pineapples (lable still legible after almost 60 years)

Addendum: 25 Feb 08. Tom Sheppard, Hitchin. UK

I have just come across the ‘Tragedy at Kufra’ piece in the South African Military History Society Journal, Vol 12, No 2 – the most comprehensive account I have seen of the loss of the three Blenheims. It certainly lends perspective to the story as usually told.

The recovery of the three bodies from the lone aircraft was effected, I believe, by the RAF Desert Rescue team (No 1 Field Squadron, RAF Regiment, Sqn Ldr J R Spencer) from RAF El Adem in 1959. I was part of a group mounted by the same unit in 1960 (Sqn Ldr Mike Burgess) charged with finding the eight remaining graves. Homing in on the remains of just the solo Blenheim we failed to find them, of course; at that time there was no knowledge of the whereabouts of the landing site of the other two aircraft in relation to the first.

Your account mentions that the lone aircraft had obviously been destroyed by fire but it seemed to me the main structure had simply been vandalised and most parts just been taken away. There was no sign of fire. I attach a picture I took at the time – one of No 1 Squadron’s Series 1 Land Rovers with l to r Sgt Ballam, Senior Aircraftsmen Minshell and Brown; the same structure featured in your report. April/May is the windiest time of year in the Sahara and the visibility at the time I took this photo (Nov 1960) makes you realize what it must have been like for the crews and searchers.

No 1 Squadron’s Series 1 Land Rovers with l to r Sgt Ballam, Senior Aircraftsmen Minshell and Brown

There is minor confusion in your account about the identity of this aircraft – or which crew was flying which Blenheim. The early part of the report shows Z7513 flown by Maj de Wet and Z7610 captained by Lt Pienaar. I am wondering if this should be the other way round as later in the report (‘The fate of the aircraft’) Z7513 is repeatedly referred to as the solo aircraft flown by Lt Pienaar.

There’s also a small inconsistency in the position of the original landing of the three aircraft (given as 24.51N, 24.25E) and the position of the two later found by the Wellington (24.49N, 24.10E); these two positions should of course be the same. I’m sure Sqn Ldr Warren had an awful lot on his mind when he finally saw the two Blenheims after three previous trips and five and half hours squinting out at the desert but presumably both positions are what the respective navigators came up with after a DR plot-out.

As a frequent (very careful) Sahara traveller and ex-RAF pilot I found your account absorbing and very moving.


Other articles can be found here:

Loss of three SAAF Blenheim Aircraft near Kufra 4th May 1942


South Africa’s oldest paratrooper

Bloemfontein- The oldest still-serving member of South Africa’s elite paratroops, Major Hans Human, has been a paratrooper all his life, whether as a National Serviceman or a member of the Reserve Force. He’s been jumping out of aeroplanes for more than 47 years.

Read more:

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Schoongezicht Vampire Forced Landing

Category : Contributors , Publications


I am seeking information on a vampire that forced landed after a flame out. Unfortunately I do not have exact detail except that this event took place approximately July 1959 whilst operating from AFS Langebaanweg.

It would be greatly appreciated if you could help in any way.


The incident you’re referring to took place on 3 August 1959 when 2nd Lt R.H. Flower-Day (the newspaper’s spelling) forced-landed Vampire FB.6 serial 220 in a cornfield on the farm ‘Schoongezicht’ some 14km from Morreesburg.

The pilot walked away but the aircraft was written-off following the Board of Inquiry.

I have two news clippings of the event, I’ve attached for your reading.


Steve McLean
Research Assistant to SAAF Museum

AFB Ysterplaat, Cape Town

  • -

“A Day in the Life of … Freddie Coates”

This online exhibition features images and experiences of various members of the SAAF and RAF.

February 1944. Course 26 AB 41 Air School


Frederick George Coates was born in Enfield, Middlesex, England on 14th March 1920.
His brother Albert joined the Royal and Merchant Navies and was on HMS Southampton when it was bombed.
He had a little sister Olive who died when she was about 2 or 3 years old.
He became an electrical engineer after the War and spent many years in Kenya and Southern Africa where he won many trophies for boxing and golf. He married in 1966 and a daughter Lynda was born in 1969.

In 1972 the family moved to Botswana for 2 years then Swaziland for 3 years before moving to Northamptonshire, England.

George Frederick Coates died 23rd November 1998.

George Bonfield BM, Jock Livingstone AG, Taffy Watkin BA, Mack McCormick BA Italy 1944


Celone, Foggia Italy 1944


Foggia, December 1944


" Our Liberator cockpit, Celone, Foggia, Italy 1944"


"Our Liberator, Celone, Italy, 1944"


Grotto del Piccione, Rome. January 25th, 1945


All images from the F Coates Collection

  • -

“A Day in the Life of … Joe Joubert”


This online exhibition features images and experiences of various members of the SAAF and RAF and RAAF.

Joe Joubert flew as a navigator in the Berlin Airlift.

On the 9th July 1949 he and the radio operator were ordered to jettison 63 sacks of coal as the aircraft could not gain height in a severe thunderstorm.

This was achieved in a remarkable six and a half minutes and he received a commendation for this remarkable act. In his spare time he practiced weight lifting. He flew 175 sorties in Korea and he is seen receiving an award for his gallantry and courage in that conflict.

Wings and Wheels 2011 Air Show Participants

Image by Irene McCullagh


Air Show Helpline Number: 021 508 6414

  1. JET PROVOST                                                         FLYING DISPLAY
  2. L39                                                                             FLYING DISPLAY
  3. L39                                                                             FLYING DISPLAY
  4. 2 X MX2                                                                    FLYING DISPLAY
  5. 4 X HARVARD                                                        FLYING DISPLAY
  6. P51 MUSTANG                                                        FLYING DISPLAY
  7. SEA FURY                                                                 FLYING DISPLAY
  8. YAK 55                                                                       FLYING DISPLAY
  9. PITTS SPECIAL                                                       FLYING DISPLAY
  10. CRISTEN EAGLE                                                    FLYING DISPLAY
  11. BELL 47                                                                     FLYING DISPLAY
  12. GAZELLE                                                                  FLYING DISPLAY
  13. BOSBOK                                                                   FLYING DISPLAY
  14.  2 X RV73 (FORMATION)                                    FLYING DISPLAY
  15. 2 X RV8                                                                    FLYING DISPLAY
  16. PREMIER JET                                                        FLYPAST & STATIC
  17. C172                                                                           FLYPAST & STATIC
  18. AC500                                                                       FLYPAST & STATIC
  19. PREMIER JET                                                        FLYPAST & STATIC
  20. PC12                                                                          FLYPAST & STATIC
  21. BARON                                                                     FLYPAST & STATIC
  22. NAVY HARVARD                                                   POSSIBLE FLYING
  23. BOSBOK                                                                   STATIC
  24. CHIPMUNK                                                             STATIC
  25. TIGER MOTH                                                          STATIC
  26. PIPER CUB                                                               STATIC
  27. SAVANAH                                                                 STATIC
  28. HUGHES 269                                                           STATIC
  29. HUEY                                                                         STATIC
  30. GRASS HOPPER                                                     STATIC
  31. MAGNI GYRO                                                         STATIC
  32. SANKA HELICOPTER                                          STATIC
  33. WILGA                                                                      STATIC
  34. STEARMAN                                                             STATIC
  35. TITAN TORNADO                                                 STATIC
  36. VANSIN                                                                    STATIC
  37. RAVEN                                                                     STATIC
  38. JODEL                                                                      STATIC
  39. CX4                                                                           STATIC


  2. HAWK
  3. C47TP
  6. ORYX
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  8. AUGUSTA A 109
  10. C130




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