Smuts pilot dies in Port Alfred

OLD SOLDIER PASSES ON: Major General Tom Cockbain in his South African Air Force regalia, when he was a younger man Picture: SUPPLIED

MAJOR General Tom Cockbain, a long-time Port Alfred resident who was the personal pilot for Prime Minister Jan Smuts during World War II, died last week.

Cockbain was born in Port Elizabeth on February 3 1918. He grew up on farms in the Albany and Alicedale areas. His interest in flying started at an early age when an aircraft flew over their farm. He decided then that one day he would become a pilot.

His life’s travels began on horseback and by ox wagon, and went on to breaking the sound barrier in a Mirage lll. Space travel was of particular interest to him and until recently he kept abreast of the latest developments.

Educated at Graeme College, he matriculated in 1936, and then joined the Grahamstown municipality as an apprentice electrician.

Cockbain joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) pupil pilot scheme in early June 1938 and flew his first solo flight on July 8 of that year. Soon after the outbreak of World War ll he joined the SAAF and flew coastal patrols from Grahamstown and Port Alfred.

After being selected to attend the Royal Air Force senior navigators course, Cockbain joined the crew of the then prime minister, Field Marshall Jan Smuts. The Avro York that they flew was a sister aircraft to Winston Churchill’s official air transport.

At the end of the war there was a rekindling of Cockbain’s interest in things electronic. This resulted in possibly his greatest achievement when he designed and developed South Africa’s radar defence system. Known as the “father of radar” in this country, he had one of the most modern computerised radar systems of that era under his command.

Before his retirement in 1977, as a major general, he was Chief of Air Staff Logistics. Retirement did not mean that Cockbain would slow down and he took to civilian life as an electronic engineering consultant with great success.

Soon he purchased a share in, and became a director of an existing electronics firm which was re-named Telkor. This company grew into a large concern and was later purchased by the Barlow Group.

When he moved to Port Alfred the general was soon involved in the Lower Albany Historical Society, NSRI and became the president of the Bathurst Agricultural Society. He was a founder member of the Port Alfred branch of the SA Air Force Association and established the garden of remembrance at 43 Air School. He was a well known and respected resident of Port Alfred for 35 years.

His passing on May 24 at Settlers Park is indeed the end of an era.

A memorial service will be held at the Don Powis hall at Settlers Park on Thursday at 3pm.

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