Archive for the ‘Publications’ Category
By J J M Coetzee
Member of the ground staff of 15 Squadron from November 1941 to May 1944
(Unless indicated otherwise, photographs are author’s own)
Re-Published with Kind Permission of the South African Military History Society
In the annals of war, great campaigns and battles are often reduced to a few paragraphs, or, at most, a few pages. The minor incidents, those that are normally etched in the mind and memory of an individual or unit, are brushed over or totally ignored. One such minor incident occurred at Kufra during May 1942. This tragedy is a sad chapter in the history of 15 Squadron, South African Air Force. Let us start at the beginning.
We, that is, 15 Squadron, South African Air Force, totalling 436, all ranks, were assembled, with material gathered, at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, at the Rand Airport, Germiston. We were to go ‘up north’. Finally all preparations were completed, and on 19 January 1942 at 12h00 we left Germiston Station for Durban. Here we embarked on the Llandaff Castle, and some of the aircrew on the Elizabethville. As we steamed out of Durban Harbour on 20 January 1942, the ‘Lady in White’ sang us a farewell song.
We arrived at Suez on 13 February 1 942 and boarded a train to take us to Amariya, near Alexandria, from where we were taken to the base camp a few miles further south. The landing ground was a featureless, flat piece of desert from which the scrub had been cleared, and where sandbag blast-shelters, which were to house the aircraft we were to receive, had been built. We were told that we were to be equipped with Bristol Blenheim MK IV fighter aircraft.
These machines were fitted with a 20mm cannon firing through the nose, a ventral gunpack of four .303 Browning machine guns in the left wing and a dorsal turret with two .303 Brownings. In addition, they could carry four 2501b (113,4kg) bombs. They had a radius of action of about 400 miles (640km) and an absolute range in still air of about 895 miles (1 440km). These Blenheims were powered by two Bristol Mercury XV radial air-cooled engines of 995 horsepower each. One of the idiosyncrasies of the engines was that taking off with the cooling gills open was not advisable. Several crashes and near crashes occurred as a result of such an oversight. Although the Blenheim MK IV was obsolescent as a frontline aircraft, it nevertheless remained a suitable choice where enemy air opposition would likely be on a very small scale.
The squadron was also advised that it was to send a detachment to the Kufra Oasis in the south-eastern Libyan desert, which was considered of strategic importance. The Allies considered that this oasis could be used as a base from which offensive and/or defensive reconnaissance and harassing operations could be carried out. However, if not occupied by the Allies, the enemy could use it as a base for hostile air or land action against the Nile valley. That would endanger the whole of the Middle East, as well as the air routes between Egypt and West Africa along which new aircraft were ferried and airfreight conveyed. The ground forces stationed at Kufra must therefore, for strategic reasons, be reinforced with air power with a treble role: to reconnoitre the approaches to Kufra; to give warning of an enemy ground attack; and to take action against such ground forces approaching Kufra. Of all the aircrew, only the commanding officer, Lt Col H H Borckenhagen and Capt J L V de Wet had some desert experience, which they had acquired during the Abyssinian campaign.
Owing to the frequent dust storms at Amariya, the squadron later moved to LG98, situated several kilometres south and out of the dust belt. Meanwhile, final arrangements were made for the departure of the detachment for Kufra, and on 8 April 1942, 2/Lt Hoare and 46 ground staff left by train and river steamer for Wadi Haifa. Three days later, the newly promoted Major de Wet, who was given command of the detachment, flew down to Wadi Haifa to make final arrangements. This included transport and an escort to guide the convoy to Kufra. At Wadi Haifa the ground party assembled with their vehicles and were escorted to Kufra. After a tiresome journey that lasted a week they reached their destination on 25 April 1942.
Meanwhile, back at Amariya, the three best Blenheims were selected and given priority treatment. The flight crews were briefed and given all possible information about the squadron’s first operational assignment since its arrival in Egypt. This would be their first taste of operations in North Africa!
Kufra Oasis is situated in the south-eastern region of the Libyan desert, about 625 miles(1 040km) west of Wadi Haifa, 100 miles (160km) west of the Egyptian/Libyan border and about 530 miles (880km) south of Gazala. Between these points lies a grim and forbidding land, devoid of human habitation, intolerant of the inexperienced, and merciless when it judges the foolhardy. It is called the Sahara.
Before the outbreak of the Second World War, the oasis had been an important refuelling point for Italian aircraft bound for Asmara. In the 1930s, the Italians conquered the Senussi, the local inhabitants, and stationed a garrison there. They built a Beau Geste-type fort, complete with wireless masts, an aircraft hangar, a windmill and a reservoir. The oasis is about 14,5 miles (24km) long and 5 miles (8km) wide, running north-south with numerous palms yielding an abundance of sweet dates. The water of the lake is extremely salty, but sweet water is obtainable by digging a hole a few feet from the edge. Various brackish marshes yield a good supply of salt.
The Senussi tilled the soil, irrigated their patch of ground and produced certain vegetables, a few types of grain, even watermelons, and, of course, dates. During the tenure of the South Africans, a barter trade developed, whereby, for instance, a tin of bully beef was exchanged for two eggs and a tomato, and an old army shirt for six fairly tresh eggs. During 1941, the Free French under General Leclerc made a fantastic 1 000 mile (1 600km) trek from Lake Chad and captured Kufra, ousting the more numerous Italian garrison, which had been stationed there for the previous ten years.
At the time of the detachment’s arrival, the garrison at Kufra consisted of a company of Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, and about two companies of the Sudan Defence Force (SDF).
A company of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) was expected shortly.
The three aircrews chosen, and their respective aircraft were:
Z7513 Major J L V de Wet
2/Lt J S du Toit
A/Sgt A D Vos
Z7610 2/Lt J H Pienaar
2/Lt F J Reid
A/Sgt W W Oliver
T2252 2/Lt L T H Wessels
2/Lt H Pienaar
A/Sgt S C Shipman
They arrived at Kufra on 28 April 1942. Because the direct course between Amariya and Kufra would traverse enemy territory, all flights were routed via Wadi Halfa. On the same day, a signal was received at 15 Squadron reporting their safe arrival, despite the fact that the direction finding (DF) station at Kufra was not functioning correctly. To Lt Col Borckenhagen, this was a matter of grave concern. As there was no direct communication between the squadron and Kufra, he requested RAF Headquarters to send instructions, on his behalf, to Major de Wet not to undertake any operational flying until the DF station was working satisfactorily. This signal would effectively have grounded the aircraft.
Several days after the arrival of the aircraft, the air officer commanding 203 Group, RAF, visited the oasis. He held discussions with Major de Wet and the commander of the Kufra garrison. The roles and responsibilities of the various forces at Kufra were defined and co-ordinated.
During the morning of 3 May, the NCO in charge of the Kufra point-to-point radio station tested the radio sets of the aircraft for frequencies and reception, and found them to be functioning properly. The ground crews inspected the aircraft thoroughly, and found them to be serviceable in all respects. The amount of fuel, oil, water and rations on board were checked and verified. Each aircraft carried seven-and-a-half gallons (37 litres) of water in two containers, and sufficient rations for four days. In addition, each crew member was to carry two filled water bottles which provided a further two quarts (2,5 litres) of water or liquid.
At 20h00 that evening, Major de Wet briefed the aircrew on a familiarisation flight to be undertaken the next morning. He was determined to use all three aircraft, and not just one, as provided for in the operational instructions.
The route, in the form of a rough square, was to be: Kufra to Rebiana, 83 miles (1 33km) on bearing 269°; Rebiana to Bzema, 51,5 miles (83km) on bearing 358°; Bzema to landing ground 07, 64 miles (1 02km) on bearing 63°; Landing ground 07 to Kufra, 83,5 miles (1 34km) on bearing 162°. With a distance of 283 miles (451 km), and at a true airspeed of 150 miles/hour (240km/h), flying time should be 1 hour 52,5 minutes. They were due back at Kufra at 07h42.
The main object of the flight was to acquaint the aircrews with the surrounding areas and to give them experience in desert flying. The navigators were to take turns in navigating. The radio operators were briefed specifically, and they appeared to be fully conversant with their duties and responsibilities. The signals officer of the SDF was present at the briefing. He was informed of the planned time of take-off, and the estimated time of arrival over each outpost. This information was necessary to enable him to notify the air raid precaution points at the posts mentioned to expect friendly aircraft in the vicinity at the relevant times. Nothing was said about the recognition points on the routes or procedure in the event of a forced landing.
Major de Wet also detailed three armourers—Air Mechanics N St M Juul, R J Swanepoel and C F van Breda to accompany the flight so as to assist with the armament should the necessity arise. Major de Wet did not consider it necessary for the compasses to be swung at Kufra because this had been done at Amariya and should suffice for fourteen days.
The end of the beginning
Day 1 (4 May):
Very early that morning, a weather forecast covering the period from dawn to dusk, and a radius of 200 miles (320km) around Kufra, was obtained from the main weather station at Almaza near Cairn. A copy of this report was handed to each aircrew. Visibility from the air was expected to be 2,5 miles (4km) with a wind speed at 1 600 feet (488m) of 19—24 miles/hour (30—39km/h) from a direction of 60 °rees. Major de Wet refused a further weather balloon test for wind speed and direction. Just after take-off at 06h00, a further balloon test revealed that the earlier forecast was wrong. The wind speed at 2 200 feet (670m) proved to be 31 miles/hour (50km/h) from a direction of 1290.
The take-off was uneventful. As soon as the aircraft became airborne, the ground-to-air radio station at Kufra carried out preliminary checks with Major de Wet’s aircraft, Z7513, and confirmed that it was correctly tuned to the frequency in use. Thereafter until 07h10, this machine did not acknowledge any signals from Kufra, and neither did the other two. This suggested that either the aircraft were not receiving any signals, or that they were not keeping a listening watch.
Flying at 1 200 feet (366m) above ground level, the outside air temperature stood at 100° Fahrenheit (38° Celsius) presaging a hot and bumpy flight. One navigator recorded that the air was so turbulent he was unable to take a drift reading.
Although Rebiana kept a sharp lookout for the three aircraft, they were neither seen nor heard. The crews must have searched the desert below and thought they recognised certain hills resembling those on the maps. Satisfied that the first objective was attained, they set course for Bzema at 06h22 with the same result. Three minutes before the estimated time of arrival (ETA) at LG07, a landing ground became visible which the crews assumed to be LG07. Satisfied that this was their objective, the flight turned towards Kufra, where they were expected to arrive at 07h42, according to one navigator, and at 07h33 according to another. According to the testimony of Air Mechanic Juul, the flight was successful, and they returned to Kufra 2,5 hours later. However, having time to spare, they did not land. They flew away again.
What follows reveals a tragic and disturbing litany of human error and failure, compounded by inclement weather and technical problems, and over it all loomed the pervasive presence of a forbidding Sahara. The story also pays tribute to courage, perseverance, endurance and noble endeavour under extreme circumstances.
At 07h10 on 4 May, on the last leg of the flight to Kufra, the base station picked up signals from the Blenheims, and aircraft Z7610 was heard to ask for a bearing. Base responded by requesting the aircraft to transmit calls and dashes so that an accurate bearing could be taken on those transmissions. It received no reply. At 07h27 the leading aircraft requested the DF station at Kufra to give them a course by which to steer. The aircraft’s radio operator stopped sending the necessary dashes before a proper bearing could be obtained, but a snap bearing was taken. The DF station radioed ‘120-3=0527’. That means ‘steer 120° (zero wind) third-class fix, time 05h27 GMT’. The wireless operator in the aircraft appears to have received only the figures 3, 0 and 5.
At the ETA over Kufra, the aircraft changed course to 305°. After flying on this course for an unknown length of time, during which they were heard by the infantry post west of Taizerbo, at 08h10 they turned and flew a reciprocal course of 125°. At about 09h00 the starboard engine of T2252 started to malfunction, and Major de Wet ordered the flight to make a forced landing. This was successfully carried out at 09h15. Later this position would be established at 24°51′N and 24°25′E.
The pilots and observers discussed their position, but differed in their findings. Nevertheless, considering all the features of the surrounding landscape, they were convinced that they were no more than 20 miles (32km) from base. in fact, they were lost. Completely lost. Neither did they know that nobody else knew where they were.
Back at Kufra, the point-to-point radio station reported receiving a faint signal from aircraft Z7610 at 11h00, but this was not picked up by the DF station. The two stations took turns calling the aircraft continuously without response.
At 11h00 one crew took off in Z7610 and flew in a south-westerly direction, but returned after 30 minutes without locating Kufra. Repeated attempts were made to establish radio contact with base, but to no avail. Preparations were made for a second flight, and some fuel was transferred from the disabled T2252 to Z7610.
At 14h00, Lt Wessels took off on a heading of 213° for about 24 miles (40km) and returned after about 40 minutes. At 15h35 a further attempt was made on a course of 240° for approximately 130km, but he could not find Kufra. Had he continued on this heading, he would have seen the oasis. After this flight, it was decided not to make further attempts that day, and preparations were made to spend the night in the open.
With increased concern about the fate of the three aircraft, the garrison commander at Kufra signalled Taizerbo, Zighen and LGO6. Only Taizerbo reported hearing aircraft faintly due west at 08h10, but visibility had been bad and it was therefore unable to determine the direction of the flight. In the absence of any message from the Blenheims to say that they had altered course to 305°, Kufra may have assumed that Taizerbo’s report referred to some other aircraft, possibly of enemy origin.
By midday, the garrison realised that the Blenheims were lost and down somewhere in the desert. But where? This concern was shared by 2/Lt Hoare, the cypher officer of the detachment, and now the only commissioned officer remaining. He sent a signal to 203 Group in Khartoum and the DF stations at Heliopolis and Mersa Matruh, requesting news, but with negative results.
Instructions were then given to organise search parties to be sent to Rebiana, Bzema and LGO7. At 13h10, 203 Group was informed that there was still no news about the missing aircraft. The SDF was assisting, but search aircraft were urgently required. The last request was sent to Wadi Haifa. Should the requirement for search aircraft arise, Kufra would signal again at 18h00.
Throughout 4 May the radio stations at Kufra kept a close listening watch for any signals from the downed machines. At one stage a weak signal was received from T2252, but it did not respond to requests from either station. Some snap bearings were obtained from a moving plane, but transmission was terminated before the all-important dash signals, to establish the location of the aircraft, were received.
Doubtful bearings of 042° and 048°, as well as a second class one at 050° were obtained, and Mersa Matruh obtained one at 203°. The intersection of these bearings was plotted, and a position between 60 miles (96km) and 67 miles (112km) north-east of Kufra was established. The garrison commander responded to this information by sending an SDF patrol under command of Bimbashi (an officer in the SDF) Stubbs to search the probable area. Nine members of the detachment accompanied the patrol.
A signal had already been sent to 15 Squadron, reporting that the aircraft had probably forced-landed for unknown reasons. This message greatly disturbed the OC, who decided to wait until the next day, hoping for better news.
A Bristol Bombay a twin-engined high-wing bomber-transport aircraft — had stopped overnight at Wadi Halfa en route to Khartoum. 203 Group sent a coded signal to Wadi Haifa to detain this machine the next morning, and to await the arrival of a Blenheim from Khartoum with search instructions. This signal was received at 21h40 on 4 May, at which time the cypher officer was off duty. Because it was a priority signal, the radio operator at Wadi Halfa made repeated, but unsuccessful, telephone calls to the officers’ mess some seven miles (11 km) from the airfield. There was also no transport available, with the result that the cypher officer only received the coded message at 08h00. But the Bombay had already departed for Khartoum at 08h15. The OC did not recall the aircraft, but it returned of its own accord on receipt of a signal, presumably from the pilot of an approaching Blenheim. The OC was not available to give the pilot new instructions, and so the Bombay returned to Khartoum. On arrival at Wadi Haifa, the Blenheim became unserviceable.
Meanwhile, at the site of the three stranded aircraft, no instructions were given concerning water. The men probably assumed that rescue was imminent, and in the blistering heat injudiciously consumed 113 litres by the following morning. If the senior officer had imposed the standard desert ration of 2,5 litres of water! day/man from the beginning, the stock would have been sufficient for at least four days.
Day 2 (5 May):
Major de Wet had all the fuel drained from T2252 and transferred to Z7513. 2/Lt I H Pienaar and his crew took off and searched unsuccessfully on a bearing of 90° from the stranded aircraft for a distance of about 45 miles (72km). On their return, the position was re-evaluated, and Lt Pienaar was instructed to fly on a bearing of 290° for a distance of about 96 miles (160km) because the west was the only direction which had not been searched. Apparently the fuel position became critical, forcing Lt Pienaar to turn back. With the available engine power he forced-landed about 24 miles (40km) north of the stranded party.
At O7h00 that morning, Bimbashi Stubbs and his party, which included the nine members of the detachment, set off from Kufra to search the probable position previously obtained. In the afternoon, they picked up a strong signal from one of the missing Bienheims, and confidence surged that rescue was imminent. The very rough and broken terrain over which they searched compelled them to remain within sight of each other, hampering the effort considerably. Bimbashi Stubbs signalled Kufra to this effect. An air search became essential, in the meantime, the search parties from Rebiana, Bzema and LGO7 returned from an unsuccessful mission.
During the night, Major de Wet and his men fired pyrotechnic light cartridges from the Verey pistols, and at times bursts from the turret guns, to attract the attention of possible searchers. There was practically no shade in which to rest, and the intense heat added to the discomfort of the men. The wind strength also increased, and soon a dust storm was blowing.
Day 3 (6 May):
Major de Wet issued the last water a bottle (about 1,25 litres) per man. Tormented by thirst and the blazing sun, they drank the oil from tins of sardines and the syrup from tins of canned fruit. They were unable to eat anything. In the morning, Major de Wet took off in the last serviceable Blenheim, Z7610, on a bearing of 290°, but returned to the emergency position after a fruitless search. RAF Headquarters ordered three Bristol Bombays from 216 Squadron to proceed from Khanka to Kufra via Wadi Haifa, while 203 Group sent a senior officer to meet them there. But fate intervened. Due to engine trouble, this officer was forced to land next to the railway line. He boarded the first available train, which happened to be a goods train. When he finally arrived at Wadi Halfa, two Bombays had already left. The third had developed engine trouble and had returned.
At 11h00, and approaching Kufra at 3 000 feet (980 metres), the Bombays discovered that a sandstorm had blown up. This reduced visibility at that altitude to 50 feet (16m). They flew blind past Kufra, turned back on a reciprocal heading, hoping to see the oasis. They did not succeed, and proceeded until they could see sufficiently well to make a forced landing. They eventually landed at Kendall’s Dump at 16h30 and at a distance of about 40 miles (64km) south-east of Kufra. Here they waited for the storm to subside. They also did not know the call sign of the newly established DE station at Kufra. The sandstorm kept them grounded for two days, and they were forced to return to Wadi Halfa because their fuel was low and their batteries needed re-charging.
RELIEF FLYING CREWS, L TO R: LTS J STEENKAMP & H HOARE,
MAJ TAFFY JONES, A N OTHER, LTS C HARRISON & P DAPHNE.
SEATED, L TO R: F/SGTS A GREGOR, M W PRIDAY & A ROGER, LT B MOORE
(PHOTO BY COURTESY EDDIE HALL)
At the stranded aircraft, the plight of the men deteriorated rapidly. The sandstorm had aggravated matters. With no shelter, the dehydrating effect of the hot wind was considerable, and in desperate circumstances desperate men do desperate things. To quench their thirst they broke open the compasses and drank the methyl alcohol ‘which was found to be stimulating’. This euphoria was short-lived and the consequences disastrous. Other members of the party tried to cool themselves by spraying fire-extinguisher foam over their bodies. The relief was momentary. Their flesh erupted into blisters which ruptured, forming raw sores. Gentian violet from the first-aid kits provided no relief from the pain. According to Major de Wet’s diary ‘most of the men started dying at 14h00’. He was still alive: ‘…but very weak, very little water. Van Breda still alive but also very weak — not so much heat as the previous day but one must have water.’ One man in extreme agony had shot himself. According to the diary, Lt Wessels, and air mechanics Swanepoel and van Breda died on 6 May.
In the meantime, the ground search party, struggling across broken terrain, had come within six miles (10km) of the given fix, but could go no further. An air search had become imperative.
Day 4 (7 May):
The senior SAAF NCO, Sgt Cox, reported visibility dropping at times to 100 feet (30m). Since no search aircraft had reached Kufra, the garrison commander sent out another patrol under Bimbashi Tarbett to proceed to Jebel Alima and to link up with the previous party. Meanwhile, back at 15 Squadron, Lt Col Borckenhagen grew impatient at the delays and decided to fly to Wadi Halfa. On his arrival, he found it engulfed in a sandstorm. To attempt to reach Kufra under such conditions, and with a questionable DF station, would be courting disaster. He was forced to delay his departure, hoping for an improvement in the weather. He was, however, able to maintain contact with the Long Range Desert Group regarding progress with the search and weather conditions at the oasis.
Towards the evening, RAF Headquarters Middle East reacted sharply to the delays being experienced, and 162 Squadron RAF Bilbeis in the Canal Zone was ordered to provide a Wellington aircraft to assist the search. This machine developed engine trouble, and was forced to return to Bilbeis where another Wellington was provided.
Day 5 (8 May):
The ground search parties under Bimbashis Stubbs and Tarbett made contact in the probable area of the missing aircraft. Joint patrols were carried out during the day – visibility having improved considerably. At one time or another between 5 May and 9 May, the search parties were within two miles (3,5km) of the main stranded group and within five miles (8km) of the third Blenheim. But the nature of the terrain, the sandstorm, and the lack of co-operation from the grounded crews, prevented rescue.
In his diary Major de Wet recorded: ‘Boys are going mad wholesale. They want to shoot each other. Very weak myself. Will I be able to stop them from shooting each other and stop them from shooting me? ……….. give us strength. Six of us left out of 12. No water. We expect to be all gone today. Death would be welcome. We went through hell.’
The second Wellington, piloted by Sqn Ldr D G Warren, left Bilbeis and flew directly to Kufra, arriving there at 14h30. it also experienced difficulties getting bearings from the DF station. It had been given the wrong call sign. After the relevant factors were discussed, the aircraft took off from the oasis to the most likely position previously determined. It did a square search of an area approximately 20 miles (32km) in radius about this point. Nothing was found.
Lt Col Borckenhagen was able to persuade the SDF commander at Wadi Halfa to place a vehicle and driver at his disposal to take him to Kufra. He recalled that: … accompanied by a young British officer in one pick-up van, and led by another manned by a SDF soldier, I left Wadi Haifa at 15h00. The sandstorm continued unabated, reducing visibility to 100 yards (30m). After almost 36 hours of continuous driving, and without changing drivers, we arrived at Kufra at 03h00 on 11 May.
At the stranded aircraft, Major de Wet records in his diary: ‘Only me, Sgt Shipman and A/M Juul are still alive. We can’t last if help does not arrive soon. They know where we are but do not seem to do much about it. Bit of a poor show isn’t it …… but we will stick it out to the very ………..’ From this point it is impossible to know the date.
Day 6 (9 May):
Sqn Ldr Warren took off early on the morning of 9 May and returned to the probably fixed position. After a further 5,5 hours, he spotted the single Blenheim Z7513, located 25° 11′ N/24° 07’E. He landed alongside it and found the bodies of the crew – 2/Lt J H Pienaar, 2/Lt F J Reid and A/Sgt W W Oliver – lying in the shade of a wing. A medical officer who accompanied the flight diagnosed death by exposure and/or thirst, possibly on the previous day. Everything pointed to a fearful struggle to survive.
Two empty water bottles, an empty 10-litre tin were found, but no rations. The first aid kit was open and the morphia capsules broken. The gentian violet tubes were empty, and the contents spread over the bodies, possibly to ease the pain of sunburn. All except one oxygen bottle was empty, and the Verey pistol had been fired. No revolvers were found. The fire extinguishers had been broken into, and the liquid extracted. The pilot’s compass was intact, but the bombsight and hand-bearing compass had been removed and the alcohol was gone. There was no fuel in the aircraft’s tanks.
No navigator’s logbook was found — only the rough pencil sketch of a map on which was drawn a prominent hill feature, and from which tracks of 213° and 233° had been marked. From these findings an assumption can be made that the aircraft had landed elsewhere before the final touchdown. The question why the crew did not return to the stranded party remains unanswered.
Using this rough sketch as a guide, Sqn Ldr Warren took off. He searched an area with a radius of about 15 miles (24km). Finding nothing he returned to Kufra, refuelled, and resumed the search on a bearing given by the DF station at Suez Road, but returned after two hours.
In his diary, Major de Wet had written: ‘It is the fifth day. The second without water, and the fifth in a temperature well above 100° Fahrenheit (38°C). But Thy Will be Done, O Lord.’
Day 7(10 May):
At 03h00 on the morning of 10 May, the ground search patrols in the area of the missing Blenheims received a signal informing them that aircraft Z7513 had been found. Bimbashi Tarbett, accompanied by the nine members of the detachment, were directed there. This party searched the whole day, but was unable to locate the aircraft. A signal was sent to Kufra requesting an aircraft to direct them.
Meanwhile Sqn Ldr Warren took off again and searched an area about 100 miles (160km) from Kufra on a reciprocal to 290° on the strength of the information obtained from the sketch map found at the single machine. Finding nothing, he returned to Kufra.
Another Blenheim from 15 Squadron, piloted by Lt Steinberg, was en route from Wadi Halfa to assist with the search. By midday, two Bombays and another Wellington arrived. Sqn Ldr Warren detailed one Bombay to search an area south and east of Kufra, and the other to the Gara Dalmo/Wadi el Blata area about 120 miles (200km) away on a heading of 130°. He himself returned to the area halfway along the Eight Bells Landing Ground/Kufra track. During this flight he noticed certain hill features resembling those shown on the sketch map found at Z7513. He reasoned that the crew had probably mistaken a landmark. By this time it was late in the afternoon and he returned to the oasis.
Day 8 (11 May):
At 07h00 on 11 May, an aircraft arrived over the ground patrol and directed them to Z7513, which they reached at 1OhOO. Here they carried out another thorough check of everything found at the site. Two maps of the Kufra area were later handed to Lt Col Borckenhagen. The bodies of the three crew members were buried next to the Blenheim. The Bombays continued to do square searches in the areas previously allotted to them, and the Wellington searched an area between the Blenheim already found, and Taizerbo.
Sqn Ldr Warren, however, returned to the single Blenheim. From this position he flew in turn courses reciprocal to those shown on the sketch map — 033° and 055° in the hope of finding the main stranded party. The search was unproductive. He returned to the stranded aircraft, and from there set course for the hill feature which he thought resembled that shown on the sketch.
Warren found himself flying on a heading of 166°. He held this course and, after 24 miles (40km), spotted the two machines parked nose-to-nose in the shade of a hill. Their location was 24°49’N/ 24° 1O’E. Close by was an open parachute acting as a marker for searchers. As the Wellington approached, a lone survivor, Air Mechanic N St M Juul, stumbled out of the shade of a wing and started to put out some ground strips to attract attention. He was too weak to pull the trigger of a Verey pistol. The Wellington landed alongside Blenheims Z7610 and T2252. Air Mechanic Juul took a few shaky steps towards his rescuers but collapsed in the hot sand. The medical officer who accompanied the flight promptly attended to him, and he was flown back to Kufra. The bodies of eight men were found lying around the aircraft. Some were shot, others had died of thirst and/or exposure.
Back at Z7513 the ground party prepared to bury the crew near the aircraft. While they were doing so, a Wellington arrived, informing them of the discovery of the other two machines.
At about 17h00 on 11 May, Bimbashi Tarbett and his men set off for the position of the two aircraft, arriving there at 07h00 on 12 May. They found the bodies of Major J L V de Wet, 2/Lts J S du Toit, L T H Wessels and H Pienaar, A/Sgts A D Vos and S C Shipman, and Air Mechanics R J Swanepoel and C F van Breda lying around the aircraft.
Twenty-one empty water bottles, one containing urine, three empty half-gallon (2,5 litre) tins and a considerable amount of unused emergency rations were found. The oil from tins of sardines, and the syrup from some tins of canned fruit, had been used up. All but one first-aid kit had been opened, but apparently only the gentian violet had been used. The morphia capsules were intact. Some of the fire extinguishers had been broken into and the liquid drained. Most of the oxygen bottles were empty. One pilot’s compass and both bombsights had been broken into, and the alcohol was gone. Indications were that the aircraft had taken off and landed several times at this spot. Three revolvers were found, all had been fired and the ammunition expended. One revolver was in the hand of Major de Wet.
At 1OhOO, while the search party made preparations to bury the dead, a Wellington landed with Lt Col Borckenhagen on board. He read the final rites at the burial service. He recalled that ‘it was a very emotional experience’. After the service, all the personal effects of the deceased were handed to the officer commanding and the parties returned to Kufra.
The fate of the aircraft
There is only one, incorrect, report regarding the Kufra incident, it was compiled by the late Maj D W Pidsley and submitted to HQ chief-of-staff in February 1961. It is now preserved at the Air Force Museum at Zwartkops. The reason it is incorrect is that the pages of the Kufra War Diary covering May 1942 were impounded by the Court of inquiry and subsequently filed at the Public Records Office in London. The major never saw these pages when he was given command of the detachment in June 1942. He was taken ill and returned to the squadron almost immediately. According to Maj Pidsley’s report, the two aircraft, Z7610 and T2252, were still in the desert. His report is patently incorrect and must, for the sake of history, be rectified.
This is what happened to the aircraft:
The two machines, Z7610 and T2252, were repaired, serviced and flown back to Kufra in May 1942. Aircraft T2252, piloted by Lt C I Harrison, suffered an engine failure during take-off and crashed 2,5 miles (4km) from the oasis. Aircraft Z7610 rendered yeoman service during the following months but was left behind at Kufra when the detachment returned to the squadron on 27 November 1942. It was to have been repaired and flown to an RAF Maintenance Unit at Khartoum. In the meantime, the detachment had been converted to Blenheim Mk Vs (Bisleys).
Aircraft Z7513 was abandoned in the desert where it was found because the engines were over-boosted. After an enemy attack on Kufra on 25 September 1942, this machine was cannibalised and its parts used to repair a Bisley damaged during the raid. In February 1959, a geological field party re-discovered this machine. At that time, it was presumed that the wreck would last for years, protected by the low humidity and engulfed in the drifting sand of the Sahara. The bodies of the three crewman were then exhumed and re-buried in graves numbered 20, 21 and 22, row F, plot XIII in the Knightsbridge Cemetery, Acroma, Libya.
In November 2001, Francois de Wet undertook a pilgrimage to Kufra to visit the grave of his uncle, Maj J L de Wet, and the seven other men who died in the desert in May 1942. The ‘hill’,in the shade of which the two aircraft were discovered at that time, had disappeared, and the graves were found in a flat, featureless expanse of desert. Near the graves, the wind had exposed a parachute buried in the sand. When this was unearthed, they found that empty ration tins, oxygen bottles and fire extinguishers were wrapped in it. The labels and directions for use were still legible. The Libyan escort declared that the goods were antiquities and could not be removed.
The search for the derelict Z7513 ended in disappointment. All that was found was the centre section main spar with the engine and undercarriage attachment frames, and sundry items strewn around. The machine had obviously been destroyed by fire. The engines, propellers and undercarriage were gone. So much for the preservation of antiquities!
An inquiry was conducted at Kufra from 1 to 4 June 1942.
The causes of the accident were attributed to:
1. Lack of experience in desert flying by pilots and observers.
2. Failure by observers to keep accurate navigators logs.
3. Inability of wireless operators to carry out their duties in the air.
The reasons for the failure of both ground and air searches were attributed to a lack of accurate information regarding the possible position of the aircraft; difficult terrain; sandstorms; unserviceable aircraft; and poor signal organisation.
The assistance given by the forced-landed crews was:
1. Bad DF procedures even on the ground.
2. Lack of visual signals and smudge fires.
The reasons for the early death of personnel were:
1. Failure to appreciate their plight.
2. Failure to ration water immediately.
3. Unintelligent use of compass alcohol and fire extinguishers.
The responsibility for the forced landing was attributed to the crew of the leading aircraft. To prevent a reoccurrence of such a tragedy, the board made comprehensive recommendations with regard to equipment to be carried on aircraft likely to fly over the desert, and emergency procedures in the event of forced landings. Only experienced crews were to be based at Kufra, and strict procedures were laid down for operations from there.
RELICS FROM THE KUFRA TRAGEDY
Addendum: 25 Feb 08. Tom Sheppard, Hitchin. UK
I have just come across the ‘Tragedy at Kufra’ piece in the South African Military History Society Journal, Vol 12, No 2 – the most comprehensive account I have seen of the loss of the three Blenheims. It certainly lends perspective to the story as usually told.
The recovery of the three bodies from the lone aircraft was effected, I believe, by the RAF Desert Rescue team (No 1 Field Squadron, RAF Regiment, Sqn Ldr J R Spencer) from RAF El Adem in 1959. I was part of a group mounted by the same unit in 1960 (Sqn Ldr Mike Burgess) charged with finding the eight remaining graves. Homing in on the remains of just the solo Blenheim we failed to find them, of course; at that time there was no knowledge of the whereabouts of the landing site of the other two aircraft in relation to the first.
Your account mentions that the lone aircraft had obviously been destroyed by fire but it seemed to me the main structure had simply been vandalised and most parts just been taken away. There was no sign of fire. I attach a picture I took at the time – one of No 1 Squadron’s Series 1 Land Rovers with l to r Sgt Ballam, Senior Aircraftsmen Minshell and Brown; the same structure featured in your report. April/May is the windiest time of year in the Sahara and the visibility at the time I took this photo (Nov 1960) makes you realize what it must have been like for the crews and searchers.
There is minor confusion in your account about the identity of this aircraft – or which crew was flying which Blenheim. The early part of the report shows Z7513 flown by Maj de Wet and Z7610 captained by Lt Pienaar. I am wondering if this should be the other way round as later in the report (‘The fate of the aircraft’) Z7513 is repeatedly referred to as the solo aircraft flown by Lt Pienaar.
There’s also a small inconsistency in the position of the original landing of the three aircraft (given as 24.51N, 24.25E) and the position of the two later found by the Wellington (24.49N, 24.10E); these two positions should of course be the same. I’m sure Sqn Ldr Warren had an awful lot on his mind when he finally saw the two Blenheims after three previous trips and five and half hours squinting out at the desert but presumably both positions are what the respective navigators came up with after a DR plot-out.
As a frequent (very careful) Sahara traveller and ex-RAF pilot I found your account absorbing and very moving
Bloemfontein- The oldest still-serving member of South Africa’s elite paratroops, Major Hans Human, has been a paratrooper all his life, whether as a National Serviceman or a member of the Reserve Force. He’s been jumping out of aeroplanes for more than 47 years.
1941 – 1945
Brooklyn Air Station established on 24 October.
Hangers, buildings, railway siding, fuel installations and
three runways constructed.
The first aircraft that landed on the newly constructed
airfield was an Avro Anson.
First batch of aircraft assembled took off for flight tests
on 19 January.
9 Air Depot, with WAAF members and RAF personnel, moved from Wingfield to Brooklyn on 20 January.
Wireless station with transmitting and receiving buildings constructed.
Camp facilities for Womens Auxiliary Air Force constructed.
The first Baltimore and Kittyhawks arrived from the docks.
6 Squadron relocated to Brooklyn in November.
Cape Fortress wireless transmitter station also relocated.
In March the 15 ferry and test pilots flew 1097 hours, ferrying and testing their quota of the 85 aircraft constructed.
Aircraft assembled: Anson, Oxford, Miles Master, Bristol Beaufort, Fairey Battle, Martin Baltimore, Dominie,
Kittyhawk, Maryland, Harvard, Hurricanes.
Brooklyn Air Station handled up to 94 visiting aircraft, excluding training aircraft, in one month.
3 AD took over from 9 AD on 31 March. 11 AD continued as
an independent sub unit.
The newly acquired Avro York for the use of Prime Minister Field Marshall Jan Smuts arrived at AFS Brooklyn.
The end of WWII with VE Day parade on 8 May.
1946 – 1959
300 Harvards crated at Brooklyn and shipped to the UK.
The first test flight of a Meteor III with pilot, Capt Meaker.
Venturas escorted the HMS Vanguard with the Royal family
17 Squadron was officially opened with Major Stanford as OC.
RAF Commodore Atcherly and jet specialists arrive to
prepare pilots for the Vampires.
Members selected to relief SAAF Squadron operating on the Berlin airlift.
Eleven pilots from Ysterplaat selected to join UN in Korea.
7 and 27 Active Citizen Force Squadrons was established.
Navigators School established with Major H.J.P. Burger, OC.
22 Squadron reformed at Ysterplaat under Major H.E. Kirby.
The last of 77 Vampires assembled.
First auto-rotation on the Sikorsky helicopter was done by Major Tatham and witnessed by the Media.
Three Sikorsky helicopters assembled.
AFS Ysterplaat was equipped with 15 Ventura, 3 Harvard and 1 Dakota aircraft. The Dakota was used in the air bridge between Cape Town and Cairo.
22 Squadrons’ disbandment coincided with the arrival of 35 Squadron, newly equipped with Avro Shackletons.
Shackletons and Venturas took part in combined exercises with the SA Navy and British Navy.
Ysterplaat hosted an Air Show in November featuring a Comet, Sabre, Shackleton, Devons, Dakotas and helicopters.
1960 – 1967
Air Show highlights – rocket installations of the Alouette II on display; a Sabre broke the sound barrier over Cape Town.
27 Squadron reformed as Coastal Reconnaissance Squadron equipped with Dakota aircraft.
2 Aircraft Maintenance Unit was founded.
Shackleton 1718 crashed into Stettynskloof mountains near Rawsonville and thirteen crew members died.
Air Show – the first Mirage III seen by the Cape Town public.
22 Squadron reformed as 22 Flight with 6 Wasp helicopters.
402 Air Field Maintenance Unit received unit status.
Sikorsky helicopters replaced with Alouette III.
108 Air Force Reserve Squadron established in PE under command of Ysterplaat.
110 Air Force Reserve Squadron established to supply air support to ground troops, commando’s and civilian forces.
35 Squadron assisted crew of a Buccaneer that had to abandon their aircraft over the Atlantic Ocean.
The first landing of a Wasp helicopter on Bouvet Island. Two Wasp helicopters accompanied a survey ship with a team of scientists to the island.
17 Squadron crews rescued 76 people from the SA Seafarer.
Wasp 82 crashed in the sea off Milnerton during an exercise and the crew was rescued. The Wasp was re-floated after a few hours and rebuilt.
The Acting State President, Mr. J.F.T. Naudé, presented the Officer’s Commanding of 7, 17, 27 and 35 squadrons with their Squadron’s Colours on 30 October.
1968 – 1972
The status of Ysterplaat is upgraded from a Station to
Air Force Base.
25 Squadron was reformed as a Dakota medium Transport Squadron under command of Cmdt A.J. Cooney.
16 Squadron was established and equipped with Alouette III helicopters under command of Cmdt G. Thom.
Helicopter Conversion Unit with Alouette II and III helicopters established under command of Major J.M. Oosthuizen.
The Maritime Operational Training Unit, tasked to train flight crew, was established in under command of Cmdt P.S. Marais.
16 Super Frelon helicopters were assembled.
27 Squadron Dakotas was replaced with Piaggio 166S Albatross. Albatross 881 to 889 was assembled.
7 Squadron, a training unit operating Harvard aircraft, moved from Youngsfield to Ysterplaat.
22 Flight flew humanitarian missions to Tulbach residents in September when the town was struck by an earthquake.
22 Flight on stand by with Maritime Task Force in April as the world waits for Apollo 13 to return to earth at alternative sites.
25 Squadron started operational flying tours at Rundu.
A new Decca Navigation System was officially opened by the Minister of Defence, Mr P.W. Botha.
A new Control Tower was constructed.
A memorial service was held in February commemorating the deaths of the crews of three Mercurius aircraft that crashed on Devil’s Peak in May 1971, and the four 22 Flight helicopter crew members who died in a Wasp helicopter accident near
Luanda in November 1971.
1973 – 1980
Alouette II helicopters were withdrawn from service.
Six Wasp helicopters were assembled. The delivery of the seventh Wasp was cancelled in accordance with a United Nations decision to ban the sale of weapons to South Africa.
22 Flight won the light Aircraft Command’s First Helicopter competition held at AFB Bloemspruit.
Ysterplaat received their first three television sets.
Start of Operation Savannah in SWA (Namibia). In December three Dakotas flew to Windhoek, heralding the moving of 25 Squadron’s bush tours to Grootfontein.
LCpls Martell and Maree of 25 Squadron were the first females to qualify as telecommunications operators and Lt A. Horn is our first female Air Traffic Controller.
22 Flight was restored to full squadron status.
First Dakota sprayed a camouflage colour scheme.
A Super Frelon helicopter set an unofficial record with a non-stop flight from Ysterplaat to Swartkop in November.
The last Harvard took off from Ysterplaat.
SAAF recruited coloured personnel for the first time since World War II.
The Officer’s Club burnt down and the Cambridge Hotel in Milnerton was taken over in 1979 as the Officer’s Mess.
At a parade Cmdt J. Cloete accepted the Colours on behalf of 27 Squadron from the State President, Mr. B.J. Vorster.
35 Squadron awarded the Freedom of the City of Cape Town.
30 Squadron reformed under the command of Cmdt R. Dean and equipped with Pumas and Super Frelon helicopters.
1981 – 1991
22 and 30 Squadron was involved in flood relief rescue when Laingsburg was worst hit following heavy unseasonable rains.
SAAF 62nd birthday flying displays of a Spitfire, Canberras, Buccaneers, Mirage F1 aircraft, Frelon and Puma helicopters.
27, 30 and 35 Squadrons was dispatched in an extensive search-and rescue operation along with naval vessels following the collision of the SAS President Kruger
and SAS Tafelberg.
AFB Ysterplaat received the SAAF Operational Efficiency Award for Support Sections two years in a row.
Dakota 77 flies for the last time in yellow and black livery.
2 ASU become a depot to extend production capacity.
Shackletons perform a farewell formation over Cape Town.
A Russian Naval Task Force rounds the Cape in September and a Dakota and Albatross shadows the vessels.
505 Security Squadron was established in June.
Return of 30 Squadron personnel and Pumas from SANAE Base in Antarctica after a trip of two and a half months.
Visit by Commander-in-Chief of Republic of China Air Force.
First Dakota maritime paint scheme on display for the media.
Commando members of 110 Squadron died when their Cessna crashed in the mountains near Montagu.
Air Crash simulation in Goodwood involving 400 personnel
of SAA, Eskom, SADF, Civil Aviation and City Tramways.
25 and 27 Squadron amalgamated with 35 Squadron.
Ysterplaat Squadrons took part in the rescue operation of
219 passengers from the stricken Oceanos.
1992 – 2002
11 Air Depot amalgamated with 2 Air Depot.
Ysterplaat won the Sword of Peace Award for the third consecutive year for exceptional humanitarian service.
A concrete wall was erected around the Base.
Puma helicopters airlifted 40 crew members from Riverplate.
South Africa becomes a fully fledged democracy and AFB Ysterplaat welcomes new members from the former
Non – Statuary Forces.
Museum Shackleton Pelican 1716 crashed in the Western Sahara. All 19 members survive and were rescued.
35 Squadron was re-equipped with C47-TP and the last
operations were flown by the piston engine Dakotas.
The last of 60 Pilatus Astra PC-7 aircraft was assembled.
Helicopters transported containers and supplies for the building of the SANAE IV base in Antarctic.
Oryx helicopters arrive and J-type Pumas phased out.
A Delville Bush Memorial Service was held at
Cape Town Gardens.
22 Squadron helicopters were deployed for fire-fighting in the Boland, Somerset West, Tulbach and Uniondale.
Air Show held in October in conjunction with Thunder City.
The new millennium kicks off with the biggest fires yet and
are followed by floods in Mozambique.
Plans to close down AFB Ysterplaat and move lodger units to Cape Town International Airport abandoned.
Exhibition at Museum commemorating the 60th Anniversary of North African campaign opened by General E. Schmidt.
2003 – 2011
22 Squadron flight crews awarded for the rescue of 89 people off the ice-bound Magdalena Oldendorff in the Antarctic.
Five members of 35 Squadron were selected for the SANDF Rugby team tour to Holland and Germany.
80 Air Navigation School received the Best Training Unit Prestige Award, Gold.
35 Squadron received the Golden award for the best Permanent Flying Unit and the Aviation Safety Award.
The first new generation Gripen fighter made its public debut in September and on the eve of the African Aerospace and Defence Expo hosted at Ysterplaat.
The Museum Shackleton, 1722, performs its last flight on
29th of March.
The first two Lynx helicopters arrive at Ysterplaat in July.
35 Squadron foils a drug drop by a foreign vessel.
Ysterplaat members involved in UN operations outside our borders in conjunction with SANDF and international forces.
AAD Air Show with 200 exhibitors from 30 countries. Some of the aircraft participating was Gripen, Hawk, Lightning and Hawker Hunter, Rooivalk-, Oryx- and Lynx helicopters.
AFB Ysterplaat was awarded the Freedom of Entry to the
City of Cape Town. The official scroll was handed over to Colonel Cowan on a parade in August 2010.
AFB Ysterplaat was a hive of activity with the FIFA 2010
World Soccer Cup, when the SAAF secured the air space above Cape Town.
The USAF participated in another international AAD Air Show.
Ysterplaat Air Force Base celebrates its 70th birthday.
HISTORY AND LOCATION OF
AFB YSTERPLAAT PART II
The History of Ysterplaat 1810 – 1941 (The Early Years)
To a certain extent it is not known precisely when aviators started using Ysterplaat as a landing field, but it is interesting to know some of the background to what we know as Air Force Base Ysterplaat today.
In the census of 1810, it is listed that on the 31st December 1810, one Willem Caesar and the widow Priem and her two children are resident at d`Yzere Plaat, (Ysterplaat) a hay farm belonging to a Mr. J. P. Eksteen and that they owned two draft oxen.
Some time later as Cape Town expanded, the area then became known as Maitland Common and according to the Title Deeds for AFB Ysterplaat, that some of the property eventually belonged to Sir de Villiers Graaf.
An initiative by the Cape Town City Council to provide a municipal airport for the town led to what we know today as Air Force Base Ysterplaat. The name of the farm, and subsequently the name of the Base are named after the natural geographical feature of the ground and are translated into English as “Iron Plate”.
Erected in 1917 and occupied by Mr. F. A. N. Duk who worked for Aero Services as a pilot and manager of the Airport. The building is now occupied by AFB Ysterplaat Transport Section. Some of the exterior and interior areas have been slightly modernised, however, the fireplace and all original woodworks are perfectly preserved. Next to it was erected the 1920 Hangar that was subsequently moved to the museum.
In those early days, Brooklyn consisted of one house, (manager’s office) a lean-to Hangar (Museum Restoration Center) the 1920 Hangar and a large square grass airfield without runways.
The Air Force’s association with the airfield did not begin in 1940 when the Base as we know it was being built. The SA Air Force’s relationship goes way back beyond that as the Air Force started what was then known as the SAAF Diamond Mail Service in 1925.
At the request of the Department of Mines, the SAAF instituted regular mail flights between Maitland and Alexander Bay. Cape Town would, it then appeared, have to become used to seeing SAAF aircraft in its skies.
It is suspected that from as early as 1915 civilian pilots were using the grass airfield that was to become known as AFS Brooklyn.
Union Airways, started by Major A.M. Miller of RFC fame, began operating a scheduled airmail service which used Brooklyn as its Cape Town terminus from 1927 for about two years before the operations were moved to Wingfield.
Union Airways did not survive the turbulence of the financial melt down in the 1920’s and several flying accidents did not contribute to its well being either and it was eventually liquidated leading to the formation of the nation’s national carrier.
South African Airways began flying on 1 February 1934 after the South African Government took over the assets and liabilities of Union Airways.
Union Airways was based upon a weekly service which left Cape Town after the arrival of the Union Castle Mail Ship on Monday mornings.
In the opposite direction, the fights were timed to reach Cape Town before the departure of the Mail Ships on their north-bound voyages. The service would unite Johannesburg, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban with Cape Town.
The Miller Archives with the history of Union Airways is lodged with the permanent collection at the SAAF Museum.
The Pupil Pilot Training Scheme at Brooklyn
Although Brooklyn Aerodrome was first used in 1925 for military purposes, in 1938, the Chief Instructor of our then very young Air Force, Sergeant E.R. Mauritzi, chose Brooklyn as the most appropriate aerodrome in the Peninsula for training purposes. All flying training activities were then moved from Mariendal Aerodrome near Stellenbosch to the airfield at Brooklyn. And so the scheme to train 100 pilots for the SAAF began. It was known as Union Air Training Group (UTAG). Towards the end of 1938, African Air Transport (AAT), a subsidiary of De Havilland Aircraft Company at Baragwaneth opened up at Brooklyn, with a contract to train batches of civilian pilots to SA Air Force specified standards. The manager of AAT at that time was David Earl, the Pilot Instructors were Eddie Maritz, Jan Jacques, and later Victor smith who joined them in February 1939.
Aircraft used were DH 82A Tiger Moths, ZS-ANE, AJC, ANU and AMZ. There were also the privately owned aeroplanes, a D.H. Hornet, ZS-AOT belonging to Victor Smith, and an Avro Avian owned by Traffic Cop Naude (later of Skeleton Coast fame). At this stage, Brooklyn still consisted of only one hangar, one office block come manager’s house and one lean-to hangar, no runways and no radio.
The course for the first batch of pupil pilots being trained for the SAAF started on 1 April 1939 and was to end on 30 June 1939. The course included: Wildsmith, Bob Kershaw, Fritz Johl, Victor Heimstra (who became a judge), Gordon Pat Patterson, Theo Purchase, Pat Polson, and Traffic Cops Naude and Strydom. Many pilots were trained without incident, a large number to become famous during World War 2, which started soon afterwards.
When war broke out in 1939, AAT was moved form Brooklyn to Tempe, near Bloemfontein, and was absorbed into the SAAF. Brooklyn was to be developed into a full blown Base.
HISTORY AND LOCATION OF AFB YSTERPLAAT
Introduction to flight in South Africa
The dream of flight was long given hopeful expression in the mythology of the ancient civilisations and indeed the great Leonardo de Vinci also saw the possibility of flight and drew it on paper centuries before it became reality. And when flight did indeed become reality it is not precisely known who was the first man to take to the skies from Ysterplaat.
There is a strong belief that, in the early 1870′s John Goodman Household and his brother Gordon built a glider and launched it and from the top of a 300 metre precipice on the farm Der Magtenburg, in the Karkloof area of KwaZuluNatal. The first flight was just over 1 kilometre and a height of 50 to 80 meters was achieved. During the second flight the craft soared for a while before beginning a rapid descent in which it clipped a tree and crashed, breaking his leg in the process.
It was the first ever recorded heavier-than-air flight and Goodman and his brother could have been accorded a place in history had it not been for their mother. When she heard of the crash she persuaded them to abandon the project out of fear that the family would incur the wrath of God for challenging their natural state of being earthbound. It is believed that the glider was stored in a barn and eventually burned with other rubbish.
All drawings, sketches and calculations were supposedly burned at John Household’s insistence so that he could abide by his promise to his mother never to discuss or attempt flying again. The Goodman Household Monument has been erected near Curry’s Post, in the KwaZuluNatal midlands to commemorate his achievement. There is then no evidence of any drawings or designs surviving Household who died in 1906. And what is more remarkable is that this had been achieved nearly ten years before the balloon flight of Major Elsdale in 1885.
This allowed the German Otto Lillienthal to take the honour when he made a successful glider flight in 1896. Eight years later, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight at Kittyhawk in the United States. It was the dawning of a new era; an age of adventure, excitement and glamour that gripped the world, and indeed the then Union of South Africa.
This first properly recorded flight in South Africa took place on the border of South Africa and this is what is known of that very significant event. Major Elsdale of the Grenadier Guards with 8 NCO’s and men arrived aboard the Pembroke Castle in March 1885 with 7 tons of hydrogen balloons and associated equipment. The detachment transported the equipment up to Mafeking where Elsdale first flew on the 9th April 1885. The balloons were used for aerial reconnaissance and artillery spotting for the Bechuanaland Field Force.
The first balloon flight in Cape Town was by Mr Stanley Spencer who after several attempts to get off the ground in his 60 000 cubic foot Montgolfier balloon finally succeeded on Saturday 6th February 1892. This was the first time that Capetonians could see that a man could get off the ground without having to climb a tree or fling himself off Table Mountain.
The first official heavier than air flight in the Southern Cape was undertaken by Ralph Mansel in a Voisin glider from Somerset West in the October of 1908.
Albert Kimmerling was the first man to achieve powered flight on the afternoon of the 28th of December 1909 over the racecourse at East London. He attained a height of 6 meters and newspaper reports of the day make for interesting reading.
In the early December of 1911 Dr Weston and “Bok” Driver took to the Cape Town sky in a Farman and a Bleriot and therefore they were the first to fly over the city in a heavier than air machine. From where they took off and landed is as yet unclear.
As aviation progressed, early flights began and ended depending on the mission, the weather, and the mechanical state of the aircraft and the whims of the pilot. There were many quite suitable landing grounds in and around the Cape. However in these early days of flight in South Africa, a hesitant public stood firmly on the ground and watched until aviation had proven itself and won its wings. It was also a time of crushed hopes, dreams and aircraft. Conversely it was also a period of spirited decisions by intrepid men and women whose vision took them to the clouds and their place in history.
In 1984 Arthur was sent to 3 Squadron at AFB Waterkloof to fly Mirages. Since seeing a Mirage F1 at an airshow in 1971, he had always wanted to fly Mirages.
In 1987 Arthur’s aircraft was hit in the tail area by an air-to-air missile during a dogfight with a Mig 23. He brought his damaged aircraft back to base, but the damage sustained had resulted in the failure of critical systems such as the braking parachute and hydraulics. As a result of the subsequent crash, he left hospital seven months later with a C6 and C7 neck fracture, and permanently confined to a wheel chair. In 1991 he was medically discharged from the Air Force.
Arthur has since gone scuba diving, participated in the Argus Cycle tour, the World Wheel Chair Games in Wheelchair Rugby, gaines SA Champion status in the shotput and javelin and silver in shot-put. He has also completed his PPL, and is now eyeing out wheel chair ballroom dancing.
His greatest challenge however is the completion of a specific aircraft, adapted for him, and in which he will fly around the world. This is Project Dreamwings.
And what is it then that this old “grey lady” does to all who come into contact with her? It defies logic, even the men who fly and maintain her are also tightly bound within that intrinsic aura that surrounds Pelican 22.
The aircraft has a long and illustrious history. The Shackleton was born due to the need for a long range extra endurance maritime reconnaissance platform. The German Navy of World War 2 had taught the British some harsh lessons in the North Atlantic in the opening stages of “the Battle of the Atlantic” when shipping losses due to enemy action in the form of surface raiders and submarines became unacceptably high. By 1943 a project was implemented to design an aircraft specifically to provide maritime reconnaissance and effective defensive and offensive aerial cover for the many shipping convoys between Great Britain and the rest of what was left of the then free world. The importance of the sea route around the Cape of Good Hope was a strategic issue then as it still is today. Shipping losses in South African waters were exceptionally high (105 vessels sunk due to enemy action) between 1939 and 1945.
Aircraft of the South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force patrolled these waters with aircraft such as the Sunderland, Catalina and Ventura PV1. At the end of the war, maritime operations were downscaled to a large degree.
Developed from the design of the AVRO Lancaster and subsequently the Lincoln, the first proto type Shackleton flew in the March of 1949. The type went into production for the Royal Air Force and was taken into service in February 1951.
The threat of the emerging cold war in the 1950′s again emphasized the importance of the Cape sea route and the ageing Sunderlands needed to be replaced. After a lot of consideration the Shackleton was identified as the right machine for the job, but only after a number of major modifications had been brought on. It must be kept in mind that the Shackleton was originally designed as a tail dragger, but the South Africans wanted tricycle landing gear, additional tip tanks to improve range and better soundproofing inside the aircraft. Considering that the British had improved upon the Shackleton Mk I and already had a Mk II in service, this new version for the South African Air Force was designated the Mk III as we know it today. Subsequently the RAF also bought Mk III’s, and only the two Air Forces ever operated Shackletons.
The SAAF took delivery of the first Shackletons in May 1957 and they arrived in South Africa in the August of the same year. The aircraft were numbered successive to the serial numbers of the Sunderlands, the first Shackleton of a total order of eight was numbered J 1716, an aircraft that was fated to die in a spectacular albeit tragic manner in the Western Sahara Desert on her ill fated trip to RAF Fairford in the early hours of 13 July 1994.
The second batch of Shackletons arrived on 26 February 1957, amongst them P 1722, the only one of eight still flying in the 21st Century.
The sound of the Shackletons was to become well known to the citizens of the Cape and the maritime community. Although the role of the Shackleton was primarily aggressive, it became better known as an ethereal angel of mercy to those merchantmen, fishermen and other sailors who so often found themselves adrift in the treacherous seas off the South African coast. Of the eight Shackletons that were operated by 35 Squadron, only two crashed, and only one with a total loss of 13 crew members when 1718 crashed into the mountains near Stettynskloof Dam on the night of the 8th August 1963.The remaining seven aircraft carried out front line service up until November 1984, by which time the Sanctions imposed by the United Nations against the Government of the day made it nearly impossible to keep the aircraft in service. At the time, Pelican two- two and her sister aircraft had patrolled both the eastern and western coasts of South Africa for twenty -seven years.
After the last fly past of three aircraft (1716, 1722 and 1723) over Air Force Base Ysterplaat the seven Shackletons were dispatched to various locations throughout South Africa for static display purposes. In the Cape Argus of the 22 November 1984, a cartoon appeared on the editorial page of this Cape Town afternoon newspaper. It was of a man in the water desperately trying to get the attention of the last Shackleton flying away from him towards Table Mountain. The accompanying editorial summed up the meaning of the Shackleton not only to the people of Cape Town and the Western Cape, but also, to the international maritime community. “No one can be happy, except possibly the Russians, at the news that after twenty seven years of meritorious service patrolling the Cape sea route the Shackletons, this country’s only specialized maritime reconnaissance aircraft have made their last flight”. ” During theses years the Shackletons became a living legend, famed for their reliability and honoured for the many lives they saved in search and rescue operations under the most difficult conditions”. Starved of spares by a UN arms embargo, only the great dedication and ingenuity of their Ground Crews have kept these aircraft serviceable for so long”. ” But now, they have had their day, and the world’s nations – and especially crews who round the Cape of Storms – could well be the losers”. And so ended the Shackleton era, but the stories and legends that proliferated around them live on today. Many of the men who flew and worked on them became legends in their own right, some still surviving and many passed on.
Shackleton 1716 and 1721 were sent to the SAAF Museum at Air Force Base Swartkop for preservation. For some obscure reason, 1722 remained at 35 Squadron at Cape Town International Airport and was quietly maintained by Warrant Officer Potgieter in his spare time. This single act of dedication to a machine he loved so much was going to provide the SA Air Force and it’s Museum with the world’s last flying Shackleton Mk III.
It is interesting to note that the SAAF Museum has been approached by the RAAF Museum and the Royal Dutch Air Force Museum for assistance relating to operating and preservation procedures and policies for their respective historic flights. Once again Air Force Base Ysterplaat to the rescue and leading the way. In Andrew Schofield’s Documentary “Shackleton 1722″ the viewer of this film will also find it a love story between man and machine. The footage of Brig General Ben “Gun” Kriegler’s last flight is memorable. Attention is drawn to the end titles set to the classical “Highland Cathedral” performed by the SA Army Band and the closing landing of the Shackleton as the concluding footage.
The DVD is available at the SAAF Museum and costs R170.00. The SAAF Museum gratefully acknowledges the roles of CFS, 22 and 35 Squadrons and the many members of Air Force Base Ysterplaat for their roles in the making of this documentary.