The Rhodesia Air Training Group (RATG) 1940 – 1945 and statistics on fatalities from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)

Introduction

Today there are almost no memorials monuments and plaques within Zimbabwe to mark the great efforts and personal sacrifices that were made by African and European servicemen and women and civilians to the Allied cause in both World Wars.

Godfrey Huggins, the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1933 – 1953 became convinced that war was inevitable after the occupation of Czechoslavakia by Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany in March 1939 and rearranged his Cabinet on a war footing. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, following the invasion of Poland, Southern Rhodesia issued its own declaration of war almost immediately and before any of the other Commonwealth Dominions.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) does an outstanding job in commemorating those who lost their lives for their country and are buried within Zimbabwe. Their immaculately maintained cemeteries are in stark contrast to the disorder and chaos that characterises most of the municipal cemeteries.  In the course of writing this article, photographs of every headstone at the CWGC cemetery’s at Harare, Bulawayo and Gweru were taken. Any readers who would like an image for their family records should contact the author through the website www.zimfieldguide.com  The fatality statistics are taken from the excellent CWGC website.

A Brief History of the Rhodesian Air Training Group (RATG)

Air Vice-Marshall Sir Charles Warburton Meredith KBE, CB, AFC, who commanded the RATG believes the scheme was not only Southern Rhodesia's main contribution to World War II; but proved to be "one of the most important happenings in Rhodesian history" and JF MacDonald in the War History of Southern Rhodesia wrote it was “undoubtedly Southern Rhodesia’s greatest single contribution to the Allied victory.”

It led to economic development in Southern Rhodesia during a period that might otherwise have resulted in depression as the total local annual amount spent on the RATG greatly exceeded the annual budget at the time.

Just as importantly, the RATG also proved in the long term, to be a most successful immigration scheme, since many of the former instructors, trainees and other staff returned to settle in Rhodesia after the war, some of them becoming leading citizens in the country. The white population of Southern Rhodesia increased to 135,596 by 1951, over double its pre-war size.

The Southern Rhodesia Air Force effectively ceased to exist after its last training course was completed on 6 April 1940. Its three squadrons became 44, 237 and 266 Squadrons, Royal Air Force, bearing the name of Rhodesia.

Southern Rhodesia was the last of the Commonwealth countries to enter the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) but the first to turn out fully qualified pilots and by size of total population, it was the largest training scheme.  Eventually there were eleven operating aerodromes which required a huge national effort to build, maintain and staff—at the scheme's peak more than a fifth of the white population was involved in running them. Air Vice-Marshall Meredith made specific reference to the kindness and hospitality shown by the citizens of this country to all ranks who came for training.

Many gave their lives both here and elsewhere serving in the RAF; some indication will be given in the notes at the end of the article on their sacrifice from the statistics of the CWGC cemeteries situated in this country.

From the May 1940 until the March 1954 the Royal Air Force (RAF) had a presence in Rhodesia in the form of the RATG which trained aircrew for the RAF, from many different countries, including Great Britain but also from Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, USA, Yugoslavia, Greece, France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, Fiji and Malta as part of the Empire Air Training Scheme. Ashley Jackson's book The British Empire and the Second World War states the Rhodesian Air Training Group trained 8,235 Allied pilots, navigators, gunners, ground crew and others—about 5% of overall Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) output.

Trained aircrew

  

Canada

         116,417

69%

Australia

          23,262

14%

South Africa

          16,857

10%

Southern Rhodesia

            8,235

5%

New Zealand

            3,891

2%

   
 

        168,662

100%

Pilots comprised over 75,000 of the above.

During this time the RAF was the sole military force to fly in Rhodesian skies. After the end of World War II, in common with all other units, the RATG was run down and continued its training task at a much reduced rate. On 28 Nov 1947 The Southern Rhodesian Air Force (SRAF) was re-established as a separate unit and from that date until RATG closed, both the RAF and the SRAF took to the skies above Rhodesia.

The beginning of the Cold War brought a renewed need for aircrew training; the RAF re-vitalised the Rhodesian Air Training Group (in May 1948) which continued to grow with the Korean War, although nothing like its WWII level.

In March 1954, for mainly financial reasons, the decision was made to close the Empire Air Training Scheme and return RAF aircrew training to within the British Isles and the RATG was disbanded.

Before WWII even started the British Air Ministry had begun planning to set up air training centres outside Britain; away from where there was air activity over the country and where the weather could be relied upon to be consistently good. Canada was the first country to be first chosen, the scheme being called the Empire Air Training Scheme.

Ultimately the countries involved in training aircrew comprising pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, air gunners, wireless operators and flight engineers included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Southern Rhodesia and the United States.

At the outbreak of war in September 1939, the facilities in Rhodesia for air training were too small to be of any assistance to the Royal Air Force (RAF) Major D. Cloete, M.C., A.F.C. had been charge of a small air training scheme from 1937 of two RAF Officers and twelve other ranks who were seconded to Rhodesia with four Audax and six Hart aircraft and based at Hillside (later renamed Cranborne) but they only trained local Rhodesian territorial forces and personnel from the Rhodesia Regiment.

In 1938 the unit was separated from territorial force and on 12th May 1938 the Governor, Sir Herbert Stanley, presented the first seven Rhodesian flying badges at a parade at Hillside.

There was an agreement that, in the event of war, Rhodesia would send an air unit to Kenya for service with the RAF and accordingly three Audax and three Hart aircraft were despatched on 28th August 1939, i.e. six days before the actual declaration of war. Some of the ground crew personnel were ferried in three Rapide civil aviation aircraft; the remainder and equipment travelled by road in vehicles which had been bought locally as motor transport for the air unit.

Lieut.-Col. C.W. Meredith arrived in Rhodesia in June 1939 as Staff Officer Air Services and Director of Civil Aviation. The British Air Ministry were very interested in expanding the air training into a much larger programme as they wanted most, if not all, air training out of England and to involve the training of other allied personnel as well as Rhodesians.

It was decided to start off in Rhodesia with one initial training wing through which pupils would pass on to three Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS) and matching them, three Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS) The establishment of six new Air Stations required a considerable amount of building, all of which had to be done using local resources. In Salisbury (now Harare) the EFTS was at Belvedere, with the SFTS at Cranborne; the second pair of schools would be established at Bulawayo (Induna and Kumalo) with the third pair at Gwelo (Guinea Fowl and Thornhill)

When Lieut. Colonel Meredith asked about finances he was told by the Air Ministry to: "get whatever you want from Southern Rhodesia Government and we will settle up later." In fact, the Southern Rhodesian Government contributed to the war effort in a big way with the active endorsement of the programme by the then Minister of Defence, the Hon. R. C. Tredgold, and the Prime Minister, Sir Godfrey Huggins.

At this early stage in January 1940, Meredith’s staff consisted of two territorial officers who had joined at the outbreak of war for administrative duties, and a typist. Initially RATG headquarters were based in the Salisbury suburb of Belvedere and with a heavy building programme ahead, the immediate need was for staff to cope with layouts, design and construction of airfields and hangers, supplies of building materials and finance and accounting.

At Cranborne, accommodation was a problem with the aircraft packed into one end of a hanger, the remainder being used as sleeping quarters! Total strength of the air station was 137 officers and other ranks with 16 aircraft available for training. These comprised four serviceable Harts, one Audax waiting rebuilding, eight serviceable Tiger Moths and one being repaired, and two Hornet Moths.

Major C. W. Glass MC, an architect by profession, was released from his civilian employment with the Public Works Department and agreed to transfer with the rank of Squadron Leader, later Wing Commander, with the title of Director of Works and Buildings. His 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 and 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 RATG work.

The finance and accounts section was handled by the Treasury Representative, Mr. C. E. M. Greenfield, later Sir Cornelius and Secretary to the Treasury and Mr. A. James, an accountant in civil life, who joined with the rank of Flight Lieutenant. James was killed in an aircraft accident on 28 August 1940 and his place was taken by Flying Officer G. Ellman-Brown, an accountant in civilian life, later Group Captain.

The supplies section was led by Mr. W. H. Eastwood, a Bulawayo businessman who 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. Both Ellman-Brown and Eastwood later became Cabinet Ministers in government.

These three Sections were the nucleus of RATG headquarters which later moved from Belvedere to the corner of Samora Machel Avenue / Simon Muzenda Street. Later sections that were added included air staff, air training, signals, armament, administration, equipment, engineering, personnel, medical and legal.

At Durban and Cape Town in South Africa were small units to deal with the Harvard and Oxford aircraft arriving by sea, which were then unpacked, assembled and tested for flying by the ferry pilots to Rhodesia. At Cape Town was a movement control officer who handled the arrivals and departures of trainees on special trains. At Port Elizabeth a representative dealt with incoming consignments of equipment.

In April 1940 the Rhodesian Air Force Training Scheme and the Empire Air Force training Scheme really began; but was known locally as the Rhodesian Air Training Group. In the same month the first draft of pupil pilots arrived at Belvedere and the air station was declared officially opened by Air Chief Marshall Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, in the presence of the Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins, E.L. Guest and C.W. Meredith. 

The first group graduated from elementary air school in July and by 2nd November 1940 the first pilots to be trained by the RATG passed out at Cranborne air station, five of whom were Rhodesians. When war broke out in 1939 the Air Ministry employed the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) as the principal source of aircrew into the RAF and this continued into the 1950’s.

The Southern Rhodesia war bill of 1940-41 was £2.5 million of which air stations, bombing ranges and quarters absorbed £1.08 million of capital expenses. Of the remaining £1.42 million, £0.88 million was used by the RATG in air training.   

In fact the programme was such a success that it soon was realised that the Rhodesian Air Training Group could become vital to the war effort for training aircraft personnel and although the bulk of the trainees were British, they also received Greeks, Yugoslavs, Australians and South Africans. Ezer Weisman, later to be President of Israel, trained as a pilot in Rhodesia. RAF training units would still be based in this country until a decade after WWII had finished.

A war time Elementary Flying training School (EFTS) gave a recruit 50 hours of basic aviation instruction on a simple trainer, such as the de Havilland Tiger Moth. Pilot cadets who showed promise went onto training at a Service Flying Training School (SFTS) where they were awarded their “wings.” The SFTS provided intermediate and advanced training for pilots, including fighter and twin-engined aircraft, on the North American Harvard and Airspeed Oxford aeroplanes. Other trainees went onto different specialities, such as wireless, navigation, or bombing and air gunnery.

The Canadian scheme had been planned well before the war and much earlier than Rhodesia's; but because of the enthusiasm and support generated in the country, the first of the RATG stations, No. 25 Elementary Flying Training School at Belvedere, Salisbury (now Harare) was opened on 24th May 1940 in less than five months, and several weeks before the first Canadian station became operative.

The next air station to come into operation was at Guinea Fowl, Gwelo (now Gweru) in twelve weeks from bare veld to the commencement of flying training. Its construction included provision of water supplies, water-borne sewerage and building a rail siding for the special trains bringing aircrew from Cape Town.

The original programme of an initial training wing and six schools (Belvedere, Induna, Cranborne, Guinea Fowl, Kumalo, Thornhill) was increased to eight flying training schools (Mount Hampden, Heany) and in addition, a bombing, navigation and gunnery school (Moffat) 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 (Parkridge, Sebastopol), Hienzani, Nkomo, Senale, Marrony) and two air firing and bombing ranges (Mias and Myelbo) Later another air station was established for the training of flying instructors (Norton) and this brought the total to ten air stations.

Two aircraft and engine repair and overhaul depots were set up and a central maintenance unit to deal with bulk stores for the RATG programme.

In late 1940 it was decided that Cranborne and Thornhill would be used to train single-engined pilots, or fighter-pilots, and Kumalo and Heany air stations would train twin-engined pilots.  

In June 1941, the Southern Rhodesian Air Force Meteorological Service was set up at Belvedere to provide information to the pilots and instruction to navigators. 

The Rhodesian Air Askari Corps was formed under Wing Commander T. E. Price to provide armed guards and non-armed labour.

At its peak 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 Auxiliary Air Service who were employed in post offices and on clerical duties at various stations.

The final financial responsibility accepted by Southern Rhodesia Government for the RATG programme was for:

Ø  The capital expenditure on land and buildings and ancillary works for the whole of the Air Training Scheme including quarters and housing.

Ø  The cost of all barracks equipment at air stations.

Ø  The cost of RATG Headquarters.

Ø  All pay and allowances for Rhodesian personnel serving in Rhodesia.

Ø  Make up pay and family allowances for Rhodesians serving abroad as there was a difference between RAF and Rhodesian rates.

Ø  A cash contribution of £800,000 p.a. towards the operating costs of the Air Training Scheme.

Training within the RATG scheme

Initial reception for pupil pilots was at Hillside Camp, later called Cranborne where the Initial training Wing (ITW) course lasted 6 weeks.

From here they went onto post initial training for 6 weeks, or to the Elementary Flying Training Scheme (EFTS)

Each EFTS intake had 320 pupils spread over the various air stations, about 50 from post initial training and another 270 direct from an ITW course and the course lasted 6 weeks. Those failing were posted back to an ITW course for re-examination.

The Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS) had an intake of 64 pupils every 6 weeks at each air station. Some went for air gunner training and others for air observer training.  

The complete pilot's course initially lasted six months, ground subjects were also taught and each trainee had to fly at least 150 hours to qualify. 

 

During World War II

      

 

 

      

 

Unit Name/No.

Base

Area

Major types of aircraft

Role

Opened

Disbanded

Comments

No. 27

Induna

Bulawayo

Tiger Moth & Cornell

EFTS

Jan-40

Sep-45

 

Communications Flight

Belvedere

Harare

Tiger Moths, Cornell’s & Harvard’s

Comms Flt

May-40

Jan-46

SRAF unit

No. 25

Belvedere

Harare

Tiger Moth, Cornell & Harvard

EFTS

May-40

Nov-45

Relief landing ground at Parkridge

No. 20

Cranborne

Harare

Harvard 1, 2, 2a, 3 and Oxford

SFTS

Jul-40

Sep-45

Relief landing grounds at Sebastopol by Apr-1943, Hienzani from 7-Sep-1943 and Inkomo from Sep-1945

No. 26

Guinea Fowl

Gwelo

Tiger Moth & Cornell

EFTS

Aug-40

Aug-45

Relief landing ground at Senale

No. 21

Kumalo

Bulawayo

Airspeed Oxford

SFTS

Oct-40

May-45

Relief landing ground at Marrony

No. 22

Thornhill

Gwelo

Harvard 1, 2, 2a, 3

SFTS

Mar-41

Sep-45

Relief landing grounds at Senale by Apr-1943 and from 29-Jun-1945 and RAF Moffat from 10-Apr-1945

No. 28

Mount Hampden

Harare

Tiger Moth, Cornell & Harvard

EFTS

Apr-41

Oct-45

Motto: Pana Maziñana ano Bururuka - Here Fledglings Take Wing

No. 23

Heany

Bulawayo

Airspeed Oxford

SFTS

Jul-41

Sep-45

Relief landing grounds at White’s Run by Mar-1945 and Sauerdale by Apr-1945.

No. 24 Combined Air Observation School

Moffat

Gwelo

Battle, Oxford and Anson

BGTS

Aug-41

May-43

Split into 24 BGTS & 29 EANS

No. 31

Cranborne

Harare

Harvard (for Comms)

ARU

Aug-41

 

 

No. 32

Heany

Bulawayo

Harvard (for Comms)

ARU

Aug-41

 

 

Rhodesian Central Flying School

Norton

Harare

All types used in Group

CFS

Sep-41

May-42

Renamed 33 FIS

No. 33

Norton

Harare

All types used in Group

FIS

May-42

May-44

Renamed CFS (SR)

No. 24 Bombing, Gunnery and Navigation

Moffat

Gwelo

Battle, Oxford and Anson

BGTS

May-43

Apr-45

 

No. 29 Elementary Navigation School

Moffat

Gwelo

Battle, Oxford and Anson

ANS

May-43

Apr-45

 

Central Flying School (Southern Rhodesia)

Norton

Harare

All types used in Group

CFS

May-44

Oct-45

 

 

Sauerdale

Bulawayo

Tiger Moth

EFTS

 

 

Planned, but base found to be unsuitable

 

After WW II

      

 

 

      

 

Unit Name/No.

Base

Area

Major types of aircraft

Role

Opened

Disbanded

Comments

No. 4

RAF Heany

Bulawayo

Tiger Moth, Harvard, Anson & Chipmunk

FTS

Feb-47

Jan-54

 

No. 5

RAF Thornhill

Gwelo

Tiger Moth, Harvard & Anson

FTS

Apr-47

Jan-48

Renamed 3 ANS

No. 395

RAF Bulawayo

Bulawayo

 

MU

Sep-47

Mar-54

 

No. 394

RAF Heany

Bulawayo

 

MU

Sep-47

Mar-54

 

RATG Communications Squadron

RAF Kumalo

Bulawayo

Ansons, Chipmunks & Harvard’s

Comms

Sep-47

Mar-54

 

No. 3

RAF Thornhill

Gwelo

Anson

ANS

Jan-48

Sep-51

 

No. 5

RAF Thornhill

Gwelo

Tiger Moth & Chipmunk

FTS

Jan-51 

Dec-53

Reformed, later reabsorbing 3 ANS

Abbreviations used above include: ANS = Air Navigation School, ARU = Aircraft Repair Unit, BGTS = Bombing and Gunnery, CFS = Central Flying School, EFTS = Elementary Flying Training School, FIS = flying Instructors, SFTS = Service Flying Training School, FTS = Flying Training School, MU = maintenance Unit, SRAF = Southern Rhodesian Air Force, RAFVR = Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve

The training aircraft used were Airspeed Oxfords, North American Harvards, Tiger Moths, Avro Ansons, Fairey Battles, Fairchild Cornells and DeHaviland Chipmunks.  

After WWII RATG headquarters moved from Belvedere to RAF Kumalo and most training took place at RAF Kumalo.

Brief details of some of the air stations are given below. One of the most important criteria for the selection of airfields was that they be in malaria-free areas which necessitated sites above 1,200 metres. Salisbury and Bulawayo were obvious choices; Umtali with its surrounding mountains proved too dangerous for pilot training and Gwelo was the third choice.

Belvedere

The original civil airport for Salisbury and opened in the 1930’s. Used by the Southern Rhodesia Air Unit from November 1935. No.25 EFTS was opened here on 24 May 1940, as part of the RATG. After WWII it was converted to civil use. Located on the other side of the city from Cranborne, it closed about 1956 when the new Salisbury Airport opened. The site has been completely built over as a residential area.

Cranborne

Originally a flying school known as Hillside, but renamed Cranborne in 1939 and located 5 kilometres from the city centre. A SFTS was opened here in July 1940, as part of the RATG. From 28 November 1947 it acted as the main SRAF air base and included the Spitfire squadrons. The rapid post-war expansion of the city of Harare forced its closure in 1952, when New Sarum airbase opened. The area is now residential with Cranborne Barracks occupying part of the site.

Guinea Fowl

RATG base during WW2 located approximately halfway between Gweru and Shurugwi, south east of Gwelo. Originally called "Divide" as it was on the top of the watershed between Gwelo and Selukwe, after WWII it became a boarding school for boys from 1947 until about 1977. It was then used as a military base after Independence and is now a government school.

Heany

This RATG base located near Bulawayo was used during WWII for Royal Air Force aircrew training. It is not known when it closed, the two bombing ranges near Bulawayo were named Mias and Myelbo from the expression; “I don’t know Mias from Myelbo.”

Induna

The RATG booklet says the chief characteristic of Induna, from which the air station got its name, was the flat-topped hill some miles to the north-east, which bears the native name "Thabas-Induna," "The Hill of the Headmen" was a RATG base located near Bulawayo used during WWII by No.27 EFTS. Not known when it closed.

Kutanga Bombing Range

Near Gweru and used for RAF pilot training during WWII.

Moffat

A RATG base during WWII used by No.24 Bombing, Gunnery and Navigation School operating Anson’s which operated from August 1941 to April 1945. Moffat was the first and only Bombing and Gunnery School in Southern Rhodesia.

Located just south of Gwelo and now partly occupied by the Bata Shoe Company. The original Control Tower still stands and was used as the clubhouse by the Midlands Gliding Club with one of the original hangars still standing and used to store the gliders, but is no longer known as Moffat.

There was little known about Moffat, but Kris Hendrix at RAF Museum supplied the following information which I am happy to include in the article. Gwelo's European population was around 2,000 at the time; so uniformed young men from Guinea Fowl, Thornhill and Moffat were a common sight around town.

A cadet training to be a Navigator would arrive from an EFTS where he would have learnt the elementary principles; at Moffat he would pass in stages through Air Crew Pool and elementary navigation, into the bombing and gunnery school, and to the average cadet, the climax of this would be his first flight. Most of a cadet’s time would be spent on navigational exercises, and towards the end of his course, long-distance flights to South Africa and even Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) There were a lot of night exercises, both in navigation and bombing. Class work included basic meteorology and astronomy, photography, aircraft recognition, signals and gunnery. The first course of Air Observers (their title was then changed to Navigators) passed out from Moffat in December 1941. Their nationalities on the first course comprised: 19 Rhodesians, 10 UK, I South African, 3 Australian and I American.

A cadet Gunner was at Moffat for a much shorter period and training was from a special gunnery section and they were accompanied on each gunnery exercise by a gunnery instructor. Initial training was on Battles and Oxfords, but they were replaced by Ansons with power-operated gun turrets. Their nationalities on the first course were: 16 Rhodesians, 10 UK and 3 Australian.

Moffat became the main centre for training Greek aircrew; in early 1942 the first batch trained as air gunners at Moffat; initially they had interpreters, but they quickly picked up English.

At the end of December 1942 Group Captain C. Findlay became Moffat’s new Commanding Officer and remained at the station until it closed. When he arrived the station was known as 24 C.A.O.S, a somewhat unfortunate name and the new title became Royal Air Force Station Moffat with three resident units: 24 Bombing, Gunnery and Navigation School, 29 Elementary Navigation School and Air Crew Pool.

On Saturday 14 April 1945 the final parade at Moffat was held. The last two courses; Air Gunners and Navigators were in front of the saluting base, with three Squadrons of Station personnel behind, together with the Askari Corps. The Air Officer Commanding RATG, Air Vice Marshall CW Meredith took the salute. Meredith told them the Gunner’s course had achieved the best results of any school in the Empire Air Training Scheme and Moffat trained men had been awarded, so far as they could be traced at the time: one DFC and Bar, ten DFC’s and four DFM’s.

The official record shows that 778 Navigators and 1,590 Air Gunners were trained at Moffat. 

Mount Hampden

RATG base during WWII with No.28 EFTS operating Harvard IIAs; located north west of Harare and called Charles Prince Airport after Charles Prince, a British RAF Officer during the War who stayed on in the country as the airport manager until his death in 1973. It became the home to the Mashonaland Flying Club and various aircraft charter companies.

Norton

RATG base during WWII with the Central Flying School operating Ansons and Harvard’s; its location and date of closure are not known. The RATG booklet describes Norton as the "University of the Training Group," where the cream of the RAF pilots were instructed.

Thornhill

Located at Gweru and built on Thornhill farm in 1941, opened in March 1942. The airfield operated as an RATG base with No.26 EFTS. Reactivated in late 1946 for Royal Air Force aircrew training with No.3 Air Navigation School operating Anson I’s and later T.20s, but later closed. Taken over by the RRAF in 1956 with the runway reconstructed and radar installed. Home of No.2 Ground Training School by 1967 for initial cadet pilot training. Currently home of the School of Flying Training, the Flying Instructors School and Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 Squadrons. Today it is the Homebase of all the jet aircraft, since the climate is conducive to good take-off performance.

The Women's Auxiliary Air Service

The Women's Auxiliary Air Service was formed in August 1941 with Mrs. D. Roxburgh-Smith, one of the first women in Africa to obtain a flying licence and who had done over 500 hours flying, as Commandant. The RTG booklet says they wore a uniform similar to that of the R.A.F. with the same badges of rank, but when off-duty were allowed to wear mufti, thereby still giving scope for feminine attractiveness. Common rooms, generally known as the "Waaseries" were provided for them and at some of the air stations the "Waasies” lived-in.

Initially 106 female recruits attested into the Southern Rhodesia Women’s Auxiliary Air Service, but within months after training many hundreds of women previously occupied with family and household duties became capable of releasing airmen for more active work. They became clerks, teleprinter and telephone exchange operators, radio telephone operators, tailors, canteen assistants, instrument repairers, elementary mechanics, parachute packers and fabric workers and motor transport drivers. They also staffed the station sub-post offices and many of the officers became assistant adjutants and junior equipment officers. 

The Rhodesian Air Askari Corps

The biggest of the auxiliary services was the Askari Corps, officially formed in August 1941, but active in different form in 1940. At first a few civilians were employed at Cranborne and Belvedere aerodromes, controlled by British NCO’s, but soon the Labour Corps of the Rhodesian African Rifles was asked to supply labour, and later the Air Force Native Labour Corps was formed, with British officers and NCO’s seconded from the Rhodesian African Rifles. Entry was voluntary and the Rhodesian Air Askari Corps and was formed under the command of Flying Officer T. E. Price, later Wing Commander, O.B.E.

The Corps divided into 2,000 in the armed section for station guarding and protection duties, and a further 3,000 for general duties for aerodrome work which included propeller-swinging, aircraft refuelling and marshalling, fitters' and riggers' mates, motor transport drivers, carpenters and assistants on fire tenders. Headquarters was at Belvedere, the old civil airport for Salisbury.

Conscripted labour

The most controversial aspect of the RATG was the demand placed on Southern Rhodesia's black population during the early stages of WWII to provide conscripted labour to build the aerodromes.

The government assigned labour quotas to native commissioners for each district across the territory who in turn requested local chiefs and headmen to fill the quotas. This system, known locally as chibaro according to Charles van Onselen, had been in fairly widespread use during BSAC rule between 1890 – 1923, but had fallen out of use by the 1930’s.

The chibaro workers received pay and provisions; but the salary of 15s/- per month was lower than the 17s/6d generally received on white-owned farms. It was met with widespread opposition and many men elected to run away rather than fill the quotas. "Hundreds, if not thousands", according to Kenneth Vickery, crossed into Bechuanaland (today Botswana) or South Africa as many thought that after finishing building the runways they would be sent overseas as soldiers.

Allies in the RATG. 

Greeks, Yugoslavs and Frenchmen were trained as pilots, navigators and air-gunners in the Rhodesian Air Training Group many having escaped from their countries under the noses of the Germans via the "underground" through occupied Europe. 

The Greeks who came had battled so gallantly in their out-of-date aircraft against Messerschmitt’s and Stuka’s managed to escape and after weeks in the mountains waiting for a small boat to take them from isle to isle of the archipelago, until eventually they would arrive at an Allied shore. As the Royal Hellenic Air Force was rebuilt in Egypt, so Southern Rhodesia became the nursery of its pilots. 

For those who could not speak English, a special English course for Allies was started at Bulawayo, and within three months most who could not speak English at all on entering the school were able to go on to the flying course proper and follow lectures on highly technical subjects in English. 

The greatest proportion of Allies trained in the RTAG were Greeks and many of their pilots joined the three Royal Hellenic Air Force Squadrons, two fighter and one bomber, which operated in the Middle East and took part in the campaign of El-Alamein and afterwards in Italy.

Yugoslavs and Poles were trained in smaller numbers and absorbed into the RAFVR, or volunteered for Marshal Tito's Forces; whilst the Poles, recruited and trained as RAFVR, once their training was completed, became part of the Polish Air Force.

Sir Ernest Lucas Guest, was appointed Rhodesia’s first Minister of Air on the outbreak of War, and together with Sir Charles Warburton Meredith, inaugurated and administered what became the second largest Empire Air Training Scheme and was appointed OBE in 1938 and KBE (Civil Division) in the 1944 New Year Honours List "for public services, especially in inauguration of the Empire Air Training Scheme."  He was also appointed CVO by King George VI during the Royal Family's visit to Rhodesia in April 1947 and CMG in the 1949 New Year’s Honours List.

Training to be an RAF pilot

At Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) the pupil pilot initially studied mathematics and the theory of flight, engines and airframes, some navigation and sent and received Morse code with a lamp. In addition to lectures, there was parade drill, physical training, cockpit drill, and an occasional camp inspection parade. At least 50 hours of basic aviation instruction were required on a simple trainer, such as the de Havilland Tiger Moth; more if the instructors felt the pupil pilot was slipping in on turns, or holding off a little too high on landings, or the take-offs were too bumpy. Once most of the mistakes had been ironed out, the pupil pilot was allowed to fly his first solo flight. Then followed more dual instruction, more solo, more dual, instrument and night flying.

Having sat and passed an examination, the pupil was ready for posting for more advanced training at a Service Flying Training School (SFTS)

A pupil pilot progressed with a group of colleagues to SFTS where they would fly bigger and more powerful aircraft, such as the North American Harvard IIA’s, learn the elements of bombing and air firing, formation flying and night cross countries.

The pupil pilot would be allocated to an instructor and in a Harvard trainer they would go through a sequence of gentle, medium and steep turns, take-offs and landings, forced landings and instrument flying, but with the added new complications of a variable-pitch propeller, retractable undercarriage, flaps, boost control, radio and a new array of instruments.

Lectures would continue with advanced plotting courses, studying the line of fall of various bombs, using a radio, understanding weather conditions, recognition of Allied and enemy aircraft. Advanced instrument flying was practised on a link-trainer, landing by radio when the clouds “were down on the deck” and firing a machine gun whilst allowing for the deflection necessary when shooting at a flying bomber.  Hours were spent “under the hood” using instruments to fly from point to point on a map, and long night-time cross-country flights.

The Harvard’s Pratt & Whitney 600 hp wasp radial engine was much more powerful than the deHaviland Gipsey III 120 hp engine in the Tiger Moth. Advances aerobatics were possible and low flying gave a great thrill. As the pupil pilot advanced there would be formation flights in vic (“V” shape) echelon and line astern, learning to watch his leader and keep one eye roaming around the sky. There would be flights to a relief landing ground from where they would practice flying each morning and then intercepting a twin-engined Airspeed oxford Advanced Trainer which would have been tasked with bombing a target in the same area.

The Oxford Advanced Trainer (nicknamed the 'Ox-box') had dual controls and was used to train pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, gunners and radio operators.

Finally the great day arrived when the pupil pilot received his wings. This left just time for a final party in town to celebrate the event before he was sent north to an operational unit in North Africa. Here he would be introduced to the spitfire whose details would be carefully explained with much cockpit drill, before he was allowed his first solo with no second cockpit to carry a watchful and helpful instructor.

Fatality Statistics on the RATG programme

Sgt Ivan Campbell was the first RATG casualty on 20th June 1940 when he crashed outside Salisbury close to the Gatooma (now Kadoma) road. There are 446 graves from this period maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from the official number of 8,235 who went through the program in Southern Rhodesia; a fatality rate of 5.4% and we have no figures for those who were injured, but survived.

The bar chart below uses figures of fatalities from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website (www.cwgc.org) to show deaths by unit within the RATG.  The Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve and Royal Air Force units suffered 71% of the training fatalities within the RATG program; but the Rhodesia Air Askari Corps suffered 16%; presumably from accidents and fever rather than air accidents.

A total of 446 graves are maintained by the CWGC that are related to the RTG programme; 376 (84%) are European males, 65 (15%) are African males and 5 (1%) are European females. The African males were members of the Rhodesia Air Askari Corps and the females were all aircraftswomen.

The line chart below tracks the record of monthly fatalities starting in June 1940 up to December 1946. The worst individual months of WWII were in December 1942 and December 1943 when fourteen deaths were recorded in each of those months. There were monthly fatalities in the RATG in every month from June 1940 through to December 1945; only in 1946 when training tailed off were their months when no fatalities were recorded.

Certain months recorded extremely high numbers of fatalities. Within the period June 1940 up to December 1946 there were twelve months which had eight fatalities in each month and nine months which recorded nine fatalities in each month. The extreme right of the bar chart records the two months in which there were fourteen fatalities in each month. 

The pie chart below shows where the RATG fatalities are buried within the Commonwealth War Graves section of each cemetery. Bulawayo has three cemeteries to honour 176 fatalities (39%) Gweru has 86 fatalities (19%) and Harare Pioneer cemetery has 178 fatalities (40%)

The remaining 6 fatalities (1%) are buried / cremated as follows:

Avondale Church (St. Mary Magdalene) Cemetery

1

Esigodini Cemetery

1

Gweru Cremation Memorial

1

Harare Cremation Memorial

1

Masvingo Cemetery

1

Mutare Cemetery

1

 

6

The line chart below plots the ages of the RATG fatalities whose ages are recorded; 319 of 446 (72%) As might be expected of aircraft crew they are mostly very young with 71% of them being either 26 years old or younger.

The names of the four youngest who were eighteen years old are included below. Also included are all those fatalities in the RATG that were fifty years old or older. These were most probably flying instructors who had pupil pilots under instruction and were involved in fatal flying accidents. The most senior is Air Commodore JWB Grigson; the oldest is Squadron Leader EH Davy who was 63 years old.   

There are many days which included twin, or even triple fatalities when presumably the entire crew of a single, or twin engined aircraft perished. There were few triple fatalities at Salisbury as training here was for single engined fighter aircraft. Crew members training as bomber crew flew in twin engined aircraft at Gwelo and Bulawayo.  The worst single day was five fatalities on 29 May 1942.

The standard rank for pupil pilots was sergeant and therefore it is not surprising that they suffered the most fatalities with 164 (37%) of total deaths in the RATG. They were followed by 125 fatalities (28%) amongst aircraftmen and women.

 

Acknowledgements

Sir Charles Meredith. The Rhodesian Air Training Group 1940-1945. Rhodesiana Publication No. 28, July 1973 Pages

D. Newnham. Rhodesia and the Royal Air Force - Rhodesian Air Training Group (RATG) – An Overview. With kind permission of the website www.ourstory.com/orafs

Booklet published Under the Authority of the Air Officer Commanding the Rhodesian Air Training Group, courtesy of ORAFs

The Rhodesia and the RAF booklet published by the RATG kindly loaned to me by Robin Taylor.

Alan Doyle who obtained photos from the Imperial War Museum Collection.

B. Salt. A Pride of Eagles. The Definitive History of the Rhodesian Air Force 1920-1980. Covos Day 2001

Commonwealth War Graves Commission for the fatality statistics. 

K.P. Vickery. “The Second World War Revival of Forced Labour Labour in the Rhodesia’s". International Journal of African Historical Studies. Boston: Boston University 22 (3): 423–437. 1989

C. van Onselen. African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933.

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