The Catalinas of Lake St Lucia

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The Catalinas of Lake St Lucia

A Catalina lands on Durban Bay – Picture courtesy Jeff Gaisford. The photograph is of Catalina FP257F which is being piloted by F/O Dick Lawson, and was supplied by the Bull family of Sydney, from the Service Records of the late F/Lt Jack Bull (Pilot of Catalina FP288G)

THE CATALINAS OF LAKE St LUCIA
By Jeff Gaisford
Jeff Gaisford is currently Media Officer for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. He has a deep interest in the flying doats which operated in Zululand and this led to the writing of this article. It first appeared in World Air News and is reprinted here with kind permission.

Lake St Lucia is one of the oldest game reserves in Africa, having been established in1895. It also lies within South Africa’s first World Heritage Site – the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. It is the largest estuarine lake system in sub-Saharan Africa, it contains large numbers of hippos and crocodiles, and the 36 000 ha water body is an average of one metre deep. Today it is a prime eco-tourism destination – but 60 years ago it was the scene of some spectacular military aviation activity.

U-Boats

Admiral Karl Doenitz, Head of the German U-boat arm, in looking for new hunting grounds for his U-boats, sent two groups of them to hunt in Cape waters in early 1942, and also sent individual U-boats to the east coast of South Africa. The U-boats reaped a terrible harvest and operated virtually unopposed at first. The big 1600 ton, type IX U-boats had a sea-going range of over 25 000 miles, and were commanded by veteran skippers such as Bartels (U-197), Lassen (U-509) Luth, and Gesau, who all operated off the east coast at some stage, destroying much Allied shipping.

Ironically, the only known U-boat sinking in that area was that of Bartels’ U-197 sunk by Catalinas of 262 and 259 Squadron RAF south of Madagascar. The sinking of this U-boat was probably due to information gained from the breaking of the German ENIGMA codes. Access to these codes was one of the most jealously guarded of Allied secrets and enabled Allied High Command to eavesdrop on German operational radio messages throughout most of the war.

Establishing Catalina Operations

In the early 1940s the first Catalina squadrons of the Royal Air Force began anti-submarine operations off the Cape coast, flying mostly from Langebaan. As the U-boats moved eastwards so did the Catalinas, arriving eventually at their base at Congella in Durban Harbour. They quickly identified the need for a forward base and Lake St Lucia, with its large expanses of water, was chosen after a snap survey. On 1 December 1942 the first ground crews led by Flight Lieutenant S J Wood arrived on the Eastern Shores and built a standard pattern RAF sea-plane base at what is now known as Catalina Bay on the eastern shore. They dynamited the rocks on the sea-shore at Mission Rocks for concrete, and built strip roads connecting various installations at points along the adjoining dunes. To this day the blast marks are clearly visible at Mission Rocks.

A massive radar installation was also built on one of the higher dunes, called Mount Tabor by the local missionaries. The main bunker is still used today as a trails base by hikers in the area. The Officer’s mess and certain other installations were sited across the Lake at Charter’s Creek.

The first Catalinas of 262 Squadron arrived on 26 February 1942 and began using the St Lucia base as springboard for extended 20 – 24 hour patrols along the sea-lanes up to Madagascar and down to Durban.  These were mostly Catalina 1b aircraft. The flarepath, consisted of a double row of bomb-scows moored at intervals diagonally across Catalina Bay, each fitted with a lantern for use during night landings. Ivan Spring, in his book “Flying Boat” tells an amusing story of a Catalina coming in to land at the height of a storm one night in which some of the vital scows were sunk. One of the base staff hurried out in a launch and took up position where the main scow should have been and signalled to the incoming aircraft “I am a flare…I am a flare…”

Some of the U-boat skippers were more than willing to fight it out on the surface and more than once, a Catalina limped back to St Lucia trailing smoke and with shell-holes decorating its wing panels.

The base was ideal, being shielded from the sea by a rank of high, forested dunes. Operations from this tropical base were not without incident, in spite of the idyllic setting. One of the early clashes occurred when gunners decided that basking crocs made good targets for the .50 waist guns as they droned their way up the Lake. The local game warden was very soon banging on the base commander’s door!

A very long T jetty was also built for refuelling and “bombing up”. The last of the pilings of this structure were removed by the conservation authorities in the 1980s and the area became known as “The Old Jetty”. There is also still a slipway leading to a concrete apron probably used when hauling the various boats used at the base out for maintenance. Various other foundations and well points litter the area, but are mostly very overgrown.

Tragedy

On the night of 7 June 1943 Catalina E (FP 275) of 259 Squadron, piloted by Flight Lieutenant J A B Kennedy RAF, was returning from an operational flight and made its final approach from the south, coming in over very flat terrain of reed beds and meanders of the Lake itself. As the big flying-boat passed low towards what is now called Mitchell Island, for no apparent reason it suddenly stalled and plunged into the shallows, killing all but one of its crew. The survivor was Sgt N A Workman.  The aircraft was a total loss although the base staff did salvage certain parts from it. During these operations they sank several sections of concrete pipe into the mud to use as a base for a working platform alongside the wreck.

These pipes were in later years usually all that could be seen of the crash site. The wreck was apparently also used as bombing target later, resulting in it being further broken up. As the years went by the wreck slowly disintegrated as exposure to the elements and salt water took its toll.

At the time of writing Lake St Lucia and its environs was in the grip of a growing drought and with the mouth of the system being closed by a natural sand bar, the level of the Lake had dropped to a metre below sea-level. As a result the great mudflat on which the stark and shattered remains of Catalina E lie was completely exposed.

I waded to the wreckage in the early 80s, in calf-deep water with two colleagues, wishing at every step that I could lift both feet out of the water. All around us grew thick mats of sea-grass in which lived hundreds of very large mud-crabs the size of dinner plates, and armed with fearsome pincers. As we walked, the matted sea-grass heaved and moved as these monsters scuttled out of our way. We retrieved an intact section of the tailplane that is now stored in the KZN Wildlife offices at St Lucia.Shortly after the fatal crash of “E”, in the dark before dawn of 25 June 1943, Catalina H (FP265) of 262 Squadron RAF, piloted by Flying Officer F N C White, took off in dead calm conditions for an extended patrol. All sea-planes require a degree of chop on the water in order to “unstick” and apparently the glassy calmness of the water contributed to subsequent. A launch, with Flying Officer Keely on board, also went out to create a bit of chop on the water.  The heavily laden Catalina ran the full length of the flarepath from the Eastern Shores towards Charters Creek and was seen to climb steeply, only to stall and plummet into the Lake  where it exploded. A young Zulu herd-boy, who later became a field ranger at St Lucia, witnessed the crash and told a colleague that the explosion lit up the entire south basin of the Lake. This account tallies with Keely’s eyewitness report of a terrific flash of red followed by an explosion. One crewman, Sgt Benjamin Lee, survived.

Navy divers recovered the bodies of the crew by blasting the sunken wreckage, but complained of zero visibility in the cold, muddy waters, having to work entirely by feel. The bodies of the crew were buried in the Stellawood Cemetery in Durban. This aircraft crashed into an unusually deep part of the Lake and its exact location is unknown today.

Part of the administrative section of 262 Squadron was located in the home of the Selley family in St Lucia village. They ran the Estuary Hotel, and their one son, the late Mr Jeff Selley, an army engineer on leave from North Africa, heard of the crash and took his small boat, propelled by a stuttering 2 candle-power Seagull engine, 22km up the St Lucia estuary in the dark and assisted the RAF at the scene.  He was told to be careful of anything that might look like a dustbin as it was probably an unexploded depth-charge!

Lake St Lucia has always been a bit fickle and its water levels are ever capricious. 262 Squadron had set up their base at a time of high levels and as time went on the Lake began to get shallower. A Catalina draws 3’6″ when afloat and as the Catalins were due to be replaced by bigger Sunderlands which drew about 5′, the RAF began to cast anxious eyes around for another operational base.

The last Catalina flew off St Lucia on 13 October 1944. The RAF chose Lake Umsingazi at Richards Bay as an alternative and the squadron eventually relocated there in November 1944. British tongues could not master the Zulu Umsingazi and the base was called “Loch Richard”. By this time there were more than a few South Africans serving in 262 Squadron and it eventually was handed over to the SAAF to become 35 Squadron, later being equipped with Short Sunderland flying-boats.

There were two other flying-boat crashes, both at Lake Umsingazi. In 1945 Catalina JX 367 made a bad landing and crashed into the bush fringing the lake. A 35 Sqn SAAF Sunderland RB-N crashed and sank on the night of 1 November 1956 in bad weather. As a boy I saw the stripped  hull of this aircraft being winched out of the lake in about 1958. It was later allowed to slip back into the water where it apparently remains to this day.
The Catalina operations at St Lucia left an interesting legacy of artifacts on the Eastern Shores, and the shattered wreck of Catalina E will lie exposed on its mudflat until the rains come and the waters of the great Lake St Lucia once more rise to cover its corroding frames. The lost wreck of Catalina H remains an enigma and perhaps one day a fisherman will pull up part of it and establish its last resting place. As happened with a wing-float from the Sunderland, some enterprising young men waded out to the wreck of Catalina E in the 1960s and removed an undamaged wing float. This was shortened slightly and fitted with an outboard motor, making a reasonably respectable small ski-boat that was regularly taken out to sea at Cape Vidal and Maphelane where it eventually came to grief.

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Sunderlands of Lake Umsingazi

THE SUNDERLAND FLYING BOATS OF LAKE UMSINGAZI

By Jeff Gaisford
Jeff Gaisford has a deep interest in the flying doats which operated in Zululand and this led to the writing of this article. It first appeared in World Air News and is reprinted here with kind permission.

262 Squadron RAF used Catalina Bay at the southern end of Lake St Lucia as a forward operational base in 1943 and ‘44.  Initially they flew the sturdy Catalina flying boats, but these were gradually replaced by much larger four engined Short Sunderland Mark 5 flying boats. These drew over five foot of water and St Lucia was too shallow for them. This forced the Squadron to look for an alternative landing site with deeper water. They chose Lake Umsingazi at Richards Bay, and the squadron relocated there lock stock and barrel in the course of 1944.  In 1945, there being so many South Africans on strength in 262 Squadron, it was decided to transfer the whole operation to the South African Air Force. This was duly done and 35 Squadron SAAF came into being. The squadron base was at Congella in Durban and this required the big flying boats to land in the harbour. They were forbidden to land there at night, however, due to various after dark hazards that included the large number of small “fishing”craft, and the flying boats had to land at Lake Umsingazi.

A 35 Sqn SAAF Sunderland with the registration letters RB-N crashed and sank there on the night of 1 November 1956 in bad weather after a navigation exercise to Europa Island in the Mozambique Channel.

A young crewman, 18 year-old Henry van Reenen, survived the crash and, now a respectable businessman in Gauteng, recently told me his tale:
“Three Sunderlands flew on the navigation exercise from Durban to Europa Island – their serial numbers were RB-D and RB-N which was the aircraft I flew in. I cannot recall the registration of the third one. En route our radar set failed. Great waterspouts were rising all around us, forcing us to dodge backwards and forwards and it wasn’t long before our navigators had no idea where we were. Without radar we were almost blind.

The other two Sunderlands completed the exercise, turned for home and landed safely at Lake Umsingazi. We eventually packed it in in the late afternoon and headed back towards the South African coast. A thunderstorm had come up, waterspouts kept forcing us to change course, so we headed towards Durban and then turned up-coast in order to find our landing area on Lake Umsingazi.  Late that night we sighted the lights of the flarepath on Lake Umsingazi and came down on our final approach. The thunderstorm was still raging with high winds, very heavy rain, hail and great flashes of lightning that lit the sky around us.

The Sunderland was about 60 feet off the water when for no apparent reason we dropped onto the surface, hitting very hard. We bounced, then hit the water again. I fly privately now but in those days wind-shear was a little- understood factor.  Our pilot, Capt Naude, rammed the throttles open to abort the landing and go around once more, but at about 100 feet the Sunderland stalled under full power and crashed into the lake. The nose was partially broken off, the co-pilot Lt Col Thys Uys was flung bodily through the cockpit canopy and landed almost 200 yards away. Capt Naude’s harness snapped and he was flung back-first against the instrument panel, injuring his back. I was seated in the wardroom below the flight deck with three other crewmen and was catapulted against the bulkhead ahead of us and knocked unconscious. Two of these crewmen were the only fatalities. I came to a few minutes later underwater and in pitch darkness. I found some air trapped above me and, after taking a deep breath, swam back through the wardroom into the galley – there I opened a hatch that led to the flight deck, but this was also under water. There was a small perspex dome used by the navigator just aft the main canopy. I found some air trapped there and this gave me a few more gulps.
Acting more on instinct I swam along a passageway to the weapons deck intending to exit the Sunderland through one of two machine-gun hatches situated on either side of the fuselage just aft of the wing trailing edges. Some flame floats in this compartment had ignited and the interior of the compartment was aflame so I swam underneath the flames to get to the left hand hatch. The rest of the crew were sitting on the left hand wing and Jan Knoll, a Dutch radio officer, heard me yelling. He had been in the wardroom with us and had swum out through the galley and through the viciously sharp tangle of wreckage where the nose had been. He jumped into the water and helped me out, swimming with me to the wing where my friends pulled me up and out of the water. They battled to pull me up because a hook on my Mae West buoyancy jacket had caught on the wing trailing edge. All their pulling was pretty painful! I passed out from the pain of my injuries – I had broken both ankles – and only came to briefly on the boat taking us to shore.

We were given first aid and bundled into the back of 1947 Ford ambulance that bounced its way across a terribly rough track to the Empangeni Hospital. Both my feet were dangling off the end of the stretcher and were being mercilessly bounced up and down. One of the medics realised that I was in agony and they shifted me up a bit. At the hospital they cut off our flying suits and gave us another thorough wash! We were later flown to Durban and spent a few weeks recovering in Addington Hospital before being flown to Cape Town in another Sunderland,” he told me.

Richards Bay in those days was still very wild and the bodies of the two men who died in the crash were only recovered some days later because crocodiles were nosing around the wreck and keeping the divers away. Thys Uys was a bit of a legend in his own right having being involved in the attempted rescue of the survivors of a wrecked ship, the Dunedin Star, on the Namibian coast in 1939 flying a Ventura.
As a boy I saw the stripped  hull of the Sunderland being winched out of the Lake Msingazi in about 1958. Only recently have I found out that full salvage was not possible and the hull was let slip back into the lake.  A local man salvaged the right hand wing float at that time and converted it into a catamaran ski-boat powered by an old flathead Ford V8 engine and with one of those domed Perspex cake covers usually found in a Greek tearoom as a canopy. This contraption, looking like something from Startrek, actually went out to sea and must still be in the area somewhere!
The natural beauty of Lake St Lucia and Umsingazi has hidden this story for many years.
To the average visitor today the thought of those beautiful lakes being the scene of such amazing military aviation activity would be strange – but these events are a part of the fascinating history of Zululand and definitely part of the aviation history of South Africa.

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