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The Great Escape (Part 5)

We left off in the first week of September 1963 with MK fugitives Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe in protective custody at Francistown Prison, where they were eagerly awaiting the prospect being airlifted to Tanganyika (Tanzania) by Bechuanaland Safari Airways pilot Nash.

This was in the aftermath of the August 29, 1963 bombing of East Africa Airways Dakota VPKJT at Francistown Aerodrome, which had been chartered by the ANC to evacuate the pair and other political refugees to Dar-es-Salaam.

On the morning of their anticipated departure, Wolpe decided to get in touch by phone with Nash’s boss in Lobatse, Captain Bartuane, who bluntly informed him that: “I don’t know anything about this arrangement”.

Shortly thereafter the DC, Steenkamp, arrived at the prison to confirm the worst: “I’ve had word with our intelligence that Nash has just flown in from Jan Smuts [now O.R. Tambo] Airport in Johannesburg.” Intelligence further confirmed that not only had Nash been offered £10,000 to fly Goldreich and Wolpe back to South Africa, but that he had been further enticed by the offer of a licence to set up in his own air charter company.

With the world watching, in no small measure due to reporting by the BBC and Allister Sparks for the Rand Daily Mail, Goldreich and Wolpe had little option but to spend the next few days reading and playing cricket at the prison, while giving access to a few trusted individuals. 

One of those who was allowed to contact the pair was George Clay, a South African journalist who flew in from Dar- es-Salaam representing the American National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network, who brought with him his own get out of jail plan. Clay told Goldreich and Wolpe that NBC was prepared to pay the cost of an aircraft to fly them out if they would in turn agree to give him an exclusive film interview.

With genuine fears that even their prison sanctuary could be compromised by Apartheid agents, Goldreich and Wolpe were increasingly desperate to find a way out. After Clay reassured them that they would not be expected to divulge any information that might put others or their movement at risk, they agreed to take up the NBC offer. Clay then made arrangements for a Dar-es-Salaam-based charter pilot named Tim Bally to fly down in a six-seater aircraft. Bally was approaching Mbeya airfield in Southern Tanganyika on the morning of September 6, 1963 when one of his planes two engines failed, forcing him to make a crash landing.

While Bally was unhurt the plane was extensively damaged.

Within an hour of the crash the news had reached Francistown. Goldreich and Wolpe were called to the warden’s office who reportedly

informed them that: “We have been told by the Rand Daily Mail of the crash of the plane said to be coming here to fly the two of you out” further adding “you two are obviously bad news.”

While no proof of sabotage emerged from the incident, news accounts at the time noted that the civil aviation authorities in Nairobi has said that: “they had received a threatening cable on Wednesday night from Parkview, Johannesburg, warning that any aircraft ferrying from Francistown would be shot down or burnt on the ground.” The cable, signed “Bwana Ndge” [i.e. from Kiswahili ‘ndege’ meaning bird or aircraft], further threatened “Please stop East Africa Airways interfering with our Communist criminals.”

It now seemed that no commercial aviation company would risk evacuating Goldreich and Wolpe, but neither Clay nor Bally were prepared to give up. Working together two Lusaka based journalists, Oliver Carruthers and Dick Hall of the Northern Rhodesian [Zambia] Financial Mail, a new plan was conceived involving two planes, which would initially both land in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

From Bulawayo the first plane proceeded to Francistown with Clay and a film crew, while the second plane, piloted by Bally remained behind waiting for word that it was safe to fetch Goldreich and Wolpe.

To become operational details of the plan would ultimately need the quiet support of Steenkamp and the local police chief Inspector Knight, local “pipeline” operators such as Fish Keitseng and Anderson Tshepe.

At an initial planning meeting inside the prison, Clay observed:

“Once I told Bally that the passengers could not land in any of the countries making up the Central African Federation [i.e. Nyasaland (Malawi) and Northern and Southern Rhodesia] because of problems with the police there, he worked out a route. He said he could not fly over Northern Rhodesia without coming down to refuel, and we all know if the Rhodesian police got their hands on the two of you would be sent back to South Africa tout de suite. The distance is too great. He suggested the best way would be to fly to a small town just inside the Bechuanaland border, where he could refuel. It is a place called Kasane.”

Steenkamp: “We’ve got a forest ranger there, a thoroughly reliable man whom I could contact and make sure that he is around when the plane lands. But I will need to have some idea of the timing.”

(to be continued)

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