Jeff Gaisford** - 9 April 2006
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-160) Wolfgang Luth (U-181), and Gysae (U-177), who
all operated off the east coast at some stage, destroying
much Allied shipping.
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.
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.
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..."
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!
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 Cats 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.
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 is 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
has dropped to a metre below sea-level. As a result the great
mudflat on which the stark and shattered remains of Catalina
E lie is 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.
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 St Lucia's levels dropped, so 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.
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 Jeff's kind permission.
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