Saga on the Skeleton Coast

World War II provided many examples of the perils of the sea, but not all of them were a consequence of enemy action. In fact, one ship was wrecked as a direct result of trying to avoid any possibility of meeting the enemy.

Steaming down the west coast of Africa on 20 November 1942, the Blue Star Line’s Dunedin Star, 11,200 tonnes, was en route to the Middle East via the Cape of Good Hope. She had sailed from Liverpool with military supplies and over a hundred people on board, half of whom were passengers. She should have been travelling in convoy but for some reason was making a lone passage. For safety, the captain decided to stay as close to the shore as possible, avoiding the normal shipping lanes where he suspected u-boats to be patrolling.

The SS Dunedin Star in happier circumstances
The SS Dunedin Star in happier circumstances.

Darkened down with the navigation lights out the ship sailed confidently south. Late that night, with all but the watch keepers turned in, she struck an underwater obstruction. There were three separate and distinct bangs as the hull collided with then ran over something solid. At first it was thought they had struck an uncharted, half submerged wreck or perhaps a u-boat that had come up to the surface to charge her batteries. Later investigation suggested that they had probably run over the poorly charted Clan Alpine Shoal – an ever-shifting reef or sandbar – which lay about 12 kilometres off the coast.

The captain sent the chief engineer and the carpenter below to report on the damage. They returned with bad news. The engineer calculated that the vessel was taking on so much water that she could only remain afloat for three or four hours. On hearing this the captain decided the only thing to do was turn the ship in towards the shore and try to put her up on the beach. The wheel was put over to port and the ship drove through the darkness, blindly seeking the safety of the shore. What the captain didn’t consider was just how inhospitable the coast was. Barren, dry and uninhabitable, it was known as the Skeleton Coast.

The sand dunes of the Namibian desert were known to stretch for hundreds of kilometres in each direction. There were no trees or other vegetation and no water. The sun beat down relentlessly during the day and the winds picked up the fine grains of sharp sand and mercilessly blasted skin. At night it got very cold. To complicate matters further, the Atlantic waves rolled continuously in from a couple of kilometres out and crashed onto the desert foreshore, making any transit between sea and beach very hazardous.

Ships usually kept well clear of this coast. If they were cast ashore, there was little chance of ever getting off again and the shoreline was reputedly littered with the skeletons of wrecked ships and their unfortunate crews. Whether the captain knew all these details or not, he had little option but to try to land. His only alternative was to abandon the ship right there, but they were so far from civilisation that it would take days or even weeks to be found, and some of the babies may not have survived for long in an open boat in the Atlantic. The captain hoped to take the Dunedin Star into the shallow water of the coast in the hope she would settle on the bottom with the accommodation above water. Like this they could perhaps remain on board until rescue came. There would also be the added possibility of salvaging the valuable war supplies in the hold.

As they headed for shore the captain reluctantly sent out an SOS. He knew that the signal may well attract a u-boat, who could wait in ambush for the rescue ships to arrive. There was no immediate reply, but the signal was repeated until breaking waves were visible ahead. Speed was reduced and the ship came in to ground gently on a sloping sandy beach. The crew congratulated themselves on a job well done, but then the following seas pounded on her port quarter, broaching her around to the full force of the waves. The rollers were ruthless, and at times broke right over her.

The passengers, who had been standing by their lifeboat stations, were quickly ushered inside and told that nothing more would happen until morning. It was just after midnight when the generators were flooded and all the lights went out. Shortly after this the radio officer – using a battery powered set – received a reply to the SOS from Walvis Bay, South Africa, stating that a trawler and a tug had been dispatched. It would take at least two days to travel almost 1,000 kilometres to reach them. There was also a reply from the British SS Manchester Division and the Norwegian SS Temeraire. Both were on their way to provide assistance and take on passengers but they would also take two days or more to arrive.

At first light their dire situation became obvious
At first light their dire situation became obvious.

At sunrise it was obvious their position was more precarious than they had imagined. Because of the constant assault of rank upon rank of Atlantic rollers, sandbanks were building up amidships whereas at the bow and the stern the waves were scouring the sand away. It was obvious that before long the ship would be balanced on a sand bar and the result would almost certainly be that she would break her back and go to pieces. The captain decided that it was too dangerous for the passengers to stay aboard, and looked for a way to land them using the ship’s motorboat.

Even the best boatman would have had trouble in the violent surf and so the boat was connected to a long line and paid out from the ship. Running in to the beach backwards, with her bows pointing into the breakers, she was much less likely to be broached or capsized. The first trip, loaded with passengers, food, water and medical supplies, arrived safely ashore but the boat sustained some damage that had to be repaired. Two more trips were then successfully made and all the women and babies were put ashore. On the next trip the boat was dashed on the beach and completely wrecked. Fortunately no one was injured, but 43 officers and men of the crew were left stranded on the ship.

Onshore, 63 people were marooned on the desolate and inhospitable beach. The chief officer organised for the wood and canvas from the wreck of the motorboat to be made into shelters for the women and children, who were suffering from the constant heat and the sand blasting wind. Some of the men went along the beach to see if they could pick up anything to use in their camp. What they found had a very sobering effect on all concerned. Decomposing under the scorching sun were the ribs of an old sailing ship and some abandoned makeshift huts. When they looked closer they also saw a number of human skeletons, and what spooked them most was that none of these had skulls. The castaways could not ignore the ominous implications of being stranded on the aptly named Skeleton Coast.

On the third day since the wreck the Norwegian vessel Temeraire and the British Manchester Division arrived and anchored off shore. With extreme difficulty a boat from the Temeraire managed, in three trips, to go alongside the Dunedin Star and rescue the 43 crewmembers. The tug Sir Charles Elliott also arrived, as did the minesweeper Nerine from Walvis Bay. There were now four major vessels surrounding the wreck but there was nothing any of them could do to rescue those on shore. The Sir Charles Elliott eventually ran low on coal and had to set off back to Walvis Bay. During the hours of darkness, just a hundred kilometres further south, she too ran aground and became a total loss with two of her company drowned.

Back at the first wreck, the minesweeper Narine repositioned closer to shore and attempted to float two rafts with supplies ashore, but the strong currents swept them south along the coast. The Manchester Division used a lamp to signal with Morse code to those on shore that a bomber from the South African Air Force was on its way with supplies. Also, an overland rescue expedition had set out from Windhoek, the closest European settlement.

Thirteen days after the Dunedin Star had first hit difficulties, the promised plane took off from Cape Town. It flew over the wreck of the Sir Charles Elliott, which was reported back to base, and went on to sweep low above the castaway camp and drop its supplies.  Most of the food landed safely but many of the water cans burst open on impact. The pilot, realising the seriousness of the predicament, made the regrettable decision to land on the sand in order to evacuate the women and children. When he went to taxi the plane for takeoff it dug in deep and became bogged down, stranding him as well.

The Temeraire eventually had to leave and the little Narine had to return to Walvis Bay to refuel. Much against their will, the captain and the first officer of the Dunedin Star, who were onboard, had to go with her. They dropped another raft with provisions before they left and although it too was swept down the coast it was tracked by some of the shore party. When it came ashore the men were not only able to recover its contents but also those of the two lost rafts they found washed up in the same place.

The survivors and the two bodies of the Sir Charles Elliott were airlifted to Cape Town and the pilot of the aircraft was also able to report on the overland rescue party. They were in considerable difficulties due to soft sand, challenging terrain and, of all things, fog. The rescue party was in need of rescue. A second party set out to locate and assist or rescue the first, thereby complicating an already complicated saga.

The Narine returned with a plan. She went in as close to the beach as she dared and anchored. Then one of the Dunedin Star’s lifeboats was attached to a cable and paid out to around 140 metres from the shore. With some difficulty a light line was then passed to the people on the beach and used to haul in a heavier cable. Fifteen men dragged themselves along this, out through the surf to the lifeboat. Obviously, the women with babies could not be expected to escape in this way but the Narine had onboard a special surfboat and men who knew how to use it. They allowed the surfboat to drift ashore on a line from the lifeboat and then hauled it in with eight women and three babies on board. It was only a short trip but a perilous one. The breaking waves partly filled the boat and as it got alongside the lifeboat an extra large wave capsized it, throwing all its occupants into the sea. The men managed to grab two of the women and two of the babies and pull them to safety but the rest floundered in the surf until they were washed ashore. Miraculously, all of them survived.

Although no lives were lost the surfboat had been totally destroyed by the waves and a number of people were still stranded on the shore. The following day another 13 men pulled themselves through the surf on the cable and the Narine, overflowing with 26 survivors, sailed for Walvis Bay. There were now just a few castaways left on the beach. A reconnaissance aircraft reported that the overland rescue party was now around 15 kilometres away and that the back up party was about 80 kilometres behind them. Things were beginning to look a little better.

The first rescue party to arrive provided food, water and medical attention, and transported everyone to the nearest area where an aircraft could land safely. Most of the survivors were airlifted out with one of the women in an advanced state of pregnancy. She was rushed to the maternity hospital at Cape Town where the very next morning she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The aircraft returned to recover the remaining survivors, apart from one man who didn’t fancy the thought of flying. He returned overland with the rescuers, who met up with the second party on the way. They returned to Windhoek on Christmas Eve, having travelled over 2,400 kilometres through atrocious conditions.

During the next few months, much of the Dunedin Star’s more valuable contents were salvaged, including 4,000 bags of mail bound for troops then serving in the Middle East.

The only thing left to do was recover the bomber that had been stranded in the sand. Two thousand metres of wire netting were laid on the sand to stop the aircraft from bogging down on take off. The original aircrew climbed aboard and opened the throttles. To everyone’s relief, she lumbered up off the ground, gained height and turned south for Cape Town. But no sooner had the bomber set course for home than the engines cut out. She crashed into the sea, broke into three pieces and sank. The three crewmen managed to fight their way out of the wreckage and were eventually washed up on shore. All were badly injured, they had no radio and were very low on rations and water.

They decided that their only chance of survival was to walk inland. The navigator, who was the least injured, set off alone and more by luck than good management stumbled across the repair party who were returning from laying the wire netting landing strip. They went back for the other two men, gave them first aid and assisted them to safety.

That really was the last of the long series of mishaps in the saga of the Skeleton Coast, all brought about by an initial act of caution as the Dunedin Star tried to steer clear of the enemy. Years after the war it was discovered that at that time there were in fact no German u-boats at all in that part of the Atlantic.

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