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The Ysterplaat 70 Exhibition.
Col Billy Cowan Celebrates the opening of the exhibition.
Col Billy Cowan electronically 'cuts the ribbon'.
The SAAF Museum staff who created the exhibition.
Ysterplaat 70 logo.

Ysterplaat Celebrates 70 Years

Date: 22 October 2011

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By Dean Wingrin

The SAAF Museum opened a small exhibition to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the formal inception of AFB Ysterplaat.

The airbase situated close the city centre of Cape Town has been associated with aviation since 1915 when civilian pilots began using the grass airfield known as Brooklyn.

Although the South African Air Force's relationship with the airfield goes back to when the airforce started what was then known as the SAAF Diamond Mail Service in 1925, it was only in 1940 that the Government acquired the use of the surrounding land in order to enlarge the airfield. What was later to be known as AFB Ysterplaat was opened on 24 October 1941 in order to support the Air Depots whose job it was to assemble airframes for the war effort.

The facilities and role of the airbase has changed considerably over the years. Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, Col Billy Cowan, OC of AFB Ysterplaat, noted that the Base contributes to the greater South African Air Force.

The origins of the Base continues with the assembly, maintenance, repair and service capability. Added to this, Cowan noted that "the search and rescue function of the Base is vital to the global maritime community as is the landward capability in terms of natural disasters and mountain rescue. Fire fighting will never cease in the foreseeable future."

The Base is also very popular with politicians as a steady stream of VIP aircraft use the Base as it is very close to Parliament.

Cowan concluded that, "at the end of the day, the ‘can do' attitude of the people of AFB Ysterplaat ...is the very stuff that the Base motto states: Resolute in Deed. And I think it is resolute people that will continue to ensure that Ysterplaat will survive into the future and at the forefront in many spheres it serves in."

Despite its small size and numerous investigations to close the airbase over the years, Ysterplaat has survived and grown into what is described as the airforce's "Maritime Centre of Excellence".

HISTORY OF AFB YSTERPLAAT

It is not to, a certain extent precisely known when aviators started using Ysterplaat as a landing field, but it is interesting to know some of the background to what we know as Air Force Base Ysterplaat today.

In the census of 1810, it is listed that on the 31st December 1810, one Willem Caesar and the widow Priem and her two children are resident at d`Yzere Plaat, (Ysterplaat) a hay farm belonging to a Mr. J. P. Eksteen and that they owned two draft oxen. Some time later as Cape Town expanded, the area then became known as Maitland Common and according to the Title Deeds for AFB Ysterplaat, that some of the property eventually belonged to Sir de Villiers Graaf. An initiative by the Cape Town City Council to provide a municipal airport for the town led to what we know today as Air Force Base Ysterplaat.  The name of the farm, and subsequently the name of the Base are named after the natural geographical feature of the ground and are translated into English as "Iron Plate".

It is suspected that from as early as 1915 civilian pilots were using the grass airfield. An airport Managers House was erected in 1917 and occupied by Mr FAN Duk who worked for Aero Services as a pilot and manager of the Airport. The building is now occupied by AFB Ysterplaat Transport Section. Next to it was erected the 1920 Hangar that was subsequently moved to the museum.

In those early days, Brooklyn consisted of one house, (manager's office) a lean-to Hangar (now the Museum Restoration Center), the 1920 Hangar and a large square grass airfield without runways.

The SA Air Force's relationship goes way back to when the airforce started what was then known as the SAAF Diamond Mail Service in 1925. At the request of the Department of Mines, the SAAF instituted regular mail flights between Maitland and Alexander Bay.  Cape Town would, it then appeared, have to become used to seeing SAAF aircraft in its skies.

Union Airways, started by Major AM Miller of RFC fame, began operating a scheduled airmail service which used Brooklyn as its Cape Town terminus from 1927 for about two years before the operations were moved to Wingfield.

The Pupil Pilot Training Scheme at Brooklyn

Although Brooklyn Aerodrome was first used in 1925 for military purposes, in 1938, the Chief Instructor of our then very young Air Force chose Brooklyn as the most appropriate aerodrome in the Peninsula for training purposes. All flying training activities were then moved from Mariendal Aerodrome near Stellenbosch to the airfield at Brooklyn. And so the scheme to train 100 pilots for the SAAF began. It was known as Union Air Training Group. Towards the end of 1938, African Air Transport, a subsidiary of De Havilland Aircraft Company at Baragwaneth opened up at Brooklyn, with a contract to train batches of civilian pilots to SA Air Force specified standards.

At this stage, Brooklyn still consisted of only one hangar, one office block come manager's house and one lean-to hangar, no runways and no radio.

The course for the first batch of pupil pilots being trained for the SAAF started on 1 April 1939 and was to end on 30 June 1939. When war broke out in 1939, AAT was moved form Brooklyn to Tempe, near Bloemfontein, and was absorbed into the SAAF. Brooklyn was to be developed into a full blown Base.

The History of Ysterplaat 1941 - 2011, 70 Years of Military Aviation Excellence

The Cape Argus of 5 March 1940 reports of the extension scheme at Brooklyn Aerodrome. Prior to the construction of the Base, the grass runway at Brooklyn was only 900 yards long, but the adjoining land to the East and the South was Government property and if this land was utilized, 1500 yards of runway could be built. The surface of the runway was also a deciding factor due to its foundation of rock and a good sand overlay. The rock made the surface sound for aircraft of any weight and size. It was finally decided at a conference in Pretoria on 2 May 1940 to proceed with the development. Apart from the land which already belonged to the aerodrome, more land had to be obtained from the Graaff Trust, as well as from the Citizen's Housing League Company. The land needed from the Graaff Trust could not be purchased and the rental for the 148.5 morgen was then fixed at ₤145.00 per annum.

The initial phase of development comprised the construction of 1600 yards of runway. The tasks included leveling, grading, grassing, creating a drainage system and fencing the area. Planned new buildings consisted of 25 Bellman hangers, 4 single storey workshops, accommodation and sport facilities for 2200 personnel. A bulk fuel installation and a railway siding to supply it were among the more expensive constructions to be undertaken. The original old wooden control tower was also to be replaced by a more sturdy and permanent steel construction.

Whilst construction was still underway and up until 22 October 1941, all administrative duties were performed at the Ottery Road Camp in Wynberg. During September 1941, while the grass runways were still under construction, it was decided that a hard surface runway had to be constructed. The construction of the hard surface was started immediately and by the end of December 1941 a runway, direction North-South, of 800 x 200 yards and two taxi ways of 100 feet were completed.

Most of the RAF personnel who were to serve at AFS Brooklyn had docked in Cape Town on the 2 September 1941. They were temporarily housed in a camp at Pollsmoor. Although the Base was still to a larger degree still under construction the first Christmas dance was held in the Airmen's Mess, which together with the Sergeant's Mess and canteen had been completed.

And so it came about that the Base and what it had become fairly well established by January 1942. Its function was to support the Air Depots whose job it was to assemble airframes for the war effort. 3 and 9 Air Depots moved onto the station on 10 January 1942 and the first workshops swung into action a mere two days later

It was a big day for Brooklyn when the first aircraft, an Avro Anson, landed on the newly constructed airfield on the 10th of January 1942. Soon afterwards, on the 19th of January, the first batch of aircraft assembled at this depot took off for flight tests. With the assembling section now in full swing, the personnel numbered 1200.

On 20 January 1942, No 9 Air Depot, with all their WAAF members and RAF personnel, moved from Wingfield to Brooklyn whilst the SAAF personnel stayed behind until the last assemblies had been completed. They too then, also moved to AFS Brooklyn. A ferry flight of 32 pilots was established to deliver the new and repaired aircraft wherever they were needed.

With the increasing air traffic, the go-ahead was given in February 1942 to construct a wireless station with transmitting and receiving buildings. Accommodation facilities were also increased so as to accommodate up to 1600 members. The construction of camp facilities for the Women's Auxiliary Air Force was completed in March 1942.

Construction began on the new Airmen's mess in spetember 1942. The station Strength is now 52 Officers, 30 Warrant Officers, 441 NCO's and 1320 Airman, the total strength then 1843 personnel.

A grand total of 730 aircraft were constructed out of a delivery to Cape Town Harbour of 790 airframes.

During 1944, Brooklyn Air Force Station was totally re-organized. With effect from the 31st of March of that year, the air station as such and No. 9 Air Depot were disbanded. The Officer Commanding No. 3 Air Depot took over the aircraft assembly commitment of No. 9 Air Depot, as well as the old station's essential services i.e. messing, transport, discipline, payment, quartermaster services, medical, security and sport and recreation. No. 11 Air Depot continued as an independent sub unit. The Royal Air Force Embarkation Office was treated as an integrated part of No. 3 Air Depot..

On the 4th May 1944 the Avro York, Prime Minister Field Marshall Jan Smut's VIP aircraft arrives at AFS Brooklyn for the first time and at the time was the biggest aircraft to land here and at the time, the biggest aircraft flying in South Africa. On the 2nd of December 1944 the first SAA landing at Brooklyn takes place by a Lockheed Lodestar at 14h00 from Rand Air Port. It departed the same day returning to Rand Air Port, the majority of the passengers were local businessmen.

By the end of the Second World War Air Force Station Brooklyn had made an extensive contribution to the Allied Victory but was also facing the first attempt to close it down. With the disbandment of 11 Air Depot in 1946 No 2 Flight and 3 Air Depot Stores amalgamated and was known from then on as Air Force Station Ysterplaat Stores.

Post War Years

The first jet propelled Meteor III aircraft was assembled at Brooklyn in 1946. Its first fight took place on the 14th of May 1946 and was piloted by Captain Jack Meaker. By the 18th of October 1946, the aircraft had already flown eighty hours and was at Brooklyn for inspection and further tests at sea level.

With Brooklyn now an air base of a peacetime air force, the duties of the air station were now of a more supportive nature and it was visited by a number of missions, commissions, etc.

Owing to the fact Brooklyn housed several permanent force squadrons and all the necessary security facilities, it proved to be the most suitable home base for the City of Cape Town Auxiliary Squadron. 17 Squadron was officially reopened on the 4th of October 1947 but was to close again in 1955. The initial program included dual instruction for the squadron pilots on Harvard aircraft, where the permanent force instructors at Brooklyn played a vital role.

The Base then became known as Air Force Station Ysterplaat.

More changes occurred in 1951 when new squadrons were established. No.'s 7 and 27 Active Citizen Force Squadrons were housed at Ysterplaat, and were equipped with Harvards and Venturas respectively.

Although Ysterplaat was not the home base of No.'s 6 and 22 Squadrons, it was responsible for the servicing of their aircraft.

During 1951, Air Force Station Ysterplaat consisted of the following:

  • A Permanent Force Maritime Squadron
  • An Active Citizen Force Maritime Squadron
  • An Active Citizen Force Fighter Squadron
  • An Air Stores Depot
  • An Air Repair Depot
  • An Airfield Maintenance Depot
  • An Active Citizen Force Radio Unit
  • An Active Citizen Force Engineering Unit

The airfield at the station still looked very much the same as the day it was established. There were three runways:

  • 20 - 02                    1560 yards
  • 29 - 11                    1500 yards
  • 33 - 15                    1360 yards
  • 800 x 200 yards of runway 20 - 02 was hard surface.

Although everything else was in good condition, it was time to replace the Control Tower with a more permanent structure. During this era, the early fifties, Ysterplaat could be seen as the nerve centre of all SAAF communications in the Cape area. The Station was ideal mainly because it had been laid out as a concentrated peace time station, with an easy and simple security system in mind as well as a reduction of transport needs, thus achieving the maximum economy of manpower and efficiency.

7 and 27 Squadrons were re-established in 1951 as Active Citizen Force Squadrons.  They were equipped with Harvard and Ventura aircraft respectively.

Air Force Station Ysterplaat was to be the new home base for the Air Navigators School in April 1953.

There was great excitement during March of 1953 when the first batch of 30 Vampires arrived at Ysterplaat for assembly. It was planned that a total of 45 single and 6 two seater Vampire, all of them destined for the training base at Langebaanweg, would be assembled.

Air traffic increased at Ysterplaat in 1954 when South African Airways began regular flights from the base. This came about when during winter; Wingfield became unserviceable due to the prolonged heavy rainfalls. The Airways used Ysterplaat until the opening of the D.F. Malan Airport at Bellville on the 8th of September 1954.

In the same year, SAAF crash-boats stationed at Robben Island and Gordon's Bay were due to be phased out, and a board of inquiry was launched to investigate the possible advantages of having a helicopter squadron based at Ysterplaat to assume some of the responsibilities of the now obsolete crash-boats.

An article in the Cape Times on the 28th of November 1954 report that the SAAF was planning on building a station at DF Malan airport to accommodate all of Ysterplaat's operational flying. Ysterplaat would then be used as stores and workshop headquarters for the Army. The plan never materialised and soon afterwards in 1955, Wingfield aerodrome was closed and Ysterplaat became the only Air Force Station in Cape Town.

In January of 1954, No 22 Squadron was reformed at Air Force Station Ysterplaat to operate as 22 Flight. The flight was equipped with 9 Lockheed Venturas with the role of Medium Range Maritime Reconnaissance, Anti-submarine Warfare and Search-and-Rescue Operations, in support of the Simon's Town Agreement and would operate around the Cape Sea Route.

South Africa bought three new S-55's which arrived at Ysterplaat in August 1956, where they were test flown before being dispatched to Langebaanweg, with the only S-51 helicopter, to form part of the helicopter flight established there.

In early 1957 Ysterplaat Air Force Station was equipped with 15 Ventura, 3 Harvard and one Dakota aircraft. The Dakota was used in the air bridge between Cape Town and Cairo. The idea of being the home base for the newly acquired Shackleton MK III brought great excitement to everyone involved.

Large crowds gathered at Ysterplaat on the 18th of August 1957 to await the arrival of the new aircraft from Britain. Two of the aircraft touched down at Ysterplaat on this day, and the rest followed in the months to come.

17 Squadron moved to Langebaanweg at the end of 1957, and then moved back to Ysterplaat in July 1961.  At that time 17 Squadron was equipped with helicopters.

During February 1959 with the re-organising of the SAAF, No. 7 and No. 27 Squadrons were disbanded and their aircraft were stored at Ysterplaat. Due to an accident on the 26th of February 1958, when a Shackleton overshot the runway at Ysterplaat, it was decided that the runways were inadequate to accommodate the Shackleton when they were fully fuelled. The only alternative airfield was DF Malan and a Board of Inquiry decided, after an investigation, that moving the "Giants" was essential for reasons of flight safety.

Early in 1961, Ysterplaat welcomed No. 17 Squadron which had been moved permanently from AFB Langebaanweg. What had started out as a very small flight of only a few helicopters had soon gained Squadron status. Due to the workload in the Cape Town area it was decided to relocate the Squadron to Ysterplaat. The squadron at the time consisted of seven Alouette II's, two S-55's and one S-51.

In October 1962 the Aircraft Maintenance Unit was founded and 11 Air Depot was established as a lodger unit.  In the same year 17 Squadron was subdivided into 3 flights of which one flight remained at Ysterplaat as a Helicopter Conversion Unit to provide basic training to helicopter pilots and flight engineers. This particular flight was eventually transferred to Bloemfontein in 1977, after being renamed in 1971 to 87 Advanced Helicopter Flying School. 402 Air Field Maintenance Unit received unit status in 1964, as a lodger unit of Ysterplaat.

Another new addition to Ysterplaat was when 110 Commando Squadron was established. The aircraft attached to this squadron were privately owned and were not used for operational duties. 110 Squadron's role was to supply air support to ground troops, commando's and the civilian forces.

After an investigation had been done on the future of the S-55 helicopter of C Flight, 17 Squadron, a decision was reached. On the 24th of April 1964, the "Choppers" in question were to be phased out. The decision was made with regret, but sentiment could not stand in the way of progress, and progress came in the form if the Alouette III's which could do as much and more than their predecessors.

During the early 1960s the South African Navy became increasingly aware of the fact that effective anti-submarine warfare required dedicated anti-submarine helicopters. With only six naval helicopters to operate, reforming a squadron was considered excessive. 22 Flight was established at AFS Ysterplaat on 1 January 1964 to fly and maintain the Wasps. The first three arrived by sea in Cape Town on 2 February 1964 and were transferred to AFS Ysterplaat for reassembly by 2 Aircraft Maintenance Unit and 22 Flight.

The current status of AFB Ysterplaat was officially changed on 1 February 1968 from Station to Base status, after the railways laid down their ownership of some of the land on which the base is situated. 16 and 25 Squadrons were reactivated on the same day with 16 Squadron taking over the core of the old 17 Squadron and 25 Squadron playing a transport role.

On the 1st of February 1968, No. 16 Squadron was established, consisting of an A and B Flight. The squadron was supposed to be based at Port Elizabeth, but until accommodation centers had been established, AFB Ysterplaat was to house 16 Squadron headquarters. The A Flight was responsible for the administrative control of the squadron and the B Flight was temporarily based at Bloemfontein.

The Maritime Operational Training Unit (MOTU) was also brought to life on the 1st of February 1968, together with the Helicopter Conversion Unit.

With all these additions to the air station, Ysterplaat was now officially an Air Force Base and not only a station.

During 1969, No. 7 Squadron based at Youngsfield was moved to Ysterplaat. The squadron, a training unit and operating Harvard aircraft, would now increase air traffic at Ysterplaat.

With the Shackletons of 35 Squadron based at Ysterplaat since their arrival in 1957, it was a sad occasion when finally, in 1970, the Squadron was officially moved to DF Malan Airport. The move was inevitable, for the runway at Ysterplaat was constructed with aircraft the size of Venturas in mind. The Shackletons had however been operating from DF Malan for some time, but the servicing of the aircraft still had to be done at Ysterplaat, meaning all test flights had to be executed from Ysterplaat. With the move of the entire 35 Squadron, everything could be done at DF Malan Airport.

On the 14th of June 1971 Ysterplaat Air Force Base was proud to boast a new Decca Navigation system which was opened by the Minister of Defence, Mr. P.W.Botha.

During this year, a new control tower was constructed. The Air Traffic Controller was not able to see the whole airfield from behind the console and some alterations had to be done to the design before completion.

On the 1st of July 1976, the construction on the "cut and cover" tunnel allowing the railway to pass under the threshold of the runway was finally started after many years of planning and negotiations. It was expected to take four to six months to complete.

1977 was the year when all Harvards were destined for Central Flying School at Dunnottar, and on the 14th of February, the last Harvard took off from Ysterplaat to fly into history.

With the construction of the Officer's Mess far from completion, a number of problems were experience regarding accommodation for the officers and on the 17th of January 1979, the Cambridge Hotel in Milnerton was taken over by the SAAF as the Officer's Mess.

With the re-opening of 30 Squadron, operating Frelon and Puma helicopters in December 1980, 16 Squadron was disbanded and the A-flight moved to Port Elizabeth, 22 and 30 Squadron thus operated from Ysterplaat with Wasps and Alouette III's and lastly with Puma and Super Frelon helicopters. 35, 27 and 7 Squadrons operated from the then DF Malan Airport as squadrons from Ysterplaat, with Shackletons, Albatrosses and Impalas.  Other flying units falling under command of the Base was 109 Squadron at Mossel Bay and 110 Squadron at AFB Ysterplaat. 

The new Officer's Mess is opened on the 5th December.

In 1985 a new VIP Movements was opened.

A Short term implementation plan objective dated 10 March 2001 is received. It instructs that the Base scale down operations with the intention to close the Base and relocate to AFB Ysterplaat (Detached) It would no longer have Base status and would become known as AFS Ysterplaat. The lodger units of AFB Ysterplaat were to move to Cape Town International Air Port. 2 ASU was to be relocated to AFB Langebaanweg. A Short Term Implementation Steering Committee was set up to oversee the process. The SAAF Museum was to remain at Ysterplaat. During the year there is much adverse publicity in the media. The shortage of funds results in the general decline of the Base and morale suffers. The Joint Standing Committee on Defence said that the SANDF had to consider the strategic implications of closing bases like Waterkloof and Ysterplaat. At the end of the day, future plans for further developments relating to civil aviation at Cape Town International Airport, the lack of sufficient power supplies to Langebaanweg for additional engineering services and high costs eventually resulted in the abandonment of the affair and AFB Ysterplaat survived another attempt to close it down. The damage done to the Base in terms of morale to the members of the Base, the lack of funding to the upkeep of the Base was going to take a very, very long time to mend and it was only towards the end of 2003 that matters were going to start improving on the Base.

The Base was awarded the Freedom of Entry to the City of Cape Town in 16 April 2009 and the parade to officially cement the matter was held on 21 August 2010.

The Base enters its 70th year in 2011 and the normal operations such as fire fighting and rescues take place.

Commanding Officers AFB Ysterplaat

1. Maj G.H. Howell

24 October 1941

01 November 1941

2. Wing Cdr C.N. Carpenter RAF

01 November 1941

01 January 1942

3. Wing Cdr J.J. Murphy, RAF

01 January 1942

01 January 1943

4.  Lt Col J.A.B. Sandenbergh

01 January 1943

01 April 1946

5. Colonel G.T. Moll

01 April 1946

27 September 1951

6. Commandant H.J. Martin

29 September1951

22 July 1952`

7. Commandant A.A.D. McKellar

23 July 1952

4 February1959

8. Commandant J.N. Robbs

5 February1959

3 March 1960

9. Commandant G.C. Krummeck

4 March 1960

26 July 1962

10. Commandant J.N. Robbs

27 July 1962

2 January 1966

11. Commandant A.A. McKellar

3 January 1966

30 September 1966

12. Colonel H.J.P Burger

1 October 1966

11 August 1967

13. Commandant J.W. Hall

12 August 1967

16 December 1970

14. Colonel E.A.C. Pienaar

17 December 1970

31 July 1972

15. Colonel C. Lombard

1 August 1972

19 January 1975

16. Colonel A.B. de Wet

20 January 1975

30 September 1976

17. Colonel T.J.M. de Munnik

1 October 1976

28 December 1976

18. Colonel H.J.W. Bothma

28 December 1976

1 January 1980

19. Colonel J. Kriel

2 January 1980

11 January 1985

20. Colonel C.N. Breytenbach

12 January 1985

8 January 1988

21. Colonel D.W.K. Lynch

9 January 1988

31 December 1992

22. Colonel P.J. Stannard

1 January 1993

31 December 1995

23. Colonel J. Church

1 January 1996

4 January 1999

24. Colonel C.E. Luyt

4 January 1999

31 December 2003

25. Colonel J.C.J. Butler

1 January 2004

31 December 2008

26. Colonel W.L. Cowan

1 January 2009

   -

  

The Squadrons and Units of Air Force Base Ysterplaat as at 24 October 2011.

  • 2 ASU
  • 22 Sqn
  • 35 Sqn
  • 110 Sqn
  • 505 Sqn
  • Museum
  • 80 ANS

Extracted from a detailed history compiled by Chris Teale of the SAAF Museum, AFB Ysterplaat.

 


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