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
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
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
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.