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Environment/Science Last Updated: Feb 21, 2021 - 6:22:11 AM

Flight Into Hell
By Bridget Judd
Jan 16, 2021 - 9:00:51 PM

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The unexpected rescue mission that inspired ABC mini-series Flight into Hell - and other survivalists


A black and white picture of Adolph Klausmann, Hans Bertram, Gordon Marshall and two Aboriginal men sitting on the ground.

Adolph Klausmann, Captain Hans Bertram, Constable Gordon Marshall, and two unidentified Aboriginal men sitting on the ground after Klausmann and Bertram were rescued in Western Australia's Kimberley in June 1932.(Wikimedia Commons: National Library Of Australia)


It's the unlikely tale of survival you'd expect to see on the silver screen, not in the history books.

"When I tell you how the Samaritans of the wilds tended and cared for us," German aviator Hans Bertram would write years later, "you'll understand that I wish to bear witness to the greatest and noblest virtue of the human soul - charity."

In 1932, Bertram and fellow pilot Adolf Klausmann set out to circumnavigate the globe in a Junkers seaplane, Atlantis, when they hit a severe storm between Timor and Darwin.

Faced with a critical fuel shortage, and with little knowledge of the unforgiving landscape below them, they put their plane down on the Kimberley coast, some hundreds of kilometres from their intended destination.

Stranded, and short of any other viable options, the duo were forced to convert their seaplane floats into rafts, braving the elements (not to mention crocodile-infested waters) in a bid to reach safety.

'The worst thing in life is waiting'

If this sounds more like the plot of a kitschy television series, that's because it is.

Flight into Hell, based on Bertram's novel Flug in die Holle, captivated audiences when it was broadcast on the ABC in 1985. And for many, that is where the larger than life tale starts and ends.

But behind the scenes is a true story of survival and friendship; "An epic voyage in itself, and a landmark to human endurance".

Aviator Captain Hans Bertram talking on the telephone, New South Wales, 26 October 1932.
Hans Bertram and fellow pilot Adolf Klausmann set out to circumnavigate the globe in a Junkers seaplane.(Supplied: National Library Of Australia)

"I had the idea of a float, making a boat," mused Bertram in a 1985 documentary, released alongside the mini-series.

"And I thought, 'Now we will have the story coming back from this expedition. I will tell them how we saved our life in a sailing boat'."

Even the best made plans of mice and men often go awry, however, and Bertram's proposal came unstuck before they ever stepped foot in the ocean.

Counting on breakfast at Darwin, they carried no food or water, he would later recount, and the pair soon resigned themselves to the reality that they would have to abandon their plane - a cardinal sin of aviation.

To add insult to injury, neither Bertram nor Klausmann knew where they were. While they believed they had landed somewhere on Melville Island, north of Darwin, they were actually at Cape St Lambert on the western coastline of the Joseph Bonaparte Gulf (almost 400 kilometres to the south west).

Junkers W-33 seaplane D-1925 Atlantis crewed by Hans Bertram and Adolph Klausman.
Faced with a critical fuel shortage, they put their plane down on the Kimberley coast.(National Library Of Australia)

"The worst thing in life is waiting, waiting, waiting," Bertram offered. "As long as we could move, as long as we could do something ourselves to find back to life, naturally we had to move on."

'I knew at once that he broke'

Desperate for food and water, the duo removed a float from their seaplane and attempted to sail to safety during the early days of their stranding.

But the improvised sail and rudder "proved unmanageable in high winds and strong offshore current".

"They found out very quickly that their jerry-rigged rudder and mast was of no use in the open ocean," Scott Sledge from the WA Maritime Museum told the documentary.

"The current swept them offshore, so they had nothing to do but paddle.

Float from Junkers W-33 seaplane converted into a canoe by Hans Bertram and Adolph Klausman.
A float from the Junkers W-33 seaplane that was converted into a raft by Hans Bertram and Adolph Klausman.(National Library Of Australia)

"They were unable to move in their compartments, their leg were described as elephant like, and they were out of food and mostly out of water the whole time."

Fatigued by the heat, and with their health worsening, the pair were unable to attract the attention of a ship that had come within a mile of their makeshift vessel.

Klausmann, Bertram's "best comrade", who he credits with his survival, suddenly became "very strange looking".

"I knew at once that he broke," Bertram said.

Preparing for death

After five days at sea, and with their hopes of survival waning, the pair beached their float on a nearby coastline, where they quickly discovered the error of their ways.

They were not on Melville Island, as they had first thought, but in a remote part of north-west Australia, "surrounded one side by sea, and the other a limitless desert".

Despite their best efforts, after two weeks of exploring the harsh terrain on foot to no avail, they felt "compelled to head out to sea once again".

"I've always had energy all my life," Bertram would later reflect. "But one day, I had no energy left to keep rowing through the Kimberley's."

On the 34th day of the men's ordeal, as Bertram and Klausmann crawled into a rock overlay on Cape Bernier "to prepare for death", rescuers found their seaplane, Atlantis, moored on a beach - the duo nowhere in sight.

Too frail to move, they had resigned themselves to their fate.

Then, their "saviours" arrived.

'They gave me my life'

Some six days after rescuers discovered Atlantis along the Kimberley coast, the men were tracked down by an Aboriginal search party from Drysdale River Mission (now called Kalum-buru), west of the town of Wyndham.

"If it hadn't been for them, the men would have been dead before any of the European searchers reached them," reflected Barbara Winter, the author of Atlantis is Missing.

Bertram and Klausmann, who by that point had become "un-hinged mentally", were both so weak from starvation that they could "only swallow after their Aboriginal saviours had chewed food for them".

Adolph Klausman, Miaman Morrit-je, Murungnunga Tour, and Captain Hans Bertram.
Adolph Klausmann, Miaman Morrit-je, Murungnunga Tour, and Captain Hans Bertram with other Aboriginal men and women after the rescue.(National Library Of Australia)

Bertram recalls looking towards the entrance of the cave on the day of their rescue, with "the feeling someone was on my side".

"They gave me my life," he said. "They are my best friends, they are wonderful people."

It would take another five days for European searchers to arrive, at which point the men had regained some strength, although not enough to embark on the journey back to civilisation.

Police reports from the time recall the men "called out in a feeble voice" and "were crying for bread... it was a shocking sight".

"They clung [to police] and would not let go until they saw a packet of biscuits," it noted.

There, on the beach, Bertram and Klausmann were administered medicine and given food and water, until rescue parties could transport the "pitifully weak" men to Wyndham a week later.

A lasting legacy

The pair's incredible story of survival garnered headlines across the globe.

Bertram would go on to pen Flug in die Holle, a memoir recounting the journey, which was later reprinted in English and named Flight into Hell - the basis for the ABC mini-series of the same name.

Mr Atkinson in the cave where the German pilots were rescued.
Mike Atkinson was inspired to complete the same expedition after watching Flight into Hell as a young boy.(Supplied)

But while the tale would ultimately fade out of the national consciousness as the years passed, it remained fresh in the minds of those like Mike Atkinson, who was inspired to complete the same expedition after watching Flight into Hell as a young boy.

"I remember (thinking), you know, 'What's that about'?" he says. "I thought, wouldn't it be cool being in that sort of situation."

Atkinson, who documents his journeys on his website Outback Mike, quips his friends and family "weren't surprised" when he informed them he'd be heading out on a weeks-long odyssey through crocodile-infested waters on a hand-made raft.

And following extensive planning, he completed the journey in 2018 - even meeting with a relative of one of the Aboriginal rescuers along the way.

"I asked him, 'Why would you try and rescue people that aren't treating you very well and he said, 'They didn't care, they just wanted to help people out'," Atkinson says.

A man sits on a hand-made raft made from drums and timber in a yard.
Atkinson made the raft himself.(ABC News: Erin Parke)


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