Many people in South Africa believe that Field Marshall Jan Smuts was the only South African to have attained the rank of "Marshall". In fact there are a few South Africans who attained that level of rank, usually highly decorated and serving in the British forces during WW2. One of them was Air Chief Marshall Sir H. W. L. "Dingbat" Saunders GCB, KBE, MC, DFC & Bar, MM
An "Air Chief Marshall" and a "Knight" of the British Realm - quite significant for a youngster from Johannesburg with the nickname of "Dingbat", never mind the gallantry decorations of a Military Cross, two Distinguished Flying Crosses and a Military Medal.
Hugh "Dingbat" Saunders was born in Johannesburg on 24th August 1894, in fact he came from Germiston and was educated at Marist Brothers College in Johannesburg. How he got the nickname "Dingbat" is unknown but generally a "dingbat" is someone who is a little "odd" or a little out of the ordinary. However as a kid from Germiston, Dingbat was certainly to prove in the future he was set up to live up that nickname as being quite different.
He graduated just as WW1 broke out and joined up in August 1914 at the age of 20 and started off as a private , serving with the Witwatersrand Rifles, then found his way the South African Horse, winning the Military Medal (MM) for bravery whilst serving in the then Union of South Africa Armed Forces.
Dingbat had a love and passion for the new world of flying, and as South Africa did not have an Air Force in WW1 during those early days of flying and he had no choice but to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 as did a number of South Africans. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was part of the British Army and was the beginning of what would become the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the end of WW1.
Starting as an Officer Cadet, Dingbat Saunders was promoted to temporary 2nd Lieutenant (on probation) on 2 August 1917 and posted to 84 Squadron in November 1917, flying SE5a's during the German offensive of March 1918 when the aircraft were fitted with bombs as well as machine guns. They operated in pairs against the German ground and air forces. Incidentally, 84 Squadron was also home to a South African Victoria Cross recipient - South Africa's most highest decorated person, Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC & Bar, DFC.
By the time Dingbat left 84 Squadron in August 1918 he had been credited with 15 victories and was the senior flight commander of the squadron.
The citation for the award of the Military Cross (MC) reads as follows:
T./2nd Lt Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M.M, Gen. List, attd. R.A.F.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During recent operations he destroyed five enemy machines and shot down four out of control. He showed great courage and skill in engaging enemy aircraft, and did splendid service.
Promoted to Captain he displayed an unbelievable degree of bravery, being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation for the DFC reads as follows:
Lieut.(T./Capt) Hugh William Lumsden Saunders, M.C.,M.M.
An officer of exceptional courage who, since he was awarded the M.C., has destroyed five enemy aircraft and shot down two balloons in flames. While on patrol he observed a formation of seven hostile scouts below him. Diving to attack he engaged the leader and firing short bursts at close range shot him down nose foremost; the remainder of the formation scattered in all directions.
During the period between WW1 and WW2 Hugh Saunders remained with the fledgling RAF to make a career in the service. He had earned a formidable reputation as a combat pilot and began more formal training at the RAF Staff College in 1928, attaining his first command of RAF 45 Squadron in 1932. This was followed by more staff training at the Imperial Defence College in 1938 and then found his way to New Zealand as the Chief of Air Staff of the Royal New Zealand Air Force. a post which he held until the onset of WW2.
WW2 had moved into full swing and Dingbat made his way back to the UK and into the thick of commanding RAF operations in Europe. In February 1942 he joined Fighter Command HQ as the Air Officer Administration but soon became the Air Officer Commanding No11 Group, fighter command.
11 Group Fighter Command had been the epicentre of fighter operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940, was responsible for the defence of London, the English South East and operated from the famous "Battle of Britain Bunker". By the time Dingbat Saunders joined No 11 Group on the 28th November 1942 the Battle of Britain was over but Britain was not out of the woods.
No 11 Group was now largely concerned with air operations over occupied Europe as well as defensive operations of British airspace and bomber escort missions. DingbatSaunders was still holding the position of Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group in June 1944 and oversaw the RAF fighter operations during Operation Overlord (the D Day landings) which were controlled from the Battle of Britain Bunker.
By 1944 Hugh Saunders had advanced to the position of Director General of Personnel in the Air Ministry and on 1st August 1945 he attained the rank of Air Marshall Commanding the Royal Air Force in Burma fighting the last of the Japanese occupiers.
At the end of the war RAF Burma had 28 squadrons under its control which quickly reduced as demobilisation took place. Transport squadrons then saw the largest amount of work, evacuating POW's and internees and supplying garrisons and the civilian population with supplies.
After the war and his South East Asia appointment, Hugh Saunders was sent back to the UK when in January 1947 he became Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief for Bomber Command.
He went on to become Inspector-general of the RAF (1949-1950) being promoted Air Chief Marshall in 1950. In February 1951 he assumed the mantle of Commander-in Chief of the Air Forces in Western Europe for NATO and by April 1951 he was the Air Deputy to the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, none other than the famous Dwight D. "Ike" Eisenhower.
Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh "Dingbat" Saunders ended his outstanding military career on 27th July 1953, having attained what is one of the highest ranking positions in world military aviation and is certainly the only South African to reach such a high level of aviation command.
After his retirement Hugh Saunders was invited to serve as a special advisor to the Danish Minister of Defence in 1954. He was instrumental in reorganising the Danish Air Force where he improved the training and introduced specialist commands, resulting the previously high accident rate falling. He served in Denmark until 1956 and received the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog for his services.
Hugh Saunders was given a number of knighthoods. In the Order of the Bath, he was made a Knight Grand Cross (GCB) on 1 June 1953, having already attained Knight Commander KCB on 2 January 1950 and Companion to the Order (CB) in June 1943.
Under the Order of the British Empire "Dingbat" was appointed a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KBE) on 14 June 1945 having already obtained the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Officer CBE in July 1941.
In addition he also received the Commanders Cross with Star from Poland, a Commander of the Legion of Merit from the USA and an Officer of the Legion of Honour from France.
What an amazing career for a youngster from Germiston who started his military career in the Witwatersrand Rifles.
Hugh Saunders passed away in the UK after a long life at age 92.