Final salute for SAAF fighter pilot

John Hewitson was the last SAAF fighter pilot, a prisoner of war, a highly successful quantity surveyor, but more than this he was a loving, devoted family man and a caring father.

As Shakespeare put it, “He was a man, take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again.”

Born in Pretoria on April 20 1918, John joined the SAAF in September 1939 fuelled by a sense of duty, perhaps even of adventure.

He first saw active service over East Africa with 1 SAAF, claiming, between 1940 and 1942, five destroyed Italian enemy planes and, with his squadron, many damaged Tomahawks, Gladiators and Hurricanes, as well as one biplane victory.

His services were acknowledged in 1941 when he was mentioned in dispatches, and again when he was promoted to command 4 SAAF squadron the following year.

Shot down over Eritrea on 26 June 1942, John parachuted into Italian territory and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft III in western Poland, territory occupied by Germany, Italy’s ally.

As Herman Goering, the head of the German Airforce, respected pilots, on the whole the POWs were treated fairly well, although John would tell how one day, mistaking salt for sugar, contained in a Red Cross parcel, he made an awful cake!

Desperate as they were, some of the men ate it. One inmate was so hungry he even ate the bugs that infested some of the food they were given. It is hard to imagine being so confined for such a long period – the fortitude, the courage, the steadfast spirit that is necessary for survival.

For us, who know that the war ended three years later, it is easy to look back and picture what was required, but without hindsight, how would one of us have fared?

Stalag Luft III incarcerated many professional men who began work on what would lead to “The Great Escape”, immortalised in the eponymous film starring Steve McQueen.

All in all, three tunnels – named Tom, Dick and Harry – were built, 30 feet below ground, using bunk boards, tables and chairs for support. Ordinary cutlery was squirrelled away by the more than 600 men who worked on the two feet square width tunnels.

John relates how one German officer actually helped the men find buckets, hammers and crowbars. Ingeniously, the men – including John – hid the displaced earth in their hemmed trouser legs using a nifty string method so that it could be slowly released during exercise time in the yard.

On the night of March 24 1944, luckily, John was not one of the 200 prisoners selected to escape, many of whom were later shot on Hitler’s orders. John was released in May 1945 and awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).

Returning to South Africa, John completed his degree, eventually occupying the position of principal government quantity surveyor.

John’s other interests included bird-watching, photography and gardening kept him busy. His wife, Marjorie Hewitson, fondly remembers her husband fixing the cars, being up on the roof repairing leaks or endlessly polishing his home-made telescope.

But, what defines a man is his character and John was a gentleman: courteous, dignified, honourable – a noble man. To all who knew him, he was generous, kind and loyal. He will live on in our memories.

* John Hewitson is survived by children Robin and Nicky and wife Marjorie who is 94.

He had three grandchildren and one great grandchild.