Philip Weyers is a great grandson of the “Old Master,” or “Oubaas,” as Smuts was popularly named. Smuts was the main mover behind the Silver Queen flight and Weyers explained the reason:
I think at that particular point in time, the whole concept of aviation was still in its infancy. I think he felt it was a good idea to put South Africa on the map.
However, there was much more to the great South African statesman’s involvement with aviation than that. Weyers revealed the key role the former Boer general played in founding both the British Royal Air Force and the South African Air Force:
When he got to England in 1916 to attend the Imperial Conference, Germany was bombing London. (Britain’s leaders) found in Jan Smuts an experienced general of three wars (the Second Anglo-Boer War, war against German South West Africa [now Namibia] and his role in fighting German troops in German East Africa [modern Tanzania]).
The story was the Oubaas could actually see the Zeppelins from his room in the Dorchester.
Britain’s leadership adopted a two-man commission, made up of Prime Minister Lloyd George and General Smuts. Weyers referred to the extraordinary speed with which Smuts worked:
The Oubaas produced two papers for (the British) parliament, … addressing the issues at hand – he really tackled them and he produced these reports (in record time.)
Smuts produced an epoch-making work, Weyers said:
The second document to parliament -- subsequently called the single most important document in the history of air power.
The work is still studied by military experts today, such as this thesis
by Wing Commander Luck. Weyers explained that Smuts wanted to amalgamate the two existing air services, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) supporting the army and the (Royal Naval Air Service) RNAS. Weyers added in response to German raids on London by both Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers:
He actually said aircraft should be used in an offensive manner rather than defensive that they should be able to strike at the heartland of the enemy, striking at the armaments industry….The British parliament gave Smuts a free hand, a result of which, Weyers said:
He set up an air ministry. A person was appointed to this ministry who later was greatly respected: Air Marshall Lord (Hugh) Trenchard.
However, all was not plain sailing:
There was enormous enormous opposition from the Royal Navy to having their air arm removed.
Eventually, the Royal Air Force, the oldest air arm on earth, was established on Apr.1 1918. Weyers said Smuts felt:
This was the way forward, which I think subsequent conflicts have proven. Oubaas’ prophecies were largely quite correct.
This led to the founding in 1920, of the next oldest air force, the SAAF:
He then obviously wanted the same for South Africa. Pierre van Ryneveld was at that stage in Germany, was assessing what could be taken from the Germans what could be useful (to South Africa). He was recalled.
The official founding date of the SAAF is Feb.1, 1920.
Added to South African pilots like Van Ryneveld and Victoria Cross-winning ace, Captain F.W. Beauchamp-Proctor, Britain gave South Africa a huge collection of aircraft and related materials, which came to be known as the Imperial Gift. Weyers said:
This comprised aircraft, dope for aircraft, hangers…tents, vehicles. Sir Pierre was detailed to work out what was going to work. It was all put into crates (shipped to Cape Town), which were railed to … Swartkop.
Weyers added a little-known fact:
Interestingly enough the railways charged an exorbitant fee.
Also, the airfield that was demarcated at the time, first spelled “Zwartkop” in Dutch style, later changed to the present “Swartkop.” Weyers explained the reason: “West of where the base is, is a long koppie, (a hill) it looks very dark, hence Swart (Black) Kop (Hill). He added:
It is said that Swarktop is the oldest operational Air Force Base today.
I asked how the Imperial Gift affected flying in SA?
Well, it gave us the infrastructure; we got a ready-made air force. (Otherwise) We would have had to purchase aircraft from all over the world, with hangers, with the aircraft, vehicles tents dope.
Weyers ended on a personal note:
From a personal perspective: I’m enormously proud of the fact that it was the Oubaas’ doing that we were given the gift at all.
According to the SAAF’s official website
, South Africa received a total of 113 aircraft.