The following is an extract from Serve to Save - the South African Air Force at Sea by Guy Ellis. It deals with operation of the SAAF crash boats which were based in Durban during WWII and tasked with rescuing pilots who had had to crash land at sea. Copies of the book are available from the Freeworld Publications who can be contacted on on 013 750-1316 or at Guy has moved to the UK and set up a history website, which may be of interest.
Allan Jackson.


Serve to Save

By Guy Ellis

It was not only air traffic that was affected by the war. At sea there was a dramatic increase in shipping around the Cape and in the number of ships that visited the local ports. In Cape Town alone the number of ocean-going vessels increased from 1 784 in 1938/39 to 2 559 in 1941/42. Durban experienced a similar increase from 1 534 to 1 835 respectively. Not surprisingly the change in the movement of naval vessels was more pronounced. From having only 10 warships visit Cape Town during 1938/39 the city saw up to 306 during 1942/43, while Durban's naval traffic increased from 16 in 1939 to 313 in 1942. Approximately 400 convoys, 6 million men and 50 000 ships were processed through South African ports.

Durban - No 8 Flight

No 8 Motor Boat Section became operational in Durban on 12 March 1942 with the arrival of R1 following a ten-hour voyage from East London. This was the longest trip so far undertaken by a high speed launch. The RN personnel stationed at the Port War Signal Station on the Bluff reported her imminent arrival by saying 'here she comes like a bat out of hell.' The pilot who came aboard and guided her to her berth was somewhat wary of the sea keeping virtues of a 2 000 horsepower speedboat.

The crew, new to Durban, were required to establish a base from nothing and on the first night had to have their meal at the BOAC canteen. There were no mosquito nets in the quarters and the men were severely bitten during the night, one man requiring hospitalisation.

The men who first formed
No 8 Motor Boat Section.
Master Captain DR Salmon
1st Coxswain Sergeant LA Lock (RAF)

2nd Coxswain

Corporal AD Cooper (RAF)
  • Leading A/C Barrett-Jolley
  • Leading A/C Daly
  • Leading A/C Peach
  • Leading A/C Grant
  • A/Mech Williamson
  • Corporal Bailey
  • Corporal Williamson
  • A/Mech Symington
  • A/Mech O'Hare
Medical orderly Private Beeselaar
Wireless operator A/Mech Heron
Shipwright Corporal Vairy
Radio mechanic A/Mech Parr

The organisation of the various stations was often left solely to the officers and men. They had no administrative staff or equipment and were attached to the nearest Air Force Station for pay and disciplinary purposes.

Captain Salmon was the sole officer at No 8 MBS and it was proving difficult for him to efficiently perform any task required of him. He had to start up a new base, administer to its needs and be a boat officer. To alleviate the situation, Corporal PJJ Bailey was commissioned in April 1942. The new officer spent a short while undergoing training at Gordon's Bay before he returned to Durban as second-in-command. His strong technical knowledge stood him in good stead as he honed his skills in leadership and boat handling. On 9 May a Miss LL Wright reported to the unit to take up the position of typist.

The nearest air force unit was at Stamford Hill, whereas the boat was based at Congella. No telephones were available until it was pointed out that a telephone was a basic requirement for a unit such as the crash boats. No 8 MBS relied on the unsolicited help of other units. Wing Commander Shenton, OC of the RAF base at Congella provided an office in their new administrative building, while the CO of 37 Flight SAAF allowed his Adjutant, Lt Morkel, to take care of most of the general administrative functions. The men had to run and maintain the launch and clean and cook for themselves.

R1 was berthed alongside a dredger at the repair quay and the crew had to continually clean and polish to remove the soot, which descended from the surrounding shipping. The crew performed all their duties under the strict and exacting eye of F/Sgt Lock. There were no complaints, as they all expected that proper arrangements would be made in time and meanwhile they were there to provide a rescue service. It was a reasonably isolated and hard existence, but this did not stop some of the men creating their own entertainment, such as A/M WA Williamson who took to swallow diving off a 30' high floating crane.

It was clear that the facilities at Congella were insufficient and in any case the RAF required them. With this in mind, R1 was navigated up the channel to Salisbury Island. On board were Major Hesketh, Staff Officer Natal Command, Lt JD Barregar, Organising Officer CFAD and Capt Salmon. The boat was moored alongside the old tea room and the officers and men proceeded to inspect the Sea Scout Hall and adjacent buildings.

The island seemed an ideal base as it would no longer be necessary to navigate the long route through Maydon Wharf and access to the harbour entrance was across a short stretch of open water. The natural structure of the Island lent itself to the building of jetties and slipways, allowing for the expansion envisaged with the expected arrival of more boats.

However, demand for use of the Island came from all quarters. In June 1942 Capt Salmon was walking on the Island looking for suitable places to build jetties when he came across Lt Commander Philmore, Senior Naval Staff Officer and two naval architects. They explained that they were looking for a site for a new slipway and hanger for the Fleet Air Arm. The RAF were already planning on using the channel as a mooring place for flying boats and service craft and were preparing the sites. The possibility of the navy moving in as well would only add to the congestion. Arrangements were then made for the RAF and the SAAF to swap jetties so that the SAAF and the navy would share adjoining positions and could then share slipways. This plan was forward to the C-in-C South Atlantic and it was only in December of 1942 that building commenced.


Picture courtesy Guy Ellis
After establishing a base on Salisbury Island in 1942, South African Air Force Rescue operated from there there. Visible in the background is the jetty at which the boats moored.

The SAAF boat crew decided to take no chances and on 25 June they moved themselves across to Salisbury Island. To short circuit the bureaucracy, they decided not to apply for waterborne transport and so had to make three trips in R1 to move all their possessions and equipment from Congella to the island. Although everything was reasonably shipshape by the evening, there was still work to be done before the 40 NCOs and men would be comfortable.

The buildings, all in very bad condition, consisted of a Scout Hall, a double storied structure made of corrugated iron, with a boatshed below and subdivided rooms upstairs. Next to this was a single storied six roomed corrugated iron building and adjacent was a double storied building made of malthoid and packing cases, with a further eight rooms. There were a number of abandoned outhouses and the whole area was over-grown and run down.

Two work parties were formed, one with Lt Bailey and F/Sgt Lock and ten men and the other with Cpt Salmon and Cpls Williamson and Vairy and ten men. Cpl Cooper was in charge of the boats and standby crews and was responsible for ensuring the work parties were called to sea duty if the need arose. Cooper, who was a member of the RAF, was subsequently posted on 1 March 1943 to Freetown and received a commission. He had been an efficient, natural and well-liked leader and it was with regret that his former colleagues heard that he had died of pneumonia in Sierra Leone.

The ferry Rayverna was put to good use transporting materials as the work parties cleaned up the camp. There were no sanitary facilities and latrine trenches had to be dug and covers constructed by the deckhands and shipwrights. Meals were provided from the primus stoves aboard the ASRLs or off a small coal stove that had been dug up behind the buildings.

All the surrounding bush and creepers were cleared, old fences, latrines and chicken runs were demolished and unnecessary partitions were taken down in the buildings. Capt Salmon approached the Garrison Engineer Captain PLF Pearson who took an interest in the affairs of the crash boat unit and cut through red tape to ensure that building materials and the correct authority was made available. A request to Gordon's Bay for more men resulted in there being three shipwrights and two handymen on site.

Under Lt PJ Bailey, R1 its crew and a party of workmen went up to Congella to the new RAF station which was in the process of being built. They selected an appropriate barrack hut and proceeded to remove it from its concrete base, in six sections. R7 stood by on duty while R1 was used as a transport vessel to take the sectioned hut across to Salisbury Island. Once erected on brick piers, it was realised that as there was no means to build a concrete floor, official sanction had to be obtained for flooring board. The hut stood unused for three months until Lt Col Makepeace and Col Ross had personally requested the necessary materials.

When Lt Col Makepeace Director Aerodrome Works (DAW) visited the unit in September he was astonished at what had been achieved, but also at the poor living conditions in which the men lived. He requested from the Quarter Master General that immediate improvements be made and estimated that £350 would be required. This money was to be spent on sanitation facilities, improved accommodation, workshops and the lengthening of the tea room jetty.

Even with the assistance of the DAW it was five months before some of the more important facilities were provided. A pre-fabricated ablution block had been built in Durban and was to be transported to the Island on a new railway line over the causeway from Fynnland. Although the building was completed in October, it was only in January the following year that a very rusted ablution block was delivered.

Most of the water came from rain tanks, which toward the end of 1942 were drying up because of a dry season. The unit requested piping and within three hours had connected themselves to the RAF supply line next door, naturally without their neighbour's knowledge.

No 22 Squadron SAAF, a torpedo/bomber/reconnaissance unit that had been formed on 1 July 1942 had begun operating from Matubatuba, north of Durban, in January 1943. The distance from No 8 MBS's base, made it difficult for the crash boats to be effective in the event of an aircraft ditching. Capt Salmon, flew to St Lucia in a Supermarine Walrus to investigate the feasibility of stationing a boat on the lagoon. Examination of the bar proved that it would be far too risky to operate from there and the idea was dropped.

Mr O'Riley, a contractor, began work on the new slipway in December. He also performed very useful general maintenance duties and donated his scaffolding to the unit. This was used to create an additional jetty at right angles to the catwalk to be used as a ferry landing point. By 26 June 1943 R2 could be hauled up the slip and arrangements were made with the RNAS that the boats could be taken into their hanger to ease working conditions.

On 27 September 1943, R11 (hull 254) and R12 (hull 255) arrived in Durban from America aboard the SS George P Garrisson. No 8 Flight collected the boats and serviced them in preparation for allocation and duty. In the case of R13/20 and R15 (hull 258) either Air Force Station Durban or Gordon's Bay completed the initial post delivery work.

With the advent of the submarine onslaught in 1942, the authorities in Durban viewed every craft in their area of control as a potential sub-hunter. Commander Gordon-Cumming, the OC of the South African Naval Forces in Durban, made a request that R1 be fitted with depth charges. His reasoning was that during anti-submarine patrols, when a fix on a submarine was obtained, the ASRL with her superior speed could rush in and make the kill. It was perfectly feasible to fit depth charge equipment to the boat, but the Director-General Air Force objected to the launch being used for anything other than rescue work. However, the CO SANF approached the local Fortress Commander who issued instructions for depth-charge traps to be fitted.

The local military commanders were very concerned about the threat of attack by midget submarines and felt that the crash boat was the perfect vessel to combat these nimble craft. It was agreed that the depth-charge traps would remain empty until an emergency situation occurred. In addition, no anti-submarine duty would be allowed to interfere with air rescue work, nor would the launch be taken more than five miles out to sea on anti-submarine patrols. Three double traps were fitted which allowed a total of six charges to be carried - the maximum number permitted without risking the boat's stability.

R1 proceeded to the Nicholls yard for fitting on 6 May 1942 and lay there until 11 May while the alterations were made. Not unexpectedly orders came from Pretoria that the fitting of depth charges was to cease immediately. The telegram read:



That was the end of any ideas to use the boats in an offensive action and no crash boat ever fired a shot in anger.

R7 arrived in Durban from Cape Town on 28 June, under the command of Lt MM Webster with 2/Lt J Plimsoll as second in command. R1 met R7 at the Harbour entrance and Lt Bailey went aboard to act as pilot. Before R1 could return to the base she was ordered to sea to investigate a report of a seaplane taxying up the coast off Amanzimtoti. After a thorough search had been conducted it was realised that R7 had been mistaken for a seaplane as she sped towards Durban.

Even official reports of aircraft ditched in the sea were unreliable. An Anson was reported as having ditched 100 miles off Durban and R1 was ordered to carry out a search and rescue mission. Within four minutes of clearing the harbour, the crew of the boat sighted an aircraft flying towards the Bluff and 15 minutes later they received a message to say that the aircraft was safe.

R7 was called out under the command of Lt Bailey after it was reported that a Kittyhawk had crashed into the sea. The boat went to a point 20 miles from the Bluff and carried out a thorough search finding only an oxygen bottle floating on the surface. No sign of the pilot or any other wreckage was found. Reports indicated that the aircraft went in under power and possibly hit the water at about 300 mph. A funeral service was conducted two days later when both Durban boats took a party of 32 SAAF officers and a padre to the sight of the crash at 16h00 on 7 July. Wreaths were cast into the sea and a bugler was meant to sound the last post, but his severe sea-sickness prevented this from happening. The other disaster of the day was that both ferry boats were out of order and the padre had to be conveyed to Salisbury Island in a planning dinghy. These dinghies are very wet and unstable and the man of the cloth was thoroughly wet when he was deposited on the Durban side of the channel.

In spite of poor weather conditions, exercises and tests continued. R1 commanded by Lt Bailey was at sea on 3 November carrying out some tests with the Special Signals Corps 1½ miles off the Bluff in Durban. The state of the sea prompted him to call off the exercise, but before the order was given the radio operator received a signal that they were to go to a position three miles south-west of Karridene, and search for a lifeboat that had been reported in the area. The crew experienced immense difficulty as they battled against the sea, but with the expert help of 22 Squadron Venturas they were able to locate the lifeboat full of survivors.

R1 went alongside the small boat and the crew let it lie against the stern of the ASRL in an attempt to provide some stability for the transfer of the 32 shipwrecked men, who had been in the lifeboat for seven days. The survivors consisted of 13 Free French Air Force personnel, two RAF officers and the remaining 17 were made up from the crew and passengers. Seven casualties were taken below and in the words of the war diary 'R1 bore her heavy load back to the harbour before a steep following sea most excellently.' The survivors were from the ship Mendoza, a Ministry of War Transport liner of 8 233 tons sailing from Mombasa to Durban. The ship had been attacked 112 km east north-east from Durban, by U-178 (Kpt Z See, Hans Ibekken). This was the closest submarine attack to any South African harbour during the war and claimed the lives of 28 of the crew and 122 servicemen who were being transported.

A change in the method of operation was introduced in Durban to ensure that the rescue launches could react quickly to a call for help. Up to this point the boats had not been able to leave port at night, or until the anti-submarine booms were lifted. Ironically the increased threat of submarine activity and consequently greater number of reconnaissance flights; heightened the chances that aircraft would come to grief at sea. To ensure that a crash boat was always available, one was stationed every night, beyond the anti-submarine boom before it was closed.

On 11 December 1942, Ventura 6107 of 22 Squadron ditched in the sea 8 kilometres east of Umkomass, within site of the shore. Two Kittyhawks of 10 Squadron, an Anson and a Battle rushed to the scene to look for survivors. R1 was also despatched as the crew of four had been seen to escape from the sinking aircraft and all of them were wearing their Mae Wests. The Kittyhawks located two of the crew and while one kept station the other, using very lights, directed the crash boat to the men in the sea. The pilot Major Brierley and one of his crew, Sgt McIver, were picked up at 20h35. The search continued for Lts le Roux and Wright who were reported by the pilot to be within 500 yards, but they could not be found in the growing dusk. The search was resumed the next day at 06h30 in very unfavourable weather conditions. There was a fresh north easterly wind and heavy seas. An aircraft fired a very light and when the boat arrived at the indicated position a mutilated body was sighted. However sight was lost because of the swell and the seas crashing over the boat. The search was abandoned until, Lt Jacks, one of the Kittyhawk pilots spotted what was thought to be a man in the water. He was frustrated by the inability to communicate with the searching crash boat and took drastic action. He fired a burst across its bows but in doing so had lost site of the man and the supposed survivor could not be relocated.

It was clear that the controller of the operations room at Coastal Fortress Durban was not familiar with the standard arrangements regarding air sea rescue procedures. He had not acted as a command post or as a relay point for communications between the aircraft and the boat. No attempt had been made to couple the R/T and W/T communications. The Director-General of the Air Force called for a re-issue of the instructions, the display of these in operations rooms and the conducting of practice sessions. These orders were only issued in April 1943, by which time it was thought rather late to request an explanation from the controller on duty at the time.

For a Durban crew their civic duty was of a more desperate nature. R7 was despatched with a doctor on board to meet up with the Admiralty tug Prudent, which was in the vicinity of Port St Johns. The tug was on the last lap of an epic voyage from French West Africa, with an 80-ton floating crane in tow. A crewman had been seriously injured the previous day when he fell from the crane onto the steel deck below. As there were no medical supplies aboard either the tug or the crane, the SAAF was requested to render assistance. Transferring the doctor was made extremely difficult because the tug captain would not heave to and allow the crash boat to pull alongside. The doctor made his jump as the tug wallowed and the crew of R7 saw first the inside of the captain's cabin and then the growth on the underside of the tug. Once the medical attention had been given the doctor was taken off and returned to Durban.

In Durban R1 went to the assistance of two RAF officers who had attempted to land a Supermarine Walrus in the Maydon Channel. They had unfortunately not retracted the undercarriage, probably associating landing with gear down. As soon as the aircraft touched the water it nosed over onto its back. The following day, March 9, R1 went to the assistance of an exhausted bather off North Beach.

For three days from 12 March, both R1 and R7 searched for survivors of ships that had been torpedoed off the coast of Durban. Severe weather conditions caused the return of the vessels on at least one occasion.

The Durban crews were called out again on 14 March, when they received a message at their night moorings at 01h45. Under the command of Lt Bailey, the boat proceeded to a point two miles offshore and six miles south of Margate, to search for a lifeboat. Encountering heavy weather they stood out at sea to ride out the storm. They were considerably thrown around and often doused in tons of water, but as usual the little ship rode the onslaught with style. Sighting a lifeboat off Palm Beach at 09h00, the crash boat moved inshore and picked up 13 American survivors off the ship James B Stevens, which had been sunk by U-160. The men had been at sea in the lifeboat for seven days but their boat had been well equipped and they were on the whole, cheerful and healthy.

In the same month, two new boats arrived in Durban. R11 and R12 were unloaded and towed from C Shed Point, to the base and R12 was put up on the slip. It was only on 1 October that work was completed on R11 and the boat left the base on its first test run. R12 was launched on 5 October at 14h15 and towed to its mooring by R2. Two days later it left on engine tests, which included speed tests off South Beach.

An incident that occurred off Durban highlights the difficulties experienced by the rescue services. The duty boat R12, was under the command of Lt Brown when it was ordered to sea to search for survivors of an aircraft that had ditched. As the launch passed north pier at the harbour entrance a Harvard appeared overhead to act as a guide. The direction indicated by the aircraft was very different to that given in the original instructions, but Lt Brown chose to follow the Harvard.

Within a short time the crew of R12 observed a Kittyhawk making short dives over the sea, which indicated where they could expect to find survivors. An inflatable dinghy was sighted and soon after the crash boat arrived on the scene the airman was transferred from his dinghy to the crash boat. The Coastal Fortress Operations Room (CFOR) was radioed to request that a second boat be sent to continue the search. As it happened R11 had only been launched from the slipway earlier that afternoon and was being refuelled. Within an hour the boat was at sea, allowing R12 to land the survivor at Richetty Jetty on the Point, while R11 searched for the other member of the aircrew. Although the rescued observer had informed Lt Brown that he thought the pilot had gone down with the aircraft, the search continued unsuccessfully in fading light.

Communications between boats and aircraft and in turn with the shore were complex and unstable. The two launches maintained W/T communication except for a short time when they attempted to establish an R/T link with the searching aircraft. Because the two radio systems could not be used together, R12 missed a very important message on W/T from CFOR. This was that the sole survivor had been located four and a half miles away from the last reported position of the accident, which was the location originally given to the boat crew. It was fortunate that the Harvard guide had been so efficient, as the launch had not received the message with details of the new crash site location. It was clear that having aircraft on the scene was highly important, as visibility was five to ten times greater than from a launch and aircraft could cover a far larger search area, quicker than could be managed by a boat.

The Durban ferry was extensively used and had broken down twice in its first month of operation. A second ferry, the Lilmarie, a 30' boat capable of 12 knots, was purchased by the Defence Department on 8 July 1942. Both of these boats were heavily used and began to show signs of associated wear and tear. A third ferry, Popeye, was commissioned on 19 February 1943 and this helped the transport situation considerably, allowing two launches to run and have one under maintenance. In August 1945 the Chevrolet engine was removed from Popeye and the hull was found to be in a bad state of repair, requiring a month of rebuilding. The unit also purchased a fourth ferry, the Walton, which was still running well, at the end of the war.


Picture courtesy Guy Ellis.
© Dave Cooke.

Some of the SAAF crash boats were later taken over and operated by the South African Navy. R9 was a Mark IV Miami class boat and was delivered by her makers in 1943. She was taken over by the Navy in 1969 and served until 1972 when she was disposed of and refitted as a tourist ferry.


<== Click image for an enlargement.

The boats that had been stored in Durban were deteriorating. When R11 and R12 had been returned to Durban from East London in November 1945, they had cracked port and starboard forward inner engine beds. Both boats had total running times of just over 300 hours. It was only in May and June 1947, that R11 and R12 were sailed to Gordon's Bay having accumulated 485 hours. They were by now experiencing serious problems with the engine beds, frames and fittings that had all deteriorated due to lack of proper maintenance. Because R20 was in a reasonable condition, she sailed from Durban a month later and was in service at Langebaanweg by April 1948. R14 was returned to Gordon's Bay in September 1947 with total running time of 356 hours. Similar to the earlier boats, there were some major defects evident, such as fractured inner and outer port engine beds. This boat was laid up at Gordon's Bay and was only sold in 1954.

Len Pinchen and Deryck Upton purchased six boats for an average price of £500. Two known boats were R1 and R2. This boat was ferried to Durban by Dougie Craig, who then skippered the boat for Upton and Pinchen. He was the only fatality on the Tracey Jon, a latter rescue performed by the new German boats. These were to be used for fishing and were sailed to Durban from Langebaan. The boats were christened, Isle of Capri I, II and III, the Welkom, the Ooster and the Sea Joy. The boats had been built with planking, a sheet of manedapolin cloth and resin and white lead and then further planking, using 1½ inch screws to hold it all together. They required continual maintenance as electrolysis took over and the screws had to be replaced with rivets. When the rubber fuel tanks were removed, labels indicating that aviation fuel should be used were still in place.

Another resident of Durban was The Queen, a boat owned by a retired Colonel who used it for fishing. It was extremely noisy and smokey. He used the boat for a few years until one day while fishing in calm seas she caught alight and sank. The crew were all rescued by nearby fellow fisherman.

The Isle of Capri I sank at her moorings in Durban and as she was being salvaged her back broke and she was broken up in May 1999. A far more dramatic fate awaited Isle of Capri II. In 1972 she received a call to tow a boat from Richard' s Bay. During the tow high seas came up. Heading into the sea her Skipper Deryck Upton faced a monstrous wave. He went over the wave, with the towline going through it, but could not keep ahead. It crashed down on the stern of the boat and cut the isle of Capri II in half. The crew abandoned ship and spent eight hours in a life raft until picked up by a trawler.

The Isle of Capri III and Welkom continue to be used as pleasure boats. Miami craft built to last only a few years continue to serve.

The Isle of Capri III. Photo talken by Allan Jackson in 2004.


<== Click image for an enlargement.

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