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Friendly Fire Incident that Almost Changed History

The course of South Africa, and maybe even World history was almost changed on 31 October 1940. SAAF 2 Squadron Hawker Furies were scrambled to intercept a formation of aircraft, mistakenly identified as Italian, over Archer’s Post airfield in East Africa. The squadron had only been established on 1 October, less than a month before and seen first combat only days before on 27 October when four Italian Ca.133s from 8 Gruppo, and 25 Squadriglia, attacked their airfield.

Hawker Fury

The formation of two Junkers JU-86, a de Havilland Dragon Rapide and was escorted by two Hurricanes Happened to be carrying General Jan Smuts (South Africa’s Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief), Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, Major General Alan Cunningham and Galmen-Austen all who went on to become key players in World and South African History.

SAAF Junkers JU-86
SAAF de Havilland Dragon Rapide

All friendly aircraft passing over Archer’s Post airfield were required to identify themselves as “own” forces by dropping their undercarriage and waggling their wings. The formation carrying the VIPs, on this fateful day, failed to do this and was immediately targeted as enemy aircraft.

Captain J. Meaker led the attack in one of three Furies that were scrambled, firmly under the impression that these were Italian aircraft he positioned the formation for an attacking run. When he targeted one of the aircraft, he realised with horror, that although painted in Luftwaffe Green, it carried the distinctively South African Orange White and Blue markings and the British and Commonwealth roundels and immediately pulled out of the attack.

Lieutenant Doug Pannell in the second Fury only realised that they were friendlies after he had opened fire. The third Fury did not engage, probably saving the lives of all on board. At the time aircraft were not equipped with radios so there was no way for Captain Meaker to call the others off.

When they eventually landed eight bullet holes were found in the fuselage and wing root of the aircraft that Jannie Smuts was flying in, one of the bullets had even passed between Smut’s legs. The ever-calm reportedly made a joke of the incident and reassured the pilots concerned that there would be no consequences for what had transpired. Smuts himself was no stranger to being under fire, he had taken an active part in both the Anglo-Boer war and the first World War.

If Janie Smuts had been shot down and killed it would have definitely impacted on how the war was fought and won. Smuts’ contribution to the outcome of the Second World War was immense, as Winston Churchill’s personal advisor and a member of the Imperial War Cabinet he had a large part in winning the war for the Allies.

Jan Smuts' importance to the Imperial war effort was emphasised by a quite audacious plan, proposed as early as 1940, to appoint Smuts as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, should Winston Churchill die or otherwise become incapacitated during the war. This idea was put forward by Sir John Colville, Churchill's private secretary, to Queen Mary and then to King George VI, both of whom warmed to the idea.

In May 1945, he represented South Africa in San Francisco at the drafting of the United Nations Charter. Also, in 1945, he was mentioned by Halvdan Koht among seven candidates that were qualified for the Nobel Prize in Peace.



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