MY TIME ON THE COCOS ISLANDS
Reminiscences of my journey to, and service on the Cocos Keeling Islands, by L.A.C. Alex M. YoungI was one of a squad of twenty maintenance workers drawn from 82 RSU to carry out on-site repair, maintenance and testing. We were flown to 99 Squadron in the middle of a monsoon storm, with torrential rain and electric sparks running along the wet wings. We assisted in packing the Squadron's equipment. The aircrew flew via Ceylon to the Cocos with the equipment needed for immediate use. All other personnel sailed from Calcutta on the troopship Dilwara (sister ship of the Dunera which I had already sailed in).
In the Bay of Bengal it was discovered that part of the ship's food store was infested with weevil and it was decided to dump it. It turned out to be porridge oat flakes in very large sacks, some of them rotten. While being brought from the hold in the net, the rotten sacks burst and disgorged a seething mass of weevils onto the deck which had to be hosed down the scuppers. Most of the whole sacks floated when hitting the sea and set a scene similar to the dumping of the breadfruit trees in the film Mutiny on the Bounty, leaving a line of floating bags deep into the horizon (don't tell the Jap subs which way we went!).
The Indian Ocean is a very beautiful place, giving off a deep cobalt blue reflection and on approach from the sea the reflection of the inner lagoon on the Cocos shows up as a giant aquamarine cabochon, this disappears when the islands come into view.
Dilwara anchored off the islands and we were transported by landing-craft to West (or Long) Island, then by motor transport to our camp site. Tents had been erected with fly sheets and we were detailed four to a tent. After kit had been dumped, everyone made for the sea which was only a few yards from the camp, and jumped in “starkers”.
Soon it was getting dark and we had to organise our sleeping arrangements. First the floor consisted of fist-sized lumps of coral which we covered with palm fronds, then arranged our kit to suit. We decided not to disturb the very large spiders packed between the tent and the fly sheet. In the middle of the night we awoke to much banging and yelling and torches flashing. On switching on I was attacked by a horde of land crabs. Our tent had been pitched and anchored near a large eucalyptus tree, and the crabs lived in a hole under the tree. They were very aggressive and fearless, which resulted in a lot of dead crabs. However, they got the message - next day crabs and spiders were gone. At a “you are here” lecture we learned that the crabs had been imported into the islands to control the centipedes, which were six to eight inches long and were poisonous.
In the next few days word came of a Jap task force led by a cruiser coming out of Singapore and perhaps heading our way. The bombers went out to meet them and attacked. However, very few of the bombs exploded, something to do with the fuses. It must have been a surprise for the enemy to find so many heavy bombers in an area that they controlled. Soon after, a ship arrived with a load of ordnance and supply pods and the Squadrons were able to concentrate on getting on with the job.
Recreation was limited. There was a football pitch, but it was only playable when the tide was out. However, swimming was always a first being so close to the sea. This was in the outer lagoon bordered by the outer reef. Being a keen fisherman I did quite a lot of surf fishing, up to the armpits in the sea and anchored by a pair of large issue boots. At times there was a strong tidal race between shore and reef, which led to the death of several airmen who made a raft of forty gallon drums and planking. They got into difficulties and other personnel went to their assistance linked by a life line; they had nearly reached the raft when the line broke, the current sweeping everyone to the influence of the reef.
Organised fishing trips were made with the native fishermen in the inner lagoon, an area of water about eleven miles across. We used hand-lines with live bait and the fish were mainly of a cod-like variety. Sharks were plentiful in the shallow waters and could be seen crossing the path of the fishing boats near the embarking point, they never broke the surface and did not give us any trouble. A large landing craft, carrying a fishing party from the other end of the island, accidentally foul-hooked a shark with the grapple when it tried to anchor. After half an hour the shark was beached, and found to be about thirty feet long (how's that for a fishing story?)
A concert party with Gracie Fields gave a show and was supported by the local RAF giving their version of the film, “Hellzapoppin”, incorporating the running joke of the messenger trying to deliver a plant to a Mrs Jones, starting with a sprouting coconut and finishing with a large coconut palm on a wheelbarrow. When Gracie took the stage, all microphones and loudspeakers were removed. She sang her usual nonsense songs then went on to New Zealand Maori, translating as she sang “Little Ball on End of String” and “The Farewell Song”, then South African songs, sung in Afrikaans and translated, finishing with popular songs including “Bless This House”. The power and clarity of her voice was superb and could easily be heard by all of the audience of more than five thousand.
Weather was always idyllic except on one occasion, when a hurricane passed quite close to the islands. All aircraft and motor transport had to be picketed on the metal airstrip in order to prevent the wind rolling it up, and tin hats had to be worn as a shield against flying debris (i.e. coconuts).
After the first atom bomb was dropped on Japan, the last raid in anger was carried out, bombing and strafing the enemy airfield at Benkoelen on the south coast of Sumatra which was in direct line with Singapore. Two days later a raid on shipping around Singapore was aborted owing to the dropping of the second atom bomb and all operations were suspended. After that, operations changed to leaflet dropping. One such leaflet referred to the disarming of all hostile troops and stated that any action we might have to take would be fully supported by the allied high command. Then there was the dropping of supply pods to prison camps and isolated troops.
The main squadrons operating from Cocos were 136 Spitfires, 99 & 356 Liberators and a mixed unit of Mosquitoes, Photo Reconnaissance and Catalina Air Sea Rescue. Other aircraft used the base as a staging post between Ceylon and Australia. As our aircraft were considered to be Lend Lease the B24 Squadrons were disbanded and aircraft had to be flown back to India, at 322 M.U. Chackri. We had a breaking-up party, held on the beach, at which the officers were the barmen and free drinks were dished out, as much as you liked and to your personal taste. One of my tent mates achieved his lifelong ambition by saying “bollocks” to the C.O., and it is NOT a good idea to go swimming in the outer lagoon on a pitch-dark night.
Time came to leave the island and one by one the aircraft flew off after a handshake from the C.O. One crew must have had a competition as to who could do the most spectacular takeoff and retracted the undercarriage before it was airborne, the fuselage of the aircraft dropping until it nearly scraped the runway before it got clear. The C.O. took off his cap and slammed it on the ground, we all expected him to jump on it but he managed to resist.
After tidying up and collecting all reusable equipment, all remaining personnel were flown off by B24s, with kit boxes slung in bomb bays and everything else on the gun decks. Once we had achieved a reasonable cruising height, everyone sprawled on a pile of kitbags and one-man dinghies, cigarettes were lit and we settled down to a nice peaceful flight. Then someone noticed a strong smell of petrol! Looking out of a small window I could see that the fuel filler cap was missing and petrol was slopping out of the port wing and drenching the side of the fuselage - this called for “fags out”, and I made my way to the cockpit and informed the crew. They managed to isolate and empty the tank by switching all engines to drain it.
We landed at Kancansutaria on the north coast of Ceylon, then were transported by rail to Ratmalana transit camp outside Colombo. After a brief stay over Christmas and New Year, we embarked on a Dutch troopship for Singapore where I was allocated to A.C..Comm. Sq. S.E.A.C. We arrived just in time to assist in the quelling of the so-called RAF Mutiny. Sir Keith Park, who was Commander in Chief, South East Asia, remarked that the Cocos was the best organised base he had seen in any overseas theatre of war.