107. Dawn Patrol.

By Peter Fraenkel

A dark room with a round table covered by large sheets of white paper.  We six schoolboys, proudly wearing our new khaki uniforms, stood around the table, together with an instructor.  Onto the paper was projected a moving picture of a miniature aeroplane. It appeared to cross the sheet of paper. Then a flash. Our instructor leant forward and, with a coloured pencil, marked on the paper, the spot where we had seen the flash. It was near center of the sheet –the target.

“Not bad,” said the instructor. He explained: “Magnesium flares, under the wing. The pilot up there presses a button. That ignites them. He does it when he’s calculated that a bomb released from there would hit the target.” He scribbled the pilot’s name on the top of the sheet and folded it up.

Looking up I saw there was a hole in the roof of our building with something like a lens, which sparkled in the light. Yes, it must have been a lens. It projected that picture of a small aeroplane crossing our sheet of paper.

The instructor took out his notebook, found a name and wrote it in the corner of the next sheet. 

“Panagoulis,” he laughed: “Royal Hellenic Airforce! Watch this, boys.” We waited for the flash. We had to wait a long while.  When it came, the little plane was almost off the sheet. The instructor marked a cross …at the very edge.

“You know,” he said addressing us, “that Greek pilot may well have more flying hours to his record than I. Three times, perhaps four times more! I came across one the other day who had more flying hours than Air-Vice Marshal Harris – and Harris started flying in World War One! But these Greeks have never done instrument flying.  For years they’ve been hopping from one little Aegean island to another. They can to land on a tiny air strip to deliver the mail… and, I guess, a bottle or two of ouzo. And what’s even harder – they can also take off again. But the only instrument they have ever used is their index finger. They lick it to see which way the wind is blowing. If they were sent to bomb the Ruhr” and he stopped for a moment: -“the Ruhr, in case you young idiots don’t know it, is in Germany. These guys might drop their bombs over Belgium or France. Question: Can they be taught instrument flying? I wonder. Royal Hellenic Air Force!”

The British Royal Air Force – RAF for short –had found Southern Rhodesia a good place to train airmen. Nowadays the country is called Zimbabwe. Very sunny. Rainstorms rare. Visibility excellent. But best of all – it was continents away from attack by German Heinkel fighter planes. It was a safe place to train young pilots.

Apart from young Brits they were also training, in Southern Rhodesia, some young Poles and Czechs – and a few Greeks. The Greeks were usually older. With them it was more a matter of retraining.

We schoolboy cadets were young, a mere 15 or 16.  I suppose they thought the war might drag on for years so that even we kids could become useful cannon fodder. 

Within a few blocks from Milton Senior, my boarding school in Bulawayo town, the RAF had the I.T.W. – initial training wing.  They didn’t fly planes from there. They sat in classrooms and were taught aerial navigation: how to find their way to remote enemy targets, and – if they were in luck – get safely back home again. But some 90 minutes’ by bus out of Bulawayo was Heany Air Base. It was one of a number of such bases in Southern Rhodesia. They flew Anson Trainer planes which woke us every day at dawn, flying low over our boarding school — the dawn patrol. We put our pillow over our ears and cursed. They came over again later in the day. Once a plane flew so low that, in our classroom, we ducked. We thought he’d crash into us. The pilot was, indeed, in trouble. He missed the classroom but made a forced landing on our soccer field, just beyond. We poured out of class, ignoring teacher’s orders to stay seated.  I was among the first to reach the plane. A very red-faced young trainee pilot had climbed out. He turned to us and apologised. He had clipped our goal post… and wrecked the wing of his plane. Later that evening RAF mechanics from Heany arrived with two lorries. On one of them a crane had been mounted. They dismantled the plane for transport back to their base.

Bulawayo was in the dry lands. But further west the land became even dryer… and still dryer: the Kalahari dessert. In this virtually empty land the RAF had marked out a bombing range. We sometimes heard the distant explosions. Of course there were few people around – only San Bushmen who managed to survive in this dessert. I don’t suppose they were given advance warning about the bombing range but they soon learnt to keep their distance. 

Many a young trainee on his first solo flight miscalculated his flightpath, by 180 degrees. They flew West instead of East. It was a common beginner’s mistake. When he ran out of fuel he had to make a forced landing in the Kalahari. Heany then had to send out planes to search for him. Some had spent days without food or water before they were rescued.  More red faces!

*See also story 48. Couvaras.