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When the Second World War broke out on 3 September 1939, the Commonwealth had no spare aircraft to sell and aircraft which were purchased or built in South Africa were obsolete, with only six Hurricane Mk1's, a Fairey Battle and a Blenheim Mk1 being current operational types. On top of this, the 1936 plan for expansion had not materialised. The SAAF still only consisted of 160 permanent force officers, 35 cadets and 1 400 other ranks. No effort was made to procure modern aircraft from any other source. Technical knowledge was limited to fabric covered biplanes.

The SAAF consisted of a Central Flying School at Zwartkop, two light bomber squadrons which were equipped with Hartbees and based at Waterkloof, the Aircraft and Artillery Depot at Roberts Heights (Voortrekkerhoogte), and a number of detached flights operating at the out stations.

The inclusion of the entire South African Airways fleet of Junkers aircraft and the technical staff with experience in metal covered monoplanes was a boost to the SAAF, as were the civil aircraft taken over. The Junkers had been bought with a possible war in mind and the Ju-52s were used for transport and the Ju-86s as medium bombers, hastily converted for the purpose. The Ju-86s were pressed into service immediately in a maritime role and their first success was the interception of a German ship trying to run for home in December 1939.

In October 1939, Chief of the General Staff, Sir Pierre van Ryneveld, approved a plan known as the Peace Expansion Scheme, under which a total of 720 aircraft were acquired - 336 of which were fighters. When Italy entered the war in 1940, SAAF squadrons were deployed to East Africa with the aircraft available at the time, later to be supplemented by more modern aircraft. The SAAF played a tremendous part in the conquest Mussolini's African Empire. Without air superiority, it may have taken months to move the Italians from their positions in the mountains. They were simply blasted out of their positions, impregnable from the ground, by bombs let loose upon them by the SAAF. Conditions were far from ideal, operations were from makeshift desert airfields or hacked out of bush. Then there was the tropical sun and the fine dust that got into motors, machine guns and food.

Nearer to home the SAAF supported the RAF in the British invasion on Vichy held Madagascar in May 1942. Two flights, equipped with Marylands and Beauforts, operated in ground support and reconnaissance roles. The SAAF played a vital role in photographing the island prior to the invasion. The operation ended in November 1942.

The SAAF did not enter into the Empire Air Training Scheme, but on 1 August 1940, a Joint Air Training Scheme was adopted and proved such a brilliant success throughout the British Commonwealth that it ultimately became a nemesis for the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica. The scheme provided for the establishment of 24 flying schools with a target of 3 000 and at least 2 000 observers by 1942. By the end of 1944 SAAF strength had reached 44 417 inclusive of 2 349 pilots, some 1 535 observers and gunners, 9 661 artisans and 6 595 basic trainees. As a result of the Joint Air Training Scheme, a total of 33 347 aircrews had been trained by thirty six Air Schools by 1945. There was little doubt that the 'Battle of training' as it became known, was being well and truly won.

SAAF squadrons moved on to Northern Africa in April 1942, now equipped with the latest aircraft. The SAAF was represented in the invasion of Sicily by 1, 12, 21 and 24 Squadrons operating from Malta. The SAAF supported the British Eighth Army and the American 5th Army, of which 6 Division was part. 25 and 30 Squadrons were part of the Balklands Air Force and operated in support of partisans in Yugoslavia. 60 Squadron, operating Mosquitoes, carried out strategic reconnaissance for the whole of the Mediterranean theater.

While based in Italy 31 and 34 Squadrons, as part of 205 Group RAF, undertook 181 sorties during August and September 1944 dropping supplies to the Polish patriots who were fighting desperately for their lives on the ground. Although very little was accomplished by these operations, they nevertheless represent one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of the SAAF.

The SAAF was at its peak strength at the end of the North African Campaign. There were 26 squadrons in North Africa, the personnel strength numbering 8 976. This included 2 789 Non-European Auxiliary Service and 83 Womens Auxiliary Air Force personnel. The SAAF made up a third of the RAF Operational Command in the theater. Approximately another 9 000 SAAF personnel served in other allied Air Forces. Including personnel in the Union and elsewhere, the total SAAF strength was 45 000. At the start of the war 33 squadrons were envisaged. At the end of the war there were 35 squadrons.
The Post War Years