• Christina Drummond

Major Edwin Essery Swales, VC, DFC, SAAF serving with RAF Pathfinders (582 Squadron)


Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1945, Major Edwin Essery Swales, VC, DFC, serving with the RAF Pathfinders (582 Squadron), was killed when his Avro Lancaster III PB538 was disabled due to enemy fire and crash-landed near Valenciennes in northern France. It was his forty-third operational flight for the squadron, and for which he was awarded the posthumous Victoria Cross.

Born in Inanda, Natal, he was raised in Durban and worked for Barclay’s Bank. In 1935 he joined the Natal Mounted Rifles, serving in Kenya; Abyssinia; Italian Somalia; British Somalia and Eritrea. In 1942 he joined the South African Air Force and was seconded to the Royal Air Force a year later. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in December of 1944 following a bombing raid on Cologne, during which he outmanoeuvred five enemy aircraft, and reference was made in the citation to his “spirited action” and “exceptional coolness.”

His Victoria Cross citation reads: “Captain Swales was ‘Master Bomber’ of a force of aircraft which attacked Pforzheim on the night of February 23, 1945. As Master Bomber he had the task of locating the target area with precision and of giving aiming instructions to the main force of bombers in his wake. Soon after he reached the target area he was engaged by an enemy aircraft and one of his engines was put out of action. His rear guns failed. His crippled aircraft was an easy prey for further attacks. Unperturbed, he carried on with his allotted task; clearly and precisely he issued aiming instructions to the main force. Meanwhile the enemy fighter closed the range and fired again. A second engine of Captain Swales’ aircraft was put out of action. Almost defenceless, he stayed over the target area issuing his aiming instructions until he was satisfied that the attack had achieved its purpose. It is now known that the attack was one of the most concentrated and successful of the war. Captain Swales did not, however, regard his mission as completed. His aircraft was damaged. Its speed had been so much reduced that it could only with difficulty be kept in the air. The blind-flying instruments were no longer working. Determined at all costs to prevent his aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands, he set course for home. After an hour he flew into thin-layered cloud. He kept his course by skilful flying between the layers, but later heavy cloud and turbulent air conditions were met. The aircraft, by now over friendly territory, became more and more difficult to control; it was losing height steadily. Realising that the situation was desperate Captain Swales ordered his crew to bail out. Time was very short and it required all his exertions to keep the aircraft steady while each of his crew moved in turn to the escape hatch and parachuted to safety. Hardly had the last crew-member jumped when the aircraft plunged to earth. Captain Swales was found dead at the controls. Intrepid in the attack, courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life that his comrades might live.” (The papers confirming his promotion to Major did not reach the British authorities until after his death, hence the use of Captain instead of Major in the citation).

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, KCB, OBE, AFC, Chief of Bomber Command, RAF, wrote to Major Swales’ mother: “On every occasion your son proved himself to be a determined fighter and resolute captain of his crew. His devotion to duty and complete disregard for his own safety will remain an example and inspiration to us all.”

In his home town of Durban, a street was named after him, but it has been renamed after Solomon Kalushi Mahlangu, an operative of the African National Congress militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. One opponent of this change stated that there should be no sacrifice of Major Swales’ legacy: “…one whose extremely brave deeds were awarded in a war which was to liberate the entire western world of tyrannical and rather deadly racial political philosophy as well as dictatorial megalomaniacs supporting such ideology.”

Major Swales was 29 years old; he is buried in the War Cemetery at Leopoldsburg, near Limburg in Belgium.

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