The South African Air Force’s (SAAF) largest loss of life and aircraft in a single day 75 years ago, has been remembered at a ceremony at the Air Force Memorial at Bays Hill in Pretoria.
Forty-eight airmen – South Africans as well as members of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force – died after six aircraft of 31 and 34 squadrons crashed in bad weather while on a mission to drop supplies to Italian partisans in northern Italy on 12 October 1944 during World War 2.
In 1943, Italy concluded an armistice and then re-entered the war on the side of the Allies. Their advance stalled for two successive winters: in the central part of the country in 1943 and in the northern Apennine Mountains in 1944.
Speaking at the memorial service, Reverend Trevor Slade said the courage and sacrifice of the men was unquestioned. He said 20 B-24 Liberator bombers embarked on a mission to airdrop supplies to Italian partisans. Severe weather conditions and action by the enemy made it a very dangerous mission. To give an idea of some of the hazardous difficulties they experienced: only three aircraft located the drop-zone and delivered their supplies; eleven aborted the mission and returned safely to base, but six crashed that night. Five crashed into the Alps and one reportedly into the sea.
Martin Urry, the son of one of the Liberator pilots, said around the same time the memorial was starting, 75 years ago the men of squadrons 31 and 34 would have been hearing of the six Liberators that did not return from the previous night’ mission.
He said: “that would have been a terrible, terrible thing for all those crews and ground crews to try and get their heads around. All 48 men lost their lives on that night. When we formed the Alpine 44 Club about 15 years ago our mission was that these men would not be forgotten.”
The Alpine 44 Club members are all surviving family members of the men who died on that mission in 1944 or former members of 31 and 34 squadrons.
This year, the service also remembered those who had passed away recently, such as the former Chief of the SAAF, Lieutenant General Denis Earp and Lawrie Poorter – a former National President of the South African Legion of Military Veterans. General Earp’s widow was among those who laid wreaths. Other wreaths were laid by the SAAF Association, the South African Legion, the Warsaw Flight Organising Committee and the Italian and British military attaches. After the ceremony, a wreath was also laid at the Memorial to the Unknown Airman in memory of the South African pilots of Italian descent who died during the Korean War.
There are also strong bonds between the Warsaw Flight Commemoration committee and Alpine 44 as many of the airmen participated in the Warsaw supply mission of 1944 which also involved 31 ad 34 Squadrons flying Liberator B-24s. The plane’s nicknames – the Soldier and the Flying Coffin – highlight that while it was considered a good aircraft for fighting was, it was also dangerous and difficult to fly.
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