The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 9 No 1 - June 1992


by W Bergh, W Smith, W Botha, and M Laing

Natal Command important in the history of science! Why should this be? it may be asked. The ensuing account will provide the answer.

Figure 1

1 The White House; the headquarters building of Natal Command, built in 1937. This is a familiar landmark to the thousands of surfers and holidaymakers who swim at Battery Beach (so named because a battery of heavy guns stood there for many years).

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, who came down to the harbour to examine it.(1) She immediately sensed that something about that fish was unusual and 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, as Dr Smith was known, was a lecturer in organic chemistry at the university but was also an acknowledged expert on the fishes of the Southern African seas. Unfortunately, he was on holiday at Knysna at the time, over 500 km 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,(2) 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. On seeing it he said, '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'.(3) 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 fourteen 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 in Portuguese, English and French, which offered a reward of £100 for a live coelacanth.4 (At that time £100 was an enormous sum, equivalent to a year's salary for most people in Africa!)

Figure 2

2 The leaflet in three languages offering a £100 reward for a living coelacanth, which finally led Captain Hunt to the specimen that spent the night of 29 December1952 at Natal Command.

Then it came - a telegram from out of the blue.(5) It was midday, Christmas Eve, 24 December 1952, and JLB and his wife were passengers on the Dunnottar Castle that had just docked in Durban harbour! The ship was en route to East London from Mombasa where the Smiths had spent five months collecting specimens for their new Department of Ichthyology in Grahamstown. The message came from Captain Eric Hunt, master of a schooner that plied 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 had been found fourteen years to the day after that first incredible find off East London. And this new fish had been found in the Comores Islands, 4 000 kilometres to the north!

Figure 3

3 The flight route of Dakota 6832(KOD): 28 December - 31 December 1952; Swartkops - Durban - LM - Lumbo - Pamanzi - Lumbo - LM - Durban - Grahamstown - Ysterplaat - Grahamstown - Swartkops.

What was to be done? The first task was to find enough formalin to preserve a fish 1,5 metres long, weighing 50 kg, which had already been dead for four days. The next was how to get it back to South Africa? Perhaps a Sunderland flying boat from 35 Squadron at Durban Bayhead would be available for this purpose. The days went by, Christmas Day, Boxing Day. The 27th came, but it was a Saturday, and while ordinary shops were open, the chemical supply houses and manufacturers were closed. However, there are always ways and means, and eventually a supplier was found and was persuaded by Dr George Campbell to supply the necessary twenty litres of formalin.(6)

The real problem was 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 Cabinet Ministers whom he had met as a result of his scientific work. However, it seemed hopeless, as it was Christmas and everyone seemed to be on holiday. Finally, in desperation, he appealed directly to the Prime Minister, Dr D F Malan. (This was made possible through Dr Vernon Shearer, a dentist by profession, and 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!) Then at 23:00 on the night of 26 December the phone rang for JLB; it was the Prime Minister calling. He had decided to help. Next morning early, on 27 December, Dr Malan instructed the Chief of the Defence Force, Lt Gen C L de Wet du Toit, DSO and bar, to make available an aircraft to fly Professor Smith to the Comores to collect the coelacanth.(7) This was truly a decision of remarkable vision!

JLB had to explain in detail* the situation to Brigadier S A Melville, OBE, Acting Chief of Air Staff and Officer Commanding 1 Group South African Air Force (Defence Headquarters, Pretoria). Within the day he communicated to Brigadier H Daniel, Officer Commanding Natal Command, that a Douglas C47 Dakota would be flying down from Swartkops Air Force Base to take JLB to the Comores to collect the coelacanth.(8) At 05:00 on Sunday 28 December 1952, SAAF Dakota No 6832(KOD) and its six-man crew landed at Stamford Hill Aerodrome behind Natal Command. The great adventure had begun.

* The bill for the calls on Dr George Campbell's phone on 27 December was £31 - an enormous sum. This gives an idea of how complex the negotiations were between JLB, the Prime Minister, and Brigadier Melville.]

By 07:00 they were off, flying north via Lourenço Marques. JLB wanted to make coffee by boiling some water on his portable Primus stove, and was somewhat distressed when Lt D Ralston informed him that this was not allowed because of the danger of fire. At 15:30 they landed at the village of Lumbo in Northern Mozambique where they spent the night.9 At 04:30 on 29 December, they took off on the final leg to that special island called Pamanzi where Captain Hunt waited with the coelacanth in the harbour of Dzaoudzi.

Figure 4

4 Map of the islands of Mayotte and Pamanzi showing the Dakota's route in to the landing strip. Dzaoudzi lies on the coast facing Mayotte.

The question arose whether a landing was possible. Through the clouds a primitive airstrip was visible. It had been built ten years earlier by the UDF when they had occupied Pamanzi during the Second World War. The aircraft would have to land uphill, facing the volcano, with no second chance of going around again.

Figure 5

5 An aerial view of Pamanzi showing the landing strip - the roughly cleared area in the foreground.

A Dakota is, however, tough, and after a quick circuit the party was safely on the ground.(10) JLB looked out into the grinning face of Captain Hunt.
'Where's the fish?'
'Don't worry - it's on my boat!'

Figure 6

6 This is a unique photograph: the only one ever known to have been taken of a SAAF Dakota on the airstrip at Pamanzi. The aircrew are obviously in their uniforms; J L B is in his shorts, shoes with no socks, and pith helmet; Captain Hunt is next to him. Note how JLB is also wearing a raincoat and the water spots on Hunts trousers from the brief rain squall.

Captain Hunt, JLB, and the aircrew boarded vehicles supplied by the Governor of the Comores and soon were at the wharf where Hunt's schooner was moored. On the boat was a large coffin-like box near the mast. Hunt opened the lid, and in JLB's 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 ... .(11) His pursuit had finally come to an end and his dream had come true. JLB examined the fish carefully, noted small differences from the 1938 specimen, and gave it a new name, Malania anjouanae, thus honouring 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.(12) The aircrew would have liked to stay on to enjoy the palmed-lined beaches and indulge in a little fishing and sailing on Hunt's schooner, but JLB was adamant: they had to leave. So the coelacanth in its box (complete with smell) was loaded onto the Dakota, and the group flew back to Durban. It was 10:00; they had been on the ground at Pamanzi barely three hours, yet it had seemed like an age. The flight back was eventless, with brief stops at Lumbo and Lourenco Marques. By then the members of 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 records:(13)

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): 'I was all set to go on a special visit to my girlfriend for the weekend. I had to cancel all arrangements by phone so I didn't like the idea very much.'

Despite this, when JLB had wept at seeing the coelacanth, the six crew men could sense the historic significance of the occasion and wept with him in sympathy and relief. They had become a team.

After a gruelling trip of eleven hours, Dakota 6832 (KOD) landed at Stamford Hill Aerodrome and taxied up to the apron; aircraft, crew and coelacanth were back safely. What a day it had been, starting at 04:30 at Lumbo, then 07:00 at Dzaoudzi to collect the coelacanth (and enjoy the 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.(14) JLB and his fish were world news!

JLB was assigned sleeping quarters in the Headquarters Building of Natal Command for the night. The coelacanth was to have been placed in a nearby bungalow under special guard, but this did not satisfy JLB. He insisted that his coelacanth remain with him; and so it was brought up to HQ and he and his smelly treasure in its coffin-like box spent 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.

Figure 7

7 Professor J L B Smith with his coelacanth on the steps of White House. Note the studded mahogany panelled door in the background; it is still there. This photograph was taken at about 23:00 on 29 December 1952, just before Malania was carried up to the bedroom where J L B spent the night with it beside him.

Figure 8

8 JLB taking off his boots in his bedroom, No 47 on the first floor; with his coelacanth at his feet. It is now about 2:00 on 30 December and he is still besieged by reporters.

Next day, 30 December 1952, the Dakota took off from Durban, and flew to Grahamstown to pick up Mrs Margaret Smith and their son William. From Grahamstown it flew to Cape Town so that JLB could personally show the coelacanth to Dr Malan. But nothing with JLB was straightforward. The long-suffering pilot was asked to detour over Knysna so that JLB could drop a message (tied to wooden plank) to his other son who was staying in the family cottage for the holidays!

Figure 9

9 The Dakota, its crew, Professor and Mrs Smith and William on the airfield at Grahamstown, just before take off to fly to Ysterplaat, to show the coelacanth to Dr D F Malan, the Prime Minister From left to right are:
Lt W J Bergh (navigator), Cpl F Brink, Cpl J W J van Niekerk, Mrs Margaret Smith, Commandant J P D Blaauw (pilot), Professor J L B Smith, Capt P Letley (co-pilot), Lt D M Ralston (navigator), William Smith.

Figure 10

10 The page from Lt Berghs Log Book, (DD 461 A), dated 28 December to 31 December 1952. In simple numbers are recorded the hours and minutes spent in the air for each leg of the flight. Note how the whole amazing adventure is reduced here to only dry numbers. But look carefully at the line 'Dec-29-DAK-LM-DBN' and the smudge to the left of 2:20 (marked with arrows). Lt Bergh was so tired at this stage that he recorded the 2:20 time for the night flight from LM to Durban in the wrong column. He erased the number; thus causing the smudge, and then correctly listed it under Night.

At Ysterplaat Air Force Base near Cape Town, the coelacanth was unloaded. It was then transported by military vehicle to Dr Malan's home at the Strand so that he could 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! (A new car, at the time, cost £500.)

Dr Malan looked into the box containing the corpse of a large, somewhat battered fish smelling of formalin and ten days of decomposition, and then made the classic remark:(15) '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 to Ysterplaat 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.'

Figure 11

11 Dr D F Malan examines the coelacanth in the garden of his home at the Strand, 30 December 1952.

Next morning the Dakota and its crew took off to fly the coelacanth and 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!

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 Swartkops Air Force Base. The crew was 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 and Dakota 6832(KOD) had had a moment with destiny.

What has befallen old 6832 over the past forty 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, 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).

Figure 12

12 SAAF Dakota 6832(KOD), still very much operational at Ysterplaat in 1991 at a young age of 50 years, just waiting to take off and go!

And what of Stamford Hill Aerodrome and the Air Force base behind Natal Command? The hanger is no longer there, having been moved to Louis Botha Airport, where it is still in 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 two major north-bound roads, NMR Avenue and the M4. The apron lies under the railway lines of the new Durban Station. The civil terminal building still survives as the NMR clubhouse, protected by three Second World War tanks - a Sherman, a Honey and a Cromwell.

Figure 13

13 Brigadier J H Pretorius, Officer Commanding Natal Command (right) and Mr William Smith, son of JLB and Margaret Smith, (left) at the unveiling of the memorial plaque in the Headquarters Building, on 29 December 1991.

And at Natal Command, Room No 47, in which JLB and his coelacanth spent the night of 29 December 1952, is still in daily use as accommodation for officers. But on the wall at the entrance of the White House there is now a plaque, commemorating the day that Natal Command played a unique part in the history of world science.

Figure 14

14 Detail of the memorial plaque on the wall of the White House, Natal Command, Durban.

Figure 15

15 Genls Willem Bergh (left) and Duncan Ralston (right). SAAF (retd) and Gen Retzold, in front of Dakota 6832, on 29 December, 1991.

It is a pleasure to thank:
Few people seem to appreciate the vision of Dr D F Malan in ordering this flight to collect the coelacanth. Dr Malan was a deeply religious man, a committed Calvinist, yet he had no qualms about sanctioning such an unusual military mission to bring back a specimen that was critical to the understanding of the fossil record and hence of the concept of Evolution. He saw in it no threat to a person's faith in Divine Creation.

Dr Malan responded to JLB's plea for help because he knew of JLB's eminence as an ichthyologist. In fact, Dr Malans had a copy of JLB's book, Sea Fishes of Southern Africa, with him in his home at the Strand for holiday reading, and he had been looking at it when JLB made his telephone call for help.

References labelled (a) are to the book Old Fourlegs by Professor J L B Smith, published 1956, Longmans, Green, London; those labelled (b) are to Old Man Coelacanth by Mrs Shirley Bell published in 1969, Voortrekker Pers, Johannesburg.

Willem Bergh served in the South African Air Force from 1952 until 1983 when he retired with the rank of lieutenant-general. He was the navigator on this epic flight. He attended the University of Pretoria and earned the degrees of BSc in Chemistry and Geology, and MSc in Chemistry. He taught Chemistry at the Military Academy, Saldanha Bay during the 1960s.

William Smith is the son of J L B and Margaret Smith. He obtained a BSc degree in 1959 from Rhodes University and a MSc degree in organic chemistry from the University uf Natal, Pietermaritzburg. He is director of Star Schools and runs the well-known Argus and Daily News Winter Schools for high school pupils; and is now pioneering educational programmes on South African television.

Willem Botha is a staff officer with the rank of commandant at Natal Command, and has served in the SADF since 1960, first in the Citizen Force and since 1979 in the Permanent Force.

Michael Laing is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Natal in Durban.

(Someone's comment about the authors was: 'Chemists are notorious for never doing chemistry. JLB collected fish; the next one joined the Air Force; another one is into TV; and the last one is writing stories about fish in aeroplanes! What a bunch!')

Figure at end of article

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