by John H Marsh

CAPTAIN Naude and his crew had left Cape Town in the Ventura (officially designated "Aircraft K") soon after daybreak that day. They made a quick run up the coast to Walvis Bay, and came down there in time for lunch. While they fortified themselves within (little realising it was to be their last square meal for some considerable time), mechanics refuelled and serviced the aircraft, and stocked the parachute containers with food and water. The crew were given the latest available information from the scene of the wreck, and the authorities impressed upon Naude the fact that the survivors must by now be in a bad way, that no other help could reach them for some days at least, and that responsibility must rest with him, when he arrived on the scene, to decide whether or not he could do anything more, apart from dropping supplies, for the women and children at least.
The aircraft took off early in the afternoon and followed the coast. For two hours she flew without her crew seeing anything to break the monotony of sea and sand below. They passed over Cape Frio (or Rocky Point), where a century ago Messum had reported having seen his small harbour and the road leading into the interior. They saw no signs of either. But four miles further on they saw something that startled them. There far below them was a dark shape amid the white surf. Straining their eyes, they could not make out at first what it was. But they planed down toward it and in a few moments could make out that it was a ship. It was not the ship they were looking for, but a smaller one, and it was obviously aground. Waves were breaking over it. As they came closer they saw it was theSir Charles Elliott. There was a knot of little figures clustered on the bridge, gesticulating wildly. On the beach, about 300 yards away, were three more figures, also waving their arms excitedly. Near them, at the water's edge, was a ship's lifeboat.
Here, apparently, was a new disaster.
The tug had been wrecked that morning. After leaving the wreck the previous evening, she had set her course for Walvis Bay. At eleven o'clock that night Captain Brewin altered course so as to pass, before dawn nert day, about 9.5 miles off Rocky Point. At midnight he handed over the watch to the second mate, Mr. Tommy Cox, and turned in. Brewin was dead tired, after 16 hours continuously on duty in trying conditions, manoeuvring his tug in shallow water and alongside rolling ships, during the operations at the wreck. He fell into a deep sleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

He was awakened about six o'clock next morning by the sound of a crash and a feeling of intense jarring. He sprang out of his bunk and, glancing out of the doorway, saw breakers alongside. He shouted to the bridge to put the engines astern, threw on some clothes, and ran out on deck. One look was enough to show him the tug was ashore. The treacherous current, combined with a shifting coastline and inadequate charts, had lured one more vessel to destruction. He had reckoned, on the course he had set, that at 6 a.m. the tug should be well south of Rocky Point, and more than ten miles from land. Later he was to learn that she was still four to five miles short of the Point, and 14 miles from the position where she should have been.
There was confusion, though only momentarily, on board the tug immediately she struck. The second mate, Cox, had handed over the watch on the bridge at 4 a.m. to Mr. Angus McIntyre, the first mate. Cox awoke with the noise of crockery crashing down in the pantry on the other side of the bulkhead, and a second later he half-heard, half-felt the tug strike the rocks. He grabbed the first clothes that were handy and dashed up to the bridge, pausing only as he passed to bang upon the chief engineer's door and shout to him that they were ashore.
The chief engineer, Mr. John Lemiere, was in the act of getting up to go on watch in the engineroom when he felt the tug bump twice and heard a heavy grinding. Intuition told him at once that she was ashore and doomed. He switched on the electric light, but nothing happened. He knew from that that already the sea breaking on board must have affected the dynamos. He felt his way in the darkness as fast as he could to the engineroom. It was in total darkness, but he shouted to the second engineer, Mr. Bob Scott, who was on watch, and made his way to him at the stop valves. Scott said he had put both engines full astern on orders from the bridge. He had also switched off the dynamo because water coming in through the skylights from the seas that were breaking over the deck, was interfering with it. The native greaser, Thomas, on watch with Scott, was already busy lighting oil lamps and hanging them up about the engineroom. Their fitful gleam and the moving shadows they cast created a weird atmosphere of foreboding that was increased by the water cascading from the skylights upon the heads of the engineers and on to the racing machinery that was struggling frantically to free itself and the ship of which it was part, from the grip of the rocks.

Lemiere's first action was to close the watertight doors.
Immediately on reaching the bridge Brewin ordered soundings to be taken to see if the tug was making water. Cox, who had quickly completed dressing on the bridge, went round the ship with Nelson, one of the native deckhands, sounding the tanks. They found all tight except No. 1, which had three feet of water in it. The engineroom reported no sign of water coming in, and it appeared that, despite her heavy initial impact, the tug's stout old hull had so far escaped with very little damage. There might be a chance, if she could avoid serious damage in the meantime, of her dragging herself back into deep water on the rising tide.
After sounding the ship Cox took soundings of the depth of water around her. There was about ten feet of water forward, under the bow, and about 12 feet on each side amidships. Owing to the heavy water breaking over the stern, which was washing bags of coal hither and thither, it was too dangerous to attempt soundings aft.
The moon had risen an hour or two before the tug stranded, but being in the last quarter it shed comparatively little light, even though the atmosphere was clear. Actually it was so dark at the moment of striking that the native quartermaster, Mombo, who was steering the ship from the wheelhouse below the bridge, could see nothing ahead but impenetrable darkness.
By the time soundings had been taken it was light enough to make out the dim line of the shore, fringed with breaking surf. In fact there was an almost unbroken sea of surf between the ship and the shore.With her shallow draught the tug had driven right in among the breakers. She lay headed straight for the beach.
When, despite the power of her engines in reverse, the tug showed no signs of dragging herself free, her master ordered the after peak tank in which ballast water was stored, to be pumped out in order to lighten that end. This still appeared to have no effect. After the engines had been running astern for a full hour there was a slight movement aft, and imrnediately after the port propeller jarred. It had apparently come into contact with an obstruction. The port engine was stopped at once, but the engine-room began to make water, the propeller shaft having apparently been bent by the impact and thus opened up the propeller glands. The pumps were brought into action to keep the water down.

Fifteen minutes later an extra big breaker lifted the tug's stern and then crashed her down upon the sea floor. The impact was too great even for that proved old hull. It opened up and water began to rush into the engineroom far faster than the pumps could cope with it. Nothing could save the ship now. Within a few minutes the cranks of the starboard engine were running in water, which was swirling a foot above the floor plates. Lemiere informed the master on the bridge that they could not do much more in the engineroom. Brewin then gave the order to prepare to abandon ship. He told the engineroom to stop the starboard engine and ordered all hands to don life jackets. Men were told off to put extra stores into the lifeboat and get it ready for launching.
The stokehold crew drew the fires under the boilers 90 minutes after the tug stranded. When the engineroom staff came up from below they left steam on the auxiliaries in case the winches might be needed in handling the lifeboat, and they also left the pumps to run themselves to a standstill.
All hands were now on deck, ready to abandon ship in the lifeboat. It was obviously going to be a tricky business in that sea to get it away from the ship safely, quite apart from negotiating the breakers to the beach.
One of the native deckhands was instructed to look after the painter which, with a turn or two round a bollard on the tug's deck, was to hold the lifeboat in position alongside after it was launched, while the crew were getting into it. At about eight o'clock the lifeboat was successfully launched. Three natives, Otto, Daniel, and William, were already in it and others of the crew were about to jump in when a huge breaker tore past, gripped the boat, jerked the painter out of the hands of the native deckhand, and whisked the boat and its three occupants away towards the shore. Paralysed by surprise and fear, those left on the wreck could only watch dumbly as the boat was carried like a cockleshell on the crest of the breaker towards the sand. They saw the three figures in it struggling with the oars to keep its stern to the waves. Almost before they realised it, they saw the boat cast up on the beach and the three natives scramble out upon the sand.
The 17 men left upon the wreck were now in a serious plight. There were no more lifeboats, only a tiny dinghy which could never live in that sea. The whole afterpart of the ship was flooded, she had begun to list to port, and under the punishment she was taking from the endless succession of breakers there was every reason to believe that she would soon go to pieces.

Brewin had the dinghy provisioned so that, if the worst came to the worst, there might be just a chance of it reaching the shore with food to keep alive for a time any who were lucky enough to survive the surf. He also set the crew to fashioning a few small rafts out of planks, tins, and barrels, with which attempts were made to float a line ashore. If a line could be got to the three men on the beach, they could then haul ashore a thicker one from the tug, and there might be some chance of rigging up a breeches buoy.
But the current, having lured the ship to her doom, seemed determined not to allow her hapless crew to escape its clutches so easily. Between it and the strong backwash, the rafts, instead of floating shoreward, strung out abeam. No amount of manipulation of the lines could induce them to float towards the beach. Rockets were then brought out and one with a line attached was fired from the bridge towards the beach. The strong cross wind that was blowing caused the line to catch on the tug's forestay, breaking the stick, and the rocket fell into the surf far short of the beach. Another rocket from the bridge also fouled a portion of the tug and fell short. A third, fired from below, shared the same fate. An attempt was now made to fire a line ashore with a pistol rocket. Its marked range, however, was only 140 yards and it also fell into the sea, scarcely halfway between the wreck and the shore. There were now no more rockets left. The swell and surf were increasing and all attempts to get the remainder of the crew off had to be abandoned for the meantime. As the tide rose the tug was bumping heavily and spray and broken water were continually sweeping over her. All hands had collected on the superstructure where they huddled together, holding fast to anything that was firm to avoid being thrown about by the lurching of the ship. Although they had wrapped themselves in oilskins and overcoats they were wet through.
What made matters worse was their realisation that they could expect no help. As the tug had no wireless there was no means of informing the outside world of their plight. Although everybody was calm, this knowledge had a depressing effect. This was their condition when, shortly before four o'clock in the afternoon, somebody sighted an aircraft approaching. It seemed too good to be true. In a moment everybody was dancing around waving his arms and even shouting with excitement as he tried to attract the plane's attention. There was momentary suspense until the plane was seen to alter her course towards the wreck. It circled around a few times, at a fairly low altitude and then made off northward. The shipwrecked mariners knew that the aircraft could itself do nothing to help them, but at least it would report their plight to the authorities.

This was Naude's first action. He sent a wireless message to Walvis Bay reporting that the tug was ashore north of Rocky Point, that some of the crew were on the beach and the remainder still on the wreck. Naude then continued his flight up the coast and twenty minutes later was over the wreck of the liner. From the air there seemed at first nothing wrong with the big ship, except that she was lying rather close to the beach. Closer inspection, however, revealed that she was listing seaward and that waves were breaking occasionally over her after well deck. The Manchester Division was weighing anchor to continue her voyage to Cape Town, where she was to land the first batch of survivors five days later, and the Nerine was also under way nearby, returning from her abortive search for a sheltered cove from which to take off the beach party.
When photographs of the wreck had been taken from the aircraft for record purposes, Naude swung the plane over the beach and quickly spotted the survivor's camp. It was the only dark speck in that waste of white sand. The roar of the plane's engines seemed to bring the speck to life, and numbers of little dark figures stirred and milled around, obviously greatly excited.
After a preliminary reconnaissance Naude made his first run in to drop his supplies. First, as an experiment, he dropped a few one-gallon tins of water from a low height, without parachutes. They fell in soft sand, but even so, because the plane was travelling at nearly 150 miles an hour, the impact was sufficient to burst them.
After these experiments Naude decided to drop the food, in its special containers, from a height of 20 feet, and the water containers, attached to parachutes, from a height of 100 feet. Success attended his efforts. He made half-a-dozen runs, and dropped condensed milk, tea, dried fruit, bread, tinned fruit, coffee, sugar, tinned vegetables, bully beef, and medical equipment, as well as 40 gallons of fresh water in four containers A few of the packages burst open on striking the ground and scattered their contents in the sand, but the majority made a safe landing.
The operation was a ticklish one because the excited survivors could not contain their patience, but kept running out to pick up the packages as they fell. Several times the airmen had to hold back their "mercy bombs" at the last minute, for fear of braining some unwary individual below. This prolonged the operation, and it took three-quarters-of-an-hour to offload the last of the supplies.

To the airmen it was plain that the survivors were in a bad way. The more active hobbled rather than ran to pick up the packages, but the majority contented themselves with merely sitting around the camp, waving their arms in cheerful greeting each time the aircraft sped by. A strong wind was blowing from the sea, so that the little camp was sometimes hidden by driving sand. There was little to be seen of the women and children, and the airmen guessed that they were sheltering as best they could beneath the canvas sails of the lifeboat. What their condition was the airmen could only guess, but it needed little imagination.
Having successfully completed his primary task, Naude knew that it was now left to him whether or not he should try to give more aid to these people in need He thought of the women and children down there who might, even now, have reached the limit of their endurance. He knew that if he and his fellow airmen did nothing now, nobody else was likely to be in a position to help them for the best part of another week at least. By that time it might be too late. Could he conscientiously now, having carried out his orders, leave them to their fate and go back to Walvis Bay to sit down in two or three hours' time to a well-cooked meal and turn in later in a comfortable spring bed?
Naude did not have to struggle with his conscience His mind was made up, and when he consulted his fellow airmen, he found that they too were of the same mind. They agreed at once to his tentative suggestion that they should look for a place to land and try to take the women and children, at least, back with them to Walvis Bay. There was plenty of room for them all in the bomber.
They circled around for a long time until they decided upon what looked like the most suitable stretch of level sand on which to come down, about two miles inland from the survivors' camp. Naude made a perfect landing. The sand was fairly firm and the plane came to a stop without anything untoward happening, and with a good margin of level ground to spare.
After a short while five of the ship's crew arrived. They had guessed that the plane was preparing to land and had set off at once in the direction where it could be seen circling. They agreed to return as fast as possible to the camp and get the women and children along to the plane.

Naude wasted no time in preparing for the take-off. It was necessary to taxi the plane back to the spot where she had first touched ground, so that she could take off into the wind. He turned the plane and began to taxi back. He had covered about 50 yards when the aircraft stopped and refused to budge. Examination showed that the port wheel had sunk slightly in soft sand. One of the airmen hurried after the five men of the ship's crew and brought them back to help clear away the sand. This they succeeded in doing, but the plane moved forward only another ten yards when the port wheel again stuck, this time sinking six inches deep. Once more the men set to work.
They worked under the most trying conditions. The sandstorm was blowing at 40 miles-an-hour and not only did the particles get into their eyes and clog their ears and nostrils, and their mouths whenever they spoke, but as fast as they scooped out a trough in front of the wheel, it was filled again. As if these conditions were not sufficiently unpleasant, the airscrews, which it was necessary to keep idling, stirred up miniature sandstorms of their own
In order to allay anxiety at Walvis Bay Naude sent out a radio message informing the authorities there that he had landed near the survivors and that the plane had got stuck in the sand, but that there was no damage.
After struggling for another hour the airmen as well as the shipwrecked men were so exhausted that they had to give up. The 12-ton plane could not be moved. Naude decided that there was no alternative but to spend the night there and hope that the sandstorm would have subsided by morning, allowing a possibility of the plane being dug out. He accordingly advised Walvis Bay that the plane was now bogged and could not move.
The liner's men gave the airmen a detailed description of the condition of the survivors, as a result of which Naude sent a further message to Walvis Bay reporting that the survivors were weak, the children in bad shape, and that further supplies were needed. After facing up to the fact that the chances of getting the plane into the air again without outside help and suitable equipment were small indeed, he asked Walvis Bay to send another aircraft to investigate the position and requested the authorities to hurry with help for the castaways.
As the sun was setting "Aircraft K" sent out her last message, ending with the warning that she might not be able to use her radio again. Her batteries were almost worked out.

The ship's men set off back to the camp with the news that their rescuers would now themselves have to be rescued. They took back news also of the disaster to the tug that had tried unsuccessfully to help them. After darkness had fallen a torch flashing from the beach told those on board the Nerine, now the only ship standing by, of what had happened to the plane and the tug.
Walvis Bay, after receiving the plane's last message, had radioed back asking the aircraft, if her radio failed, to maintain contact with Walvis Bay if possible, through the ships standing by. But the Nerine's radio equipment had a range of only 200 miles. With the departure of the Manchester Division and the packing up of the aircraft's transmitter, therefore, all the survivors and those who were trying to rescue them, lost contact again with the outside world.
After the departure of the survivors the four airmen made themselves a meal of bully beef, biscuits, and chocolate, washed down with water, from the plane's emergency rations. During the evening a young lad turned up who said he was from the survivor's camp and had come to see the plane. He stayed a short while. He was badly sunburned and the airmen suspected he was also on the verge of becoming mentally unbalanced, possibly because of the privations he had been through. He spoke a lot about lions, and repeatedly asked whether cannibals lived here. All the airmen's assurances that there were no inhabitants at all in this part of the country did not seem to satisfy him. As darkness was falling he left, presumably to return to the camp.
A long time after, when everybody was settling down for the night in the survivors' camp, somebody discovered that the youngster had not returned. As the fresh spoor of wild animals had been found on the beach some distance from the canip, fears were expressed for his safety, particularly as it had been noticed that his behaviour during the last day or two had not been quite normal. A search party was hurriedly organised, and, carrying torches, it set out to scour the sand dunes. It found the lad at last, wandering aimlessly about, hopelessly lost. His mind had obviously been affected, and he was violent and noisy. He was brought back to the camp with difficulty, and Dr. Burn Wood administered two grains of luminal. Eventually the drug took effect and he fell asleep. During the remainder of the time that he was with the party, Dr. Burn Wood watched him carefully, but he gave no more serious trouble.

Darkness drew its shroud at the end of that fateful day upon a camp of despondent castaways whose hopes of rescue had shot up to the heights, only to be as suddenly dashed. They lay themselves wearily down on the sand once more, wrapping their clothing about their heads, to seek forgetfulness of disappointment in troubled sleep.
Two miles away over the sand dunes four airmen whose humanity exceeded the demands of duty, who but for the existence of that pocket of loose sand would have been warmly snug on spring mattresses far away in Walvis Bay, strove to find comfort for their limbs, and peace for their minds, in sleep, on an air-filled rubber dinghy laid upon the cramped floor of their plane. Parachutes were their blankets, and a raging sandstorm that rocked their plane, like an ungentle nurse rocks a baby's cradle, was their lullaby.
Some 60 miles to the south, 17 sodden men strove to fight off the sleep of weariness and exhaustion and to keep a precarious foothold upon a lurching, spray-swept platform that might any moment disintegrate and hurl them to a watery grave in the darkness. All day they had clung there on the superstructure, without shelter from the blazing sun, with only a bite of cold food to eat and a mouthful or two of fresh water mixed with sea water. They were powerless to help themselves and there was nobody else to help them. Now darkness had fallen they were more than ever conscious of their desperate plight. The moon would not rise for hours yet. Not a light shone anywhere. They could not see the shore, nor the surf, nor even each other. They stared into a wall of darkness and felt the waterlogged ship heave and plunge beneath their feet. In lulls between the whine of the wind through the rigging and the crash of the breakers upon the stern, they heard the groaning and rending of tortured metal.
Out there in the darkness in the shelter of the lifeboat three frightened natives lay upon the sand. They did not understand the sea but they knew that they and their shipmates had unwillingly been dragged into a grim game of life and death with the sea and the sand on the Coast of Loneliness.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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