by John H Marsh

WHILE the convoy was making north from Rocky Point that day, Naude and his three fellow airmen abandoned their plane and joined the shipwrecked party on the beach. On the previous day they had managed to get together about 30 men who were fit enough to lend a hand at trying to dig the plane out of the sand, and they had spent a good part of the day digging shallow trenches in front of the wheels and trying, with the aid of driftwood, canvas, and the aircraft's motors, to move the plane on to firm ground. But it had dug itself too well in during the four days that the wind had been rocking it, and it refused to budge a foot. Naude had to face up to the fact that only mechanical aid would ever get it out.
Next day, the plane's iron rations were almost exhausted. As a message had been dropped by one of the supply planes announcing that a surfboat expedition was due to try and take the marooned people off the beach, the airmen crossed over to the camp and were welcomed as "permanent boarders". They helped to fashion two tents out of parachutes that had come down with the supplies, and these, with the bell tent dropped earlier and the tarpaulins from the rafts, now provided the whole party with comparatively good shelter. The parachutes served many useful purposes besides providing shelter. They made good warm coverings and protection from the damp for the women and the children, and they provided the mothers with material for diapers for the youngsters, who up to now had presented problems in this respect.

The frequent visits of the aircraft, the supplies they brought, and the shelter that was now available, plus a noticeable moderation in the wind, had greatly improved the spirits and the general condition of the castaways during the last few days. From the rafts they had obtained cheese, eggs, dried fruit, and condensed milk, and from the aircraft substantial quantities of canned fruit, tea and sugar, not to mention the inevitable bully beef. The variation in their diet, which this allowed, made their meals less monotonous and more wholesome. When the signal was given that rations were ready they would queue up, each with his enamel plate or mug, if he was lucky enough to have these, or with an empty tin instead, to receive his share. A few fortunate ones had sheath or pocket knives with them, but most ate their food with the aid of their fingers only, or using a sea shell as a spoon. Empty condensed milk tins made excellent cups in which to pass round the tea.
One of the biggest handicaps was the lack of anywhere to sit comfortably. There was little choice between standing up or lying down on the sand. Sitting on it with knees hunched under the chin was uncomfortable and tiring. As a result, almost everyone was suffering from stiff joints that were painful and disabling. Sleeping on the hard sand was a nightmare.
Medicines, including M and B pills, sunburn lotions, vaseline, and even the face creams for which the Taylors had appealed, had now reached the survivors from the air, and Dr. Burn Wood was making good use of them.
The Nerine arrived off the wreck for the second time early on the morning of December 9. She found the weather conditions more suitable for surf operations than they had yet been. There was little wind, the swell was light, and there was less surf than usual. She anchored as near to the beach as she dared, to the south-west of the wreck, and got to work without delay. The surfboat, a light, transome-sterned cobble, and one of the mine-sweeper's lifeboats, were put into the water, and their crews pulled them across to the wreck. They were able to get alongside safely on its sheltered side, and climb on board. There was plenty of room on the liner's spacious decks to prepare the small anchors and the cables which would have to be laid out before boats could be pulled with any safety through the surf to and from the beach. Lifebuoys were attached at intervals along the cables to keep them floating on the surface of the water.
The next step was to lower one of the lifeboats from the davits. This was manned by Hansen and his crew of native fishermen and was used to lay two anchors just outside the first line of breakers. To these anchors the lifeboat was moored, some 150 yards from the beach.

It was now necessary to get a line ashore so that one end of the buoyed cable could be pulled to the beach. An attempt was made to do this by firing a rocket, with a line attached, from the wreck, but the distance was too great and the rocket fell into the sea. The only alternative seemed to be for someone to swim from the lifeboat to the beach. This a young S.A.N.F. rating from the Nerine who was a good swimmer, volunteered to do. He plunged in from the lifeboat with a light line made fast round his body, and after a terrific struggle and an anxious few minutes he was helped out of the water on to the sand, panting for breath. One end of the buoyed line was then pulled ashore and made fast, the other end being made fast to the lifeboat. There was now a fairly secure and buoyant lifeline through the surf, along which those with enough daring and strength could pull themselves to safety. They must be prepared for a battering from the breakers, but provided they could hang on until the wall of water passed each time, they should be able to win through.
At first there were not many anxious to attempt the passage. They plucked up courage, though, after watching the first man get across successfully. Several times he was buried under the breakers, but he hung on tightly, and each time when the wave had passed his head could be seen bobbing along next to the lifeline. A cheer went up when he was seen being helped into the lifeboat. After ten days of hardship and privation on the beach, the first of the shipwrecked folk had been rescued.
After that there was quite a rush to follow him. Only the strongest men, however, were allowed to attempt the passage. During the afternoon 14 more men managed to reach the lifeboat in this way.
The most urgent need was to rescue the women and children, but they could not be taken off by the same method. The surfboat was therefore brought into use. A light line was made fast to it and paid out from the lifeboat, and with one of the Nerine's men in it to pull it along the lifeline, it was successfully floated through the surf to the beach. Being small and light, it surfed in on top of the waves without shipping much water.
When the eight women and the three children, together with the man who was to guide it, were in the boat, it was crowded to capacity and left with very little freeboard. Doms, Naude's co-pilot, and three other men waded into the water, holding fast to the boat to keep it upright, while the men in the lifeboat beyond the breakers pulled it towards them by means of the line. The man in the bow was able, by holding fast to the floating lifeline, to guide the boat and keep its head to the seas. Everybody had taken the precaution of donning life jackets. Even the babies wore theirs.

In this way the boat made slow but sure progress until it was half-way through the surf. Then a large breaker struck it and, although the boat rode over it successfully, it shipped a quantity of water, which drenched the occupants and gave them a severe fright. Not long after a second breaker almost capsized the tiny craft. It reached the lifeboat, however, and its occupants were about to transfer when a third breaker, larger than its predecessors, suddenly rolled down upon the two boats. The lifeboat rode successfully over it, but the heavily-loaded surfboat failed to rise quickly enough, the foaming crest curled over its side, and a moment later it was bottom up and being whisked shoreward. The 12 figures that had been flung out were struggling in the sea.
One of the men in the lifeboat grabbed at a woman's hair as she floated by, and she was quickly dragged into the boat. Willing hands assisted another woman and her baby over the side. One of the native fishermen, seeing a baby drifting away alone, jumped into the water and brought it, not without difficulty, to the lifeboat, where it was taken from him and he was helped back aboard.
Immediately they saw the disaster to the boat Naude and his two fellow airmen, Nicolay and Chapman, and one of the seamen, dashed, fully clothed, into the water to the rescue. Naude and Chapman succeeded in each bringing a woman ashore, though their fight with the breakers and the current, hampered as they were by their clothes, left them completely exhausted. Nicolay found Doms in difficulties because the boat and some of its occupants, in capsizing, had come down on top of him as he was swimming alongside. When he came to the surface he was half unconscious, underneath the boat. He managed to extricate himself and Nicolay helped him to the beach.
The remainder of the boat's complement, some unaided and others with the assistance of the men in the water, reached the beach played out, and, some of them, more dead than alive. Dr. Burn Wood administered restoratives and soon, apart from exhaustion, none were the worse for their experience. Among the women who had gone through the ordeal and got back to the beach was the young future mother.

The women who had been pulled into the lifeboat were Mrs. Palmer and Mrs. El-Saifi, each with her baby.
Doms, describing later what had happened, said that his chief impression of his part in the affair, after everybody had been rescued, was the realisation that he was sitting on the sand painstakingly drying out 1-Pound notes from a sodden bundle in his hand. The day before they left their base near Cape Town all the crew had been paid and as it was too late to bank it they had stuffed the money into their pockets and brought it with them.
With the loss of the surfboat, which had been thrown up on the sand, severely damaged, rescue work had to be suspended. At eight o'clock that evening the two lifeboats arrived alongside the Nerine after an absence of ten hours, and the 19 rescued people were taken on board. They were given a great welcome, warm drinks and a hot meal, and were made as comfortable as the minesweeper's limited accommodation would allow, below.
A little before dusk one of the Venturas flew over the camp and dropped a message reporting that the overland convoy was 30 miles away and should reach the survivors during the night.
The convoy had been unable to get under way again until eight o'clock that morning, when the fog that had continued all night, lifted sufficiently for the drivers to see their way. From now onwards Smith had to scout ahead on foot practically all the way. The going was therefore very slow, with only occasional spurts across level stretches of the Namib Desert. About noon the convoy reached a series of salt pans which, it was found later, extended all the way up the coast to the wreck. At this point the convoy was on the highest ridge of the plateau, running parallel to the sea, and rather further from the beach than Smith would have preferred. As no further progress could be made in this direction on the plateau, the men tested the salt pan and, finding it quite hard, Smith decided to cross it towards high ground on the other side, nearer the beach. The pan was about four-and-a-half miles across. For the first four miles the convoy did well, maintaining a cracking good pace. Half-a-mile from the other side, however, the crust suddenly gave in, and one after the other the trucks came to a stop as they sank down to their differentials. Hours of toil followed before, with the help of the steel ladders and the wire matting, the men had extricated their vehicles. Then, following high ground where possible, they battled through a succession of sand dunes and more salt pans, stopping frequently to dig out one or more of their number that had become bogged. This went on all afternoon and late into the evening. Three hours after the aircraft had flown over to drop its cheering message to the castaways, telling them that the trucks should reach them that night, the convoy had run itself to a dead end in a maze of salt pans with surfaces like pie-crust. At nine o'clock, darkness having fallen, Smith realised they could go no further, and gave orders to camp. They were still more than 20 miles from the shipwrecked party.

Next morning there was still nothing to be seen from the Nerine of the land convoy. Overnight the surf had become very heavy again and it was too dangerous to try and take more people off the beach. A lifeboat was sent to the wreck, however, and it spent the morning salving bedding, crockery, and a small amount of clothing and baggage, which were brought across to the minesweeper for the use of the rescued people.
By three o'clock in the afternoon the surf had subsided sufficiently for the surfboat crew to take the lifeboat back to its moorings of the previous day. Now that the surfboat had been lost there was no means of taking people off except with the help of the lifeline, and another line with which two of the survivors who had been rescued the previous day, swam ashore.
The success of those who had used the lifeline the previous day to reach the lifeboat, induced a number of others who were left on the beach, to try their luck. During the afternoon 11 men in all successfully made the passage. They included the two members of the Nerine's crew who had spent the night on the beach, the one having swum ashore with the line the previous day, and the other having made his way to the shore when he was thrown out of the surfboat. More men were anxious to try and pull themselves along the line to the lifeboat, but the chief officer felt compelled to forbid further attempts after two men had been washed off the line and nearly drowned. Upon reaching the beach they both collapsed from exhaustion. The men who did succeed in reaching the lifeboat were also completely fagged out when they were pulled into it.
The surf was now beginning to increase again, and under the influence of the current the lifeboat at its moorings, despite the efforts of its crew, was continually swinging broadside to the waves and threatening to capsize. The crew were therefore compelled to abandon further rescue efforts and get out of danger. They returned with the men they had rescued to the Nerine which meanwhile had been floating another 130 gallons of fresh water ashore. Late in the afternoon the minesweeper weighed anchor and, with the liner's lifeboat in tow, set off down the coast to try to rescue the crew of the tug, being unaware that they had actually been rescued two days earlier. She arrived off the wreck of the tug during the following morning, but owing to the heavy surf was unable to approach nearer than two miles. A careful examination through glasses failed to reveal any signs of life on the wreck or the shore, and as it was too dangerous to try to get nearer to the wreck, even in the lifeboat, the Nerine continued her voyage to Walvis Bay, where about midnight on the following day she landed the 26 people she had taken off.
Forty-one people, including the four airmen, now remained on the beach awaiting rescue.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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