by John H Marsh

WHEN Major Robbs returned to Walvis Bay that evening to report his failure to get the water supplies to the shipwrecked crews or to locate the overland convoy, the military and naval authorities there had to decide what further action should be taken.
In the absence of Finlayson in the Natalia, Captain Daigleish personally took charge of the S.A.N.F.'s side of the operations. Messages were sent to Combined Headquarters at Cape Town reporting that the aerial surveys indicated that both the tug and the liner were waterlogged and that salvage of either vessel was considered impossible. Combined Headquarters was also advised of the failure of the efforts to drop water to the survivors and was informed that it was imperative that more parachute dropping apparatus should be sent to Walvis Bay immediately. Combined Headquarters arranged that Captain P. S. Joubert should leave Pretoria first thing next morning in a Ventura with a load of parachute dropping equipment. The flight of about 1,000 miles was expected to take the better part of the day, and as Major van der Hoven did not anticipate that the parachutes would arrive in time for the following day's supply-dropping operations, he ordered apparatus to be improvised out of large personnel parachutes.
In view of the repeated failures to locate the overland convoy, it appeared to those responsible for organising the rescue work at Walvis Bay, that, despite the first reports that the convoy would probably reach the liner within four days of starting out from Windhoek, it could not yet be anywhere in the vicinity of the wreck. It might, in fact, itself be stranded somewhere in the desert. In this matter of life and death, with nearly 90 people's lives at stake, it would be foolish to rely upon aid from that quarter.

Captain Dalgleish decided to order another expedition to go to the wreck by sea and endeavour to rescue the castaways. The Nerine had returned to Walvis Bay during the morning with the master and two officers from the wrecked vessel, and from those on board he was able to obtain first-hand information of conditions existing at the wreck of the liner. He thought there might be a chance of taking the people off if a suitable boat, designed for operating in surf, and a skilled crew with knowledge of such work, could be obtained. Upon enquiry he learned that a Captain Hansen who operated a fishing business at Sandwich Harbour, 30 miles down the coast from Walvis Bay, had such a boat and a number of natives in his employ who were excellent surfboat men. Captain Hansen, on being asked, willingly agreed to lend his boat and a picked crew, and to take charge of them himself.
Arrangements were made for the Nerine to be refuelled, watered and provisioned, and for the surfboat expedition to be embarked, in time for her to leave Walvis Bay again the following afternoon. Combined Headquarters were advised of the arrangements late that evening.
Next day, December 7, while the sea rescue expedition was being prepared, Major Robbs made his third flight with supplies for the shipwrecked crews. He passed over the wreck of the tug shortly before two o'clock in the afternoon and noticed that there was now a large party on the beach and that there did not appear to be anybody left on the tug. He dropped his food and water and this time, thanks to the improvised personnel parachutes, two of the water containers landed intact on the beach. Others burst or came down in the sea and were lost. From the tug Robbs flew on to the liner and repeated the performance there. Again much of the water was lost, but a precious few gallons landed safely. He then returned to Walvis Bay, flying low over the tug on the way home and keeping a watch also for the land convoy. There was still no sign of it.
The tug's crew had spent a fairly restful, though a bitterly cold, night. They awoke with their clothes damp right through from the heavy dew. The wind had subsided, and the air was calm. The sun shone down during the day from a clear sky, and without the sea breeze the heat was terrific. Some of the natives, walking along the beach, found the spoors of jackals and another spoor which some thought was made by a wolf. They made no bones about the fact that they were frightened by the presence of these animals. The Europeans, also, were rather ill at ease after the discovery, for there were no firearms in the camp. The whole party scattered to collect driftwood, for it was decided that it would be advisable to keep a large fire burning all night to frighten off any animals that might otherwise be tempted to satisfy hunger with human flesh.

Brewin decided also to bury the unfortunate Mathias. After he had made a careful examination of the body to ensure that life was quite extinct, a grave was dug some distance from the camp, and the tugmaster from memory conducted a brief burial service, while the dead man's shipmates stood solemnly around the grave. After it had been filled in the men collected stones and built a cairn upon it. They also erected a rough wooden cross made from two pieces of driftwood nailed together.
Brewin made another unsuccessful search for McIntyre's body.
The food dropped to them from the air was beginning to restore their strength to the tug's crew, and the exercise of the last day or two had also benefited them. The Europeans were suffering severely from sunburn, but the sun had little effect upon the natives, used as they were to living in the open with little protection. Brewin decided that the water ration should remain at one dipperful each three times a day, as that which had been dropped intact from the aircraft that afternoon might have to last for any length of time.
Down at Cape Town Combined Headquarters had ordered another Ventura to Walvis Bay to stand by there to relieve Major Robbs' bomber, which would have to return to its base after one more flight to the liner wreck, in order to undergo its periodic overhaul. Major Matthys Uys, A.F.C., the flight commander of No.23 Bomber Squadron, himself offered to take the relief plane up.
Uys was a typical young South African who might have been mistaken for a farmer rather than an airman. He had in fact been brought up on his father's farm at Vrede, in the Orange Free State. Tall and wiry, with unruly brown hair, a cheery countenance, and a tanned skin, he and his men knew each other by their Christian names, yet those under him maintained the greatest respect for their commander. He was in his early 'twenties and had already had a distinguished career in the air. It was he who, with another South African Air Force pilot, intercepted the German-African liner Watussi when she was trying to sneak round the Cape to Germany in the early days of the war. When ordered to make for Simonstown the Watussi's commander tried to escape, and Uys and his colleague had to machine-gun her decks to show him that they were in earnest. The Germans then scuttled their ship.

Uys earned his Air Force Cross by his good work in intercepting another ship, carrying a 7,000-ton cargo of contraband to German-occupied France. Uys found her far out at sea and ordered her to change course for Cape Town. She ignored his signals and when with his guns and bombs he exerted a little gentle persuasion, she unwillingly went his way. She tried several times to dodge away in darkness and bad weather, but Uys periodically came back and shepherded her back to the course he had set her. For 300 miles he stood aerial guard over her until she was brought into port, to make the Allies the richer, and the Axis the poorer, by a cargo of copra, that would be of the greatest use for munition-making.
Other war operations had given the young airman opportunity to distinguish himself. He was one of the S.A.A.F. pilots who, in the weeks before the Madagascar campaign, made at great personal risk a secret aerial photographic survey of the island's ports and beaches, which later enabled the invasion forces to make their surprise landings so successfully.
Later, in Egypt, Uys had his share of combat with the enemy.
But it was another factor which decided him to take charge personally of the relief plane.
Early in the war Uys had been piloting an Anson over the Kaokoveld when engine trouble forced him to land. He came down safely on a salt pan a little distance inland from Rocky Point. The oil leakage which had brought him down was soon repaired, but the Anson could not get into the air again because her wheels had sunk through the six-inch thick surface crust of the pan. For seven days Uys and his three companions lived in the plane without food or water except three or four oranges between them. They lay in the shade beneath the wings during the day to shelter from the blazing heat At night they sheltered from the cold and the wild animals in the fuselage. Each morning before the sun rose they licked the dew from the wings to relieve their parched throats.
Now and again they saw ostriches in the distance. They knew they had no hope of catching the fleet birds. They tried instead to lure them or to drive them within range of the machine guns in the Anson's turret, in the hope of shooting them down and drinking their blood. But the birds were too wily.

As is not unusual along that coast, a heavy impenetrable cloud often drew across the sky and hung low over the land. Four times while this cloud hung like a veil between the earth and the sky, Uys and his companions heard search planes passing overhead. The cloud effectively hid the marooned airmen from the searchers above.
After seven days a patrolling Hudson found them at last. It came down on a level stretch they had marked out nearby, and picked them up. Brandy diluted with water was the only refreshment they were allowed until they reached hospital. When they came out they were flown back to their plane and a large quantity of wire netting was dropped to them. With its help they eventually got their plane into the air again.
That forced landing on Rocky Point by young Uys years before was destined to be a key factor in the sequence of events now taking place on the shores of that barren land. It was the realisation that his first-hand knowledge might be of the utmost value that decided him to take charge of the relief plane. He had returned to duty only the previous day from ten days' sick leave following a spell in hospital, and he had not flown for two months. It was when he returned to his station that he learned of the plight of the two shipwrecked crews. At the time it was believed both at Walvis Bay and at Cape Town that the tug's crew were in the more perilous situation and instructions had been given that priority should be given to their rescue. Uys volunteered to fly the relief plane to Walvis Bay and then, if there seemed any possibility of success, to try and land near the tug crew and bring them to safety. His seniors briefed him for the job, confident that if there was anyone who could help those men in need, it was Uys.
He left his base near Cape Town late on the morning of December 7, while Robbs was preparing for his third flight from Walvis Bay to the wrecks, and the Nerine was embarking the surfboat expedition in preparation for her departure later in the day. As crew Uys had only Second-Lieutenant R. B. Cochrane, of Pretoria, who was observer, gunner, and radio operator combined. Lieutenant-Colonel M. C. P. Mostert, commander of the fortress air defences of the Cape Fortress Command, flew as a passenger to supervise on the spot.
Uys brought his plane down at Rooikop just as the Nerine was leaving Walvis Bay to try to rescue the shipwrecked crews from the sea. About two hours later Joubert's Ventura came in from Pretoria with its load of parachutes.

With Robbs' plane there were now three Venturas at Walvis Bay. The senior officers of army, navy, and air force conferred that evening and made their plans for the morrow. They decided that one Ventura should carry out the routine flight with supplies for the shipwrecked crews; one should make a thorough search for the missing convoy; and the third, piloted by Uys, should try the risky landing at Rocky Point and see whether she could rescue the tug crew.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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