Monday, March 27, 2017

Rhodesian RAF Pilot Ian Smith

The future Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith served in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War, interrupting his studies at Rhodes University in South Africa to join up in 1941. Following a year's pilot instruction in Rhodesia under the Empire Air Training Scheme, he was posted to No. 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron, then stationed in the Middle East, in late 1942. Smith received six weeks' operational training in the Levant, then entered active service as a pilot officer in Iran and Iraq. No. 237 Squadron, which had operated in the Western Desert from 1941 to early 1942, returned to that front in March 1943. Smith flew in the Western Desert until October that year, when a crash during a night takeoff resulted in serious injuries, including facial disfigurements and a broken jaw. Following reconstructive plastic surgery to his face, other operations and five months' convalescence, Smith rejoined No. 237 Squadron in Corsica in May 1944. While there, he attained his highest rank, flight lieutenant.

In late June 1944, during a strafing attack on a railway yard in the Po Valley in northern Italy, Smith was shot down by flak. Parachuting from his aircraft, he landed without serious injury in the Ligurian Alps, in an area that was behind German lines, but largely under the control of anti-German Italian partisans. Smith spent three months working with the local resistance movement before trekking westwards, across the Maritime Alps, with three other Allied personnel, hoping to join up with the Allied forces that had just invaded southern France. After 23 days' hiking, he and his companions were recovered by American troops and repatriated.

Smith was briefly stationed in Britain before he was posted to No. 130 (Punjab) Squadron in western Germany in April 1945. He flew combat missions there until Germany surrendered in May. He remained with No. 130 Squadron for the rest of his service, and returned home at the end of 1945. After completing his studies at Rhodes, he was elected Member of Parliament for his birthplace, Selukwe, in 1948. Becoming Prime Minister in 1964 amid his country's dispute with Britain regarding the terms for independence, he was influenced as a politician by his wartime experiences. Rhodesia's military record on the mother country's behalf became central to his sense of betrayal by post-war British governments, which partly motivated his administration's Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965. His status as a Second World War RAF veteran thereafter helped him win support, both domestically and internationally.

Smith's years as an RAF pilot were often alluded to in political rhetoric and popular culture. In the phrase of Martin Francis, "no white Rhodesian kitchen in the 1960s and 1970s was complete without an illustrated dishcloth featuring 'Good Old Smithy' and his trusty Spitfire". The Rhodesian Front's election strategy of emphasising Smith's reputation as a war hero was criticised by the journalist Peter Niesewand, who was deported from Rhodesia in 1973; according to Niesewand, Smith's contribution to the Allied war effort had been "to crash two perfectly good Hurricane planes [sic] for the loss of no Germans". Smith won decisive election victories in 1970, 1974 and 1977, and remained in office until the country was reconstituted under majority rule as Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979. He continued to wear his RAF Spitfire pilot's tie well into old age, including on the final day before Zimbabwe Rhodesia's formal establishment on 1 June 1979—"a final gesture of defiance", Bill Schwarz writes, "symbolising an entire lost world.”

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