A personal reminiscence of Royal Air Force pilot training in Southern Africa in World War Two

As a boy I was interested in aviation and so joined the Air Defence Cadet Corps (then the Air Training Corps) at the outbreak of war in 1939. As well as the normal military basic training we followed the aircrew syllabus of navigation, meteorology, signals, armament, aircraft recognition etc. giving us a length start over other pilot training aspirants.

All RAF aircrew were volunteers, so at the age of 17 1/4 I presented myself at RAF Uxbridge for stringent medical and aptitude tests. Exactly at 18 1/4 I received my call-up papers and reported to the ACRC (Aircrew Reception Centre) at Lord's Cricket Ground to be inducted and inoculated. Under the stern eye of W.G. Grace in the sanctum sanctorum the Long Room, my lower regions were closely inspected for ghastly diseases.

There followed three months at ITW (Initial Training Wing) Newquay for more PNB (Pilot/Navigator/Bomber) ground training followed by two months flying DH82a De Havilland Tiger Moths at 26 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School) Theale. This was the point at which one passed or failed for further pilot training and was put into an aircrew category. I had flown 13 hours dual without going solo.

All AC2(C) s (Aircraftsmen Second Class) then passed through ACDC (Aircrew Despatch Centre) Heaton Park, Manchester for shipping to training in Southern Rhodesia, Canada and South Africa under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan or to the USA under BFTS (British Flying Training School) or the Arnold or Towers' Schemes.

Cadets were transported to their destinations in troopships, escorted in convoys by the Royal and Allied Navies. In order to confuse the enemy a solar topee and tropical kit was issued to those Canada bound and heavy clothing for those destined for Africa. I sailed in SS "Orbita", a vessel used as a troopship in WW1, which had turned around quickly at Liverpool without revictualling.

"Orbita" sailed in late December 1943 picking up the naval escort north of Ireland in a convoy of some 50 ships to protect against the Atlantic U-Boat packs. Accomodation for 2,000 troops was in 200-man troopdecks six decks down, close to the engine room. Hammocks swayed above the mess tables. We were ignorant of our destination. The voyage took six weeks via the South Atlantic near Brazil, through the Straits of Gibraltar, Port Said, the Red Sea, and Mombasa. Christmas, near my 19th birthday, was off Gibraltar, celebrated with a single small bottle of beer. By Mombasa we had exhausted our stores and broached our emergency rations.

How marvellous it was to reach Durban and to be met on the quayside by the singing of The Lady in White. There were lights, not experienced for 3 years in wartime UK, and unrationed, glorious food. Paradise! We were put up in concrete ex-pigstys at Clairwood Camp and fed Koo jam and bread. Ecstasy! But disastrous for shrunken stomachs.

After two days by rail to Bulawayo via Bechuanaland there was six weeks more square bashing at the Rhodesian Air Training Group (RATG) ITW at Hillside. There were shouts of "gechur knees brown" resulting in a visit to the Indian tailor to smarten up the bizarre service issue tropical kit. And then, at last, the real business of learning to become a military pilot within the best training scheme in the world in the best place, Southern Rhodesia.

My posting was to No. 27 EFTS at N'Thabusinduna near Bulawayo, a grass airfield in the shadow of the kopje, reputed to have been close to the HQ of Lobengula. We flew DH82as, Tiger Moths and PT26s (US Fairchild Cornells). I went solo after another 8 1/2 hours. Training included cross countries, instrument flying under the hood and night flying using goose-neck flares. At the end of EFTS I had logged some 118 hours. Many fellow aspirants had fallen by the wayside.

Southern Rhodesia in those days was wild frontier country with few landmarks so good dead reckoning navigation was vital without radio. The veldt was alive with huge herds of game which we shamelessly buzzed. Crews got lost, sometimes fatally. Survival training was taken seriously. There was the famous myth of the aircrew killed by bushmen giraffe hunters in the desert basin west of Bulawayo. Sadly, the Bulawayo white cemetery contains RATG graves.

Then on to No 21 SFTS (Service Flying Training School) at Kumalo, Bulawayo. Kumalo had a single concrete runway with a cemetery at one end and a sewage farm at the other so you were well catered for. There we flew Airspeed Oxfords, a twin Cheetah engined aircraft, a military derivative of the Courier, and the North American AT6A Harvard. Some flying was done from satellite bush airfields such as Woollandale. Bombing, low and high level, was practiced at the ranges Miasi and Mielbo, named so in the African tradition..

The citizens of Bulawayo were most hospitable to the cadets providing a much-appreciated social break. The Bodega Bar was also popular. At the end of the course we staged a squadron formation fly past over the city to thank them all as best we could. After some 300 hours of flying training I received my flying badge (wings), a commission and an offer to remain in SR as an instructor which I declined in favour of going to an OTU (Operational Training Unit). How would my life have gone had I stayed?

But before OTU was a posting to the Maritime Reconnaisance Course at No 61 Air School (SAAF) at George, Cape Province. The flying there concentrated on sea navigation using dead reckoning and astro-navigation. Ship and aircraft recognition mainly concerned the Japanese navy and airforce, indicating our final destination to be Coastal Command in the Far East war. We flew in Avro Ansons as navigators, equipped with wireless operators and pigeons in case of red on blue, the next stop being the South Pole. The operational area was between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. All shipping rounding the Cape was logged and photographed and a look-out kept for U-boats heading for the Indian Ocean.

After graduation in April 1945 we flew to the Middle East from Durban in a Short "C" Class Empire flying boat via neutral Mozambique. We had completed two years of intensive training over some 320 hours of flying; considerably more than the 200 to 250 hours average for the BCATPS as a whole. According to John Golley in his book "Aircrew Unlimited" RAF pilot training was much more extended and thorough than that of the Luftwaffe and the Russian airforce. Thanks to Southern Rhodesia, the other Commonwealth countries and the USA we ended the War with a surplus of well-trained aircrew.

For more detailed information on the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Southern Africa and elsewhere John Golley's book "Aircrew Unlimited", published by Patrick Stephens Ltd in 1993 is highly recommended, as is Hugh Morgan's "By the Seat of your Pants", published by Newton in 1990.

Copyright: D.C.Wilkins 1996. 100556,3162@compuserve.com

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