There are pilots, and then there are ‘Hurricat’ pilots – they are truly a breed apart, and as usual in a mustering of elite pilots we find a South African. So what’s a ‘Hurricat’? Even to many of the most ardent South African aviation fans, these pilots and this aircraft nickname and type would be relatively unknown. Well, during World War 2, a ‘Hurricat’ was a Hawker ‘Sea’ Hurricane fighter which was specifically adapted to be catapulted off a ship with RAM boost, hence the combination of ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Catapult’ – Hurricat.’
So why so special? Simply put this concept of protecting ships with a singular Sea Hurricane fighter came about when there was an urgent need for convoy protection from the air, but the problem was there were usually no places to land them once launched, no handy aircraft carrier deck around and nowhere near a shore and a nice strait landing strip – once catapulted off the ship in a blaze of rocket charge the Hurricat fighter pilot found himself alone, without vast fighter support or wingmen to take on the enemy, and if he survived that singular suicide mission – he then had to find his back to his fleet with the limited navigation aids available to him. If he made it that far, there was more hazard to come, he then had to ditch his aircraft in the ocean (crash it in effect) to be hopefully safely found and plucked out.
These men are truly special, men of extreme bravery and there are very few of them, and one South African Hurricat pilot stands out – Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC. Now not too many South Africans have heard of him, and they should, this is one very remarkable South African, with bravery in buckets – this is his story.
Alistair Hay was born in Johannesburg on the 13 September 1921, son of Frederick John Gordon Hay and Catherine, nee Metherell. Alistair was educated at Christian Brothers’ College in Pretoria. As a young man he was also a member of Boys Naval Brigade. At the onset of World War 2 joined up and was part of the General Botha Cadet Draft and attended the SATS General Botha from 1937-8 (Number 928).
The South African Training Ship (SATS) General Botha (named after General Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa) started out as River Class Cruiser the HMS Thames and was donated to South Africa by T B Davis, a philanthropist extraordinary, as a full-time institution for the sea training of South African Naval Cadets.
After leaving the SATS General Botha, Alistair James Hay joined the Union-Castle Company, in which he remained until 1940. Like Sailor Malan who followed a similar path before him on the SATS General Botha, he also enlisted with the Royal Air Force in 1942 as a Volunteer Reservist. He joined the RAF initially as a Sergeant and was promoted as Commissioned Officer (Pilot Officer) on 18th May 1942, eventually becoming a Flight-Lieutenant on 18th May 1943.
He then signed up for what was one of the most dangerous jobs around, and because of his nautical background on the SATS General Botha he found himself seconded to the Navy again in service as a RAF fighter pilot on a Catapult Armed Merchantman (in short a ‘CAM’).
During the Second World War, German U Boats nearly won the war all on their own sinking merchant and fighting ships at a phenomenal rate starving the Allies of troops and supplies, and in a desperate attempt to close the gap in the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea that could not be covered by British aircraft flying from England i.e over the U-Boat hunting fields due to range, the concept of the Auxiliary Fighter Catapult Ships (FCS) under the White Ensign, and the Catapult Armed Merchantmen (CAM ships) sailing under the Red Duster was conceived and born.
The idea was simple, one of the ships in the Merchant Fleet had an aircraft to protect the convoy. The CAMs were equipped with a single fighter aircraft, and had no flight deck with a single catapult structure fitted to the ship’s bow. To take off the catapult consisted of a girder framework and a trolley, connected by wire ropes and pulleys to the ram of a cylinder. The cylinder was connected by a pipe to the chamber in which a charge was exploded, causing the ram to push the aircraft forward in a blaze of charge and with sufficient velocity to make it air-borne at the end of its very short take-off run.
The merchantmen CAMs were allocated 50 Hawker Hurricane fighters with specially trained RAF crews. However launching a ‘Hurricat’ usually meant the fighter did not return, it would be ‘lost’ – either be shot down by the attacking enemy or it would be lost to sea when the pilot ditched it, they were a one way and very costly mission. In spite of the inevitable early heavy losses and the sheer waste of perfectly good aircraft, the catapult ships remained in vital service until 1943. By 1943 large numbers of Allied aircraft carriers had been built and they in turn took up the role of closing the air cover gap to protect merchantmen at sea.Back to our hero, an article was later published in the “South Africa” newspaper on 14 March 1942 relates just what a special pilot Alistair Hay was:
“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”
The HMS Empire Lawrence
P/O Alistair Hay, on the 27th May 1942, found himself serving as the ‘Hurricat’ Catapult Pilot aboard the CAM, HMS “Empire Lawrence”, little did he know that by the end of the day he would be a decorated hero. The HMS Empire Lawrence was the CAM ship forming part of the Russian PQ16 convoy to Murmansk just east of Bear Island (the southernmost island of the Norwegian Svalbard Archipelago) when the convoy was attacked by German seaplanes.
To fight off the attack, Pilot Officer Hay jumped into his Sea Hurricane and was blasted off the ship to take the approaching formation of German aircraft head on singlehandedly. The approaching attack was made up of a formation of six German Heinkel 111 and 115. These Heinkel aircraft were adapted seaplanes for long-range patrolling and whose mission was to sink Merchantmen using torpedos which they dropped in low flight bombing runs.
Alistair Hay’s mission was to disrupt the torpedo bombing runs and destroy as many enemy aircraft as possible. He diverted the attack and in the process destroyed one German aircraft and damaged a second one. In a six against one attack it was inevitable that he would come under extreme fire, and as a result he was severely wounded in the attack, shot in the thigh and bleeding heavily he had to bale out of his aircraft.
The action in the air was recounted by an eyewitness, a naval officer – Neil Hulse, who had been smoking with Alistair Hay on the bridge as the attack unfolded, he recalled:
“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.”
Spotting his parachute, he was picked up from the icy waters within ten minutes by one of the convoy’s escort ships, the HMS Volunteer, who came to his rescue, and funnily enough the Commander of HMS Volunteer was none other than another South African and fellow SATS General Botha graduate – Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Shubrook Pomeroy. The rescue itself was also very dramatic as the HMS Volunteer also came under attack whilst they were hoisting Alistair Hay aboard and HMS Volunteer had to make some dramatic evasive manoeuvres.
Lt/Cmdr Arthur Pomeroy recalled the incident of reusing his fellow South African when he wrote:
“Let me tell you how I met him (Alistair Hay) 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”
For his gallant actions P/O Alistair Hay was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and his citation (Supplement to the London Gazette, vol 35605 pg 2756) reads:
“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 111’s and 115’s 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 111 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.”
The Battle of the Falaise Gap
Alistair Hay DFC recovered from his bullet wound, and there was still more fight in him. He was to join Royal Air Force No. 182 Squadron to take part in the liberation of Europe flying Typhoon 1b’s.
Flying Typhoons was particularly dangerous at this phase of the war, they almost always operated at low altitude “on the deck” mainly employed to attack targets such as armour, anti-aircraft installations, specific buildings, transports and enemy personnel. As a result they were frequently subjected to intense ground fire, for this reason alone, flying in a Typhoon squadron was very high risk.
During the Normandy invasion, the defending German were surrounded on three sides into a pocket called the ‘Falaise Gap’, trapped in the pocket they chose to fight their way out with a staggering loss of personnel and equipment, it was a desperate battle as the only way the German forces in Europe could remain in contention was to retreat from the trap and reform – which they ultimately managed to do.
The Falaise Gap was ideal territory for Typhoons as they strafed and rocketed the high congestions of German personnel, trucks, armour, artillery and tanks trying to escape the pocket, but also highly dangerous as they came up against a very desperate defence.
Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC was tragically killed on the 18 August 1944 whilst taking part in the Battle of the Falaise Gap flying RAF Typhoon, serial number JP427 and he encountered flak near Vimoutiers and was shot down.
He lies today in France at the St Desir War Cemetery in Calvodos, near Caen, Grave reference V.D.4. should anyone want to visit and salute one very brave son of South Africa.
So why don’t South Africans know much about these remarkably brave ‘Hurricat’ pilots, their aircraft and their near suicide missions, why has someone like Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC and his rescue by his fellow SATS General Botha fraternity not entered our realm of standout South African military heroes or even into our general discourse and understanding of World War 2 and South Africa’s involvement?
His story like many others is just confined to the SATS General Botha old boys fraternity, his name on their Honour Roll. We all know the reason as its politics as usual, Smuts sending South Africans to war was bad enough for the Afrikaner nationalists, serving in the ‘hated’ British Armed services was akin to treason in their eyes. This history was buried after the nationalists came to power and it remains relatively buried to this day as more seismic political forces have over-taken it.
In a small way, we hope to keep this history alive, knowing in the full grace of time that these men and their very brave deeds are captured and not forgotten. The Observation Post salutes and remembers you Flight-Lieutenant Alistair James Hay DFC – one of our bravest, lest we forget.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
Related Work – links
South African Naval Sacrifice in WW2 The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’
South African Sacrifice in the Fleet Air Arm South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm
Llarge extracts and references from The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek – Alistair James Hay. Hurricane Catapult Pilot from the Transvaal June 19th 2013. Reference for Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Shubrook Pomeroy’s memories – published in General Botha’s Old Boy Association newsletter, May 2005, Part Two. Also referenced is the History of 182 Squadron on-line and The South African War Graves Project. Images – copyright Imperial War Museum where indicated. Colourised image on the header by Deviant Art.