by Squadron Leader D.P Tidy
Readers may wonder why Squadron Leader D.P. Tidy now appears as Major D.P. Tidy. This is because he is now serving with the Air Task Force as a Citizen Force officer of the South African Air Force.
Captain K.W. Driver, DFC.
Sketched from a photograph by R.H. Wishart, 1976
In December 1940 General Wavell retook Sidi Barrani in the Western Desert and released the 4th Indian Division to fight against Eritrea. To meet the opposition expected from the Italian forces when they discovered that this Division was to sail into Port Sudan in convoy the SAAF was sent to assist in the defence of the port.
Major L.A. Wilmot was to command No. 1 Squadron, SAAF which had been defending Khartoum since August, and Captain K.W. Driver was posted with him to the Squadron on 13 Decemher 1940. They arrived at Port Sudan from Khartoum on that day in Hurricanes 285 and 274 (they were Mark I aircraft already outdated in Europe but pretty potent against the Italians over Eritrea and the Sudan). The RAF detachment at Port Sudan, K Flight, greeted them with open arms because after the two raids that the detachment had suffered they were left with two ancient Gladiators (this type of aircraft being a biplane that was even more outdated).
Three days later on 16 December 1940 Ken Driver was carrying out a demonstration flight in the Hurricane over the town when he intercepted three Savoia 79s and shot one down in flames. No. 1 Squadron also received five more Mark I Hurricanes on this day at Azaza, 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Gallabat, where the rest of the unit was stationed, and two of them (272 and 273) were flown to Port Sudan late in the afternoon.
The next day, 17 December 1940, Driver was scrambled after three Savoia 79s and shot one down over Suakin some 65 km (forty miles) from the airfield, thus having a most successful first four days with the 'Billy Boys' as this most famous SAAF Squadron was nicknamed.
Major Laurie Wilmot arrived at Azaza and took command of the Squadron on the last day of 1940, and it moved to Oxo about 35 miles west of Kassala on 17 January 1941. Ten days later Ken Driver saw more action, when on 27 January 1941 he and Lt 'Gugu' Hewitson came across four Savoia 81s at Adi Ugri, and with Hewitson covering him, Driver dived and expended all his ammunition without observing any success.
Two days later he took off again with seven other Hurricanes and five Gladiators to attack the Italian airfield at Gura. He shot down a Savoia 79 in flames, and his companions shot down at least four more. He also spotted four more Savoia 81s near Teramni, and left one in flames. Next morning, 30 January 1941, he led Lts Hewitson, Duncan and Theron to attack the remaining three Savoia 81s on the ground, setting fire to one, while Andy Duncan and Hewitson helped to set fire to the others. Ken found holes behind the hood of his Hurricane on his return, for the fire from the ground had been heavy but he was unhurt.
As C Flight Commander he was patrolling with Lt H.J.P. Burger the next day, 31 January 1941, and while over Agordat he shot down one of two Savoia 79s and Burger damaged the other. Early in February Driver led six aircraft to Blackdown Landing Ground and thence on to Metemna for refuelling, before going to Bahar Dar airfield to attack the aircraft and installations there. Three Caproni 133s were set on fire, Driver and Lts J.J. Coetzer and J.B. White getting one each, and Driver set fire to a large petrol dump but his mainplane was holed in the process.
The next day, 5 February 1941, a mixed formation of four Hurricanes and two Gladiators encountered six Fiat CR 42s and Driver shot one down near Asmara, as did Captain G.J. le Mesurier and Lt J.J. Coetzer. After a move to Kassala near the border between the Sudan and Eritrea, four Hurricanes were on an offensive patrol on 8 February 1941 when they were jumped by five Fiat CR 42s over Asmara in dusty weather but Driver shot one down having quickly adapted to the situation of two Fiats on his tail. He was lucky again two days later on 10 February 1941 when he attacked one of five Fiat CR 42s over Asmara, lost his formation in cloud, and shot down the CR42, but was himself hit. He became very short of fuel and his aircraft was severely damaged by the remaining Italian fighters. The left aileron was jammed, and only two strands of the right aileron control remained. 'The starboard petrol tank was hit, the port guns were hit, the tailplane was in rags, and the fairing behind the cockpit was blown to pieces. By skilful manoeuvring among the hills Captain Driver evaded complete destruction by the 42s and just made Agordat with the last drops of fuel. Certainly, in pilot's language, it was a shaky do' commented Captain Vivian Voss, MBE (fondly remembered as 'Pop'), in his definitive 'Story of No.1 Squadron, SAAF' (Mercantile Atlas).
Driver scored again on 13 February 1941 ('hacked' in the slang of the time) when he attacked a CR 42 that an Italian deserter later reported as destroyed in this combat, but this was not sufficient evidence to warrant recording on the Squadron shield.
A week later on 20 February 1941 Driver and Lt W.J. White sighted a petrol dump estimated at 11 365 litres (2 500 gallons), and two lorries, near Teramni, and left them in flames. They also carried out a reconnaissance patrol and attacked Zula airfield on 2 March 1941, setting fire to a 4 546 litre (1 000 gallon) fuel dump. Nine days later on 11 March 1941 Driver and Hewitson burned a Savoia 79 on Keren airfield, strafed a small biplane and machine-gunned three goods trains on the way back. Driver's aircraft was again damaged by anti-aircraft fire in these attacks.
On 17 March 1941, together with the new Officer Commanding, Major T. Ross Theron (Laurie Wilmot having been shot down and taken prisoner) Driver shot up some lorries on the Keren road. Four days later on 21 March 1941 he shot down a Fiat CR 42 and was then himself jumped by two more, getting an explosive bullet in his aileron that completely jammed it. After what he later described as a 'helluva battle' he succeeded in shaking off the CR 42s and reached Kassala, where he landed safely.
On 31 March 1941, with Lt J. van der Merwe, he took
off at 04h45 on a defensive patrol of the forward troops
in the area of Teclesan. At 06h20 the pair sighted three
Savoia 79s that had just bombed their targets and were
by then travelling eastwards into the sun. Ken Driver
shot one down but Lt van der Merwe was shot down by
an Italian and crashed heavily into some trees, making
no effort to crash-land, presumably because he had
been hit by fire from the Italian rear-gunner when he
broke upwards instead of downwards when he
misjudged his beam attack and changed it to a
Asmara fell on 1 April 1941 and Laurie Wilmot was found safe as a Prisoner of War in Adi Ugri but was sent to hospital in Agordat as he was suffering from dysentery.
No.1 Squadron records showed 48 enemy aircraft destroyed, and 57 damaged, in combat, and although in RAF combat records it was not usual to list such claims, 53 destroyed on the ground, for the loss of six pilots killed. Air Commodore Slatter, Air Officer commanding 203 Group in his message of congratulation and farewell noted 'Your work largely contributed to the success of the whole campaign, in that you defeated the Italian Air Force in Eritrea' which was a pretty fair compliment for a single squadron of fighters.
Ken Driver moved to Egypt with the Squadron on 8 April (having flown to Khartoum on 6th) to defend Alexandria from the airfield at Amriya, to the south of the city, and east of El Alamein (an obscure area of which few people had heard at that time). The defence of Alexandria was taken over from No.274 Squadron RAF on 16 April 1941, No.1 Squadron SAAF falling under the command of No.204 Group RAF. Air Commodore Ray Collishaw, VC, commanded the Desert Air Force at this stage and he had much sympathy with his 'fighter boys' having been a most distinguished 'scout' pilot (the equivalent in World War I to a fighter pilot).
On 20 April Captain Ken Driver and Lieutenant Robin Pare of 1 Squadron learned that they had both been awarded the DFC, well-deserved indeed. A month later on 21 May 1941, Driver and Lt Jarvis strafed motor transport and chased a Messerschmitt Bf 109 from a Hurricane's tail.Ken Driver went on voluntary detachment to No.274 Squadron RAF on 30 May 1941 together with Lts Talbot and Bester as that Squadron had lost so many pilots in the fighting over Crete. No. 274 was a very experienced fighting unit and 1 Squadron SAAF had moved up to join it with No.73 Squadron RAF at Sidi Haneish on May27 1941, having had a detachment of 12 pilots in this wilderness since 9 May.
On 31 May 1941 Ken Driver and Bob Talbot (who
had flown previously with No.274) escorted a Maryland
of No.24 Squadron SAAF and between them they
damaged a Junkers 88. Talbot finished it off while
Driver attacked three or four more that he had spotted
while they were carrying out their dive-bombing attack.
He went in head-on and sent it flaming into the sea.
Talbot damaged a second, and it was then shot down by
Lt Kearney, the pilot of the Maryland. When the No.1
Squadron pilots returned to their own Squadron on
2nd June it was to the congratulations of the Officer
On 3 June 1941 the Squadron lost Bob Talbot, described in a letter of condolence from the General Officer Commanding, Western Desert Forces, as . . one of your most gallant Officers.' On 14 June 1941 another loss was to occur. A Maryland of No. 24 Squadron was detailed to lead five Hurricanes of No.1 from Sidi Barrani to Gazala South airfield to attack the Luftwaffe. They took off at 05h15, but Lt Durose was forced to turn back, and visibility was so bad that the formation broke up and only Ken Driver was left with the Maryland. He was on a different radio-frequency from the bomber and although he saw the target as they passed over it he was unable to call the Maryland pilot and watched helplessly as he missed the airfield and flew on for 32 km (twenty miles). Driver decided to close up and try to attract the bomber pilot's attention but as he did so the Maryland turned back, and passed over Gazala at about 3 000 feet, Driver covering it at about 6 000.
Heavy flak came up and four Messerschmitt Bf 109s (one flown as we now know from Christopher Shores' and Hans Ring's excellent book 'Fighters over the Desert', by Oberleutnant Franzisket) took off. They were from the redoubtable German formation I/JG 27 which bore the emblem of a negroid and a leonine face on a map of Africa on its aircraft (a good example of this is to be seen in the South African Museum of Military History on the side of a Messerschmitt Bf 109).(1)
Driver made a frontal attack on Franzisket as he was climbing out of Gazala South, both pilots firing together. Driver missed, but Franzisket's burst hit the Hurricane's fuel tank which exploded, the flames burning the back of Driver's neck. Franzisket was by now too close and his left mainplane hit the tail of the Hurricane and cut it off. Driver then baled out, none too soon, but Franzisket carried on and shot down the Maryland, the pilot of which also baled out and was captured with Driver, and together they were entertained by I Gruppe of the Luftwaffe. Shores and Ring relate how Franzisket showed Driver his damaged Bf 109 and how Hauptman Springorum, who had lived for many years in the U.S.A. and spoke fluent English, was annoyed at being disturbed so early in the morning, and angrily asked the Maryland pilot, J.C. Newborn 'By the hell, what do you English want here in Africa?'. Smiling, Newborn, who was South African not English, replied 'The same as you Germans want here, sir!' and both of them then burst out laughing.
There are two good photographs in 'Fighters over the Desert' (Neville Spearman) one of which shows Ken Driver with the Gruppenkommandeur (Neuman), and Springorum and Franzisket, the other which shows Driver being taken by Franzisket to his tent for breakfast. Voss infers in his book that Driver's guns had jammed and that he had deliberately rammed Franzisket and smashed his airscrew, but Franzisket wrote differently. The fact that he thought that Driver was the second wave of an attack makes it clear how uncertain all these things were in the split seconds in which they took place. His account, given in 'Fighters over the Desert', reads: 'The l4June 1941 started a few minutes before dawn with bombs dropping and ground attacks being made on the south-east corner of the landing ground at Ain el Gazala, where 3 Staffel of JG 27 was stationed. At that time 1 Staffel were on alert. One alert rotte scrambled from the western edge of the airfield and pursued the low-flying Hurricanes in a westerly direction towards Tobruk where they caught them up.'(2) It could be that the Hurricanes referred to were those of No.73 Squadron RAF that had taken off nearly an hour before Ken Driver and had run into very heavy flak. Franzisket goes on: 'In the few minutes between the first and second waves of the attack, I jumped out of my bed and took off from the southern edge of the airfield. While closing the roof of my cockpit the mechanic showed me a twin-engined aircraft approaching from an easterly direction. I took off and closed in in a right-hand turn, at which I was fired on very violently by our own flak. While still climbing at 1500 metres a single Hurricane closed in on me from in front, and somewhat higher. As my aircraft was climbing very slowly I had no other choice than to point my Bf 109 at the Hurricane, approaching "Schnauze-auf-Schnauze" (head-on), and to fire. The Hurricane fired likewise, but his bursts were too high, as I could see very clearly by the tracer. We both fired until the last second, and the aircraft touched each other.Just before this I had seen hits on the engine of the Huricane, and Captain Driver told me afterwards that a cannon hit had set on fire the gravity tank of his Hurricane. This tank was in front of the seat and the darting flame burned his neck. When both aircraft collided, my airscrew touched the right wingtip of the Hurricane and Driver's airscrew touched the right wingtip of my Bf 109. I saw the Hurricane going down in a steep dive, and watched the pilot bale out. The Hurricane crashed some hundred metres south of the airfield, and Driver landed nearby. I turned and flew back to the airfield in a northern direction when suddenly I observed a Martin Maryland some hundred metres north-east of Gazala airfield at 1 500 metres. Although my aircraft was flying with one wing slightly low because of the damaged wingtip, I closed in and fired. The Maryland made a slight right-hand turn, I fired again, my burst going from the right engine along the whole fuselage to the tail. The right engine caught fire, the Maryland went into a flat spin and one man baled out, the bomber diving steeply and crashing some hundreds of metres north of the Via Balbia.
During the whole of the action there was no other Bf
109 in the sky over Ain el Gazala. Driver fired until the
last second before the collision. Afterwards he told me
that he had not seen the ramming, his aircraft already
being on fire, he was preparing to bale out. I
breakfasted with him in my tent and later we visited my
Bf 109, whose right wing was being removed by the
mechanics. Driver was very quiet and reserved, and we
chatted for about two hours in my tent. He showed me a
photo of his wife and a blonde curl which he carried. I
promised to drop a message container over Sidi Barrani
with a message for her, as she was in Cairo at the time,
having come to visit him. He was very glad about this.'
The Italian anti-aircraft gunners inevitably claimed
that they had shot down Ken Driver (they had come
much closer to shooting down their own ally in the
manner of most anti-aircraft gunners!) but he had
fallen to a much worthier foe. The Bf 109s were
superior aircraft to the Hurricane both in speed and
rate of climb, and the armament of 20 mm cannon was
much heavier than the .303 inch machine-guns of the
Hurricane. Despite Ken Driver's courage and
experience, and his 10 victories over the Italians, and
one over a Ju 88, he had fallen an early victim to the
Messerschmitt Bf 109F, as did so many others.
Ken Driver spent the rest of the war as a prisoner, and survived safely, only to be killed in a flying accident in England on 3rd February 1947 after all the long years in 'the bag'. Thirty years later he is remembered by his relatives, his friends, and his former foes alike with respect and warm affection.
1. I/JG 27 (I Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 27) corresponded very roughly to the sort of formation represented by '1 Group 27 Fighter Wing' in English. As F.K. Mason points out in 'Battle over Britain, (Macwhirter) it was thought for many years that the map of Africa and the lion and negro heads were references to the exploits of the formation in the Western Desert. This was not so however as the insignia was in use during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and a Messerschmitt Bf 109E (those in the Western Desert were 109Fs) Werke Nr. 1394, flown by Oberleutnant Gunther Bode of Staff Flight, I/JG 27 was brought down over England in September 1940, and was later exhibited in Ashford, Kent, prominently marked with the 'Africa' insignia.
2. A rotte was the loose formation of two flown by the Luftwaffe, from which the RAF developed the 'finger four', via the German 'schwartrie' which consisted of two rotte. For a full description see pages 118-119 of my book 'I Fear No Man' (Macdonald).
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