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Darling Airfield in World War II

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What could the town of Darling and a grim struggle for survival several hundred kilometres off the South African coast have in common? The former is famous for its floral excellence and idyllic country lifestyle, while the latter conjures up images of icy water and burning hulks on oil-laden seas. The link is almost inconceivable, yet for three vital years it existed as a very real relationship in the lives of thousands of men, the vast majority of whom would never even know.

By 1942 German U-Boat activity off the South African coast was at its peak. While sixteen ships had been sunk or damaged in our waters in the preceding three years, between January and June 1942 nineteen vessels carrying war materials were engaged by the enemy and suffered the same fate. In an effort to provide greater security to the convoys plying the sea route, the South African Air Force hastily constructed, or supplemented existing facilities at, six additional airfields around the coast.

Thus did Darling go to war.

VenturaThe first SAAF flying unit to be based at Darling was 23 Squadron, arriving on the airfield at the beginning of 1943. From here the Ventura aircraft patrolled the western sea approaches to Cape Town at the height of the submarine menace. Such was the importance of their task, that the unit was strengthened by the arrival of a Ventura detachment from 27 Squadron between February and April 1943.

Photograph right: Lockheed B-34 Ventura 6005 of 29 Operational Training Unit at Darling. The "X" serves as an individual aircraft identification letter. Photo courtesy Dave Becker Collection

Besides flying anti-submarine patrols, the aircraft operated in a convoy escort role offering air support to the many ships rounding the coast, as well as providing an air-sea rescue capability. Surely the most curious visitors to Darling at this time were the PBY-5 Catalinas of 321 Royal Netherlands Naval Squadron from their base in the Eastern Cape. Flown by Dutch crews, these two-engined seaplanes with a boat-like hull utilised an amphibious capability to land at Darling before heading out to sea and back east on patrol.

In November 1943 the Venturas of 29 Operational Training Unit (OTU) were relocated from Nigel to Darling. With torpedo training forming a large part of their brief, where the OTU was supposed to drop torpedoes in the Transvaal, while stocks of the weapons and the support structure was held at Wingfield in the Cape, has not been recorded!

Daytime training combined with night flying from nearby Langebaanweg to ensure readiness in all conditions, while air-to-air firing was carried out over the Blaauwberg Range. On 31 January 1944 construction began on an iron hanger at Darling, the facility going a long way towards easing maintenance problems experienced in the hitherto basic conditions when completed two months later. In the interim, technical stores were transferred in from Eerste River as temporary buildings were hastily completed and lecture rooms were erected alongside administrative buildings.

23 Squadron aircraft from the airfield participated in the hunt for three U-boats in the South Atlantic alongside other Cape-based units in March 1944, flying continuous parallel track search patrols until the 11th when Catalinas from Langebaanweg intercepted and sank the submarine UIT-22 well south of Cape Point.

PumaBy April 1944 the OTU had an interesting mix of Lockheed Ventura, Airspeed Oxford, Avro Anson and a singular de Havilland Hornet Moth aircraft on strength. By July, however, the unit was deemed surplus to requirements and disbanded with aircraft being passed on to a reactivated 29 Squadron under the command of Lt-Col CP Kotze. On 25 August 1944 these aircraft lifted off from Darling’s runway one final time and set course for a new home at Mtubatuba in Natal.

Use of Darling’s airfield gradually tapered off after the war, as Langebaanweg became the epicentre of SAAF operations on the West Coast. As with so many of the sites around the country that played a vital role in those turbulent years, it would appear urban growth and fading memories will eventually consign the last remnants of this once proud camp to limited entries in a researched publication.

Photograph right: On 12 April 1944 Ventura 6457 of 27 Sqn crashed into Dassenberg near Darling shortly after taking off from the nearby airfield on a training flight, killing the crew of six. On 12 April 1988 the wreckage was discovered by members of the SAAF Museum, being airlifted off the hill by Puma 145 of 22 Sqn short after. The wreckage is currently stored at the Museum. Photo courtesy of - SAAF Museum

Steven McLean
Historical Adviser to the SA Aviation Foundation

Article received from Gabriel Athiros, Editor, "The Cape Odyssey"

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