02.12.2016

Dramatic Rescue Operation on the Skeleton Coast


The Dunedin Star. (Collection J K Byass-Fraser Darrah)

The wreck of the Dunedin Star. The ship ran aground off the Skeleton Coast on 29 November 1942.  (Namibia National Archives)

The rescue mission in the dry riverbed of the Hoarusib on 7 December 1942. The further the convoy advanced to the northwest the more difficult its progress became. (Namibia National Archives)

The convoy of Major B Smith on its way from Kamanjab to Sesfontein on 5 December 1942. (Namibia National Archives)

On 13 December 1942 several trucks got hopelessly stuck in the deep sand of a salt pan just a few miles from the shipwrecked passengers and crew. (Namibia National Archives)

Safe at last: four survivors of the Dunedin Star shipwreck and the truck driver who took them to Rocky Point where they were picked up by plane. (Namibia National Archives)

Engine of the South African Air Force Ventura which crashed at Rocky Point during rescue operations for the shipwrecked of the Dunedin Star. (Namibia National Archives)

Original marking on Mathias Khoraseb’s grave at Rocky Point. He was one of the two seamen of the Sir Charles Elliot who drowned. The body of the other seaman was never found. (Namibia National Archives)

The passenger ship Dunedin Star, on her way from Liverpool to Cape Town, is sailing off the coast of South West Africa. The captain is steering a course about 16 km off the coast when the ship is suddenly rocked by a violent jolt. The keel with the passageway under the engine room is ripped off. The Dunedin Star probably hit the Clan Alpine Shoal, a rock which is marked on the charts but whose exact position is uncertain.   

SOS. The radio station in Walvis Bay picks up the Dunedin Star’s distress signal at 21h30 on 29 November 1942. The position is radioed. The ship has run into difficulties off the Skeleton Coast, the coast of death. 

On board the Dunedin Star are more than 100 people, including 21 passengers. She is also carrying a cargo of crucial weaponry. The captain expects the ship to take on water within three to four hours and therefore decides to head for the shore. Through skilful manoeuvering he manages to prevent the Dunedin Star from breaking up when he beaches her. The radio operators enquire whether help is on the way yet.  

Military intelligence in Walvis Bay informs the stricken steamer that the two ships anchored in the harbour could make it to the stranded ship by 2 December. The minesweeper Nerine and the tug Sir Charles Elliot are dispatched to the Skeleton Coast as soon as provisions and water have been loaded.

Military intelligence in Walvis Bay also notifies the South African navy and air force in Cape Town of the shipwreck. Within a few minutes contact is made with two ships in the vicinity of the Dunedin Star via the Slangkop radio station. The British freighter Manchester Division and the Norwegian motor vessel Temeraire are requested to immediately assist the Dunedin Star. 

Meanwhile the captain of the Dunedin Star is worried that his ship will start breaking apart. He decides to abandon ship. The first group of people is taken ashore in a motor launch on 30 November. The surf is rough and the evacuation turns into an extremely risky operation. After the third trip the launch is disabled. Altogether 63 people, including women and babies, have been taken ashore. The captain and 43 crew and passengers are still aboard the Dunedin Star. 

The following evening the Temeraire appears on the horizon, followed soon by the Manchester Division. The crews of the two ships manage to rescue everyone from the Dunedin Star the next day. In the last radio call the captain makes from his ship he urgently requests a plane to drop food and water for the group on the beach. Because of the hazardous surf no direct contact can be made with the other two ships.  

At this stage the passengers and crew on the beach are desperate. Without shelter and with only meagre supplies of food and water they are exposed to the forces of nature in the desert. Nights are bitterly cold and foggy, the shipwrecked have to sleep on the bare sand without cover and wake up wet and stiff in the morning. Days are hot and the howling wind blows fine sand into eyes, ears, noses and hair. All of them suffer from severe sunburn, limbs are swollen, eyes are suppurating. The three babies are at risk of going blind. They are saved from this awful fate by the efforts of an Egyptian eye specialist who is among the shipwrecked. The Dunedin Star’s ship’s doctor also does his utmost to alleviate the discomfort of the group.

The group is notified by mirror signal from the Manchester Division that a plane with supplies is on its way. Furthermore an overland rescue convoy has set out from Windhoek. The entire aid and rescue operation is directed from Cape Town and coordinated with the authorities in South West Africa. 

The Nerine and the tug Sir Charles Elliot arrive at the Dunedin Star shipwreck on 2 December. Now the Temeraire leaves for Walvis Bay with the crew and passengers saved from the Dunedin Star. The tug also soon heads back after dropping off its supplies. 

On 3 December a brand-new South African Air Force Lockheed Ventura Bomber takes off from Cape Town. In Walvis Bay the plane is loaded with food and containers of water in place of bombs. Pilot Immins Naude and his three crew members continue on their first relief flight to the Skeleton Coast that same day. They are utterly amazed to discover another stranded ship near Rocky Point, about 100 km south of the position of the Dunedin Star. It is one of the rescue vessels, the Sir Charles Elliot! 

Naude notifies the base in Walvis Bay by radio and flies on to the Dunedin Star’s shipwrecked passengers. After dropping off the supplies the Ventura crew feels morally obliged to at least make an attempt to get the women and children aboard. Despite heavy winds whipping up the sand and the inhospitable terrain Naude makes a neat landing in the desert. But the plane gets stuck in the sand when they try to manoeuvre it into position for take-off. The second rescue group is now stuck on the Skeleton Coast as well. Naude notifies the base in Walvis Bay by radio.

Meanwhile the situation on the tug Sir Charles Elliot near Rocky Point worsens. The vessel has sprung a leak and is threatening to break up. After several fruitless attempts, during which two of the seamen drown, the crew finally manages to make it ashore and now find themselves in the same position as the stranded group from the Dunedin Star. With hardly any food or water they are left at the mercy of the desert. 

Further north, at the Dunedin Star, the crews of the Nerine and Manchester Division attempt to send food and water to shore by raft. However, the rafts are swept away by the current. With no more provisions on board the Nerine heads back to Walvis Bay. 

The minesweeper Natalia sets sail on 4 December to come to the rescue of the Dunedin Star’s stranded passengers and crew. Like the Nerine, the Natalia’s radio equipment does not have a long enough range and so the Natalia has homing pigeons on board. When the Natalia arrives at the Dunedin Star on 6 December the pigeons are released in pairs, with each pair carrying the same message. The pigeons are 600 km from their loft in Walvis Bay and have to find their way across an unknown area with only one or two waterholes en route. About half of the pigeons arrive back in Walvis Bay after flying for ten hours. The information they carry with them is invaluable for the further planning of the rescue operation. 

As weather conditions improve slightly the crew of the Natalia succeeds in sending rafts with food and water to the group on the beach. While looking for a spot from where they could be brought on board the ship’s boiler develops a problem. The Natalia has to return to Walvis Bay immediately. 

For the time being, supplies for the stranded group are airlifted. On 5 and 6 December another three Ventura bombers leave from Cape Town and Pretoria to drop off food, water, tents, blankets and medicine for the group at the Dunedin Star and the stranded crew of the tug Sir Charles Elliot.  

The pilots selected for the relief flights are chosen because of their outstanding flying skills and strong nerves. One of them has had to make an emergency landing near Rocky Point on an earlier occasion. He agrees to try and land there again, quite close to the shipwrecked tug. On 8 December he touches down on a sandy ridge about 700 m long, 40 m wide and 70 m away from the coastline. One of the other pilots soon follows suit. Thanks to the selfless and courageous efforts of these two pilots the stranded crew of the Sir Charles Elliot is brought to safety. 

Meanwhile the military base in Cape Town and the rescue centre in Walvis Bay are worried about the convoy which is attempting to reach the wreck of the Dunedin Star by land. Another two convoys are dispatched. One of these returns totally exhausted after ten days without having achieved anything. The other, which is also carrying equipment to salvage the Lockheed Ventura, follows the tracks of the first convoy.

At the base in Cape Town no one is aware of the enormous ordeal the first convoy has already gone through when they are spotted on 8 December by a Ventura in a dry riverbed about 20 km north of Rocky Point. The eight trucks led by Captain Smith get stuck in the sand all the time. The convoy has ventured into an unknown area – in 1942 the Namib west of Kamanjab is still a white spot on the map. The members of the expedition break out in cheers when they catch sight of the sea. They have made history: they have completed the first crossing of the Koakoveld to the coastline in motorised vehicles. Now the last leg on their way north to the shipwrecked Dunedin Star lies ahead, an arduous stretch of 80 km along the coast. 

Apart from the overland mission the rescue centre plans another attempt from the sea to reach the stranded group. A local expert on the South West African coast, Captain Hansen, is hired for the task. Hansen runs a fishing company 50 km south of Walvis Bay. He is prepared to make a landing craft available for the rescue attempt, and his workers are excellent seamen. 

On 9 December Hansen arrives at the Dunedin Star aboard the minesweeper Nerine. Weather conditions are favourable. There is a light breeze and the swell is comparatively flat as Hansen and his team begin their courageous rescue attempt. One of the seamen manages to swim ashore with a rope which is attached to the landing craft. Holding on to this line, 14 of the shipwrecked men make it to Captain Hansen’s craft. Then a small boat is launched for the women and babies. The boat capsizes, but two women and their babies are successfully hauled into the landing craft. The others are safely brought back onto the beach thanks to the valiant intervention of Immins Naude, the bomber pilot, and some of the other men who are still on the shore. 

The following morning the surf is again so rough that it is impossible to continue the rescue operation with the landing craft. But in the afternoon the sea becomes calmer and another eleven men make it to the craft by holding on to the rope. With 26 of the shipwrecked rescued the Nerine sets sail for Walvis Bay. The remaining 41 people on the beach – among them Naude and his crew – stay behind to wait for the convoy which according to their information can be expected to arrive at any time.  

However, the convoy progresses at a snail’s pace. It gets stuck in saltpans, thick fog makes it difficult for the men to find their bearings and there is even some rain. About 3 km from the Dunedin Star on 12 December, the convoy grinds to a halt yet again. Two of the men continue on foot and are received with cheers at the camp of the stranded group. 

Naude has some experience driving trucks in deep sand and sets out to assist the convoy. Wire mesh and canvas are laid out and he manages to drive one of the trucks to the camp. Provisions and protective gear are loaded onto the vehicle and brought back to the convoy. Naude manoeuvres another truck through the heavy sand later that day to collect everyone remaining at the camp. Rescuers and rescued now number 63 people in total. On its way back the convoy comes across a second one which has been sent out to salvage the valuable Lockheed Ventura. Pilot Immins Naude convinces the men that their equipment is insufficient for readying the plane to take off again. Both convoys head back south together. 

At Rocky Point another Ventura bomber is ready to fly some of the shipwrecked to safety. Six women, a baby, Naude’s crew and a doctor board the plane on 16 December. As the bomber prepares to land in Walvis Bay one of the women gives birth to a healthy baby. The plane returns to Rocky Point in the afternoon and picks up the rest of the group. All of them are taken to hospital for a check-up but are soon released. Sleeping in soft beds between clean sheets that night, they feel as if they are in heaven.  

Meanwhile the convoy has set out on the laborious return trip to Windhoek. Crossing riverbeds is more difficult now because some of the rivers are in flood. The ground is soggy and every so often the trucks get bogged down. By the time the convoy pulls into Kamanjab, three vehicles have been abandoned. The group arrives in Windhoek on Christmas Day. Everyone is totally exhausted, their clothes are in tatters, shoes are walked through. They are welcomed like heroes. The leader of the convoy, Captain Smith, says after the 2,400 km journey, “I doubt that it would be possible to embark on a more difficult journey than the one which we have experienced.”

Back in Walvis Bay, while the convoy is still struggling towards Windhoek, the minesweeper Crassula sets sail with Captain Hansen and his crew late at night on 17 December. They are to salvage part of the Dunedin Star’s cargo of precious weaponry. Bomber pilot Immins Naude is also on board, after barely one hour back in civilisation, just time enough for a good meal. Naude is to assist in getting his plane airborne again with the help of 2,000 metres of wire mesh to be used as a runway. The bomber valued at 30,000 Pound Sterling is stuck in the sand but otherwise undamaged. The salvage expedition returns to Walvis Bay on 3 January 1943 with 300 tons of cargo from the Dunedin Star. They were unable to do anything about the Lockheed Ventura, however, because the swells were so high that no one could get ashore. 

Two weeks later, on 17 January, another convoy sets out from Windhoek to salvage the plane on the Skeleton Coast. Immins Naude is part of the expedition, and this time they have a caterpillar to pull trucks from the sand whenever they are stuck. The convoy arrives at its destination nine days later. The Ventura which has sunk deeply into the sand and it takes four days to dig it out. The caterpillar pulls the plane into take-off position. At 13h00 on 29 January after a perfect take-off Naude and his Ventura are airborne.

But Naude’s odyssey is not yet over. After 45 minutes in the air he is in the vicinity of Rocky Point, flying at an altitude of 100 metres, when the starboard engine starts to splutter and then fails. The plane plunges into the sea some 200 metres off the coast. Naude and the two crew members survive the crash but sustain injuries. Nevertheless they all make it to the shore and then drag themselves to the spot where the convoy coming from the Dunedin Star has to turn east along a river course. With hardly any provisions they wait at a waterhole until the convoy finds them there two days later. They are in bad shape and Naude in particular needs medical attention. It is another four days to Windhoek. 

Thus ends one of the most dramatic rescue operations on the South West African coast. All who had travelled aboard the Dunedin Star were saved thanks to the utmost effort and selfless dedication of everybody involved in the rescue operation. Two crew members of the tug Sir Charles Elliot, which was dispatched to assist and later also stranded, were drowned. Some of the rescuers, including Immins Naude, never quite recovered from the physical ordeal. The material damage was considerable. 


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