On the outbreak of the Second World War, the man-power of the South African Air Force consisted of 160 regular air force officers, 35 cadets and 1,400 other ranks. and, in the main, was equipped with obsolete aircraft, only six Hawker Hurricanes, one Fairey Battle and one Blenheim Mk.1 being current operational types.
The Commonwealth at this time had no aircraft to spare for the South Africans and no effort was made to obtain modern aircraft from other sources. In fact the technical knowledge of the SAAF at this time was limited to fabric covered bi-planes.
However, South African Airways operated a fleet of Junkers JU52 and JU86 aircraft, and these were taken over by the air force, together with the technical personnel, who of course had experience of metal covered monoplanes. The JU52's were operated as transport aircraft while the JU86's were hastily converted into medium bombers. In December 1939, South African Air Force JU86's, operating in the maritime role, scored their first success when they intercepted a German ship making a run for home.
In October 1939, the Peace Expansion Plan was approved under which a total of 720 aircraft were acquired, 336 of which were fighter types.
SAAF squadrons were deployed to East Africa in 1940 where, despite far from ideal operating
conditions, they played a major role in the defeat of Mussolini's African Empire. In this theatre they operated from makeshift airfields created in the desert or hacked out of the bush and with fine dust which found it's way into aircraft engines, machine guns and food supplies.
1942 saw the SAAF, now equipped with the latest aircraft, in action in North Africa, where four
squadrons operating from Malta supported the British Eighth Army, and Madagascar, where Maryland and Beauforts operating in the ground support and reconnaissance roles, supported the RAF in the invasion of the island, playing a vital role in carrying out photo reconnaissance missions prior to the attack.
Two squadrons of the SAAF operated in support of Yugoslavian Partisans as part of the Balkans Air Force, whilst yet another squadron, operating Mosquitoes, carried out strategic reconnaissance for the whole of the Mediterranean theatre.
In August and September 1944, numbers 31 and 34 squadrons, whilst based in Italy as part of 205
Group RAF, distinguished themselves when they were engaged as part of the operation to drop supplies to Polish patriots fighting for their lives on the ground.
The SAAF was at it's peak at the end of the North African campaign. In that theatre alone there were 26 squadrons and 8,976 personnel including 2,789 Non European Auxilliary Service and 83 Women's Auxilliary Air Force personnel. The SAAF made up a third of the RAF's operational command in the theatre. Including those serving at home in the Union and elsewhere, together with approximately 9,000 SAAF personnel serving in other Allied Air Forces, the total South African Air Force strength was approximately 45,000.