A South African aviation pioneer’s story

343

It’s a far cry from the jumbo jets of today back down the years to the goggles and oil-spattered overalls of those pilots who learned to fly, not on beams or beacons or radio fixes, but by the seat of their pants. The graduates of the ‘stick and string’ days, the men – and women – who piloted flimsy, under-powered, open machines, were regarded (to quote from an early cutting of The Star) as ‘a congregation of amusing and comparatively harmless madmen with suicidal tendencies’.

Major Cecil Robert Thompson, known as Tommy, was one of those courageous ‘madmen’. He flew in the Royal Flying Corps long before Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic. He was the first pilot to ‘loop the loop’ in South Africa.

On that fateful day, August 4, 1914, when South Africa entered the First Great War, Tommy was in his twentieth year … it was to be the end of a career on the mines. He joined the 1st Transvaal Scottish and was shipped from Cape Town to Luderitz. The Germans surrendered at Otavifontein. All troops were then returned to South Africa and disbanded.

After the German South West stint Tommy volunteered for service in German East Africa with the 4th South African Horse under Colonel Elliott and Major Hopley, in 1915 to 1916. Finally, after a rigorous campaign, he went down with malaria. Later he was discharged and returned to South Africa to spend a ‘get fit’ period at Mossel Bay. It was then that he read an advert in a Cape paper, calling for volunteers for the Royal Flying Corps.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC)

The small band of South African officers who had joined the RFC in 1914 had well proved the worth of South African flying men. Such was the excellence of their performance that the British Government asked the Union Government to conduct a recruiting campaign in South Africa. The task was given to Major Allister Miller, DSO, son of a Swaziland pioneer, who arrived in Cape Town in October 1915 to recruit young men for commissioned rank in the RFC.

“Men like Pierre van Ryneveld, Johnny and Hector Daniel, Chris Venter and Kenneth van der Spuy were already in the RFC. I was one of Allister Miller’s first 100 to be shipped over to England in 1916 to learn to fly … First we were put through military training at Hursley Park, then went to Christchurch, Oxford, for technical flying training,” Tommy said. Tommy was a second-lieutenant when he was sent to Uxbridge for practical training on Maurice Farmans.

“They looked like big kites,” said Tommy. “You sat up in front with the engine at the back … and you were well aware that if you crashed nose-first the engine would drive you into the ground. The whole contraption was held together with piano wire festooned in every direction – lift wires, landing wires, drift wires, bracing wires; we used to say that the mechanics tested these kites by putting a canary in the middle of the wires and if the damn bird got out, there must be a wire missing!”

After a mere three to four hours’ dual, the pupil pilots went solo and received their wings … and then went on to Avros and Sopwith Pups – the latter the forerunners of the Sopwith Camels. These machines had the advantage of the engines being situated in front.

The SE-5 was, in 1917, the last word in fighting scouts turned out by the Royal Aircraft Factory. It was a single-seater which would do 128mph (206km/h) at 10 000ft (3 048m) and 115mph (185km/h) at 15 000ft (4 572m). It was powered by a 140Hp Hispano Suiza engine and had two guns -a synchronized Vickers machine gun which fired through the propeller by means of the new Constantinesco gear; and a Lewis gun, clamped on to the top and firing over the propeller. The Lewis could be pulled down on a quadrant mounting if necessary to reload.

Bomb load of the SE-5 was four 25 lb (11 kg) Cooper bombs, to be used when ground strafing. The craft could be looped, rolled and dived almost vertically without breaking up … and was altogether the most successfully designed scout of the Great War. It was relied upon to re-establish the Allied air supremacy.

Tommy had three hours’ experience on SE-5s when he was booked to go to France. “A group of us, booted and uniformed in our best, were due to go up to London for a last spree before leaving for France on the Tuesday. Unfortunately, the CO decided I must have a total of four hours on SE5s.” It was Friday afternoon and snowing when Tommy came back to put in one more hour. Taking off in the whirling snow resulted in a cartwheel and broken shoulder which kept Tommy convalescing again, in England, until the following February when he put in a few more hours on Avros and SE-5s and then, in May 1918, he went on to join No 84 Squadron at their base north of Amiens.

One September morning at about 09.00 a patrol of fifteen SE-5s took off from No 84 Squadron, flying in three groups. They had completed their patrol and were on their way home when, coming out of a cloud bank, Tommy spotted nine German balloons. He was leading the last flight and broke away with two of his scouts to attack.

“As I was diving on one balloon I became aware of somebody shooting at me from behind and for one moment thought the other two guys were firing too soon.” Then he realised that the firing came from a group of Fokkers who had also come out of the cloud. Despite this, Tommy continued to attack and blew up the first balloon. He then managed to get one Fokker before he got a burst which went through his shoulder and jaw. He came to in a spin, regained consciousness, pulled out and somehow limped back to the squadron where he was able to land, but unfortunately finished up in a bomb hole on the runway, much to the annoyance of the CO. Tommy had landed at 09.45. By noon, he had been operated on and come round from the anaesthetic – a tribute to the medical service of those far-off days.

He was sent back to England in a Red Cross ship. Reluctantly he admitted that he received the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for this encounter. Armistice came in November and by then Tommy had regained his health and become so fit that he was chosen for the newly renamed Royal Air Force rugger side in a series of inter-Dominion rugby matches.

‘Looping the Loop’ in South Africa

After Tommy had returned to South Africa, Major Allister Miller asked him to join him in the newly formed South African Aerial Transport Company which was formed to foster flying in South Africa. The pilots were Major Honnett, Major Carl Ross and captains Thompson, Rutherford and Harrison. “We had five Avros and carried out a series of commercial and propagandist flights in practically every town in the Transvaal, Free State, Eastern Province and North and South Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe).”

Pegoud, the famous French airman who was killed in 1915, had looped the loop at Brooklands on a specially rigged Bleriot in late 1913, but the first person to ‘loop’ was a Russian officer, Lieutenant Nesteroff. Tommy became the first pilot in South Africa to perform this aerial feat when he looped over Baragwanath, although he was a trifle out of practice and ‘hung on top’ of the loop. Later, he looped over the old Wanderers Cricket ground during a test match between South Africa and Australia – much to the enjoyment of the spectators and the annoyance of the players!

Eighteen months after its inception, the South African Aerial Transport Company was forced into liquidation. To its credit, however, the company’s machines had carried 5 000 passengers and flown more than 30 000 miles (50 000km) without a single accident or injury to passengers and only comparatively minor mishaps to the aircraft.

Tommy, in partnership with Carl Ross, purchased the aircraft and equipment and, in 1921, formed the Ross-Thompson Co Ltd, which barn-stormed its way through the Transvaal and Natal for the next eighteen months. “When we intended visiting a town or dorp, we’d telephone or telegraph the local town clerk and tell him we’d be there on a given date. We’d ask him to select a flattish piece of ground, about 150 yards square (125m2), and clear it of ant hills. Then we’d ask him to test it by driving a Model T Ford over it at 30mph (48km/h). If the car could take it, we reckoned our planes could too. When we arrived they’d shut up shop and the crowds came out to watch. We’d ask them to make a smoke-fire and light it as they heard us approaching so we could get the wind direction.”

After a variety of experiences Tommy and his business partner sold out to a Rhodesian syndicate. Carl Ross joined the newly formed South African Air Force and Tommy joined a commercial company in Johannesburg. Although no longer engaged in full-time flying, in 1926, together with enthusiasts such as Col Rod Douglas and his sister Marjorie, Frank Boustred, Bert Evans and his sister Dulcie, and Mr and Mrs Gordon Haggie, Tommy was a founder member of the Johannesburg Light Plane Club at Baragwanath. Captain Stan Halse was one of the club’s flying instructors. Tommy, who had “had flying in a big way then”, took an active part only by being official examiner. The first club member to gain his ‘A’ licence was Glen L Bateman. Twenty-five years later, at the club’s anniversary celebrations in 1952, two of the original members were asked to give flying demonstrations again. They were the late Sir George Albu, and Tommy Thompson. And once again, although a trifle rusty, Tommy triumphantly looped the loop above Baragwanath.

Second World War service

Tommy’s military career was not quite over. He joined up again in 1939 as a transport officer in the 5th Brigade, which was broken up in 1940, and he was then appointed Officer Commanding Military Police, Johannesburg: “We had to turn out the 2nd Transvaal Scottish in Johannesburg in 1940 to keep the peace during the riots.” After this, Tommy transferred to the air force and went to SAAF Headquarters in Nairobi. “When the campaign against the Italians up there came to an end, I was transferred as adjutant to 24 Bomber Squadron. Eventually we got organised and equipped with Maryland bombers and went up to the desert early in 1941.”

Tommy was in one of the biggest blow-ups in the desert when 24 Squadron was stationed at a railway siding called Fuka: “Through the grapevine, the Huns heard that an ammunition train and a petrol train were in the siding. One evening they came over and bombed the lot. The ammunition train had several trucks loaded with 250 lb (113 kg) bombs which went up in smoke.”

Together with the burning petrol, it must have been quite a sight. The noise was unbearable as the bombs exploded. The next day, a heavy truck wheel was found 880 yds (805 m) from the siding.

Finally, Tommy was seconded back to South Africa and appointed administrative officer to the training camp at Milner Park.



Written by Angela Embleton and first published in The Star on 26 July 1969. Republished with permission from the South African Military History Journal. The original article can be found here.