Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Edwin Evelyn Swales was born in Inanda, Natal, South Africa. His father was Harry Evelyn Swales, who was a farmer in the Heatonville district, and who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. His mother was Olive Swales, and following the death of her husband, Mrs Swales and her four children (including Edwin) moved to the Berea, Durban. Here, Edwin Swales attended Durban High School (DHS). As a young lad, Edwin had also been a member of the Boy Scout movement – something which undoubtedly stood him in good stead for his military exploits which were to follow. After leaving school, and prior to the Second World War, Edwin Swales worked for Barclays Bank, DC&O in Durban. Swales had joined the Natal Mounted Rifles before the War, rising to the rank of Sergeant Major, (officially, a Warrant Officer, 2nd Class). With the N.M.R., in the early part of the War, he saw action in Kenya, Abyssinia and in North Africa. He then transferred to the South African Air Force on 17 January 1942.
Swales was a rugby player of some considerable ability both as a pre-war civilian and for various military teams. He was also very keen on sport generally. However, he was a late developer, as, after playing for the DHS 2nd XV, he later played rugby for a number of South African and Dominion teams, whilst he was in the United Kingdom, during the War years. He played for Griquas when he had been posted to Kimberley for training. He was also a reserve for the Natal rugby team, without ever actually playing for the province. He received his wings at Kimberley on 26 June 1943. A few months later he was seconded to the Royal Air Force whilst retaining his South African Air Force uniform and rank (22 August 1943).
Following successful period of training on heavy bombers, Swales was posted, in June 1944, to the elite R.A.F. Pathfinder Force (with No.582 Squadron ), part of No. 8 Pathfinder Group, at Little Staughton, in Huntingdonshire. It was normal for the Pathfinders to accept only experienced pilots who had completed a full tour on bombers; but Swales went straight into the Squadron - an almost unique rarity and honour for him to be posted to the Pathfinders without having first spent any time as a bomber pilot in a standard heavy bomber squadron.
His first operational flight for 582 Squadron was on 12th July 1944. Edwin Swales was promoted to Captain on 4 November 1944. On 23rd December 1944 he took part in a daring daylight bombing raid, on the Gremberg railway yards, Cologne, Germany. The “master bomber” for the raid on Cologne was his close friend, Squadron Leader Robert Palmer, D.F.C., who normally flew Mosquitos with 109 Squadron , also based at Little Staughton. Swales was the number two Pathfinder, leading the main flight and following Palmer as he marked the target. Palmer (who had completed 110 bombing raids) was killed as his Lancaster, which had been damaged by flak, crashed during marking and he was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross - becoming the 2nd Pathfinder pilot to be so honoured. Swales then took over the target marking duties from Palmer. Six of the 30 aircraft on this operation were lost.
For his actions on the Cologne raid, Edwin Swales was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation reads thus:
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following award in recognition of gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations:- Captain Edwin Swales, (6101V) S.A.A.F. 582 Sqn. :-
“This Officer was pilot and Captain of an aircraft detailed to attack Cologne in December, 1944. When approaching the target, intense anti-aircraft fire was encountered. Despite this, a good bombing attack was executed. Soon afterwards the aircraft was attacked by five enemy aircraft. In the ensuing fights, Capt. Swales manoeuvred with great skill. As a result his gunners were able to bring effective fire to bear upon the attackers, one of which is believed to have been shot down. Throughout this spirited action Captain Swales displayed exceptional coolness and captaincy, setting a very fine example. This Officer has completed very many sorties during which he has attacked a variety of enemy targets.” (Official D.F.C. Citation)
In 1945, whilst still with the R.A.F. Pathfinder Force (No.582 Squadron), Swales was the captain of an Avro Lancaster, B MkIII (No. PB538 60M). On Friday, 23 February, 1945, (sadly, the very same day as his D.F.C. award was Gazetted) Swales led a raid on Pforzheim, Germany (not far from Karlsruhe and the Rhine River). As a result of this operation, Swales was killed, and he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – the 3rd and last Pathfinder pilot to be so honoured (all, alas, posthumous). It had been Swales’ 43rd operational flight for 582 Squadron. Here is the citation:
The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the under-mentioned officer in recognition of the most conspicuous bravery:- Captain Edwin Swales, DFC (6101V) S.A.A.F. 582 Sqn. (deceased):
“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 bale 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” (Official V.C. Citation)
His Lancaster crashed near Valenciennes, west of Pomoy, two miles, 3km, SSE of Denham in France (about 250 miles, 400km, from the site of his original engagement at Pforzheim). He is buried in the War Cemetery at Leopoldsburg, near Limburg, Belgium, Plot No.8, Row C, Grave No.5. (Although he had originally been buried at Fosse’s USA Cemetery).
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris , KCB, OBE, AFC, of Bomber Command, R.A.F., wrote a letter to Swales’ mother, saying, inter-alia : “…. 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 …..”
The details of the raid on Pforzheim from the records of RAF Bomber Command history state as follows:
23/24 February 1945:
“367 Lancasters and 13 Mosquitos of Nos. 1, 6 and 8 Groups and a Film Unit Lancaster carried out the first, and only, area bombing raid of the war on Pforzheim. 10 Lancasters were lost and two more crashed in France. The marking and bombing, from only 8,000 ft, were particularly accurate and damage of a most severe nature was inflicted on Pforzheim. 1,825 tons of bombs were dropped on the town in 22 minutes. The post-war British Bombing Survey Unit estimated that 83 per cent of the town’s built-up area was destroyed, probably the greatest proportion (of any target) in one raid during the war.
Bomber Command’s last Victoria Cross of the war was won on this night. The Master Bomber was Captain Edwin Swales, DFC, a South African serving with No. 582 Squadron. His Lancaster was attacked twice over the target by a German fighter. Captain Swales could not hear the evasion directions given by his gunners because he was broadcasting his own instructions to the Main Force of bombers. Two engines and the rear gun turret of the Lancaster were put out of action. Captain Swales continued to control the bombing until the end of the raid and must take some credit for the accuracy of the attack. He set out on his return flight but encountered turbulent cloud and ordered his crew to bale out. This they did successfully but Captain Swales had no opportunity to leave the aircraft and was killed when it crashed.”
At the time of his death on 23 February, 1945, Captain Edwin Swales was an acting Major and he was only 29 years old. It should be noted that the S.A.A.F. was using the army ranking system, hence the ranks of ‘Captain’ and of ‘Major’. Although often referred to as being a “Captain” at the time of his last flight, Swales was in fact an ‘Acting’ Major. My research, has shown that in 1958, the British Air Ministry wrote to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission informing them that the South African Air Force authorities had confirmed that at the time of his death, Edwin Swales had in fact held the rank of Major. Indeed, the front page of the program for the opening of the S.A.A.F. Memorial in Pretoria on 31 May, 1950, Mrs. Olive Swales (who opened the Memorial) was described as being the “mother of the Late Major Edwin Swales, DFC, VC”.
Edwin Swales’ full size war medals and some other possessions are held and displayed at the South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg. At his old school, Durban High School (founded in 1866), a school ‘House’ is named Swales House. In the city of Durban, there is a major arterial road named ‘Edwin Swales VC Drive’. Barclays Bank DC&O in South Africa is today named First National Bank and, in Durban, one of the Bank’s branches is the ‘Edwin Swales VC’ Branch.
The original set of miniature medals of Swales, and a silver model Lancaster Bomber, are now housed in an exhibition honouring Swales at his old school, Durban High School. Many years ago, the miniature medals and the model had been sold by a member of the Swales family. After changing hands a few times, the group came up for auction in London, in July 2004, at which time the medals and model were sold to a collector in the U.K. This event came to the attention of medal collector David Bennett, (also a D.H.S. Old Boy), who managed to track them down and convince the collector in the U.K. to sell his recent acquisitions to the School. Through this collector’s generosity, the medals and model were finally, after four months of negotiations by David Bennett on behalf of the School, delivered to their new home at DHS, where they were first displayed on Armistice Day, 11 November 2004, much to the proud delight of all those connected with the School.
The silver model Lancaster was one of only ten such models which were commissioned by the aircraft’s manufacturers, Messrs A.V. Roe and Co. and by Rolls Royce (suppliers of the Lancaster engines) and presented to the ten Victoria Cross winners (or their families) who flew Lancasters in the Second World War. On the base stand of the model is a silver plaque which bears the engraved inscription: “A Tribute from the Directors of A.V. Roe & Company and Rolls Royce Limited. To the Memory of Captain Edwin Swales, V.C., D.F.C., S.A.A.F., who was Awarded the Victoria Cross for his great Gallantry and Self-Sacrifice during Operations Against the Enemy on 23rd February 1945”
Lesser men will say he died in vain. Others will say (with Wordsworth): "Give all thou canst; high Heaven reflects the lore, Of nicely calculated less or more" And no man could give more than he - Edwin Swales, V.C., D.F.C. (quote: H.D.Jennings, from the “D.H.S. Story, 1866 – 1966”)
Edwin Swales was the only S.A.A.F. pilot during 1939-45 to be appointed a Pathfinder Master Bomber and also to have been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Here is the full list of the medals which were awarded to Major Edwin Swales:
- The Victoria Cross
- The Distinguished Flying Cross
- The 1939 -1945 Star
- The Africa Star
- The France and Germany Star
- The Defence Medal , 1939 – 1945
- The 1939 – 1945 War Medal (Victory Medal )
- The Africa Service Medal
“Courageous in the face of danger, he did his duty to the last, giving his life so that his comrades might live”
“At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them”
© D.R.Bennett, 2004 Researched, written and submitted by David Richard BENNETT. email@example.com ; Member: MMSSA; SAMHS; SAMA (Life Member); References : Barclays Bank, DC&O. A Bank in Battledress, Cape Town, 1948; Goetzsche, Eric. The Official Natal Mounted Rifles History. Durban, 1971; Jennings, H.D. The D.H.S. Story (1866-1966), Durban, 1966; Swales’ DFC by LG No. 36954; page 1070 of 23 February 1945; Swales’ VC by LG No. 37049; page 2173 of 24 April 1945; Bomber Command website: www.raf.mod.uk/bombercommand/feb45.html (and the same website for December, 1944); And additional research by Paul Kilmartin, Esq., S.A. Military History Society, Durban. Also various emails and correspondence between the author of this article and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the S.A. National Museum of Military History; and the card insert in S.A.A.F. First Day Cover No. 19 commemorating Edwin Swales (dated 23 February 1985 – i.e. 40 years after the event). See also the Memorial to Major Edwin Swales on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website at: http://www.cwgc.org
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