Address to the Warsaw Uprising and Relief Flights Service — 8 September 2007
Mr Chairman, Members of the Warsaw Flights Commemoration Organizing Committee, Ladies and Gentlemen
You do me a great honour by asking me to address you here today, for we celebrate not only the memory of those who fell in the Warsaw uprising and those who gave their lives during the relief flight operations, but also the relationship that exists today as it has done for decades gone by between the peoples of Poland and South Africa.
I must also admit to feeling quite some sentiment today, as the Polish Community was close to the heart of my Great-Grand Father, and closer to home also occupied a place in my late Fathers heart. My Father was honoured on more than one occasion by representing the then Chief of the Air Force at your Commemoration Service, something he particularly enjoyed and appreciated.
In light of the fact that we are remembering today 69 South African Air Force aircrew, I thought it appropriate that I talk initially about the part General Smuts, or the Oubaas, played in the formation of the concept of air forces and air power, in particular the Royal Air Force and of course the South African Air Force, both of whom flew with tremendous distinction during the Relief of Warsaw.
In 1917, having run around the veld in then German East Africa in an attempt to corner the German commander, General von Lettow Vorbeck, the Oubaas was sent by Louis Botha to London to attend the Imperial Conference in March of that year.
At the end of the Imperial Conference, the British wanted the Oubaas to stay in England. The man who a scant 15 years previously had been fighting the British with vigour in South Africa was deemed now indispensable to them and for a few reasons; the Irish question or problem, the problem of the Turks in Palestine and the Palestine question itself, and the fact that he was a unique asset to the War Cabinet being the only member with combat experience. As matters turned out, the Oubaas declined the Palestine command, made a trip to Ireland under the alias of John Smith, and did indeed join the War Cabinet, which brings me to the Royal Air Force.
During the latter part of the 1917 summer, there was growing resentment among the British populace regarding British air defences. London was being bombed at will, and it seemed to the Oubaas that every moonlit night brought a raid, which he watched from the balcony of his room at the Savoy Hotel.
In July 1917, the War Cabinet delegated two of its members to investigate the issues of 1. home defence against air raids and 2. the existing organisation for the study and higher direction of aerial operations. The members chosen were the Oubaas and David Lloyd-George. Lloyd-George made it clear that he had little or no expertise, and left the Commission to the Oubaas.
The Oubaas tucked into the assignment with his customary vigour, and within two weeks on 19 July had produced his first report which recommended four courses of action; Concentration of Executive Command under one senior officer of high ability. Immediate concentration and disposition of AA guns Rapid completion and training of air squadrons to fight in formation, and Provision of sufficient air-defence units to cope with the attacks on London.
It should be noted that at the time, the Royal Flying Corps occupied itself with matters on the Western Front, while the Royal Naval Air Service concentrated on the Channel. To add to the chaos, the “Army and Navy had on order 9483 aircraft of 76 varieties and 20000 engines of 76 kinds”.
The recommendations were accepted in toto by the War Cabinet and implementation instituted. The Oubaas however, was not done, and on 17 August presented a further, even more radical report. This report has subsequently been described by Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason in 1986 as “the single most important document in the history of air power”. This second report represented a paradigm shift in conventional and accepted thinking. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, then Chief of the Royal Air Force and now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in late 2005 words to the effect that the thinking contained in this second report were so far reaching as to be difficult for traditionalists to comprehend.
In this second report, the Oubaas suggested that air power should have an offensive role, not just a defensive one as was Britains practice at the time. Due to the groundbreaking nature of what he was suggesting, the Oubaas drew a parallel with the role of artillery, saying that “artillery was a weapon, an instrument ancillary to a service, but one that could not be an independent service itself”.
It should be borne at this stage in mind that such air power as Brtitain possessed was divided between the Royal Navy Air Service as part of the Royal Navy, and the RFC, the Royal Flying Corps which was part of the army.
He went on to elaborate:
“Air Service on the contrary, can be used as an independent means of war operations far from and independently of, both Army and Navy. As far as can be presently foreseen there is absolutely no limit to the scale of its future independent war use. And the day might not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale may become the principle operations of war to which the older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate. In our opinion there is no reason why the Air Board (which was a joint service committee) should any longer continue in its present form and there is every reason why it should be raised to the status of an independent Ministry in control of its own war service.”
In essence, the Oubaas said that Britain could win the war the following year if she mobilised her inventive and mechanical genius to produce sufficient aircraft to strike hard at the enemys communications and deep into his homeland. For this an independent Air Staff and Air Ministry were required.
The basic recommendations of the report were:
— An Air Ministry be set up as soon as possible
— An Air Staff to be set up as soon as possible
— The Royal Naval Air Service to be merged with the Royal Flying Corps
— That the Air Service keep most close contact with the Army and Navy
— That the Air Staff attach to the army and navy such units necessary for military and naval operations.
The War Cabinet accepted the second report.
The Oubaas had created for himself a mountain of work. Lloyd George passed the proverbial buck immediately back to the Oubaas who became chairman of a new Air Organisation Committee. Of the more difficult tasks was to persuade the Admiralty to part with the RNAS, and to get sufficient production from British industry. The Oubaas had seen at that stage that neither the Navy nor the army were likely to win the war, even if they did combine their resources. To achieve this, an Aerial Operations Committee was established, later to become the War Priorities Committee, again with the Oubaas as its Chairman. This committee had the power to determine all questions of industrial priorities, independent of the War Cabinet, at the time itself an unheard of situation.
It effectively placed the Oubaas in charge of Britains industry, from the provision of raw materials, what was to be produced as well as the question of manpower. A unique situation, even by todays more liberal standards.
With an understanding of the British way of doing things that only an objective viewer, viewing from the outside could have, the Oubaas managed, without detriment to the army and navy, to pull all the loose ends together and on 1 April 1918, the Royal Air Force, the first independent air force to exist anywhere, was officially born.
Lessons the Oubaas learned with his experience in the Royal Air Force establishment led to the establishment of the South African Air Force, the second oldest independent air force, on 1 February 1920 under the guidance of Lt Col Sir Pierre van Ryneveld.
And that Ladies and Gentlemen, is the abridged version of how the Royal Air Force and later our South African Air Force came into being.
It is also I believe most appropriate to recount to you today the story of the Polish orphans, or Oudtshoorn orphans, who were brought to South Africa in 1943. Here I must express my sincere thanks to Andrzej Romanowicz, who gave me a wonderful history lesson.
The Polish Government in exile, aware of the terrible plight of orphaned Polish children, and with the distinct possibility of further atrocities, made a request to the Allied Nations to provide for the safety of 10 000 Polish orphaned children. In this vein, the Polish Consulate in Pretoria approached the South African Government for refuge, a request that was initially not well received, due to an unspoken agreement between the South African political parties that European immigration to South Africa would not be permitted until the war ended. The Oubaas, with the subtle urging of both the Polish and American Governments, gave consent for 500 orphans to be given temporary refuge in South Africa.
A fully equipped facility outside Oudtshoorn was made available to house the orphans, which included accommodation, a school, hospital and periphery buildings, with equipment, clothing and food provided by the residents of Oudtshoorn and surrounds.
The children set off from Tehran and arrived in Oudtshoorn on 10 April 1943. The total number of Polish refugees numbered 551, comprising 500 children and 51 adults being medical personnel, teachers and support staff.
The children soon made their mark on South African society. With specialised skills such as embroidery and needlework, certain of the children toured the country exhibiting their work.
The schooling of the children proceeded well, and it was not long before specialist classes were provided in needlework and sewing for the girls, and for the boys commercial and engineering classes.
Cultural activities were not ignored, and played an active part in the childrens lives. A most successful choir was established, and colourfully clad dance group enthralled audiences nationally.
South Africans were most receptive to their new Polish community, and donated all forms of equipment, clothing, food and money. Children were invited to the holiday homes of local residents and at Great Brak a holiday camp was made available to the children.
The intention that the children would return home at the end of the war was dashed at the Yalta conference in February 1945, which was said to favour Russian imperialism and where by means devious and foul Stalin pulled the wool over the eyes of Churchill and Roosevelt, as a consequence of which, inter alia, Poland was sacrificed and became a communist country. This necessitated a re-evaluation of the plan which resulted in the decision to assimilate the orphans into mainstream South African society, of which to most intents and purposes they already were.
With this decision having been taken, the children were sent to schools around the country the girls to convent schools primarily in the Cape and Natal, and the boys to various technical schools. A number of the orphans, despite their adverse past circumstances, became significant achievers and an example of this was the then new Durban Harbour and passenger terminal, where two engineering graduates, Leonard Rynkiewicz and Milek Masojada provided essential input to the designer, Prof Michal Zakrzewski.
The Oudtshoorn Polish Orphans soon became South Africans in every sense, while at the same not foregoing their Polish heritage and ancestry which is that which in so many ways defines our being. Polands very sad loss was doubtless South Africas considerable gain, and many of those orphans who landed on South African shores 64 years ago remain catalysts of the South African Polish community and integral and essential elements of South African society.
In 1994 Orphans donated to the Oudsthoorn Cathedral a Black Madonna, crafted in Poland, which is now the center piece of the Chapel of the Children, and now essential South African history.
Coming back to the Oubaas the following snippets might show another side of the Oubaas multi-faceted character.
Queen Frederica of the Helenes, in her book A measure of understanding, portrayed a few interesting facets of the Oubaas.
During the Second World War, while staying in South Africa, she asked him whether he hated the Germans. He answered; No, Churchill asked me the same question, and I answered him that I could not hate anybody as much as I hated the British during the Boer War. You grow beyond these baser emotions when you learn to understand people and circumstances. I have long forgotten how to hate. Now I am only sorry for people, for nations and on rare occasions for myself. This might go some way to explaining how, 12 years after the cessation of Boer War hostilities, he effectively sided with the British when he started his First World War action in German South West Africa.
When Freddy asked the Oubaas what had gone wrong, why did his generation, who had already fought one world war, not prevent a second he answered:
“I will tell you why it went wrong. There are three reasons, one is that we allies believed in France, the second is that America let us down and the third is that I ran away. I was in England during and at the end of the war, a member of the War Cabinet. The King had privately asked me to stay on and become his Prime Minister. I felt my own country needed me as General Botha had just died. I refused, although this would have been a unique situation and opportunity. You see, so I ran away, so do not rub it in. I know my responsibilities.”
Queen Freddie also had this to say of the Oubaas:
“India condemned South Africa for not giving enough rights to the Indians. South Africa defeated him for giving too many rights to the Indians His life can never be judged by one or two political defeats, his life can only be judged by his creative and holistic thinking.”
I leave you with some thoughts of the Oubaas:
“There is still hope for our human race; look at those mountains. They took millions of years to be what they are and have not changed. Compared to them we are a great success. Look at the short time we have lived on this planet and look at our minds. Is there not in us a colossal creative power? Surely this is a wonderful world when Holism can produce the laughter of children, the dreams of lovers, the poems of poets and the arts of painters and musicians. This is a good world and we must never complain.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, I thank you for the honour of being with you today and express my appreciation for listening to me with such good natured patience. Thank you.