Catalina "H"

By Allan Jackson - May 2008

Recent e-mail correspondence I've had with my informant Graham Howgego has cast some light on the sad sequel to the WWII loss of Catalina H which crashed on take-off at Lake St Lucia on 25 June 1943. Graham's uncle Richard Thomas Cork was killed in the crash along with seven other members of the crew. The craft was to have escorted a convoy of ships to protect it from submarine attack but it had hardly risen to fifty feet in the air before there was a flash of light and a muffled explosion.

Sgt Richard Thomas Cork and, above, a copy of his attestation on joining the RAF.

Click images to view enlargements.
Pictures courtesy G Howgego.

Pilot Officer Keeble, who was in a launch at the end of the flarepath marking the take-off path, reported that he then saw what appeared to be a large expanse of water on fire. He signalled the shore and headed in the direction of the flames to see if he could rescue any surviviors. They managed to rescue the badly injured Sgt Benjamin 'Nobby' Lee but there was no trace of the other crew members.

Attempts were made by a diving team from HMS Revenge, under Lt MacLachlan, to recover the depth charges on the aircraft and then the bodies of the crew. The diving conditions were very difficult and the salvage attempt was abandoned but the bodies were recovered between 2 and 9 July, 1943. The dead crew consisted of Flight Officer FNC White, Flight Sgt. THT Lane, Sgt. AF Soady and Sgt. RF Jenkins, who were Australians, and Sgts, AJ Mills, RT Cork, TJ Burrington and RP Kay, who were from the RAF.

Graham Howgego wrote:

I have just discovered your website concerning Military Flying Boats in Durban. With reference to the crash of Catalina 'H' on the 25th June 1943. One of the eight crewmen who died was my uncle Sergeant R T Cork (RAF).

Another South African website I have visited have suggested that Catalina H is still visible at low tide in the lake but your website indicates that this could in fact be Catalina E of 259 Sqn which crashed on the 7th June. Anyway, if you have any further info on Catalina H, I would be grateful to receive it.

I referred Graham's inquiry to Jeff Gaisford who has studied the Catalinas at St Lucia extensively. He wrote:

Allan Jackson of FAD kindly forwarded your email about Sgt Cork to me. I have made a study of the St Lucia Catalina operations involving 262 Sqn RAF so do know a bit about it, also having lived and worked in the area for many years. As you correctly note, Catalina E belonged to 259 Sqn and this is the one that has been occasionally visible when the level of Lake St Lucia drops sufficiently.

The remains of Catalina E.
Pics courtesy Jeff Gaisford - click to view enlargements

It crashed on 7 June 1943 and I have photographed the wreck extensively. Catalina H, on the other hand, crashed into a deep section of the lake and no one to this day knows quite where it lies. Naval divers worked on it for a while at the time but complained of the murky, cold conditions and eventually the wreck was blasted to free the bodies of the crew.

I wrote an article on the St Lucia Cats which is on Allan's website and which does give fairly accurate records of the events - especially the dates - 25 June 1943 is the date of the crash of H and that coincides with the date of the death of your relative as reflected on the photo. Most of the victims of both crashes were buried in the Stellawood cemetery in Durban.

Graham wrote:

Many thanks for the info and pictures. Would it be possible for you to indicate on a map the route of Catalina H's last flight from the lake?

Jeff wrote:

If you find yourself a map of lake St Lucia its quite easy to work out, however. The Lake is divided quite neatly into various natural basins. The southernmost one which we refer to as the "South Lake" has a large bulge on the eastern side that is known as Catalina Bay. At the southern end of Catalina Bay lies Mitchell Island.
The wreck of "E" lies slightly north-east of the southern end of this island. On the western shore of Catalina Bay lies one of our camps called Charter's Creek and north-east of Charter's are the Vincent Islands. The flarepath used by the Catalinas ran from Mitchell Island diagonally across the "south lake" to the south of the vincent Islands.

According to eyewitnesses "H" took off towards the western shore, climbed steeply, stalled, nosedived into the lake and exploded. we are not sure if the Cat fell off on one wing as this would help pinpoint the location of the wreck but it is commonly accepted that it crashed into a deep hole between the Vincent Islands and the western shore.

One of my now-retired colleagues who spent a great deal of his career on the Lake recalls the propeller of his boat hitting something that left a bright smear on the prop. It is possible that in "taking-off" in his boat, the stern dug deeply into the water and caused the prop to hit whatever it was underwater. That is the nearest we have ever come to pinpointing the site of "H".

Graham then wrote that he had found an album amongst his mother's things containing pictures from his uncle's burial in Stellawood Cemetary on 12 July 1943. He sent me scans of the pages by e-mail. The occasion also seems to have included the burials of FO White, Sgt. Soady, and Sgt. Burrington. I'm not sure what happened to the rest of the crew. 15 MAY 2010 - FOUND 2 OF THEM, SEE BELOW.

The album cover.
Sgt. Cork's coffin is loaded into a hearse outside the funeral parlour [I wonder if it could be Doves and Adlam Reid?] before the journey to Stellawood Cemetery.
The coffins are removed from the hearses at Stellawood.
The burial.
Firing a salute.

Officers pay their last respects at the graves. [The commanding officer referred to would probably have been Lt. Col Ronnie Maddely, although I don't know which one of those pictured he is. AJ.]

Click pics to view enlargements.

Pics courtesy G Howgego.

** Fast forward to 2010  
The Stone of Remembrance at Stellawood Cemetery.
The grave stones of four of Catalina H's crew. The stones, in the front row from right, mark the graves of Flying Officer White, Sgt. Soady, Sgt. Cork & Sergeant Burrington. Seen right at the top of this picture is the Stone of Remembrance.
Flying Officer White
Sergeant Soady
Sergeant Cork
Sergeant Burrington
And elsewhere in the cemetary

Sergeant Lane

 

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