“Intrepid in attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life so that his comrades might live.” – Victoria Cross Citation
Last month, we received a letter from an enthusiastic African Pilot reader, requesting that we publish more articles on South African pilots. In his letter, the reader referred to Edwin Swales, who had been awarded the Victoria Cross for an exceptional feat of bravery. So this month, in response to said letter, we will not only find out who Edwin Swales was, but also how he earned the prestigious Victoria Cross. Throughout history, thousands of pilots displayed great skill, courage and bravery, but if you regard a specific pilot as one of the ‘Best of the Best’, send us an e-mail and tell us about whom you would like to read, in your favourite aviation magazine.
The Victoria Cross
Before we take a closer look at Edwin Swales, it is important to understand the significance of the medal that was awarded to him. More than 150 years ago, the Victoria Cross, or V.C., was instituted as the highest British military decoration for ‘valour in the face of the enemy.’ The Victoria Cross was named after Queen Victoria who reigned from 1837 to 1901. The early Victoria Crosses were made in bronze cut from a Russian field gun captured during the Crimean War 1853-1856. Any man, who had earned the right to wear a maroon ribbon -representing his V.C. on his chest, was continually honoured and respected, throughout his lifetime. The Victoria Cross could be awarded to members of military forces, from the humblest Private through to Generals, of any Commonwealth country. From the time of its institution in 1856, one point remains clear. ‘The Victoria Cross was intended to be worn exclusively by heroes and legends.’ One interesting point is that in the early days of the Victoria Cross, it could not be awarded posthumously. Only during the reign of George V who reigned from 1910 to 1936 was this decision rescinded and posthumous Victoria Crosses were awarded. The first two recipients of posthumous Victoria Crosses were Lieutenants Melville and Coghill, who were killed whilst endeavouring to save their Regimental Colours after the battle of Isandlwana against the Zulus in January 1879. The two men are buried at Fugitives’ Drift in Natal, South Africa. The Colours which were lost, were subsequently retrieved and now hang in Brecon Cathedral in Wales.
The early years
Edwin Swales was born in 1915 in Inanda, in the Natal Province of the South African Union. Whilst Edwin was still a toddler, his father died of influenza, so Edwin’s mother took him and his siblings to live in Durban. Edwin loved sport and excelled in rugby and cricket. In fact, he put so much effort into becoming a good rugby player, that he failed his matric exams. After completing school at Durban High School, he played rugby for various clubs and eventually represented Griquas and Natal (as a reserve) on a provincial level. As a matter of interest, Swales would later play for the South African Services team against the Australian Services side in an Inter-Dominion rugby match in 1944.
World War II
Rugby wasn’t Edwin Swales’ only passion. After school, he completed his Active Citizen Force with the Natal Mounted Rifles, whilst working at a Barclays Bank. When World War II broke out, Swales became a permanent member of the Natal Mounted Rifles and soon saw action in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Edwin Swales also served as a Sergeant Major with the 1st South African Infantry Division in the Middle East and Egypt. Whilst serving in that area, he became well respected and known for being brave and courageous. At the age of 27, Edwin Swales applied to be transferred back to South Africa to be trained as a pilot for the South African Air Force (SAAF). The application was granted and Edwin quickly became the top pupil at Number 4 Air School at Benoni.
Swales received his wings in 1943 and was promoted to Lieutenant. Later that year, he was promoted to Captain and seconded to the Royal Air Force (RAF), whilst remaining a member of the SAAF. Swales loved flying and became an outstanding bomber pilot – capable of flying Avro Lancasters with great precision. During one of his more dangerous missions, Swales’ Lancaster was damaged to the extent that only one of the four engines was still working, yet he managed to nurse the damaged aircraft back to Belgium, where he made a forced landing. In 1944, Swales was transferred to an elite Pathfinder squadron, where he became good friends with Squadron Leader Robert Palmer. Edwin may have been modest and non-assertive, but he was a natural leader and always remained calm when put under pressure. Palmer taught Swales a great deal about Pathfinder operations and soon enough, Swales became a ‘master bomber’.
On Robert Palmer’s 111th mission, the squadron was to attack marshalling yards close to Cologne in Germany. During this daylight raid, Palmer was to fly ahead of the rest of the Lancasters flight, dropping his bombs first, in order to mark the target. On the way to the target, Palmer’s aircraft was severely damaged by anti-aircraft fire. Despite being under attack by German fighters and despite ‘losing’ two engines, Palmer kept the burning Lancaster on course and accurately ‘marked’ the marshalling yards with his bombs. The stricken aircraft then became uncontrollable and plummeted to the ground, killing all its crew. Edwin Swales led the remaining flight of Lancasters to successfully destroy the target. After the sortie, Palmer was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, and Swales received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
On 23 February 1945, Swales was to locate a target, before the rest of his flight of bombers arrived at the target area. As his Lancaster approached the target, the night sky was illuminated by flashes of exploding anti-aircraft shells. Whilst under attack by a Me-110, Swales remained over the target area, constantly giving bombing instructions to the main bomber force. Whilst Swales’ Lancaster circled over the inferno on the ground, the Me-110 night fighter damaged two of the Lancaster’s engines and caused leaks in its fuel tanks. Nevertheless, Swales refused to abandon his duty until the mission had been successfully completed. In fact, that particular mission turned out to be one of the most concentrated and successful night attacks of World War II. Once the target area was sufficiently saturated with exploding bombs, Swales turned his attention to the safety of his crew. By then the Lancaster had been severely damaged and was constantly losing altitude, but Swales skilfully managed to fly the bomber back to friendly territory. It was quickly becoming increasingly difficult to maintain control over the stricken bomber, so Swales ordered his crew to bail out, whilst he remained in his seat to prevent the Lancaster from stalling. Even without any of his night flying instruments working, ‘Master Bomber’ Swales managed to keep the aircraft steady until the last crew member had bailed out. The bomber then violently snapped out of control and crashed. The wreckage was found in Northern France, with the body of Edwin Swales still strapped in his seat.
Edwin Swales, the ‘master bomber’ was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
In a telegram to Edwin Swales’ mother, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris said the following: “On every occasion your son proved himself a determined fighter and a most gallant and resolute captain of his crew. On his last mission he successfully completed a vital task allotted to him with great coolness and courage, despite severe damage to his aircraft. Thereafter his only thought was for the safety of his crew. This he achieved at the cost of his own life. His devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety will remain an example and inspiration to all of us.”
As a matter of interest, a double highway in Durban was named ‘Edwin Swales V.C. Drive’, in honour of this great South African aviator. However, at the time of writing, it seems likely that the name of the highway will be changed to ‘Solomon Mahlangu Drive.’ Mahlangu was an Umkhonto weSizwe insurgent who was hanged in 1979 after being tried for the murder of two civilians.
This article was written by Divan Muller and first published in African Pilot Magazine in 2008 - www.africanpilot.co.za