The Catalinas of Lake St Lucia
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.