by John H Marsh

ONLY when they met the survivors did Smith and Hutchinson learn that there was a bogged plane's crew also to be rescued.
They soon saw that few of the survivors were in a condition to give much assistance in bringing the trucks through. There were also many, including the women and some of the older men, who would not even be able to walk the two miles to the trucks, let alone bring with them their few possessions and their water and provisions. Smith thought it advisable that the castaways' supplies should supplement those carried by the convoy, and that the survivors should also bring with them such blankets and improvised bedding as they had.
After consultation with the chief officer and Naude, Smith made up his mind to try and get one truck at least through to the camp next day, with whatever help the survivors were able to furnish. He and the doctor then returned to the convoy.
Next morning a party of the survivors, including the airmen, made their way to the trucks. The tramp across the dunes was strenuous and exhausting for men in their condition. Because the sand filled their shoes and made them heavy and uncomfortable, they took them off, and walked barefoot. The sand was hot under their feet from the sun that blazed down from a clear sky. Dr. Burn Wood, energetic as ever, insisted on accompanying the party. He was without shoes or socks. The heat and the exertion were almost too much for him, and he reached the trucks feeling as weak as a kitten.

The whole of that day was spent in trying to get trucks across the sand dunes between the convoy and the camp. Eventually Naude, whose experience of big game hunting with lorries in the Kalahari Desert had taught him the knack of driving heavy vehicles through sand, volunteered to take the wheel of one of the trucks. With the help of the others and with much digging out and laying of their tarpaulin and wire netting pathways, he succeeded in getting a truck through, and returned to the convoy with all the camp's provisions and water. He then took a second truck through and brought back the six women, the Labibs' baby, and the remainder of the men who had been unable to walk to the convoy. They took their last look shortly after six o'clock that evening, at the beach camp that had been their home for the last two weeks. They had no regrets at leaving it.
During the day a reconnaissance plane dropped a message to the convoy reporting that Borchers' trucks were now 13 miles to the southward.
The rescuers and rescued, their combined party now numbering 63 persons, spent that night camped among the sand dunes. Until dark the truck crews were busy renewing broken springs, repairing damaged clutches, making mechanical adjustments, and refuelling their vehicles in readiness for an early start on the return journey on the morrow.
Before dawn everyone was up and, after a hurried breakfast, seats were allocated, equipment packed, and by eight o'clock the expedition started on the 80-mile journey to Rocky Point, the first stage of the long trek back to civilisation. Actually as the crow flies the distance was much shorter, for it was only 47 miles between the wreck and the Khumib River mouth. Owing to the circuitous route and the detours which the convoy had been compelled to take on the northward journey, however, it had had to travel 70 miles from the river to reach the wreck.
The troop carriers were uncomfortably crowded, for not all of the six could be used for carrying passengers, some being fully loaded with food, water, petrol and oil, as well as bedding and spares. The doctors decided that, to reduce the shocks caused by the constant bumping of the carriers, it would be advisable for the woman who was pregnant to stand upon two thicknesses of mattresses, which were laid on the floor of one of the trucks, for the whole journey. She held on to a strap hung from the roof.

That first day was a nightmare for everyone. The convoy followed the tracks it had made on the upward journey, and Smith tried his best to avoid the pitfalls that had then been encountered. But within half-an-hour the convoy had to come to a halt while one of the trucks was dug out. This happened over and over again throughout the day, and sometimes it was not one, but several, of the trucks that had become bogged. Each time everybody who could do so, got down to help pull, push, or lift. Dr. Burn Wood, despite his exhausted condition, wanted to do his share, and had more than once to be pulled away from the lorries that he was trying to help extricate. He had to be reminded that his medical knowledge was of more help to his companions than his brawn, and that they would appreciate him more tending them on his feet than prescribing from an invalid's bed.
It was not uncommon for the convoy to be stuck for more than four hours, drive in low gear for ten or 15 minutes, then stick again for another three hours. During the whole day the expedition covered only six miles.
Early in the afternoon Borchers' party was encountered, heading north. They explained the purpose of their expedition and Naude, after examining the equipment they had brought with which to salve his aircraft, informed them that they would have no chance whatever of getting the plane out without more aid, human and mechanical. Although he was now within ten miles of his objective, after nine days of battling against almost superhuman difficulties, Borchers' decided in view of this information to turn back. The feeling of frustration at having undertaken a journey of nearly 1500 miles, such as theirs, to no purpose, inclined the second convoy's crew to despondency. Their spirits were not improved by the knowledge that they would have to face the same dangers, hardships, and toil before they could get home again to report their failure.
Borchers decided to join up with Smith. The extra four trucks were welcome in so far as they eased the accommodation problem, but there were now 12 trucks to get stuck instead of eight, and the frequency and duration of the halts while the vehicles were being dug out, increased accordingly. As one of Borchers' trucks had standard narrow tyres, and seemed determined to bog itself every time it saw soft sand, the pace of the combined convoy was now slower than ever.

Despite the comforting knowledge that they were now on their way to safety, the survivors were in the greatest misery through the constant jolting of the wagons while they were under way. They were thrown into the air and off their seats on to the floor, time after time. By the end of the day their bodies, already stiff, tender and sore from their ordeal on the beach, were bruised all over as well.
Dr. Hutchinson's ambulance and its medical supplies proved a Godsend. Borchers had brought with him Dr. McConnell, of Walvis Bay. The three doctors found their time fully occupied in tending to the needs of their big travelling community.
In facial appearance there was now little to distinguish the convoy men from the survivors, for none had shaved for many days, and all had heavy growths on their faces. Nor had the survivors or the convoy crews been able to get a proper wash for a considerable time. They had lived and slept in the same clothes for almost a fortnight. All were dirty and bedraggled. The shipwrecked people, aware of their appearance and thinking of what they had gone through and would still have to endure, looked upon the arid, waterless waste of sand dunes, salt pans, and volcanic upthrusts that surrounded them, and found humour in the knowledge that, technically, they could be fined 300 Pounds each for being found there without a permit. They kept their eyes open for the diamond clusters that were supposed to strew the sands, but saw none.
It rained heavily all that first night, and was still raining when the convoy made a late start next morning. As on the previous day, Smith had to scout ahead on foot for miles, and signal back to the trucks the route to follow. The terrain was very rough, and the trucks had to stop frequently to allow the women a rest from the terrible bumping and bouncing. For all that, progress was better than on the previous day, and when camp was made at nightfall the convoy had covered 12 miles.
For two days now no aircraft had been seen over the convoy. Robbs' Ventura had been sent back to the Cape for overhaul, and that of Joubert had also gone back to Germiston. The only Ventura left at Walvis Bay was that of Uys. Colonel Mostert was still there, supervising the aerial side of the supply and rescue operations. It was known that the survivors and the convoy crews had sufficient supplies to last them several days at least, and that it would take them two days or more to get to Rocky Point after leaving the wreck.

On the morning of December 15, which happened to be the second day of the convoy's return trip, Major Uys loaded up his plane at Walvis Bay with supplies and prepared for another risky landing on the sand ridge at Rocky Point, in order to pick up the survivors. If the party were awaiting him he intended to hand over the supplies to the convoy and take on board in their place as many of the survivors, particularly the women and the child, as he could. He therefore stripped his aircraft of all unnecessary weight and decided to leave his crew behind and take only Mostert as observer and radio operator.
Just as the plane was about to start, a report was received through Cape Town from a ship some distance to the west of the wrecked liner, announcing the presence of a submarine. The Ventura, as the only bomber available, was ordered to make a reconnaissance immediately. There was no time to unload the supplies and replace them with bombs. Uys took off, knowing that if he located the submarine on the surface and she chose to fight it out, he could drop only tins of water, condensed milk, biscuits and bully beef on her, and reply to her anti-aircraft shells with a few machine-gun bullets. No doubt the submarine commander, so far from home, would have been glad of those extra supplies, but Uys did not sight him and eventually gave up the search and went off to look for the convoy. He found it still 30 miles north of Rocky Point early in the afternoon, and dropped his supplies to it. He estimated that it should reach Rocky Point early next morning, and decided to land there right-away and await it. Before coming down he radioed his intentions to Walvis Bay, reporting also that the convoy had the bogged aircraft's crew with it and that he would bring them, with the women, to Walvis Bay if he was able. About two o'clock he made a perfect landing on the ridge.
Next day the convoy's progress was again faster than before, though on several occasions it was halted through trucks becoming bogged. The last salt pan, which had proved so treacherous on the way up, when the crust caved in as the trucks were about to run off it, was crossed with less trouble this time, though again some of the vehicles had to be dug out. Just before reaching the Khumib River Borchers' convoy broke away at its provision dump, to reload and await Smith's return from Rocky Point. The remainder pushed on and, after more delays in digging the trucks out of the sand at the mouth of the river, got safely across and camped on the southern bank when darkness fell.

Uys and Mostert had spent the day on Rocky Point, waiting in vain for the convoy to appear. They amused themselves looking for the elusive diamonds that everyone said were there but nobody had ever seen. They did not find any.
While the bomber was on the ground she was unable to use her radio, so that Uys could not inform Walvis Bay that he had landed safely and was waiting for the convoy to turn up. All day Walvis Bay tried in vain to make contact by wireless with him. By nightfall considerable anxiety was felt for the safety of the two airmen and their plane. The Walvis Bay fortress commander informed Combined Headquarters that they were overdue and had not replied to signals, and asked that another long-range plane should be sent up immediately to begin a search next day. General de Villiers, however, knew enough of Uys's skill and dependability to conclude that he had made a safe landing and was still waiting for the convoy which had probably been delayed. He decided not to send another plane yet and advised Walvis Bay accordingly.
Soon after nine o'clock next morning the two airmen from their ridge sighted the convoy coming down the beach. It had covered the dozen miles from the river at a fair pace, the trucks being able to run in top gear for the first time in four days of travelling. The shipwrecked folk were thrilled at the sight of the big aircraft waiting to fly them back to civilisation. With as little delay as possible the six women and the baby, the four airmen of the bogged Ventura, and Dr. McConnell, were put on board. With Uys and Mostert making up the complement to 14 persons, the plane was carrying as heavy a load as her pilot was willing to risk on that short, slow runway. Nicely countering with his rudders the cross wind from the sea that was trying to edge him over the 80-ft. cliff to port, Uys roared away, motors going all-out, straight as a die along the ridge, to lift into the air a few yards short of its end.
It seemed that the Kaokoveld Coast, having reluctantly delivered up the castaways, was determined they should at least make no part of their journey back to civilisation in comfort. The bomber was not designed for carrying passengers. There was nowhere to sit and not enough headroom to stand. There were no windows, and it was like a miniature Black Hole of Calcutta within. The women, who had never been in an aircraft before, were nervous. The bumping as the plane fell into the air pockets that make air trips so uncomfortable over that burning, uneven country, and the constant roar of the motors that made it impossible to hear each other speak, had its own nightmare for the women. Soon some of them were airsick.

Uys had to take the plane up to nearly 7,000 feet to get above the clouds. When, after nearly two hours flying, he began to plane down towards Walvis Bay, he found Dr. McConnell at his side, urgently tugging at his shoulder. Shouting into his ear, the doctor pleaded with him to come down less steeply. The sudden change in altitude was threatening dire consequences to the pregnant woman. She was begining to show signs of oncoming labour. The doctor had no instruments with him and he dreaded having any moment a baby born into his hands under such conditions.
The pilot understandingly eased up on his dive, turned seaward, and planed down very gradually until he was 40 miles out to sea, when he turned landward again and crossed the coast at 50 feet, his passengers unaware that they had come down. A few minutes after noon the castaways climbed thankfully down to the ground on Rooikop aerodrome.
In due course a baby was born. And it lived.
After bringing in the women and the aircrew Uys refuelled, and, with a radio operator and an air mechanic this time in place of Mostert, returned at once to Rocky Point. He arrived in the middle of the afternoon, landed safely, and took aboard the remaining passengers, except one, and six of the crew who were in most urgent need of rest and proper medical attention. The passenger who remained behind with the convoy was Leitch, the young Royal Fleet Auxiliary officer, who volunteered with 18 of the crew to continue with the convoy to Windhoek and assist in getting the vehicles through the drifts and sand.
With the 11 shipwrecked survivors and his own crew to bring the plane's complement up to 14 persons again, Uys took off successfully, and for the last time, from the ridge. Soaring into the sky, he bade farewell to the Kaokoveld Coast.
Among the crew personnel that he brought to Walvis Bay on this second trip was Dr. Burn Wood. Almost the first person to greet the doctor when he stepped off the plane was an old friend, Lieutenant James Meredith, R.N. Meredith doubly congratulated him on his rescue and his son's success. "What success?" asked the doctor. "Haven't you heard that Gordon has been given the D.S.O. for sinking a U-boat while in command of one of tne S.A.N.F. 'little ships' in the Mediterranean?" exclaimed his friend. Thus a proud father learned of his son's bravery. But the son could be, and no doubt is, as proud of his brave father.

All the 18 survivors that Uys had brought to Walvis Bay were taken straight to nospital to recuperate. Dr. Burn Wood was taken to the military hospital, where, after removing a three weeks' growth of beard, lazing in a hot bath, and borrowing somebody's shirt, he enjoyed, as, he said later, "the heaven of a spring bed, and dreamless sleep between clean sheets". It was the first time he, or his companions, had slept in a bed since they vacated theirs when the alarm bells rang on the stricken liner 19 days before.
Next morning, when Uys was ordered to return to Cape Town, he remembered that Dr. Burn Wood had his family there. He obtained permission to offer him a passage. The game doctor jumped out of his hospital bed, threw on his tattered old clothes, and some five hours later arrived on the doorstep of his home. He spent six weeks picking up strength and getting to know the grandchildren that had grown up in his absence. Then, despite the pleas of his family, he was off to sea again, reminding them of his vow that he would not give up the sea until the day the war ended. When next they heard of him he had taken part in the Sicilian invasion, the landings in Italy, and his ship was dodging U-boats on its regular run back and forth across the Mediterranean.
Of such are ships' surgeons made!

* * *

When Uys had taken off from the ridge with his second load, the convoy remained only long enough to pick up the stores it had dumped on the outward trip, and to check over the trucks, before heading north again to pick up Borchers' convoy at the Kilumib River. The two expeditions joined forces again at the waterhole four miles from the river mouth. They travelled up the river bed for 25 miles and then broke away and headed south-east into the desert, following their old tracks, until darkness forced them to stop for the night. Next morning thcy reached the Hoareseb River, to find it in flood from the phenomenal rains, and their causeway badly damaged. While they were rebuilding it the waters receded and they were able to cross. On reaching the Gumatum River later in the day they found it also in flood, with the water rising, and defying every effort they made to cross. When darkness fell they had to camp, still on the northern bank.

Next morning, as they still could not get across, they carried along up the river on the northern bank. To reach the next two crossings, neither of which they could negotiate because the river was narrow and too deep, they had to build two miles of roads along the slopes of the mountains. With picks, crowbars and sledgehammers they shifted the largest rocks out of the way. The loose stones they had to remove individually by hand. They filled in the deep water courses with stones and rubble. All this tiring work was done in terrific heat. At last, however, they reached a shallower drift where they were able to cross the river, after removing the fan belts of the engines and covering the radiators with sails. When they were safely on the other side they had to stop for some time while the truck crews replaced the fan belts and dried the engines of their vehicles. Then, pressing on, they made fairly good time and reached Zesfontein late in the evening, to camp there for the night. The six faithful Hottentots left the expedition there, the two who had helped Smith's convoy as far as Zesfontein on the outward journey, replacing them. The services of these Hottentots were invaluable and were recognised later by a grant from the police at Windhoek of the equivalent of 10s. for each man, which, to the recipients, was equal to perhaps a year's wages of the average worker in civilisation.
It rained all that night, and was still raining when the trucks set out next morning towards Kamanjab. The track was sticky and slippery, and the trucks repeatedly stuck in the black turf on the mopani plains. With so many heavy vehicles that had passed along these unmade paths, the soil had been churned up just ready for forming slush when the rain came. When a spade was pushed down into the soil in order to dig out a bogged wheel, it would be gripped firmly and could only be withdrawn by exerting considerable strength. Not long after Warmquelle had been passed darkness forced all hands to abandon work and make camp. In more than 13 hours that day the convoy had progressed only 12 miles, and some of the trucks were still bogged. Smith, in his official report, said that "the men were fatigued and just could not carry on any further."
Early next morning Smith was up and, with Cogill, he reconnoitred to find a way out of the turf. At eight o'clock the convoy got under way again. It could not avoid all the turf, however, and repeatedly trucks were bogged, particularly some that had tractor type tyres. The journey through the miniature "Grand Canyon" was as great an ordeal this time as it had been on the outward journey, but for different reasons. This time it was rain and rivers instead of heat and sand that caused the trouble. The soil was a brackish turf clay and was very wet, and the trucks slipped and bogged themselves from one end of the canyon to the other. The drifts that had been made across the Hoanib River on the forward journey, had all been washed away, and others had to be made. The last drift in this river was crossed just before nightfall and camp was pitched, everyone, induding the survivors, who had been pushing, pulling, and digging with the rest, being tired out.
Morning found it still raining. The Kamanjab track seemed impassable. This part of the country had had torrential rains since the convoys had first come by, and it had become a quagmire. The convoy got moving early, and found the drifts across the Goanagoanasib River all washed away. They had to be remade. The worst floods, after the rivers, were in thick forest, which prevented the lorries leaving the tracks. Cogill could no longer walk so Smith reconnoitred alone to find a way through. The soles of his shoes were by now completely worn away, and his feet were raw from all the walking on sharp stones and stubble. By making wide detours to avoid flooded pans where possible, and, where this could not be done, cutting branches from trees and laying them on the track, the vehicles at last reached Kamanjab that evening. They stopped only an hour for Smith to report progress to headquarters at Windhoek through the police post's radio, and to refuel and make minor adjustments. The road beyond Kamanjab was sodden, and four miles from the police post the trucks became bogged again. Their crews worked like slaves through the night until two o'clock in the morning before they got the last one out again. After a five-hour rest they resumed their journey soon after dawn, encountering several more sticky places before they had travelled far. Near the Otjikondo police post one of the trucks gave up the ghost altogether, differential trouble having put it out of action, and it had to be left behind. This was the third vehicle of the combined convoys to become a casualty. The water trailer had been damaged on the outward journey and had to be carried aboard one of the trucks for the rest of the way. One of the other convoy's trucks had overturned and had been left behind. Others had burned out their clutches or had broken axles and springs, but thanks to the efficiency of the repair van and its crew, plus the help of the aircraft that dropped spare parts, they had all been put back on the road.

Soon after midday the convoy stopped at some waterholes outside Outjo to allow the men to have a shave, wash and brush-up, for they had at last reached the borders of civilisation. News of their impending arrival had spread like wildfire through the township, and they found all the townsfolk waiting to welcome them and congratulate them on their safe return. The South African Women's Auxiliary Services, the body that had been doing such magnificent work during the war entertaining and providing hospitality for the troops visiting South Africa, had prepared a sumptuous meal to which everyone, after more than three weeks of living on bully beef and biscuits, and never too much of either, did full justice.
About the middle of the afternoon the convoy took the road again for Windhoek. At Otjiwarongo the local S.A.W.A.S. were again waiting to serve refreshments, assisted by the women of the Voluntary Aid Detachments. Here Smith handed over command to Borchers and turned off to his home at Omaruru. He was sorely in need not only of rest and wholesome food, but of new footwear and clothing. He was a ragged sight, with his soleless footwear damaged beyond repair, his last shirt torn both ways across his back, the only pair of shorts he had left split to the point of indecency, and his stockings tattered and holed.
Next day was Christmas Eve, and at one o'clock in the afternoon the 11 trucks rolled into the capital of South-West Africa, where rescuers and rescued received a great welcome from the populace and were lionised for days. The magistrates, instructed by the Secretary for South-West Africa, made all arrangements for the accommodation, feeding, clothing, and financing of the rescued people, and for their train passage to Cape Town, where they arrived five days later, none of them apparently any the worse for their harrowing experience.
One cannot do better than quote the concluding sentence of Smith's official report on the convoy's 1,500-mile trip:
"I doubt whether it was possible to have had a more difficult trip than the one experienced by us."

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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