FROST JOHN EVERITT MAJOR SAAF NO. P102641 DFC & Bar
SAAF’S HIGHEST SCORING ACE
‘Jack’ Frost was born in Queenstown, Cape Province, on 16 July 1918.
EARLY MILITARY LIFE
He joined the South African Permanent Force as a cadet in 1936, winning the Sword of Honour at the Military College in 1938. He then became a flying instructor at SAAF CFS, but early in 1939 was posted to 1 (Transvaal) Squadron, SAAF. When 3 SAAF Squadron was formed in 1940 with Hurricanes, he joined it as ‘A’ Flight commander.
No. 3 Squadron SAAF went north to Kenya late in 1940 with Hurricanes. Frost was a dedicated permanent force SAAF officer, in fact so dedicated that during the early part of the Desert Campaign he held regular early morning parades. These were discontinued when a Ju88 broke cloud over the parade ground.
1941 FROST’S WAR BEGINS
Early in 1941, South African and other Allied forces started a twin-pronged thrust out of Kenya into Italian territory. Within a short time the River Juba line had been breached and an ambitious campaign developed to drive the Italians back into the mountains of Abyssinia before the rains came.
In the drive to Afmadu in Somaliland, the Hurricanes of No. 3 Squadron played a vital part and Jack Frost was soon in action.
Frost got off to a very fast start and on 3 February 1941 shot down a CR42 and 3 Ca133s defending a Transvaal Scottish attack. He was awarded an immediate DFC for these four kills in one action and the citation referred to his “skill, resource, determination and courage of the highest order.” Frost was piloting Hurricane SAAF serial number 280.
Six weeks later, on 15th March 1941, when the Italians had been driven into the mountains, he was shot down during an attack on Diredawa airfield. Two Fiat CR 32s and a 42 came up to defend but wereall shot down, the six Hurricanes shooting up Italian aircraft on the ground. Three Savoias and three Fiat 32s and a 42 were set on fire while yet another Caproni and three more fighters were damaged.
FROST SHOT DOWN AND RESCUED BY BOB KERSHAW
The Hurricanes returned to Diredawa after refuelling and re-arming at the captured Italian airfield at Daghadur. During this attack, Jack Frost’s aircraft was hit and glycol coolant streamed back in the usual white mist; this was always a nerve-racking time; one never knew when a blast of flame would come from the violently overheated engine. He landed at a satellite airfield a fewmiles from Diredawa, and jumped out of his Hurricane intent on setting fire to it before the Italians could reach him. The Hurricane in fact swung wildly on touching down, tipped on its nose and fell on its tail. He tried to set fire to the aircraft with his Very pistol. The guns in the surrounding hills started to fireon him and he was in a tight spot. Lieutenant R. H. C. (Bob) Kershaw had seen his Flight Commander go down, however, and circled the field to keep off any Italian ground forces that might have tried to capture Frost, and then landed and taxied his Hurricane towards his Flight Commander, shouting to him to jump in. With artillery fire crashing around them, Frost climbed in and flew the Hurricane, sitting on Bob’s lap. A most remarkable effort for which Bob was recommended for the Victoria Cross but was awarded an immediate DSO, the first to be awarded to an officer of the SAAF.
Bob Kershaw gave his version of events in an interview published in Wings. “By that time my nerves had long since ceased to function. While taxiing up to Captain Frost I undid my harness and sat forward to enable him to jump in behind me…. I taxied down the aerodrome at grand speed. Captain Frost thought I was going to take off. He beat me about the head, shouting that I would never make it. He was most comforted when he realised I was only taxiing. During all this he was almost blown out of the cockpit, as half of his body was out of the plane and the slipstream was more than I imagined it to be. At the end of the landing ground Captain Frost jumped over my head and fell in my lap, limiting my line of vision to the back of his head. He immediately took over the controls with the exception of the undercarriage and flap lever, which I operated blindly. We sighed with relief as we gained height and speed … the ack-ack guns giving us a hearty farewell. Captain Frost knew the way home without the help of either map or compass, so we wriggled about to make the long journey as comfortable as possible. We were flying at about 1,000 feet and at a steady 240 m.p.h. We received rather a warm reception from every ack-ack gun over Harar and accelerated without any mercy on the engine. We reached Daghabur, our base, after 45 minutes of intense discomfort.”
At Daghabur, amid scenes of great enthusiasm, the two flights were welcomed home – two aircraft short. Captain Frost’s abandoned aircraft had been destroyed by Captain Theron’s flight; Captain Harvey’s machine had been completely destroyed in its crash. Its pilot was buried the same day by the Italians whose squadron commander did him the signal honour (amid the wreckage of their own hopes) of dipping his aircraft in salute and dropping a wreath.
Kershaw’s portrait, which hangs in the South African National War Museum in Johannesburg, was that from which was printed the famous South African wartime stamp depicting a pilot.
The Flight reported strafing Frost’s Hurricane and claim to have destroyed it, but it in fact survived this attack as it had Frost hasty attempts to burn it., and was later inspected by the Italians. The aircraft seemed to possess a charmed life, for when Diredawa was being evacuated Capt. Ricci was ordered to strafe and destroy it. He made 3 firing passes in his Fiat CR32, but finally gave up in disgust and landed; he then ordered a native NCO to dowse it with petrol and set fire to it.
FROST’S EAST AFRICA CAMPAIGN ENDS
Frost’s campaign in East Africa ended abruptly on 22 May 1941 when he was evacuated to hospital with acute appendicitis.
That day the pilot who had done more than any other to wipe out the Regia Aeronautica was found doubled up in agony; the squadron MO diagnosed appendicitis and Captain J.E. Frost, D.F.C., was flown to Nairobi for an emergency operation. He was the SAAF’s top-scoring ace of the East African campaign. Shores also makes Frost the top scoring ace of the campaign with 8½ victories.
EAST AFRICA SUMMARY
There was some resistance for a month ortwo in the lake areas of Abyssinia, but the Italians were virtually finished in East Africa. Jack Frost’s Squadron had destroyed more than 100 aircraft in the air and on the ground, and he was proclaimed the SAAF’s leading ace of the campaign with 7 shot down and destroyed confirmed. Throughout this campaign SAAF Squadrons flew more than 5,000 sorties, destroyed 71 aircraft inthe, air and at least 70 on the ground, losing 79 pilots and aircrew killed and posting 5 missing; a great contribution to the first Allied victory in the war.
Jack Frost was posted home to the Union and the Squadron was later disbanded; an era was at anend, but Phoenix like, they both rose again. Frost was promoted to Major and joined No. 5 Squadron with Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks, leading it to the Western Desert in March 1942. No. 3 Squadron was re-formed in December 1942, in the Eastern Mediterranean with Hurricanes.
THE WESTERN DESERT
After Jack Frost reached the desert, No. 5 Squadron joined Nos. 2 and 4 Squadrons in No. 233 Wing as the fighter cover for No. 3 Bomber Wing SAAF. He led the squadron in what he described as ‘hell-out’ tactics during the heavy fighting over the Gazala line and Bir Hacheim during May and June, which brought many victories but resulted in heavy losses.
5 Squadron was a squadron whose senior pilots were aces – including its brilliant leader, Major Frost DFC – albeit in combat against the Italians. At this time the Desert Air Force needed leaders with dash and resolution and Major Frost had been put forward by Colonel Higeston, SAOA, as a likely fighter wing leader. Air Vice-Marshal Coningham had replied that no officer was competent to command a fighter wing who had not led a squadron against Germans in the past year. As Major Frost had only recently come under his command, he was not yet ready to commit himself as to this officer’s suitability.
Frost did not take long to get amongst the Germans, when on 11 March 1942 whilst flying Tomahawk IIb AK195 ‘W’ he shared a HeIII with Lt. Whyte north of Gambut. The claim may have been against a Ju88 rather than a HeIII. Ken Whyte describes the combat as follows: “I remember our first combat together in the Western Desert. While on a shipping patrol we were vectored on to an HEIII, which was following a Malta convoy. Jack made his favourite three-quarter head-on attack, which had brought him success in Abyssinia. I attacked from the rear and we watched the enemy aircraft going down slowly over the sea with pieces falling off it. We each claimed a half share of its destruction.”
During the next three-and-a-half months Frost steadily added to his victories flying numerous Tomahawks of the Squadron, being most effective in Tomahawks IIb AK195 “W” and AN422 “B”. adding a further 7 victories to his tally and with damage to numerous other aircraft.
On 16 June however, he failed to return from an escort with Bostons over the El Adem area, shot down by Bf109Fs of JG27.
Tidy, Maxwell and Smith describe Frost’s last combat on 16 June 1940. At 18:40, six Tomahawks of No. 5 Squadron, with four of No. 4, and two Kittyhawks of No. 2, set off once again to escort the Boston light bombers of No. 24 Squadron, raiding enemy transport west of El Adem,with No. 2 Squadron as top cover and No. 4 Squadron as close cover. They were jumped by Bf109Fs and No. 2 Squadron lost Lt.De Villiers (shot down inflames, but he returned that evening) and Lt. Bryant, who was wounded and his aircraft badly damaged. Lt. McGregor of No. 4 Squadron was wounded in the face and his aircraft also badly damaged, but he got back safely. No. 5 Squadron were the heaviest sufferers; Lt. R. C. Denham and Major Jack Frost, DFC, the SAAF’s greatest fighter ace, were lost. He was heard to order No. 5 Squadron to reform over the landing ground, having fought a running battle to protect the bombers right back to their base, but no more was heard of him. The SAAF’s top scorer of the war (credited with 14 and one-third confirmed kills at the time of his death; later figures indicate at least 15), was gone. Oberleutnant (later Hauptmann) Hans-Joachim Marseille, the leading German scorer in the desert, credited with 151 victories there (158 in all), was in action at the timein the area and claimed four victories – one of thesecould have been Frost but as there were several other claims, including four by Fw. Steinhausen of the same formation as Marseille it is unlikely that we shall ever learn who shot down Frost.
The loss of Jack Frost was a heavy blow; he had doubled his score in a few days, and had led his young Squadron with great vigour and élan. Repeated searches were made for him inthe next few days but neither he nor his wrecked aircraft was ever found. Frost passed on, very young, gallant and supreme in the annals of the SAAF, as the top scoring fighter pilot in its ranks; and he remains so to this day.
Ken Whyte describes the reaction to Frost’s death as follows: “I wasn’t flying with Jack on the day he was shot down because I had been downed the day before and was languishing in hospital. Some say that his aircraft fell in flames with no hope of survival. A German Intelligence report claimed that it was one of the two German aces Marseille or Steinhausen who got him. Rod Hojem was on the same operation when Jack was lost. ‘There was one hell of a dogfight,’ says Rod, and after it was all over I can clearly remember Jack calling up the squadron on the R/T: ‘Form up chaps, I’m flying north!’ And that was the last we heard of him. A shocked 5 Squadron couldn’t believe that Jack Frost was gone and wouldn’t be returning. Everyone believed he was indestructible. He may have gone, but his aggressive spirit lived on and throughout 5 Squadron’s exceptional operational record, its COs and pilots were motivated by his image.”
But for a long while his shocked comrades could not accept that he really had gone. Frost was such a legend that stories of his escape began to circulate.
It has been said that he was ultimately killed by his own aggressiveness that made him reckless at times. Like many of his colleagues, he may have underestimated his German foes. Like him, most original 5 SAAF pilots who had gained their experience and scored kills against the Italians in Abyssinia were killed in the Western Desert, while many new pilots survived.
During the Gazala battle Frost raise his score by 7⅓ victories, the best total achieved by any SAAF pilot throughout the second half of 1942.
The award of a Bar to his DFC was gazetted subsequently in August 1943. He was the SAAF’s top-scorer of the war, and was considered to be an outstanding fighter pilot and leader.
FROST AS A PILOT AND LEADER
Ken Whyte described Frost as follows: “Jack was a great leader with an enthusiastic, aggressive spirit. He chose me as his No 2, and when available I flew with him on most of his operations. He was completely fearless, the number of opposing enemy aircraft not appearing to concern him and he would dive straight for them, usually becoming involved in a dogfight. Under these circumstances it was often difficult to follow him and at the same time watch our tails, so inevitably we became separated.” Maj. Jack Frost was known for his aggressive leadership; he was very popular among his men who would follow him into danger without question. During airbattles they were very tenacious, pressing home their attacks with the utmost determination, thus winning a reputation for aggression. Many of them had had to bale out and/or were wounded. They lost 28 pilots killed, nine wounded and three taken POW in a short time. At full strength 5 Squadron had 25 pilots. During 1995, the 75th anniversary year of the founding of the SAAF, only four of the 5 Squadron founder members were still alive,each having flown over 100 sorties in Tomahawks. They were H W G Bidwell, L B van der Spuy, C Sommerville and K Whyte.
Louw and Bouwer[i] give an interesting insight as to why SAAF aces had lower victory tallies as compared to their Luftwaffe counterparts: “The Air Force also lost many of its old and seasoned pilots, including the greatest ‘ace’, Maj. Jack Frost, who was killed in action after shooting down 14 enemy aircraft. The question has often been asked why, compared with the German ‘aces’, the SAAF’s best pilots had such low kill totals. The explanation lies in the fact that German pilots entered fights to increase their personal scores, regardless of what happened to the inexperienced pilots. The SAAF ‘aces’, all leaders by now, used to lead their formations into battle, shoot one aircraft down, and then climb above the fight to direct proceedings from there. Thus they not only taught the more inexperienced pilots the methods of aerial combat, but were also on the lookout in case anybody got into trouble. Once somebody needed help, they would enter the fight again.”
Ken Whyte relates the following incident which gives insight to Frost’s character: “One morning we were returning to base from a Stuka op when Jack was shot down by our own troops. His language over the R/T just before crash-landing, is unprintable, yet normally he was a quiet modest self-effacing person.”
PLANES THAT FROST SCORED VICTORIES IN
- Bagshawe, Peter 1990. Warriors of the sky, Asahanti Publishing (Pty) Ltd, Johannesburg.
- Bekker, Dave 1995. 75 years on the wings of eagles, South African Air Force, Pretoria.
- Breffort, Dominique and Gohin, Nicolas, 2010. Hawker Hurricane From 1935 to 1945. Paris.
- Brown, James Ambrose 1970. A gathering of eagles, Purnell and Sons (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town.
- Brown, James Ambrose 1974. Eagles strike, Purnell and Sons (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town.
- Louw, Martin and Bouwer, Stefaan 1995. The South African Air Force at war, Chris van Rensburg Publications (Pty) Ltd, Melville.
- Maxwell, Kenneth and Smith, John M. 1970. Per aspera ad astra – 1920 –1970 – SAAF Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book, SAAF, Pretoria.
- Mervis, Joel 1989. 50 Years: South Africa in World War II, Times Media Ltd, Johannesburg.
- Orpen, Neil 1971. War in the desert, Purnell and Sons (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town.
- Schoeman, Martin 2002, Springbok Fighter Victory – SAAF Fighter Operations 1939 – 1945 – Volume 1: East Africa 1940 – 1941, Freeworld Publication, Nelspruit.
- Shores, Christopher 1980. The Cruellest Months. Reader’s Digest Illustrated Story of World War II – Volume 1: The Menace of the Third Reich, Readers Digest South Africa, p234-241.
- Shores, Christopher 1996. Dust clouds in the Middle East, Grub Street, London.
- Shores, Christopher 1999. Aces High Volume 2, Grub Street, London.
- Shores, C & Williams, C 1994. Aces High, Grub Street, London
- Szlager, Tomasz 2007. P-40s in the Mediterranean, Kagero Lublin
- Van Schalkwyk, P and Marshall, W 2000. South African Colours and Markings Volume 1 Number 1, Colours and Markings Publications, Lyttleton.
- Van Schalkwyk, P and Marshall, W 2000. South African Colours and Markings Volume 1 Number 2, Colours and Markings Publications, Lyttleton.
Journals Tidy, Douglas 1970. South African Air Aces of World War II No 6 Major J. E. Frost, DFC and Bar. Military History Journal , 1(6), p11-13 & 40.