Jeff Gaisford** - 9 April 2006
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
RB-N can be seen amongst the parked aircraft in the aerial
photos of the Congella flying-boat base.
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.
Flying Boat Page