South Africa Table of Contents
The origin of the South African Air Force (SAAF) dates to the Defence Act (No. 13) of 1912, which established the South African Aviation Corps (SAAC) as part of the army's Citizen Force. The SAAC's first aircraft were deployed against German forces in South-West Africa in January 1915. Before that, a few SAAC pilots had volunteered for service in Britain, where they joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). South African pilots in the RFC saw action over France in late 1914 and in East Africa in 1915. By the end of World War I, nearly 3,000 South African pilots had served in RFC squadrons.
The SAAF became a separate branch of the armed services in 1920 and was soon put to the test in suppressing one of a series of miners' strikes in the Rand, near Johannesburg, as well as rebellions in South-West Africa. World War II saw the SAAF grow from a small force of ten officers, thirty-five officer cadets, 1,600 men of other ranks, and 100 aircraft in 1939 to a force of 31,204 servicemen, including nearly 1,000 pilots and at least 1,700 aircraft, in 1941. By 1945, the SAAF had more than 45,000 personnel in thirty-five operational squadrons. More than 10,000 women served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during the war.
The air force established a Joint Air Training Scheme (JATS) in 1940. The JATS brought British and other Allied air and ground crews to South Africa for training and achieved impressive training records. By 1945 thirty-eight JATS training programs had turned out more than 33,300 air crew and 7,800 pilots, including 12,200 SAAF personnel.
In addition to protecting Allied shipping along South Africa's coastlines, SAAF combat and support units served in West Africa, East Africa, North Africa, Madagascar, the Middle East, Italy, the Balkans, and elsewhere in the European and the Mediterranean theaters. In North Africa alone, the SAAF's eleven squadrons flew nearly 34,000 missions and destroyed 342 enemy aircraft between April 1941 and May 1943. The SAAF's 17,000-man contingent in the Italian campaign played the dominant role in Allied air operations there. In all of World War II, the SAAF flew more than 82,000 missions and lost at least 2,227 SAAF members.
The SAAF's contributions to Western causes also included missions during the Berlin airlift of the late 1940s; SAAF crews flew 1,240 missions carrying 4,133 tons of supplies to West Berlin in 1948 and 1949. During the Korean War (1950-53), the SAAF's Second Squadron (the Flying Cheetahs) flew more than 12,000 missions, establishing a strong record of success. During that time, the SAAF reportedly lost only thirty-four pilots and seventy-eight aircraft.
By the end of the 1950s, South Africa faced increasing international isolation and the eruptions of internal and regional conflicts, which it confronted largely without the assistance of allies. SAAF pilots acquired the ability to fly at least twenty-six types of aircraft on a wide range of missions. In the escalating conflict in South-West Africa, the SAAF carried out long-range casualty evacuations, visual and photo reconnaissance missions, close air support, and air strikes, most often flying helicopters or light attack aircraft. The SAAF also developed both impressive early-warning equipment and maneuvering tactics to outsmart superior technology. SAAF mechanics were skilled repairmen; some aging SAAF aircraft were used through the 1980s and were not retired until the Namibian (South-West African) conflict wound down at the end of the decade.
The South African Navy (SAN) traces its origins back more than a century to the UDF's seagoing vessels, and to a naval volunteer unit formed in Durban in 1885. The British Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve established a division in South Africa in 1912. The navy's modern antecedent was the Seaward Defence Force (SDF), established in 1940 with fifteen small ships and several shore bases. The SDF soon grew into a force of several escort groups and minesweeping flotillas, some of which served in the Mediterranean in World War II. Many SDF personnel saw active service in British Royal Navy vessels.
The SDF was renamed the South African Naval Force in 1947 and the South African Navy in 1951. Its main assignments were to guard naval installations and harbors at Richards Bay, Durban, East London, Port Elizabeth, and Cape Town. The navy's small, elite Marine Corps branch had major responsibilities in this area until it was disbanded in 1957. The Marine Corps was reestablished in 1979, with a force of about 900 marines, who trained at several installations in western Cape Province.
Naval acquisitions were seriously impaired by international embargoes of the late 1970s and 1980s. Navy personnel were reduced from almost 9,000 to half that number by 1990, and the navy bore the brunt of the military retrenchment, or downsizing, of the early 1990s. The SAN closed some facilities at Richards Bay, East London, Port Elizabeth, and Durban, and reduced armaments depots and stores at its base at Simonstown, south of Cape Town.
Senior government officials became convinced in the 1970s that their country faced a serious threat of insurgency orchestrated by communist world powers and carried out by their surrogates in southern Africa. To emphasize the comprehensive nature of this threat, they referred to it as a "Total Onslaught," and to counter it, they developed a "Total Strategy," which called for mobilizing military, political, educational, economic, and psychological resources. The SADF emerged as the key participant in the Total Strategy, as the centerpiece of an elaborate national security apparatus encompassing the defense establishment, the paramilitary South African Police (SAP), numerous intelligence agencies, defense-oriented parastatal and private organizations, and--by the late 1970s--a growing number of government agencies with security concerns. The SADF's expanded role increased its influence in policy decision making and in resource allocation. By the end of the 1970s, the military was at the center of the country's domestic and foreign policy, implementing its Total Strategy to outmaneuver external and internal enemies of the state.
Data as of May 1996
South Africa Table of Contents