The Rhodesian Air Training Group was the name of a scheme whereby' during the 1939 - 1945 war, allied air personnel' the bulk of whom were British' were sent to be trained in Rhodesia. Among those trained were Greeks, Yugoslavs, Frenchmen, Australians and South Africans.
Before the war had started the British Air Ministry was planning to set up training centres outside Britain - away from air activity over the country and somewhere where the weather was good. Canada was first chosen, the scheme there being known as the Empire Air Training Scheme.
On the outbreak of war in September, 1939, the facilities in Rhodesia for Air Training on any scale capable of dealing with the probable offerings of Rhodesian personnel for service in the Air Force were, in fact, non-existent.
I had arrived in Rhodesia earlier in the year as Lieut. Colonel, Rhodesian Staff Officer for Air and Director of Civil Aviation. I went to London in October, 1939, to seek supplies of aircraft and equipment to train Rhodesians. Air Ministry showed great interest in the proposals to train in Rhodesia and, because of the desire to get Air Training out of Britain, the discussions developed along the lines of a much larger scheme than Rhodesia had envisaged, involving the training of other allied personnel as well as Rhodesians.
There had been an air training scheme in existence in Rhodesia begun in 1937 by my predecessor, Major D. Cloete, M.C., A.F.C., who had retired to South Africa early in 1939. This included aircraft bought from Britain and the seconding of instructors from the R.A.F. It differed from the 1939 scheme in that it was a part of the territorial forces of the country and involved training only Rhodesian personnel from the Rhodesia Regiment. This came to an end just before the outbreak of war when, as described below, the unit departed for Kenya.
Although the Canadian scheme had been planned well before the war and much earlier than Rhodesia's, because of the enthusiasm and support generated in the country the first of the R.A.T.G. stations, Belvedere, was opened on 24th May,1940, several weeks before the first Canadian station became operative.
The R.A.T.G. was not only Southern Rhodesia's main contribution to Word War II, it was one of the most important happenings in Rhodesian history. As mentioned below it led to development during a period that otherwise might have been a depression. The total local annual amount spent on the scheme greatly exceeded the annual Southern Rhodesia budget at the time and there were 150 separate non-public accounts (messes and canteens, etc.), with an annual turnover of over œ350 000. But, most important, the R.A.T.G. also proved, in the long term, to be a most successful immigration scheme since many of the staff and trainees returned to settle in Rhodesia after the war, some of them becoming leading citizens in the land.
This article is an expansion of my semi-official Memorandum. There is also a book in
National Archives which gives the history of the development of the Rhodesian Air Force from
the 1920s to 1945 and it includes the stories of the two air training schemes. It is called
This Unit was engaged in the training of local Territorial personnel and there was an Agreement whereby, in the event of war, Rhodesia would send a Unit to Kenya for service with the R.A.F.
In fulfilment of this commitment, four Audax and two Hart aircraft were despatched on 28th August, 1939, i.e. six days before the actual declaration of war.
Some ground crew personnel were ferried in two Rapide civil aviation aircraft and further ground crew and some equipment travelled by road in vehicles which had been bought locally as motor transport for the Air Unit.
The Officer Commanding the Unit was one of the R.A.F. Officers seconded to Rhodesia before the war but the rest of the air crew were Rhodesian as were most of the ground crew. The Unit operated on the Northern Frontier District of Kenya and was later embodied in 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron R.A.F.
The aircraft and equipment required for the Unit left only four Hart and about eight light aircraft in Rhodesia and, war having been declared, the absolute maximum war effort that could have been expected would have been the replacement of air crew wastage in the Unit in Kenya. Even this would have been on a partially trained basis and wholly contingent on the availability of replacement aircraft, spares and equipment. For this contingency no provision had been made and no planning was in existence.
The position was that the Rhodesian war effort in the air would have merely ground to a halt and very quickly at that unless something was done.
This led to the Staff Officer for Air (Lieut. Colonel Meredith) who had arrived in Rhodesia in late June 1939 barely in time to organise the despatch of the Unit to Kenya, examining the overall situation starting with an analysis of population statistics obtained from the Statistical Office. From this analysis he made an estimate of the possible immediate voluntary offering of personnel for service and further estimates based on the war lasting four years and showing the possible additional offerings year by year consequent on age groups reaching the required minimum age.
These figures were broken down to show the possible offerings for service in the three arms - Navy, Army, Air Force - and were placed before Colonel J. S. Morris then commanding Southern Rhodesia Forces.
As regards the air side, it was suggested to Colonel Morris that the estimates indicated the possibility of Rhodesia being able to man three R.A.F. Squadrons at any rate in aircrew. Further, that initial aircrew training could well be done in Rhodesia were aircraft and equipment available.
Colonel Morris instructed Lieut. Colonel Meredith to see the Minister of Defence (The Hon. R. C. Tredgold) as he (Morris) felt he was not familiar enough with Air matters to be able adequately to put the case.
This was done and the next development was the Prime Minister (Sir Godfrey Huggins) calling on Lieut. Colonel Meredith for a verbal outline and report.
Events moved rapidly and in late September or early October, 1939 the Prime Minister despatched a cable to London offering personnel to man three R.A.F. Squadrons and, given aircraft and equipment, to do initial flying training of the personnel in Rhodesia. The offer was also made to send an officer to London for discussion and this was accepted in the reply from London.
In consequence, Lieut. Colonel Meredith left for London and arrived there about 27th October, 1939.
Discussions with Air Ministry started on the basis of the supply of some aircraft and related equipment to undertake the initial flying training of local personnel offering for service.
Very quickly it was evident that Air Ministry was interested on a much bigger scale because of a desire to get most, if not all, Air Training out of England and also because difficulties were being experienced in getting the Empire Air Training Scheme going in Canada.
After a number of meetings, it was decided to start off in Rhodesia with three Elementary Flying Training Schools and, matching them, three Service Flying Training Schools with one Initial Training Wing through which pupils would pass to E.F.T.S. and thence to S.F.T.S.
This programme which was very much in excess of that needed to train only Rhodesian personnel was quite beyond the technical and man power resources of Rhodesia and necessitated the provision by Air Ministry of a large number of aircraft and much ancilliary equipment as well as personnel to man the Schools. It also necessitated the establishing of six Air Stations involving a considerable amount of building which was to be undertaken using local resources.
On the matter of finance the Air Ministry attitude was one of indifference because of urgency and the discussions ended with Lieut. Colonel Meredith being told to:-
"buzz off and get Air Training going because the Canadian Scheme is bogged down in apples".
The reference to apples was because the British and Canadian Treasuries were discussing joint finances and the Canadians wanted to use apple exports as a set off against their share of expense.
In reply to his query as to what to do about money, Lieut. Colonel Meredith was told to:-
"get whatever you want from Southern Rhodesia Government and we will settle up later".
It did not concern Lieut. Colonel Meredith what any such settlement might entail since, if necessary, Air Ministry would foot the whole bill and he left London on 26th December, 1939 with, in effect, a blank cheque which, to the credit of Southern Rhodesia Treasury, was honoured immediately and without question.
The general outline of discussions with Air Ministry had been reported by Lieut. Colonel Meredith as they occurred, to the Southern Rhodesia High Commissioner (Mr. Lanigan O'Keefe) in London and he, in turn, was keeping Southern Rhodesia Government informed.
It should be remembered that Lieut. Colonel Meredith had no authority to commit Rhodesia financially but did have authority to agree to the establishing of Air Training Schools and ancilliary units on Rhodesian soil.
The position therefore was that initially, Southern Rhodesia Government had no financial commitment and, had it so wished, could probably have said "use our country by all means but you pay".
Possibly it was the decision of S.R.G. to contribute financially to the war effort - which it did in a big way - that led to the Minister of Defence (The Hon. R. C. Tredgold) going to London for discussions.
On his way to London by air, the Minister stopped at Nairobi. It happened that Lieut. Colonel Meredith also stopped there when southbound from London. They met briefly and the Minister was informed of those detailed aspects which might not have been clear from cable communications.
Lieut. Colonel Meredith then continued to Salisbury and, using the blank cheque he had from Air Ministry, set about establishing the six Air Training Schools and an Initial Training Wing, paying not the slightest regard as to who would ultimately meet the bill.
At this stage it was decided that Air should leave Defence and set up quite separately as the Department of Air, using, in the case of uniformed personnel, Air Force ranks.
Colonel the Hon. E. Lucas Guest - later Sir Ernest- was appointed Minister for Air.
With the rank of Group Captain - later Air Commodore - and later still Air Vice-Marshal - Meredith formed and commanded the Rhodesian Air Training Group. He also held the appointment of Secretary for Air. This was an economy measure in that there was no point in having a civilian Secretary for Air with staff, merely acting as a Post Office and duplicating work already done by R.A.T.G. Headquarters. This arrangement was greatly facilitated by the fact that R.A.T.G. controlled its own finances both capital and recurrent.
Also at this stage - early January 1940 - the available staff consisted of two Territorial Officers who had joined at the outbreak of war for administrative duties and a typist in addition to Lieut. Colonel Meredith.
With a heavy building programme ahead the immediate need was for staff to cope with layouts, design and construction, supplies of building materials and finance and accounting.
Major C. W. Glass, an architect by profession, who had been released from his civilian employment with the Public Works Department to join the army, agreed to transfer to Air with the rank of Squadron Leader - later Wing Commander - with the title of Director of Works and Buildings.
This Section was wholly responsible for the layout of Air Stations and the design and construction of buildings for whatever purpose. The staff consisted of architects, quantity surveyors and draughtsmen and other non-professional staff. The Section controlled all building activity. Building was done by civilian contractors and at one stage virtually all builders in the Salisbury, Bulawayo and Gwelo areas were employed on R.A.T.G. work.
Right at the inception, the Secretary to the Treasury had attached to Air, Mr. C. E. M. Greenfield - in later years Sir Cornelius - as Treasury Representative and he handled financial aspects in the early weeks. Mr. A. James, an accountant in civil life joined with the rank of Flight Lieutenant and he in conjunction with Mr. Greenfield, formed a Finance and Accounts Section. Flight Lieutenant James was killed in an aircraft accident quite early on and his place was taken by an officer he had recruited. This officer was Flying Officer G. Ellman-Brown - an accountant in civilian life - and he held the title of Principal Finance Officer R.A.T.G. with the final rank of Group Captain.
The Finance Section was in complete control of all funds both Air Ministry and Southern Rhodesia, whether capital or recurrent expenditure and also controlled and supervised accountant officers at the Stations.
To deal with supplies, Mr. W. H. Eastwood, a Bulawayo businessman joined with the rank of Squadron Leader, later Wing Commander - and the title of Director of Supplies. This Section was responsible for the location and purchase of all building materials and equipment required by Works and Buildings.
These three Sections were the nucleus of R.A.T.G. H.Q. and, in the early stages, the most important because of urgency in getting Air Stations established.
A time table showing opening dates was drawn up. This was necessary because the total period of pupil training was based on units of six weeks and the Schools had to open so that batches of pupils could be passed on from one phase to the next without delays intervening. A further reason was that Air Ministry had to arrange the shipping of personnel, aircraft and equipment to permit of the openings.
It is to the credit of all concerned - both local and overseas - that opening dates were adhered to and the pupil unit phase of six weeks was not disrupted.
The first School to open was No. 25 Elementary Flying Training School at Belvedere, Salisbury on 24th May, 1940. This was a notable achievement in a matter of less than five months starting with nothing. It was also notable in that the opening preceded by some weeks the opening of the first of the Schools in the Empire Air Training Scheme in Canada which had been planned before the war started.
A further notable achievement was the bringing into operation of the Air Station at Guinea Fowl, Gwelo, in twelve weeks from bare veld to the commencement of Flying Training. The construction included special sole user arrangements for water supplies, water-borne sewerage and a rail siding on which the special train conveying personnel from Cape Town halted. This achievement far outstripped Belvedere in speed.
(As an instance of slick timing Sir Charles relates that early in the morning of the very day Guinea Fowl was due to open the special train from Cape Town drew into the rail siding with 500 or more men. Without a hitch they were given a breakfast of bacon, eggs and sausages. - Editor).
In addition to the three initial Sections - Works Finance and Supplies - of R.A.T.G. H.Q. other Sections were formed as development progressed. These included Air Staff, Air Training, Signals, Armament, Administration, Equipment, Engineering, Personnel, Medical, Legal and were expanded as requisite until the total staff at peak was in the region of four hundred of which about a hundred and twenty were commissioned officers.
Stationed at Cape Town and Durban there were two small units to deal with aircraft arriving by ship and unpacking and assembling for flying to Rhodesia. Also at Cape Town was a Movement Control Officer handling arrivals and departures of personnel. This involved in the case of personnel arriving, the arranging of a number of special trains. At Port Elizabeth there was a representative to deal with the incoming consignments of equipment. These units were under R.A.T.G. H.Q. control.
The original programme of an Initial Training Wing and six Schools was increased to eight Flying Training Schools and in addition, a Bombing, Navigation and Gunnery School for the training of Bomb Aimers, Navigators and Air Gunners.
To relieve congestion at the Air Stations, six relief landing grounds for landing and take off instruction were established. Also set up were two Air Firing and Bombing Ranges.
At a later stage, another Air Station was established for the training of Flying Instructors and this brought the total to ten Air Stations.
Two aircraft and engine repair and overhaul Depots were set up and also a Central Maintenance Unit to deal with bulk stores for the whole Group.
The Rhodesian Air Askari Corps to provide armed guards and nonarmed labour was formed under the command of Wing Commander T. E. Price with white officers and non-commissioned officers.
A total of sixteen Units was formed, as shown in the Appendix.
At peak, when all Units were operating fully, there were about 12 000 adult male white personnel and about 5 000 adult male Africans employed. There were also about 200 white women in the Women's Auxilliary Air Service who were employed in post offices and on clerical duties at various stations.
The white male personnel figure includes pupils under training. These came from Britain principally, but also from Australia and South Africa in addition to the Rhodesian intake. There were also pupils from the Royal Hellenic Air Force.
The African figure includes about 2 000 armed Askari for guard duties and about 3 000 for general duties ranging from work in the hangars and workshops to cooks, waiters, messengers, groundsmen and cleaners. Incidentally, at one stage during the building of the Air Stations the African labour force was very much greater. These hands were employed on a civilian basis but had to be housed and fed, and to get the numbers required, special recruiting visits to various chiefs were paid by Wing Commander Price.
The final financial responsibility accepted by Southern Rhodesia Government was for:
1. The capital expenditure on land and buildings and ancilliary works for the whole of
the Air Training Scheme including quarters and housing.
2. The cost of all barrack equipment at Air Stations.
3. The cost of R.A.T.G. Headquarters.
4. All pay and allowances for Rhodesian personnel serving in Rhodesia.
5. Make up pay and family allowances for Rhodesians serving abroad. That is the difference between R.A.F. and Rhodesian rates.
6. A cash contribution of £800 000 p.a. towards the operating costs of the Air Training Scheme.
All other costs including the provision of aircraft, equipment, petrol, oil, .ransport and the pay and allowances of R.A.F. personnel - other than those employed at R.A.T.G. H.Q. - were met by Air Ministry except in so far as abated by the S.R.G. contribution of £800 000 p.a.
The pay and allowances of pupils from Austrialia, South Africa and Greece and other expenses was recovered either from the Government concerned or Air Ministry.
In addition to the buildings required for the Air Stations and ancilliary units, a number of dwelling houses possibly in the region of 160 - and at least one block of four flats - were built at S.R.G. expense to house R.A.F. married personnel. In effect, this was a contribution to the evacuation of women and children from Britain.
An expense incurred by the Department of Defence and therefore met by S.R.G. was that of the Southern Rhodesia Supply Corps. This Unit organised bulk supplies of foodstuffs available at Salisbury, Bulawayo and Gwelo, from which Air Stations drew their requirements and were debited accordingly.
It is very likely that the S.R.S.C. would not have come into existence - at any rate on the scale it did - but for the Air Training Scheme and the large quantities of foodstuffs required.
The cost of this Army Unit, largely serving only the Air Stations, was borne by the Department of Defence and, in effect, was a further contribution by S.R.G. to Air Training.
The total S.R.G. war expenditure related to Air was £11 215 522 as shown in the attached Appendix.
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