The Journey to Palapye Road (Part 3) - Arrival,

By Jonathan Laverick



When the Silver Queen II came to rest on the banks of the Matsheumhlope River, it looked as if the first attempt to fly from London to Cape Town had come to an end. Yet, only ten days later, a DH.9 of the fledgling South African Air Force had been taken from a crate, assembled and flown to Bulawayo - via Palapye Road, becoming the first aircraft to land in Bechuanaland - in order to complete the epic journey.


Journey's end - Silver Queen II came to grief on take-off from Bulawayo's racecourse. It was planned to fly direct to Pretoria, missing out Palapye Road.

When South African Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, heard of the crash of Van Ryneveld's second Vickers Vimy, he once again ordered a replacement aircraft. This time, instead of a borrowed RAF aircraft, the aeroplane would be a true South African machine, one of a batch delivered after the conclusion of the Great War from surplus UK stock - a donation that became known as the Imperial Gift. Similar deliveries were made to Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand, helping the Dominions start their own air forces.


Contemporary sketch map of Palapaye Road Aerodrome. This was one of 24 'proper' airfields, along with 19 emergency grounds, built for the Cairo-Cape route. While it was a refuelling point on the route, van Ryneveld was initially in favour of flying direct from Bulawayo to Pretoria. Botswana National Archives S.53/6.

The Union Defence Force of South Africa had received one hundred aeroplanes, consisting of forty-eight Airco DH.9 bombers, ten DH.4 bombers, twenty-two SE.5a fighters and thirty Avro 504 trainers. In addition, twenty steel hangars, thirty portable wood and canvas hangars, radio and photographic kit, aircraft spares, workshops, tools, trucks, tenders, trailers, fifty thousand gallons of engine oil and twenty thousand gallons of paint and dope (used to stiffen and waterproof canvas) were included, bringing the value of the gift to about two million pounds - a huge amount for post war Britain.

While many South Africans served with the RFC or RNAS in Europe, 26 Squadron served in East Africa and is the only British Squadron to have an Afrikaans motto instead of the usual Latin.

Jan Smuts had played a vital part in the creation of the independent Royal Air Force and it was only natural that he would advise the creation of South African Air Force on a similar basis and the Imperial Gift provided the means. That was not to say that South Africa had not had experience in aerial warfare. As well as the thousands who served in Europe and the Middle East with the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service (the arms merged in April 1918 to form the RAF), the Union Defence Force had created the South African Aviation Corps in 1915 in order to assist the ground forces in the campaign to overcome the Germans in South West Africa. Once that campaign was over many of the SAAC served with 26 Squadron RFC in East Africa, which became known as 26 (South Africa). While it was far from an exclusively South Africa unit, it did become the only RFC/RAF unit to have an Afrikaans motto - 'N Wagter in die Lug - which it kept, along with its springbok crest until its final disbandment in 1976.

The battered and bruised crew of the Silver Queen received good wishes from around the Empire, but the telegram from Smuts contained the best news - at least for van Ryneveld and Brand. A two-seater was being prepared in Pretoria that would be flown up to Bulawayo and which would allow them to continue their trip to the Cape. This must have been bitter sweet news for their two mechanics, Sheratt and Burton, who had worked so hard to get their team this far but would now be left behind for the triumphant return to South Africa. While they waited for the new aeroplane to arrive, the team accepted various offers of entertainment including several lunches in honour and a tour of the Matopos.


Khama III oversaw both the introduction of the Ox-plough and the aeroplane! Here he is seen at Old Shoshong around 1882. SOAS Library - CWM/LMS/AFRICA Photographs Box 6 file 42 25.

Meanwhile, there was some relief in Bechuanaland as the demise of the Silver Queen II meant that the intrepid airmen would indeed have to stop in the Protectorate, however briefly, to refuel. This had become a political imperative given the effort the Khama III had put into building not only the aerodrome at Palapye road, which was a refuelling stop on the official British Cairo to Cape route, but also his own airfield in Serowe.

Khama III, also known as Khama the Good, was born around 1837 and was an early Christian convert, banning traditional initiation ceremonies and alcohol once he had solidified he position as regent in 1875. He introduced much European technology including oxen-drawn ploughs and wagons, as well as building up an impressive armoury through the ivory trade - this was needed to counter the threats from the Boers to the south, the Ndebele to the north east and the Germans from the west.

These threats were the same the British faced in Southern Africa and he became a natural ally and this British support was useful in increasing his tribe's land and power. This relationship was tested with the advent of Rhodes and his railway and he was forced to travel to England, along with fellow chiefs Bathoen I and Sebele I, to seek assistance. Here his Christianity was played up to full effect, with the London Missionary Society organising a nationwide tour to promote Bechuanaland's cause.

The oldest of Miss Giles' met reports still in the National Archives (BNARS S.12/6. S.13/1/1-2)
This was such a success, and its coincidence with the ill-fated Jameson Raid, meant that the political pressure was such that the Protectorate was formed - eventually saving what became Botswana from the political upheaval the rest of the region faced. By the time the flight to the Cape was on its way, Khama was 83 and coming to the end of his reign, yet he remained an energetic promoter of technology and was keen to see an aeroplane over his capital. The strength, and importance, of his relationship with the British can be gauged by the effort they put in to make sure his wish came true.

With the news that a replacement aircraft would be flown to Bulawayo, telegram offices in Bechuanaland were once again reminded on March 10th that position reports of the aircraft and weather reports were to be given priority. The Protectorate had its own Meteorological muse in the form of Miss M Giles of Mahalapye, who took weather readings in that village from 1917 until 1943. It would be her reports that would be used for Palapye Road Aerodrome, despite her being based more than seventy kilometres away. Incidentally, Miss Giles would also become known for her work on solar rays.

While Mafeking was busy preparing Bechuanaland for the flight, the Union Defence Force was hurriedly unpacking an Airco DH.9. This was one of the first batch of the Imperial Gift aircraft to arrive by ship the previous September. On January 1, 1920, the Aircraft Depot at Roberts Heights on the outskirts of Pretoria was formed in order to initially to reconstruct the donated aeroplanes before serving as a servicing centre. It is unclear how far the work had got by the start of March, but is clear that when the DH.9 was chosen as the most suitable aircraft to complete van Ryneveld's journey (probably on Monday 9th March) there were none of this type as yet available.


DH.9 H5648 is assembled - only days after this photograph it would become the first aircraft to land in Bechuanaland - Botswana National Archives Illustration 1-2

A crate holding Airco DH.9 H5648 was selected by Major Court Treatt, the man who had been responsible for surveying and building the airfields for the final third of the Cairo-Cape route and work started on its construction immediately. In just under a week, this complicated piece of high technology had been put back together from its boxed-up kit form and on the 15thMarch it was test flown and declared airworthy. Court Treatt selected Lieutenant John Holthouse as his pilot and the following day they set off for Bulawayo. On the way they landed at Palapye Road to refuel, becoming the first people to land in Bechuanaland. Sadly, as their journey was considered little more than an annex to van Ryneveld's record breaking flight, there is little mention of this occasion in contemporary literature - their visit to Palapye was certainly low key.


'Voortrekker' was the first aeroplane to land in Bechuanaland, March 16, 1920. Botswana National Archives Illustration 1-2.

Having successfully delivered the DH.9 - which soon acquired the name Voortrekker - Court Treatt and Holthouse were content for van Ryneveld to take up the reins again. At 06.30 on the morning of March 17 he and Brand set off, in their third aircraft of the trip, from Bulawayo heading for Serowe. A slight detour was made to make an aerial drop of copies of the Bulawayo Chronicle to the Native Commissioner at Plumtree. Apparently Mr Lanning was feeling cut off from current affairs, due to a postal and rail strike, but an accurate swoop over the boarding school ensured that his papers landed on the school field.


Voortrekker in Bulawayo about to depart for Serowe.

Nearly three hours after their departure from Bulawayo the pair landed at Serowe to pay their respects to Khama and to thank him and the Bangwato for the construction of the airfields. They stayed at Khama's capital for an hour and a half before making the twenty-five minute flight to Palapye to refuel. Unfortunately, the details of the refreshments provided by the Palapye Hotel during their two-and-a-half-hour layover were not recorded but no doubt they were welcome before Brand and van Ryneveld took off again, this time for their home country.


Arrival in Cape Town.

On landing in Pretoria, the two South African airmen receive a tremendous reception - one that was repeated in Johannesburg the following day. Bloemfontein, van Rynevled's hometown, was the next stop, followed by Beaufort West. Finally, forty-five days after leaving Brooklands and with an extra 109 hours thirty minutes in their log books they touched down in Cape Town at four o'clock on the afternoon of March 20,1920. Among the people waiting to great them was Premier Jan Smuts himself.


Brand and van Ryneveld, possible in Pretoria. Ditsong National Museum of Military History Photographic Archives.

As they had used more than one aircraft, van Ryneveld and Brand did not qualify for Lord Northcliffe's ten-thousand-pound prize money, but this did not stop the world's press hailing their achievement. The South African government awarded them £2,500 each and they both received knighthoods upon their return to the UK.


Cape Town Reception - SAAF Museum.

Both van Ryneveld and Major General Sykes were fulsome in their praise for Khama and his help in making the flight possible. Sykes highlighted the fact, in an official report on the route, that 'we have benefitted so much from the assistance of Chief Khama'. The South African pilot made similar remarks and was genuinely grateful for the reception in a country that he would have probably missed out on if the Silver Queen II had not crashed. For those who complain about the standard of journalism today when aviation is involved, it is worth reading a contemporary account that highlights the contribution of 'King Kana' and appears to suggest that Bulawayo was in Bechuanaland - and that was Flight, a leading flying magazine at the time!


Flight Magazine - June 1920.

Perhaps it was a small contribution, two out of forty-four airfields that were available on the route but it was significant that they were the only ones built by an African leader.


Palapye Airfield today showing the original aerodrome's square boundaries. This is one of the twenty oldest airports in the world still in use. It is interesting to compare with the sketch map at the top of this article and to appreciate Palapye's growth over the years. Google Imagery - SNES/Airbus/Maxar data.

History








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