The Crash of Avro Anson Golf Alpha Hotel
THE GODS WHO FELL FROM THE SKY
The true story of the life of Dick Mawson
The Avro Anson lifted into the air effortlessly from Mybeya airfield in Tanganyika and we were off on the last leg of our charter flight to Southern Africa it was the 1st July 1946. We were eight days out and the weather was hot and humid even at that early hour.
Flying over the Serengeti herds of wildebeest massed in their millions as they prepared for their annual migration, we watched this spectacle in awe and fascination from above as our little Anson flew overhead.
Nowhere in the world is there a movement of animals as immense as the wildebeest migration in Africa, over two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the greener pastures of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya during July through to October.
The recent experience of seeing Kilimanjaro's snow-capped summit so close to the equator was still fresh in our minds, as we watched the herds congregate this being a unique spectacle and I believe we were some of the first ever to see it from the air.
We flew on to Fort Jameson in Northern Rhodesia. Being a small aircraft we were well aware of activities in the cockpit and my husband whispered to me that he recognised the Mayday emergency signal being sent out by the navigator. With that Chalky White stuck his head out of the cockpit, “I have been trying to contact Fort Jameson for some time now but can get no reply, I need to obtain a fix on our position in relation to the airfield to find out exactly where we are.
We are out of fuel and have to make a forced landing”, he continued.
My heart sank in other words we were lost and had no way of knowing exactly where we were, only that we were flying over an African jungle and about to crash.
The navigator looked around the cabin and continued talking,
“Strap the children in tightly within your seat belts and pad around them with clothes and blankets”.
We did not have time to think about what could happen so busy were we attending to the children as he had suggested. We felt the plane bank and drop; it had been used in the war and for reasons unknown, had two sirens attached under the wings; which were now switched on and creating a frightful noise inside our tiny cabin.
We were trying to comfort and secure two little boys as the African bush loomed ever closer and as I felt a prayer would not be out of place I began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The ground rushed towards us at a terrifying speed as I went about protecting our two precious children from impact. We were heading for a dry river bed when our very observant pilot spotted a small clearing off to the left covered with elephant grass. He immediately lifted the nose and banked the aircraft away from the river bed, dropping expertly into the 10 feet tall elephant grass covering the clearing. Thank God! (As well as a very good Pilot), who was able to expertly guide the plane to land safely. The tall elephant grass took off a little speed before the wheels contacted rather heavily with the African earth looking out of the window all I could see was the propeller on the left of the plane chopping the grass which was flying up and over the cabin accompanied by clouds of dust. The plane must have hit an ant bear hole as we felt it drop and the propeller folded back over the engine cowl after striking the ground. We finally came to a very jerky halt.
Nikanya looked up at the shiny silver bird spiralling out of the sky. It was the screeching of the bird that had attracted his attention, and as it fell lower and lower to earth, he ducked under a Mopani Tree, hoping it would offer him protection from the white gods who were certain to be in the bird’s belly. As it approached the ground at greater and greater speed and the wailing grew louder and louder, Nikanya became convinced that the bird had suffered a mortal wound.
My Dad was a coal merchant and a senior NCO with the home guard on an Anti-Aircraft battery at the Liverpool docks during the war. I was born at home: 14 Larchwood Avenue, Maghull, not far from Aintree. Life started with an adventure in 1946 for my younger brother Clive aged two and me at the ripe old age of four
After World War II, our parents decided that a better future lay in Africa for us. I am thankful my mother recorded her account of our adventure below.
My husband had decided that there would be more opportunity in a new land. Our house and coal business were sold, and we went to London to procure passage to South Africa.
Back in 1946, it seemed impossible to book any sort of passage to South Africa without long delays. After spending a futile week in London, we were on the verge of giving up, when we heard about a MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) which was being converted for passenger use in Portsmouth. After about an hour of viewing the facilities available, we left and caught the train back to London. George, my husband, was quiet all the way back but he did not tell me at the time the misgivings he had about taking his family on a journey of some 6,000 miles across three oceans to South Africa in a plywood boat. By the time we reached London, he had decided that the boat journey would be too great.
On our arrival at our London hotel, a message awaited us: “Would we contact the travel agency we had seen earlier in the week”? So, arrangements were made for us to be there the next morning, and we were offered various alternative passages, none of which suited us. We were just about to leave the travel agency when we were called back.
"Were we interested in a private charter”?
A small Avro Anson aircraft (twin-engine used by the RAF during WWII) was available, the cost of which would be shared with a prominent businessman, also having the same difficulties regarding travel as we had. With the optimism of youth, a meeting was arranged for the next day at the offices of CL Air Surveys in Cromwell Rd, where we met with Lt Col Lloyd. We immediately liked the proposed charter and took up the option.
We returned to Liverpool to finalise our departure and to bid farewell to friends and family. At last we were on the move and had some direction in all our lives. We said goodbye to Liverpool, friends and family and caught a train to London. George bought a newspaper at Lime Street Station and a report on the second page caught his eye. A chartered MTB, which had left from Portsmouth a few days earlier, had floundered in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of all on board, and he wondered if perhaps it was the same one we had looked at.
Our adventure that nearly ended in tragedy started on the 25th June 1946. The Anson was waiting for us on the tarmac at Gatwick where we met our pilot, navigator and our travelling companion for the first time. The formalities taken care of, we took off about midday and landed at Le Bourget for a late lunch and then on to Marseilles “Mariguane” Airport for the night stop. The fuel capacity necessitated having to make frequent stops for refuelling, and for the passengers to partake of any refreshment available. Hotel accommodation also had to be arranged for the coming night stop.
We spent our first night at a comfortable little French inn in Marseilles and, with a dawn start planned for the next morning, retired early. Taking off around seven after a flight plan had been filed, we flew over Sardinia, which looked picturesque nestled in the middle of the Mediterranean. The sea was the most beautiful shade of blue, which turned to a brilliant turquoise as we landed in Tunis for lunch. Then on to Tripoli where we were sent on by the Yanks to Castle Benito, landing just after four in the afternoon. An army barracks was our accommodation for the second night.
Our son Richard was fascinated by the camel trains leaving for their long journey across the desert, but being intimidated by the size of the camels, he kept his distance and a tight hold of my hand. To bed early for a dawn start again the next morning.
A stop at Benito for lunch and on to Eli Adem near Benghazi for fuel. We saw lots of burnt out planes in the desert around Benghazi and flew on to Cairo where we landed at Abmaza Airport.
We stayed at the Heliopolis Palace, which was spacious and cool after our hot and dusty trip. With the children bathed and asleep, we went down for dinner, served outside on a marble terrace with millions of stars and a crescent moon hanging overhead. It was a magical night, and as we were not leaving until the following afternoon, our pilot suggested a trip to Cairo the following morning.
After breakfast, we boarded a tram, which proved to be hair-raising. The passengers swarmed aboard and hung on to every conceivable inch like flies on flypaper. The driver of the tram hurled us down the hills at breakneck speed, the tram bell ringing constantly in our ears as pedestrians dived for cover in all directions.
A visit to Groppis Ice Cream Parlour, a favourite with the tourists, where the ice cream was superb and cooled us down considerably. Given our hair- raising ride into town, we decided to take a taxi back, which was an eye-opener in itself. I don't know which was the lesser of the two evils and was thankful the driver had a good horn. We were eager to be on our way, so we packed and caught a taxi to the airport for an afternoon flight to Luxor.
Unlike the aircraft of today, we did not reach a very high altitude, so passing over the desert we could see the camel trains criss-crossing below. The burnt-out wrecks of planes and tanks brought home the realities of the war, which had been fought so recently on the desert below us.
We stopped for the night at Luxor on the banks of the Nile with the pyramids in the distance. We had arrived late and were seated at dinner with the manager of BOAC, Mr Frank Edge, who was fascinated to hear about our journey so far. I did not get a very good night’s sleep as the ceiling was alive with sand lizards.
We left at 8.30 for Wadi Halfa where we landed for fuel and a lunch it was too hot to eat. It had been 150 years since the area had last had good rains and everything looked very parched.
Khartoum was the next stop, where we stayed in the Grand Hotel. Despite huge fans whirling all over the hotel, the heat was intense. Our early arrival allowed us time to visit a small zoo, a welcome change for two small boys unaccustomed to the tiny cabin of a small plane.
Off early the next morning, we arrived at Malakao on Lake Victoria for lunch where a flying boat landed just in front of us. The trip was a very bumpy one and the worst part of the journey so far. Horrible desert country below, changing dramatically to green swamp.
We couldn’t land at Nairobi so we put down at Kisumu and booked into its only hotel, where we met our friends from the flying boat. It was very hot and we saw lots of elephants as we passed over swamps. From Kisumu we headed to Juba for more fuel and a lousy sandwich. It was very pretty green country as we flew over Kenya with Mt Kilimanjaro looming skywards in the distance that seemed to dwarf our tiny plane. We had not long ago crossed the equator and the heat in the tiny cabin was stifling, but it was breath-taking to see a snow-capped mountain so close to the equator. We had at last left the desert behind. It now turned very cold as we left for Tabora and then on to Mybeya in Tanganyika. We had been travelling for seven days and it was now July 1st.
In Tanganyika we were accommodated in chalets and warned not to move around outside, as leopards frequently came down from the hills. Thankfully, we left the following morning without incident, not realising that by nightfall, we would be placed in a very precarious situation.
It was the intention of the pilot to refuel at Fort Jameson, then in Northern Rhodesia, which we should have reached by midday and in time for lunch.
Flying low, we were now in thick bush country and could see many herds of elephant roaming around the scrub and wallowing in the rivers. We had been in the air for some hours now and lunch hour was nearly over. I heard our navigator tapping out a message on the Morse key.
Suddenly, George gripped my arm and whispered.
‘We’re in trouble, lass, I have just heard the “May Day” call going out’.
Before I realised the implication of this remark, the door of the cockpit opened and our navigator appeared.
‘I have been trying to contact Fort Jameson for some time now, but no reply’, he said. ‘We are out of fuel and have to make a forced landing’, confirming what my husband had heard going out on the radio.
The navigator looked around the cabin and continued talking, asking us to,
‘Strap the children in tightly within your seat belts and pad them around with clothes and blankets’.
There was no time to think about what could happen as we attended to the children. We felt the plane bank and drop. It had been used in the war and for whatever reason, had two sirens attached under the wings; these were switched on, creating a frightful noise inside our tiny cabin.
We were busy trying to comfort and secure our two little boys as the African bush loomed ever closer. I felt a prayer would not be out of place and I recited the Lord’s Prayer. The ground rushed towards us at a terrifying speed as I went about protecting our two precious children from impact
We were heading for a dry river bed when our very observant pilot spotted a small clearing off to the left covered with elephant grass. He immediately lifted the nose and banked the aircraft away from the river bed, dropping expertly into the 10 feet tall elephant grass covering the clearing.
Thank God! (As well as a very good Pilot), who was able to expertly guide the plane in safely. The tall elephant grass took off a little speed before the wheels contacted rather heavily with the African earth looking out of the window all I could see was the propeller on the left of the plane chopping the grass which was flying up and over the cabin accompanied by clouds of dust. The plane must have hit an ant bear hole (small African animal with long snout that feasts on termites) as we felt it drop and the propeller folded back over the engine cowl after striking the ground. We finally came to a very jerky halt. The silence was profound for a few moments. The door to the cockpit opened, and a very apprehensive crew looked out and saw that their five passengers were all in one piece.
George scratched through Richard’s bag before going to the door with the navigator. They walked along the wing and jumped down and around to the front of the aircraft, and when they came back after their inspection I noticed that George had one of Richard’s toy guns stuck in his waistband. I burst out laughing.
“What were you planning to do with that”? I chortled. I didn't get a reply.
George asked the pilot why the sirens were switched on and it was explained to him that they would attract the attention of any persons within a ten mile zone of our crash site.
“All they did was scare the daylights out of any wildlife hereabout”, replied George. “There's not a human being within fifty miles of here”, he continued.
But how wrong he was!
We were now faced with a big problem. We had landed in the heart of the Luangwa Valley in the district of Jumbe, a very big game area, close to the border with the Belgium Congo. The aeroplane was shattered, we had no food or water and most important, no guns or ammunition to fend off any attack by wild animals.
The inspection of the Anson had shown cracked wings and a badly damaged propeller. As we were sorting everything out inside the aircraft, when suddenly I saw the tall grass waving and in a few minutes we were surrounded by natives. The plane's sirens must have attracted all and sundry from miles around. Terrible thoughts of cannibals crossed my mind. George made a grab for Richard’s toy gun, which he had returned to its bag and went to stand in the open door of the aircraft. My fears proved to be unfounded, when from the back of the crowd of milling African locals, one pushed forward and announced,
“Me Augustine! Mission boy, I speak English”.
Greatly relieved, our pilot asked “Where might we get help”?
He replied that there was a mission in the hills 40 miles away, but he would fetch the chief whose name was Nikanya. The chief must have also heard the sirens as he and his entourage arrived a short while after. We ascertained through Augustine, acting as interpreter for the chief, that there was a white Padre at a local village about 35 miles away to whom he would send a message immediately.
We took photographs of them all around the aircraft which pleased them greatly and with their help we rigged up an outside aerial and made contact with flight control centre at Salisbury airport. Salisbury informed us that a rescue operation was being set up and help would be arriving in the form of an air drop as well as a foot operation from Fort Jameson. We could only give them a vague idea of our location which was approximately 86 miles Northwest of Fort Jameson. The village reference given to us by Augustine was Katemo which was the small kopjie (hill) just above the village.
Augustine had suggested we trek to his village where his family would be pleased to house us, which left me with the distinct feeling that as far as hotel star ratings went, we would be lucky for a twinkle. No 5 stars where we were headed. He also suggested that the Nkosi (male chief/my husband), Nkosikas (female chief/me), and the picannin’s (our children) follow him. A runner was sent off to the village and a convoy of excited Africans followed carrying our luggage.
It was late afternoon and we were trekking through thick forest, the ground strewn with Mopani leaves, the favourite diet of elephants. Bearing in mind the vast number of elephants we had seen before crash landing, I was very apprehensive of possible herds, but subdued my fears as nobody else seemed particularly worried.
On our way to the village upon walking across the dry river bed we would have landed on, our pilot noted and commented that the sand was very loosely packed with deep ruts running across it. If we had landed on it the probability would have been that the aircraft would have dug in and flipped nose over tail almost certainly resulting in a number of fatalities. I had been praying fervently as we were about to crash and there was no doubt in my mind who had guided us to our safe landing site.
We came out into thick bush terrain and the Africans who accompanied us were carrying the children on their backs. I remember in particular the Head Man leaving our party to erect a small grass enclosure where food and water was provided for these important and strange visitors. The local people, many of whom had never seen a white man before peered through every chink in an attempt to see us.
It was early evening and we were all quite exhausted after walking for hours over the rough terrain, which had taken its toll on our feet. The few miles to the village seemed interminable and it was to our great relief when we spotted the lights of many small fires lighting up the darkness. When we finally arrived at Augustine’s kraal (village of round huts) we were immediately surrounded by the inhabitants and a big “indaba” (meeting) took place to agree the etiquette that should be shown to these “Gods who had fallen from the sky” or to translate into their language these “Amilungu Anagwa Kumwamba”.
Those who know Africa will be aware that an indaba can last days. Eventually though, we were conducted to a native-built thatched hut, the sole amenities of which were two low native-made beds with no mattresses but a kind of interwoven animal hide thong. This was a luxury that was usually reserved for people of note. Apparently we were people of note.
After our crash landing and the long trek through the jungle, we were all on the point of collapse, but some effort had to be made. A decision to bring with me three tins of Ostermilk, a small pan and a packet of tea, proved to be a God-send, as I was able at least to give the children a nourishing drink.
Having no blankets, we had to use whatever clothing we had with us to bed them down and eventually they slept. Outside, the other members of our group were discussing the best way of affecting a rescue in the event that we could not be found. This proved to be pointless, and we could only hope that the coordinates we had given to Salisbury were close enough that the rescue party would be able to locate us.
Dawn comes early to the African bush and the inhabitants, human and otherwise are up with first light. Young Richard took one look around at the foreign looking habitation and said, “Let’s go home, Mom. I don’t like this hotel.”
That was easier said than done, and we were only too thankful that we had not provided a meal for some carnivorous animal on our recent trek to this small community.
While the men folk were debating how to get us back to “civilisation”, as we knew it, I had more domestic issues to deal with, i.e. facilities for bathing, food and washing, to say nothing of the language difficulty. The nearby “spruit” (stream) was our water supply and the children splashed happily in it, surrounded by an admiring group of local piccanin’s. My washing was accomplished by rubbing and battering clothes against the large stones in this small stream; my blue wool Jaeger suit was never quite the same again.
The following day we spotted planes flying grid pattern to the west of us; they were flying low and had the roundels of the RAF on their wings and on the sides of the fuselage, but they were too far away to locate us. Powder compacts were quite large in those days and I opened mine with its large mirror and flashed it in the direction of the searching planes, catching the sun’s rays in the mirror. Instant response resulted. All three planes turned towards us and a message was dropped: “Stay where you are! We have got your location”.
The next day the planes flew right to us and two sacks of supplies were dropped by parachute and picked up by locals from the village. We were provided with six blankets, which were more than welcome as it had been bitterly cold at night. Also in the parachute drop was a loaf of bread, bully beef, oxo, bovril and raisins but no butter, tea or sugar, which we could have done with, and a 303 rifle, with no magazine or ammunition.
George made a grab for the rifle and announced, “Don’t worry, Dot. We'll be safe now we have this”. The absurdity of the situation struck me as very funny. A rifle with no ammunition and a balanced diet of oxo, bully beef and bovril, combined with a trek through some sixty miles of uncharted jungle. Home was never like this.
The runner, who had been sent off to the Catholic Mission in the Hills, returned three days later during the late afternoon with Father Robertson. We made a huge fuss of him as he was the first white man we had seen since the crash. I felt a little better about our situation.
He told us that the rescue operation was under way from Fort Jameson and that he had sent word via a runner as to our location. Mr Bernard Hesson, the chief of police for Northern Rhodesia, and John Sugg, District Commissioner, were on their way with two trucks, but because of the inaccessibility of the region, they were having to cut the road, building bridges from cut down trees and four-gallon paraffin tins. Father Robertson told us we had found the only possible spot to crash-land within a fifty mile radius.
A few days later John Sugg and Bernard Hesson arrived with a number of “askaris” (police recruits). They had been unable to reach us with the trucks and had had to leave them about six miles away.
Finally, after nine days in the bush, we set off on foot to find the trucks after saying goodbye to our hosts. The whole village turned out to send us on our way.
We walked through dense bush in such intense heat that I thought we would have to give up. Just as we were reaching exhaustion, we were delighted to see two trucks under the shade of some trees. After a short break for tea, we continued in the trucks through some extremely demanding terrain, down steep slopes and up escarpments. In one very steep place, the truck slid back three times taking 100 or so local natives to pull and push up or down the slopes, a feat involving several hours. How those chaps drove in the dark around those winding tracks still amazes me as most of the time we were in first or second gear with a top speed of 8 mph. At about 9 p.m. a halt was made for a meal and we were very hungry. Eating in the bush is a fine art when properly done with the headlights of the trucks left on and grass mats spread on the ground. We were introduced for the first time to the popular “braai” (barbecue), a lovely meal, finished off with a brandy, water or tea.
The trucks were packed and we continued on again over almost impossible terrain for many more hours, until we arrived at Moore’s Mission after a day and a half travelling. Sugg went to one of the bungalows to wake up the priest he knew, (a Mr Heritage) who emerged not very ecclesiastically garbed and remarking that it “was bloody cold”.
We were given accommodation at the Mission, which was very comfortable considering the preceding nine nights in the bush. After trying to sleep on a thong bed at the village, I was beginning to feel like a zebra - so my nights rest at the Mission was sheer bliss. The next morning after a good soak in a hot bath for me and the kids, a leisurely breakfast, and a walk around the Mission Station, it was time to say goodbye and to thank our newfound friends for their hospitality.
We departed for Fort Jameson, which lay fifty miles away, that afternoon, arriving in the early evening. Accommodation had been arranged at the Rangleys Hotel and after a hot bath and a good meal it was early to bed in an attempt to recover from what had been a very arduous journey. It was Friday, 12th July and we were looking forward to a relaxing weekend. We were advised to stay close to the hotel as leopards came down from the hills at night and one had recently attacked a man and his dog outside the Knowles.
Our arrival had caused quite a stir among the residents who were mainly tobacco farmers, and on discussing our future plans regarding settling in South Africa, we were advised to look at Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia. Fate had taken a hand and our forced landing caused us to change our plans. After several days rest, we flew to Salisbury in a Rapide, piloted by Mr Jed Spencer. We were so impressed with what we saw of Rhodesia that we decided to settle in this new and rapidly growing country.
Thanks to Dick Mason for sharing these wonderful memories with ORAFs.
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