Port Elizabeth of Yore: Where would pilots from 42 Air School Celebrate?

During WW2, South Africa was requested to train Allied aircrew in the Union. In terms of the JATS – the Joint Air Training Scheme – South Africa would train 33,347 aircrew which included 12,221 SAAF personnel. Amongst the 37 South African based air schools, No. 42 was based in Port Elizabeth, south of the main civilian airport.

Included amongst the 21,126 foreigners who were trained in South Africa over the 5 years of WW2, was one who came from Tasmania in Australia, Pierce Joseph Keating.

Main picture: Sergeant PJ Keating

Air schools

Despite the pre-war South African Air Force’s (SAAF) expansion plans, at the start of the Second World War in 1939, the SAAF was caught unprepared. New flying  schools were rapidly established at Pretoria, Germiston Bloemfontein and Baragwanath, while a training command under Lieutenant Colonel W.T.B. Tasker oversaw the SAAF’s overall training programme. With the establishment of the Joint Air Training Scheme (JATS), 38 South African–based air schools were employed to train Royal Air Force, SAAF and other allied air and ground crews. Aircraft and other equipment required for the training were provided to South Africa free of charge by the United Kingdom. Under this scheme, the SAAF, by September 1941, increased the total number of military aircraft to 1,709 while the personnel strength had grown to 31,204, including 956 pilots.

Northrop A-17A Nomad about to land at the PE Airport with the Apple Express in the background

An Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS) gave a recruit 50 hours of basic aviation instruction on a simple trainer like the Tiger Moth. Pilots who showed promise went on to training at a Service Flying Training School (STFS). The Service Flying Training School provided advanced training for pilots, including fighter and multi-engined aircraft. Other trainees went on to different specialties, such as wirelessnavigation or bombing and gunnery. In South Africa, the Elementary Flying Training School and Service Flying Training School were renamed Air Schools.[1]

42 Air School

Family business

Pierce Joseph Keating was born on Friday 21st February 1913 in Hobart, Tasmania. His family had been involved in the business of cabinetmaking from the mid-1860s when James Keating first started the business.

James Keating was born in 1832 at Carlow, Ireland and at 12 years of age lost both his parents. Under the care of relatives, he left and went to Dublin where he was employed in an unknown occupation, then went to Manchester where he learnt the trades of joinery and cabinetmaking. James Keating was encouraged to emigrate to Tasmania by his only brother 10 years his senior, Pierce Keating, a sergeant of the 99th Regiment who had been stationed in Van Diemen’s Land [original name of Tasmania] in 1846 at Port Arthur and served in the colony till 1854 when he resigned and settled on his farm “Prospect” at Port Cygnet. Pierce Keating went back to England and returned in the “Great Tasmania” on the 27th January 1857 from Liverpool, bringing with him James aged 25, to settle in Van Diemen’s Land. Apparently Pierce Keating also encouraged other relatives to emigrate.

PJ Keating in overcoat and mustache

The cabinetmaking family of James Keating of Hobart, Tasmania covers the period from the mid-1860’s to 1924 and is an example of a cabinetmaking family who concentrated on carpentry and joinery, the manufacturing of furniture and upholstery as well as undertaking services as part of their business. Also when Mary Keating, the widow ran the business for 14 years she also included the merchandising and warehousing of furniture. Over this 70-year period the business traded under the name of James Keating.

“Another pranged Maryland” with PJ Keating on the left

Enlistment

Whether there was any pressure on the callow young lad to enter the family business is unknown but on the 12th September 1940 at the age of 27, PJ Keating succumbed to the social pressure to assist his country in its hour of need, when he enlisted in the air force. His military record states that the unit to which he was assigned was the RAAF, as expected, but in brackets afterwards, it states RAF(UK) and gives his mustering as an observer. Initially Pip, as he was known, did his basic training at the RAAF Base Point Cook, Laverton, Melbourne, Victoria. Thereafter he embarked for the UK a year later on the 27th August 1941 when his military record laconically states: 27/8/40 Embarked with no explanation of where and in what capacity. 

“Our first Boston prang”

What training Keating received in the UK is unknown, but my presumption is that it was as an Observer as stated on his military record, but it might have extended to that as navigator or radio operator. It was during the latter half of 1942 that Keating was transferred to 42 Air School as an instructor. Even though one would have expected him to undergo training, the hotel menu which will be discussed shortly, refers to him as instructor.  As he presumably had not yet undergone pilot training, he must have performed other training such as navigation, radio or even gunnery training.

“Some SAAF chaps during an air raid”

Unlike today, international flights were not an option. All international travel was done solely by ship. With the U-Boat menace unabated, the trip outward bound to South Africa must have been nerve wracking. Upon arrival at the Charl Malan Quay in Port Elizabeth, the trainees were grouped into squads. In the case of Pierce Joseph Keating, he was allocated to “6 A.N.”. Training would commence on Monday 23rd November 1942 and would last just over 3 months, culminating on the 6th March 1943.

“Maryland crash landed at Shandur – Porky Rich & me” [Pierce Keating on the left]

By this stage of the war, the Axis powers had been decisively defeated at El Alamein in Egypt but what the Allies could not be sure of was whether the Houdini, General Rommel, the Desert Fox, would elude them once more and strike a devastating counterpunch. By the time that they had completed their training on Saturday 6th March 1943, the weight of the scales was heavily tipped in favour of an Allied victory. Not only did El Alamein prove to be decisive but Rommel had been pushed back over a 1000kms to Tunisia. Without a doubt, the Allies were now  in the ascendancy as the fall of Stalingrad with immense German losses, would prove to be fatal to the Axis’ military ambitions.

“Maryland crash landed at Shandur – Porky Rich & Pat McLoughlin”

Nonetheless, the Axis still had to be defeated. Hitler had no intention of rolling over and playing dead. He was fixated on making the Allies pay dearly for every inch of ground that they would cover. 

Celebration on completion of the course

Before these trainees could be inserted into the hurly-burly of war, there was a certain function, maybe even a rite of passage, which would have to be performed. Before departing for war, the 21 aircrew who had successfully completed course 6 A.N. would have to celebrate. A proper jollification but not debauchery. Wednesday 3rd March 1943 was selected, and Algoa Hotel was chosen as the venue. This hotel was one of a number of hotels in the vicinity. In fact there were two in Whites / Western Road within a block of the Algoa Hotel. To be more upmarket, they could have held the celebration at the King Edward Hotel. Maybe this venue was precluded in case their party got too rowdy. On the other hand diagonally opposite the King Edward, there was the Grand Hotel. In its heyday, it was known as the Bunton’s Grand Hotel. Claiming to have hosted many venerable dignitaries over the years, it had long since lost its cachet and class. It would have been equally suited to hold a rowdy party. Whether it was a toss of a coin or by open acclamation, the Algoa Hotel was the chosen venue.

To make it special, an unusual menu written in pilot-speak was drafted. For instance, the menu was referred to as “A Celebration Log”. This Log read as follows:  

Re:  A Celebration Log (Menu) 3/3/1943 – quote.. 

“The Members of “6 A.N.” 42 Air School, Port Elizabeth. Nov 23rd, 1942.   March 6th 1943.  Wish to express sincere appreciation of the services so generously given by their Instructors:

Capt. C.P. Strauss

F/O A.L. Roberts

Sgt. P.T. Keating

The menu was then duly signed by all 21 trainees. In more ways than one, this trip and celebration must have been extremely memorable. As testimony to that comment is the fact that active members of the military made prodigious efforts to retain their copy of the menu throughout the war and even afterwards.  

Snippet of the menu of the Algoa Hotel Port Elizabeth dated 3rd March 1943

Keating’s War

Once again I am unable to ascertain the whereabouts of Keating after his departure from the Union but I presume that as fighting was still in progress in Tunisia, North Africa, that Keating and his fellow trainees would have been en route to experience some live action against the Luftwaffe. It must have been during this period that Keating underwent pilot training because once again the sporadic Military Record comes to the rescue by stating by way of a telegram to his mother, that he had received a promotion to Pilot Officer.  On the 29/8/1943  Pip was “appointed an officer of the Citizen Air Force of the Commonwealth” by Australia’s  Governor General. This Certificate is amongst his papers.

From the Royal Australian Air Force file on PJ Keating

What must have been a significant event in Keating’s life was to occur now. A Boston [aircraft number 8286], with Pip as navigator, took off from Portreath in Cornwell at 16h00 en route to North West Africa. The other crew members were Ronald Henry as pilot, George Johnson  as wireless operator / air gunner and Duncan Brownell as air gunner. Portreath had been selected as a ferry stop-over point for aircraft inbound and outbound to and from Africa. Being the most westerly point in Britain, it enabled the aircraft to make a wide berth of Nazi occupied France

Owing to a fuel shortage, they were compelled to crash land on a beach at Tarife in Spain. Spanish soldiers from a barracks about 350 yards from where the aircraft crashed, took them into custody immediately. Afterwards they were moved from the barracks to an Army mess in Tarifa itself, where they remained until 22h00. Subsequently they were taken to Algeciras where they were visited by the British consul the following morning. At 1730 that day, they were taken across the border to Gibraltar. The distance from Tarifa to Gilbraltar is 27kms by air and 44kms by road. That implies that the plane almost reached their stop-over point. That still leaves the question of how it was possible to run out of fuel. Did they under-estimate the quantity of fuel required or did they experience foul weather or encounter strong headwinds en route? The report is silent on this issue but one would presume that an official enquiry must have been held to determine the cause of the loss of the aircraft. Or perhaps the exigencies of warfare precluded an investigation into such a “minor event” as the loss of a plane. During times of war, priorities change and it is only the singular events which are deemed noteworthy and a priority.  

On the 18th October 1943, Keating and Church were flown back to the UK with the other two following them on the 22/23 October.

Bunker at Tarifa, Spain
From the Royal Australian Air Force file on PJ Keating

Keating’s War would not be finito after the fall of the Third Reich on Monday 7th May 1945. There was still unfinished business for the Allies of various varieties. After the surrender of the Germans, there was still the Japanese to defeat.

Douglas A-20G Havoc bomber, but known as the Boston when in service of Commonwealth countries

At war’s end, F/O  P.J. Keating, service number, 408067 worked as a member of MIS-X Section, Southern Division, SWPA, (South West Pacific Area) Manado Force, investigating plane crashes, survivors, war crimes, executions, beheadings and all manner of unspeakable horrors until early 1946. These awful harrowing events in the form of typewritten documents kept in Pip’s Leather Cover were only read by the family for the first time long after his passing in 1979.

From the Royal Australian Air Force file on PJ Keating

Future without war

Only now could Keating, resume civilian life having performed his duties to God, King and country. After being discharged from the air force on the 12th February 1948 until 1950, Pip was a Radio Announcer with the radio station ABC in Perth W.A. & later at a Tasmanian commercial radio. What a stark contrast to his war experiences.

Possibly it was the yearning to maintain the family tradition in wooden furniture that must have gradually been the catalyst for him to start a Furnishings shop eponymously known as Keating’s Fine Furnishings which was located in Sandy Bay, Hobart. Over the several Pierce was to start another furnishing shop in Hobart. Pierce Joseph Keating retired a few years before his death. Ultimately it was not to be the Nazis who were his nemesis but something just as deadly: lung cancer. At the age of 66 – my age – he was to succumb to this sneaky insidious foe in the Repatriation Hospital, Hobart on the 15th September 1979.

Keating outside his tent at Amirya with his hand sheilding his eyes

Personal and family connection

Not only did members of the Commonwealth come to 42 Air School to receive pilot training, but some even as administrators and maintenance personnel. Amongst this bunch was a dapper young, George Sayer, from the United Kingdom.  He had been deployed to 42 Air School in order to work in the stores. While stationed in Port Elizabeth, he met a dainty blonde-haired local lass, Sylvia Dix-Peek, my aunt. Romance flourished and wedding bells rang. After the war had wound down and, with it, 42 Air School, George found a job in the shipping industry in Port Elizabeth. Wanderlust again grasped George and the Sayer family, now with three children in tow, Michael, Shaun & Diane, emigrated to New Zealand.

George Sayer in the Air Force Military Band

After I had completed my national service in 1972, we were issued with train tickets to travel home from Oudtshoorn. Still being in the Army, booze of any kind was verboten on the overnight trip to PE. On arrival at the Port Elizabeth station at midday, again we were stymied. As we were still in our formal “uitstap” Army uniform, we first had to go home, change and only then go for a drink or half a dozen. Yet again we were stymied. None of us had much cash on us. It made no difference. It was time to party. And what venue did we select?

The Algoa Hotel

Dean McCleland – Military ID Card

Maybe I was not with Flying Officer Keating on Wednesday 3rd March 1943, but the feeling after having completed the training was universal. It was time to let down one’s hair – sorry, there was none -and enjoy the night.     

Sources

‘https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_British_Commonwealth_Air_Training_Plan_facilities_in_South_Africa https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Commonwealth_Air_Training_Plan

Details and photos of Sergeant P.J. Keating supplied by Margaret Mackey of Tasmania, Australia

https://www.facebook.com/PESAAFM/

‘https://australiana.org.au/resources/magazine_issues/69_February_1996_Vol_18_No_1.pdf

The Keating’s – Cabinetmaking Family of Hobart, Tasmania pp. 6-8.

http://server2.admin.millingtons.com.au:81/ASP/search_details.asp?RecordID=86647 https://nominal-rolls.dva.gov.au/veteran?id=1053015&c=WW2 http://awm.altarama.com/reft100.aspx?key=copy1 https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Gallery151/dist/JGalleryViewer.aspx?B=1071411&S=1&N=26&R=0#/SearchNRetrieve/NAAMedia/ShowImage.aspx?B=1071411&T=P&S=26

1 Comments

  1. That CAPTCHA code below seems to dump my comments most of the time but here goes.

    Compliments on the latest post about 42 Air School. The Empire Air Training Scheme was a massive project and there were a number of such schools spread around SA.

    The artist responsible for the oil painting showing the Nomad on approach to the airport was one of SA’s leading aviation artists called Ron Belling. I am interested to see there is a PE gallery with a major collection of his work: http://www.gfiartgallery.com/

    Reply

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