It took 15 years to save MT-2800

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It took 15 years to save MT-2800

  After decades of neglect and threat of destruction MT2800 has a proper home and a future.

Zulu Jetty

Zulu Jetty – boats at the Umsingazi base jetty (Robert Page and FAD)

MT 2800 built by British Power Boat Company at their Hythe yard as a 24ft marine Tender Mk II and was assigned the Yard number 1961. She was completed and taken on charge by the RAF at 62 MU Dumbarton on 24 September 1941, allocated the RAF hull number 2800 and was immediately allocated for service in Durban in South Africa, arriving there in late 1941.

 

She served until the 1990s and then languished in various locations, her continued survival fought for by a few dedicated individuals who have passed on the baton of care from one to the other. Durban Harbour on the East coast of South Africa is renowned as a major port, but from the 1930’s to the late 1950’s it was an important hub for civilian and military flying boats.  Imperial Airways Short C class, which opened the first commercial air route to Europe, and warlike Sunderland and Catalina flying boats that watched over the convoys of World War II and ships in peace time, used the harbour as a base.

Sunderland - A 35 SQN Sunderland lies moored at the base at Congella. The aircraft's name painted on her nose is 'Little Zulu Lulu'. Launch 999 is a sister ship to 2800 (Lebbeus Laybutt and FAD)

Sunderland – A 35 SQN Sunderland lies moored at the base at Congella. The aircraft’s name painted on her nose is ‘Little Zulu Lulu’. Launch 999 is a sister ship to 2800 (Lebbeus Laybutt and FAD)

The MT was assigned to Durban to support the flying boat service between South Africa and Great Britain and then to 262 Squadron RAF from November 1942. Initially operating Consolidated Catalina aircraft the squadron patrolled the increasingly busy Indian Ocean, watching for U boats and giving assistance to vessels in distress. The many ship convoys that stopped in Durban for resupply interfered with flying and the RAF operations were moved to Langebaan on the west coast and St Lucia in the then Zululand in 1943.

 

The Catalina’s were being gradually replaced by the large Short Sunderland Mk 5 which drew over five foot of water and St Lucia proved to be  too shallow. Looking for deeper water the Squadron moved to Umsingazi toward the end of 1944. RAF records show that 1961/MT2800 was based at St Lucia in 1943 and it is probable that she moved to the new base in 1944. Contemporary photographs show a number of similar vessel tied up to the Squadron jetty. By 1945 there were so many South Africans on strength that it was decided to transfer the squadron to the SAAF and it became 35 Squadron SAAF.  Once again operations returned to Congella in Durban.

 

However the planes were not allowed to land in Durban at night for fear of colliding with the fishing boats active in the harbour and the Umsingazi base was retained as an alternative alighting facility. With the war over the famous SAAF shuttle service was put in place to bring the troops home. One route was flown by the flying boats from Cairo to Durban. During November and December 1945 it was recorded that 1022 troops had been brought home and 72526lbs or 32966kgs of Christmas packages delivered to the waiting men in Egypt. The last Sunderland left North Africa on 26 February 1946 with the commander of the South African 6th Armoured Division, Major General Evered Poole on board. Records show that MT2800 was based in Congella in February 1945, and it is possible that she was used to transport many of these returning soldiers from flying boat to shore.

 

Although the days of flying boats drew to close in the 1950s the SAAF retained some elements of it is maritime unit that had saved over 600 lives during the war. MT2800 served at Langebaan lagoon attached to the No I Motor Boat Squadron and was then transferred to No 3 Motor Boat Flight along with 3 SAAF 63ft Miami class high speed launches and two dinghies on 5 December 1956. Service continued with the Air Force until the Navy took over the marine unit in 1969. MT 2800 was eventually ‘Struck Off Charge’ by the South African Navy (SAN) in 1990. In SAN service she was painted grey with a green deck, yellow engine cover and displayed her number in yellow on the bow. For a short time she was used as a pleasure craft and was painted blue and christened CAMERON L, the name she still carried into the new century.

 

Willie Burger, of the West Coast SAAFA, saved the boat from destruction when the tender was up for disposal in 1997. He highlighted its’ historical importance and made plans for its preservation. Funding was difficult and there were ideas that using her as a pleasure cruiser would pay for the upkeep, but these plans failed. She was stored undercover in a set of open sheds within a secure lock up outside the Langebaan air force base, where she suffered very little damage, but was under continual threat of a scrapping order. The Old Boat Trust was established by Guy Ellis in 2003 to preserve the boat. For two years various schemes and ideas were explored to find a location or organisation which could provide a secure future for MT2800. Westlake Technical College came to the rescue. Westlake 2006 The College had established a shipwrights’ school and agreed to take the boat on as an educational project. One hot February day in 2006 the SAAF provided a large truck and staff to load the boat and drove it south to Westlake. Unloading a two and a half ton boat and its cradle took a great deal of ingenuity and muscle power, as there were no heavy lifting capabilities at the College. Through brute force, clever thinking and care MT2800 was put under cover.

 

Westlake store At this stage she represented the last vestige of an RAF link to Westlake, which during the war had served as barracks to the RAF personnel who served on the SAAF air sea rescue launches. It is a good possibility that some men who had been accommodated at Westlake had at some stage driven or been transported by MT2800.

 

Modern day boat building does not demand the skills needed to work on a clinker built wooden marine tender. There was no space in the curriculum for work on the boat and it remained untouched, luckily mostly undercover and reasonably secure. By the end of 2009 it was clear that a new location had to be found. Richard Hellyer began to investigate the feasibility of returning the boat to the UK for the Portsmouth Naval Trust. There were no funds for the building of a new cradle or to cover the costs of shipment on a container vessel. When it was clear that MT2800 would remain in South Africa, Charles Hellyer took on the task of finding a solution.

 

These ranged from a private organization to mounting the boat at the entrance to the collage as a gate guard. The former would not have ensured her existence as an artefact of military history and the later was fraught with issues around protecting the boat from the elements and vandalisation.

Removal 2012

Contact was made with of the South African Navy in November 2011 and through the efforts of Leon Steyn of the Navy museum she was moved to Simons Town naval base on 6 September 2012. Here she will be restored over three years as part of the Armscor apprentice scheme and put on display when complete.

Simonstown 2012

Bibliography

Hellyer, R., British Military Powerboat Team, http://www.bmpt.org.uk/ Jackson, Allan., Facts about Durban, http://www.fad.co.za/ Ellis G., Serve to Save, The South African Air Force at Sea, Freeworld Publications, 2001 http://www.asrmcs-club.com/boatswebsite/index.html

Thanks to:

Richard Hellyer Charles Hellyer John Leech South African Navy – Cdr Leon Steyn Westlake Technical College – Mark Cornelise, Tracy-Lee Anderson, Johan, Mike and the Class of 2006 SAAF – Pretoria – General Derek Page Langebaanweg – Herman Els, Mattrass van Staden and Col Jacques Niemann


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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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