SAAF Boats

SAAF Boats

Article by

Willie (Buskruit) Burger

Velddrif   Dec 2014

SAAF Boats – Short History

THE NOW ALMOST INVISIBLE BOND BETWEEN THE NAVY AND THE AIR FORCE

shack1

By 1940, when the first South African forces were deployed in East Africa, the Mediterranean Sea was under German and Italian control. The Suez Canal was thus an ambush, just waiting to happen. The Cape sea-route was the longest but safest route to East Africa and Egypt. By the middle of 1941, Japanese forces had overrun so much of the Eastern Indian Ocean territory that it was obvious that Australia would fall next. Japan made contact with the Vichy-France government in Madagascar and Japanese aircraft deployed to this “permanent aircraft carrier”. It is a fact that Japanese reconnaissance aircraft flew over Durban on two occasions.

 

Under these circumstances, it became necessary for the Royal Navy, British ground forces and the South African Air Force to invade Madagascar. The campaign did not last long, but few people realise how close the War came to South African shores. But, German U-boats and surface raiders still sank 153 Allied ships within 1 600 km of the South African coast.

 

In 1939/40, the patrolling of the sea-route was carried out with commandeered SAA Junkers Ju-86 airliners. When these aircraft were needed in East Africa as bombers, the reconnaissance and patrolling of the long coastline was taken over by Avro Ansons of 32 Flight at Brooklyn Air Station, (now Air Force Base Ysterplaat – Cape Town). The Anson was made mainly of wood and canvas, it had a range of 1 050 km and could carry 4 X 40 kg anti-submarine bombs.

 

A commandeered Junkers Ju-86

A commandeered Junkers Ju-86

 

Avro Anson

Avro Anson

In December 1939 a unit was formed at Youngsfield, to operate a 40 foot (12 metre) armoured target boat in False Bay. The MALGAS was used as a target on the bombing and gunnery range at Strandfontein. Seven tonnes of armoured steel were fitted to the deck and sides to protect the crew and engines. A second armoured boat (MALGAS II) and a high speed rescue launch (MALMOK) arrived at Cape Town in March 1940. The unit was visited by General Pierre van Ryneveld, Chief of the Air Force, who gave the order that the unit should be known as the SAAF Motorboat Wing. The first military craft of this type, to operate on our coast, was thus under the control of the Air Force, and would remain so for almost 30 years.

 

The Motorboat Wing received 19 “Crash Boats” between May 1941 and May 1944. They were built in Florida, USA, and were 63 feet (19 m) long. They could maintain a speed of 40 knots (74 km/h) for 15 minutes, but their cruising speed was 22 to 25 knots (41-46 km/h). They had a range of 500 nautical miles (926 km), and they were all equipped to handle six casualties/patients. They were numbered R1 to R20. (Superstition regarding the number 13 caused the number to be omitted). The nineteen boats were distributed between Durban, Port Elizabeth, Gordons Bay, Cape Town and Donkergat (opposite Langebaan).

 

(In 1961 and 1962, two German built, Krogerwerft (29,3 metre) Crash Boats – R30 and R31 were delivered . These were the forerunners of the T-craft, now used by the Navy in the air-sea rescue role.

 

Air Force Crash Boat R 20

Air Force Crash Boat R 20

In 1942, the war in North Africa was at its peak, and the front moved backwards and forwards, as Allied and Axis forces attacked and counter-attacked. All supplies to the Allied forces in Egypt had to pass round the Cape by sea. The antiquated Ansons could not cope with the defence of the sea route any more, and a Royal Air Force Squadron, number 262, started operating from Durban’s Congella Base, using Catalina flying boats for the long flights, to assist shipping against the U-boat threat. Langebaan lagoon was used regularly by the Catalinas, and in 1943 a detachment of Dutch Navy Catalinas was also active in Saldanha Bay. Congella Air Station (Langebaan Detachment) was built in this period, where Langebaanweg is situated today.

Consolidated Catalina

Consolidated Catalina

The Catalina flying boats needed support boats during daily operations. At Lake St Lucia, Richards Bay and Langebaan, the motorboat squadrons had to operate five other boat-types, to support the flying boats, viz, Seaplane Tenders, (for towing the Catalinas and later the Sunderlands), Safety boats, Refuelling boats, Fire Tenders and Marine Tenders, which were also used as bomb-scows, for the transport and loading of bombs and depth charges.

 

For the sake of continuity, the term “flying boat” is used throughout this narrative. The British preferred the term “sea-plane”, but the SAAF used “flying boat – vliegboot” in daily conversation. By the American definition, an aircraft with a boat shaped lower fuselage was termed a flying-boat, and an aircraft with added-on floats was regarded as a “float-plane.”

Seaplane Tender ST 433 at Langebaanweg in 2002

Seaplane Tender ST 433 at Langebaanweg in 2002

 

The loss of life in South African waters, as a result of enemy action, was very high. The NOVA SCOTIA was 34 km off St Lucia, when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat. 750 people, mostly Italian prisoners of war, went down with the ship. But on the positive side, it is a fact that the crash boats were able to rescue almost 500 lives during the war.

 

To supplement the search and rescue ability, the Air Force acquired Lockheed Ventura Mark 1& 2 bombers. The first arrived at Brooklyn Air Station in 1942. The Ventura had a range of 3 100 km at a speed of 450 km/h.

 

Lockheed B-34 Ventura Mark 2

Lockheed B-34 Ventura Mark 2

Lockheed manufactured a maritime version of the Ventura; the PV-1 patrol bomber. Except for the American forces, the SAAF operated more Venturas than any other country. Between 1942 and 1960, the SA Air Force operated 130 B-34 bombers and 134 PV-1 maritime patrol bombers.

 

Lockheed PV-1 Ventura

Lockheed PV-1 Ventura

PV1-3 ventura

 

After the war, the number of crash boats was decreased, but the Motorboat Squadron at Donkergat and Langebaan survived. The boats remained under Air Force command and control until November 1969. With the bombing range at Tooth Rock (Jacobsbaai) in daily use, it was necessary to have a crash boat on constant stand-by just outside the danger area. There were accidents and incidents and the crews were seldom bored. The Navy took over the crash boats in 1969, and got rid of all but two of them. This was not because the sea-rescue ability was no longer necessary, but the arrival of the helicopter drastically changed the whole perspective.

 

The maritime role of the SA Air Force did not change or end after the Second World War. Remember that 262 Squadron (RAF) and the Dutch Navy, patrolled the territorial waters and coastline with Catalina flying boats. As the RAF crews returned home after their tours of duty, more and more South Africans were absorbed into 262 Squadron. Number 35 Squadron (SAAF) was born out of 262 Squadron, (in February 1945) before the end of the War. The new squadron’s 8 Catalinas were supplemented, and eventually replaced by 15 Sunderland flying boats, and anti-submarine warfare remained a priority until the end of the War. The emblem of 35 Squadron was a Pelican standing on the map of Africa. The Motto then was SHIYA AMANZI; which was Zulu for “Rise from the Water”.

 

After the War, 35 Squadron remained at Congella. The boats which served the Sunderlands, Catalinas and Anson, were Air Force boats, and remained in service until the Sunderlands were withdrawn in the mid–fifties. Yes, the Squadron also had an Anson float-plane. This Anson with floats, was the only one in the world.

Sunderland Flying Boat taking off from Congella in Durban Harbour

Sunderland Flying Boat taking off from Congella in Durban Harbour

The Squadron moved to Ysterplaat (Cape Town), and from there continued its tasks – coastal patrols and search and rescue, using PV-1 Venturas. In 1957/58, the Avro Shackleton MR-3 long range, maritime reconnaissance bomber replaced the Ventura. The Squadron Motto then changed to SHAYA AMANZI; which was Zulu for “Strike the Water”.

 

ENTER THE SHACKLETON

Shack 1717

Eight Shackletons were acquired by the SAAF in 1957/58. Not long after they arrived, they made headline news when one of the aircraft flew non-stop, right around South Africa in 14 hours. In 1958, one of the Shackletons remained in the air for 21 hours and 10 minutes. The Shackleton had a take-off mass of almost fifty tonnes, of which just over 14 tonnes was fuel. The total fuel capacity of a Shackleton was 17 802 litres.

 

The sight and sound of an approaching Shackleton, must have been the most beautiful thing on earth, to many a shipwrecked sailor. With the bomb-bay doors closed, the Shackleton could carry a SARO 3 airborne lifeboat. The metal boat could be dropped by parachute and it had an inboard engine, mast and sail, supplies and emergency equipment. However, the airborne lifeboat was never used in an actual rescue mission. The drag limited the aircraft’s range drastically, and Lindolm-gear was carried instead. The Lindolm-gear consisted of three rope-linked canisters, each with its own parachute. One canister contained a ten-man dinghy, and the other two contained water, provisions, food and blankets.

 

In later years, when the Cold War (between East and West), had the World in its grip, no ships, of any country, sailed round the Cape without being observed, photographed and documented by Shackleton or Albatross crews. The twin-engined Albatross was acquired to supplement the Shackleton. The “Trossies” were used for close, inshore work, leaving the Shacks to take care of the long distance calls for surveillance and help.

 

Avro Shackleton Mark 3

Avro Shackleton Mark 3

SARO 3 Airborne Lifeboat

SARO 3 Airborne Lifeboat

lifeboat 1

lifeboat2

Article by

Willie (Buskruit) Burger

Velddrif   Dec 2014


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.

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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