Postal History: the mail of the lost plane Atlantis


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09 March 2012
imports_CCGB_betramatlantisexpeditio_98977.jpg Betram Atlantis Expedition cachet
To coincide with our special series of features on wreck and crash mail in the April 2012 issue of Stamp & Coin Mart, Brian Peace details the mail aboard the German plane Atlantis which was lost in Western Australia in the 1930s. ...

The Junkers W-33 floatplane Atlantis left Cologne, Germany on 29 February, 1932 bound for Australia, on a goodwill round-the-world flight for the makers of Junkers aircraft. On 14 May they took off for Darwin, Northern Territory, pausing only to refuel at Koepang before setting off at midnight across the Timor Sea.

Han Betram flying the Junkers W33 Atlantis The Pilot and his mechanic were Hans Bertram and Adolph Klausmann. It was a courageous move to attempt to fly the Timor Sea in a single-engined floatplane at night. Their flight was marred by a torrential downpour and thick cloud. When they came through the cloud they could estimate the wind speed and direction by examining the tops of the waves, but by then they had no idea as to their position. With about thirty minutes of fuel remaining they sighted land, but no sign of habitation.  Hans Bertram set the floatplane down on calm water and taxied closer to shore.  It was 7.25am on 15 May. Not having slept at Koepang, they immediately fell asleep.

Lost in Western Australia

They were awakened by an Aboriginal at around noon, but they were unable to communicate and establish their position. After studying maps, Bertram thought they were on Melville Island, north of Darwin. In fact they were near Cape Bernier, Western Australia, over 250 miles from Darwin. Based on Bertram’s false assumption, he took off and flew west, mistakenly believing this would bring them closer to Darwin. In fact the ten minutes of fuel they had left took them further from Darwin, making the task for those who would be searching for them more difficult.
After 48 hours the aircraft was posted as missing. When the search was initiated, a Dutch destroyer, the Flores, was despatched to carry out a search along their intended route. In one day they flew over 1,000 miles.
Bertram and Klausmann made excursions into the area surrounding the inlet where they had landed, discovering it to be a hostile environment. Bertram re-assessed their position and decided they must return on foot to the place where they had met the Aboriginal. They set out heading east, but in an attempt to cross an inlet they were chased by crocodiles and lost some of their possessions during the escape.

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Lost cigarette case leads to discovery

When a native discovered and handed in a cigarette case with Bertram’s initials, it was correctly assumed that the missing men must be in the area. A further search led to the spotting of the Atlantis. The seachers could see there was a note fixed to the cabin windscreenwhich read: 27 May 1932. Australia. Today we left the plane in float as a boat in a westerly direction. Bertram. This was first read on 16 June when the rescue party reached the aircraft.

Betram with AboriginalsAfter converting one of the plane's floats to a two-man ‘canoe’ by cutting a second hole, the pair set sail, and soon sighted MV Koolinda, but were unable to attract her attention. Klausmann became very depressed following this sighting.  Although they loaded the float with sand ballast, it was inherently unstable, and after a few days they were forced to beach it a few miles from the aircraft. By 23 June Bertram and Klausmann were totally exhausted and sheltering in a cave, about twelve miles from Atlantis, where they were found by natives and fed with pre-masticated kangaroo meat and fish.

Return to Civilisation

A search party reached the Atlantis by sea on 17 June, but it was not until 29 June that Constable Marshall reached the cave, and the launch Kimberley was despatched and arrived on 5 July. The launch returned to Wyndham with the two flyers, arriving 6 July, and after recuperating Bertram flew south to Perth, arriving 19 July, as he was keen to recover Atlantis and continue the intended flight. Klausmann went by sea on MV Koolinda arriving 5 August – he was in no condition to take part in any other flights.
Bertram continued his tour, and after agreeing with a fellow pilot, finally returned to Germany, reaching Templehof Aerodrome, Berlin on 17 April, 1933.

Cover cancelled DARWIN 12DE32, JAKARTA 12 APR 33 and BERLIN 17 4 33    One of 75 Covers cancelled RANGOON G.P.O. 22.APR.32 backstamped CALCUTTA 27APR32 (REF: 2 above)


The Mail

A variety of covers were carried on the aircraft over the fourteen-month period it was away from Germany. They are all relatively scarce, however items 1, 2 and 13 (in the list below) regularly appear in auctions.

Cover cancelled BERLIN 25.2.32, LOGANO 7 III 33 [Error], WYNDHAM 6 JUL 32, SYDNEY 15NO32 (REF: 1 below)1.    Germany – Australia (40 carried)
2.    Calcutta - Rangoon** (unofficial) (75 carried)
3.    Melbourne – Sydney
4.    Sydney – Brisbane (24)
5.    Brisbane – Sydney
6.    Sydney – Melbourne
7.    Melbourne – Brisbane (15)
8.    Melbourne – Alice Springs (4)
9.    Melbourne – Darwin (12)
10.    Sydney – Darwin
11.    Darwin – Sourabaya (5)
12.    Darwin – Calcutta (1)
13.    Australia – Germany
14.    Melbourne – DEI (1)
15.    Daly Waters – Birdum

For more images, see the Atlantis Mail gallery.
With thanks to Brian Peace FRPSL and members of the Wreck and Crash Mail Society.

Read more about the Society and wreck and crash mail, including the mail workers onboard the Titanic, in the April issue of Stamp & Coin Mart.