Skeleton Coast Hero

Hail the modest hero of the merciless Skeleton Coast!

In a retirement community in Potchefstroom a real South African hero died, almost unsung in his own country.

AT the age of 83 Immins Overbeek Naude succumbed to a double onslaught of asthma and angina. He probably wasn’t unhappy, because he had cheated death 52 years earlier in a hair-raising rescue bid that will rank as one of the most daring in history.

And while his heroism took place out of sight of the print and electronic media, he was, until his death, every bit as modest and taciturn about the whole thing as were the SAAF pilots who followed in his footsteps with the rescue of passengers from the sinking Oceanos. One of his fellow pilots in 23 Squadron of the South African Air Force, Durban pensioner Clyde Harley said: “What he did was courageous. He was a hero. We should remember”.

As commander of a B-34 Ventura bomber, Captain Naude risked his life and those of his three fellow-airmen in carrying out an unheard-of landing on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia to try to rescue survivors of the Dunedin Star, a ship which ran aground on November 29, 1942.

Captain Naude tried to drop water and food to the castaways, but, without parachutes, the containers split open and the precious contents were wasted.

He knew there were women, children and possibly badly injured sailors trapped on a beach between the cruel South Atlantic Ocean and the merciless Namib Desert.  No one would have faulted him if he had decided to return to the comfort of the officers’ mess at Rooikop in Walvis Bay. But, after a quick consultation with his crew he decided to attempt a landing, despite the very real dangers of cart-wheeling the 12-ton bomber in the soft dunes. The landing was without incident, but when Captain Naude tried to turn the Ventura around to prepare to take off, one of his wheels became bogged in the sand and he and his crew were suddenly castaways themselves.  The airmen joined up with the Dunedin Star survivors, who were suffering terrible privations in the baking heat and wind and sand.

It was to be another two weeks before Captain Naude and the airmen were rescued by a ground expedition which battled overland more than 1,000km from Windhoek, through some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.

Other SAAF Venturas had managed to land at a better place further south on the coast and had flown some of the castaways out, while others were rescued by ships anchored off the wreck.  Captain Naude’s ordeal wasn’t over when he got back to Walvis Bay:  The SAAF wanted to know where its Ventura was.  He went back twice — nearly losing his life in a seaborne attempt wrecked by a fierce storm — to try to recover the plane. ‘

On the second trip, overland in early 1943.  Captain Naude took off successfully after SAAF mechanics made the aircraft fit to fly.  Only 20 minutes into his flight the Ventura lost power in one engine and plunged into the sea.

Lockheed PV-1 Ventura

Captain Naude and two mechanics survived and were washed ashore in the fuselage. But after drying their emergency rations and taking what little water they had, they marched 60km into the desert to meet the overland convoy which was returning after repairing the plane.

John Marsh, former Argus shipping reporter who described the Dunedin Star rescue in the 1944 book The Skeleton Coast, attended Immins Naude’s funeral and recalled that the pilot “never regarded himself as a hero, more as someone doing his job”.

Aviation historian Ivan Spring, who has compiled a history of Captain Naude’s squadron, said the old hero seemed to regard the rest of his life as “more of an adventure than the Dunedin Star episode”.

After leaving the SAAF following the incident —  he was discharged because of the effect the ordeal had on his health — Naude went on to hunt lion and leopard in Botswana and travel the length and breadth of southern and central Africa, including a three-month 15 000km trip from Cape Town to Zaire and the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda in the ’50s.  He described his adventures in detail in letters to Spring in the late ’80s, referring to his wartime role as “meagre”.

Fish Hoek pensioner “Planky” Wood, a pilot in 23 Squadron, hastily formed in 1942 to combat the nazi submarine threat around the Cape, said little fuss was made at the time of the Dunedin Star incident.  So little, in fact, that he had difficulty recalling details of the operation or of Immins Naude.

“We would have just looked upon it as part of the job, the job everybody has to do in wartime” added Wood.  In Durban Clyde Harley recalled that, at the time of the Dunedin Star incident he flew up the Skeleton Coast looking for survivors and also that the squadron’s other pilots said little about Immins Naude’s experience.

“It was as though we knew that there but for the grace of God go I, and it was a sobering thought.  Make no mistake, we would probably all have done the same thing. It was a war and there was a job to be done.”

Looking back with the benefit of 50-years’ hindsight, Harley said: “The man was a hero.”


Thanks to assistance from Nick Elzinga

Skeleton Coast by John H Marsh can be ordered from the Namibian Scientific Society.