Command? Important in the history of science? How can this
be? we hear you say. But wait - let the story tell itself.
December 1938 a strange blue fish was taken by a trawler off
East London. On returning to harbour, its skipper Hendrik
Goosen contacted Miss Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, curator
of the East London Museum, and she came down to the harbour
to examine if. She immediately sensed that something about
that fish was unusual, and as a result wrote a brief note,
including a sketch of the fish, to Dr J L B Smith of Rhodes
University in nearby Grahamstown, asking for him to help identify
a lecturer in organic chemistry at the university, but he
was also an acknowledged expert on the fishes of the Southern
African seas. Unfortunately, he was on holiday at Knysna,
over 500 kilometres away! and the letter only reached him
on 3 January 1939 - eleven days later! There followed a frantic
series of letters and telegrams between Knysna and East London,
but it was only on 16 February 1939, after being delayed by
rain and impassable muddy roads, that JLB finally arrived
at the East London Museum to look at the specimen. In his
words: '- that first sight hit me like a white-hot blast and
made me feel shaky and queer, my body tingled. I stood as
if stricken to stone'. He had identified the first living
Coelacanth ever known to mankind. Alive! A fish that was supposed
to have become extinct 200 million years ago. Fate had tapped
him on the shoulder and smiled.
J L B Smith's pursuit phase. For 14 years he systematically
searched the coastline of South and East Africa for further
specimens. Finding a second live Coelacanth became an obsession.
In 1948 he had printed and distributed hundreds of leaflets
which, in Portuguese, English and French, offered a reward
of £100 for a live Coelacanth.(£100 at that time
was an enormous sum, being equivalent to a year's Salary for
came - a telegram from out of the blue, It was midday, Christmas
Eve, 24 December 1952, and JLB and his wife were passengers
on the ship 'Dunnottar Castle' that had just docked in Durban
harbour! The ship was en route to East London from Mombasa
where the Smiths had spent 5 months collecting specimens for
their new Department of Ichthyology in Grahamstown. The message
came from Captain Eric Hunt, master of a schooner that traded
off the East African coast. JLB had met him in Zanzibar in
September 1952, and Captain Hunt had agreed to distribute
the leaflets on the Comores Islands.
from him read:' HAVE FIVE FOOT SPECIMEN COELACANTH INJECTED
FORMALIN HERE KILLED 20TH ADVISE REPLY HUNT DZAOUDZI. At last!
Another living specimen found 14 years to the day after that
first incredible find off East London. And this new fish had
been found in the Comores Islands, 4000 kilometres to the
to do? The first problem was to find enough formalin to preserve
a fish 1,4 metres long, mass 50 kilograms, which had already
been dead 4 days! And how to get it back to South Africa?!
Perhaps a Sunderland flying boat from 35 Squadron at Durban
Bayhead. The days went by: Christmas Day, Boxing Day. The
27th came, but it was Saturday, and while ordinary shops were
open, the chemical supply houses and manufacturers were closed!
But there are always ways and means, and eventually a supplier
was persuaded by Dr George Campbell to open up and the necessary
20 litres of formalin were obtained.
easy compared to the real problem: how to get to Dzaoudzi
in the Comores Islands, collect the fish and bring it home!
JLB began telephoning every person who might help him, from
the President of the CSIR to the Cabinet Ministers whom he
had met as a result of his work in science. But it was hopeless!
It was Christmas time, everyone was on holiday. Finally in
desperation he appealed directly to the Prime Minister, Dr
D F Malan. (This was made possible by the good services of
Dr Vernon Shearer, a dentist by profession, who was a Member
of Parliament for Durban. He considered the situation to be
so important for science to warrant disturbing the Prime Minister
who was on his Christmas vacation at the time!) Then at 23:00
on the night of 26 December the 'phone rang for JLB; it was
the Prime Minister calling. He had made his decision to help.
Next morning early, the 27th, Dr Malan instructed the Chief
of the Defence Force to make available an aeroplane to fly
Professor Smith to the Comores to collect the Coelacanth.
Truly a decision of remarkable vision!
had to explain in detail the situation to Brigadier Melville
(Defence Headquarters, Pretoria). Within the day he communicated
to Brigadier Daniel (Officer Commanding Natal Command) that
a Douglas C-47 Dakota would be flying down from Swartkop Air
Force Base to take JLB to the Comores to collect the Coelacanth.
At 05:00 on Sunday 28 December 1952, SAAF Dakota No. 6832(KOD)
and its 6-man crew landed at Stamford Hill Aerodrome behind
Natal Command. The great adventure had begun.
they were off, flying north via Lourenco Marques. JLB was
all for boiling some water on his portable Primus stove to
make coffee, and was somewhat distressed when Lt Ralston informed
him that this was 'not allowed' because of the danger of fire.
At 15:30 they landed at the little village of Lumbo in Northern
Mozambique where they spent the night. JLB was so anxious
that he could not sleep. At 01:00 he made coffee. At 02:30
he was clattering around in the kitchen making fruit salad.
At 03:00 he went to 'check' on the crew: they had surrendered
to the noise, and were up. At 04:30 on 29 December, they took
off on the final leg to that special island - called Pamanzi
- where there waited Captain Hunt and the Coelacanth in the
harbour of Dzaoudzi.
landing? Would it be possible? There it was, down through
the clouds! A primitive air-strip, built 10 years before by
the SADF when they occupied Pamanzi during World War II. They
would have to land uphill, towards the volcano, with no second
chance of going around
Dakota is tough; one quick circuit, and they were safely on
the ground. JLB looked out into the grinning face of Captain
Hunt. 'Where's the fish?'
worry - it's on my boat!'
Hunt, JLB and the aircrew jumped into the vehicles supplied
by the Governor of the Comores and soon they were at the wharf
where Hunt's schooner was tied. They wended their way down
to the boat, and there it was: a large coffin-like box near
the mast. Hunt opened the lid, and in JLB's own words: 'It
was true! It was a Coelacanth all right. - I was weeping -
quite without shame. Fourteen of the best years of my life
had gone into this search. The pursuit had finally come to
an end; at last his dream had come true. JLB examined it carefully,
noted small differences from the 1938 specimen, and so he
gave this fish a new name: Malania anjouanae,. thus honourng
the generosity of Dr Malan and the island Anjouan off which
the fish had been caught.
the aircrew then joined the Governor in his Residence for
a quick celebration, with toasts of wine and vintage brandy
and a glorious chocolate cake. The aircrew were all for staying
on to savour the palm-lined beaches and indulge in a little
fishing and sailing on Hunt's schooner, but JLB was adamant:
they had to leave. So the FISH in its box (complete with smell)
was loaded onto the Dakota, and off they flew back to Durban.
It was 10:00; they had been on the ground at Pamanzi barely
3 hours, yet it had seemed like an age. The flight back was
eventless, with brief stops again at Lumbo and Lourenco Marques.
Once again JLB had to be stopped from brewing coffee on his
primus stove during the flight. By now the crew were very
tired, and while they were in the air, JLB asked them to record
their thoughts when they were first informed about the flight.
Here are three:
J P D Blaauw (Pilot) It must be a pretty important fish
if the Prime Minister is prepared to give an aircraft and
a crew to some hare-brained scientist to fetch it.
P Letley (Co-pilot) The Orderly Officer told me we were
going to fetch a fish (DEAD). My reply cannot be written
W J Bergh (Navigator) I1 was all set to go on a special
visit to my girl friend for the weekend - I had to cancel
all arrangement;s by phone - so I didn't like the idea very
more important, when JLB had wept at seeing the Coelacanth,
the six crew could feel the historic significance of the occasion
and wept with him in sympathy and relief for him. They had
become a team.
a gruelling trip of 11 arduous hours, Dakota 6832 (KOD) landed
at Stamford Hill aerodrome and taxied up to the apron: plane,
crew and Coelacanth were back safely. What a day, starting
at 04:30 at Lumbo, then 07:00 at Dzaoudzi for the Coelacanth
(and chocolate cake!), and finally home at 21:00! The fuselage
door was opened and Professor J L B Smith stepped out into
a blast of flash bulbs and news reporters. The SABC broadcast
a live radio interview. He and his fish were world news!
Smith, after a long day, taking off his boots in Room
47 at Natal Command.
Click for enlargement.
assigned sleeping quarters in the Headquarters Building of
Natal Command for the night. The Coelacanth was to be placed
in a nearby bungalow under a special guard, but this did not
satisfy JLB. He insisted that his Coelacanth be with him;
and so it was brought up to H.Q., and he and his smelly treasure
in its coffinlike box slept a secure night in. Room 47 of
the 'White House' at Natal Command (under the watchful eye
of those Zulu guards that had been specially detailed for
30 December 1952, the Dakota took off from Durban again, and
flew to Grahamstown to pick up Mrs Margaret Smith and their
son William. They took off again, headed now to Cape Town
so that JLB could personally show the new Coelacanth to Dr
Malan. But nothing with JLB was straightforward. The long-suffering
pilot was made to detour over Knysna so that JLB could drop
a message (tied to a wooden plank) to his other son who was
staying in the family cottage for the holidays!
safely at Ysterplaat Air Force Base near Cape Town, where
the Coelacanth was unloaded. It was then transported by military
vehicle to Dr Malan's home at the Strand for him to see the
fabulous find that had cost an air force Dakota and its six-man
crew a trip of over 8 000 kilometres, and 22 hours in the
air at £40 per hour - a fortune!
looked into the box containing the corpse of a large somewhat
battered fish smelling of formalin and 10 days of decomposition,
and then he made his classic re- mark: 'My it is ugly. Do
you mean to say that we once looked like that? (and it's named
and the Coelacanth then returned toYsterplaat to collect William
who had been left behind to watch the SAAF jets: 'quite spectacular,
fantastic; I had never seen a jet fighter flying before. They
were far more exciting than an old fish.'
the Dakota and its crew took off to fly the Coelacanth and
all the Smiths back to Grahamstown. But first they had to
make a slight detour to circle over Dr Malan's home and drop
copies of the morning newspapers to him as he stood outside
on the lawn waving to them!
Dakota, its crew, Professor and Mrs Smith and William
on the airfield at Grahamstown, on 31 December 1952
just after their retum from Ysterplaat, where they had
flown the previous day to show the Coelacanth to Dr
D F Malan, the Prime Minister of South Africa. From
left to right are: 1. Ueutenant W J Bergh (Navigator),
2. Corporal F Brink, 3. Corporal J W J van Niekerk,
4. Mrs Margaret Smith, 5. Commandant J P D Blaauw (pibt),
6. Professor J L B Smith, 7. Captain P Letley (Co-pilot),
8. Leutenant D M Ralston (Navigator), 9. William Smith.
The Coelacanth is in the box on the ground.
Click for enlargement.
31 December, the last day of 1952 when Dakota 6832 took off
from Grahamstown to fly back to the relative peace, quiet
and sanity of SwartkopAir Force Base. The crew were exhausted,
but they were spurred on by the great prize: the acclaimed
SAAF New Year's Eve Ball! That night, the six of them really
Celebrated, tired but triumphant.
all over; Dakota 6832(KOD) had met its moment with destiny.
What has befallen old 6832 over the past years? Gone to the
scrap-heap many years ago, like the Sunderlands and so many
other important parts of our history? No! Dakota 6832 is still
going strong, and sturdily doing its maritime work as part
of 35 Squadron at Ysterplaat (where it brought Malania after
its first experience of long-range maritime flying so long
of Stamford Hill Aerodrome and the Air. Force Base behind
Natal Command? The hangar is long gone, but it has been moved
to Louis Botha airport, where it is still il1 use at the Air
Force base there. Some of the grass area is used for sports
fields; but the landing strip itself has disappeared under
the two major north-bound roads, NMR Avenue and the M4. The
apron is under the railway lines of the new Durban Station.
The civil terminal building still survives as the NMR clubhouse,
protected by three World War II tanks -:- a Sherman, a Honey
and a Cromwell. And at Natal Command, room No 47 in which
JLB and his Coelacanth slept the night of 29 December 1952,
is still in daily use as accommodation for officers. But on
the wall by the entrance of the 'White House' there now is
a plaque, commemorating the day when Natal Command played
its unique part in the history of world science.
This article was published in Spectrum magazine in August
1992 and is reprinted with the permission of Mike Laing.