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South Africa's Warbirds


A Visit to the South African National Museum of Military History

By Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi
Photographs and ancillary material courtesy Anthony Speir, Aviation Curator, S.A.N.M.M.H.

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The South African National Museum of Military History. Display space is at a premium, and sometimes this requires interesting - and somewhat unique - mounting of exhibits.

Captain Jack Meeker, South African Air Force (SAAF), shaded his eyes from the sun as he stood on the grassy field at Farnborough, England. Over 100 German aircraft, their camouflage faded by the sun, were scattered among the field's tall grass. Haphazardly applied British roundels reflected the aircraft's' change of ownership. It was 1946, and rampant post-war demilitarization allowed these hard-won prizes to lie fallow at this prestigious English airfield.

World War Two was recent history, and ex-Luftwaffe aircraft were still to be readily found, scattered across the European landscape, awaiting destruction. However, the British officers that accompanied Captain Meeker made him a unique offer: "Pick a few you'd like to take home with you."

Captain Meeker's thoughts at that moment are not recorded .

Today, there are many aviation buffs who would donate several important organs for such an opportunity. Captain Meeker was one of many pilots from every corner of the British Commonwealth, in England for flight training on the Gloster Meteor, the first British jet fighter.

Captain Meeker's selections show careful and considered thought. His selections included two Messerschmitt Me- 262s. One of the Messerschmitts was an Me- 262A-la, a day fighter version.

The other was an Me-262B-la/Ul, one of two night tighter versions of Messerschmitt's jet fighter left at Farnborough . He chose two Focke-Wulf Fw-190As. One Focke-Wulf had no special modifications. The other Focke-Wulf was an Fw-190A-6, equipped with a special range-finding radar. The other aircraft was a Fieseler Fi-156 Storch light utility aircraft, well liked by those who flew it. Two of Captain Meeker's selections are now part of a most interesting aircraft collection at the South African National Museum of Military History. The museum has a small but unique, aircraft collection.

In 1940, South African Prime Minister, Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, appointed Captain J. Agar-Hamilton, the Union Defense Force's historian, to preserve South Africa's military history. Concerned that South Africa's World War I history was largely unrecorded, the Prime Minister was determined that South Africa's military history would not be forgotten. This led to The South African National War Museums' creation. The museum was renamed The South African National Museum of Military History in 1975. There are presently ten aircraft in the museum's aviation collection, as well as other associated artifacts.

After the Second World War, the Johannesburg City Council offered a site for the museum. The museum accepted the offer and the city council erected two Bellman aircraft hangars and an army hut. The museum filled the structures with records and material, and stored most of its aircraft outside. According to Mr. Speir, the museum's present Curator of Aviation, the museum staff consisted of little more than "a man and a dog, watching over the rusting aircraft hulks." The Johannesburg residents were not happy with their city council's decision. They considered The South African National War Museum an "eyesore" and wanted it removed. After a prolonged battle with the residents the South African government finally put funds into the museum. Several aircraft, too far gone for repair, were scrapped, including a Junkers Ju-88A and a Ju-52. The other aircraft were moved under shelter, as the facility was modernized and expanded.

With the passage of time, the museum was transformed from a junkyard to a dignified repository of archival material and historical artifacts. Its artifacts and displays are carefully restored and displayed with a high standard of quality and accuracy, despite its limited budget. Its aviation collection is only a small part of the museum. It has extensive materials from all military branches and includes various armored vehicles and artillery pieces.

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Paul F. Straney and Robert Sacchi © 1992