Allister Miller: A South African Air Pioneer & his Connection with Port Elizabeth

Allister Miller was not only a war hero but he was instrumental in the creation of a civilian aviation industry in South Africa. By all objective measures, he can claim to be the father of this industry. Due to his recording breaking flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, he was accorded recognition in Port Elizabeth by naming the street past the airport, Allister Miller Drive.

Lieutenant-Colonel Allister Miller DSO OBE (1892–1951) was a South African aviation pioneer, who contributed significantly to both military and civil aviation in his country during the first half of the 20th century.

But what did Allister Miller actually do to receive this acclamation?

The original caption on the photograph: The end of an historic flight, Rio de Janeiro II, piloted by Major (later Lieut.-Col) Allister Miller, the pioneer of South African civil aviation, lies upended in a bunker on the old 17th fairway of the Port Elizabeth Golf Club on Wednesday, 7th November 1917. Major Miller, accompanied by Sgt-Mechanic Way, took off from Young’s Field Cape Town. Five hours, 18 minutes later flying at an average speed of 70 m.p.h., the plane touched down at the P.E. Golf Club – the first plane ever to land in the City. An estimated 5,000 people were waiting at the Club to witness the arrival, but they pressed so close when the plane touched down that Major Miller was forced to crash his craft into a fairway bunker to avoid the over-eager spectators. His action prevented what could have been a major tragedy. The only damage to the plane, fortunately, was a broken propeller which was presented to the Club as a memento of an historic occasion.

Early life

In his early life, Allister had no connection with Port Elizabeth. That would come later. Instead he was born in Schombeni, Swaziland [now Eswatini] on the 10th September 1892, becoming the first colonial [white] child to have been born there. His father, a journalist in Mbabane, had started the Swazi Times. To add to the confusion, he was also called Allister M. Miller OBE. Being born Alexander Mitchell Miller, what had motivated him to call himself Allister, is still unknown. Allister’s father was honoured in Eswatini by having a road, Allister Miller Road named after him in Mbabane.

As their contemporaries, the Lovemore family in Swaziland found out, schooling was not available in the Kingdom which meant that their offspring were compelled to travel vast distances in order to do so. In young Allister’s case, it would first be The South African College School (colloquially often known as “SACS”), a public English medium primary and high education institution situated in Newlands, Cape Town.

SACS, Cape Town

After his early education at SACS in Cape Town, he was then enrolled at St. Aiden’s in Grahamstown.

St Aidan’s College in Grahamstown
1917 RFC Recruiting Tour to South Africa (BE 2e aircraft sponsored by the British citizens of Rio de Janeiro) with Allister Miller in the cockpit after his flight from Cape Town on the 7th November 1917.

The Great War aka WW1

After high school, Allister enrolled at Rhodes University but only spent one year there. Then he was off to greener pastures id est the University in London where he studied electrical engineering at City & Guilds Engineering College [London University]. On the outbreak of WW1 in August 1914 he quit his studies and enlisted in the British Army in September 1914, and was commissioned in the 5th Cavalry Reserve (the Royal Scots Greys and the 1st Royal Dragoons) in which he saw active service in France. With static trench warfare prevailing in France, all cavalry units were essentially redundant, unemployed expectantly waiting for the day when their services would be required. Obviously desiring action, in February 1915, Allister obtained a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps [RFC]. Having completed his flying training in November 1915, he was posted to No. 3 Squadron RFC and in June 1916 promoted to Flight Commander. He fought in the skies over the Western Front in France and Belgium.

Above: Immelmann’s Wreath dropped by Allister Miller. The letter is in Miller’s handwriting and dated 1/7/1916.  I assume this to be Max Immelmann as he was killed on 18 June 1916.  Not sure why he was requested to drop the wreath but he was probably at the right place at the right time
 

Recruiting tours

Losses of pilots during the first years of the war were horrendous due to the Hun’s superior aircraft and unrivalled airmanship. To replenish these losses in airmen, the British authorities in October 1916 in agreement with the Union government, arranged to undertake an intensive recruiting campaign in South Africa. During his first recruiting campaign during 1916, he was tasked with recruiting 30 suitable candidates but due to the overwhelming interest, ended up by signing up 450 recruits.

Major Miller

Being so successful and with demand for new pilots insatiable, Allister was sent out again to the Union, arriving in Cape Town during October 1917. During this trip, Allister was given the use of two BE2e aircraft, an assistant and two RFC mechanics. In recognition and thanks for the sponsorship by the British expatriate community in Brazil of these two planes, they were named “Rio de Janeiro Britons” No. 1 & No. 2. Unlike the restrictive first tour of the Union, this one would be extensive. Not only was he expected to recruit candidates for the RFC but he was also tasked with arranging flying displays in order to generate interest as well as to raise money for RFC hospitals.

At the end of the tour he had in excess of 8000 applicants from which he selected 2000 for flying training. The rigor of the selection was validated in the South African contingent achieving a pass rate of 98% in their pilot training, a far higher percentage than any other British Dominion. Among those recognised for their distinguished service was Andrew Weatherby Beauchamp-Proctor VC, DSO, MC & Bar, DFC. Thereafter they were collectively known as “Miller’s Boys”.

Record breaking flight

Major Miller was honoured by the Mayor & a banquet was held at the St George’s Club

It was during his second recruiting tour that Miller would make his indelible mark with the residents of Port Elizabeth. On hearing the news of the impending flight to Port Elizabeth by Allister Miller they were enraptured. The town was abuzz. As the day of the plane’s expected arrival, 7th November 1917, was a Wednesday, that day was declared an unofficial public holiday to enable the star struck residents the opportunity to witness the spectacle.

After offloading the two B.E.2 [BE = British Experimental] aircraft in Cape Town, the mechanics were required to assemble the aircraft. These aircraft, built by Wolseley Motors Limited, were registered as serial numbers A3109 and A3110.

Three versions of this historic flight have been transcribed: The Eastern Province Herald, The Cape Times and a plaque at the Southdene Museum.

Major Allister Miller about to land at the PE Golf Club in his BE 2e biplane on the 7th November 1917

On the 7th November 1917 Allister Miller set out from Cape Town in one of these aircraft. His destination was far off Port Elizabeth, 850 kms away. This extraordinary feat had never been attempted before. As the average speed would be no greater than 70 mph, it would also be a gruelling flight.

This record-breaking flight is commemorated on a plaque in the reception of the Port Elizabeth SAAF Museum in Southdene Port Elizabeth. Beneath it stands a bust of Major Allister M Miller DSO of the R.F.C. (Royal Flying Corps). This Plaque provides the following information:

The end of an historic flight, Rio de Janeiro II, piloted by Major [later Lieu-Col] Allister Miller, the pioneer of South African civil aviation, lies upended in a bunker on the old 17th fairway of the Port Elizabeth Golf Club.

Above: Letter on the first airmail flight

On Wednesday, 7th November 1917, Major Miller, accompanied by Sgt-Mechanic Way, took off from Young’s field, Cape Town. Five hours 18 minutes later, flying at an average speed of 70 mph, the plane touched at the PE Golf Club – the first plane ever to land at the City. An estimated 5,000 people were waiting at the Club to witness the arrival, but they pressed so close when the plane touched down that Major Miller was forced to crash his craft into a fairway bunker to avoid the over-eager spectators. His action prevented what could have been a major tragedy. The only damage to the plane, fortunately, was a broken propeller which was presented to the Club as a memento of an historic occasion.” [Planes of the era did not possess brakes]

Coupled with this feat was the fact that Miller carried eighty copies of the Cape Times newspaper together with some mail. As such this mail can rightfully claim the title of the first airmail from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth.

A de Havilland D.H. 60 Gipsy Moth (ZS-ABI) taken over by SAA from Union Airways
A de Havilland D.H. 60 Gipsy Moth (ZS-ABI) taken over by SAA from Union Airways

Cutting from the Cape Times

On the 6 November 1917 a small crowd gathered at the aerodrome at Young’s Fields at Wynberg, Cape Town to watch the start of Major Miller’s projected Union wide tour, the first leg of which was to end at Port Elizabeth. It was intended to land at Humansdorp where some of the newspapers were to be unloaded. However the engine was not working to the satisfaction of the Major and time was spent in trying to remedy the defect. A trial flight proved that things with the single engine were not yet perfect, a start on the tour was nevertheless made at 7.6 a.m. and the aircraft now also with the flight mechanic, Sergt. Way, on board was lost to view in the direction of Somerset Strand. The weather conditions proved hostile with a strong head wind so the Major abandoned the flight for the day and returned to Young’s Fields, having reached Sir Lowry Pass in forty minutes with a return time with the wind of ten minutes. Inspection of the engine showed that the fault was a blocked feed pipe, which was cleared. An announcement was made that that the flight would resume on the following day at 5 a.m., weather permitting.

Major Miller taking off in his Moth from the esplanade at Cape Town
Major Miller taking off in his Moth from the esplanade at Cape Town

A cutting from the EP Herald on the flight

“The whole of the city had arranged to suspend activities from 10.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. in order to afford everybody the opportunity to witness the arrival, it being expected that the plane would circle around the city before landing on the golf links. A large crowd had gathered from an early hour, some had come in from the outer districts, such was the excitement and novelty of the occasion; many of these people had never seen an aeroplane before.

The occasion – the first long distance flight in South Africa – would have been dramatic in any event but the unexpected climax lent additional force to it. Major Miller left Cape Town at 6.30 a.m. accompanied by Sergt. Mechanician Way, in fine weather, the flight took 5 hours and 22.5 minutes. This was of course the fastest time ever up to that date.

Piloted by Major Allister Miller of the Rhodesian Aerial Tours Company
Piloted by Major Allister Miller of the Rhodesian Aerial Tours Company [Transnet Heritage Library]

Every vantage point in and about the city was thronged with eager people. The Donkin Reserve was crowded as with the Market Square and also the roofs of most of the buildings in the city. Unfortunately these latter spectators saw very little of the aeroplane. Many failed to see it at all particularly those on Market Square, it having been expected that it would circle overhead before landing.

The plane circled twice dropping in altitude all the time until at a couple of hundred feet a white message bag with streamers in the colours of the R.F.C. was dropped to the waiting crowd.

He “volplaned” down to the fairway of the eighteenth hole, dashed towards the green crashed into the bunker and buried the nose of the ‘plane into the turf it remained balanced on its nose (planes of those days did not have brakes). If he had swerved he would have gone into the crowd. Ready hands assisted both the pilot and mechanic out, unharmed, [as] wild excitement gripped the crowd. The propeller was in splinters, undercarriage twisted, a wheel totally wrecked and damage was caused to a wing. Later he said that he should have touched down further back as the breeze at ground level was very slight.

Avro 504K H2583 South African Aerial Transport Company with Allister Miller and Cecil Robert Thompson
Avro 504K H2583 South African Aerial Transport Company with Allister Miller and Cecil Robert Thompson

It was decided that repairs to the plane could be carried out in Port Elizabeth but as all spares were in Johannesburg it must be assumed that these were railed to be Port Elizabeth. The Major would go to Johannesburg by train to continue with his schedule there, using the spare plane, already in Johannesburg and then return to Port Elizabeth to resume the tour. 

A reception was arranged in the Golf Club House where Mayor Kemsley made a speech using such phrases as “epoch in the evolution of science” and welcomed the Major to the city. The Mayor went on to say, “The aeroplane would be used in future, when this colossal upheaval of nations of the world is over, as a means of bringing the people of the world together and of increasing trade.”

WWI Model 1914 Royal Flying Corps Officer Uniform
WWI Model 1914 Royal Flying Corps Officer Uniform

In his reply the Major said, “The Royal Flying Corps extends its hearty greetings. Your airmen have realized all expectations and I have now returned to receive further nominations from the good material still available.” Describing his flight he said that the weather at Cape Town was ideal with a little wind from the south-west. At Mossel Bay he had a few anxious moments and then again at Knysna due to wind; he was forced to fly out to sea between these places and was glad when this windy area was left behind. At Humansdorp there were air pockets where he had further engine trouble, which eventually cleared. “It started to splutter” he said, “and I thought how rotten it would be to have to descend so near the end of the flight, however we got here-as you saw.”

MAMISA The Swazi Warrior by Allister Miller
MAMISA The Swazi Warrior by Allister Miller snr, father of a Major Miller

He pointed with a smile to the irrecognisable wheel. His average speed was 75 miles per hour at 5000 feet. The reception closed with the distribution of the mail and the auction of the Cape Times special aviation edition newspapers, of that same morning. The first paper auctioned fetched £35s, the next fetched £6 and then fifty papers at £1 each, the balance being sold later. Even the message bag and its ballast of nails were auctioned. Major Miller said that he was on a recruiting drive for the RFC for more men to train as pilots.

Allister Miller
Allister Miller

End of WW1

It was while on the second recruiting tour of the Union that Allister met a young woman by the name of Marion Mercy Bagshaw in Port Elizabeth. Marion was a member of the well-known Bagshaw family in Port Elizabeth which were partners in the prominent shoe manufacturing company, Bagshaw & Gibaud. Before Allister could return to France, there was a more pressing personal deed that he would have to perform: marry his sweetheart in June 1918.

On completion of the recruiting tour in October 1918, Miller was sent back to France as OC 45 Squadron of the Independent Air force. The IAF was a First World War strategic bombing force which was part of the British Royal Air Force and was used to strike against German railways, aerodromes, and industrial centres without co-ordination with the Army or Navy. When the war ended on 11th November 1918, Miller elected to remain with the British Expeditionary Force until January 1919.

Between the Wars

After the armistice, Miller would attempt to pursue a career in civil aviation. Initially upon his return to the Union in 1919 there were no opportunities to fly with the South African Airforce. Like many other ex-airmen with no other job prospects, he would purchase superfluous aircraft from the British government at a nominal figure of £100 with which he would commence a “joy riding” or “barnstorming” business. As such, he would provide flying demonstrations across the length and breadth of the Union attracting captive audiences, particularly in the platteland areas where the rural population had never seen an airplane before. Suitably impressed with his flying antics, the onlookers were enticed to pay for a flip in this mechanical wonder. Be cognisant of the fact that many of the spectators had not yet seen or driven in a motor car let alone seen or flown in a plane.

Avro 504K H2583 South African Aerial Transport Company with Allister Miller and Cecil Robert Thompson

Along with two partners, Miller purchased four Avro 504Ks which could each carry two passengers in the large rear cabin and formed the “South African Aerial Navigation Company”. Headquartered at Baragwanath airfield in Johannesburg it would later become the South African Transports Ltd, flying its inaugural flight on 25 October 1919. Miller’s timing was not impeccable. Money was tight especially for frivolous activities such as excursions on aircraft. Even though Miller claimed that he had flown 5,000 passengers, it had been too costly as he had flown 30,000 miles to achieve that. Lack of support, coupled with the trials of infancy, and excessive costs inevitably proving too much and the company was placed in liquidation. His first two ventures were unsuccessful and short-lived: the South African Aerial Navigation Company, which became South African Aerial Transports Ltd (1919–1920). Without work, in 1920, Miller contested the election standing for the South African Party, the SAPS as they were pejoratively called, for the Springs constituency but was unsuccessful. In 1921, Miller once again stood as a candidate for the SAPs but on this occasion it was for the Salt River constituency in which he was once more unsuccessful.

The Avro 504K Number H2583 owned by Miller

Rhodesia

After two failed ventures, Miller accepted reality that his future lay outside aviation finding employment in 1921 with an insurance company which compelled him to relocate to Rhodesia in a management position. HIs enthusiasm for aviation had not dimmed or diminished. This led him to persuade some backers in Rhodesia to start another aviation company which he named Rhodesian Aerial Tours. With the capital investment by the backers Miller purchased one of the Avro 504s from the liquidators of his previous company. In June 1922 Miller commenced operations based upon the same business model as his previous companies. These comprised flight demonstrations and joy-riding in Matabeleland and the Midlands of Rhodesia. This business ceased operations in less than two months on the 13 August 1922 when the Avro was caught in a major crosswind on takeoff at Rusape forcing it to crash into a thorn tree. Even though the damage was insignificant, this incident spooked the other financial partners who withdrew their financial support.

For some unknown reason, Miller left his job in insurance and returned to South Africa but he never relinquished his determination to form a regular airmail service in SA and thus turned to politics in 1920 probably using it as a springboard back into aviation or at the very least to lobby on behalf of civil aviation. He contested the Springs constituency under the banner of the South African Party, pejoratively known as the SAPs, but was unsuccessful. At his subsequent attempt in 1921 for the Salt River constituency, he once more failed to obtain the majority. After returning to South Africa in 1923 he once again sought election. In 1924, he successfully campaigned for the Point constituency in Durban for the SAPs being elected in June 1924. As a Member of Parliament he never missed a chance to promote his ideas on civil aviation in the country. In recognition of his triumph, he named his de Havilland DH60 “The Point.”

According to Mike Peter, Miller’s grandson, “As an MP he was very involved in promoting aviation. As a guest, he visited Anthony Fokker in Holland as well as travelling to the USA and Canada. He was appointed by the government as a member of the South African Civil Air Board as well as the SA British House of Commons Delegation to the Inter Parliamentary Conference held in Rome. In 1925, a British Air Ministry Delegation was despatched to South Africa to discuss with the Union Government the possibility of establishing an Empire Airship Service. Allister Miller was appointed by the government as a committee member tasked with investigating the scheme. ”

Union Airways in 1929
Union Airways in 1929

The inauguration of the Light Aeroplane Club, at the end of 1926, was a product of his campaigning. In 1927 he imported a DH 60 Cirrus Moth, named it “The Point”, and went on extended tours of the country to try and popularise general aviation in SA.

In his capacity as a Member of Parliament, Allister successfully lobbied for government support for civil aviation. In addition, he gave flying demonstrations, toured the country to popularise flying, and encouraged the formation of flying clubs.

Above: Major ‘Mac’ Miller made a historic flight round the Union of South Africa in the first Moth ever to be imported there

Inauguration of an airmail service

On 26th August 1929 his dream of an airmail service was born. After being awarded a government contract to fly airmail between Cape Town and the major centres in South Africa Major Allister Miller founded Union Airways in Port Elizabeth in 1929. The company was registered on 24 July 1929 and began airmail operations on 26 August 1929 with five de Havilland DH 60 Gipsy Moth bi-planes and a small staff of experienced pilots from the Fairview Flying Field in First Avenue Port Elizabeth. Mail was carried weekly to their Headquarters in Port Elizabeth from Cape Town, Durban and the Rand, via Bloemfontein.

The Atlantic Refining Company, a major South African motor fuel and oil company, which was also enthusiastic about the future of air communication in South Africa, apparently provided £5,000 to cover the costs associated with the importation of the four DH60 Gipsy Moth aeroplanes required. This would supplement the meagre annual subsidy amounting to £8,000 which the government was awarding to any business undertaking a mail service since 1925.

Above: 29 Jan 1930. Maiden flight from CT to PE of Union Airways Fokker Super Universal ZS-ABR, first passenger carrying plane, landing at Fairview [Transnet Heritage Library]

Initially Union Airways operated a fleet of five two-seat Gipsy Moth biplanes, three with an open cockpit and two enclosed Moth Coupe’s. The Government haggled with Miller as they considered that these planes were too small for the service required. Miller did not relent as the subsidy of one shilling per mile flown did not permit the purchase of more spacious planes. Union Airways purchased the open cockpit Gipsy Moths at £662 each whereas the enclosed version cost £692 each. The Moths were not flown out but shipped out in dismantled kit form and then assembled at Brooklyn Airfield in Cape Town.

Modus operandi

Mail was also collected from the Union Castle steamships from Britain that docked at Cape Town harbour on Monday mornings and flown to Port Elizabeth by a single Gypsy Moth. At Port Elizabeth two more Gipsy Moths were waiting to continue the service, one to fly mail to Bloemfontein and Johannesburg and the other to East London and Durban. On Thursday the 29 August the return service was operated reaching Cape Town in time for the departing United Kingdom bound steamship.

Above: RFC Officers-Douglas Miller DFC (brother to Allister), Allister Mackintosh Miller DSO, OBE , Robert (Bob) Lovemore DSO and lifelong friend of AMM.

The inaugural maiden flight

According to the placard on the life of Allister Miller at the SAAF Museum in Southdene, this occurred as follows: “On their maiden flights, Caspereuthus flying the Durban route from Port Elizabeth reached Durban at 16:30 being two hours ahead of schedule and long before the official civic reception party arrived. Bellin, the other pilot, on the other hand, on the Johannesburg route flew into severe headwinds near Middelburg and only reached Bloemfontein by nightfall. As an expedient, Bellin landed at Bloemfontein and put the mail on the overnight train to Johannesburg where it arrived the next morning. The next day he continued his flight to Germiston to pick up the mail for the return flight. Both Caspareuthus and Bellin arrived back in Port Elizabeth on the Thursday, with the subsequent Gipsy Moth flight to Cape Town arriving their on Friday in time for the mail to be transported to the docks and loaded onto the ship.

Above: Sketch of the mail delivery process

The first flight by Union Airways was on Monday August 26 1929 with Miller himself flying one of the five de Havilland Gipsy Moth biplane machines from Maitland Common, Cape Town. Five bags of mail weighing 168 pounds were carried, destined for Port Elizabeth with further trans-shipment to either Johannesburg or Durban.

Additions to the fleet

As both mail and passenger traffic increased Miller bought a Fokker Super Universal NC98K in the USA and registered it as ZS-ABR. This single engine aircraft that could carry six passengers and this plane entered service on 29 May 1930. as part of Union Airways which would use the airfield at Fairview as their base. On the 29th January 1930, this plane made its maiden flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth under the banner of Union Airways. In effect, the Fokker Super Universal ZS-ABR became the first passenger carrying machine used on regular services, with Fairview as their base.

Above: 1930 Fokker Super Universal NC98K, purchased in the USA and registered as ZS-ABR to serve in Union Airways-[THL N74379] . Note the sparsity of vegetation especially of trees in the area surrounding the Fairview airfield during the 1930s.

This aircraft was not noted for its longevity when on the 31st December of the following year it crashed at Kayser’s Beach with 3 people on board. The plane had to be written off but all 3 passengers survived. The extent of their injuries is unknown.

The next aircraft type to enter service with Union Airways were two de Havilland DH 80A Puss Moths. These aircraft could carry two passengers in an enclosed cabin and replaced some of the Gypsy Moths that had been sold or written off.

A Fatal Crash

It was only two weeks after taking ownership of the second DH Puss Moth when Miller received a severe shock when on Friday 13 November 1931 he heard the sad news that it had crashed at Sir Lowry Pass, killing all on board. It was the Cape Town to Port Elizabeth flight, a flight that Miller himself was scheduled to fly, but as a last minute change of plan had requested Captain Davenport to substitute for him. The aircraft had crashed on a hillside half a mile from Sir Lowry’s Pass after encountering a ferocious south-east wind. These early aircraft were not renowned for their structural strength. By all accounts a savage almost feral like gust induced structural failure to the wing. An eye-witness recounted how the aircraft spun towards the ground with the plane’s starboard wind drifting away. Nothing the pilot could do would have remedied the situation. As the aircraft ZS-ACD hit the ground, it burst into flame killing the pilot, William Frost Davenport, as well as the two passengers, a Frenchman businessman, J. Pouradier-Dutiel, and a local farmer, J.C. Young. Davenport’s wife was intending to be a passenger aboard this flight but at the last moment forfeited her seat to a paying customer who urgently had to get to Port Elizabeth. Being pregnant, the shock triggered her to miscarry. The premature baby was later buried alongside her father.

Union Airways was struggling to make ends meet and little help was forthcoming from the South African government. Junkers South Africa Pty (Ltd) which owned and operated South West African Airways, bought a substantial share in Union Airways. An all-metal Junkers F13 was chartered from SWA Airways and was soon operating in place of the wrecked Fokker.

Above: Junkers F.13

The Junkers F13 arrived in SA during 1932 and was operated by Union Airways and later SAA as ZS-AEA. It carried the name “Hendrik Swellengrebel”. At the outbreak of WW2, this aircraft was pressed into service and was given the SAAF serial number “259”. During the war it was utilised as the personal aircraft of Col J. Louw, General Officer Commanding-Coastal Area.

Capt. Graham Bellin, one of the early pioneers of SA aviation, was to become one of the first pilots of Union Airways and of SAA. In 1917 Graham Bellin (then a 2nd Lt. in the RFC) started his initial flight training at the school for military pilots in Tours, Central France. He made his first training flight in a Maurice Farman S11 Biplane on 5 Sep 1917. Further training followed on Caudron G-3 and Curtiss JN-4 Jenny’s. On 18 Sept, after only 4 hours of total flying time he made his first solo in a Caudron G-3 serial “3291”.

Bellin training on the Maurice Farman S11 biplane

More Junkers aircraft followed in the form of F13 and W34 aircraft and later a Junkers A50 also joined the fleet. Imperial’s airmail service from Britain to Cape Town was routed via Rand Airport and Kimberley and this made the Union Airways airmail service from Cape Town to Johannesburg unnecessary. The carriage of airmail from Durban to Johannesburg and Durban to Cape Town was contracted to Union Airways. Passenger growth on the Durban – Johannesburg service grew steadily culminating in a daily flight. This compelled the airline to move their base from Port Elizabeth to Durban. Major Miller also placed an order for 3 Junkers Ju 52/3m aircraft; an all-metal airliner with three engines which could carry up to 18 passengers.

DH60G Gipsy Moth 1124 ZS-ABI

The first 12 months showed financial optimism, but technical requirements & constraints started to affect the viability of the company. As a result of a fatal accident in 1931, all possible financial backing dried up. He was approached by South West African Airways, who immediately offered Union Airways Junkers F13s. In effect, this resulted in SWAA amalgamating with Union Airways in 1932. This move would ultimately cost him control of the company and the South African government final acquired all the assets and liabilities of Union Airways and thus SAA was born.

A flight of DH-9s used for the first Union Airways mail service

Union Airways was struggling to make ends meet and little help was forthcoming from the South African government. Junkers South Africa Pty (Ltd) which owned and operated South West African Airways, bought a substantial share in Union Airways. An all-metal Junkers F13 was chartered from SWA Airways and was soon operating in place of the wrecked Fokker. More Junkers aircraft followed in the form of F13 and W34 aircraft and later a Junkers A50 also joined the fleet. Imperial’s airmail service from Britain to Cape Town was routed via Rand Airport and Kimberley and this made the Union Airways airmail service from Cape Town to Johannesburg unnecessary. The carriage of airmail from Durban to Johannesburg and Durban to Cape Town was contracted to Union Airways. Passenger growth on the Durban – Johannesburg service grew steadily culminating in a daily flight. This compelled the airline to move their base from Port Elizabeth to Durban. Major Miller also placed an order for 3 Junkers Ju 52/3m aircraft; an all-metal airliner with three engines which could carry up to 18 passengers. The final nail in Union Airways coffin came when one of the Junkers W34 aircraft crashed in bad weather near the town of Eshowe in late 1933, two crew and three passengers were killed and one passenger survived. This was a major blow to the airline and forced Miller to approach the South African government to take over the operation.

All of Allister’s Herculean efforts to establish Union Airways had come to naught except sleepless nights and financial woes. The South African government relieved him of these traumas by acquiring the assets and liabilities of Union Airways on 1 February 1934. This included 40 staff members and three Junkers F13s, one DH60 Gypsy Moth, one DH80A Puss Moth and a leased Junkers F13 and Junkers A50. The airline was named South African Airways and fell under the control of the South African Railways and Harbours administration. SAA honoured the order for the three Junkers Ju 52/3m aircraft. This was the beginning of a pioneering, record-breaking world-famous airline.

Above: Port Elizabeth, circa 1934. Major Allister Mackintosh Miller standing on wing of Union Airways Junkers W-34 HR [Transnet Heritage Library Item # M3810]

The 1936 Portsmouth to Johannesburg Air Race

In 1936 Johannesburg celebrated its jubilee year and a South African entrepreneur, Isidor Schlesinger, planned an air race from Portsmouth to Johannesburg. He agreed to put up £10 000 as prize money for the race which was to be planned under the auspices of the Royal Aero Club of Britain. Allister Miller was sponsored by the Johannesburg Corporation who supplied a Percival Mew Gull (ZS-AHM), named the “Golden City”. The race was routed via Yugoslavia with an obligatory landing in Cairo, then south to South Africa. The race itself was a total disaster. Only one participant, the Vega Gull of Scott & Guthrie crossed the finishing line after a total flying time of 52 hours, 56 minutes & 48 seconds. All the other participants either crashed (& a number were killed) or experienced technical problems. Delays in finding fuel in Belgrade and bad weather forced Allister to retire, which was probably a good thing according to Mike, his grandson

Royal Flying Corps officers
Royal Flying Corps officers

WW2

At the outbreak of hostilities, Allister Miller once again enlisted, this time in the SAAF and was appointed as OC of a number of Flying Schools throughout SA during the war with the rank of Lt. Col. During WW2, the United Kingdom embarked on a joint military plan to train aircrew in the Commonwealth Colonies. This was the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in terms of which a number of Air Schools being established amongst which was the No. 42 Air School in Port Elizabeth.

After the war, he worked as chief publicity officer for the South African Airways.

End of a great man

Even though Miller had received both the OBE and the DSO, on retiring at the end of the Second World War as a lieutenant colonel, nevertheless, he is usually remembered as “Major” Miller because it was in this rank that his great reputation was won. He died at “Journey’s End” at Swartkops, Port Elizabeth on 14th October, 1951. Given the fact that South Africa owes such a debt of gratitude to Allister Miller, one would have assumed that the City fathers would have seen fit to retain this house as a museum to his legacy. But it was not to be for in 2006 it was demolished by the new owners of the house. An even greater memento to him would have been to rename the Port Elizabeth airport the Allister Miller Airport. Instead due to some reductionist thinking, Chief Dawid Stuurman was given that honour. In time even that small honour of the road outside the airport being known as the Allister Miller Road will be eliminated in that same warped logic.

War hero, recruiting officer for the RFC, barnstorming pilot, pioneer of South African commercial flying, mem­ber of Parliament, aviation entrepreneur and great gentleman, Allister Miller wrote a magnifi­cent page in the aviation history of the Eastern province and, indeed, of South Africa.

Cause of death

A M Miller jnr., Allister’s son, was a pilot in the SAAF during WW2 and ended up flying Mosquitos for 60 Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, SAAF. On one of his photo recce missions of the second Ploesti oil refinery in Romania by the Americans, for which he was awarded the American DFC, he sadly went missing somewhere over the Italian Alps on 26 February 1944. He and his navigator, Bill Allison, were never heard of again and no wreckage was ever found. It was assumed he must have had contact with an ME 262, which was the only aircraft that was capable of speeds in excess of the Photo Reconnaissance Mosquitos. ME 262s were known to be in the area at that time as the then OC of 60 PR Squadron Pi Pienaar’s encounter with one later that year bears testament. Allister never gave up hope that his son would be found, to the point of being obsessed.

According to the poster on Allister Miller at the SAAF Museum in Southdene Port Elizabeth, “On V.J. Day, the day on which the victory over Japan is celebrated viz 2nd September 1945, Marion Miller suffered a most serious stroke. A quiet, shy and unassuming woman she had lived with a great deal of strain for many years, and had been a tower of strength to the man she loved. Miller moved her to be at Cape Town to be with her own mother. After his demobilisation, the spark of life seems to have died with him, and the love of excitement and pioneering spirit with it. He accepted a post with a newly formed flying school in Port Elizabeth, and moved this wife and youngest daughter, Fiorna, to a house “Journey’s End” on the bank of the Swartkops River where he pottered about long time wanted in his spare time. He started to write his memoirs but when Marion died on 1 March 1951, he felt that life had dealt him a final blow. A sad, lonely and disillusioned man, his health deteriorated rapidly and in September 1951, he entered a Port Elizabeth nursing home. Major Miller died on 11 October 1951, aged 59. The only reason the doctor could give was that he had died of a “broken heart.”

Mike Peter, Allister’s grandson fervently believes this and the death of his wife in 1950, to whom he was devoted, was the cause of his untimely death in 1951 at the age of 59. His death certificate, according to Mike’s mother, stated “Broken Heart” as the cause. This might well be apocryphal, but whatever the underlying symptom, it was a sad ending to a very colourful character who could well have been of continuing service to our land.

MILLER’S HOME . . . The Swartkops home believed to have belonged to Allister Miller, the first man to land an aircraft in Port Elizabeth and the founder of Union Airways, later SAA. An application has been logged with PRHA for it’s demolition. Picture: IVOR MARKMAN. The Herald, Friday, September 1, 2006.

South Africa mourned the passing of this great pioneer, the father of commercial aviation in South Africa but the praise came too late. He would have been justifiably proud of the glowing reports of his achievements in the newspapers, all the letters and telegrams lamenting the loss of such a great man. In recognition of his aeronautical achievements and his long standing connection with Port Elizabeth, the road leading to the Port Elizabeth airport was renamed Allister Miller Drive.

Miller’s grave

Sources:

Internet:

Allister Miller: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allister_Miller

The Miller Flight: http://www.fad.co.za/Resources/aviation/miller.htm

1910 to 1920 – Early Flying in South Africa:  http://www.sapfa.org.za/history/1910-1920-early-flying-south-africa

Rootsweb:  http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/SOUTH-AFRICA/1999-10/0939579868

SAA Museum Society

Allister Mackintosh Miller DSO, OBE: A Biographical Sketch by Mike Peter, grandson of Allister Miller

Early History of Aviation in the Eastern Province by Major General T.G.E. Cockbain, article in Militaria 24/1 1994

https://www.baaa-acro.com/country/south-africa?page=13

Newspapers:

Cape Times: November 7 1917
Eastern Province Herald: November 8 1917

6 Comments

  1. Mamisa, the Swazi warrior, was written by Allister Miller snr, father of a Major Miller. Enjoyed your article (I am grandson to AMM)

    Reply
    • Hi Mike, Thanks for a million for that correction. I have amended the caption. I found it difficult to track down any photos of Allister Miller. Do you perhaps have any to email me for inclusion in this blog? If you do, could you please email them to me at deanm@orangedotdesigns.co.za
      Regards
      Dean

      Reply
        • Hi Anne, Are you referring to Mike Peter? If so, yes he did email me. He told me that he is in possession of all of the details of Allister’s life. The problem is that I stay in Joburg. I am planning to make my 1st trip in three decades to PE where I was born & raised & promised to visit him en route.

          I have recently retired and have furiously writing blogs on PE and other topics.

          Regards
          Dean

          Reply

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