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
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.