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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Verkykerskop car chase

Verkykerskop car chase

My late grandfather was once the Postmaster of the Turfontein Post office.  He told this story.

Just four years after the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, when South Africa finally became an independent country, although still a member of the British Commonwealth, the Country found itself embroiled in what became known as the “Great War”. Britain and Germany went to war in what was to be the biggest conflict in human history. It was the first war ever to involve every continent in the World, and in the end millions of lives were lost.

South Africa was a vitally important part of the British war effort, and as part of the Empire it was automatically on England’s side. The value to Britain was the enormous resources of raw material South Africa could supply to feed the ever increasing demands of the war effort.

However, this country’s support for Britain was not unanimously popular with South African’s.  By far the largest section of the white population were Afrikaners, and many of them had been part of the Boer forces facing Britain during the awful Anglo Boer War. Memories of concentration camps where four times more South African women and children died than soldiers in the field, and the shocking “scorched earth tactics” used by the British to force the Boer fighters into submission were still fresh. It is no surprise that there were many South African and other dissidents active in the country at the time. It was extremely difficult to find these underground activists, because many of the secret police and other agencies charged with finding them were actually also sympathetic to Britain’s enemies. It was an incredibly complicated situation.

Back to my grandfathers’ part in this tale. A team of investigators unearthed a trio of secret agents, or spy’s, who had been engaged in sending information to Germany, through contacts  in South West Africa, concerning the shipment of men, arms, ammunition, gold bullion and the movements of Britons. For instance British pilots were being trained in South Africa.  For a while it seemed that nothing could be kept secret. Every move was monitored and reported.  Ships carrying vital supplies were attacked soon after leaving Cape Town, often by vessels based in South West Africa. To counter this South African forces entered South West Africa, drove out the German forces based there and took over running that country. Despite this there was still the problem of undercover agents in South Africa. During the South West African operation the names of many agents and their methods were seized, and thus three South African citizens were identified as ringleaders. Two of them, both of German decent, were caught, tried and executed in Pretoria as traitors. The third, Johannes Oosthuisen, a 30 year old Afrikaner living at Aasvoelkop on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg (now Northcliff), was identified as the head of a sophisticated spy-ring. Oosthuisen was a young boy growing up on his family farm in Broederstroom, near what is now Hartbeespoort Dam, when British soldiers arrived and ordered his mother, himself and two sisters to take what they could carry out of their farmhouse and burned it to the ground. After driving off their cattle and other livestock the soldiers rode away laughing, leaving them sitting in their smouldering farmyard. Little wonder Johannes Oosthuisen took sides against them.

It was by chance he had evaded capture when his fellow agents had been arrested. He had stopped at the Aasvoelkop Dutch Reformed church on his way to Johannesburg to tell his wife, who put new flowers in the church every day, that he would be home late that night. Little did he know that he would never return home, or see her again.
From Northcliff he drove past the farm Emmarentia on his way to the Drill Hall in Johannesburg, where he had a source who kept him up to date with the movements of British Officers and their allies in the South African army. His car was his pride and joy which he kept in perfect condition. On his way he stopped near Johannesburg station to fill it, preparing for any eventuality. As he approached the Drill Hall, on the eastern side of the city he was instantly alerted when both the guards on duty looked his way, and one of them turned and ran across the parade ground towards the main building. Instinctively he drove on, noting the concentrated attention the remaining guard gave him as he drove past. His usual habit was to drive past the army base and on to Doornfontein, the next suburb. Here he would normally park and have lunch at the Doornforntein Hotel,  for all the world like a regular businessman meeting a few friends to discuss the progress of the war, as did everyone in Johannesburg. What he was actually doing was collecting information gleaned through a network of soldiers, policemen, workers, servants and other talkative people. Despite the seriousness of the situation, in reality South Africa seemed far from any action. Once he had analysed this information he would set the system of reporting it into motion. Mostly it was passed on through a complicated network of coded phone calls, letters and verbal messages carried by regular South Africans who had no love for their English allies. The past was still too recent to forget, and Afrikaans South Africans in particular were only a generation or two away from their European forebears, many of them Austrian and German.

Ever vigilant, Oosthuisen parked and went to his usual table in the hotel, thinking it strange for his two closest aides not to be there already. They both lived in nearby Bez Valley, and were generally there before him. As he sat down Marie, the pretty young Afrikaans day receptionist walked casually past his table, and seeming to stop for a brief greeting said in Afrikaans, “Johannes, only twenty minutes ago four policemen took Piet and Gerhardt (his fellow agents) away after asking if you would be here today. They told them no, you had church business at Aasvoelkop, and would not be here until tomorrow…and in fact here they are now..” with that she walked on back to the entrance hall. Quick as a flash Oosthuisen fled out through the kitchen, through a hedge and into his car. He knew the game was up, and he needed to get as far as he could from Johannesburg. They had prepared for this emergency, and later the police revealed they knew about the planned escape route from Durban by coastal steamer to South West Africa. At the beginning of the war this was German occupied territory, and a safe haven for agents like Oosthuisen and his colleagues.

As he drove away the secret police and an army officer watched him leave. He was now one of the most wanted men in the country. They knew he had an extensive network of informants, and an effective system to get information out of the country.  A team had already raided his house, and another the church where his wife worked. It was time to put out the 1914 version of an all points bulletin to track him down and catch him.  The fastest method of communication at the time was the telephone and the telegraph, both operated by the post office.  Every police station and army base in the country was connected by a telephone linked to the nearest post office telephone exchange. So the message was immediately sent out  and Johannes Oosthuisen became every policeman’s number one priority. In addition to this, the network of post offices and the telegraph system was even more extensive than police stations, and it wasn’t unusual for the police to enlist the aid of every post master around the country, and so a telegraph went to every post master to look out for him. A description of his car was included as well.

The escape route though Durban and other ports was well known to the authorities, and extra vigilance was urged from all post offices and police stations on the routes to the coast. The shortest was via Nelspruit to the port of Lourenco Marques, (now Maputo), or Durban. To get to LM meant he would have to go through the border post, so Durban seemed much safer. A special watch was placed on all trains on those routes as well.

Oosthuisen decided to escape though Durban. Everything was set up for this eventuality. All he had to do was get there. He knew he had no time to waste, and planned to drive straight to Durban as soon as he got into his car. He knew  if he was caught he could expect no mercy from the British authorities, so time was of the essence. He also knew that the road out of Johannesburg to Durban would be watched, so he headed straight for Benoni on the east of the city. From there he headed south through Springs to Greylingstad, hoping to avoid the patrols on the obvious route.
My Grandfather, being a postmaster, had a grandstand view of all the activity. As no one knew where Oosthuisen was headed, telegraphic messages flew fast and furiously around the country. Every post master got the same messages. Then messages started coming back from all parts of the country, Oosthuisen was sighted all over the place. A very positive trail seemed to be towards the Western Transvaal, a strong farming area, and the theory was that he was heading into the Platteland where German sympathisers would hide him. Other theories were that he would hide out in the older suburbs of Johannesburg, where my Grandfather was stationed. There was lots of excitement everywhere. In army headquarters in Johannesburg a special task team tried to co-ordinate the hunt, and make sense of all the incoming information.

In those days there was no tarred highway down to Durban. The road was unpaved, and wandered through farmland and open bush on its’ way down to the coast. Fuel was usually only available at petrol stations in the larger towns, and stored in cans in smaller ones. Also it was July, midwinter, and the countryside along the edge of the Drakensberg mountains gets bitterly cold. Snow falls in the area are common.
Toward late afternoon a call came in from the town of Balfour. The postmaster reported a car driven by a lone driver had stopped for fuel at the local farm co-op, and had driven on. The timing was right for someone having left Johannesburg just before lunch time. The driver was wearing a city suit, also unusual for the weather conditions where he had to stop often and open farm gates on the road. The hunters began to concentrate on the area. The next town could be Standerton, or perhaps Vrede, both routes to Newcastle, on the main road to Durban. Police and army units in both towns were ordered out to intercept him.

Oosthuisen must have passed though Standerton just as these pursuers were getting organised, and drove through without stopping. He must have guessed that they would be lying in wait for him on the road outside Newcastle or Ladysmith (ironically the site of one of the worst British military defeats ever at Spionkop during the Boer war) He decided to take an alternative, and more difficult route through the town of Vrede. As he got to there once again he couldn’t stop as the police were arriving at the only petrol store as he got there. They were just too late to stop him, but they did get onto the telegraph to confirm a positive sighting. Telegraphs clattered throughout the country, and excitement built in every town in the area. Policemen and volunteers donned warm clothing and formed up on the dirt main streets. The last action any of them had seen was during the Boer war fourteen years earlier.

Oosthuisen now had to change his plans. His biggest problem was fuel. Cars of the day were not really made for long distance touring, and he hadn’t been able to stop in either Balfour or Vrede. The next stop on the road to Durban was Newcastle. He knew that would be a problem. It was a larger and more organised town with an efficient police force and a nearby army base. He decided to head for Verkykerskop.  This little outpost was nothing more than a trading store, a few houses and the post office. He knew the local farmers would have fuel, and probably no policemen. Perhaps he hoped to hole up with a sympathetic farmer, we’ll never know.  He drove on through the winter night. It had been raining earlier, and the road was a mud bath, reducing his speed sometimes to a walking pace. Then it started to snow, as it often does in the area. The white mantle may have helped him find his way, reflecting some light form his modest headlights. Not long before midnight he was only a few hundred meters from the little town when he ran out of fuel. He didn’t even bother to pull onto the side of the road…what traffic would possibly come this way? The post master and one policeman heard the approaching car, and as the policeman got up from the fire, un-holstering his pistol, the postmaster sent out a simple message…he’s here!

The two men warily stepped out into the night. Looking down the road they could see the car…the moon had peeped out from behind the cloud, the snow had stopped and the countryside was lit with a strange brightness.  In the time it had taken them to send their message and prepare to go outside Oosthuisen had broken into the store and had carried two twenty liter jerry cans of fuel  to the car, and was pouring one of them into the tank.

“Hey”, shouted the policeman nervously, as he pointed his pistol waveringly at the most wanted man in the country, “Oosthuisen, put your hands up and come here!”  Oosthuisen kept on pouring. Afterwards the postmaster said he looked terrified or frozen with cold, maybe both.

Later the policeman said he had no recollection of pulling the trigger, but he fired a single shot at the fugitive. It missed by far, but glanced off the steel body of the car, making a spark which instantly ignited the pouring fuel. Instinctively Oosthuisen jumped back, spilling burning petrol over himself. Arms outstretched, mouth open in a silent scream, the human torch turned towards his captors……as he started to crumble into human ash he fell into the open door of the car…leaning against the rubber bulb of the gleaming brass horn. Johannes Oosthuisen breathed his last in time to the plaintive hoot of his treasured cars’  horn.

Just after midnight my grandfather read the same telegraph which flashed around the country….Oosthuisen is dead!

To this day, every time it snows in mid July in vicinity of Verkykerskop the locals swear they hear the sound of that old hooter just after midnight….

(Story written by Clive as narrated to him by his grandfather, Charles Strugnall.)