Saturday, August 28, 2010

Air Marshal Norman Walsh

Air Marshal Norman Walsh
Air Marshal Norman Walsh, who has died aged 77, was a courageous pilot during Rhodesia's bush war and then appointed by Robert Mugabe, when he came to power in 1980, to command the first Zimbabwe Air Force.

Published: 5:50PM BST 22 Aug 2010

Walsh (front row, fifth from left) with members of the No 7 squadron, Royal Rhodesian Air Force, in 1968
Walsh's hopes of maintaining the long, proud tradition of the old Rhodesian Air Force under the new regime were dashed when a new fleet of British Hawk fighters acquired by the Zimbabwe government was blown up at base and his entire superstructure of white officers arrested on suspicion of sabotage. After being jailed and tortured they were eventually brought to trial.

Walsh was horrified by the treatment of his senior men, most of them close friends, especially when the Zimbabwe High Court acquitted them after a long trial only for Mugabe to order their immediate rearrest outside the courtroom. He resigned his command and moved to Australia.

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Lt-Cdr Sammy MearnsNorman Walsh was born in South Africa's Eastern Cape province to a family with a long air force tradition. After leaving the Queen's College in Queenstown, South Africa, he moved to the neighbouring British colony of Southern Rhodesia to enrol in the air force officers' cadet force, which had been established with the help of the Royal Air Force.

The RAF had a long association with Southern Rhodesia, which had provided a squadron (No 237 Rhodesia Squadron) that had seen action in East Africa during the Second World War. More than 10,000 Allied airmen, among them Tony Benn, were trained for war service in Southern Rhodesia from 1940 to 1945, many of them choosing to return to settle in the country after the war.

Norman Walsh, demonstrating what his instructors described as "a natural aptitude for flying" rose rapidly through the ranks in the Southern Rhodesian Air Force, becoming a pilot attack instructor and later instrument rating examiner. By 1964 he was a squadron leader with No 1 Squadron flying Hawker Hunter FGA9 ground attack fighters.

He switched to helicopters – which he loved flying – becoming commander in 1968 of No 7 Squadron operating Allouette 111s used for troop transport, casualty evacuation and battlefield support. In an operation against an early guerrilla incursion from Zambia, he was awarded the Bronze Cross for conspicuous gallantry for his skilful low-level flying at night among the cliffs and rocky gorges of the Zambesi Valley.

The guerrillas had established themselves in a deep gorge and engaged the Rhodesian security forces with heavy automatic fire, machine guns and bazookas. Walsh provided close support from his helicopter and, under heavy fire, landed in broken terrain to rescue a wounded soldier.

While never happier than when behind the controls of an aircraft, Walsh also showed great ability in administration and planning. He was promoted wing commander, and then, as the bush war against nationalist guerrillas intensified, to group captain on the Joint Planning Staff.

The Rhodesian Air Force played a key role in the bush war, adapting most of its ageing fleet of aircraft, including Canberra bombers and Dakota transports, to be deployed in tracking and attacking the elusive groups of insurgents operating from within the depths of the African bush. Walsh, by now an Air Commodore and a director general in the Joint Operations Command, was instrumental in organising and maintaining the fighting capability of the "blue jobs" – as air force personnel were affectionately known.

With his friend Lieutenant General Peter Walls, the officer commanding the entire counter-insurgency, he would often take to the air in the Command Dakota to oversee operations from low-level in Rhodesia and neighbouring Mozambique, despite the growing threat from Sam-7 ground-to-air missiles which the Soviet Union had supplied to the guerrilla forces.

When Robert Mugabe came to power in 1980, Walsh was surprised to be offered the command of the newly-named Zimbabwe Air Force. He readily accepted, however, as he hoped to maintain the high standards of the Rhodesian Air Force, especially with the promise of new aircraft. He was also keen to recruit and encourage new talent from within the ranks of the former guerrilla fighters.

He was initially rewarded with the acquisition of the first of eight British BAE Hawk jet trainer aircraft, then the latest of its type, which was to replace the ageing Hunters of No 1 Squadron at Thornhill, the main air force base near Gwelo (Gweru) in the Rhodesian Midlands. Walsh personally led the British Aerospace ferry team which flew the new aircraft from Britain.

On a quiet night in July 1982, just 10 days after the Hawks had arrived, saboteurs cut through the perimeter wire of the Thornhill base, made their way to the hangar where the aircraft were stored and placed bombs with timing devices in the engines. Bombs were also planted in eight Hunters and a Cessna aircraft parked on the apron outside.

By the time the saboteurs had disappeared into the darkness a series of explosions followed by a massive fire destroyed the hopes and dreams of the new Zimbabwe Air Force.

All the evidence pointed to an expert operation by special forces, almost certainly from South Africa – which was not keen to have a potentially hostile black government on its borders with an air force equipped with modern jets. Mugabe's fury, however, was directed at the senior white officers who, like Walsh, had in fact remained in service specifically to build a proud new air force.

One by one, they were rounded up by operatives from the sinister Central Intelligence Organisation, taken to remote spots and tortured and beaten into "confessing" to sabotaging their own air force. They included Walsh's close friend and deputy, Air Vice-Marshal Hugh Slatter, Air Commodore Philip Pile (who had been instrumental in organising the purchase of the Hawks), and two wing commanders.

It took nearly a year of international pressure before the men emerged from their ordeal and were finally brought to trial in the High Court in Salisbury. After a protracted hearing, they were all acquitted – but immediately rearrested by CIO men outside the courtroom and held for weeks more before being released and deported following an international outcry.

The episode helped destroy the confidence remaining whites had held in the new regime and thousands fled the country. Norman Walsh was bitterly disillusioned and chose the first opportunity he could find to resign his command. He left the country shortly afterwards and emigrated with his family to Australia.

Norman Walsh died at his home in Queensland on August 3 of an illness exacerbated by an old rugby injury. He is survived by his wife, Merilyn, and a son and a daughter.
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