Fighters Over Durban

by Allan Jackson

In Facts About Durban I wrote that an unidentified aeroplane had been spotted over Durban several times around the end of May and beginning of June 1942. The plane remained unidentified for a number of years until it was discovered that the Japanese Imperial Navy had conducted a reconnaissance of the east coast of Africa and that submarine I-10 had flown its seaplane over the city on a number of occasions. I knew that the flights had caused quite a stir among the population and had led to the imposition of a blackout on Durban, but there the matter rested.

About a month ago I was fortunate to meet Reg Sweet who was stationed as a fighter pilot in Durban for a time during WWII and was scrambled from Stamford Hill Aerodrome on a couple of occasions to search for the intruders. Reg had learned to fly on Tiger Moths at 4 Elementary Flying Training School in Northmead, Benoni, and at Service FTS (25 Air School), Standerton, flying the Miles Master Mk11. The powers that be belatedly realised that there wasn't a single fighter squadron to defend the east coast of South Africa and recalled Reg and a number of colleagues from operations in East Africa and, together with other pilots drafted in from North Africa, they were posted to Durban to form 10 Squadron SAAF. At this point, the threat to Durban from the Japanese was believed to be pretty high and the squadron was expected to help defend the city.

Pictures Courtesy Reg Sweet.

  • Pic 1: 10 Squadron SAAF entrains at Roberts Heights [now Voortrekker Hoogte] on their way to Durban.
  • Pic 2: Reg's bed in 10 Squadron Tents at Natal Command [the suitcases at the side of the bed can be seen balanced on tent pegs to keep them away from the white ants].
  • Pic 3: The view from the 10 Squadron tents to the Natal Command Garrison Officer's Mess.
  • Pic 4: 10 Squadron members on their way from the Stamford Hill airfield back to the mess [the picture was taken on the concrete apron in front of the control tower]. The caption was written on the photograph in 1942 but #5, Howard Geater, was killed in the Western Desert in 1943.

Click on the pictures to view enlargements.

Reg and his colleagues arrived in April 1942 at Natal Command, on Snell Parade, to find that they were not expected. There were no rations or beds available for the airmen and so they were put up for a week at the Edward Hotel at state expense. The squadron later moved into a row of bell tents at the military base, which was very handy for the adjacent Stamford Hill Aerodrome. The squadron first flew Curtiss Mohawks and the pilots took turns on standby duty with the duty pilots having to sleep on floor of the control tower in the aerodrome terminal building [now the HQ of the Natal Mounted Rifles].

Picture courtesy Reg Sweet. A 10 Squadron Curtiss Mohawk on Stamford Hill Aerodrome

The pilots, including Reg, were scrambled a number of times but he told me that they never intercepted an intruder and felt that there were too many delays between the time a potentially hostile aircraft was detected on radar and they received orders to scramble. Their flights were not without excitement, however, as on one occasion, when he and his colleague Alan Harrington were returning to Stamford Hill from a seaward search at last light. They were turning over the harbour to align themselves for the landing approach to Stamford Hill when they were fired upon by a French cruiser convinced they were hostiles.

Picture and news clipping courtesy Reg Sweet. Alan Harrington, left. Click to view enlargement.

A report in the Natal Mercury the day after the incident mentioned that an unidentified aircraft had been reported over Durban and that anti-aircraft guns went into action but that the intruder had made its escape.

Around this time the SAAF needed to acquire an advanced trainer and decided that the American Texan T6 [Harvard] would be just the job. The first three Harvard Mk Is in South Africa [numbered 3001, 3002 and 3003] arrived at Stamford Hill where they were flown by the 10 Squadron pilots. The Harvard became one of the SAAF's longest-serving aircraft and was still being used for training more than 50 years later.

Pictures Courtesy Reg Sweet.

  • Pic 1: Three Texan T6 (Harvard) advanced trainers arrived for evaluation at Stamfordhill in 1942 and were flown by the 10 Squadron Pilots.
  • Pic 2: The arrival of the Curtiss Kittyhawk P-40E increased 10 Squadron's striking power enormously. The Kittyhawk (also known in other places as the Warhawk or Tomahawk) was a fighter which, although somewhat inferior to its opposition, usually managed to hold its own. Some 13737 P-40s were built, making it one of the most numerous allied fighters of WWII and it served with the US, English, French, Chinese, Russian, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, South African, and Turkish airforces. The P-40E was armed with six 0.5 calibre machineguns and could carry an external fuel tank or 1 500lb bomb. This aircraft had the airframe serial number 5005 and was so new at the time of the picture that its squadron identification markings had not been painted on it. It is seen here at the southern end of Stamfordhill Aerodrome and behind it is the Natal Command military base where the pilots lived. Visible under the wing on the left is an ablution block and, under the right, a barracks.
  • Pic 3: Reg Sweet perched on the wheel of a "Kitty".

Click on the pictures to view enlargements - The Harvard and Kittyhawk pictures, above, are desktop wallpaper-sized (1024 x 768px).

10 Squadron were later equipped with the more advanced Curtiss Kittyhawk
P-40E fighter and moved to Isipingo where they operated from runways which had been cut out of the sugarcane; the same place where the main runway for Durban International [ex Louis Botha] Airport was later built. The squadron HQ now houses the Isipingo Golf Club.

Pictures Courtesy Reg Sweet.

  • Pic 1: The airfield at Isipingo.
  • Pic 2: The pilots of 10 Squadron, taken on 25 December 1942; on the extreme right is Commanding Officer "Axe" Kriel's personal hound.
  • Pic 3: Kittys lined-up at Isipingo and, according to the caption in Reg's scrapbook, "ready to smash the Axis".

Click on the pictures to view enlargements.

After eight months in Durban, Reg was posted to 3 Squadron SAAF and flew in the famous Desert Air Force both in North Africa and in Italy. The threat of a Japanese invasion receded and 10 Squadron became an Operational Training Unit. Reg returned to Durban in 1952 and became Sports Editor of the Daily News and of the Sunday Tribune newspapers. He has written a number of books on rugby and cricket, including a major work which marked the 1990 centenary of the Natal Rugby Union, and the story of No 222 Squadron RAF (The Natal Squadron), which was a gift to the RAF from the people of Durban at the time of the Battle of Britain.

Picture courtesy Reg Sweet. A 10 Squadron Kittyhawk in a pose,
(Reg again) in which no "Jap will ever see".


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