SAAF: working in war and peace

Aviation enthusiast Dean Wingrin’s new book, Tumult in the clouds: Stories from the South African Air Force 1920-2010, brings to life the history of the South African Air Force.
(Image: DefenceWeb)

tumult-text3 Oryx 1228 of 19 Squadron, May 2011. The air force is not just about war, aircraft and weapons. It has also assisted in countless relief and rescue missions in southern Africa.
(Image: Dean Wingrin)

tumult-text5 The South African Air Force aerobatic team, the Silver Falcons, regularly participate in air shows around the country with aircraft flying and static exhibits.
(Image: silverfalcons.co.za)

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Aviation enthusiast Dean Wingrin’s new book brings to life the history of the South African Air Force (SAAF) through previously unpublished stories of heroism, duty and adventure, told from the perspectives of the people who served as members of the Air Force since its inception in 1920.

Wingrin compiled Tumult in the clouds: Stories from the South African Air Force 1920-2010 to ensure the many stories of current and veteran airmen and ground crew, spanning over 90 years since the establishment of the SAAF, are preserved for future generations.

“This book is not here to glorify war, but to celebrate man’s ability to overcome difficulties and hardships, to honour ingenuity and the love of flight,” he says.

His interest in and knowledge of all things aviation led him to establish the unofficial website of the South African Air Force, and it is through this platform that he heard many of the stories that appear in the book.

“I received so many letters and emails from people who were willing to share their stories,” he says, adding that initially his idea was to publish these on the website. But, then he got the idea to rather compile a collection of these stories.

He realised that as veterans get older there is a real danger that many of these fascinating stories – and photographs – could be lost forever as people pass away.

An individual perspective

Numerous books have been written about the history of the SAAF, but many were authored by people who were not there, written in a style that focuses on dates, facts and figures.

What have always been missing are the people behind the story, and this is what stands out about Tumult in the clouds.

It tells the story of the SAAF, in the voices of those who were participants in that history.

The book is a collection of hundreds of personal accounts and memories of those who served in or with the SAAF since its establishment, from the Second World War to today. Wingrin interviewed and corresponded with nearly all the contributors.

“This is a book that describes their personal experiences,” he says. “These stories are told in the words of the actual participant, exactly as they perceived their experience.”

The stories have been collated in nine parts: formation of the SAAF, 1920-1939; World War Two, 1939-1945; Berlin Airlift, 1948; Korea, 1953 to 1955; Rhodesia, 1967 to 1980; Border War, 1960 to 1988; post-war years, 1946 to 1994; post-1994 and display flying.

An important mission, often misunderstood

Wingrin says the SAAF, the second oldest air force in the Commonwealth, has a proud history rich in tradition, heroism and sacrifice. But through the contributions it becomes clear that the air force is not just about war, aircraft and weapons.

“It is about those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow countrymen as well as those living in foreign lands,” he says.

In the earlier years of its existence the air force played an important role in securing victory for the Allies during the Second World War, in the 1948/49 Berlin Airlift, and in Korea in the 1950s.

The SAAF also assisted then-Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – in the 1960s and 1970s and made a major contribution to the Border War in South West Africa, now known as Namibia, and Angola.

More recently, it participated in the transition to a new democracy in South Africa and the air wing continuously supports South African peace missions in Africa.

It has also assisted in countless relief and rescue missions in southern Africa, often under harsh conditions.

Tragedy and loss but also humour

Among the inevitable stories of tragedy and loss are also many humorous tales – the author says it was important to retain these while selecting the stories.

To complement the stories, the final chapter includes a collection of squadron pub songs from the Second World War, Korea and the Border War.

In the foreword, Lieutenant-General Denis Earp, chief of the SAAF from 1984 to 1988, says all members of the SAAF have stories to tell. “Some are very remarkable stories, some mundane. But the stories are not easily told,” Earp says.

Wingrin was surprised by people’s willingness to share their stories, and have them published.

“The majority of people were keen to talk about their experiences,” he says, adding that he noticed some commonalities between the stories.

“A common thread that struck me during the compilation of this book is that despite all the tragedy and horrors of war, it is the lighter moments that shine through,” he says. “The human mind has a tendency to shut out the bad memories while celebrating the good.”

The veterans he met were also modest. “I am continually amazed at how selfless the veterans are: no loud shouting of gallant deeds, no boasting of any kind.”

In fact, he says many didn’t even think their acts of bravery, for which they received medals or commendations, were even worth telling.

“Numerous contributors have stated that serving in the SAAF was a privilege, a period of their lives that they enjoyed and look back on fondly.”

He struggles to single out any favourite stories.

“All of them have something special about them,” he says. “It is amazing how many veterans account their tales in such great detail.”

A labour of love

The author and aviation photographer says he is fortunate to have had access to so many personal accounts.

He spent many hours in the evenings and over weekends conducting and transcribing interviews, trawling through photo albums and putting the book together.

Wingrin, who is a forensic accountant by profession, has no formal training in aviation. It is just something he’s been interested in since he was a child.

“I’ve always had a love of flight,” he says, and as he got older he developed an interest in the SAAF. “The air force has something magical about it that captures the imagination.”

And, he says there are still many stories left to publish. He is already thinking about compiling a second book.

• Tumult in the clouds: Stories from the South African Air Force 1920-2010 is available online at The Airforce Shop and selected Exclusive Books stores. Contact the author for details about other stockists.