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South African Air Force History - World War Two

Preparations

The advent of war in 1939 caught the SAAF unprepared for large-scale operational deployment despite the attempts which had been made since 1934 to expand and modernise the organisation. At the outbreak of war the SAAF’s "front-line" strength consisted of about 100 aircraft of miscellaneous types, the great bulk consisting of Hawker Hartbeest, complemented by Hawker Harts, Wapitis and trainers plus a sprinkling of more modern machines.

In terms of personnel, the SAAF had a total full-time strength of 160 officers, 35 officer cadets and 1 500 other ranks.

The first priority was thus to train more personnel and acquire more aircraft. Within weeks of the outbreak of war, new flying schools were established at Pretoria, Germiston, Bloemfontein and Baragwanath, while a Training Command under Lt Col W.T.B. Tasker was established to oversee the SAAF’s overall training programme. The training schools were amalgamated and by this time there were a total of ten training schools.

09 small.jpg (10255 bytes) The first Hawker Hartbees built in South Africa (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection)

JATS

The real breakthrough came in 1940, however, with the establishment of the Joint Air Training Scheme (JATS) under which the Royal Air Force (RAF), SAAF and other Allied air and ground crews were trained at 38 South African-based air schools. Under this scheme the SAAF began to burgeon and blossom, and by September 1941 the total number of military aircraft in the Union had increased to 1 709, while the personnel strength had leapt to 31 204 - 956 of whom were pilots. The JATS was ultimately to turn out a total of 33 347 air crew, including 12 221 SAAF personnel, during its five year existence.

Coastal Reconnaissance

On the operational front, the SAAF provided a valuable protection service for Allied shipping along South Africa’s coastline from the very outset of the war. By the end of the war in August 1945, a total of some 15 000 coastal reconnaissance sorties had been flown by the SAAF along South Africa’s coastlines.

S_10.jpg (5393 bytes) During the days of World War II coastal patrols were flown in Ansons like this one near Cape Town (Photo: Maj M.J. Mitchell: Dave Becker Collection)

The SAAF Coastal Command was gradually expanded and by 1942 the coastal units had replaced their Ansons with Venturas. In April 1943, 26 Sqn moved to West Africa were it re-equipped with Wellingtons and operated from Takoradi and other centres until its disbandment in June 1945 while 22, 25 and 27 Squadrons moved to the Middle East.

The SAAF Marome Craft Unit

In 1939 there was little that could be done to rescue the crews of aircraft which had been forced to ditch in the sea. Accordingly the SAAF Marine Craft Unit was established which operated a number of launches, scows and ferry boats. A total of 45 people were rescued by the unit’s crash boats by the end of the Second World War.

The Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force

On the outbreak of war in 1939 the Women’s Aviation Association offered their services to the South African Government. Plans were laid to train 1 000 women for the SAAF and the South African Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (SA WAAF) was established on 10 May 1940.

Over 10 000 women eventually served in the SA WAAF during the war and they were to be found at SAAF stations all over South Africa and in the Middle East. They did useful work in 75 different fields of which 35 were technical. Some of them were storemen, typists, clerks, telephone operators, painters, parachute packers, welders and drivers.

East Africa

In East Africa, however the SAAF’s exploits began to hit the headlines. Equipped with a few squadrons of Gloster Gladiators, Hawker Hurricanes, Furies, Hartbeest and JU86s, the SAAF took on an Italian air component comprising nearly 300 modern aircraft. By the end of the campaign, the SAAF pilots had destroyed 71 Italian aircraft in the air and many more on the ground. In addition, the had struck at innumerable railways, convoys and supply dumps in interdiction sorties in support of the ground forces. SAAF losses during the East African campaign were 79 pilots and air crew killed and five missing.

S_11.jpg (6242 bytes) The first air attacks in the East African campaign were carried out with Ju86 bombers of 12 Squadron. Here on of the bombers is refuelled while technicians are checking the engines (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).

The Shuttle Service

The East African Campaign led to the creation of the Shuttle Service operated by 50 (TS) Squadron under the control of 1 Bomber Transport Brigade. The letter unit became 5 Wing in February 1941 and was responsible for the ferrying of troops and supplies to the war front and bringing back wounded. The service was extended to Cairo as the war progressed and eventually through the north of Africa to Bari and Rome by which time Dakotas were in use.

The Shuttle Service was greatly expanded at the war’s end, the intention being the return of all South African troops by Christmas 1945. The Dakotas of 5 Wing were joined by Ventures withdrawn from coastal operations, modified as transports and put into service with 10 Wing at Pietersburg. These two units were assisted by 35 Sqn’s Sunderlands which were also fitted out as transports. Additional Dakotas were provided by 28 Sqn when it returned home from the war zone. By 25 January 1946 some 101 676 passengers had been carried.

S_12.jpg (4835 bytes) Maj Jack Frost, Officer Commanding of 3 Sqn, was a SAAF pilot who shot down at least 15 enemy aircraft and destroyed many more on the ground during the war in the Middle East. He was awarded the DFC. He later died in an air battle. This photo was taken on he night before his death (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).

Transport Operations

The first SAAF Transport squadron in the Mediterranean - 28 Sqn - was formed in May 1943 operation from Tripoli and later Algiers. The second squadron - 44 Sqn - was established in March 1944 and operated from Cairo.

Both units operations Douglas Dakotas as standard equipment although a small number of Wellingtons, Ansons and Beech Expediters were also used.

In October 1945, 28 Sqn was absorbed into the Shuttle Service while 44 Sqn was disbanded in December 1945, and its Dakotas were returned to the RAF.

North Africa

In North Africa, the SAAF fighter, bomber and reconnaissance squadrons played a major part in enabling the Allied "Desert Air Force" to attain total air superiority over the Axis air forces by the beginning of 1942.

The SAAF’s single most memorable feat in North Africa was probably the "Boston Shuttle Service", during which eighteen aircraft of 12 and 24 Squadrons showered hundreds of tons of bombs on the Afrika Korps as it relentlessly pushed the Eighth Army back towards Egypt during the "Gazala Gallop" in the first half of 1942. After the Battle of Alamein, too, the SAAF’s North African squadrons played a vital role in harassing the German forces retreating towards the Tunisian border.

Between 3 and 20 September 1942 the "Desert Air Force" supported the 8th Army’s advance up the Adriatic. No3 Wing and 15 Sqn attacked strong points at Rimini and harassed the retreating enemy. During the same month No 3 Wing completed its 20 000 sortie.

Between April 1941 and May 1943, the SAAF, with a maximum of eleven squadrons operational flew 33 991 sorties and destroyed 342 enemy aircraft.

Madagascar

In comparison to North Africa, the SAAF’s part in Operation Ironclad, the Allied invasion of the Bichy French territory of Madagascar in anticipation of the British assault in May. Following the landings and the capture of the Arrachart airfield at Diego Suarez, Beauforts and Marylands of 36 and 37 Flights plus a number of Lodestars were used in conjunction with RAF aircraft. The SAAF flew 401 sorties before and armistice was declared on 4 November 1942.

S_13.jpg (8608 bytes) A group of SAAF pilots prepare for a sortie during World War II.

Europe

By the time the Italian campaign had begun in earnest in early 1944, the SAAF had truly come of age. Indeed, it was the SAAF which played the dominant role in the Allied air operations over Italy as the Allies began to withdraw RAF air crews for deployment in support of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. By this stage the SAAF consisted of no fewer than 35 operational squadrons with 33 types of aircraft. By September 1944, the SAAF in Italy consisted of four wings, while a number of SAAF squadrons were attached to RAF Wings. Together with the maintenance and supply units, SAAF personnel in Italy consisted of 17 271 officers and men.

S_14.jpg (3380 bytes) A Kittyhawk Mk iv of 5 Sqn in Italy. These armed Kittyhawks were used as bomber aircraft (Photo: Sandy Powell via Dave Becker Collection).

One of the SAAF’s most noteworthy achievements in the air operation over Europe was that of 31 and 34 Sqn, which flew 181 sorties from Italy to supply the Warsaw resistance movement in August and September 1944. The cost of the SAAF abortive "Warsaw Concerto" was tragically high in men and machines, but the daring and skill of the pilots and crew involved nevertheless earned the SAAF the lasting respect and admiration of the Polish resistance fighters. In 1992, 67 ex-members of 31 and 34 Squadrons were awarded the Polish Warsaw Cross for the role in the relief operations.

The final air assault in Italy, launched on 9 April 1945, was spearheaded by fighter-bombers of Nos 7 and 8 Wings, 5 Sqn, medium bombers of No 3 Wing and the Army co-operation Sqn. Liberators of No 2 wing and Baltimores of No 15 Sqn operated by night. The surrender of the German force on 2 May 1945 brought an end to a relentless pursuit which had taken the SAAF squadrons without a break from El Alamein through Tunis and Sicily to the Alps.

Mediterranean and Balkans

During the war SAAF squadrons also served in the Mediterranean where coastal reconnaissance and transport operations were carried out. In the Balkans a number of SAAF unit served with Balkan Air Force.

SAAF Anti-Aircraft Regiments

By 1942 it was found that the SAAF was drawing more recruits than needed and it was decided that a number of the SAAF personnel would be diverted for anti-aircraft duties. Eventually all anti-aircraft defence systems in the Union were taken over by the SAAF with the exception of those attached to divisions. Six SAAF anti-aircraft regiments (Nos 21 - 26, later changed to 50 - 55) as well as a number of mobile batteries and light anti-aircraft batteries were established.

The SAAF Regiment

The SAAF’s excellent recruiting campaign and failure of the Miles Master as a training aircraft led to a huge backlog of pupils. As a result many recruits were diverted to 30 Armoured Commando and 31 Armoured Car Commando SAAF for armoured car courses.

Upon the disbandment of 31 Armoured Car Commando in May 1943, the remaining unit became 30 Armoured Car Commando SAAF. The unit was renamed the SAAF Regiment on 1 August 1943, its task being the defence of airfields and the capture of enemy aerodromes.

The SAAF Regiment moved North soon afterwards and, with the gradual loss of enemy air superiority in 1944, airfield defence became less of a priority. On 25 January 1944 the SAAF Regiment merged with the Naal Mounted Rifles at Helwan to become the NMR/SAAF, a liaison which lasted until the end of World War Two.

Statistics

At the conclusion of the war, the SAAF had flown a total of 82 401 missions. During the same period 2 227 members of the SAAF lost their lives, while 932 were wounded or injured.

Members of the SAAF had set up a superb record during the war. Decorations awarded included one Victoria Cross, one Companion of the Bath, nine CBE’s 35 DSO’s, 26OBE’s, 63 MBE’s, 429 DFC’s, 88 AFC’s, 5 MC’s, two George Medals, five King’s Medals for Bravery, two MM’s, 23 DFM’s, 13 AFM’s and 36 BEM’s.

S_15.jpg (9646 bytes) A bombardment from a Marauder of 3 Wing over an Italian town (circa 1944) (Photo: SAAF: Dave Becker Collection).



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