Wednesday 27 March 2013

Harvard Down

By Mitch Stirling

The granddaughter of Flight Lieutenant LJ Murphy tells a remarkable story about her grandfather and Flying Officer RG Boswell who went AWOL in the Luangwa Valley on a flight from Cranborne to Fort Jameson during 1946. The facts and figures are a little hazy - lost in the mists of time - but notes dropped by search and rescue aircraft have survived the passage of the years. And newspaper cuttings and diary entries reveal a story of great courage and endurance. 

It was at the end of the Second World war when troops were returning home to Rhodesia and nothing much was happening around the old 20 EFTS Cranborne. Living in a flat at the time in an old Rhodesian stone-built house amongst some granite kopjies in Hatfield, the young Miss Murphy remembers her grandpa and F/O Boswell going off in a Harvard to deliver some spare parts to Fort Jimmy. Grandpa was bored after years of operational duty in WW11, so he jumped at the opportunity to join the task. The weather was overcast and drizzly at the time, but the two of them departed enthusiastically, expecting clearer skies to the north in the Zambezi Valley. Five hours later, and with lost-radio contact, pilot-in-charge F/O Boswell found himself in trouble and decidedly 'unsure of his position'! 

The result was a 'forced lob' into the bush on empty tanks in uninhabited, unknown territory. Fortunately the precautionary landing was carried out without damage to the aircraft, nor the occupants, but a serious problem now presented itself... survival! There were piles of elephant dung and other unknown deposits in the vlei where they had landed and they had no idea if they were north/ south/ east or west of Fort Jameson. The next eight days were described in vivid detail in a diary written by LJ Murphy which records a very sorry state of affairs for the two airmen as they began to think it was their last days on mother earth. It was a nightmare of loneliness and hunger and encounters with the shadowy figures of wild animals at night and herds of elephant and buffalo by day.

The first night of the 14th June gave them an indication of what lay ahead as they huddled in the cockpit to escape the ravages of mosquitoes and unwelcome visits by inquisitive sounds and shadows at the edge of their firelight. The silhouette of one large pointed horn was particularly disturbing. And a partial eclipse of the moon added to a 'Rider Haggard' sense of foreboding.

Dawn broke as a welcome relief and they decided to rip out the compass from the aircraft, load up with as much survival kit as they could carry, and head south-east in search of the river they has seen from the air. After a false start, they returned to collect their parachutes, then pointed the aircraft's nose towards their intended direction - as a search and rescue signal - and created a long arrow made from the ashes of their fire. As a parting thought they set fire to the surrounding bush and then set-off through tall elephant grass and rough terrain, carrying with them the very meagre emergency rations from the abandoned plane. A two-gallon drum of water was the most difficult of their burdens to lug around in the bush, but they soon discovered it was invaluable, when banged on, to scare the animals away. 

The next 48 hours went from bad to worse as they stumbled along in swamps and marshes trying to cross streams infested with crocodiles and hippos. Exhausting days were spent trudging along, followed by sleepless nights keeping watch that hungry predators didn't approach their primitive bivouacs. Biscuits and chocolates sustained them and some bully beef, but only just.

By the 17th June, word was out in the Salisbury press that two airmen of the Rhodesian Air Training Group were missing.... and by the 18th, concern for them was mounting. Meanwhile, the two survivors were bundu bashing with bleeding, blistered feet. Despair was setting in.

Diary entry of Monday 17th June:  "Broke camp at 6.30 still heading S.S.E. Started off well but ran into swamp country and kept back tracking. Decided to go inland and see if we could make more headway. Dried our feet and socks and re-bandaged our feet. Halted early because we were feeling very tired. Collected wood for the fire and slept in the mopani forest in a large clearing. Am afraid we both broke down rather badly thinking of our wives and homes. Got over it by helping each other and talking it over. We mustn't give way, it only weakens us. One hour watches during the night, we both slept rather better than previously. Mosguitoes simply ghastly. Only night visitors some elephant who passed within 25 yards of us".

Search aircraft from the Southern Rhodesian Air Services based at Salisbury, Lilongwe and Fort Jameson scoured the area and 'track crawled' the route from Cranborne to Fort Jameson. By the 4th day, hope was dwindling and the search had been virtually abandoned.... it was thought that nobody could still be alive. But by sheer good fortune, Captain Ken Murrell decided to make a last sweep of the area... way to the north of track in the South Luangwa Game Reserve. Bingo! 83 miles north-west of Fort Jameson, up came a Very light from a clearing in the bush where two exhausted, hungry men were waving frantically and dancing around like whirling dervishes!

Notes were dropped from the circling craft. A ground party set out from Fort Jameson asap and emergency supplies of food rations and blankets, cigarettes, candles, toilet paper! etc were air-dropped from an Avro Anson once their position had been pin-pointed. More notes of instruction and assurance descended to say help was on its way. The men feasted on bread and butter, cream crackers and pears and bovril tea.

S/L Hensman and Mr M Fleming of the Northern Rhodesia Government and Mr Smith of Nyasaland Police managed to cross the Luangwa river the following day and walked-in to a position indicated by a pall of smoke from a burning tarpaulin. The happy survivors were escorted to the Luangwa which was crossed in dugout canoes and from there they were lorried back to Fort Jameson.

Press cutting 21st

After a comfortable night at the Fleming's house in Fort Jameson, they were flown back to home base at Cranborne, eight days after their departure. Ron, a big man, had lost so much weight that his wife did not even recognize him when he stepped off the aircraft. The subsequent Board of Enquiry concluded that some new thinking had to be applied to emergency rat packs carried on all aircraft of the Southern Rhodesia Air Force. A single hand-pistol was completely inadequate. Happily the machine was recovered 38 miles south-east of Mpika after a make-shift runway was carved from the bush.

Map:  showing South Luangwa Game Reserve. Mpika slightly off-map to the north.

Addendum: The story ends with typical Air Force humour. You can't get away with a stunt like that without paying the price in the Armed Forces of Rhodesia. The 'welcome home' party in their honour ended up in the usual disorder of 'Menders and Benders ' with numerous bottles of liquid refreshments being consumed. During the course of the proceedings F/O Boswell appears to have sat on some broken glass and cut his derriere rather badly, so... off to the sick quarters he was carted with the assembled mob in tow (drinks in hand).

When he awoke the next morning, stuck to his bed sheets with his own dried blood, he discovered that Dr Tommy Lyle's medical administrations from the night before consisted of a neat line of stitches on his bum........... nowhere near the wound. Hahahahahaha!

Thanks to Eddy Norris and Anne Shaw for all their input. Bruce Rooken-Smith provided ORAFs with a hard copy of the diary that was maintained during this ordeal. Thanks Bruce

The map is from the RC Denning collection. Anne records that  RG 'Ron' Boswell DFC was ex 44(Rhodesia) Squadron mentioned in 'A Pride of Eagles'. She added the following: "DFM's were not dished out two a penny and are something to be very proud of. They were awarded to Non Commissioned officers, and DFC's to commissioned officers".

Alfred Ken Murrell, DFM 11/2/1941, Efficiency Medal/EM 6/12/1946, EM plus Bar
NCO Number 776201
Officer number 65497
Attested 25/8/1939
Demobilised 30/9/1946
Served on 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron in East Africa
WOP Air Gunner re-mustered to Pilot
Transferred to Permanent Staff Corp post war.


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