by John H Marsh

ON the day that the Nerine took the second party of survivors off the beach, the land convoy went through its worst ordeal so far.
Fog again prevented any activities until it lifted slightly about eight o'clock in the morning. It remained bitterly cold, however, for most of the morning, and the truck crews felt they were freezing even in their greatcoats. As soon as they could see a little distance Smith and Cogill set off to try and find a way out of the salt pans. Cogill was not by any means fit, but he persuaded the doctor to let him go, as the position was desperate and he was the only one who had been through this country before and he was thus more likely than anyone else to find a way of getting the trucks out of the morass.
The two policemen walked themselves to a standstill before they finally decided on the best route to take. This led to what looked like promising high ground in the distance. As fast as the trucks were hauled out of the bog, they sank in again, so Smith in the end ordered everyone to concentrate on one vehicle alone. Despite the united efforts of 22 men aided by steel ladders, wire netting, deflated tyres and its own motive power, the truck would crawl only a few yards before it got bogged and had to be dug out again. It was apparent that unless some additional assistance could be obtained the men and their trucks would still be stuck at Domesday. When, therefore, the usual supply and reconnaissance aircraft came over from Walvis Bay about the middle of the afternoon, some of the men wrote a message for her in huge letters in the sand, asking for four large tarpaulins and some spare front springs to be dropped to the convoy. The message was acknowledged and the plane flew on to drop another 125 gallons of water by parachute at the survivors' camp.

The convoy men struggled on until darkness made further progress impossible. When they gave up that night, utterly tired out and dispirited, they had moved one vehicle between one and two miles, as the sum total of their day's progress. And, to add to their misery, it began to rain.
At dawn Smith and Dr. Hutchinson were on their feet again, going off to reconnoitre the complete forward arc from where the convoy was bogged. They walked about ten miles and on their return Smith decided to change direction and make for the mountains again by the shortest route. The country being barren of growth of any kind, the crews had to collect stones from the surrounding hilltops and lay out a path with them across the sand dunes and salt pans, over which the vehicles could run. It was a laborious and tiring task.
About midday Uys arrived overhead in the Ventura with the tarpaulins, and the springs. It had been necessary partly to dismantle the fuselage of the bomber before the tarpaulins, rolled into tight bundles, could be loaded into the plane at Walvis Bay. The tailgun turret had to be removed so that the bundles could be pushed through when the pilot gave the signal. Eight or nine men had to travel in the plane to handle the heavy bundles.
Even with so many helpers, it took so long to force the packages through the aperture in the plane's tail that each one overshot the target by a big margin. The first three fell nearly a mile from the trucks, making great holes in the salt pan's surface, and the last one the convoy men did not see being dropped at all. Actually it fell six miles from them and was only found accidentally days later. The springs were easier to drop alongside the trucks. They rebounded high in the air when they struck the ground.
The convoy crews had an arduous task carrying the three tarpaulins back to the trucks, but they were soon grateful indeed for them. With their assistance they were out of the salt pans by four o'dock in the afternoon. Then the trucks wound their way through high hills, over sand and loose rubble, until camp was pitched after dark.

After dropping the tarpaulins Uys flew on to the wreck and delivered another 36 gallons of water by parachute container near the camp. He also dropped a message asking the party on the beach to indicate by strokes in the sand the number of days' food and water supplies that they now had. They marked two sets of four strokes each. The food position in the camp had been greatly eased that morning through a visit to the wreck that had been made by Nicolay, Leitch, Jimmy Thompson, the young fifth officer, and the ship's cook, using the aircraft dinghy. They first tried to get across in the surfboat but found it unseaworthy owing to the damage it had sustained. It capsized before it had travelled more than a few yards, and they abandoned it. The aircraft dinghy was difficult to manage, but at least it was so light that it always rode on top of the waves. By making use of the shelter that was provided by the wreck, lying like a breakwater to seaward, the four men managed after an hour to bring their unwieldy craft alongside it. As soon as they were on board they scoured the pantries and cool chambers that were not under water, for food, then made a fire on deck and cooked themselves the best meal, they vowed, they had ever tasted. They put into one of the lifeboats hanging in the davits all the food that was ready to hand - potatoes, cabbages, pork and beans, and butter, not to mention a quantity of Spanish wine, cigars, and cigarettes. There was plenty of bully beef to be had, but they did not deign to touch it.
When they were ready to leave they cut loose two of the huge life-saving rafts that were suspended from the rigging of the foremast. These were well stocked with iron rations and fresh water, which might come in useful later for all one knew.
Having collected everything they wanted, the men lowered the lifeboat into the water and pulled away. They left their rubber dinghy behind, preferring to put their trust for the return passage in the larger, more substantial craft. They tried to tow the rafts, but soon had to abandon them owing to the strong current, and the rafts drifted out of sight northward. It took the men two hours to make the beach, but they managed it successfully with the aid of the buoyed lifeline. The whole party collected around to see what they had brought, and there were shouts of joy when they saw all the good things in the bottom of the boat. That night all celebrated with what, to them, was a feast that up to now they had known only in their dreams.

The aircraft, in the messages they dropped on their daily visits, had been keeping the castaways informed of the progress of the overland convoy. When news was received in this manner that the convoy was only about 20 miles away but was held up in the salt pans, the young husband of the woman who was pregnant, worried about her condition, announced that he was going to walk to the convoy to see if he could obtain there certain medical supplies. Naude and the other South Africans knew that to attempt to do so would be inviting serious trouble. They were well aware of the Kaokoveld's reputation that no man ever traversed it on foot and survived. Once away from the beach, one was certain to lose one's way and soon perish of thirst or exposure, if one did not before that become the prey of wild animals. After much persuasion, backed up by vivid tales about the lions that were said to infest the neighbouring sand dunes, Naude and his companions convinced the anxious husband that patience would in the end bring better results than valour.
On his flight with the tarpaulins to Smith's convoy, Uys spotted the second convoy, under Borchers' command, at Rocky Point. There had been no news of it since it had left Windhoek six days previously. When it started out it consisted of five vehicles, but there were now only four, for one had overturned and had to be left behind on the way. The second convoy was heading north from Rocky Point, following up the first one.
To both convoys Uys dropped messages urging them to hurry to the aid of the remainder of the survivors, as their rescue from the sea was impossible under existing conditions.
Nert day, December 12, Smith and his men prepared for a superhuman effort to force their way through to the wreck. It had rained throughout the night, and to make matters worse morning dawned with the usual dense fog delaying a start until eight o'clock. The trucks were back amongst sea sand, and it meant pushing from one outcrop of rocks to another. After leaving the loose sand they had a good run for a few miles on a pebbled beach about a mile from the sea. Then the inevitable salt pans intervened. They tried to cross a very narrow stretch of pan running across the beach. Two of the trucks plunged straight in and sank to their running boards. The hold-up was the more annoying because they were now within six miles of the wreck, which could be seen in the distance. It took several hours to extricate the trucks. There were no stones in the neighbourhood, so the men set to collecting pebbles in their thousands, with which they made a path to the beach. On these the tarpaulins were laid, and the trucks moved thus, yard by yard, to firmer ground. Soon after midday, while operations to extricate the trucks were going on, a Ventura came over on its way to drop water and supplies to the shipwrecked party. It reported to Smith that the second convoy was 40 miles behind. To the shipwrecked people it gave the positions of both convoys.

At about four-thirty in the afternoon Smith and his men had got to a point only two miles from the wreck but they could not move their vehicles a foot further. Between them and the camp were dunes of loose sand which could only be negotiated by deflating the tyres. They had found, however, that after running on deflated tyres the tubes would not bear much strain upon being inflated again. The valves simply pulled out and ruined the tubes. They had exhausted their stock of spare tubes and dared not risk ruining the last of them for fear of being completely stranded.
Smith and Hutchinson then decided to walk to the camp and report their arrival, as well as see whether assistance could be obtained to get the trucks through. Cheers greeted their arrival among the castaways' tents soon after five o'clock, and there were tears of joy glistening in many an eye. The rescuers had come at last!

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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