by John H Marsh

To all the castaways, except one, their association with Skeleton Coast was ended, and would remain but a vivid memory. The exception was Naude. He was destined still to be a pawn in the hands of the evil spirits of that coast.
He had not been back in civilisation an hour when, as he was smacking his lips over the first good meal he had eaten for a fortnight, Colonel Mostert broke the news that be must go back to the Kaokoveld Coast. He must leave that same day.

There were two reasons why the authorities were still interested in that place of such unhappy memory. On the sand dune stood a perfectly good 30,000-Pound sterling bomber that the S.A.A.F. wanted badly. In the wrecked liner was a very valuable cargo. Salvage experts had already persuaded the naval authorities that the chances of recovering any large proportion of it were so small, in view of the position of the wreck, that it would not even be worth while fitting out an expedition to try. There were, however, small but valuable items of cargo which it was necessary to save, if possible.
For these reasons, therefore, the Union Defence Force and the Royal Navy had co-operated in organising another expedition to the scene of the wreck. Captain Dalgleish had ordered the S.A.N.F. to send up one of its best minesweepers, with long-range radio equipment, from Cape Town. The vessel selected was H.M.S.A.S. Crassula, (Sub-Lieutenant O. E. Johnson) and she reached Walvis Bay on December 14. Mostert had previously asked for 2,000 yards of heavy gauge wire netting, six feet wide, to be sent up from Cape Town by train. It was intended to lay this in two strips along the ground in front of the plane, to make a 1,000-yard runway for her to take off from.
After waiting a few days for the bogged plane's crew to arrive, the Crassula left without them on the morning of December 17, for while the plane could wait, the need to recover the cargo was urgent. Lieutenant-Commander Finlayson and a small detachment of the South African Artillery sailed in her to carry out the salvage.
Six hours after putting to sea the minesweeper was recalled, as Uys had arrived with the bogged plane's crew. At midnight she sailed again for the wreck, after embarking Naude, Major van der Hoven, the Fortress Commander at Walvis Bay, and the equipment to be used in salving the aircraft. At Colonel Mostert's request Hansen accompanied the party with a boat's crew of nine of his best native fishermen, to assist in the salvage work. The liner's lifeboat was towed astern.
Naude was so tired after the four days spent on the lorry journey that he turned in immediately and slept for almost the whole day-and-a-half that it took to reach the wreck. Arrived there, Finlayson decided to tranship the whole party to the wreck, as it appeared to be still in fairly sound condition and it would be more convenient to live on the job. The minesweeper, too, was uncomfortably crowded with so many extra men on board.

Hansen's "Volga boatmen" as the natives soon came to be called, carried out the transfer in the lifeboat, and also brought across the equipment for salving the aircraft It was intended that the aircraft salvage party should wait on the wreck for favourable weather to land, in the meantime assisting with the recovery of the cargo that could be salved from the ship.
The salvagemen found the ship's position hardly altered, except that some of the hatch covers had been washed away, leaving the holds open to the sea, and all the lifeboats had gone. A large highspeed R.A.F. crash launch, worth 16,000 Pounds sterling, which had been lashed athwartship on one of the after hatches, had broken loose from some of its lashings and shifted out of position, as had two ten-ton petrol tanks stowed on the next hatch. While the superstructure, being fairly well clear of the water, provided accommodation for a limited number of the party, the remainder had to sleep on the foredeck around the hatches, as the crew's accommodation was under water. Tents were rigged up on deck to give them some protection. The galleys also were flooded, so a "kitchen" was arranged in one of the gun turrets on the fo'c'sle-head. There was of course no power in the ship, and at night oil lamps had to be used. Care had to be taken, however, to maintain an effective blackout. Nothing would have been more inconvenient than to have a torpedo upsetting things just at this time.
The salvagemen had brought a limited quantity of supplies on board with them, but they expected to find sufficient food and water on the wreck to keep them going for a long time. They were disappointed to discover that all the fresh water in the tanks had become tainted with the salt water, and that practically all the food supplies were under water or sodden. After they had exhausted the variety of choice foodstuffs that they found in the pantries, they had to fall back upon the old hard tack, bully beef and biscuits, supplemented by potatoes from the cargo. They could have all the potatoes they wanted, with 3,000 tons to draw upon. There was also plenty of flour, but having no oven they could not bake with it. They supplemented their diet with the fish they were able to catch by line from the deck, and for want of pans they fried them in the silver table dishes.
Fresh water had to be obtained from the minesweepers that ferried the cargo that was salved, to Walvis Bay. Supplies were limited and had to be strictly rationed. Orders were given that fresh water was to be used only for drinking and cooking. There was none for washing or shaving with. Such luxuries could only be indulged in by sacrificing the morning or evening cup of tea. To eke out the water supplies, the bonded stores were opened and each man was allowed a bottle of beer a day. There were ample supplies of cigarettes and cigars there, too, that were much appreciated at the end of a hard day's work.

Examination of the holds showed that they were stacked full of every kind of modern war equipment, from guns, shells, and torpedoes, to aeroplanes, armoured cars, and tanks. There were motor cycles, trucks, and ambulances too. They were too heavy to lift out of the holds without mechanical power and as they were stowed on top of the hatches of the lower holds, access to the latter, which contained the ammunition and explosives, could not be obtained. The salvagemen had to content themselves with recovering the lighter stuff, including many drums of valuable aircraft dope, used for painting the fuselages and wings of aeroplanes, motor and aircraft tyres and tubes, baggage, technical stores, and navigational equipment. With the assistance of an additional 20 men of the Witwatersrand Rifles, under Lieutenant W. Grant, who arrived from Walvis Bay in the Nerine a few days after the first party, more than 4,000 bags of the troops' mail was transferred to the minesweeper. About 300 tons of cargo was also salved. What was left was irretrievably lost when, later, the ship broke her back and disintegrated under the batterings of winter storms.
While this salvage work was going on, Naude and the party whose primary job was to recover the aircraft, were vainly attempting to land. Two days after their arrival they made their first attempt. The lifeboat took up her old moorings just outside the breakers, and a man prepared to swim ashore with a line. But the current swung the boat broadside to the waves, and as she was threatening to capsize at any moment, the attempt had to be abandoned.
A second attempt two days later was no more successful.
Meanwhile, one of the Royal Navy's anti-submarine ships, H.M.S. Northern Duke (Lieutenant Wright, R.N.R.) had been sent up from Walvis Bay to keep an asdic watch. She had just been completed in America and sent to South African waters when the enemy U-boats, driven from the North Atlantic, made their first onset upon the sea route round the Cape. Her orders were to stand by the wreck and protect it from submarine attack while the salvage party were busy on board and the Crassula, and Nerine were ferrying the salved mails and cargo between it and Walvis Bay.

The Northern Duke was the only ship standing by on Christmas Eve. That night an event took place such as Skeleton Coast had surely never known before. From the blacked-out lounge of the listing liner, that was held in a death-grip by those treacherous sands, came the sounds of merrymaking. By the light of swinging oil lamps fifty-odd soldiers, sailors, and airmen, re-inforced by some of the men of the warship, celebrated in convivial fashion while they turned their minds for an hour or two from their pre-occupations.
While their families far away were feasting and remembering absent ones next day, the men on the wreck spent their strangest Christmas ever, flying kites and catching kabeljou their amusement, and boiled potatoes, bully beef and biscuits their Christmas feast.
Next day Naude borrowed a Carley float from the Northern Duke and, with his navigator, tried to surf in on it to land. But they were swamped and Hansen had hurriedly to pull the raft beyond the surf again, for fear they might jeopardise their lives. The last thing the Air Force wanted was to lose lives to save its bomber.
On the following day the Northern Duke left on her return to Walvis Bay with Major van der Hoven and the men of the Witwatersrand Rifles, leaving Finlayson and Naude with the remainder of the salvage party on the wreck. Tide and weather forecast had indicated that conditions might be favourable for making a landing on New Year's Day. Everybody hoped this would prove to be so, for there was little to do on the wreck now and the delays and disappointments were getting the men down.
While waiting, efforts had been made to float ashore on a raft batteries that were required for the aircraft. The raft, however, kept drifting up the coast instead of inshore, and in the end the attempt had to abandoned.
Another cheery party in the saloon saw the New Year in.
Towards evening on New Year's Day a storm began to blow up. Shortly after one o'clock next morning the officer on watch. Sub-Lieutenant P. D. Kockott, S.A.N.F., awoke Finlayson in the master's cabin to tell him that the sea was making rapidly. He could feel the ship pounding heavily on the bottom. He went on deck, to find breakers to seaward. They were smashing against the ship's side and sending sheets of spray across the decks. While he watched he saw the lights of the Northern Duke. She had just returned from Walvis Bay, and was signalling that she had developed an engine defect, and as she could not stand by in the sea that was running, she would have to return to port immediately. She left the Nerine to stand by alone.

During the day the storm grew steadily worse and by evening the wind was blowing at 50 miles-an-hour. Every few minutes the ship was enveloped in spray. The salvagemen were wont to have their meals in the dining saloon on the promenade deck. It had a 12-ft. long observation window, about seven feet deep and made of one inch plate glass, on the seaward side. Here they would eat their meals, surrounded by every evidence of luxury, and try and maintain the illusion that they were of the elite, fare-paying passengers enjoying an ocean voyage in a sumptuously fitted liner. They turned a blind eye to the paraffin stove in the corner that they had filched from the crashboat and on which they warmed their food, and to the simple fare that looked so incongruous upon the silver dishes.
That evening, as they sat at their meal, Naude happened to look up just in time to see the observation window blotted out as by a huge, opaque veil. He shouted a warning, and the next moment the plate glass broke with a report like a gun, and the sea came in. An enormous wave had swamped the ship. The men just had time to jump for the staircase or take refuge on tables, before the sea rushed through the saloon, carrying before it chairs and tables, cloths, dishes, and cutlery, and smashing them against the opposite bulkhead. Such was its force that it tore the doors of the bulkhead away from their hinges. Nobody was injured, but the saloon was left a shambles, uninhabitable.
The waves were sweeping across the decks, washing through the men's tents and cutting off communication with the "kitchen" on the forecastle. Finlayson ordered all hands to congregate in the superstructure, where the lounge and the upstairs cabins were still comparatively dry. They spent an uneasy evening playing cards and draughts by the light of the hurricane lamps. About midnight those who could find bunks or sofas turned in. They could get no sleep, however, because of the noise caused by the banging about of the loose gangways, derricks, and the cargo that was stacked on deck awaiting salvage. The ship was shuddering from end to end as she bumped about on the bottom, and every joint of her creaked and groaned. The waves against her sides and the sound of hundreds of tons of water washing periodically over the superstructure added to the pandemonium within.

Naude was dozing in his bunk just below the bridge when, about two o'clock in the morning, an enormous wave came right over the ship. It smashed in the window above his head, and broken glass and water came tumbling in. The startled airman was out of his bunk in a moment and flying down the stairs to the comparative safety of the lounge.
Finlayson gave orders for all hands to put on their lifejackets and to assemble in the lounge. He had seen signs that the ship was breaking up - buckling side plating and parting deck planks. She was shivering all the time like a live thing. He feared that at any moment she might break in half. So heavy was her movement that the salvagemen had to hang on to anything that was firm, to keep their balance. The constant crashing upon the sea floor had smashed every piece of crockery and glassware in the ship.
At dawn all hands were ordered up to the top deck where they would have a better chance of getting away if the ship broke up suddenly. Finlayson ordered them to keep together around the upper bridge, and urged them to keep calm and on no account to try and swim to the beach while there was anything left of the ship to cling to.
From the Nerine they could see great waves washing over the wreck, the spray going even over the funnel and blotting out the ship completely from view, except for the top of the mast. Though they knew that the men on board had no lifeboats or other means of escape from the wreck, they could do nothing to help, for no boat could live in that sea.
The men clinging to the upperworks of the wrecked liner had now been more than 24 hours without a cooked meal or a warm drink. They were living on cold bully beef and condensed milk, rationed out in small quantities, for only limited supplies had been rescued from below.

Thirty-six hours after the storm began, it subsided almost as suddenly as it had arisen. Finlayson had abandoned hope by now of being able to land the aircraft salvage party, and had promised the men that they would return to Walvis Bay as soon as the weather moderated suffidently for the minesweeper to be able to take them off. By noon on January 3 the sea had gone down suffidently for Hansen and his "Volga Boatmen" to get alongside the wreck, and they evacuated all the personnel safely to the Crassula, which had just arrived from Walvis Bay. The Crassula and the Nerine left about seven o'clock for port, the latter carrying Hansen's party and towing the lifeboat. This boat, which had done so much voyaging up and down the coast, and had played so important a part in saving many lives, was later to be presented to Hansen by the authorities, to replace his lost surfboat.
Within an hour of boarding the Crassula three quarters of the salvage party were seasick. Naude suffered most, and during the 40 hour passage to Walvis Bay he did not leave the deck once, and had nothing to eat or drink. He finished the voyage vomiting blood.
The first news van der Hoven had for him when he walked ashore was that arrangements were being made for the Northern Duke to take him and the salvage party back to the wreck without delay, together with a motor launch, to have another shot at saving the plane.

Copyright Michael Marsh(2020)

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