Local in top-secret WWII mission

George Shuttleworth, a Rondebosch resident, served as a flight engineer on an American-built SAAF Dakota DC-3 during in World War II. He is pictured here in the snow outside Sarabuz airport on Crimea.   PHOTOS: Swift Photo Agency
George Shuttleworth, a Rondebosch resident, served as a flight engineer on an American-built SAAF Dakota DC-3 during in World War II. He is pictured here in the snow outside Sarabuz airport on Crimea. PHOTOS: Swift Photo Agency

One local resident’s account ofWorld War II has never been told before. It speaks of a pensioner in Rondebosch present in Russia during the Yalta conference of February 1945.

The talks between Joseph Stalin, Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill mapped out Europe’s political and geographical landscape for the second half of the twentieth century.

This conference would decide Europe’s political destiny and George Shuttleworth (96), a newly graduated civil engineer of the University of Cape Town, was right there on the Crimea.

Shuttleworth served as flight engineer on an American-built SAAF Dakota DC-3 that flew from Cairo via Tobruk in Libya and Athens to the Crimea in late-January 1945.

DC-3s earned a reputation as the “grand ole ladies” while participating in US Deep Freeze, the large Antarctic expedition. In 1948, Dakotas established an air-bridge between West-Germany and West-Berlin, flying daily supply missions to the divided capital.

Two famous battles in North Africa were fought outside Tobruk.

Most of South Africa’s air support centred around the heavily fortified deep-water port in Tobruk.

The SAAF also operated in Italy, where Shuttleworth’s brother Lawrence (100) flew Marauder bombers from Bari, supporting Partisans in the Balkans.

Perilous journeyAdventure engulfed Shuttleworth’s journey right from the start.

He had come in as a replacement and convinced the crew of his aptness with a solid check of the plane.

After ditching the plane in the Mediterranean in an emergency landing just off the Greek mainland, Shuttleworth remembers leading the evacuation on to a nearby British warship.

The next morning they took off from Athens and continued their journey to Russia, but it took three attempts at crossing the Bosphorus strait into the Black Sea – the meteorological conditions were the only variable that could sink them.

In fact, the crew had got the job precisely because their daredevil pilot was willing to take off in adverse weather conditions. No other pilot, even among hardened American and British airmen, would take that risk.

For Shuttleworth’s part, his engineering deftness had earned him the precious call.

He also played a mentor role for the pilots, although unwittingly, when the latter realised that landing on the Russian airbase would occur in icy conditions. The runway had been transformed into an endless stretch of ice.

Shuttleworth’s assurance that the ice would change over to frozen grass restored confidence. Their DC-3 came to a safe standstill after all.

As Shuttleworth put out the steps, a certain sense of pride overcame him. He had saved their top-secret mission for a second time.

Friendly comradesShuttleworth says the Russian soldiers were friendly and the two meteorologists, one from England, the other local, clicked straight away while chatting on the frozen runway.

Not to forget, he adds with a smile, that the wife of Sarabuz airport’s officer-in-command invited the South Africans for tea and cake.

Their job there was weather observation and passenger transport.

The week-long talks were held at the former summer residence of the Romanovs, the toppled tsars.

While US president Roosevelt was shocked by the local damage made by Nazi troops, Stalin replied that he hadn’t seen what the Germans had done to the Ukraine.

The Nazi invaders had been repelled from the Crimea only two months before.

At one stage the Americans even thought Hitler had learned about the conference’s location. But their fears were unfounded.

Churchill and Stalin were at loggerheads, the British prime minister later bemoaning too many concessions to Russia.

Churchill called the newly-drawn border between East and West an “iron curtain”and the history books stuck to the term.

Tension popped up in negotiations about Poland’s new government, which looked too Soviet-friendly. But Stalin insisted that the Polish resistance had endured great hardships and had done all the groundwork; theirs was the voice of the people.

TouristsOn one occasion the South Africans went sightseeing in the town of Balaclava, south-west of Sevastopol, where Shuttleworth met Churchill’s daughter, Sarah Moore. Both the American and English leaders had brought their daughters with them – Anna Boettiger and Moore.

At Balaclava, a heroic poem had risen from the massacre of 300 English soldiers in the Crimean war of 1856. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote about it in “Charge of the Light Brigade”, and Churchill wanted to see the site.

Shuttleworth and the pilots waited for the English statesman on a nearby airfield. Suddenly, Churchill was surrounded by a ring of Russian security agents. The English leader resented, then broke away from a wall of beefcakes, their coats bulging ominously over the butts of their firearms.

Churchill came over to Shuttleworth and the pilots, and thanked the South Africans for waiting. Then he shook each man’s hand, expressing relief over his escape.

Shuttleworth saw Moore again on the USS Catoctin, but he decided it was better to attend to his flight duties than to bounce off a ring of security personnel, albeit Allied ones, when approaching her.

AirbaseThe bloodied path of Nazi destruction had left deep scars which turned the Yalta conference into a top-secret operation. Yet Shuttleworth describes the goings on at the Russian airbase as informal, rarely betraying their political significance.

One morning a Russian delegate handed him an issue of the newspaper Pravda, with that-now-famous photo of the three world leaders on the front page. He has kept that copy ever since.

As is well known, South African engineers excelled in World War II, for example by building the Haifa-Beirut railway and by ascending to position of chief engineer of the sixth English Army.

Shuttleworth’s engineering skills had served him well in a top-secret mission that laid down ominous markers in world affairs.

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