26 (South Africa) Squadron RFC
Henri Farman HF.27
This was a pusher biplane, with an airframe of steel tube, fitted with either a 140hp or 158hp Canton-Unne water cooled radial engine. It was normally fitted with a Lewis machine gun and could carry a bomb load of up to 250kg.
At a speed of 100 km/h (60mph) it would take 15 minutes to reach an altitude of 1000m (3200ft) and 30 min to 2000m (6500ft). Fully loaded with crew and fuel it had a flight duration of 4 hours.
Originally 12 were ordered for the SAAC, for use in the South West African campaign. Only 6 were delivered as the conflict in that region was over before the rest of the equipment arrived.
On July 9 1915, the German Forces in German South West Africa surrendered at Otavifontein. No longer required, the fledging South African Aviation Corps was disbanded. Those personnel that volunteered to continue service were shipped to England. There they were banded together at Nethervon on 8 October 1915 to form 26(South Africa) Squadron. The origins of the Squadron are clearly revealed in its badge. The head of a Springbok forms the centre piece, surrounded by the motto is in Afrikaans. “ ‘N Wagter in die Lug” (‘A Watcher in the Sky”).
Arrival in East Africa
Barely three months later , on 23 December 1915, the unit was posted to East Africa, tasked with assisting the ground forces against a formidable opponent, the German, Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck. They arrived at Mombasa on 31 January 1916 and established themselves at Mbuyuni.Equipped with B.E.2c’s and a few Henri Farman all-steel machines previously used in SW Africa, they commenced operations on 1 February. This, in spite of problems with their equipment. The BE2c’s arrived without propellers and the fitters had to jury rig the standard RAF props that they had, and in doing so, put severe strain on the Worlsey Renaults. The Farmans were in very poor condition with warped wings and rotten linen coverings.
Lettow-Vorbeck's philosophy was simple - by using hit and run tactics he could tie down a huge number of British troops in East Africa and thus prevent them from joining the fighting in Europe. Prussian officers, contrary to the popular stereotype of rigid, nonthinking disciplinarians, were in fact extremely flexible individualists and Lettow-Vorbeck was a prime example. In February 1916, a new commander arrived in East Africa to try his luck against the Germans: Jan Smuts, the former Boer War general. He added new impetus to the British effort, immediately going on the offensive. His troops were a mixture of men and races from all over the Empire. The air contingent initially began with scouting missions but did engage later in some rudimentary bombing. These sorties were undertaken in conjunction with Royal Naval Air Service aircraft, and their combined efforts forced the Germans to retreat from the Kilimanjaro area.
The invasion of German East Africa was conducted with two forces. The main operation was under the command of General Jan Smuts and proceeded along the Pangani River. It was in support of this force that 26 Squadron operated.
Despite his enthusiasm and eagerness to get to grips with what at times must have seemed a phantom enemy, Smuts met with little success. His campaign in East Africa was a series of frustrating attempts to surround Lettow-Vorbeck's main force or to bring him to fight a decisive battle. Smuts never succeeded. Each time they tried, the British were convinced that they would bring Lettow-Vorbeck to bay, and each time he eluded them. He always retreated in the face of overwhelming force, but not before it was necessary, and it was never easy to assemble the required force at the needed point. Smuts and the commanders-in-chief who followed him, captured territory, but none succeeded in defeating the wily Lettow-Vorbeck.
Almost throughout the entire war the British underestimated the Germans and their black troops, known as Askaris, who had been well-trained and disciplined by their German officers. The Askaris were moreover familiar with the terrain and were ideally suited for guerrilla warfare.
Chasing Lettow-Vorbeck proved to be an agony of endurance for the Allied forces - disease took a heavier toll than the enemy, and the conditions under which the troops marched and fought took the men to the limits of human endurance.
These conditions and frustrations were not limited to the ground based forces alone. The Squadron found the operating environment particularly difficult. Throughout April and into the middle of May, rain curtailed operations.
The topography was mountainous, with peaks up to 19000 feet. Dense bush offered no safe haven for airfields let alone emergency landings. As a consequence the Squadron’s base could not always keep up with the main forces. The resulting longer flying times fatigued the pilots and added to the wear and tear on the fragile aircraft. The advent of Monsoon conditions from May to October meant that a low cloud base was experienced in the morning and it typically only lifted to 3000 feet during the day. Naturally the flying conditions were very bumpy.
Mixed South African and British personnel of the Squadron were living as roughly as the troops. They lived a hard live of heat, wild animals, old equipment and very rough clearings acting as airstrips. Malaria was a continual problem and medicine was scarce, and it is unknown how many of the flying accidents were as a result of fever.
They kept on flying every day, from dawn to dusk, monitoring the German retreat. The prime object was photographic reconnaissance, but when the photographic plates were unpacked they were found to be ruined as they had not been prepared for tropical shipment.Initial photography was attempted using Lt Cdr Cull's Kodak fold up camera.
Aircraft were used for scouting and to "bomb" the enemy on the few occasions that the pilots could find them. There was a claim of success in the destruction of a locomotive and its crew, while the well known South African pilot, Captain Carey-Thomas made and dropped bombs made from artillery shells with tail fins cut from tins. The bombing was so ineffective that eventually the Germans didn't even bother to step off the road when an aeroplane appeared.
Much of the Squadron’s work went unappreciated, as traditional infantry officers could not accept the roughly drawn maps highlighting German positions, or there were difficulties in dropping maps to ground personnel. Communication was a serious problem.
The Squadron arrived at Morogoro on 31 August 1916. Throughout this period flights were made daily and wherever possible the enemy was harassed. In September disposition changes took place. Squadron HQ and A Flight remained at Morogoro, B Flight to Tulo and C Flight to Dar-es-Salaam took part in coastal operations. In December C Flight moved to Liwa to work with the 1st Division..
Reconnaissance and bombing formed the major part of the work, with some artillery range work as well.
Maintaining airworthy machines was extremely difficult, with much ingenuity and makeshift repairs being necessary. The Wolseley Renault Magnetos were a major source of engine failures as they broke up in the heat. The engineers ended up modifying Bosch ones in the railway workshops in Nairobi, while others were machined in the railway workshops in South Africa. Model T inner tubes were used at one stage to substitute for those normally fitted to the B.E.2c’s.
East Africa 1917
Operations were progressing with Mohoro, situated on the Rufiji delta, and occupied by the British 1st Division, with pushes being made in the west and east against the German forces.
On 28 January, heavy rain began to fall and this heralded the beginning of one of the wettest seasons in memory. Flying was all but impossible and 26 Squadron could not assist with the campaign. The Henri Farmans had been withdrawn in January and the equipment consisted only of B.E.2c’s.
Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2c Reconnaissance Scout
Two seat reconnaissance and bombing aircraft, fitted with a 90 hp Renault vee-8 water cooled unit.
The B.E. 2c (Bleriot Experimental) was intended for reconnaissance and miscellaneous duties, as in 1914, there were no precise ideas about what a military aircraft should be or do.
For reconnaissance purposes, it was designed to be steady and stable. Originally fitted with a 70hp motor with a maximum speed of 112 km/h (70mph), the 2c variant first flew in October 1914, fitted with a more powerful engine and ailerons, it could reach a speed of 193km/h (120mph).
During 1915-16 there were more B.E.2’s on the Western Front than any other type of Allied aircraft. A few BE2Es were delivered to the Squadron, via Dar Es Salaam
The Campaign Ends
Once the rains had ceased, operations commenced in earnest in June. This campaign terminated with the surrender of Tafel and the retreat of General von Lettow Vorbeck into Portuguese territory. It was a long and hard campaign of skirmishes and marches across a wide area in inhospitable conditions.
C Flight operated from Kilwa until August and then moved to Mssindyi where it was joined by B Flight. B Flight had been at Tulo and had been working with General Edward’s forces in the north west corner of the country. By August an aircraft Park and HQ was established at Dar-es-Salaam. In early October both flights moved to Nahungu and a month later joined the RNAS (Royal Navy Air Services).
Squadron personnel returned to England in July 1918 and the Squadron was disbanded at Blandford during that month. It was reformed on 11 October 1937 as an Army Co-operation Squadron and served in this role to the end of the Second World War. Although disbanded at the end of the war it was reformed again in 1946.
It was finally disbanded 1 April 1976 at Wyton, as a communications Squadron flying Beagle Basset C.C.1’s
Lettow-Vorbeck surrendered, undefeated, on 25 November 1918. The allied officers treated him with extreme respect and as the war had been fought in a gentlemanly fashion throughout, he was not imprisoned, but given the use of a car and invited to dinner by the South African General Van Deventer.
Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Germany a hero and remained in the army for a further 10 years, after which he entered politics and served in the Reichstag. He and Smuts formed a lasting friendship and he sat next to Smuts as guest of honour at the anniversary dinner of the East African Expeditionary Force, held in Cape Town. After World War II, in which he opposed the Nazis and refused their offer of a post as ambassador, he lived in poverty for many years. Smuts, on hearing of the plight of his former enemy, sent him regular food parcels. Lettow-Vorbeck died in 1964.
Although very valuable at the beginning of the First World War, the B.E.2c, soon became obsolete. Its redundancy is highlighted in the following parody on the 23rd Psalm:
The B.E.2c is my bus; therefore shall I want.
He maketh me to come down in green pastures
He leadeth me where I wish not to go.
He maketh me to be sick;
He leadeth me astray on all cross country flights.
Yea, though although I fly o'er No-man-'s Land
Where mine enemies would compass me about,
I fear much evil, for thou art with me,
Thy joystick and thy prop discomfort me.
Thou prepareth a crash for me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thy RAF annointeth my hair with oil, thy tank leadeth badly.
Surely to goodness thou shalt not follow me all the days of my life,
Else I shall dwell in the House of Colney Hatch for ever.
Bullock, C.D., A short History of the Royal Air Force, (Air Publication, Air Ministry 2nd Ed, 1936)
Brown, J.A., They Fought for King and Kaiser, (Ashanti Publishing (Pty) Ltd, Johannesburg, 1991)
Ploeger, J.Kmdt, 26-Eskader R.F.C, (Militaria, Director General Personnel, Pretoria, 1970)
Farwell, Byron, The Great War in Africa