In Memoriam: Group Captain Peter Petter-Bowyer

I wrote in May about the development of the Alpha cluster bomblet in Rhodesia during that country’s brief and violent existence.  The person most responsible for its development was Peter Petter-Bowyer, who rose to the rank of Group Captain (equivalent to Colonel) before Rhodesia lost its war and became Zimbabwe.  I wasn’t aware when I wrote those words that he had died a couple of months before.  It seems he had an allergic reaction to treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

I had the privilege of meeting Group Captain Petter-Bowyer on more than one occasion in South Africa during the 1980’s.  He was a most interesting man, with all sorts of stories to tell and many accomplishments to his name.  Apart from being an operational fighter and helicopter pilot with vast experience, he also helped to design a range of deceptively simple, low-cost yet amazingly effective air-dropped weapons that were well suited to manufacture in a low-technology economy such as Rhodesia’s, and perfectly adapted to counter-insurgency warfare.  They included:

  • The aforementioned Alpha bomb, later further developed by South Africa into the CB470 cluster bomb;
  • The Golf bomb, which resembled nothing so much as a gas cylinder with a long probe on the nose (to ensure an air burst rather than allowing the bomb to bury itself in the ground) and tail fins at the rear.  It had a double casing, the space between them being filled with thousands of short pieces of scrap rebar, making it a horrendously effective shrapnel device.  Filled with ANFO, they proved devastating in combat.  The large version equipped Hunter fighter-bombers.  A smaller version was developed to equip light aircraft such as the Reims 337 (a French-manufactured version of the Cessna Skymaster, used by the US armed forces as the O-2A).  Here’s a picture of a Reims 337, known as the Lynx in Rhodesian service.  The small-model Golf bomb is beneath its starboard wing, with its long nose probe clearly visible.  (Note, too, the .30-caliber machine-guns installed in pods above the wings.  Click the image for a larger view.)

  • The Frantan, a small but highly lethal napalm bomb.  “It was made from woven glass fibre set in a phenolic resin binder & was aerodynamically shaped, incorporating tail fins for stability. It contained, when filled, 16gall of napgel & had a large pocket of flash powder to ignite all the napgel. Improved initiation was achieved by using two slightly modified Alpha bomb fuses. The improved accuracy of delivery, the complete shattering of the case on impact, the total ignition of the napgel & the improved & predictable ground spread made this frantan ideal. This improvement was such that it was even used by Hunter aircraft in preference to the imported 50gall frantan, which gave inferior performance.”  (A Frantan is mounted on the outboard pylon beneath the port wing of the Lynx aircraft pictured above.)
  • Several other innovative air weaponry solutions.

Group Captain Petter-Bowyer’s autobiography, ‘Winds Of Destruction‘, is an excellent memoir of his military service and a fine history of the Rhodesian Air Force.  For all that it was small and ill-equipped, this air arm performed a vital function during Rhodesia’s gallant and ill-fated war, and established a stellar reputation among fighting airmen everywhere.  I highly recommend his book as essential reading for all military aviation enthusiasts – and it’s available in an inexpensive Kindle edition, which makes it even more accessible.  You can also read an extended interview with him here.

I feel a very personal sense of loss at the news of Peter Petter-Bowyer’s death.  He was a remarkable man.  I’m honored to have known him.



  1. My uncle, Roger Bowers, flew with the Rhodesians. He's got some great stories and I really hope he gets around to writing his memoirs.


  2. @John: Maxwell Volume 4 is due out in September, all being well. Laredo War 2 will hopefully be out in December – and Steve Maxwell will meet up with the Laredo resistance in that one. Interesting times ensue.


  3. Dear Sir,
    if you don't mind, I'm going to use the picture of the Lynx on a translation I'm doing, and post it on my blog.
    Thank you.
    Leonardo Pavese

  4. In 2011, I read Group Captain Petter-Bowyer's excellent book and was impressed by his factual account of the Rhodesian civil war and his many accomplishments as a pilot, a leader, and as a developer of weapons systems.

    I told him so in an email, to which he very kindly replied. We discussed how the lessons learned in his war and mine (Vietnam) could be applied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He sent me a copy of a white paper on the subject that he and several other Rhodesian veterans had written in 2003.

    The paper was submitted to military leaders in the UK and USA, with an offer to share the experiences of the authors in the hope of saving Allied and civilian lives. Their offer was ignored, sadly, since the Rhodesians were very successful in developing armored vehicles that could survive land mines, IEDs, and RPGs; all of which were used to kill and injure Allied troops and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Recently, I read a report about the low survivability of the USA's Bradley IFV when encountering mines, IEDs, and RPGs. The report stated that use of the Bradley had largely been abandoned in the current wars and it had been replaced by vehicles designed using concepts from the Rhodesians. So, it took a while and PB probably didn't even get a footnote of credit, but at least lives are now being saved. I'm sure he would find satisfaction in that.

  5. Just last night I had a dream about Peter. He became my business partner, together with two other men, Bill Brown, and Bev Portman, at the time we all moved to South Africa. Yes, indeed, Peter was an interesting man, with much wisdom. I first met Peter when we were involved in research and development. It all seems a lifetime away.

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