Book review: Vlamgat

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 Vlamgat is likely to be the definitive account of the Dassault-Breguet Mirage F1 and the men who flew its pilots in South African Air Force service, tracking as it does the story of this formidable fighter from cradle to grave.



Originally published eight years ago by the now defunct Covos Day, Chris and Kerrin Cocks of 300 South Publishers have reissued Brigadier General (Retd) Dick Lord`s tour de force. It is easy to see why the book has proven so popular with its readers – virtually every page brims with adrenaline – and good humour.

The F1 was the last fighter acquired by South Africa before the boom of international sanctions against the-then apartheid government cut of arms imports and it was well for the SAAF that it received the F1 at the proverbial 11th hour for the feisty fighter made a great difference to the outcome of the 1966-1989 Border War.
Lord observes in From Fledgling to Eagle, his magnum opus, that the F1`s older sister, the Mirage III, was to be the disappointment of the air war, as it lacked the legs – range – to play a useful part in that conflict. Had the F1 deliveries been blocked in the way of the Good Hope-class frigates and the Astrant-class submarines, the SAAF would have to have relied on the Mirage IIIs – and today could have been a very different place.
Lord reveals the choice was between the Mirage V, the F1, and the SEPECAT Jaguar. “While all the aircraft were good options, the F1 offered the technological advance the SAAF was seeking.” The original requirement was for 100, but after refinement a deal was struck for 48 Mirage F1, four photo-reconnaissance Mirage III R2Z and 11 Mirage III D2Z trainers at a cost of R500 million, a tidy sum in the early 1970s.
The downside was that SA was launch customer, a risky position that can easily saddle the user with unexpected development and remedial costs. As it turned out, the F1 had its share of teething troubles, especially the ground-attack ZA built to South African specifications. The SAAF received 32 of the AZ and took 16 CZ, assigned to 1 and 3 Squadrons respectively. Seventeen were lost in combat and to accident in 22 years of active service.
The fleet was perhaps prematurely retired in November 1997 in an effort to free funds for the integration of the SA National Defence Force that had ballooned in size after 1994 with the amalgamation of seven previously hostile armed forces. The absence of an air threat against the Republic and the phasing-in of the “new” Cheetah C & D fighters also played a cruel part in the departure.
By Lord`s account – he commanded 1 Squadron from 1980 to 1982 – 1976 and 1977 were spent getting the F1 into the fight. 3 Squadron got there first, deploying five fighters to Ondangwa on 3 November 1978 to escort photo-recce Mirage III`s over southern Angola. 1 Squadron deployed five AZ`s on 6 September, flying a close air support mission, some armed recce sorties and some fighter escort missions in the period to 12 December.  
The AZ`s had their first real go at the enemy during Operation Rekstok when they raided the People`s Liberation Army of Namibia`s Tobias Haneko Training Centre near Lubango on 6 July 1979 in conjunction with Blackburn Buccaneer bombers. Because of a navigational error on the part of the latter, the F1`s arrived over their bomb release point at the same time as the Buccaneer`s bombs. “The Mirage`s pulled off the target through the rain of bombs, luckily without mishap”.
Vlamgat contains a number of useful appendices, including a complete list of F1 pilots and some potted biographies. Included in the list is the current Chief of the air Force, Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano and his two immediate predecessors, Roelf Beukes and Willem Hechter.     
Dick Lord
Vlamgat – The story of the Mirage F1 in the South African Air Force   
2nd Edition
300 South Publishers
Johannesburg
2008
1st Edition:
Covos Day
Johannesburg
2000