Early days of the RATG

The following notes on the Rhodesian Air Training Group (and 28 EFTS Mount Hampden in particular) and its role in the Empire Air Training Scheme (EATS) are taken from an article written in “Flight” magazine in November 1953 by C Nepean Bishop.

The first station to open in the area was at Belvedere, Salisbury in May 1940, this was designated No. 25 EFTS equipped with DH82A Tiger Moths under the command of W/C David, soon to be followed by No. 20 SFTS at Cranborne, also in the vicinity of Salisbury.  This unit was initially equipped with Harvard Is and Oxfords, commanded by G/C Chick.   

August 1940 saw No. 26 EFTS opened at Guinea Fowl, near Gwelo flying the ubiquitous Tiger Moths, the commander being W/C Marlow.  A second SFTS followed a month later, also in the Gwelo area, this being Thornhill which was designated No. 22 SFTS.  G/C Chick moved from No.20 to command the new unit.

Attention now turned to the Bulawayo area – No. 21 SFTS opened at Kumalo flying Oxfords in November 1940 under G/C Dalzell; one month later No. 27 EFTS started at Induna in the same locality.  Hillside, the Initial Training Wing to which all pupils were sent prior to their allocation to their schools, was also near Bulawayo.

1941 saw a continuation of the Group – No. 28 EFTS began operations at Mount Hampden, which was about 12 miles outside Salisbury under the command of W/C N C Hendrikz.  The unit started flying on 1 April and was followed by No. 23 SFTS at Heany, Bulawayo in August 1941 with G/C French in command.   An Air Observers, Navigation and Gunnery School was opened at Moffat near Gwelo.  Initially equipped with Battles, Oxfords and Ansons, it was commanded by G/C Summers.

Final arrangements at the Service Flying Training Schools saw Thornhill and Cranborne equipped with the Harvard 2, 2a and 3 whilst Kumalo and Heany became Oxford schools.  Moffat lost its Oxfords but retained both Ansons and Battles until the end of the war.

The last airfield to open in the Group was Norton, situated in the wilds of the “bundu” or bush, it became the home of the Central Flying School previously located at Belvedere and known as No. 31 Flying Instructors’ School.  It was commanded by G/C Craig.

The Headquarters of the Group were at Salisbury, AV-M C W Meredith being the commanding officer in charge.

At a latitude of around 20 degrees south and an altitude of 4 – 5000 feet above sea level, the sub-tropical climate had a significant effect on the way in which the training was planned on a daily basis. 

The turbulent air in the middle part of the day was far too extreme for the training of new pilots in their light Tiger Moths; as a result flying started at dawn which in the summer months was around 6.00am and half an hour later in the winter months. 

EFTS flying continued until 9.00am, at which point the SFTS pupils took over the air space until mid-day.  If a course got behind schedule, there would be further flying between 4.00pm and 6.00pm. 

In the evenings there was night flying for all courses once or twice a week, though this was easy in Rhodesia since nothing was blacked out and visibility for most of the time was very good, in the region of 100 miles or more.  (Dad recalls that on occasions even the railway lines could be seen at night since sparks from the trains set fire to the vegetation bordering the tracks.)