The Place of Natal Command in the History of World Science


By Willem Bergh; William Smith; Willem Botha; and Michael Laing **


Natal Command? Important in the history of science? How can this be? we hear you say. But wait - let the story tell itself.

On 22 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 it.

JLB was 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.

Then began 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 many people!

Then it 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.

The message 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 north!

Now what 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.

This was 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!

JLB now 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.

By 07:00 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.

But the 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

But,a 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?'

'Don't worry - it's on my boat!'

Captain 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.

JLB and 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:

  • Cmdt 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.
  • Capt P Letley (Co-pilot) The Orderly Officer told me we were going to fetch a fish (DEAD). My reply cannot be written down.
  • Lt 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 much.

But far 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.

After 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!

JLB Smith, after a long day, taking off his boots in Room 47 at Natal Command.


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JLB was 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 the occasion!).

Next day, 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!

They landed 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!

Dr Malan 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 after me!)'.

The Smiths 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.'

Next morning 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!

The 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.

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It was 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.

It was 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 ago).

And what 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.

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