The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek

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Alistair James Hay, Hurricane Catapult Pilot from the Transvaal
Catapult Armed Merchantmen or CAMs for short were merchant navy ships fitted with catapults from which fighter planes, often Hawker Hurricanes (termed “Hurricats”), could be launched in an effort to combat German aircraft intent on sinking the merchantmen or other ships. The CAMs were equipped with a single fighter aircraft, and had no flight deck, instead being fitted with a catapult. The catapult consisted of a “girder framework and a trolley, connected by wire ropes and pulleys to the ram of a cylinder. The cylinder is connected by a pipe to the chamber in which the charge is exploded, causing the ram to push the aircraft forward with sufficient velocity to make it air-borne at the end of its run”.


It follows then that landing back on board the ship was not an option, and pilots had to ditch their aircraft in the sea after each mission. The merchantmen CAMs, as opposed to the Fighter Catapult Ships (FCS), were allocated 50 Hawker Hurricane fighters with specially trained RAF crews. In spite of heavy losses and the concomitant waste of aircraft, the catapult ships remained in service until 1943 when large numbers of decked escort carriers became available.

And one of the airmen who was to serve aboard one of these CAM ships, and who was to be launched into the air in such an unceremonious fashion in order to get to grips with the “Hun in the sky” was Pilot Officer Alistair James Hay, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAF), who was awarded the DFC in 1942 for his endeavour. Hay was born in Johannesburg on the 13 September 1921 and was the son of Frederick John Gordon Hay and Catherine, nee Metherell. He was educated at the Christian Brothers’ College, Pretoria, and was member of Boys Naval Brigade.

Hay attended the SATS General Botha from 1937-8 (Number 928). After leaving the SATS General Botha, Alistair James Hay joined the Union Castle Company, in which he remained until 1940, whereupon he enlisted with the Royal Air Force (RAF) and in 1942 became Pilot Officer and subsequently Flight-Lieutenant (source: SATS General Botha Old Boy Association Muster Roll).

Hay was serving as a Catapult Pilot aboard the CAM, “Empire Lawrence” (pictured below), on the 27 May 1942, the ship forming part of
the PQ16 convoy to Murmansk (just one convoy short of the infamous PQ17, which was subsequently annihilated),  and was east of Bear Island (the southernmost island of the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago).


Hay was subsequently awarded the DFC and his citation (Supplement to the London Gazette, Issue 35605, dated 23 June 1942, page 2756) reads:

"Pilot Officer Alastair James HAY (67093), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

Pilot Officer Hay was pilot of the Hurricane on board a ship fitted with a catapult. On the approach of enemy aircraft he was catapulted off and immediately proceeded to attack and drive off a formation of six Heinkel .Ill's and HII5's [seaplane; see below] which were preparing to deliver a torpedo attack on the port bow of the convoy; not only did this prevent synchronisation with an attack which developed from the starboard bow, but he destroyed one Heinkel in and slightly damaged another. Pilot Officer Hay was himself wounded and he then baled out and was picked up by one of His Majesty's ships of the convoy escort. He showed great gallantry and his spirited attack was a great encouragement to all the convoy and escorts, and cannot but have been a great discomfort and surprise to the enemy."


As if to reinforce the fact that individual South Africans (indeed southern Africans) were to be found in almost every theatre of combat during World War Two, the captain of the Royal Navy ship, HMS Volunteer (picture below), who came to Hay's rescue was not only a fellow South African but also himself an ex-SATS General Botha cadet, namely Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Shubrook  Pomeroy, Royal Navy (who had attended the “General Botha” from 1927-1929) . Writing later of his experiences Commander A.S. Pomeroy was to write of this episode (published in General Botha's Old Boy Association newsletter, May 2005, Part Two):

On the Roll of Honour Board in the 'General Botha' is the name of A.J. Hay, D.F.C. Let me tell you how I met him in the Arctic. Our station was on the port bow of the leading ship of the port column, the 'Empire Lawrence', which was fully loaded with explosives and ammunition. Mounted on her forecastle was a catapult with a Hurricane fighter aircraft piloted by Alastair hay. On the first day of intense bombing, he was shot off into the air to engage single-handed the squadrons of Heinkel III and Junkers 88s. Eventually, wounded, he had to bale out, as there was no carrier to land on. I lowered a boat to pick him up, and just as the boat's falls were hooked on again for hoisting, two torpedo-bombers came at us low down from the North. With the boat still only a few inches out of the water and my hair standing on end, I ordered Full Ahead and Hard-a-Starboard to steady course to comb the tracks of the torpedoes, which we could see, one on each quarter. This took us on an exact collision course with the 'Empire Lawrence' . There was just time to alter to port ahead of the port torpedo, and then both of them struck her and she disintegrated in an immense explosion, just a grating and a few bits of wood left floating. The gallant Alastair was killed later, but I had him safe on board this time.


In addition, in the book “Hurricane” (by Leo McKinstry), a naval officer named Neil Hulse, who had been smoking on the bridge with Hay when the message came through that the enemy had been sighted, is quoted as saying: “Here was one brave Hurricane, like a sparrowhawk, going into these formations of German bombers.” And continues, “He [Hay] butted out his cigarette and put it in his flying jacket. He had no hope of landing on friendly territory. We watched as he took off and remained in communication with him. On the speaker we could hear him going in, and hear his cannon fire in the cockpit of the plane. He got one and there was smoke trailing from the other. Then we heard his cry that he had been hit.

And as related earlier Hay was picked up by HMS Volunteer after having been in the icy water, thankfully, for only ten minutes, and a message was sent to Empire Lawrence, stating that “Your pilot is safe. He is having a bullet removed from his thigh.”

An interesting article pertaining to Hay, and published in the "South Africa" newspaper of the 14 March 1942 relates:

"The hazards of the sea are apparently not enough for the young gentleman trained in the S.A.T.S. General Botha. pilot-officer A.J. Hay, Royal Air Force, from Pretoria, just back from a successful cruise, tells me that his special duty is to be 'loaded' into a catapult that will shoot him and his fighter plane from the deck of the ship as soon as his services are needed to attack enemy aircraft. he describes the sensation as thrilling 'until you are accustomed to it.'"

Following his time with the CAM ships and recovery from his wound, and having been awarded the DFC, Hay was later to serve with No. 182 Squadron in North West Europe (NWE) flying Typhoon 1b's and was killed in operations around the Falaise area on the 18 August 1944. The Battle of the Falaise Gap officially commenced on that day, the Germans having been forced into this area and were surrounded on three sides. A savage fight was to ensue, lasting over the next four to five days, during which time the fighters and fighter-bombers of 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) were to pound the German tanks, armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) and motor transport (MT), inflicting great carnage on the retreating German troops.

Hay was flying Typhoon JP427 and “encountered flak near Orbec” and was shot down. He was reported missing believed killed-in-action, and lies buried in St Desir War Cemetery, in France (St Desir is a village on the N13 to Caen, 4 kilometres west of Lisieux. The war cemetery is about one kilometre west of the village and lies on a secondary road, the D159).

Hay was one of at least three South Africans killed while flying with No. 182 Squadron, RAF, during the months of July and August 1944. The two other SA pilots killed were Captain Graham Harfold Kaufman, SAAF (Seconded to the RAF), and who was killed while flying Typhoon (1b) MN762, after encountering flak near Troarn on the 18 July 1944, and lies buried in Bonnebosq Churchyard, France, and Lieutenant Ronald Garnet Jennings (328631V), SAAF, seconded to the RAF (and the Son of Jeremiah and Sophie Aletta Jennings, of Foothills, Transvaal, South Africa), who was flying Typhoon (1b) MN288 on the 19 August 1944 (the day after Hay was shot down) and was lost to flak north east of Vimoutiers (sources: CWGC website and Fighter Command Losses of the Second World War, Vol. 3, N.L.R. Franks, pages 85 & 87).


The Hawker Typhoon was initially plagued with engine problems and structural weaknesses in its early days and failed to perform adequately for its intended role as a wartime interceptor. But it was, nevertheless, to go on to become an extremely effective fighter-bomber (carrying rocket projectiles), accompanying the Allied advance through France and Holland in the later stages of World War II in 1944. And apart from the individual southern Africans who were to fly the Typhoons with the RAF, No 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron, RAF, was also to operate the Typhoon from mid-1942 until the end of the war.

                                                                                                             (Pict. Paul Power)

You Tube Video - Hurricat:

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Re: To an old friend

Hi Marc,

So good to hear from you. I'm so sorry for only replying now...haven't been blogging for over a year, so I have not checked my messages. A Wonderful New Year to you and the family. Hope you're all very well. Miss you guys too. My email address is All the best.


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