Former SAAF Chief Denis Earp dies

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A former chief of the SA Air Force (SAAF), retired lieutenant general Denis Earp, died in 1 Military Hospital on Sunday night hours after attending two memorial services.

The 88-year-old laid a wreath at the Air Force Memorial on Bays Hill north of AFB Zwartkop before heading eat to Smuts House in Irene where he attended the annual Smuts Memorial Service. He returned to his home in Valhalla where he apparently complained of not feeling well and was taken to nearby 1 Military Hospital where he was admitted for “tests”.  News of his death was made public by the family and senior SA Air Force Association (SAAFA) members on Monday.

He was born on 7 June 1930 and went to Grey College in Bloemfontein before attending the then SA Defence Force Military College and then enrolling in the SAAF in 1950. He qualified as a fixed wing pilot and served in Korea with 2 Squadron, flying P-51 Mustangs. Forced to bail out over enemy territory, he was taken prisoner and held as a prisoner of war for 23 months.

Released in September 1953 he was posted to 1 Squadron (the Billy Boys) where he stayed until January 1957 when he was moved to Central Flying School at Dunnottar as an instructor before going on to the Air Operations School as a PAI (pilot attack instructor).

1964 saw him in England converting to the Canberra light bomber before joining 12 Squadron at AFB Waterkloof as a Canberra pilot.

His air force career then took a turn many who knew him called “odd” when he moved to helicopters and was named 17 Squadron officer commanding.  At that time the squadron was based at AFB Waterkloof.

Earp’s flying days came to an end when he was named SSO Operations at SAAF HQ, followed by Director: Operations and then Director: General Operations at Defence HQ as a major general.

In 1984 he was named SAAF Chief and served in this post for four years before retiring.

Awards and decorations presented to Earp include the Star of South Africa (SSA); Star of South Africa, silver (SSAS); Southern Cross Decoration (SD); SA Police Star for Outstanding Service (SOE); South African Korea Medal; UN Service Medal for Korea; Korean War Service Medal; South Korean Order of Military Merit (with Silver Star); US Air Medal with oak leaf cluster; Order of the Cloud and Banner with Grand Cordon (second grade); Chile’s Gran Cruz Al Merito Aeronautico and Paraguay’s Al Merito Militar.

He remained active in military aviation circles after his retirement and was an active member of the SAAF Pretoria branch and also served in various positions, including chairman, of the SAAF Museum board.

This writer considers it a privilege to have known Gen Earp and will fondly remember time spent at the SAAFA site during a number of SAAF Museum air shows as well as enjoying the friendship and camaraderie he and other SAAFA members generated at AFB Zwartkop’s watering hole.

One memory aptly illustrates both his respect and love for the military, no matter what service or unit and the need for it to be seen as a responsible member of the wider South African society.

Ahead of coming to the Valhalla air force base for a “Thirstday gathering”, Earp had business at SAAF HQ. He told those in the mess he “just couldn’t understand why so little importance was attached to sentries and guards”.

“By and large these are the first people in uniform anyone encounters when they go to a military facility, base, unit or regiment. Surely it makes sense to have literate, knowledgeable and properly dressed soldiers on duty. I cannot believe what I encountered today. Their uniforms were sloppy, their attitude totally wrong. It just didn’t work and I understood then why some South Africans don’t have any pride in or respect for ‘their’ soldiers,” the man who was always well-dressed and with a military bearing related.



According to SAAF Corporate Staff Service a memorial service will be held at AFB Zwartkop on Monday 27 May at 13:00. Funeral arrangements will be communicated in due course.