The formation of the South African Aviation Corps (SAAC) dates back to a time when flying was still in its infancy. Growing into a formidable rate, it played a major role in the South West Africa Campaign during World War I, and is considered to be the forerunner of the South African Air Force.
Although the official date of the establishment of the South African Aviation Corps was 29 January 1915, as proclaimed by the Department of Defence in Pretoria, the roots of this service go back to December 1913. In that month, Compton Paterson, British aircraft designer, flying instructor and owner of the Paterson Aviation Syndicate School in Kimberley, certified that seven of his Government candidates had flown the Paterson biplane unaided, and were thus able to qualify for the FAI Certificate.
When training had begun in August, there were two training aircraft for ten candidates, but when one of the planes was wrecked in a crash, during which the pilot died, they were left with only one. This severely handicapped the training programme. Training took place on the first South African aerodrome at Alexanderfontein, Kimberley, and the trainees jokingly referred to themselves as 'the stick and string flyers club'. The pupils were taught to fly turns to the right and left, and to raise or lower the machine to heights as directed. They were also instructed in aircraft repairs and engine overhauls.
The Paterson biplane was a pusher aircraft with a 50 hp Gnome engine, at that time the most favoured type of engine for aircraft manufactured in Britain and on the Continent. The plane itself was similar in design to the Farman, although not of the same quality and airworthiness.
Six of the original group of pilots were chosen to undergo further training in Britain and were appointed as probationary lieutenants of the South African Defence Force. They were: Kenneth van der Spuy, Gordon Creed, Marthinus Williams, Basil Turner, Gerard Wallace and Edwin Emmet. All took part in preliminary courses at Tempe, Bloemfontein, before being sent for training at Upavon. When van der Spuy passed his final examination on 2 June 1914 and was granted the certificate of the Royal Aero Club, he was South Africa's first qualified military pilot. The others passed a few days later.
At the outbreak of World War I, Mr DH Cutlerowned a Curtiss seaplane owner and had the unique distinction of being the world’s only one-man coastal command. He and his aircraft were commandeered by the British Admiralty to patrol the South African coastline. The aircraft was transported by man-of-war to East Africa where Cutler spotted the GermanCruiser ‘Koenigberg’. As a result, it was sunk and the defence authorities became aware of the potential striking power an active aviation corps would have in South West Africa (now Namibia).
In November 1914, the Union decided that an aviation corps was necessary to conduct a campaign against German South-West Africa; a new squadron was formed including six young graduates from the Royal Flying
School who were recalled from Europe. The SAAC was gazetted as part of the Union Defence Force in terms of Government Notice 130 dated 29 January 1913 and officially published on 5 February 1915. The first operational reconnaissance flight of the German South-West Africa Campaign was carried out on 6 May 1915 in all steel Farmans
After a flight in one of the planes, Commander in Chief, General Louis Botha, who had previously depended on mounted men for reconnaissance, declared, “Now I can see for hundreds of miles.” The aircraft was also used on bombing raids and the South Africans were able to out-manoeuvre the Germans, leading to the Germans’ surrender three months later after the SAAC entered the campaign. The Corps was awarded the South West African battle honour, a unique award as battle honours are normally only awarded to units.
To quote the words of General Louis Botha in a despatch: “Had it not been for our air unit which kept us so well informed in regard to the enemy’s disposition and movements, we would have been severely handicapped and possibly the campaign would have lasted very much longer. I cannot praise the work of the South African Aviation Corps too highly and am convinced that an air unit must become an integral part of our Union Defence Forces.”
The SAAC ceased to function as a separate unit from the end of the South West African campaign in October 1915, yet it was only officially disbanded in 1921. Members of the corps were incorporated into the Royal Flying Corps and formed 26 (South Africa) Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. This squadron saw service in East Africa in support of South African forces under General Jan Smuts.
The main task of the squadron was once again reconnaissance, but due to the dense bush and vegetation, it afforded the enemy virtually complete protection from aerial reconnaissance and bomb action, so all that the squadron could really do was a report on the locations of towns, railways, roads and rivers. The squadron was disbanded in July 1918, before the end of World War I.