Wednesday 13 February 2013

Neville Grant Bowker DFC (1918 - 2005)

By Mitch Stirling

There must be something in the air in Umtali that makes those folks kinda special. Do I hear a shout of 'Shumbaaaa' from Eddy Norris... and a resounding 'Whaaaaaaa.....' from the likes of Taylor, Drury, Craig, Steel, Powell and Coleman? 'Bowks' Bowker was no exception. When he returned home to Umtali after the Second World War he was given a special hero's welcome by the old residents. He was their own 'ace' fighter pilot... and rightly so. Flight Lieutenant Neville Bowker was credited with a total of 10 victories, 1 shared- destroyed, 3 probables and 2 damaged. His victims included: Messerschmitt Bf 110, S.79 Savoia-Marchetti, G50 Fiat Freccia (Arrow) and Falco (Falcon), MC 200 Aeromaccchi (Thunderbolt) and Ju 87 (Stuka). Awarded the DFC in 1943, with effect January 1942; he had two mentions. Neville's homecoming had been delayed by lengthy periods of convalescence in the MacIndoe hospital, England... recovering from years of internment in Stalag 3. And after repeated hospitalization for serious gun-shot wounds to his legs it took a while for him to learn how to walk again. But good things began to happen when he finally got home. He met his bride-to-be, Colleen, on his 27th birthday and they were married in November 1946. Most surprisingly they found a black and white film still in his old camera that had been sent home with his personal effects when he had been reported 'kia' by the British War Office all those years ago. But there he was... with 'Menace', serial no T AN 218B, the old Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk he had flown in North Africa, plus many more images of those war-time days when he was a Pilot Officer, then Flight Lieutenant with 112 Squadron RAF.
Neville Bowker DFC

P-40 Tomahawk 'Menace' at Sidi Hameish, Egypt 1941One of the tightest-turning fighters in the war. 
A rugged machine

2/12.7mm synchronized Brownings (dorsal mount)
2/.303 machine guns each wing

Soon after leaving school in Umtali, Neville had started his ab-initio flight training in Southern Rhodesia with DD Longmore as his instructor (formerly of the Leicester Flying Club and later General Manager of Central African Airways). This was followed by a brief attachment to the SAAF and then to RAFVR at 70 OTU Nakuru. Thereafter, at Habbaniya (Iraq) he completed his training at No 4 Service Flight Training School and qualified as an 'above average pilot', with good reports for Navigation and Gunnery from his instructing officers. No 4 SFTS, an advanced training unit, had previously operated in Egypt as 4 FTS, but had been moved to Iraq where suitable young pilots from Commonwealth countries like Rhodesia and South Africa were assigned to the crew establishment. The first mission-entries and enemy contact in Neville's log were in Gloster Gladiators of 112 Squadron RAF operating in the Yanina/ Paramythia area of Greece; during this time he was greatly impressed by the South African Gladiator 'ace' Marmaduke 'Pat' Pattle from the Transkei. But, at this early stage of the war, the Germans were advancing through Europe which resulted in the Gladiators and crews repositioning to Crete. Soon they had to retreat even further when the enemy launched the first airborne invasion in military history -'Unternehmen Merkur', Operation Mercury. In spite of fierce resistance by the local population of Crete and their Allies - plus the famously defiant speech by the Black Watch commander that the regiment would only 'leave Crete when the snow leaves Mount Ida' - the last British cruiser, with Neville Bowker and 1900 troops on board, sailed for Alexandria. Neville had already received some minor wounds in the defence of Heraklion and had been recovering in a POW hospital on Crete, from where he escaped to join the 'Orion'. The ship was dive-bombed repeatedly and badly damaged during the crossing of the Mediterranean, but it limped into Alex with the loss of 360 lives. Interestingly... it sailed again soon after, for repairs at Simonstown, South Africa.

In North Africa 112 Squadron RAF re-mustered and re-equipped with Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks. These were the famous 'Sharks', identified by their red spinners and sharks' teeth and eyes painted on their nose. Neville was probably the only Rhodesian, and the youngest, in the squadron of mainly young colonials. But, notable amongst them from the UK, was the young Neville Duke who went on to fame after the war as a test pilot and holder of the world speed record at 727.63mph in a Hawker Hunter (1953). Duke was shot down twice in the space of four days and crash-landed in the desert, before being rescued. Clive 'Killer' Caldwell (250 Squadron RAF), the Australian ace, also flew Tomahawks and later Kittyhawks in the Mediterranean theatre where he was the top-scoring P-40 pilot ever, and the highest scoring of all Allied pilots in North Africa. Neville himself was credited with the first victory for the 'Shark' Squadron in the Tomahawk 11B when he shot down an Italian Savoia. But then in December 1941 he himself was shot down by small-arms ground fire during a strafing attack along the Agheila/Agedabu road west of Benghazi. The War Office 'kia' mistake at the time was caused by a mix-up with his cousin Miles Bowker who had been killed in a Martin Maryland in a different operation - he had won the Pat Judson Trophy in S Rhodesia in 1937. Neville, however, spent the remainder of the war as a POW at Stalag Luft 3.

Tea with the Queen Mother and Princess MargaretDickie Bradshaw, Neville, and Bob Rademeyer (on crutches)

De-mobbed Rhodesians at Buckingham Palace

Neville insisted on wearing Rhodesian lions on his RAF uniform. Trouble!

Aeroplanes continued to play a big part in Neville's life after the war, and in Colleen's too. She learned to fly in the early years of Federation when they were farming at Kalomo, Northern Rhodesia. Ron Turton, known to many learner-pilots, would arrive from Livingstone at the weekends to dispense flying lessons at the Kalomo strip. Night flying, with goose-neck flares improvised from tobacco watering cans and paraffin rags was an exciting, if not hazardous, affair! Circuits and bumps at Ted Spencer's old aerodrome at Sprayview, Victoria Falls, was a part of the training as well. Over the years the Bowkers owned a number of flying machines, including a Beech 17 Staggerwing VP-YIV that used to belong to Dan Eardly of Air Carriers. This powerful, robust machine always reminded Neville of the Gloster Gladiator and the times in Crete when he would beat-up the Black Watch camp and try to flatten the sergeant's tent.  But, of all their aircraft - including their Piper Colt, Tripacer and even an Aero Commander that used to belong to Samora Machel - the most interesting machine they owned was VP-YBI, a Heinkel HE-64C. One of only six built, this aircraft had won the national German Air Race in 1932 and was later bought by the RAF who adapted the unique aileron design for their STOL Westland Lysanders. The Bowkers bought it from Chris Perrem in 1950 and later sold it to Louis Malloch who 'pranged' it, unfortunately, and it rotted away outside the hangar at Perrems airstrip, Umtali. Colleen holds the distinction of being the last  person alive to have flown it. 

Beech 17 Staggerwing in later years

Heinkel HE-64 C

VP-YBI 'pranged'

Lasting friendships with the war-time pilots of the Rhodesian squadrons were an integral part of the Bowker's lives. But the bush war in Rhodesia and neighbouring Mozambique - where they later farmed on the Pungwe flats - affected them very badly. After a brief stop in South Africa, the Bowker family eventually moved to Australia in 1992, comfortable in the knowledge that some of the old Australian 'Sharks' of 112 Squadron RAF were living nearby. Neville Bowker was a 'fighter pilot' all his life, moving from one adventure to the next... and fondly remembered by all who loved him as 'Neville the Devil' !

Thanks to Colleen Bowker for her wonderful photographs...


Thanks to Mitch (Air Rhodesia) for sharing this article and photographs with ORAFs.
Thanks also to Colleen Bowker for the use of her material.

Comments are always welcome, please mail them to Eddy Norris at 
(Please visit our previous posts and archives)

Ref. Rhodesian Air Force, ORAFs, Civil aviation

This comment exceeded the permitted space under comments and is included here as it is worthy of recording

Joe Holmes (RhArmy) Writes:-

Thank you for this very interesting article on the Bowkers, and it brings back to life a memory long filed away.  My wife Ruth and I were having some of the famous tea and cream and strawberry jam scones at Impala Arms Hotel in the Vumba one lovely Sunday morning where it overlooked Machipanda and Mozambique. It was a busy weekend morning there, with lots of other people sitting at the tables chatting away and enjoying the great weather, and the Artillery Battery chaps stationed nearby where enjoying the company of all the visitors. Their 25 pounders were positioned about 100m away a bit further along the ridge overlooking the valley, and it must have been an idyllic posting for a National serviceman!

Suddenly the desultory chatter was broken by the sound of a low flying aircraft, obviously a twin engined type, flying at full power somewhere down behind the mountain that formed the far side of the valley opposite the hotel. With Rhodesia being at war, and the Frelimo troops stationed opposite us  in Manica being belligerent and frequently hostile to the residents of Umtali and surrounds, this sudden rush of  aircraft sound caused am immediate cessation of chatter, and most of the folks jumped up and rushed to the edge of the lawns to try and see where this low-flying plane was approaching from. It quickly became evident that the plane was deep down in the valley behind the mountain opposite the hotel, having made a low level approach from Mozambique somewhere towards where the Haden-Tebb’s farm Border Streams was. As it over-flew the border and went roaring up that valley there erupted a widespread crackle of small arms fire as evidently every Frelimo with an AK-47 began spraying the air with a lethal mixture of hot lead and copper.
Fortunately for the occupants of the aircraft the aim of these incompetents was as bad as always and the plane continued flying at speed. By now every person in the vicinity had rushed onto the lawns to try and see what was happening, and the artillery crew had dropped tea cups into saucers with a clatter of china and were sprinting to man their guns in case the need to put down suppressing fire was given. Suddenly, with a dramatic roar the aircraft burst into view over the crest of the mountain  directly opposite the hotel, throttles clearly fully forward on the stops, as it came hurtling over the trees barely clearing the Msasa  as it then dived down low to continue hugging the ground before gaining speed and being pulled back up into a steep climb, heading directly for the assembled spectators. One by now could see it was a light twin, probably a Beechcraft Baron B55 or something similar. With a tremendous roar of sound, engines straining to let the spinning props claw altitude for the plane it passed directly overhead where we were by now staring with enthralled fascination.  The pilot gave us a jolly waggle of wings, and he was so low we could see his smiling face looking back down at us as he flashed overhead and was gone, heading down the valley behind the hotel towards Fern Valley. The crowd of people roared back in a spontaneous eruption of applause and hand clapping, seeing the plane survive the deadly run of gunfire and escape unscathed.

I later on heard that the aircraft had landed safely at Perrem’s Airfield, and that it was the Bowkers who had used it to escape out of Mozambique from their farm somewhere down near the Buzi River on the Pungwe Flats from the increasingly unfriendly attention of the Frelimo after they  had unexpectedly swept into   political power and turned the whole country topsy turvey. I wonder if anyone else recalls any details of this incident and can add to it and confirm whether or not it was in fact the Bowkers that day. But certainly from the masterful way that plane was flown that  sunny Sunday morning up and over and down and over again those mountains and valleys it was in the hands of a pilot who probably learned his skills flying fighters somewhere in the wars, and may  thus well have been Neville ” the devil “ Bowker!!!!

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At 14 February 2013 at 09:48 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

John Hill (BSAP) Writes:-

I remember a family of Bowkers who were tobacco farming in Karoi – any connection?

At 14 February 2013 at 09:48 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Andrew Cockburn Writes:-

I enjoy getting your stories of Rhodesians in WWII.

My father was in the RN during war and opened a farm up in Karoi after the war. David Cockburn.
He talked about a Karoi Flying Club and how quickly they all went solo, under the tutelage of a chap called Pearson if I remember? Quite a few of them were killed flying (Gearald Marillier) his great friend flew into power lines. Do any of your subscribers have any info/history on that period?


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