No. 1 Squadron and the Spitfire Legacy

1940 to 1954

Written by Buskruit (Willie) Burger

Introduction – East Africa

A LEGACY is a gift, left or handed down by a predecessor, to those who appreciate it and what it stood for. It serves as a reminder of deeds and hardships endured by those who first received it. By those who used it, and in some cases, by those who owe their lives to it.

In 1940 the “Battle of Britain” was at its peak, and England was taking a beating. South Africa, being in the Commonwealth, had also declared war on the Axis Powers and was therefore asked to go and take on the Italians in East Africa. However, South Africa had its own problems. The Cape sea-route had to be protected since Allied shipping was easy prey for German submarines (U-boats) in these waters. Royal Navy and South African Navy ships did their best to keep the sea-route safe, but aerial reconnaissance and patrol were absolutely necessary. Aircraft for this purpose posed a problem; there weren’t any. The SA Airways had earlier procured German Junkers Ju-86 airliners, which were actually designed as bombers. These 18 twin-engined aircraft were put into uniform, and their first duties entailed patrolling the airspace above the sea, out to a distance of 1 600 km from the coast.

Number 1 Squadron was the first SAAF unit to board a ship in Durban, in May 1940, for the long voyage to Kenya. The aircraft were flown from Pretoria to Mombasa and consisted of Hawker Hurricane monoplanes and Hawker Fury and Hawker Hartebees biplanes. Some equally antiquated Gloster Gladiators and Gauntlets were flown down from Egypt. 11 and 12 Squadrons were also deployed to East Africa, where they operated Fairey Battle and Junkers Ju-86 bombers against the Italian forces.

In Kenya, 1 Squadron had a large area to patrol. Three Gloster Gladiators were detached to the eastern area with equipment and ground crew. This small element got additional aircraft in the form of Hartebees and Fury biplanes, which saw the birth of 2 Squadron. The fighter squadrons in East Africa were 1, 2, 3, 40 and 41. With the exception of the Gladiator, Fury and Hartebees biplanes, there were a few Hawker Hurricane and Curtiss Mohawk monoplanes in operation with 3 Squadron. Not much in quantity or quality, but in the hands of quality pilots, supported by quality ground personnel, they were adequate to help the ground forces chase the Italians out of Abyssinia.

For the fighter pilots, the lifestyle in the bush was typical of war. There were times of boredom, planning, leisure and absolute terror. Some young South African pilots conferred titles upon themselves, such as – “Shiekh of El Wak”, “Buna-kid” and “Sultan of Osmandelas”. One day the “Sultan” was sitting in a tree, wearing only a vest. Italian aircraft attacked the base, and our hero jumped into his Gladiator, as he was, and took off. In the ensuing dogfight, he shot down a Caproni bomber. The Caproni’s pilot, who survived the incident, met the “Sultan” after he landed. He looked at the “Sultan” and remarked sadly that it was terrible for an “ace” of the Spanish War to be shot down by boys who fly naked.

A British Colonel visited one of the South African bases at the end of hostilities and addressed the men – thanking them, on behalf of the King, for their loyalty and guts. During his inspection of the airmen, he stopped in front of an Armourer and asked, “Why are your buttons so dirty?” The reply was, “Gaan kak man.” The Colonel said, “Uh-hum, that’s no excuse. See that they get cleaned.”

North Africa – Enter the Hurricane

The next round was to take place in North Africa, and the playing field would eventually stretch from Egypt through Libya to Tunisia. The Italian and German forces had slowly pushed the British, South African, Australian, New Zealand and Indian forces eastward, until the Allies dug in their heels at El Alamein in Egypt.

The SAAF received some fairly modern aircraft in the Desert of North Africa. Hurricane Mk II and Spitfire Mark V fighters served with 1, 3 and 7 Squadrons.

Air combat, ground attack, close air support, armed reconnaissance and bombing were the daily tasks of the aircrews. The ground crews had a full-time job keeping the aircraft serviceable, repairing battle damage, refuelling and re-arming. The comradeship between pilots and ground crew was very sound. There were a few exceptions – some pilots regarded themselves as being one rung below the angels and treated the ground crew as slaves. These guys quickly changed their attitudes when they found themselves in a dogfight with guns, instruments or radios that were not working.

Heat, dust and insects caused discomfort and damage in the desert. The armourers were constantly scrounging condoms, which were issued to all ranks. No, they were not for personal use! When the aircraft guns had been cleaned and loaded, the condoms were pulled over the barrels to keep out dust and insects. Later, in Italy, where rain, snow, mud and insects also caused havoc, the demand exceeded the supply.

1 Squadron was equipped with Hurricanes until the first week in August 1942, the first Spitfires were received. However, 1 Squadron made a name for itself in those hectic days. The Hurricanes were tasked for top cover missions, escorting Boston and Maryland bombers during the ebb and flow of the Allied and Axis attacks and counter-attacks.

“Die Boere” tangled with German fighters and bombers. A German aircraft was swatted down, and the Squadron OC praised the pilot responsible with the words, “JOU BIELIE !”. This was heard a couple of times by members of RAF squadrons also operating in the area.

One Squadron SAAF, after that, became known as “The Billy Boys”. These two aircraft below depict 2 Squadron fighters over North Africa. The Spitfire MkV AX@J is escorting the Me 109 AX@? back to the “Billy-Boys” landing ground. The Me109 had earlier been recovered, repaired and given SAAF markings. It was used as the “Pos-donkie” and often, a mini-rum-run when stocks were running low.

Under Montgomery, the Allied forces took the offensive at El Alamein and started driving the Germans and Italians westward. American and British forces had landed in Algeria and advanced eastward. The Axis forces were eventually (quite literally) driven into a corner in Tunisia.

1 Squadron Fighter Aircraft in East Africa

The below images are two original photos of AX-? taken in North Africa.