South Africa's Warbirds
A Visit to the South African National Museum of Military History
By Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi
Photographs and ancillary material courtesy Anthony Speir, Aviation Curator, S.A.N.M.M.H.
Spitfire JF294, a rare HF Mark VIII variant, in bare-metal finish.
The museum has one of two surviving Supermarine Spitfire HF VIIIs. The Mk.VIIIs were designed for hot climates. They had tropical air filters and were equipped to carry emergency rations and a 1.5 gallon (6.8 liter) drinking water supply.
Built in 1942, this aircraft bears the serial number JF294. Vickers boxed and shipped it to North Africa in January 1943. The RAF kept it as a spare, so it was not uncrated until November. The aircraft movement card indicates it was to be sent to India in December, but there is no evidence this was ever done. In late 1943, South African Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts requested a display aircraft from the RAF. JF294 was selected and fitted with a 90-gallon, long-range slipper tank. RAF Flying Officer G.E. Chaplin flew the aircraft from Cairo to Cape Town. When it arrived in Cape Town, the aircraft was fitted with two 20mm cannons, and was painted overall PR (Photo Reconnaissance) Blue - a deep azure color - its color and markings consistent with a reconnaissance machine. However, there is nothing to indicate the aircraft was ever fitted as a reconnaissance machine.
It subsequently ended up at the II OTU, the same unit as the museum's Hawker Hurricane. JF294 became the personal mount of Major Doug Loftus, Commanding Officer 11 OTU. He wanted South Africa's fastest aircraft, so he had the guns and armor plate removed to make it fly faster. Paint removal is a thankless job, but removing paint from a wing's underside is tortuous. Two young pilots who had gotten themselves into a bit of trouble found this out the hard way. They had to remove the paint from the wing's undersurface with thinner, as punishment. We have been assured the two pilots in question were quite "blue" over the job! Finally, JF294's aluminum skin was polished.
Major Loftus had the aircraft stripped of paint and extra weight in order to further improve the aircraft's performance.
The SAAF loaned the aircraft to the museum in late 1944. It remained on loan to the museum until 1955, when the museum officially purchased it from the SAAF. Originally, the museum had asked for the aircraft, but the powers that be demanded the museum buy it from the SAAF. The museum offered 15 pounds for the aircraft, but the SAAF held out for 17 pounds 10 pence - a difference of about five dollars US!
The museum is also home to a de Havilland DH-98 Mosquito Mark IX. Built in late 1943, serial number LR480, it served for three months at RAF Station Benson in England. In December 1943, the RAF sent it to the Middle East. There were 76 flying hours on the airframe when 60 Squadron SAAF at Foggia, Italy, received it in June 1944. It flew missions over Italy, Austria, and the Balkans. The squadron later relocated to San Severo, Italy, and replaced LR480's engines.
Due to space constraints, the Mosquito is hung from the ceiling in the indoor area. The aircraft is painted in an overall PR blue (azure blue).
In December 1944, Colonel Glynn Davies, DSO, Commanding Officer No. 60 Squadron, received a transfer to South Africa. The military brass, wishing to generate a little publicity, allowed Col. Davies to attempt to establish a speed record from Cairo to Pretoria. The SAAF provided LR480 for the attempt. Col. Davies' commander, Brigadier Peter Hingeston, wishing to catch a little of the spotlight, flew as his navigator, though both men were pilots. As the saying goes, two pilots and no navigator is a recipe for disaster! Before the aircraft made its way to Cairo to begin the trip, everyone in 60 Squadron signed a white plate on the airplane's starboard underside.
Colonel Davies left Cairo with his "navigator" in the latter half of 1944. Originally there were only two planned stops, but upon making their second stop they found only a single man with several drums of aviation fuel and a hand pump. Colonel Davies opted to remove the aircraft's long-range fuel tanks. Flying on internal fuel alone, they had to make an additional refueling stop in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Both pilots were confident they could still set a record.
The third stop was the flight's undoing. The two pilots mistook the bombing range at Que Que for the airfield. The bombing range proved too short to land a Mosquito. The aircraft ended up in a ditch dug around the range as a fire stop, in case a practice bomb lit off the grass. LR480 received serious damage to its undercarriage and propellers. Local troops and laborers took the aircraft to RAF Station Thornhill, then Southern Rhodesia. RAF Station Thornhill assigned Corporal R.A. Whittingham, who was familiar with the Mosquito, to repair the machine. He worked in his spare time with a crew of African laborers. Since there were no spare parts at Thornhill , Corporal Whittingham had to order parts from as far away as England. At one point several 60 Squadron Mosquitoes passed through on their way to South Africa, and LR480's tail surfaces were taken to repair the tail of another machine that clipped a fence when it landed at Kumalo (Bulawayo), then Southern Rhodesia. After 20 months, Corporal Whittingham repaired LR480 and added his signature to those already under the wing. Finally, on 27 August 1946, LR480 arrived in Pretoria. LR480 may have set a record - for the longest flight time from Cairo to Pretoria!
Due to the angles involved, it is difficult to photograph the entire Mosquito at once. Here is the rear of the aircraft.
When it landed, the SAAF put it in storage at 15 Air Depot. The airframe had 219 hours. The SAAF transferred the aircraft to the museum in 1948.
Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi © 1992