Hermanus, everyone agrees, is a seaside town. The names tell you that: the Old Harbour, the New Harbour, Voëlklip Beach, Harbour Road, Poole’s Bay, Kwaaiwater, the Klein River and Onrus lagoons – the list goes on.
Yet for well over a hundred years, Hermanus has had a surprisingly extensive history of contact with powered flight and aircraft. It all started just 13 years after the Wright Brothers achieved the first 12 seconds of powered flight by human beings on 17 December 1903. In 1916, eighteen-year-old Henry Luyt, son of P John Luyt, the owner of The Marine and Riviera Hotels in Hermanus, left school and went off to join the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in England to fight in WWI.
He received three months training and flew sorties over the German lines for a month or so, before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Fortunately, his plane landed upside down on an unoccupied enemy trench in Belgium, and he survived. He released himself from the upside-down position in which he had come to rest, evaded capture and returned to his work in the RFC.
In 1919, he returned to Hermanus, where his father persuaded him not to fly again – instead, he bought Henry a sports car that Henry named The Red Devil, and drove at high speeds around the Overberg and all the way to Cape Town.
Henry remained friendly with a circle of young men who did own planes, and, for most of the 1920s, they regularly flew to Hermanus during the ‘season’ (December and January), landed on Grotto Beach and then took astonished holidaymakers up for what were called ‘flips’ over Walker Bay and inland to the mountains. The area known as ‘Die Plaat’, on the western side of the Klein River mouth was regarded as the first ‘airstrip’ in Hermanus.
The South African Air Force was established in 1920, based at Zwartkop, with another base at Youngsfield near Cape Town. Closely involved in this development was Major-General Kenneth van der Spuy (1892 – 1991), a resident of Stellenbosch. He and his wife, famous horticulturist Una van der Spuy, were frequent visitors to The Marine Hotel in Hermanus, though he does not seem to have flown to the town or patrolled the area from the air – after all, he was on holiday.
Later, van der Spuy became friendly with Sir Thomas Sopwith, perhaps the most famous aircraft designer and British aeroplane manufacturer in the 20th century. Sopwith owned extensive property in Voëlklip later in the century, notably a farm called Onderberg, up against the mountain in the vicinity of First Street.
Henry Luyt’s passion for planes got another boost in 1932 when the famous British female flyer Amy Johnson stayed at The Marine Hotel. She had just flown solo from London to Cape Town in a women’s record time and was the darling of all the media. She had previously flown solo from London to Australia, also in record time and been awarded the title CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) by King George V. In 1936, she would repeat her flight from London to Cape Town, breaking the men’s record as well as her own, but did not come to Hermanus that time.
Sadly, she was to die in controversial circumstances in the early years of WWII. On a routine flight from the north of England to Oxford, her plane was seen way off course over the Thames Estuary, where she was observed to parachute down into the freezing water and disappear. Her body was never found, but some personal items confirmed that she had died there.
In the early 1940s, the Royal Air Force established a flying boat base on the Bot River Estuary. Many sorties were flown against German U-boat operations along the South African East Coast using the famous Catalina flying boats. South African radar installations supported the Catalinas from Betty’s Bay and other locations. Many of the RAF pilots stayed at the old Onrus Hotel during those years and were involved with the social life of Hermanus. Three are known to have married local women after the War and settled in Hermanus.
During World War II Hermanus was the preferred leave destination of thousands of Allied servicemen passing through Cape Town on their way to various battlefields in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. On 5 November 1944, two pilots from the SAAF caused an uproar in the town. Berdine Luyt was there to record the incident:
We seem to have had the entire personnel of Young’s Field here at one time or another during the last few weeks; mostly restive young boys waiting to go up north. There were four SAAF pilots here last week, and they spent most of their time acting as escorts for Connie [Berdine’s youngest sister] and Betty van Rhyn (our cousin, here on holiday). They left on Wednesday and promised to “shoot up” the hotel on their next coastal patrol.
The next morning at about ten o’clock we heard planes zooming over the hotel, and we ran outside to see what was happening. There were two SAAF planes flying low over the roof, apparently with every intention of landing on the balcony. It was very exciting and a wonderful display of low flying and split-second control. All the visitors ran outside to watch, the indoors staff were having pleasurable palpitations at the upstairs windows, and the garden staff (who had been peacefully weeding the lawns) were lying flat on the ground with their arms over their heads and moaning.
Connie and Betty stood on the edge of the cliff, dancing with excitement and waving coloured scarves. The planes flew level with the cliff then, and Dennis (one of the pilots) showed a green and red light as he said he would.
Then the planes turned and flew right out to sea. Making for opposite ends of the bay, they banked and came straight at the hotel and each other at terrific speed. We held our breaths in horror and waited for the crash, but at the last split second the one plane curved sharply sideways and upwards and the other, below it, missed the hotel roof by about an inch… It was marvellous flying but nerve-wracking to watch.