General Sir H. A. (“Pierre”) van Ryneveld, KBE, CB, DSO, and MC established the South African Air Force in 1920.
Van Ryneveld was born on 2 May 1891 at Senekal in the Free State. He matriculated at Grey College School in Bloemfontein and was also trained as engineer in London where he entered a British regiment in August 1914 to be trained as a pilot. In July 1915 he joined the Royal Flying Corps (forerunner of the RAF), and served in WWI as a war pilot and commanding officer in the mid-East and France.
In 1919 General Jan Smuts recalled him from Cologne where he served as squadron commander. General Smuts, Prime Minister of the former Union of South Africa, decided that South Africa must establish its own air force, and for this purpose Colonel van Ryneveld (27 years old) was selected. With effect from 1 February 1920, van Ryneveld was appointed as Director of Air Services, and was instructed to form an air arm that would be part of the army. He fought this idea and won, and consequently the South African Air Force SAAF was formed as an independent unit of the army. In June 1920 the first recruit was sworn in.
General Smuts wanted South African aviators to be the first to complete the trip from London to South Africa. He authorised the purchase of a Vickers Vimy at a cost of £4 500. It was named the Silver Queen, and commanded by Lt Col van Ryneveld with First Lt Quinton Brand as the co-pilot. They took off from Brooklands (England) on 4 February 1920. After an exciting night crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, they arrived at Derna the next morning. More night flying following in a challenge to catch the Vickers Vimy sponsored by the London Times. The Silver Queen was however wrecked during a force landing at Korosko in Sudan.
A second Vimy F8615 was purchased from the RAF at Heliopolis. The original engines were installed into it, and The Silver Queen II left from Cairo on 22 February. Five days later the London Times challenger was destroyed in a crash at Tabora. The same bad luck happened to the Silver Queen II at Bulawayo (in Zimbabwe) on 6 March.
Fortunately, with some of the “Imperial Gift” aircraft already in Pretoria, a DH9 H5646 called Voortrekker was put together, and dispatched post haste to Bulawayo. Van Ryneveld and Brand were therefore able to complete their flight to Cape Town where the arrived at Young’s Field on 20 March 1920 after a total flying time of 109 hours and 30 minutes.
Following an extremely generous decision by the Imperial government in 1919 to allocate to the Union from its war stocks, a donation of 100 surplus military aircraft, (48 De Havilland DH9s, 30 Avro 504Ks and 22 SE 5a scouts), complete with spares and maintenance equipment, which became known as the Imperial gift, got the SAAF off to a flying start. In 1921 the SAAF bought a site east of Roberts Height (later Voortrekkerhoogte and now Thaba Tswane), near Pretoria. Here the first aerodrome for the SAAF was established and was named Zwartkops.
In 1929 Pierre van Ryneveld became the officer commanding at Robert’s Heights (Thaba Tswane) and Commandant of the S.A. Military College, but remained Director of Air Services. The post of DAS was abolished on 30 April 1933 and on the following day Col Pierre van Ryneveld was promoted to Brigadier-General and appointed Chief of the General Staff. There was thus no chief of the SAAF and it remained under Van Ryneveld’s direct control until 30 June 1939.
South Africa’s military aimed at greater things, and in September 1939 the Chief of Staff, van Ryneveld, proposed the formation of a Mobile Field Force. It was intended to be made up of two infantry divisions (each of three infantry brigades), a mounted brigade and an armoured regiment. Together with supporting artillery and coastal defence forces, 140,000 men would be required Even though it was not formally accepted, the proposal set the prototype for a later mobilisation and force structure. In October 1939, van Ryneveld, as Chief of the General Staff, approved a plan known as the Peace Expansion Scheme, under which a total of 720 aircraft were acquired – 336 of which were fighters. When Italy entered the war in 1940, South African squadrons were sent to East Africa, later to be supplemented by more modern aircraft. The SAAF played a remarkable role in the victory over Mussolini’s African Empire.
Pierre van Ryneveld retired on 2 May 1949. The distinguished and highly decorated SAAF pilot died in Pretoria on 2 December 1972.