The South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force share a proud and long-standing relationship. During the First World War South Africans served with the British Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. In fact, 26 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps consisted almost entirely of South African personnel that previously served with the former South African Aviation Corps during the German South West African campaign of 1915.

Most noteworthy amongst these South African airmen were Capt Anthony Beauchamp-Proctor VC DSO MC DFC, Flight Lt S.M. Kenkead DSO DSC DFC, Air Vice Marshal Sir Charles Meredith KBE CB AFC. Maj Gen K.R. van der Spuy CBE MC, Lt Gen Sir H.A. Pierre van Ryneveld KBE CB DSO MC, Air Marshal Hugh Saunders CB CBE AFC and Maj Gen C.J. Venter CB DFC.


In 1919 the Imperial Government in London decided to make a free gift of aircraft, spares and other necessary equipment available to enable each dominion of the British Empire to establish its own Air Force. South Africa received 100 aircraft which included de Havilland DH-9 ground attack bombers, SE5a fighters and Avro 504K trainers. Resulting from this generous bequeath Lt Col van Ryneveld was appointed the first Director of Air Service of the Union Defence Force with effect from the 1st of February 1920 and today this date is accepted as the official birthday of the SAAF.


During the 1920's and 30's the South African Air Force remained almost exclusively British equipped with many former Royal Flying Corps personnel now members of the South African Air Force. The first aircraft that were purchased to replace some of the obsolete types were the Avro Avian in 1930. Westland Wapitis and Avro Tutors followed shortly thereafter.


The secondment of SAAF personnel to the RAF and vice versa was common practise during the Second World War. Many South Africans distinguished themselves while serving abroad and by the end of the war many such officers were commanding RAF units. With the Union being a part of the commonwealth many other South African men did joined the RAF directly. One such South African was the distinguished F.Lt M. T. St.J. Pattle, DFC and Bar, who was the top scoring Commonwealth fighter ace of the Second World War with 41 victories.


Although no SAAF units participated, a total of twenty-three South Africans served in the Royal Air Force and participated in the Battle of Britain during the Second World War. Of these twenty-three, historically the most notable have been:

  • G.D.L. HAYSOM, which was released after the war as a RAF Group Captain.
  • P.H. HUGO, who retired from the RAF in 1950 as Group Captain and was credited with a total of 22 aerial victories during the war.
  • A.G. LEWIS, who shot down five ME109's in one day during the Battle of France and seven in one day during the Battle of Britain. He was released after the war as Squadron Leader and credited with a total of 18 aerial victories during the war.
  • A.G. MALAN, released after the war as Group Captain and credited with a total of 35 aerial victories during the war.
  • E.J. MORRIS, who retired from the RAF in 1968 as an Air Commodore.


The South African Air Force contributed significantly towards the war effort and made huge sacrifices in East- and North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Italy and Poland - the latter in support of the Polish Resistance during the "Warsaw Concerto". Beside its combat role, the SAAF, as part of the Allied Joint Air Training Scheme trained more than 33 000 aircrew trained of which 20 800 were for the Royal Air Force. The experience gained by the SAAF had been tremendous as had the knowledge gained through close integration with the RAF's methods and organization. Additionally the Air Force provided much needed maritime air cover along the sub-continent's coast line, to keep the strategic South Atlantic shipping lanes clear of Axis warships and submarines.


The military re-equipment program of the 1950's and 1960's saw the introduction of many British types such as the Vampire, Shackleton, Buccaneer, Canberra and Wasp. Towards the late 1960's international arms embargoes, steadily isolated the military, including the SAAF, both in terms of international cooperation and any subsequent hopes to re-equip itself. By the end of the 1970's certain types of equipment such as the Avro Shackleton MkIII, were difficult to replace. The 1990's heralded a new era of vast political changes, bringing about a new political dispensation and the first democratic elections for South Africa in 1994. These historic events brought about the birth of a new South Africa and the making of the "Rainbow Nation" of which the South African Air Force irrevocably is a major part of today. In its ninetieth year of existence the South African Air Force proudly values the historic association with the Royal Air Force.


BECKER, D., 75 Years on Wings of Eagles. South African Air Force. 1995

POTGIETER, H & STEENKAMP, W., Aircraft of the South African Air Force. Cape Town. 1980.

Researched & written by Captain Leon Steyn, Research Officer, SAAF Museum.