The Sunderlands of Lake Umsingazi

By Jeff Gaisford** - 9 April 2006

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 the much larger four engined Short Sunderland Mark 5 flying boat. 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 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 that would dot the harbour after dark, and the flying boats had to land at Lake Umsingazi.

A 35 Sqn SAAF Sunderland with the registration letters RB-N crashed and sank 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 and turned for home and landed safely at Lake Umsingazi near Richards Bay. 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, and 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. 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.

"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. I came to a few minutes later underwater and in pitch darkness. I found some air trapped above me and 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 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. I passed out from the pain of my injuries 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 where 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," 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.
As a boy I saw the stripped hull of this aircraft being winched out of the lake in about 1958. Its fate is unknown - although it is probably still there. A local man salvaged the right hand wing float and converted it into a catamaran ski-boat powered by an old Ford Vee 8 engine and fitted with a Mustang fighter cockpit canopy - and this contraption must still be in the area.

The natural beauty of Lake St Lucia and Umsingazi have hidden this story for many years. To the average visitor today the thought of these 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.

Sunderland RB-N can be seen amongst the parked aircraft in the aerial photos of the Congella flying-boat base.

**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 Jeff's kind permission.

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