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
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
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
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
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
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.