Namibia Campaign

Namibia Campaign (1914 - 1915)

Air Operations under the Sun of Southern Africa

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The Namibia Campaign[1] is a negligible military event in the history of the First World War by its impact on the overall situation. It is a short campaign (September 1914 to July 1915), in fact real operations begin in March 1915 and are almost completed in the month of May. Except for two or three episodes, the fighting is very limited and is more like a pursuit race between South African and German mounted troops. The human toll is very small : in all, a little more than four hundred deaths by adding the different causes of death. A campaign that ultimately the press of the time speaks little and the current literature overflows quickly, preferring to focus on fighting in East Africa and General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Yet it has some very interesting aspects to study. This is the only case in Africa where aviation is present and active with the two belligerents. It also illustrates the dynamic relations within the British Empire with radically different goals between the United Kingdom and its young South African dominion. It is, in part, dictated by political reasons peculiar to South Africa, whose conquest of Namibian territory is considered essential. Indeed, the success of this goal is supposed to impact the future destiny of the country and more generally of all of Southern Africa.

I) The origins of the Namibia Campaign

A) British objective: to reinforce Germany’s isolation and neutralize its fleet

While southern Africa may have been a place of tension between the British Empire and the new German colonial vocation during the 1890s, the situation has partly been resolved following the secret agreement ending any German support for Boer republics and the statement of the Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Baron Oswald von Richthofen, “we leave South Africa to England”. The idea of a colonial expansion by the capture of Namibia is therefore no longer a priority at the outbreak of the First World War. In reality, the objective for the British is relatively limited, since it involves strengthening the blockade of Germany. In fact, aware of the vulnerability of the submarine telegraph cable for external communications, the German authorities have sought an alternative solution. In this case, several Telefunken radio transmitters were built in the African colonies, including three in Namibia (Swakopmund, Lüderitz and Windhoek), to allow communication with the navy. This situation, which is supposed to threaten British naval superiority, must therefore be dealt as quickly as possible. In order to save resources for a modest purpose, the British government asks South Africa on 6 August 1914 for “a great and urgent service to the Empire” : seizing the two ports of Swakopmund and Lüderitz and destroying the Windhoek radio station. The petition was accepted on 10 August by Prime Minister Louis Botha. It fits perfectly with its political objectives.

Aerial view of the Telefunken radio antenna at Aus. The latter was dismantled and reassembled from Swakopmund at the outbreak of hostilities. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain)

B) The conquest of Namibia, a political opportunity for South African leaders

The imperial demand is immediately supported by some of the South African leaders for a number of external, internal and more personal reasons. At the external level : to prove the loyalty of South Africa (only 12 years after the Second Boer War), as well as that of the moderate Afrikaners, to justify the granting of greater autonomy. To do this, it is necessary to show that the young Dominon[2] actively participates in the defense of the Empire. But it is mainly on the internal level that the Namibian question arises. Indeed, Prime Minister Louis Botha and his deputy Jan Smuts are supporters of a certain Afrikaner messianic vision. Explained in a very simplified way, this theory is that the white people of Africans, elected by God, should eventually enlighten the different black African peoples of a continent liberated from colonial empires. To achieve this vision, it is necessary on the one hand to merge the white communities of Afrikaner and Anglo-Saxon origin into a single population, which a common military adventure can promote. On the other hand, the conquest of Namibia is a first step towards the idea of Greater South Africa, which contains all the territories under the Zambezi River, as well as the Portuguese port of Maputo (Mozambique). On personal level : the evolution of German foreign policy towards Southern Africa, despite the Kruger telegram, which has been interpreted as a real betrayal by the main Boer leaders. Finally, the heavy genocidal repression of the Herero and Namas populations between 1904 and 1907 created a certain disdain for the German colonial order in Namibia[3].

All of these reasons prompted Prime Minister Louis Botha to quickly lead his country to intervention in Namibia. However, unlike the British, the objective is not a simple neutralization of ports and communication, but a pure and simple conquest of the territory to incorporate it within South Africa. The idea comes up, however, with two major difficulties: the heavy deficiency of the South African armed forces and the frontal opposition of the Afrikaner nationalists.

II) Air Forces of the two belligerents

A) The South African Aviation Corps, an ancient structure … on paper

According to legend two young brothers: John Goodman and Archer Household have built a glider on their parents’ farm around 1875. Rising from the slopes of Karkloof Hill (Natal), John Goodman Household would have succeeded, after several attempts, to accomplish a great historical first. Having fractured his leg during a hard landing, his panic-stricken mother made him promise to stop all his follies contrary to the will of God, who did not endow the human being with wings like birds. The glider was then stored and disappeared during a fire. As historical research has shown, there is no material evidence of such an event that relies only on an article published in the 1950s and is more of a myth.[4]

More seriously, the idea of developing an air component among South African troops originated in 1912 following the journey made by Brigadier-General Christian F. Beyers in Europe[5]. During this tour, he has the opportunity to enjoy a flight on a Rumpler-Taube German, to attend the French military maneuvers and observe the General Flying School of Upavon. His report focuses on aviation. He admits he has “no doubt that aviation is destined to play an important role in future wars. (…) The airman is able to provide detailed information on troop movements, saving both men and horses[6]“. The conclusion is glowing: “I firmly believe that air is destined to play a very important role in future operations, and that it is impossible for our country to build a complete defense system without taking into account this new weapon”. It notes, however, that it is necessary to determine whether aviation is able to be used under the specific conditions of South Africa.

He advocates therefore an experimentation, within the Active Citizen Force, whose initial objective is to form a first group of pilots to test the potential with a notice in the Government Gazette, dated 13 May 1913, for he creation of the South African Aviation Corps (SAAC). The training must begin in the second half of 1913, for a period of ten to fourteen weeks, at a flying school established in Kimberley. Candidates must be under thirty-five, have good vision without glasses, have a good level of education and knowledge in mechanics. Without going into the details of this first stage of training, six of them (out of the ten of the initial selection) are awarded, on 22 April 1914, the rank of Probationary Lieutnant in the South African Aviation Corps. These are Gordon S. Creed, Edwin C. Emmett, Basil H. Turner, Kenneth R. van der Spuy, Gerald P. Wallace and Marthinus S. Williams[7]. For lack of adequate means, the second part of the schooling should take place, in the United Kingdom, with the Central Flying School of Upavon, Royal Flying Corps. The remaining five students obtained the Royal Aero Club flight certificate during the month of June 1914. The outbreak of the First World War, however, halted the program. Without knowing what to do with this air structure, the South African Government decides to allow the five pilots to join the Royal Flying Corps.

Captain Kenneth R. van der Spuy. Born in 1892, he was part of the original contingent of the South African Aviation Corps and obtained his flight certificate from the Royal Aero Club on 2 June 1914 (No. 803). After the Namibian Campaign, he took part in operations in East Africa, then with the RFC in the air defense of the British Isles before participating in the British expedition in support of the White Russians in Arkhangelsk. He was, however, captured on 26 April 1919, following an engine failure. After several months, alternating hotels, prisons and hospitals, he is released and returns to South Africa where he contributes to the creation of the SAAF. He retired in 1946 and played an important role in preserving South Africa’s aeronautical history. He died on 26 May 1991 in his estate of Stellenbosch at the age of 99. Source: SAAF Museum

B) The development of aviation in Namibia, a late experiment

The origins can be found in 1905, when the German colonial department receives a proposal to test an airship balloon in Namibia. Despite repeated requests from Major Joachim von Heydebreck (commander of the Schutztruppe in Namibia), the idea remains on paper because of serious doubts about the ability to use such machines under local climatic conditions and because of the remoteness of the metropolis. It is true that budgetary constraints block any experimentation, and only few private initiatives will allow to really launch the movement. At the same time, a local club for the promotion of aviation was founded in 1912 in Keetmanshoop with a very rapid expansion throughout the colony. A first evolution took place in 1913, when the Colonial Department made a real change by advocating an experiment of aviation in the colonies to follow the British, French and Italian examples. Again, the project remains on paper because of strong hostility from the Treasury. The argument is unstoppable: it is first necessary to prove the proper use of the aircraft in the specific conditions of the colonies before any funding authorization. This first test can take place between May and July 1914, when the pilot Bruno Büchner and his Pfalz Doppelfatz arrived as part of a series of aerial presentations throughout the German colonial empire. This new step, combined with a national subscription under the leadership of Prince Henri of Prussia, allows the allocation of an envelope of 30 000 reichsmarks, to the Governor Dr. Theodor Seitz, to finance the purchase of two aircraft to drive an experiment lasting three months in Namibia. The first contingent arrived on 5 May 1914, under the orders of Leutnant Alexander von Scheele. He is accompanied by a civilian pilot Willy Trück, four mechanics and a biplane Aviatik P-14 (engine Argus 100 hp).

The Aviatik B.I type P-14  at Karibib, in 1914, with Willy Trück (next to the propeller). Born on 16 September 1888 in Paderborn, he obtained his flight certificate (No. 658) on 19 February 1914 and joined the manufacturer Aviatik as a test pilot. He is sent almost immediately to supervise the tests in Namibia. After the war, he stayed in Namibia and later settled in South Africa as a farmer. He died on 22 May 1981 in Cape Town at the age of 92. We also note the presence of Leutnant Alexander von Scheele in the cockpit. The aircraft is reported to be prepared for a flight over Haalenberg (east of the port of Lüderitz). Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain).

A second aircraft, an LFG biplane Roland Pfeil, is delivered on 7 June with the Austrian pilot: Paul Fiedler. Various flights take place during the summer, which confirm the full potential of aviation in a territory as vast as Namibia. Leutnant Alexander von Scheele notes, however, that the Aviatik’s performance is mediocre and the engine completely dated, while the German armed forces’s refusal of the Roland Pfeil, due to its bad rate of climb, makes the aircraft difficult to use in local conditions. Paul Fiedler suffered, in particular, a first accident on 24 July when the Roland crashed on takeoff at Keetmanshoop. The aircraft is heavily damaged.

The LFG Roland Pfeilflieger with the Leutnant der Reserve Paul Fiedler (center) on the Keetmanshoop field in June 1914. Of Austrian origin, he joined the Austrian army in October 1903 in the artillery until January 1909. Returning to civilian life, as a teacher, he is one of the local pioneers of aviation since he obtains the flight certificate No. 19 (December 1910). He later joined the builder Luft-Fahrzeug-Gesellschaft (LFG) and was responsible for conducting the tests in Namibia where he landed on 23 July 1914. After the war, he remained a few years in Namibia (his hometown had become Czechoslovakian) before returning to Austria in 1926. He probably died in 1955. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain).

At the moment of war, the situation of Schutztuppe in Nambia is not ideal. Its strength is particularly low: 2 000 men (increased to 4 800 after mobilization) divided into nine mounted infantry companies, five artillery batteries (including one incomplete) and two detachments of armored train. This troupe, under the orders of the Oberstleutnant Joachim von Heydebreck[8] then Major Victor Frank, has an essential mission: to preserve the colony while waiting for the victory in Europe. It is therefore necessary to avoid any frontal confrontation in case of invasion and to conduct only a series of attacks to delay a possible enemy advance. For this purpose, the use of aviation seems ideal by providing a means of long-range observation. The air component is divided into two detachments. The first, under Leutnant Alexander von Scheele, includes Willy Trück (observer – mechanic), Gefreiter Holzmacher, Nietzsche and Schultz, and Aviatik. They are deployed in Karasburg on 31 August to begin a series of patrols along the southern border. The second element, under the command of the Leutnant der Reserve Paul Fiedler, with Otto Meier (observer – mechanic), the Gefreiter Klotz and Kirsch, the Reiter der Reserve Dörgeloh and Seidler, and the Roland after repair also join Karasburg on 9 September. In order to make the planes more effective, bombs are improvised from artillery shells. Two tubes are placed on each side of the airplanes where the bombs are slid. When the pilot wants to drop one, he just pull a cord that releases the bomb, which falls through the tube to the ground. To reinforce the equipment, aircrafts carry a bag containing several grenades.

III) The essential role of German aircraft in the failure of South African plans (September 1914 – January 1915)

The two German planes, in September – October 1914, in Karasburg or Windhoek according to the sources. The LFG Roland Pfeilflieger is on the left and the Aviatik B.I type P-14 is on the right. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain).

The South African plan is based on two needs : to fulfill the British request of the occupation of the ports and the destruction of the German radio antennas ; the second, specific to the South African requirements, aims at the complete conquest of the territory to deny any right to a return to the German hands at the end of the conflict. It is, however, also dictated by the Union Defense Force’s imperatives : to maintain a certain separation between the two structures (Permanent Force and Active Citizen force) to not offend anyone ; the great inexperience of senior officers whose experience is reduced to the Anglo-Boer war or command of British colonial regiments ; insufficiency (and lack) of logistical means. There are also constraints specific to the partially desert territory. Finally, the strategy is based on the idea of separating the whole into several forces, deployed in various parts of Namibian territory, and each leading an independent offensive. Three forces were then created : Force C (Colonel P.S. Beves), with 1 200 men and six pieces of artillery, destined to land in the port of Lüderitz in order to seize control[9]. Force A (Brigadier-General Henry T. Lukin), with 1 800 men and eight pieces of artillery, based at Port Nolloth, near the southern border with Namibia. Force B (Lieutnant-Colonel Manie Maritz), with 1 000 men, at Upington (facing the southeastern border of Namibia). The objective is that Force A will cross the border towards Keetmanshoop, with the support of Force B from the east. The capture of this city must allow access to the railway to continue towards the capital Windhoek.

This strategy does not take the Germans by surprise as Leutnant Alexander von Scheele makes his first flight aboard the Aviatik on 23 September from a runway at Kalkfontein in the direction of the Driehoek – Haib – Uhabis sector (southern border). Unfortunately the aircraft is heavily damaged on landing, probably due to a lack of visibility at dusk. Observer Willi Trück is injured in the accident. The Aviatik is quickly transported to Keetmanshoop (thanks to a team of oxen) to rebuild a new propeller and wing. He is able to resume flights in early November 1914. It is true that the South African failure during the Battle of Sandfontein (26 September 1914) and the outbreak of rebellion of part of the nationalists Boers[10] (September – December 1914) freeze operations. For his part, Leutnant Paul Fiedler decided to use his camera to perform during the month of October a series of photographic reconnaissances along the border. Thus, on 26 October he took several photos of the main opposing camp in Steinkopf.

At the same time, the center of attraction of the military operations moves on the coast with the occupation of the Namibian port of Lüderitz by Force C, and the bombing of Swakopmund by British ships[11], while Hauptmann Schultetus is raiding the port of Walwis Bay (a British enclave in the center of the Namibian coast) to confiscate weapons and sabotage. It is therefore hardly surprising that as soon as the Aviatik is repaired, Leutnant Alexander von Scheele will be sent with his detachment to Aus on 6 November.

The Aviatik B.I type P-14 at Kuibis (near Aus) with Leutnant Alexander von Scheele and the ground staff. The detachment is made up of the followings : Leutnant Alexander von Scheele (pilot), Willy Trück (observer – mechanic), as well as Gefreiter Holzmacher, Nietzsche and Schultz. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain)

He is responsible for conducting a series of reconnaissance flights over Ludernitz and Tschaukaib (70 km east of the port, the main South African camp), about three hours of flight time. The bombs are used for the first time on 25 November. He takes off on this occasion to observe the movements of ships in the port of Lüdernitz, as well as to drop propaganda leaflets inviting South African soldiers to join the rebellion boer. Undergoing some shots from the ground, he decides to respond by throwing two bombs, which without damage causes a slight panic.

He is joined 6 December by Paul Fiedler and his Roland. On 17 December, he took off from Aus at dawn to take the direction of Tschaukaib to bomb a battery of artillery. If the first bomb misses its target, the second destroys a gun of the 12th Battery Citizens Force and mortally wounds one of the servants (Corporal H.T. Keeping), and four others more lightly.

Photograph of the South African military camp at Tschaukaib, taken on 17 December 1914 by Leutnant der Reserve Paul Fiedler aboard the LFG Roland Pfeil. There is a series of interesting details on this shot: down the effects of the two bombs dropped on a set of tents and sliced. At the top right, there is smoke coming from the South African artillery fire. On the left, we notice the railway and the train station. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain).

A similar attack took place three days later, and several times during the month of January 1915. If the results are difficult to determine, the South African archives report at least three soldiers killed and nineteen others wounded. The discomfort is, however, certain since a BLC pounder gun is taken at the Cape Armory to be used for anti-aircraft defense. The artillery piece, called Skinny Liz, under Lieutnant E.H. Tomplin’s command, is able to fire up to 60 degrees. Initially deployed in Walvis Bay, it is difficult to appreciate the impact, and it will be used more to support troops on the ground[12]. Two other guns, one 4 inch and the other 4.7 inch will also be used for the same purpose, but again without concrete results.

The anti-aircraft gun Skinny Liz, a modified BLC 15 pounder to shoot up to an angle of 60 °, under the orders of Lieutnant E.H. Tomplin and deployed to Tschaukaib early 1915. Source: SAAF Museum.

The situation changes sharply in Namibia following the arrival of the South African Prime Minister, General Louis Botha in early February 1915. After a long logistical preparation, he launched his offensive from Swakopmund towards the capital Windhoek, through the Swakop River Valley considered preferable for horses. In parallel, more limited attacks are launched from the south and east across the Kalahari Desert, to prevent the Germans from regrouping their weak forces. The events of late February – early March 1915 turn quickly to the advantage of South Africans especially during the clashes of Pforte, Riet and Jakalswater : a series of fortified hills east of Swakopmund whose capture (20 March) allows to deprive the adversary of a large part of his artillery. Now the Namibia campaign will boil down to a slow pursuit by the South Africans, according to the requirements of a non-existent logistics, and a gradual withdrawal of the Germans to rear positions, to avoid confrontation. At the same time, the situation of the two German planes becomes more and more precarious, the Aviatik Leutnant Alexander von Scheel multiplies the technical problems.

Thus on 19 January 1915 after a reconnaissance of the military camp of Arandis, he is forced to a forced landing because of a problem of radiator, which is serious since it requires a change of the pistons of the engine, not available. After a makeshift repair, he returned to Karibib on 23 February. But on 25 March Willy Trück (out of the hospital after his accident of 23 September) must shorten his flight after only twelve minutes. This time, the cylinder block is affected. It is finally necessary to wait until 8 April to see the now Oberleutnant Alexander von Scheel perform a reconnaissance of the Swakpomund railway and a bombing on the enemy troops in Arandis. At the same time, Leutnant der Reserve Paul Fiedler continued his operations aboard the Roland on the southern front, regularly dropping a few bombs on the Aus and Garub military camps, between January and March 1915. Thus, the 27 of the last month, several bombs fall at the level of the enclosure, containing about 1 700 horses, creating a real panic, causing a delay in the South African offensive. This is the end of his presence on the southern front which collapses gradually in late March with the capture of Aus, abandoned by German troops. Fiedler is recalled on the northern front (Karibib) to join Von Scheel. This new reorganization allows, on 15 April the two planes to operate for the first and only occasion together for an attack on Arandis, in spite of a rather violent reaction from the opposing troops who open fire with their small arms. It is also the beginning of the end. On the 17th, Leutnant der Reserve Paul Fiedler took off at Karibib and the LFG Roland Pfeil crashed into the ground. If the pilot suffers a skull fracture, the aircraft is irreparably damaged despite several attempts to repair.

LFG Roland Pfeilflieger at Keetmanshoop with Leutnant der Reserve Paul Fiedler and Leutnant Alexander von Scheele. The latter, born on 19 March 1894 in Berlin is a career officer. He obtained his flight certificate (No. 169) from the Albatross Werke of Johannisthal on 14 March 1912. He was sent to Namibia on 5 May 1914. After the war, he emigrated for a few years to Argentina before returning to Germany to take part of the development of the Luftwaffe, and is part of the first detachment of the Condor Legion. He was killed on 4 August 1939 aboard a Junkers Ju.52 crashing in Spain during a flight between Madrid and Barcelona. The detachment on LFG Roland Pfeilflieger is initially composed of : Leutnant der Reserve Paul Fielder (pilot), Otto Meier (observer – mechanic), Gefreiter Klotz and Kirsch, as well as Reiter der Reserve Dörgeloh and Seidler. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain).

Following the South African offensive on Swakopmund, Major Victor Franke decides to launch one of the few German counter-offensives on the Trekkopje position (26 April) to delay the advance of enemy troops and allow his units of the southern front to regroup around the capital Windhoek to try a last resistance. Using extreme caution, Franke decides to use the Aviatik intensely for a series of reconnaissance to determine the opposing strength.

While the reports reassure the German command, they also illustrate the limit of aircrafts. Thus, Alexander von Scheel is not able to determine the importance of heavy artillery (undervalued) and especially the presence of twelve Rolls-Roy armored of the Armored Car Division No.1 (RNAS) Squadron (analyzed as water tanks). The clash ends with a limited German failure, whose forces retreat permanently to Karibib to protect Windhoek. The battle of Trekkopje is a double failure for Alexander von Scheel. On 1st May, he was ordered to go recognize and bomb the area. He is quickly subjected to shots from the ground which damaged his engine. The pilot must make a forced landing. The aircraft is quickly recovered, but a problem with the pistons is detected. On the same date, Governor Theodor Seitz and Major Victor Franke decide to abandon Windhoek declared free city for Grootfontein in order to attempt a last resistance in the north. Oberleutnant Alexander von Scheel follows the movements with his aircraft on the Otjisasu field. This is the end anyway and, after a thought on the idea of continuing a guerrilla crossing the Angolan border (whose southern territory is uncontrolled by the Portuguese), the Governor Theodor Seitz decides to ask for an armistice between the 20th and the 22nd of May. The offer is, however, rejected by Prime Minister Louis Botha who demands unconditional capitulation and full occupation of the territory by his troops.

In anticipation of negotiations, Oberleutnant Alexander von Scheel receives the order to take off, on 29 May to observe the advanced axes of the South African troops. He takes off from Kalkfeld, but the engine lacks power and he slightly damages the lower left wing hitting the vegetation. He tries a landing, but the aircraft hits the ground. The pilot suffers from a broken nose and right leg. The aircraft is, however, recovered and transported by rail to Tsumeb where Willy Trück is still trying to repair the Roland, which he manages to do at the end of June. The documentation does not allow to know his activity until the German surrender on 4 July 1915.

The two planes are, at first, hidden in a farm near Tsumeb. The Aviatik is finally sunk in Otjikoto Lake, while the Roland is burned during the year 1916 to avoid any recovery by the South Africans. Paul Fiedler and Willy Trück are released soon after capitulation in accordance with the agreements[13]. Oberleutnant Alexander von Scheel refuses to sign the commitment not to take up arms and he is interned until the end of the war. He emigrates soon after to Argentina. He returned to Germany in 1933 and joined the Luftwaffe.

The Aviatik B.I type P-14 with Willy Trück in Karibib, probably during the end of July – early August 1914, for the first test flights after his arrival in Namibia. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain).

IV) The return of the South African Aviation Corps

Personal of the South African Aviation Corps. Note the badge on the shoulder. Source: SAAF Museum

At the time of the war, the idea of the South African military air force is buried. The results of the program are very nuanced, the Kimberley Flying School showed limitations and was forced to close for lack of equipment and financial means. The small group of pilots, sent to England to complete the training, is no longer available since they are seconded to the Royal Flying Corps. The government does not have the means anyway to extend the experience. Nevertheless, the regular presence of German planes conducted, in November 1914, Prime Minister Louis Botha to consider the development of anti-aircraft defense and on the reactivation of the South Africa Aviation Corps. For this purpose, Captain Gerard P. Wallace, Lieutnant Gordon S. Creed, Edwin C. Emmett, Basil H. Turner and Kenneth R. van der Spuy are ordered to resume service with South Africa and then recruiting mechanics and finally prospecting for the purchase of aircraft for rapid deployment in Namibia (near Walvis Bay).

Captain Gerard P. Wallace. After the Namibian campaign, he took command of No.26 (South African) Squadron RFC in East Africa. He was awarded the DSO in 1917 and died of a heart attack in 1948. Source: SAAF Museum

A first solution arises following the conquest of Cameroon and the capture of two German planes (a Rumpler and Jeannin Taube). The offer to recover the two aircraft is immediately accepted by Louis Botha and they are delivered to Pretoria in February 1915. However, they will never be reassembled and will disappear from the inventories later. At the same time in London, Captain Gerard P. Wallace is experiencing serious difficulties in convincing the British services to provide the necessary equipment for operations in Namibia, which are now considered a strictly South African affair, the imperial demand being filled. Finally, South Africans decided to turn to private builders and the choice was finally to buy six Henry Farman HF.27 whose metal construction is considered ideal for the hostile climate of Walwis Bay. In addition, two Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c are offered by the Admiralty, as well as the provision of three pilots : Flight Lieutnant John M.R. Cripps, Flight Sub-Lieutnant Thomas Hinshelwood and Wood[14], as well as thirty-four members for the ground staff. At the same time, Lieutnant Edwin C. Emmett[15] and Basil H. Turner are responsible for preparing an airfield at Walwis Bay with the assistance of engineer John Weston[16].

Henry Farman HF.27 on the Karibib Airfield. Source: SAAF Museum

The aircraft are embarked on 3 April 1915, at Southampton aboard the Umvoti towards Walvis Bay. The choice of the ship is problematic since, due to its small size, the crates must be stored on the deck, in the open air. This decision will prove catastrophic. Thus, the ship is quickly caught in a storm and several crates are damaged by the waves. More generally, when arriving 27 days later, some parts are damaged or heavily corroded. Three of the Henry Farman HF.27 thus require very heavy repairs. Finally, the two BE2cs are reassembled respectively on 4 and 5 May, the first test flights taking place on 7 May. On this date, Captain Gerard P. Wallace is in charge of joining Karibib (captured the day before by the troops of Prime Minister Louis Botha) with the A Flight composed of Captain Basil H. Turner and Flight Lieutnant John M.R. Cripps (pilots), Lieutnant William W.C. Cary-Thomas and John Clisdal (observers). The planes must stay in Walvis Bay while waiting for the Henry Farman. It is true that the endowment is rapidly reduced when Captain Basil H. Turner crashes at the controls of the first British aircraft at Karub, on 9 May, while Flight Lieutnant John MR Cripps must land in emergency with the second, near Swakopmund following an engine failure. The career of both aircraft stops at this date. Finally, it is necessary to wait until 25 May to see Lieutnant Kenneth R. van der Spuy arrive with one of the Henry Farman F.27. At this point, the Namibia campaign is coming to an end. The capital Windhoek has been evacuated, a request for an armistice filed and the last German troops retreat to the Angolan border.

Two Henry Henry Farman HF.27 aircraft, South African Aviation Corps, on Karibib airfield. Source: Scientific Society Swakopmund (Incorporated Association not for Gain)

The next day Lieutnant Kenneth R. van der Spuy took off for the first operational sortie, in this case a reconnaissance of the city of Omaruru where he reported about twenty German soldiers preparing the evacuation. He is joined on 15 June by a second Farman (No. 6) piloted by the Flight Lieutnant John MR Cripps, which allows to consider a second reconnaissance over Omaruru where Kenneth R. Van der Spuy is able to launch the first bombing of South African aviation by dropping two bombs. The capture of this last city, two days later, makes it possible to discover a German aerodrome under construction. Both pilots receive, therefore, the order to join this airfield. The transfer ends badly for John M.R. Crips whose aircraft hits a tree during landing. If the pilot survives without injury, the aircraft must be returned by train to Walvis Bay. Fortunately, two more planes (No. 7 with Lieutnant Gordon S. Creed and No. 8 with Flight Sub-Lieutnant Thomas Hinshelwood) arrive on June 19-20. The SAAC is then divided between two structures: the A Flight on the Omaruru airfield with three Henry Farman HF.27 and the B Flight at Walvis Bay, under the command of Captain Basil H. Turner, at Walvis Bay for advanced maintenance. A series of reconnaissance is then organized over the vicinity of Kalkfeld, which prove the absence of German troops in the area. However, once again, the staffing is reduced when Captain Kenneth R. van der Spuy (with the 1st Acraftman Stark) crashes on landing and breaks his leg.

Henry Farman HF.27 at Omaruru, between 20 and 25 June 1915, with Captain Kenneth R. van der Spuy (in the cockpit) and Lieutnant William W. Cary-Thomas. After pilot training, he joined SAAF. On 10 March 1922, he took off aboard a DH9 for an observation flight following the revolt of the Rand Afrikaner white miners. The tension is at its height, a few shots are fired towards the plane, killing the unfortunate. Source: SAAF Museum

With the A Flight now without planes, the B Flight with its two Farman n°7 and n°8 (and their respective pilots) is sent to Otjisasu on 27 June to track the advance of the South African troops. From Otjisasu, several sorties are made during the last days of June to bomb the Germans, aircrafts being equipped with eight bombs of 16 lbs. At the same time, technical problems continue …, so on 30 June the Sub-Lieutnant Flight Thomas Hinshelwood takes off aboard the Farman No. 8 (with Lieutnant John Clisdal) to deliver a message to a South African column. He quickly encounters motor problems, and he must land near Brakpan. The engine can, however, be changed quickly on site to allow the pilot to bring his aircraft back to Otjisasu. On 1st July, while B Flight is now based in Brakpan, Captain Gordon S. Creed aboard the Farman n°7 is able to drop two 112-pound bombs that are now the basic offensive armament. On 4 July 1915, he took off for Tsumeb for an armed reconnaissance of the station. According to statements by South African prisoners of war there, a locomotive was destroyed during the attack. This is also the last SAAC action during the Namibia campaign. If the aircraft of Captain Kenneth R. van der Spuy and Flight Lieutnant John M. R. Cripps are now repaired and awaiting transfer, the German capitulation stops operations. All the aircraft are then sent back to Walvis Bay.

Henry Farman HF.27 came out of one of the few hangars in Walvis Bay. Source: SAAF Museum

The results of SAAC, now 152 men (120 in the aviation section and 32 in the transport section) and four Henry Farman HF.27, remains quite disappointing. South Africans have never been able to align more than two aircraft, while the number of missions is relatively small with no real impact. It is true that its deployment is really late, at a time when military operations in Namibia are virtually complete. These are then limited to a slow chase between South Africans and Germans, punctuated by minor skirmishes. In these conditions, the planes are forced to continuous changes of airfields with all the consequences in terms of maintenance and lack of transport. It is, in any case, the time of a new disappearance of the SAAC. The Namibian experience has shown all the difficulties in maintaining a limited air force with virtually nonexistent means. As a result, the South African government proposes the integration of the corps into the Royal Flying Corps to operate in East Africa against the troops of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. This proposal is not entirely innocent at a time when South Africa is trying to take control of the theater of operations as part of political agenda. But, this is another story, that of No.26 (South African) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps.

Two Henry Farman HF.27 take off. Source: SAAF Museum.

V) Conclusion

In conclusion, it is difficult to see during the short Campaign in Namibia, a crucial episode of aviation during the First World War. Each side has never been able to line up more than two aircraft due to multiple technical issues. Yet this is the only example of the active use of aircirafts by the various belligerents on the African continent during the First World War. In spite of its anecdotal aspect, the aerial contribution will have fundamental consequences for several reasons. First, this limited practice shows its effectiveness in the context of aerial reconnaissance, but also bombing. The rapid thinking on the side of South Africa to adapt an anti-aircraft weapon, then the development of its own aerial body is the proof. The strong will of the Germans to maintain these two aircraft in flight condition (sometimes at the cost of real exploits), their continued movements in the sandstone of land movements is another. In such a vast territory, South Africans will be able to follow the gradual retreat of the German troops and be able to circumvent them accelerating the conclusion of the surrender on 9 July 1915. Especially the discovery of the aerial fact by the South African officials will be capital. At the beginning of 1915, the deputy of the Prime Minister Louis Botha, a certain Jan Smuts will describe his delight with the impact of the aviation: “before I needed to send several horsemen, from now on a single plane is enough for me to see further and faster. “ Appointed, strangely given his weak military baggage, at the head of the British Empire’s forces in East Africa, one of his first steps will be to demand aircrafts, which will be provided by the No. 26 (South African) Squadron, RFC. In January 1917 he joined the Imperial War Cabinet where he headed the Commission in charge of the German bombing problem. This gives birth to Smuts Report whose conclusion recommends the establishment of an independent air force, the Royal Air Force. Elected South African Prime Minister on 3 September 1919, he made the same decision for his country creating the South African Air Force which he will remain a major advocate throughout his career.

If the Namibia Campaign leads to a definite victory for South Africa because of numerical superiority and the unwillingness of the German command to maintain active resistance, South African political power will not be able to fill his agenda. If the territory is immediately placed unilaterally under its control, South Africa will only be awarded as a mandatory, and can never formally incorporate it as a new province. Eventually, South Africa will be bogged down in a long war (1966 – 1988) along the border with Angola, while Portugal will refuse any exchange negotiations between northern Namibia and the port of Maputo . The fantasy project of Greater South Africa will never see the light of day.

The entire South African Aviation Corps in Cape Town, after the Namibia Campaign. Source: SAAF Museum

[1] Namibia is at the time the colony of German South West Africa or Deutsch-Südwestafrika. In order to simplify the geographical representation for the reader, the current names of the different places will be used.

[2] As a reminder, the Union of South Africa, regrouping the different British settlements and conquests as well as the former Boer Republics, was created only in 1910 as a result of the treaty agreements.

[3] On this point, it should be recalled that the vision shared by most of the Afrikaner leaders is based on a certain racism based on racial superiority and paternalism vis-à-vis the indigenous populations. The need for repression, or even conquest is not a major problem because dictated by this notion of paternalism and the idea that these actions will be favorable to the long-term rise of the populations concerned. On the other hand, the policy of a planned and widespread massacre violently hits and provokes a real contempt of German colonialism, whose pursuit is judged as an imminent and extreme danger for the messianic destiny of the Afrikaners. It should be noted that, despite the racism that permeates these theories and is quickly implemented in the legislation, many members of the Afrikaner elite are fluent in one or more indigenous languages ​​(thus, during the negotiations for the German capitulation in Namibia, South African officers will use the Zulu language to communicate essential information to each other and guard against enemy espionage), and maintain friendly relations with some members of the indigenous elite. Thus, one of the first decisions of Prime Minister Louis Botha will be to order the release of King Zulu Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo from the English jails in Durban. This episode notably explains the strong tensions (and hate) during the Namibia Campaign between Louis Botha and Brigadier-General Sir Duncas McKenzie (in charge of the Central Force).

[4] For more information, SWINNICH, James W. History Without Evidence is Myth: J.G. Household and Claims of Flight in 1870’s Africa

[5] The South African military structure originated in the 1912 South African Defense Act, establishing Union Defense Force. In reality, it consists of a superposition of several structures to reconcile the different allegiances Anglo-Saxon and Boers. The two principal elements are, on the one hand, the Permanent Force having its origin in the British colonial units of Cape and Natal (ie five mounted infantry regiments, each having a battery of artillery), on the other hand the Active Citizen Force, heir to the Boer commando system (a mounted infantry unit of volunteers). The great weakness of the system is a strict separation of the two main components, thus the Permanent Force is placed under Brigadier-General Henry T. Lukin, while the Active Citizen Force is commanded by Brigadier-General Christian F. Beyers, without any one has precedence over the other. The only hierarchical authority is the Minister of Defense, Jan Smuts, a brilliant politician but his military experience is very limited. The various officials in the ministry are essentially civilians. If we add, a strict cultural separation between the two structures, and a recent war (the Second Anglo-Boers War ended in 1902), the great weakness of the South African military institution appears very quickly.

[6] He also notes that France appears to have taken a considerable advance, in aerial matters, compared to other nations.

[7] The latter seems to have been selected for political reasons, because he is the nephew of the former President of the Free State of Orange Marthinus Steyn and current Vice-President of the Commission in charge of the drafting of the constitution of the Union of South Africa. Judged as not fulfilling the necessary conditions, he will be released one month after the arrival in England.

[8] He was fatally wounded on 9 November 1914, during an accidental explosion of grenades during a test. He dies on 12 November.

[9] The Germans will have time to dismantle the radio antenna to reassemble it to Aus.

[10] The rebellion broke out in September 1914 when Lieutnant-Colonel Manie Maritz decided to desert with part of his troops to join Namibia proclaimed the independence of the former Boer republics. At the same time, Brigadier-General Christiaan F. Beyers resigns and decides to rally Christiaan de Wet, former President of the Free State of Orange, in an open rebellion based on the prophetic visions of Siener van Rensburg. Prime Minister Louis Botha decides to declare a state of emergency in October and while rejecting a proposal for British aid (for fear that the landing of British soldiers will spoil the situation) is launching a military operation against the rebels. The revolt is quickly failing, in particular following the decision of General James B. Hetzog not to join it. This renunciation will have the effect of turning the majority of Afrikaners in a neutral or rallying Louis Botha. Deprived of real support and divided rebels will be quickly crushed militarily while General Beyers will drown or commit suicide while attempting to flee to Namibia. The last rebels will surrender during December 1914.

[11] The Germans decide to blow up the radio station in Swakopmund to justify the absence of a military objective on the spot. This one was, moreover, not functional.

[12] The Skinny Liz still exists today, as it is exhibited at Kimberley, the South African Air Defense Artillery Gunners Memorial.

[13] The agreements provide that only regular and non-commissioned members are interned. Reservists and officers are permitted to enjoy full freedom of movement in Namibian territory provided they agree not to take up arms against South Africa or the Entente.

[14] It could be either Eric C. Wood (RAeC No.1081, 12 February 1915) or James C.P. Wood (RAeC No.1037, 10 January 1915).

[15] After serving in East Africa, he decided to definitively join the RAF. He ended his career as Group Captain and died on 12 March 1955, in London, at the age of 64 years.

[16] John Weston is one of the pioneers of aviation in South Africa. Born in 1872 near Vryheid (Natal colony), he tried from 1907 to mount a plane from Voisin, although without success. He decides, then, to go to France to follow a pilot training with Farman establishments. Returning to South Africa in 1911, he founded the Aeronautical Society of South Africa and tried to import and sell French-built aircraft, while multiplying the aerial demonstrations aboard a device called Weston-Farman (50 hp engine Gnome). He responded to the tender of 1912 for the establishment of the flying school to train the members of the South African Aviation Corps, but his proposal was rejected, while his shed caught fire mysteriously destroying his means . He joined the South African Air Force on 6 February 1915 with the rank of Lieutnant in charge of building and maintaining the necessary airfields. After serving as an aerodrome engineer, John Weston joined the RNAS to fill the same role for deployments in the Greek Islands. After the war, he joined the British mission in the latter country, even becoming an honorary Vice-Admiral in the Greek Navy. Back in South Africa, he starts caravan development. He was killed on July 24, 1950, during the attack on his farm. He was 78 years old.

Selective bibliography


BROW, James Ambrose. A Gathering of Eagles. Purnell, 1970. 342 p.

CHAPMAN, Peter. Dust of the Horizon : The Air War in German South West Africa (1914 – 1915). Cross and Cockade, Vol.34, No.3, 2003. p.152 à 164.

CRUISE, Adam. Louis Botha War : The Campaign in German South-West Africa, 1914 – 1915. Zebra Press, 2015. 220 p.

MCGREGOR, Gordon et GOLDBECK Manfred. The First World War in Namibia – August 1914 – July 1915. Gondwana Collection, 2014.

ILLSLEY, John William. In Southern Skies. A Pictorial History of Early Aviation in Southern Africa (1816 – 1940). Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2003. 362 p.

SAMSON, Anne. World War I in Africa : The Forgotten Conflict Among The European Powers. I.B.Tauris, 2013. 306 p.

SELIGMAN, Matthew S. Rivalry in Southern Africa (1893 – 1899). Macmilian Press, 1998. 200 p.

SILBERBAUER, Dick. The Origins of South African Military Aviation (1907 – 1919). Cross and Cockade, Vol.7, No.4, 1976. p.174 à 180.

STEJSKAL, James. The Horns of the Beast, The Swakop River Campaign and World War I in South-West Africa (1914 – 1915). Helion and Company, 2014. 140 p.

VAN DER SPUY, Kenneth Reid. Books of Africa, 1966. 261 p.


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