Willie (Buskruit) Burger
Velddrif Dec 2014
SAAF Boats – Short History
THE NOW ALMOST INVISIBLE BOND BETWEEN THE NAVY AND THE AIR FORCE
By 1940, when the first South African forces were deployed in East Africa, the Mediterranean Sea was under German and Italian control. The Suez Canal was thus an ambush, just waiting to happen. The Cape sea-route was the longest but safest route to East Africa and Egypt. By the middle of 1941, Japanese forces had overrun so much of the Eastern Indian Ocean territory that it was obvious that Australia would fall next. Japan made contact with the Vichy-France government in Madagascar and Japanese aircraft deployed to this “permanent aircraft carrier”. It is a fact that Japanese reconnaissance aircraft flew over Durban on two occasions.
Under these circumstances, it became necessary for the Royal Navy, British ground forces and the South African Air Force to invade Madagascar. The campaign did not last long, but few people realise how close the War came to South African shores. But, German U-boats and surface raiders still sank 153 Allied ships within 1 600 km of the South African coast.
In 1939/40, the patrolling of the sea-route was carried out with commandeered SAA Junkers Ju-86 airliners. When these aircraft were needed in East Africa as bombers, the reconnaissance and patrolling of the long coastline was taken over by Avro Ansons of 32 Flight at Brooklyn Air Station, (now Air Force Base Ysterplaat – Cape Town). The Anson was made mainly of wood and canvas, it had a range of 1 050 km and could carry 4 X 40 kg anti-submarine bombs.
In December 1939 a unit was formed at Youngsfield, to operate a 40 foot (12 metre) armoured target boat in False Bay. The MALGAS was used as a target on the bombing and gunnery range at Strandfontein. Seven tonnes of armoured steel were fitted to the deck and sides to protect the crew and engines. A second armoured boat (MALGAS II) and a high speed rescue launch (MALMOK) arrived at Cape Town in March 1940. The unit was visited by General Pierre van Ryneveld, Chief of the Air Force, who gave the order that the unit should be known as the SAAF Motorboat Wing. The first military craft of this type, to operate on our coast, was thus under the control of the Air Force, and would remain so for almost 30 years.
The Motorboat Wing received 19 “Crash Boats” between May 1941 and May 1944. They were built in Florida, USA, and were 63 feet (19 m) long. They could maintain a speed of 40 knots (74 km/h) for 15 minutes, but their cruising speed was 22 to 25 knots (41-46 km/h). They had a range of 500 nautical miles (926 km), and they were all equipped to handle six casualties/patients. They were numbered R1 to R20. (Superstition regarding the number 13 caused the number to be omitted). The nineteen boats were distributed between Durban, Port Elizabeth, Gordons Bay, Cape Town and Donkergat (opposite Langebaan).
(In 1961 and 1962, two German built, Krogerwerft (29,3 metre) Crash Boats – R30 and R31 were delivered . These were the forerunners of the T-craft, now used by the Navy in the air-sea rescue role.
In 1942, the war in North Africa was at its peak, and the front moved backwards and forwards, as Allied and Axis forces attacked and counter-attacked. All supplies to the Allied forces in Egypt had to pass round the Cape by sea. The antiquated Ansons could not cope with the defence of the sea route any more, and a Royal Air Force Squadron, number 262, started operating from Durban’s Congella Base, using Catalina flying boats for the long flights, to assist shipping against the U-boat threat. Langebaan lagoon was used regularly by the Catalinas, and in 1943 a detachment of Dutch Navy Catalinas was also active in Saldanha Bay. Congella Air Station (Langebaan Detachment) was built in this period, where Langebaanweg is situated today.
The Catalina flying boats needed support boats during daily operations. At Lake St Lucia, Richards Bay and Langebaan, the motorboat squadrons had to operate five other boat-types, to support the flying boats, viz, Seaplane Tenders, (for towing the Catalinas and later the Sunderlands), Safety boats, Refuelling boats, Fire Tenders and Marine Tenders, which were also used as bomb-scows, for the transport and loading of bombs and depth charges.
For the sake of continuity, the term “flying boat” is used throughout this narrative. The British preferred the term “sea-plane”, but the SAAF used “flying boat – vliegboot” in daily conversation. By the American definition, an aircraft with a boat shaped lower fuselage was termed a flying-boat, and an aircraft with added-on floats was regarded as a “float-plane.”
The loss of life in South African waters, as a result of enemy action, was very high. The NOVA SCOTIA was 34 km off St Lucia, when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. 750 people, mostly Italian prisoners of war, went down with the ship. But on the positive side, it is a fact that the crash boats were able to rescue almost 500 lives during the war.
To supplement the search and rescue ability, the Air Force acquired Lockheed Ventura Mark 1& 2 bombers. The first arrived at Brooklyn Air Station in 1942. The Ventura had a range of 3 100 km at a speed of 450 km/h.
Lockheed manufactured a maritime version of the Ventura; the PV-1 patrol bomber. Except for the American forces, the SAAF operated more Venturas than any other country. Between 1942 and 1960, the SA Air Force operated 130 B-34 bombers and 134 PV-1 maritime patrol bombers.
After the war, the number of crash boats was decreased, but the Motorboat Squadron at Donkergat and Langebaan survived. The boats remained under Air Force command and control until November 1969. With the bombing range at Tooth Rock (Jacobsbaai) in daily use, it was necessary to have a crash boat on constant stand-by just outside the danger area. There were accidents and incidents and the crews were seldom bored. The Navy took over the crash boats in 1969, and got rid of all but two of them. This was not because the sea-rescue ability was no longer necessary, but the arrival of the helicopter drastically changed the whole perspective.
The maritime role of the SA Air Force did not change or end after the Second World War. Remember that 262 Squadron (RAF) and the Dutch Navy, patrolled the territorial waters and coastline with Catalina flying boats. As the RAF crews returned home after their tours of duty, more and more South Africans were absorbed into 262 Squadron. Number 35 Squadron (SAAF) was born out of 262 Squadron, (in February 1945) before the end of the War. The new squadron’s 8 Catalinas were supplemented, and eventually replaced by 15 Sunderland flying boats, and anti-submarine warfare remained a priority until the end of the War. The emblem of 35 Squadron was a Pelican standing on the map of Africa. The Motto then was SHIYA AMANZI; which was Zulu for “Rise from the Water”.
After the War, 35 Squadron remained at Congella. The boats which served the Sunderlands, Catalinas and Anson, were Air Force boats, and remained in service until the Sunderlands were withdrawn in the mid–fifties. Yes, the Squadron also had an Anson float-plane. This Anson with floats, was the only one in the world.
The Squadron moved to Ysterplaat (Cape Town), and from there continued its tasks – coastal patrols and search and rescue, using PV-1 Venturas. In 1957/58, the Avro Shackleton MR-3 long range, maritime reconnaissance bomber replaced the Ventura. The Squadron Motto then changed to SHAYA AMANZI; which was Zulu for “Strike the Water”.
ENTER THE SHACKLETON
Eight Shackletons were acquired by the SAAF in 1957/58. Not long after they arrived, they made headline news when one of the aircraft flew non-stop, right around South Africa in 14 hours. In 1958, one of the Shackletons remained in the air for 21 hours and 10 minutes. The Shackleton had a take-off mass of almost fifty tonnes, of which just over 14 tonnes was fuel. The total fuel capacity of a Shackleton was 17 802 litres.
The sight and sound of an approaching Shackleton, must have been the most beautiful thing on earth, to many a shipwrecked sailor. With the bomb-bay doors closed, the Shackleton could carry a SARO 3 airborne lifeboat. The metal boat could be dropped by parachute and it had an inboard engine, mast and sail, supplies and emergency equipment. However, the airborne lifeboat was never used in an actual rescue mission. The drag limited the aircraft’s range drastically, and Lindolm-gear was carried instead. The Lindolm-gear consisted of three rope-linked canisters, each with its own parachute. One canister contained a ten-man dinghy, and the other two contained water, provisions, food and blankets.
In later years, when the Cold War (between East and West), had the World in its grip, no ships, of any country, sailed round the Cape without being observed, photographed and documented by Shackleton or Albatross crews. The twin-engined Albatross was acquired to supplement the Shackleton. The “Trossies” were used for close, inshore work, leaving the Shacks to take care of the long distance calls for surveillance and help.
Willie (Buskruit) Burger
Velddrif Dec 2014