History Made and Heritage Lost
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 Zwartkop, 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 Zwartkop – 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