I awoke on Monday to the very sad news of the passing of one of the truest officers and gentlemen the South African Airforce ever produced, Lt Gen Denis John Earp. I was fortunate enough to have spent a few hours with him a while ago, it was an informal chat, but I will try to remember the details as best I can.
After graduating form Grey College in Bloemfontein in 1947 the young Denis Earp decided that the military would be his future and joined Military College in 1948, he later joined the SAAF and started his training to become a pilot. Gen Earp had just completed his training and was called upon to travel halfway around the world to take part in a foreign war in a place he had barely of.
North Korea and Chinese Communists attacked South Korea in June 1950, at the request of the United Nations, South Africa joined the South Korean and American forces already active in the war. The flying Cheetahs of the SAAF, No.2 Squadron sent a contingent of pilots and ground crew to bolster the effort. Gen Earp joined close to seven hundred and fifty South Africans based in Korea, preforming a host of operations.
On the morning of 27th of September 1951, the twenty one year old Earp took to the sky in his P51 Mustang on an armed recognisance mission. After successfully bombing a bridge the flight of three aircraft turned their attention to an anti-aircraft installation. During the attack on this position Gen Earp’s P51 was hit by ground fire and started leaking coolant. Realising that the aircraft was about to die on him he attempted to nurse the Mustang back to his own lines but unfortunately before he could reach safety he had to “bailout” still very much over enemy held territory. His two wing man attempted to protect him from the air but as they were running low on fuel they had to return to base.
Denis Earp had injured his knee pretty badly in the landing and was having difficulty moving, he avoided capture for most of the day but was eventually found and taken to a communist prisoner of war camp. The General didn’t want to elaborate on what happened at the POW camp and I didn’t feel comfortable asking anymore about this time which I can only believe to have been horrific.
Twenty three months later he was finally released and was flown to London, when in London he was desperately searching for a way to get back to South Africa. A friend told him to go to the hotel where the aircrew from SAA used to stay when on a layover and see if they could help him. This is where he met a beautiful cabin attendant by the name of Beth, they danced the night away and Gen Earp flew back with Beth to South Africa and later got married. Beth and Denis were together from that day until the passing of the general on Sunday.
Once back in South Africa and resuming active service in the SAAF Gen Earp was posted to No1 Squadron based at AFB Waterkloof where he served until 1957. He was then transferred to Central Flying School Dunnottar where he instructed initial pupil pilots on the T6 Harvard. The Gen excelled as an instructor and two years later he was sent to Air Operations School as an advanced pilot attack instructor where he stayed until 1964.
The SAAF sent Gen Earp to the United Kingdom to convert on to the Canberra Light Bombers when he returned, he was posted to No12 Squadron at AFB Waterkloof where he stayed for three years. At the end of 1967 he returned to his old squadron this time as the officer Commanding No2 Squadron. This however was short lived and eighteen months later he was appointed commandant flying at Air Force Base Pietersburg and after that senior air staff officer of the Joint Combat Forces.
His career took an unusual turn when he converted to helicopters and became officer commanding No17 Squadron which was based at Air Force Base Waterkloof at the time. Earp Later became Senior Staff Officer operations at SAAF Headquarters, then director operations from mid-1976, to 1978 and director general operations at Defence Headquarters in the rank of major general from June 1978.
General Earp had sacrificed so much in service of his country, but the sacrifices didn’t end there, in January 1982 he received that terrible news that his son Michael had paid the ultimate price while operating as a Puma helicopter pilot in the Angolan Bush War.
The General was appointed as Chief of the Airforce in 1984, which came as quite a shock as the government of the day was very pro Afrikaans and the General was very English. General Earp served as CAF for only four years when he retired, he always stayed very active in the SAAF circles often speaking at functions and attending ceremonial celebrations as well as charity events. Gen Earp attended two services over the two days preceding his passing one at the SAAF Memorial and a Korean Veteran service at Smuts House.
We Salute you sir and thank you for your unselfish service to South Africa
Time to come home dear brother
Your tour of duty through
You’ve given as much as anyone
Could be expected to do
Just a few steps further
The smoke will start to clear
Others here will guide you
You have no need of fear
You have not failed your brothers
You clearly gave it all
And through your selfless actions
Others will hear the call
So, take your place of honour
Among those who have gone before
And know you will be remembered
For now, and evermore
A memorial service will be held At AFB Swartkop on Monday 27 May 2019 at 13h00 and the funeral arrangements will be communicated once they have been finalised.