Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Waratah - was Joe Conquer the last eyewitness?

"Eight Bells at Salamander"
Lawrence G. Green

'Of course the sea mysteries that stand
grimly above all others are the missing
ships. Many would place the Waratah
at the head of the list; but I shall finish
with the Waratah here and now
because I am sure that the greatest
modern riddle of South African seas
has been fully explained. I knew the
man who saw the Waratah sink.'

'He was the famous Joe Conquer of the
South African Air Force, a sergeant-
major when I first met him, later a
commissioned officer.'

'Conquer was a signaller in the Cape Mounted
Riflemen on July 28, 1909, stationed
at the Xora River mouth in the
Transkei for live shell practice.'

'That day Conquer watched through his telescope
while a ship exactly like the
Waratah crawled down the coast in a
gale. Another signaller named
Adshead was with him.'

"I saw her roll very heavily," Conquer told me.

"She seemed to be overtaken
by a following sea, and then when I
looked for her again she had gone."

"I am convinced that I saw the end of the

"Three days later newspapers
reached our camp reporting that the
Waratah was overdue."

'Conquer marked on a map the spot
where he had seen the ship disappear.'

'A bearing of 240 degrees from the
knoll at the Xora River mouth gives
the direction, and he estimated that the
ship was four miles offshore.'

'He reported what he had seen to C.M.R.
headquarters, first by semaphore and
later in writing.'

'Wreckage was found
in the neighbourhood soon afterwards.
Deck-chairs, cushions and an oar drifted
ashore, but there was nothing bearing
the name of the Waratah.'

'Years afterwards a military pilot pin-pointed
a sunken wreck he had
observed while flying along the coast.'

'He compared his map with the map
Conquer had kept. The positions
almost coincided.'

'1925: Lt. D. J. Roos of the South African Air Force, reported that he had spotted a wreck while he was flying over the Transkei coast.  It was his opinion that this was the wreck of the Waratah.' (Wikipedia)

This must surely be the most controversial witness account relating to the disappearance of the Waratah. On the one hand the hearsay account of Joe Conquer in 'Eight Bells at Salamander' is very convincing, verified by the account of pilot DJ Roos in 1925. These accounts are so convincing that lengthy and expensive underwater investigations were undertaken off the Xora River mouth. Sadly and frustratingly for the investigation team, the wreck of the Waratah was not found.

If we analyse the passage there are points which are misleading:

The Waratah could not have been seen at that location 28 July, 1909. If she was in the vicinity it would have been 24 hours earlier.

"She seemed to be overtaken
by a following sea, and then when I
looked for her again she had gone."

There is no indication of the time period between when Joe Conquer saw the steamer and when it 'disappeared'. It is conceivable that the steamer turned out to sea / slipped over the horizon during this time and was no longer visible through the telescope.

The account does not qualify in which direction the Waratah was travelling, unless 'crawling DOWN the coast' infers a south westerly direction.

Joe Conquer claimed that he reported what he had seen (or thought he had seen) to the Cape Mounted Rifles headquarters. The newspapers of the time were awash with reports of the missing steamer. Why did Joe Conquer's story never reach the press nor the Inquiry and only surface some 20 years later? Why were the deck chairs, cushions and an oar not sent to the agents of the Blue Anchor Line?

If the Waratah was 'rolling heavily' in the seas off the Xora River mouth roughly midday, 27 July, 1909, it seems more likely Captain Ilbery would NOT have been this close to shore (4 miles), but rather further out to sea beyond the Continental Shelf where the liner would be assisted by the Agulhas Current and seas less turbulent / greater, more consistent wave lengths. However, if the Waratah was heading in the opposite direction, it would make sense that she was following the north easterly sardine current, closer to shore.

It is remotely possible the Waratah was at those coordinates if her speed relative to the Clan MacIntyre (Port St Johns) was 7 knots while the two ships were within communicating distance, increasing to about 9 knots when the Waratah pulled ahead. However, at the Inquiry the chief officer of the Clan MacIntyre, Mr Phillips, stated that his vessel was making 9 1/2 knots plus a 2 to 3 knot current (Agulhas) in her favour, which implies the Waratah pulled ahead making at least 14 to 15 knots, which would have taken her beyond Xora River mouth by midday.

The fact however remains, in the time period between when Joe Conquer saw the Waratah 'being overtaken by a following sea', and when he looked again, he DID NOT in point of fact see the Waratah turn over or sink. He assumed she sank.

If the Waratah had turned about for Durban she could have reached the position where the crew of the Harlow sighted a large steamer coming up astern (6 pm - 8 pm), and the same would apply if she was already travelling in a northeasterly direction.

There are surely no words to describe the disappointment felt by the investigation team when they realized the wreck of the Waratah was not within a reasonable radius (100 square miles) of Joe Conquer's coordinates. Edward Joe Conquer did not see the Waratah sink. But he might have seen her disappearing over the horizon.

steamship on the horizon


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