Biplane fighter aces

The Commonwealth

Brigadier Hendrik Johannes Piet Burger, SAAF no. 102728V

Burger was commissioned in the SA Permanent Force on 6 September 1939.
He served in the 1 SAAF Squadron from 1 June 1940 to 30 September 1940.

On 7 August, Lieutenant Burger in a Fury north of Wajir saw a Ca.133 – but it was too far away to allow the slow biplane to catch up.
However, later the day Burger tested his Fury against one of the Gladiators for rate of climb, and won!

On 1 October 1940, he was posted to 2 SAAF Squadron.
In October, this unit was operating from Garissa in Kenya against the Italians in East Africa. Among the types used by this unit at the time was Hawker Furies.

At dusk on 19 October 1940, three Ca.133s from Gowben undertook a dusk raid on Garissa airfield. They claimed the destruction of two aircraft on the ground and also claimed one of two intercepting fighters shot down. Two Furies of F. Detachment 2 SAAF Squadron scrambled, flown by Lieutenant Burger (Det. OC) and Wiese. Burger attacked one bomber and shot it down after three firing passes. The Caproni force-landed and the crew of five were made prisoners but after they had set fire to their aircraft. Lieutenant Wiese managed a 300 round burst at another Caproni before he and Burger lost the two Ca.133s in the gathering dusk.
Night had fallen when the two Furies returned. No SAAF aircraft was damaged on the ground during the attack.
According to some sources, this attack took place on 20 October.

On 7 January, he was posted back to 1 SAAF Squadron in Sudan.

At 09:50 on 22 January, during the day’s third patrol from Kassala, the enemy was encountered in strength. Captain Gerald Le Mesurier and Lieutenant Servaas de K. Viljoen had taken off in Gladiators with Lieutenants Burger (Hurricane ‘298’) and Oscar ‘Jeep’ Coetzee in Hurricanes, to patrol over Colonel Messervy’s Gazelle Force that had run into resistance near Wachia-Keru. A formation of three Ca.133s were seen near Keru by Lieutenant Coetzee, who waggled his wings to warn the rest of the formation. The Hurricanes climbed into the sun before diving to attack. The Capronis jettisoned their bombs as they saw the Hurricanes coming in. Lieutenant Burger attacked the no. 3 of the formation (with a “81” on the fin). He saw a small flame issue from the belly of the bomber before he broke steeply left, with Coetzee now closing with it from 365m. Firing short bursts, then a long burst from 180m, Coetzee broke off at less than 45m. Burger saw that as Coetzee broke away, the Ca.133 burst into flames and four crewmen baled out. Burger then attacked the leading bombers, but it dived to port and he turned on the last Caproni. Expending the last of his ammunition on it, he saw thick black smoke issue from the port engine. Some escorting CR.42s engaged the attackers. Lieutenant Coetzee had to break off from making a pass at the last Caproni when he found a Fiat behind him. He evaded downwards and looked about to find the sky miraculously clear of aircraft – an uncanny experience for many fighter pilots, caused by dispersion as aircraft moved away from the central focus of a combat to sort out their own disputes.
The Capronis were from the 18o Squadriglia, 27o Gruppo, which reported being attacked two Hurricanes and four Gladiators. They lost one bomber and got the other two damaged. One of the survivors reported:

“On the morning of 22 January 1941 a formation of three Caproni Ca.133s of the 18o Squadriglia, 27o Gruppo, took off from Asmara to bomb the enemy advancing from the north. Tenente Passetto was in command and I, a Sergente, was the second pilot. The aircraft on the right was flown by Sottotenente Nicoletti and Sergente Belcaro, while the one on the left was flown by an officer whose name I do not remember, and Sergente Dichino. After take-off I took over control from Tenente Passetto who gave me the course and altitude. Over Agordat we received an escort of two Fiat CR.42s which stayed 200 meters above us. Not long after, the Observer Commander of the aircraft came into the cockpit and, staying between the two pilots, indicated to the Tenente to look down to the left. After a moment I saw a shower of flak coming from below and I then saw two Hurricanes. Then Tenente ordered us to jettison the bombs, took over control and started to bank in the direction of home. A Hurricane attacked from behind and the aircraft on the left crashed in flames, while that on the right was hit, dived away and disappeared from our view.
We were alone in the sky, the Tenente banked again, increasing speed. I saw the needle of the tachometer move forward and stop at 175km/h. The Hurricane turned back, attacking us again. We were hit by one bullet after another and the Observer Commander was wounded in the thigh. Our radio operator was very good; he was firing with a Lewis gun to the rear and was managing to reload very swiftly. In the meantime the engineer was manning another Lewis but was only getting off single shots. The next thing that happened was that the petrol tank was hit by a burst of fire. I saw a torrent of fuel pouring over the engineer, the floor, and eventually disappearing through the doors, leaving a grey trail behind us… I was looking at all that fuel and worrying about the engine exhaust. We were then attacked again from the right – the Hurricanes were determined to finish this old Caproni that was still flying! The right engine was hit, I heard the sound of bullets hitting metal parts all around the aircraft, but fortunately none of us was shot. Our escort did intervene, but from my seat I couldn’t see a thing. Those who could see said that there were four Gladiators present also.
The Tenente landed at Agordat, the tyre burst and the Caproni ran on the wheel rims with a terrible noise; after that it drew to a halt. A moment later Sottotenente Nicoletti’s Caproni also landed, damaged and with one wounded. When banking I had thought I saw for a moment a very, very small Caproni far below. It was Sottotenente Nicoletti; up higher something bright was coming down very slowly. These images disappeared very quickly from my vision. When we landed a mechanic explained the mystery. It was the radio operator of the plane that had been shot down in flames; he had been soaked in fuel and caught fire as he had baled out, falling like a burning torch on his parachute – ironically his surname was Fuoco (fire).
The ambulance arrived and picked up the wounded. The engineer complained that he was very sore because being showered with fuel and was longing for a proper shower! After this action the 18o Squadriglia had no more aircraft. The Officer, Sergente and engineer (wounded in the shoulder) from the aircraft shot down, had been able to bale out and arrived in our line on foot. Out of the three crews there was one person dead and three wounded. The mechanics were able to repair the damage to Sottotenente Nicoletti’s Caproni just sufficiently to allow the aircraft to fly back to Asmara. However, I confirm that in the afternoon the Hurricanes returned and blew up my Caproni; it carried the number 18-4.”

A patrol at noon on the same day spotted two Ca.133s on Agordat aerodrome, which lay on the road to Keren.
Later that day Lieutenants Burger (Hurricane ‘298’) and John Hewitson (Hurricane ‘272’) strafed them there. They destroyed the Ca.133 (18-4), which had been damaged in the earlier combat and claimed damage to another (probably also from 18o Squadriglia).

At 14:45 on 28 January, Lieutenants Andrew Duncan and Burger (Hurricane V7622) scrambled to intercept an unidentified number of aircraft over Agordat. Two CR.42s bounced Duncan and another attacked Burger. Both managed to evade but not before Burger´s Hurricane was damaged.

At 14:00 on 29 January, 1 SAAF Squadron took off to attack Gura, with six Hurricanes (Major Lawrence Wilmot, Captain K. W. Driver, Lieutenants John Hewitson, Andrew Duncan, Burger and Leonard le Clues Theron) flying as top cover to five Gladiators, which would strafe. As they approached the Hurricanes run into several S.79s and a large number of CR.42s, which were seen over the airfield, the bombers having just returned from a raid over the front, and the fighters having scrambled at the approach of the South African aircraft. Captain Driver at once attacked an S.79 as it was going in to land, and shot it down in flames, two members of the crew baling out. The Gladiators then arrived, led by Captain Brian Boyle. These also met the Fiats, Lieutenant H. P. Smith (Gladiator N5851) and Lieutenant E. A. Jarvis each claiming one shot down.
Capitano Antonio Raffi, commander of the 412a Squadriglia, was above with two of his pilots, Tenente Luciano Cacciavillani and Maresciallo Aroldo Soffritti (they scrambled at 15:20), and he saw the Hurricane shoot down the S.79 before he could intervene. He then spotted the Gladiators, which he believed to be six strong, and at once, a great dogfight begun, during which the South Africans saw many Fiats falling away. Driver meanwhile had seen Adi Ugri landing ground on which four S.81s were dispersed, and attacking these, he left one (claimed as a S.79) in flames.
On return to base the combat with the Fiats was fully discussed, and it was decided that five had been shot down, one each by Lieutenant Smith and Lieutenant Jarvis, the other three being impossible to allocate to individual pilots. All the SAAF aircraft returned safely, although one Gladiator (N5831) had been hit by a single bullet.
This proves how easy it was to overestimate the damage caused, and indeed the numbers involved, in a whirling dogfight. Although several CR.42s were hit and damaged, none was in fact shot down. Tenente Cacciavillani's CR.42 was badly damaged by 50 hits, and Maresciallo Soffritti's was also damaged. Capitano Raffi’s own aircraft was hit five times and he recorded that he took ten bullets in his parachute and lost the fabric in the fuselage close to the cockpit and the tail plane. It seems that Raffi’s fire hit and damaged Lieutenant Smith Gladiator, who landed unhurt. The Italians reported combat against four Hurricanes and six Gladiators and reported one Gladiator shot down. Tenente Cacciavillani fired 60 rounds of 7.7mm, and claimed a Gladiator probably destroyed (shared) (strangely enough, this claim has been cancelled by a pen line in his logbook).

In May 1941, 1 SAAF Squadron was transferred to the North African Front.

On 16 May Captain M. Quirk and Burger were out strafing M/T and light tanks near Acroma. Burger’s Hurricane (V7862) was hit by AA fire and he belly-landed a mile west of the town. Quirk circled overhead and saw his colleague set fire to the Hurricane. He also saw German troops approaching and decided to land nearby in an attempt to rescue Burger. Both men squeezed into the cockpit with Burger sitting on Quirk’s lap, the latter having discarded his parachute pack. The heavily-laden Hurricane shredded its tailwheel as it become airborne but Quirk made a creditable landing at Sidi Haneish, and was awarded an immediate DSO for this action.

On 22 June 1941, he returned to the Union to serve as a flying instructor.

In July 1942, he was promoted to Captain.

He returned to 1 SAAF Squadron on 17 March 1945 and served in this unit until 9 September the same year.

In August 1945 he volunteered and was selected for 7 Wing service in the Far East while still serving in the Union but this seems to have come to nothing due to the wars end.

Burger ended the war with 1 victory, this one claimed while flying Hawker Furies.

He remained in the air force after the war and served in 2 SAAF Squadron during the Korean War during the period March-September 1952, being awarded a US DFC and Air Medal.

In the 60’s he served as Commander of the Ysterplaat AFB.

In August 1967, he was promoted to Brigadier.

He subsequently retired and has now passed away.

Kill no. Date Time Number Type Result Plane type Serial no. Locality Unit
1 19/10/40 p.m. 1 Ca.133 (a) Destroyed Fury ’200’ Garissa 2 SAAF Squadron
  22/01/41 09:50- ½ Ca.133 (b) Shared destroyed Hurricane ’298’ Keru area 1 SAAF Squadron
  22/01/41 09:50- 1 Ca.133 (b) Damaged Hurricane ’298’ Keru area 1 SAAF Squadron
  22/01/41 p.m. ½ Ca.133 (c) Shared destroyed on the ground Hurricane ’298’ Agordat airfield 1 SAAF Squadron
  22/01/41 p.m. ½ Ca.133 (d) Shared damaged on the ground Hurricane ’298’ Agordat airfield 1 SAAF Squadron

Biplane victories: 1 destroyed.
TOTAL: 1 and 1 shared destroyed, 1 shared destroyed and 1 shared damaged on the ground.
(a) The crew was taken POW’s. According to some sources this combat took place on 20 October.
(b) Claimed in combat with the 18o Squadriglia, 27o Gruppo that lost one Ca.133 and got two damaged. 1 SAAF Squadron claimed 1 Ca.133 and one damaged.
(c) Ca.133 (18-4) of 18 a Squadriglia.
(d) Probably from 18o Squadriglia.

Air Enthusiast Quarterly/Three kindly provided by Börje Henningsson
Dust Clouds in the Middle East - Christopher Shores, 1996 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-898697-37-X
Hurricanes over Tobruk - Brian Cull with Don Minterne, 1999 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-902304-11-X
Springbok Fighter Victory: East Africa Volume 1 1940 – 1941 – Michael Shoeman, 2002 African Aviation Series No. 11, Freeworld Publications CC, ISBN 0-958-4388-5-4
Those Other Eagles – Christopher Shores, 2004 Grub Street, London, ISBN 1-904010-88-1

Last modified 24 February 2016