A brief history of the SAAF - The Kufra Tragedy

By Willie Bodenstein


The Kufra tragedy occurred in May 1942 during World War II when eleven of twelve South African aircrew flying in three South African Air Force No. 15 Squadron Bristol Blenheim Mark IV aircraft died of thirst and exposure after the flight became lost following a navigational error near the oasis of Kufra in Libya and made a forced landing in the Libyan Desert.

An inquiry into the incident took place at Kufra from 1 to 4 June 1942. The board of inquiry attributed the incident to the crews' lack of experience in desert flying; their failure to keep accurate navigator's logs; and the failure of wireless operators to perform their duties during the flight. The board placed the responsibility for the forced landing on the crew of the leading aircraft, Z7513 flown by Major de Wet.

The only survivor was Air Mechanic N St. M Juul who testified at the board of enquiry.

The board attributed the failure of the ground and air searches to a lack of accurate information regarding the possible position of the aircraft; the difficult terrain; the sandstorm; problems with unserviceable aircraft that could not carry out search functions assigned to them; and poor signal organisation. It also found that the downed Blenheim crews did little to assist the searchers in finding them because the crews engaged in bad direction-finding procedures even after landing and failed to employ visual signals and smudge fires.

The inquiry also identified reasons for the early death of the stranded aviators, finding that they failed to appreciate their plight or to ration water immediately and that they made unintelligent use of compass alcohol, having drunk it despite its poisonous qualities, and fire extinguishers, which they had sprayed on themselves for temporary relief from the heat resulting in the infliction of painful skin injuries.

To avoid any recurrence of the Kufra incident, the board made comprehensive recommendations with regard to equipment to be carried on aircraft likely to fly over the desert and emergency procedures in the event of forced landings in the desert. It also recommended that only experienced crews operate from Kufra, and that strict procedures be established for operations from Kufra to ensure that aircraft not become lost in the first place and be more easily located if forced down.

The search parties buried the three men found with Z7513 next to the plane, and the eight men found dead around Z7610 and T2252 at their discovery site.

In May 1942, Z7610 and T2252 were repaired and flown back to Kufra. T2252 later suffered engine failure and crashed near Kufra, but Z7610 operated with No. 15 Squadron's detachment there until 27 November 1942, when the detachment departed Kufra to return to the squadron. By that time, the squadron had converted to Bristol Bisleys - the Mark V ground-attack variant of the Blenheim - so the detachment left Z7610 behind at Kufra to be repaired by a Royal Air Force Maintenance Unit (MU) and flown to Khartoum in the Sudan.

A geological survey party rediscovered Z7513, and the bodies of its three crewmen were exhumed and reburied in Knightsbridge War Cemetery at Acroma, Libya. The bodies of the eight men found with Z7610 and T2252 remained where the search party buried them in the Libyan Desert in May 1942 until 1963 when they were reinterred in Knightsbridge War Cemetery.

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