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Group Captain P.H. “Dutch” Hugo one of “The Few”

Petrus Hendrik Hugo was a South African who joined the Royal Air Force and took part in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain and went on to become a RAF flight commander.

© Brent Best

Along with “Sailor” Malan, another famous fellow South Africans to fight in the Battle of Britain, “Dutch” is also widely celebrated as one of the “few” (as coined by Churchill) who kept Britain in the war thereby turning the tide for Nazi Germany and ultimately liberating Europe from a tyrannical ideology.

Petrus Hendrik Hugo was born on 20th December 1917, on his family farm, Pampoenpoort, in the Victoria West district, Cape Province. As a young man his sights were always set on a career in the air and he soon came north to attend the Witwatersrand College of Aeronautical Engineering.

In 1938 he went to Britain, and attended a Royal Air Force course at the Civil Flying School at Sywell.

These Civil Flying Schools, of which there were 13, had been approved after the 1935 expansion of the RAF had begun. Before that all pilots who had entered the service had been trained at RAF stations where for eleven months the pupil pilots had received elementary flying instruction and lectures. Advanced subjects like instruction in night flying, formation flying, air gunnery and bombing were dealt with when they went to their squadrons. Four of the Civil Flying Schools were already in existence in 1935 and had handled the flying training of Royal Air Force Reserve personnel for some years. Five new schools were opened in the second half of 1936, and by the time Petrus Hugo came to be trained, four more had opened.

The pilots received 50 hours' preliminary flying training at these schools before they passed into the RAF to proceed to their flying station for military flying instruction as explained above. Petrus like Sailor Malan and Pat Pattle before him, soon received a nickname when he gained his Short Service Commission on 1st April, 1939. His Afrikaans name and accent soon earned the name of "Dutch", and thus he was known to the RAF throughout his service.

He went to No.13 Flying Training School for six months and at the end of the course he was deemed "an exceptional pilot, an excellent marksman and suitable for posting to a fighter squadron." He then went to the Fighter School at St. Athan in Wales, and later moved to No.2 Ferry Pool, Filton near Bristol. He escaped this fate in December, 1939; three months after war had broken out and joined No. 615 Squadron at Vitry, in France. This Auxiliary Air Force Squadron was equipped with Gloster Gladiators at the time, and he had his first operational flights in these obsolete biplanes.

Gloster Gladiators

The weather was so bad at Vitry-en-Artois that Nos. 615 and 607 Squadrons (both part of the Northern Air Component, and both flying Gladiators) found it easier to operate from the nearby St. Ingelvert. Even here, the severe frost made the muddy ruts dangerous as they froze hard, and on 18th December a pilot of No.615 Squadron was killed when his Gladiator crashed on landing.

Dutch Hugo and his fellow pilots in No.615 Squadron suffered the boredom and appalling weather of winter, 1940, doing practice escort affiliations with the Lysander’s of Nos. 2 and 26 Army Co-operation Squadrons, but were delighted towards the end of April, 1940, when they were warned to prepare to re-equip with Hurricanes. The events following the 10th May when the Germans struck, however, were to see the old Gladiators fighting in deadly earnest, and both squadrons were constantly in action. Although no records exist it appears that by about 15th May, No.615 Squadron still flew twelve Gladiators and that by 18th these had been joined by 9 Hurricanes.

Two days later on 20th May Dutch Hugo shot down a Heinkel HE 111 his first and only success with the RAF Component.

The Heinkel 111 was a low-wing all-metal monoplane which carried a crew of five or six (pilot, bomb-aimer, radio operator, and two or three gunners). It carried five 7.9 mm machine guns, one in the nose, one in the ventral and dorsal positions, and two in the sides firing from the windows.

The Hurricane pilots were kept at full stretch, putting in as many as six, or even seven, sorties a day. Despite their efforts it was decided that the Component could operate as effectively, and with a great deal more security, from the south of England. The 21st May saw the Hurricanes return to Britain 195 had been lost and only 66 saved. Most of the Gladiators had been lost, only one or two being flown home to England. The Luftwaffe lost 1,284 aircraft, however, and there is no doubt that a very large number fell to the RAF Component, although it had lost 279 of its own aircraft.


No.615 returned to England and at once returned to its home stations of Croydon and Kenley in Surrey, as befitted the County of Surrey Squadron. Re-equipping with Hurricanes continued, although there was still a Gladiator Flight at Manston until 30th May.

The prototype had first flown in 1935 (serial K5083) piloted by the same man, Flight Lieutenant George Bulman, who, ten years later, was to fly the last Hurricane to be produced (serial PZ865). The first production Hurricane (serial L1457) with a Merlin II engine flew on October 12th, 1937. Unlike the prototype, it had stub exhausts, a strengthened canopy, modified rudder and different undercarriage doors. It still had fabric covered wings; metal wings and bullet-proof windscreens did not come until 1939. Even then many fabric-covered wing models were still in action in France and although it had been planned to withdraw all fabric-wing and wooden-airscrew Hurricanes from service with operational units by May, 1940, the losses in France meant that many of the older machines served on in the squadrons. On July 4th, 1940, 82 fabric-covered Hurricanes were on combat squadrons, and 36 had wooden propellers. Ten days later, on 14th July, 1940, Dutch Hugo shot down a Junkers 87 Stuka, flying his Hurricane from Kenley.

The Ju 87 Stuka (dive-bomber) had swept a path for the armoured divisions through France and Poland but was no match for the Hurricanes and Spitfires over Britain. It carried a crew of two and had two fixed and one movable machine guns.

On 20th July 1940 Dutch Hugo gained his second success in the Battle of Britain, shooting down two ME 109 fighters. The Me 109 was undoubtedly one of the finest single-seater fighters in the world at that time, and had a top speed of 354 m.p.h. at 12,300 feet and a cruising speed of 300 m.p.h. this was about 40 miles faster than the Hurricane at 12,300 feet, yet at its own rated altitude of just over 15,000 feet the Hurricane was at least a match for the German fighters provided they did not start with height advantage.

The Hurricane was therefore usually used against the slower, lower-flying bombers, but despite this Dutch Hugo shot down yet another Me 109 on 25th July, and shared a Heinkel 59 floatplane with another pilot on 27th.

The British Government had decided that it could not recognise the right of He 59's to bear the Red Cross, since it was probable that these aircraft were being used to report movements of British convoys, and a fortnight before had instructed British pilots to shoot them down.

On 12th August Dutch shot down another Me 109, the Combat Report reading: "Dense smoke and liquid poured from the German pilot's machine. Although my engine stopped I dived after him. Fortunately my engine restarted. The Me pilot pulled out of his dive at about 6,000 feet and then started to dive again. I was hot on his tail and at about 3,000 feet opened fire. The German pilot continued to dive and landed in the water. Within a minute the aircraft had sunk, and I saw the pilot swimming about in the middle of a big patch of air bubbles which had been caused by the sinking of his machine. I sent back a message on my R/T asking for a launch to be sent out to the German airman's rescue and gave his position. I then flew to base."

On 16th August Dutch claimed a Heinkel 111 probably destroyed over Newhaven, but was himself hit by cannon shell splinters from a Me 110. He was slightly wounded in both legs, but was back in action again two days later.

The Germans bombed Kenley and he took off with a number of other Hurricanes to intercept the raiders, only to be "jumped" by a number of Me 109s. He was wounded in the left leg, left eye and his right cheek and jaw, and his Hurricane was so badly damaged that he crashed-landed and was taken to Orpington Hospital near Biggin Hill. He was still there, in the shadow of the copper beeches and the railway arch, at the end of August 1940, when the award of the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) was announced.

By the end of September he was fit again and re-joined No. 615 by then at Prestwick in Scotland. He returned south for convoy patrolling in the spring and early summer of 1941 but it was late summer before he met the Luftwaffe in action again. By that time he was a Flight Commander, and led raids on enemy shipping, and coastal installations in Northern France. Between 18th September and 27th November he helped to sink over twenty ships and damage a further ten.

On 14th October in a raid against the seaplane base at Ostend, he shared another He 59 with his CO, and on 27th in another attack on the same place, he shared yet another He 59 with two other pilots. He was awarded a Bar to the DFC on 5th November, the official citation paying tribute to his great skill and determination, his high qualities of leadership and courage and his unabated enthusiasm.

Towards the end of November, 1941, he took command of No. 41 Squadron, flying Spitfire’s from Manston, on sweep duties. On 12th February, 1942, the German battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau broke out of Brest harbour, and he shot down one Me 109 and damaged a second in a battle with 20 Me 109s over the escaping ships. On 14th March he shot down another 109 over a German convoy near Fecamp, and on 26th he got another escorting Boston’s raiding Le Havre. He was truly the scourge of the Me 109.

Me 109

Promoted to Wing Commander, he took over the Tangmere Wing but less than a fortnight later on the 27th April he was shot down and wounded again in a battle between Dunkirk and Cap Gris Nez.

In a fierce running fight he got a probable FW 190 and damaged a second but was hit in the left shoulder his aircraft so badly damaged that he had to bail out, luckily being picked up fairly soon.

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) while recuperating at 11 Group HQ and the London Gazette of 29th May carried the citation crediting him with 13 kills and concluded: "Both as Squadron Commander and Wing Leader this officer has displayed exceptional skill, sound judgement and fighting qualities which have won the entire confidence of all pilots in his command."

He "escaped" from HQ after a couple of months and took over the Hornchurch Wing, but soon left to join No.322 Wing in North Africa, in November, 1942. On 12th he and Shag Eckford shot down a Dornier 217 near Djidjelli.

The 13th November saw Dutch credited with a probable JU 88 (right) and another damaged near Bougie Harbour which our forces were approaching. On 15th he got a probable HE 111 and a damaged JU 88 over Bone Harbour, and on 16th he got a Ju 88 and two Me 109s. He got another Ju 88 on 18th and three more Me 109s on 21st, 26th and 28th November, 1942. The scourge of the 109s was at it again.

On 2nd December he shot down two Italian Breda 88's (left) near La Galite, one being shared, and on 14th he got a Savoia 79 over the cruiser Ajax. He had taken command of the Wing on 29th November, and led it for the next four months until he was posted to HQ NWACAF (North-West African Coastal Air Force) and awarded a second Bar to the DFC.

Savoia-Marchetti SM 7

He returned to command No.322 Wing in June, 1943, and on 29th destroyed yet one more Me 109. On 25th, 33 Spitfires of the Wing, operating from Lentini, had slaughtered 21 Ju 52s and four Messerschmitt fighters. Twelve of the Ju 52s had been shot down in flames, exploding as they went, for they were loaded with petrol, and were circling to land near Milazzo in Sicily.

On 2nd September Dutch Hugo shot down another FW 190 near Mount Etna and on 18th November he got his last confirmed victory of the war, an Arado 196 Floatplane (Right), over the Yugoslavian coast.

During the summer of 1944 he led the Wing in a series of most concentrated attacks against enemy transport and supply, accounting personally for at least fifty-five vehicles destroyed and a further twenty-nine damaged in less than six weeks in May and June. On 10th July he damaged a Me 109 over Northern Italy, and brought his score to twenty-two destroyed, four probable’s and thirteen damaged.

In November, 1944, he was taken off operations and posted to HQ Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, and was then seconded to the Russian Second Ukrainian Army under Marshal Tolbukhin, at that time moving from Romania to Austria.

Dutch having reverted to Squadron Leader from Group Captain at the end of the war (most officers had to drop a rank or two from their wartime ranks to become peacetime substantive) he was posted to the Central Fighter Establishment. He retired as a Squadron Leader, retaining the rank of Group Captain, in February, 1950, and settled in East Africa.

His final tally was 17 destroyed, three shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and seven damaged. Of these, 12 and one shared destroyed were scored in the Spitfire V.


Petrus Hugo passed away on 6 June 1986 his medals were auctioned for £150,000 in 2010. Hugo Gardens in the London Borough of Havering is named after him.

Hugo Gardens