by John H Marsh

SMITH'S convoy was making its way along the beach towards Rocky Point when, soon after midday on December 8, a wreck was sighted a mile or two ahead, and people were seen on the beach opposite it. The discovery caused much astonishment to the men in the convoy, for they knew the wreck to which they were bound was north of the Khumib River, and they were unaware that the tug also had been wrecked. The people on the beach apparently saw the trucks approaching at the same time, for they could be seen scrambling to vantage points on the sand dunes, presumably to get a better view.
While the police and the soldiers were still wondering what this wreck could be, a plane zoomed down and dropped a little bag on the sand near the trucks. The bag contained a message instructing the convoy to pick up the party on the beach and take them down to Rocky Point, where the aircraft would try to land and take them on board.
On reaching the wreck the convoy's men found that there were ten men there, and learned that they were part of the crew of the Sir Charles Elliott. The tugmen were overjoyed to be picked up and still more so to learn that an attempt was to be made to take them to Walvis Bay by air.
The plane had instructed the convoy to tell the shipwrecked men to leave all their gear behind. The tugmen found this somewhat ironical, since they had escaped from their vessel with nothing but what they stood up in. But they willingly said goodbye to the lifeboat that had been their inadequate shelter for so many days. The canvas and the scanty supply of food that they had conserved so jealously they handed over to the convoy.
On the way to Rocky Point the convoy overtook the remainder of the tug's crew and took them, too, to the ridge where the planes of Uys and Joubert were waiting. Joubert, like Uys, had made a skilful landing without mishap. He had Captain Dalgleish with him.

Without loss of time the tug crew were taken aboard, and the two planes took off, first one and then the other. They had to rev their engines up to full throttle and go all-out along the ridge in order to get up enough speed to become air-borne within the 700 yards allowed them. The pilots knew that they would have one chance only. If they were not air-borne when they reached the end of the ridge, they would plunge to destruction. Iron nerves were needed, for once the planes had got up speed, there was not enough room left to come to a stop again. To falter would spell disaster. And all the time there was that cross wind insidiously trying to edge them off the ridge and over the 80-foot drop to the dunes below.
But Uys and Joubert had both the skill and the nerve that were needed to beat the devils of the Kaokoveld Coast and drag from their clutches their human prey. Like giant birds the Venturas swooped up into the sky, to land the tugmen safely at Walvis Bay an hour-and-a-half later.
The first of the rescuers had been rescued.

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During all those six days while they waited for rescue at the wreck of their ship, the crew of the tug had watched in vain for a ship to pass that might see their signals of distress. Strangely, only a few hours after they had been rescued, that same afternoon, the British steamer Ocean Valour came by, saw the distress signal flying at the tug's masthead, and sent a boat to investigate. Jacob's radio station at Durban intercepted her wireless message to Rugby that evening, reporting that the tug was ashore and that there was no sign of the crew, but there were two lifeboats on the beach. The freighter's boat crew took back with them the tug's searchlight, ship's bell, name plate, and navigating equipment. These were handed over later to the authorities at New York and on being sold fetched the sum, after salvage and other expenses had been deducted, of 23UK Pounds 15s. That was all that the South African Railways and Harbours Administration, which bears its own insurances, got back from its tug that was probably worth 20,000Uk Pounds at the price of the day.
* * *

When the planes flew off the convoy was left alone on the beach at Rocky Point. Uys had informed Smith that if the surfboat expedition which was due at the liner wreck in the Nerine next day failed to rescue the shipwrecked people, the convoy was to bring them down the coast to Rocky Point, from where an attempt would be made to evacuate the women and children, and any sick, by plane, as had been done with the tug crew.

Smith therefore dumped his surplus provisions near the ridge, so as to lighten the vehicles and also make more room for passengers, and, having picked up the spares awaiting him, got the convoy under way, northbound, about five o'clock in the afternoon. The trucks made good time to the Khumib River mouth, but in crossing it they ran into loose sea sand, and from that time onward the men learned what real trouble was. Smith and Cogill set out on foot to find a way out of the sand, but soon Cogill had to give up because his knees began to swell and he could hardly walk any longer. Dr. Hutchinson ordered him to abandon these scouting expeditions and to ride as much as possible in future. Thereafter the reconnaissances that were essential had to be done by Smith alone, the doctor sometimes assisting, and Cogill being only consulted. Cogill had passed here 11 years previously when he had arrested the Portuguese diamond poachers, but his memory of the terrain was imperfect, for he had travelled in the opposite direction to that in which the convoy was now going.
It was near here that the convoy men had a remarkable illustration of the truth that time means nothing in this changeless land. They found, here and there on sections of ground harder than the rest, spoors made by motor tyres. Cogill identified them as the tracks his vehicle had made all those years before! Certainly no one else is likely to have made them. Nor is the preservation of spoors over periods of years a phenomenon in that area. Police patrols have recorded many similar instances. Where there are no humans and few animals, the elements are slow to obliterate.
Smith soon came to the conclusion that unless the convoy got away from the vicinity of the beach it would not be long before it became hopelessly bogged. When therefore he had crossed the river mouth he headed for the plateau separating the desert from the dunes. By half-past seven that evening they were on the higher ground, and as the crow flies they were less than 45 miles from the castaways' camp. But then the fog which at that time of the year sometimes blankets the Kaokoveld Coast for unbroken spells of up to a fortnight at a time, closed around them. They could not see one vehicle from another. To lose their way or become separated would entail unknown perils for themselves and, at the best, delay succour for the survivors, so Smith had reluctantly to give the order to pitch camp. He was bitterly disappointed, for he had hoped to reach the shipwrecked people that night. At Walvis Bay, in fact, Major van der Hoven was so optimistic after the tug crew had arrived and the airman had made their reports, that he informed Combined Headquarters that the convoy was expected to reach the survivors that evening and to arrive back at Rocky Point with them the following afternoon. He notified Combined Headquarters of the intention to evacuate the women and children and any sick, by air from the sand ridge.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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