31 October 1940
At the end of October, South African Prime Minister General Jan Smuts decides to organize an inspection tour of his armed forces in Kenya. He is accompanied for this purpose by his adviser General Pierre van Ryneveld. The visit also coincides with the arrival in Kenya of Major-General Alan G. Cunningham to take command of East Africa Force. Several important meetings concerning the strategy for the future offensive are taking place in Khartoum and Nairobi during this period.
They embark all three aboard two Junkers Ju.86 of No.12 (SAAF) Squadron, accompanied by Major-General Alfred Goodwin-Austen (Commander 2nd African Division) and Air Commodore William Sowrey (AOC East Africa), to visit the advanced airfields of Kenya. At that time, a series of mistakes will start, the repercussions of which could have been dramatic for the British forces in East Africa, but also, and especially for South Africa.
Air Commodore William Sowrey (centre) during an inspection tour at Archers Post on 30 September 1940. On the left are Brigadier Hector C. Daniel (SAAF) and Major Robert Preller (No.11 Squadron). Collection : SAAF Museum
Two Hawker Hurricanes No.3 (SAAF) Squadron are responsible for protecting personalities. However, the relatively inexperienced pilots perform the cover too high and from behind, which from a distance can seem to suggest an attempt to intercept an Italian bomber.
Approaching the Archers Post airfield, Captain Dennis B. Raubenheimer forgets the friendly signals : put down the landing gear and regularly flapping his wings.
At the same time, the absence of these elements related to the impression given by escort leads the soldiers, in charge of the watch, to alert the Hawker Fury detachment. Indeed, the slowness of these aircrafts requires, in case of potential alert, to get the aircraft off the ground as quickly as possible in the hope of compensating for the speed differential. These obsolete aircrafts are also not equipped with radio.
Three South African fighters take off, under the command of Captain Frank J.M. Meaker, to intercept the two unidentified aircraft. The three biplanes are sighted by Captain Raubenheimer, but he assumes they come to greet the Prime Minister’s plane. Indeed, a message announcing the passage of the two Junkers Ju.86 was normally communicated to the different airfields, but a technical problem prevented its reception at Archers Post. He does not judge necessary to carry out the signs of recognition.
At the same time, the Hawker Fury are preparing to engage the two Italian bombers to help Hawker Hurricanes. Captain Frank J.M. Meaker is about to open fire when he suddenly notices that the rear of the aircraft consists of double control surfaces, unlike the Italians. Recognizing South African cockades, he breaks brutally to the right. But, Lieutnant Douglas D. Pannell takes the maneuver for a classic evasive action after an attack or following the jamming of guns (a regular problem on the Hawker Fury). Aware that the speed of his aircraft will allow only one attack, he immediately opens fire with all the excitement of his first fight. Quietly piloting, Captain Dennis B. Raubenheimer sees several tracers passed to the right of his cockpit. He turns sharply to the left, but the second Junkers Ju.86 is slightly touched on the wing. With his weapons stalled, angry at his missed target, Lieutnant Douglas D. Pannell breaks off the fight when he descovers that it is not Italian bombers but South African planes.
According to Captain Dennis B. Raubenheimer :
“Arriving above Archers Post, I see dust trailing on the ground. I show them to Smuts … I hope they come to greet you Sir. I watch them climb to our altitude. It looks like the perfect exercise of interception. I ask General Pierre van Ryneveld, sitting next to me, to keep an eye on them. They are approaching the opposite side of my seat, in my blind spot. A minute later, I see tracers and I immediately dive under Lieutnant plane Glynn Davies to my left. My only goal is to keep the personalities away from the line of fire. Fortunately, the attack mainly targets the other Junkers Ju.86 on which several impacts are reported. Smuts, visibly shocked, turns to me and asks: are we are attacked ? Yes, sir we are … by our compatriots. After the landing, not planned, on Archers Post the Prime Minister observes the impacts and decides to divide the different passengers in the two aircraft for the rest of the flight so as not to put all the eggs in one basket.”
In his report, Captain Frank J.M. Meaker explains that :
“No.2 (SAAF) Squadron Detachment D operates from Archers Post, an advanced airfield that is to be regularly attacked at night and day. The Hakwer Fury have a rate of climb and a disastrous speed, we are unable to catch an enemy bomber. As a result, it is planned to take off and immediately engage a potential aggressor before the latter approaches sufficiently to be formally identified. There is not enough time to be able to observe the planes. It is, therefore, a standard procedure and validated by Nairobi.”
Hawker Fury of No.2 (SAAF) Squadron. Collection : SAAF Museum Swartkops via Tinus le Roux.
Archers Post airfield. Collection : SAAF Museum Swartkops
Archers Post Airfield Fuel Depot. Collection : SAAF Museum Swartkops.