Allan Sinclair
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
14 June 2019

In 2020 the South African Air Force (SAAF), the second oldest air force in the world, will celebrate the centenary of its founding. The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has two important aircraft in the collection that are associated with the origin of the SAAF. These are the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a and the De Havilland DH 9 aircraft. These aircraft formed part of an Imperial Gift of 111 aircraft presented to South Africa by the United Kingdom to assist in the formation of the new air force.

The Imperial Gift
In 1919 the South African Prime Minister, Gen J C Smuts, took a decision to establish the country’s own air force. Smuts had been instrumental in the formation of the Royal Air Force (RAF) as an independent arm of the British Armed Forces in 1918 when he was a member of the Imperial War Cabinet. He was determined that South Africa should have its own air arm and appointed Col Sir Pierre van Ryneveld as Director of Air Services on 1 June 1920.

The SAAF was fortunate in the recession years experienced immediately after the First World War (1914 – 1918). The United Kingdom was left with a surplus of aircraft at the end of the war and the British Government decided that the bulk of these should be donated to the Dominions of the British Empire to form the basis of their fledgling air forces.

Van Ryneveld immediately took stock of what he required for the SAAF and ensured that 111 aircraft consisting of De Havilland DH9 ground attack bombers, Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a fighters and Avro 504K trainers were obtained. The donation also included spare engines, complete workshops, motor vehicles, tool sets, hangars, photographic equipment, oils, varnish and paint. The two aircraft in the collection at the DNMMH are the last remaining examples of this Imperial Gift.

The De Havilland DH9

The DH 9 was developed as a result of an urgent requirement by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) for an offensive aircraft capable of flying deep into enemy territory during the First World War. After having experienced a number of German air raids carried out on the United Kingdom in June 1917, the Imperial War Cabinet ordered an immediate increase in the strength of the RFC from 108 to 200 squadrons and instructed that the majority of new aircraft must be bombers. These new bombers had to have enough range to reach targets well inside Germany and return to base.

Captain Geoffrey De Havilland had already designed and produced the DH4 bomber and plans were immediately drawn up to develop a faster version with the required range. Disruption to production would be minimal as the new version possessed almost the same fuselage. The Beardmore-Halford-Pullinger engine used in the DH4 was modified to increase the output from 230hp to the 300hp required for the planned superior performance of the new aircraft that was designated the DH9. The modified engine, which became known as the Siddley Puma, proved to be a great disappointment resulting in the output having to be downgraded back to 230hp.

The decrease in the performance of the DH9 was considerable. Production of the DH9 was too far advanced, however, and the aircraft had to operate with this limitation. Without the increase in power, It could only reach an operational ceiling of 13 000ft (3 962m) which made it vulnerable to German fighters. The losses of aircraft to enemy attack were substantial and by August 1918 the aircraft was no longer regarded as a front line aeroplane. It was, nevertheless, retained in service until the armistice in November 1918 and proved to be somewhat more successful in the Middle East.

Service in South Africa in the years following the formation of the SAAF was even more successful. The first DH9 to be assembled in South Africa was named Voortrekker and flown to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe). There it was delivered to van Ryneveld and his co-pilot, Squadron Leader Quentin Brand, to allow them the opportunity to complete the first flight undertaken between the United Kingdom and South Africa after the Vickers Vimy aircraft they had been using had been irreparably damaged in an accident.

The DH9 was used during the Rand Revolt of 1922 and on two occasions in South West Africa (Namibia) where it assisted in quelling uprisings by local communities. It also proved most successful in the inauguration of the first air mail service in 1925 flying between Cape Town and Durban in a weekly connection with the arrival and departure of the mail ships between South Africa and the United Kingdom. A local variant of the DH9, known as the M’pala and powered by the Bristol Jupiter VIII engine, served effectively as a fighter in South African conditions.

The service record of the DH9 on display at the DNMMH is unknown up to August 1937 when it was declared obsolete and sold to a private owner. It was impressed back into service by the SAAF for training duties shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War (1939 – 1945) and was stationed at No 70 Air School in Kimberley and used as an instructional airframe.

Following its second retirement from official service in 1943, the aircraft was envisaged as an exhibit at the new South African War Museum as the DNMMH was initially named. In 1966 the aircraft underwent a major restoration project courtesy of the SAAF. This included the recovering of all fabric surfaces and new paint work.

Specifications of the aircraft
Engine:                Armstrong-Siddley Puma in-line 6 cylinder, 230hp
Armament:       One fixed Vickers Machine Gun on the top port side of the fuselage firing through the propeller arc with Constantinesco interrupter gear and controlled by the pilot. One or two Lewis machine guns mounted on a Scarff ring in the rear cockpit for the observer.
Bomb load:        2 x 105kg or 4 x 51kg or 14 x 9kg bombs.
Performance:   Maximum speed of 177km/h at 1 981m (6 500ft).

The Royal Aircraft Factory Scout Experimental 5a (SE5a)

The SE5a was a typical aircraft in outward appearance of the First World War (1914 – 1918). It was a simple practical construction with great structural strength, capable of being easily maintained under battlefield conditions, had an excellent power-to-weight ratio and was powered by one of the first purpose designed aircraft engines, the Wolseley Viper.

The initial batch of aircraft made operational presented various problems which included the operation of the Constantinesco Hydraulic Synchronising Gear which allowed the fuselage engine to fire through the propeller arc. Several pilots of these early machines found that either the gun did not fire at all or the synchronising did not work at all resulting in the wooden propeller blades being shot off.

The first SE5as were delivered to the war zone in France in March 1917. Over 5 200 aircraft were produced and construction continued until the armistice in November 1918. The aircraft saw service on the Western front, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Macedonia. A small number continued in service in Canada, Australia, South Africa and the United States after the war.

In South Africa, 22 SE5a aircraft formed part of the Imperial Gift to form the nucleus of the new South African Air Force. The aircraft located at the DNMMH was one of these aircraft and was presented to the Museum in 1946 by the Durban Technical College. It is one of six remaining SE5as known to be in existence in the world.

A complete restoration of the aircraft was carried out at the Museum during the 1990s. Damaged structural parts were repaired instead of being replaced to retain as much as possible of the original material. The port side of the fuselage was left uncovered to allow visitors to see the construction of the aircraft. Missing parts that were fabricated include the Foster rail and mountings, radiator shutters, the Aldis telescopic sight, a number of parts on the Vickers machine gun including the sights, covers for the top and starboard sides of the engine and the radiator, the oil tank cap, the propeller fastening nut and plate, the tyres, undercarriage suspension elastics and the leather surround for the cockpit.

The aircraft was painted in PC10, the standard colour for Allied aircraft during the First World War. The serial number D6856, is that of the only Wolseley-built SE5a flown by the South African air ace, Capt Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC DSO MC DFC, during the period 8 August to 7 September 1918. During that time he was involved in twelve combat missions and achieved success in attacking ten German aircraft and six balloons. The white bars on the fuselage are the insignia of No 84 Squadron in which Beauchamp-Proctor served.

Specifications of the aircraft
Engine:                   220 hp, eight cylinder, water cooled Wolseley Viper
Armament:           One Vickers .303 inch machine gun mounted on the port upper portion of the fuselage, firing through the propeller arc with Constantinesco Interrupter Gear. One Lewis .303 inch machine gun on the top surface of the upper wing by means of the Foster mounting rail.
Performance:     Maximum speed of 206 km/h at 3 048m (10 000 ft)
Service ceiling:  5 791 m (19 000 ft)
Bomb load:         four 11 kg (25 lb) bombs carried in racks under the lower wings.

The De Havilland DH9 and the Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a on display at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History are important reminders of the Imperial Gift and the founding of the SAAF. The United Kingdom had deemed it necessary to provide the Dominions of the British Empire with this gift and was described by the Air Ministry as being: “…. an opportunity of giving assistance to Dominions which will be valued by them and which should be of great use in the general interest of the defence of the Empire by Air.”

In the years following the arrival of these aircraft, the SAAF went on to prove its worth in conflicts such as the Second World War (1939 – 1945) and the Korean War (1950 – 1953) and carve an incredible record in the history of military aviation. This service has not only been military in nature. There have been many occasions where SAAF pilots have proved themselves in humanitarian missions such as search and rescue and relief flights for people all around southern Africa. The Museum is privileged to have in its collection these two aircraft which exemplify the beginning of a century of distinguished service by the SAAF.

Jackson, A J, De Havilland Aircraft since 1909 (London, Putnam, 1962)
Potgieter, H & Steenkamp, W, Aircraft of the South African Air Force (Cape Town, Struik, 1980)
Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft (London, Jane’s, 1916 & 1919)
Spear, J H A, A Catalogue of the Aircraft and Aircraft Engines on Display at the SA (Ditsong) National Museum of Military History (Johannesburg, DNMMH, 1991)
Website (visited on 6 June 2019).

Article Verified by S R Mackenzie: Director