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
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
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
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
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
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
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