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South Africa Air Force History - Birth and Development

The SAAF is born (1920)

Despite the strict economies and retrenchments to which the UDF was subject in the immediate post-war years, 1920 saw the establishment of the South African Air Force (SAAF). Col Pierre van Ryneveld was appointed Director Air Services (DAS) with effect from 1 February 1920 with instructions to establish an air force for the Union. This date is acknowledged as marking the official birth of the SAAF.

The establishment of the SAAF was greatly facilitated by the extremely generous decision by the Imperial Government in 1919 to allocate to the Union some 100 aeroplanes from its war stocks, complete with spared and equipment. These were joined by a further 13 aircraft from other sources making a total of 113 aircraft.

03 small.jpg (9087 bytes) Col H.A. Pierre van Ryneveld, who was appointed as Director of Air Services in 1920 (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)

In April 1921 a site at Zwartkop, 3 km east of Roberts Heights (later Voortrekkerhoogte) was selected and taken over as the site for the SAAF’s first aerodrome, levelling operations commencing shortly afterwards.

04 small.jpg (16887 bytes) Zwartkop Air Station in the early twenties (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)

No 1 Flight was established at Zwartkop on 26 April 1921 and it was joined by a second flight. These flights formed the nucleus of 1 Sqn which was established by early 1922.

On 1 February 1923 the SAAF was listed as a unit of the reconstituted Permanent Force. By that time the SAAF’s Permanent Force establishment numbered 17 officers and 218 other ranks. A special Reserve of Flying Officers was established in the same year.

05 small.jpg (7169 bytes) 06 small.jpg (7315 bytes) Maj Gen Kenneth Reid van der Spuy was on of Compton Paterson’s pupils, an air race in World War I and founder member of the SAAC and SAAF (inset) He lived to witness the SAAF’s 70th anniversary in 1990. When he received a copy of a commemorative brochure from Brig T. de Munnink in May 1990, he was already 98 years old. He died in 1991 (Photo: Salut)

Miner’s Strike (1922)

The SAAF was involved in its first action in 1922 when a miner’s strike on the Rand led to the declaration of martial law following violent clashes between the South African Police and the strikers. 1 Sqn (SAAF) was called upon to fly reconnaissance missions and bombard the strikers’ positions. It flew intensive operations from 10 to 15 March. A total of 127 hours were flown during the operation.

This was a somewhat inauspicious start for the SAAF which suffered two dead, two wounded and two aircraft lost. During the strike the SAAF also deployed a Whippet tank, which had been brought to South Africa in 1919 for fund raising purposes. Air Corporal W.J. Johns was killed in the tank when a bullet pierced the visor of the armoured vehicle.

Experimental Air Mail Service

Eleven DH. 9 aircraft and Experimental Air Mail Service between Cape Town and Durban in 1925. Although the SAAF rendered an efficient service, it was a commercial failure.

Military Aviation Industry

Difficult as the financial climate had been for the Union in the decade following the end of the First World War, the Great Depression placed even greater pressure on the Defence budget. Despite the acute shortage of money, it was during this period that the foundations were laid for the South African military aviation industry. In the late twenties and early thirties certain modifications and major rebuilding were carried out at the Aircraft and Artillery Depot at Robert Heights. A license was obtained to build Westland Wapitis and the first locally built aircraft took to the air on 4 April 1931.

07 small.jpg (9712 bytes) The first Westland Wapiti built in South Africa (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).

Organisational Changes

In September 1931 the Department of Civil Aviation was transferred to the Department of Defence and the post of Director of Civil Aviation abolished. The entire aviation organisation in South Africa thus fell under the DAS.

The post of DAS was abolished on 30 April 1933 and on the following day Col Pierre van Ryneveld was promoted to Brigadier-General and appointed Chief of the General Staff. There was thus no chief of the SAAF and it remained under Van Ryneveld’s direct control until 30 June 1939.


In the course of 1934 the Union’s economy began what proved to be a sustained upward trend, and a significant increase in the Defence Budget was approved for the first time in many years. In 1935 the Minister of Defence announced that the UDF was to be expanded.

This decision had a significant effect on the training facilities and efficiency of the SAAF. A new training scheme for pupil pilots was introduced which gave the development of the Air Force considerable impetus. The idea was to train a reserve of 1 000 pilots and 1 700 air mechanics. The overall size of the Air Force was also increased from four to seven squadrons, with new stations and bases being built at Waterkloof, Bloemfontein, Durban and Youngsfield. Central Flying School was also established with satellite air training schools in the Cape Province, Orange Free State and Natal.

08 small.jpg (8155 bytes) A reproduction of the Paterson biplane built by the SAAF Museum for the Memorial to Aviation Pioneers (SAAF Museum)

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Page last modified: 16-10-2012 19:11:57 ZULU