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South Africa Air Force History - First Steps

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Cecil Compton Paterson’s pupils at Alexanderfontein (1913),
Paterson appears in the inset (top right)

Although military aviation was still in its infancy at the time that the Union Defence Force (UDF) was formed, the South African Defence Act (1912) made provision for the establishment of the South African Aviation Corps (SAAC) as part of the Active Citizen Force (ACF). In August 1912 the Commandant-General of the Citizen Force, Brig Gen C.F. Beyers, was sent to England and Europe by General Smuts to observe and report on the use of aircraft in military operations.

Brig Gen Beyers was so impressed by what he saw, that when he returned to the Union, he strongly recommended setting up a school of aviation. The Government subsequently contracted Mr Cecil Compton Paterson to provide flying training to a select group of ten aviators at his flying school at Alexanderfontein near Kimberley.

Training and War

In April 1914 six of the initial ten pupils were appointed as probationary lieutenants in the ACF and sent to England to undergo further training at the Central Flying School at Upavon where five of them eventually qualified. On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the South Africans were granted permission to join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps (RFC). They were to participate in the first aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions over France during the closing months of 1914.

The SAAC in South West Africa

In January 1915 the South African pilots were appointed in the Permanent Force an recalled to the Union to help man the SAAC established on 29 January 1915 for service in German South West Africa. By May six Henri Farman F-27 and two B.E.2C aircraft were able to take to the air in support of General Botha’s forces. Within a very short space of time the SAAC pilots had proven their worth, flying regular reconnaissance patrols to keep Gen Botha constantly informed of the enemy’s movements and positions. The Farmans also carried out a number of bombing missions.

Volunteers in East Africa and Europe

After the German South West Africa campaign, the majority of the SAAC pilots volunteered for further service in England, where they were to form the nucleus of 26 (South African) Squadron (Sqn) of the RFC. This unit was dispatched to East Africa in December 1915 to carry out reconnaissance, bombing and communication missions in support of Gen Smuts’ forces. The squadron was eventually recalled to England and disbanded in 1918.

Apart from the South Africans who served with 26 Sqn, many others volunteered for service with other RFC squadrons in the course of the war. Among the most famous of these were Maj Allister Miller, Capt Andrew W. Beauchamp-Proctor, Capt H.A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld, Maj Arthur E. Harris and Capt Sam Kinkead.

The Eastern Front

A number of South African airmen saw active service in the Russian Civil War (1917 - 1920). The North Russian Expeditionary Force had an RAF and RNAS detachment and following it landing at Murmansk in June 1918, commenced operations. This was followed by a second Allied Expeditionary Force in 1919.

Caption: Among the South Africans who served with distinction in Russia were Capt Sam Kinkead, commander of a Sopwith Camel equipped flight of 47 Sqn, Lt Col K.R. van der Spuy who commanded a RAF unit and Lt Col H.A. van Ryneveld. Van der Spuy was taken prisoner and was only released in 1920.

02 small.jpg (7840 bytes) Capt F.W. Beauchamp-Proctor, the first South African pilot to receive the Victoria Cross (Photo: SAAF Museum Collection)

Flight to the Cape (1920)

Early in 1920 the British Air Ministry declared the "Cape to Cairo" air route, which provided for 24 aerodrome and 19 emergency landing strips, fit for use. The London Times announce that it would finance the first flight to the Cape and its aircraft - a Vickers Vimy Commercial, G-EAAV- took to the air on 24 January 1920.

General J.C. Smuts however wanted South African aviators to be the first to complete the trip. He therefore authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy at a cost of 4 500 pounds. Christened the Silver Queen, and commanded by Lt Col H.A. (Pierre) van Ryneveld with Fit Lt Quinton Brand as co-pilot, the aircraft took off from Brooklands (England) on February 1920. After an eventful night crossing of the Mediterranean, they arrived at Derna the following morning. Further night flying following in an attempt to catch the Vickers Vimy sponsored by the London Times, but the Silver Queen was wrecked in a force landing at Korosko, Sudan.

Another Vimy F8615 was purchased from the RAF at Heliopolis into which the original engines were installed. The Silver Queen II (as the second aircraft was named) left Cairo on 22 February. Five days later the Times contender was destroyed in a crash at Tabora, but on 6 March the same fate befell the Silver Queen II at Bulawayo.

Fortunately, with some of the Imperial Gift aircraft already in Pretoria, a DH9 H5646 called Voortrekker was assembled and flown to Bulawayo. Thus Van Ryneveld and Brand were able to complete their flight to the Cape where the arrived on 20 March 1920 after a total flying time of 109 hours and 30 minutes.





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