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The Great Escape Part 4

JEFF RAMSAY
Weleft off with MK fugitives Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe having arrived in Francistown, where they were advised by the District Commissioner, Phil Steenkamp, that they could quietly book into a local hotel while awaiting their flight to safety in Tanganyika, which was scheduled for the next day.

 Steenkamp had observed that while the place had been “crawling with journalists yesterday…the pack got fed up when there was no sign of you, and they all left.”

Unfortunately, when the pair reached the Grand Hotel their presence was quickly spotted by “what turned out to be a lone journalist from an Afrikaner newspaper – a man who they learned subsequently, was thought to have close connections with the Security Police.” Within an hour, the news that Goldreich and Wolpe were in Francistown after all was all over the radio and wire services. 

By early evening, the Francistown Aerodrome had filled up with a half dozen or so chartered planes, which had flown in with regional and international journalists. Knowing that there was a risk of divulging sensitive information, Goldreich and Wolpe initially refused all press requests. Eventually, however, they did relent in allowing at least two engagements. 

They spoke in confidence to the Rand Daily Mail correspondent Allister Sparks a friendly acquaintance, whose reporting by then was already widely respected in the anti-Apartheid movement. He was also a man with whom they could trade insights. 

They must have been mildly amused as well as concerned when they saw the Rand Daily Mail story in which their Eswatini enabler, the Rev. Charles Hooper was reported to have “angrily claimed that he had been an unwitting dupe of Goldreich and Wolpe” who he further claimed he had never seen before their appearance at his doorstep posing as clergy. Events would soon confirm that having been connected by the media to the escape, Hooper had good reason to try to cover his tracks.

In addition, they went on camera for the BBC, in which their response to most questions was “I have nothing to say.”  Upon finishing with the BBC, fellow refugee Ismail Bhana arrived at the hotel to express his fears that their lives were in potential danger from both Apartheid agents and hostile members of the local white community.

It was decided that for mutual safety, Bhana would join Goldreich and Wolpe in lock down at the hotel. Meanwhile, other refugees were posted to guard the premises, keeping

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the press and potential troublemakers at bay.

Wolpe would later recall being woken in the early morning by an anxious man banging on his hotel window who reportedly shouted: “Your plane is burning up at the airport. It is hopeless. You’ll never be able to fly away.” 

The guards were apparently sceptical thinking that perhaps the man was just an excitable troublemaker. But by sunrise the news of the complete destruction of East Africa Airway’s plane due to an explosion and resulting closure of the airport was indeed confirmed.

In a town now full of grounded journalists, it was big news. Photos and film confirmed that the plane had been completely gutted with only its tail plane and engines being clearly from the wreckage. 

For their safety, Steenkamp arranged for Goldreich and Wolpe to relocate from the risky comfort of the Grand Hotel to Francistown Prison. The opportunity to easily get out of Bechuanaland by air, which had been in their grasp at the time of their arrival was now looking increasingly problematic. 

Fish Keitseng later recalled:

“When I arrived back in Francistown two days later with another 15 or so refugees, I expected that Goldreich and Wolpe would have already left. But instead I found them staying in the jail for their own protection as Steenkamp didn’t think they were safe outside. 

The South African police were watching. Goldreich and Wolpe were at the jail for several days. One plane that was supposed to fly them out was blown up by Boer agents. After that it was hard finding a pilot who was willing to risk flying them.”

Prior to their departure from Lobatse, the Hodgson’s had approached Captain Bartuane of Bechuanaland Safaris as a potential back-up flight for Goldreich and Wolpe. 

But the man who had successfully flown Mandela and scores of other political refugees to safety considered transporting the two fugitives to be too risky and had ultimately refused the request.

Goldreich and Wolpe were thus pleasantly surprised when Nash, a pilot employed by Bartuane, appeared out of the blue to inform them that in light of their predicament his boss had reconsidered and was now willing to arrange their departure on the following day.

The pair informed Steenkamp of the development. Eager for the two to be safely gone, the latter was said to have been initially encouraged, but doubts quickly set in. When on the next morning Nash was delayed, Wolpe decided to get in touch with Bartuane, who informed him that: “I don’t know anything about this arrangement”. 

(to be continued)

 



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