Who was Paul Gotthelf Pfeiffer?

Poet. Linguist. Flying Officer. Geranium Plains Lad.

Paul Pfeiffer. (Courtesy of http://jacketmagazine.com/12/penguins-miles.html)

On the 4th of January, 1945, Paul Gotthelf Pfeiffer, an extraordinary local modernist poet who was born at Point Pass, South Australia, died after an accident during a flying mission at Invergordon, Scotland.

Born into a German family on the 5th of December, 1916, Paul spent his early childhood at Geranium Plains on the family property, ‘Mirtlefield Farm.’ He was schooled at the little Australia Plains School just up the road.

He had seven brothers and sisters: Wilhelm, Johannes (Jack), Elsa, Hulda, Otto, Lydia and Martha.  Being the youngest son, and youngest child, in a large family, it was always unlikely that Paul would take on the family farm. Instead, he was encouraged to pursue academic studies.

Paul discovered he had a love of literature and languages, which took him to the University of Adelaide. Throughout the duration of his study, he boarded at Immanuel College. It was here that Paul met up-and-coming author and poet, and Eudunda local, Colin Thiele. (Living in such close proximity to one another, there is a possibility Paul and Colin could have met before university, but there is no way of proving for certain.)


“He was a linguist, scholar and born educator.”


He graduated in 1938 with a Bachelor of Arts, before continuing on with Honours in 1939 and a Masters Degree in 1940. That same year, he became a tutor at St. Mark’s College, and during this time, he wrote a poem titled ‘Spain’, which earned him the coveted Bundey Prize for English Verse, awarded by the University of Adelaide.

While Paul attended university, he met fellow poets Donald Bevis Kerr and Max Harris. Together they were central to the modernist, avant-garde, radical Angry Penguins movement which dominated the literary scene of late 1930s Australia. Paul was a regular contributor to the journal at the University of Adelaide, Phoenix, which was later reincarnated as the Angry Penguins journal.

In July 1940, Paul enlisted as a reservist in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), and was called up in March 1941. His enlistment papers record him as being 5ft 8in tall and 144lbs, with a chest measurement of 34in., a medium complexion, blue eyes and fair hair. His papers also record that he was fluent in German and French and that he had taught Greek at Immanuel College. He was a ‘linguist, scholar and born educator.’

Throughout his service during the war, he served as a Navigator. He rose from the rank of Leading Aircraftman to Flight Sergeant to Flying Officer. He served in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Ireland, England and across the Mediterranean. As well as this, he served with Coastal Command performing missions over the North Sea. From January 1943 onwards, Paul was part of the renowned 461 Squadron of the RAAF.


Royal Air Force Station Pembroke Dock, Wales, taken around August 1944. It is a group portrait of personnel of No. 461 (Sunderland) Squadron RAAF in the UK registering their votes for the 1944 Australian Referendum. L-R: Warrant Officer R. S. Mead; Flying Officer P. Pfeiffer; Flight Lieutenant R. Hattam; Corporal J. F. Chumley; Flying Officer F. M. Syme; Flying Officer O L. C. Martin. (Courtesy of the AWM. No. SUK12808)


While on service, Paul published a collection of poems in Adelaide in 1942, in a publication titled Hymeneal to a Star. Some critics have described Pfeiffer’s work as bearing similarities to the tragedies of Simonedes of Ceos, a poet and scholar of Ancient Greece. The collection of poems includes his award-winning poem, ‘Spain’, as well as a six-part series called ‘Songs in Wartime’ which he would have written whilst on service.

Sadly, just months before the end of the war, on the 3rd of January, 1945, Paul was fatally injured in a plane crash whilst on a photographic mission over Cromarty Firth, near Invergordon, Scotland. Paul did not regain consciousness after the plane broke apart, and passed away on the 4th of January, 1945 at the Royal Naval Hospital, Invergordon.

While an inquiry could not determine the cause of the accident, it did not rule out the possibility of the plane stalling shortly after take-off or the jamming of controls. Witnesses recall seeing the plane ascend after take-off and shortly thereafter, the starboard wing dipped, then the port wing, then the starboard once again, before it veered into the ocean. Of the six crew on board, two died in hospital and four survived.

Paul is buried in the Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery in North Yorkshire, England.

Paul is arguably one of the great lost modernist poets of Australia.

Lest we forget.


Group portrait of the officers of No. 461 (Sunderland) Squadron RAAF at RAF Station, Pembroke Dock, Wales. Taken around January or February 1944. Paul Pfeiffer is fourth from the left in the front row. (Courtesy of the AWM. No. SUK11792A)

Adapted from an article published in the Eudunda Family Heritage Gallery’s quarterly newsletter, ‘Gustav’s Newsletter.’


Written and researched by Samuel Doering.