b. 03/07/1915 Inanda, South Africa. d. 23/02/1945 Limburg, Belgium.
Edwin Essery “Ted” Swales (1915-1945) was one of four children born in Inanda, Natal, South Africa on 3rd July 1915 to Harry Evelyn Swales, who was a farmer in the Heatonville district, and Olive Essery. Following the death of her husband in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, Mrs Swales and her children moved to the Berea, Durban. Here, Edwin Swales attended Durban High School (DHS). He matriculated in 1934.
Following school, he took employment with Barclays Bank, but was also a keen sportsman excelling in rugby, cricket and squash rackets; playing rugby for Natal. On 1st June 1935, he enlisted in the Natal Mounted Rifles (NMR), and active citizen force similar to the British Territorial Army, and by 31st May 1939 had completed his term of service, having risen to the rank of Warrant Officer II. Returning briefly to his banking career, he was then mobilised for full-time service in the NMR on 15th September 1939, and served on routine duties until 9th June 1940; on which date he officially volunteered for more active service outside South Africa.
In the same month, the NMR was converted for foreign service and became part of the 2nd South African Infantry Brigade. It was sent to Kenya which was under threat from the Italians. A further move for 2nd Brigade to southern Abyssinia in February 1941 brought it into the front line of the armies which retrieved the area from Italian domination. The brigade then moved to North Africa where it fought in the Crusader offensive, Gazala battles and the fighting retreat by the Allies to Alamein. Finally, after serving at El Alamein, the 2nd Brigade was withdrawn and returned to South Africa.
Swales now volunteered on 17th January 1942 for a transfer to the South African Air Force (SAAF) and, on being accepted for pilot training, moved to No 75 Air School, Lyttleton, near Pretoria on 2nd February to commence instruction. Completing the first phase on 8th October, he moved to No 4 Air School, Benoni, and made his first solo flight on 29th October in a DH Tiger Moth. In February 1943, he reported to No 21 Air School, Kimberley for advanced training in the Airspeed Oxford aircraft; finally awarded his “wings” on 26th June and commissioned as Second Lieutenant on the same day.
On 22nd August 1943, he was seconded to the Royal Air Force (RAF) whilst retaining his South African Air Force uniform and rank. Following successful period of training on heavy bombers, Swales was posted, in June 1944, to the elite RAF Pathfinder Force (with 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. Although Swales had never spent any time as a bomber pilot in a standard heavy bomber squadron, Swales went straight into the Squadron.
Swales’ first operational flight for 582 Squadron was on 12th July 1944. Newly promoted to Captain on 4th November 1944, he took part in a daring daylight bombing raid on 23 December, on the Gremberg railway yards, Cologne, Germany. The Squadron Leader for the raid on Cologne was his close friend, 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 was damaged by German fighter and crashed. Six of the 30 aircraft on this operation were lost. Palmer was later awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross – becoming the 2nd Pathfinder pilot to be so honoured. For his actions on the Cologne raid, Edwin Swales was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In 1945, while with the RAF Pathfinders (No. 582 Squadron), Swales was the Master Bomber and captain of Avro Lancaster III PB538. On 23rd February 1945, the very same day as his D.F.C. award was gazetted, Swales led the bombing raid on Pforzheim, Germany (not far from Karlsruhe and the Rhine River), where 17,600 civilians were killed in 22 minutes. Swales’ aircraft was attacked by an Me110 whose fire shattered one engine and holed the fuel tanks. They were attacked again by the same fighter which knocked out a second engine. Swales decided to make if not England then friendly territory. The weather closed in and he ordered the crew to bail out. He attempted to put down but his Lancaster stalled and crashed near Valenciennes, west of Prouvy, 3 km SSE of Denain in northern France, killing him.
Swales was buried in Leopoldsburg War Cemetery, Belgium with full military honours. He was posthumously awarded the VC on 24th April 1945, and became the only member of the South African Air Force to ever receive the VC. Swales’ medal group was donated to the National Military Museum of South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: MILITARY HISTORY MUSEUM, JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA.
BURIAL PLACE: WAR CEMETERY, LEOPOLDSBURG, BELGIUM.
PLOT VIII, ROW C, GRAVE 5.
Kevin Brazier – Cemetery Map.
Derek Walker – Images of the Swales VC DFC Medal Group, and the two memorials to Swales in South Africa at Bays Hill, Pretoria, and at Durban High School.
Stewart May – Image of the Swales VC DFC Portrait at the Yorkshire Air Museum.