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Islands of Despair


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On 26th August 1939 the German steamer Erlangen of 6101 tons slipped unobtrusively from her berth at Dunedin, ostensibly bound for Port Kembla to coal. It was fairly obvious at the time that war with Germany was imminent, and considerable interest had centred round the activities of this ship. Her master, Captain Alfred Grams, was in a dilemma, as although he had about 175 tons of coal in the bunkers that amount would soon be exhausted, and in the absence of instructions from his owners he decided to proceed to Port Kembla.

But the Erlangen did not arrive at Port Kembla, and her probable movements were causing some speculation amongst those interested enough to wonder what had become of her. Some months later news was received that she had arrived at Santiago under sail. However, this explanation was not accepted without reservations, and it was suspected that additional fuel was obtained from another source. In some quarters it was thought possible that she might have obtained a supply of firewood from the Auckland Islands, one of the groups of sub-Antarctic islands lying to the south of New Zealand, and which were known to be partially forested.

On 16th February 1941 two unidentified ships were sighted east of New Guinea, heading in a southerly direction. These ships were subsequently found to be the German auxiliary cruiser Orion and her supply ship the tanker Ole Jacob. Although this may not have been considered particularly significant in itself, the matter became more interesting when the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer was sighted on February 22nd in the Indian Ocean, also heading south. It seemed reasonable to conjecture that these three vessels were page 2heading for a rendezvous, which might well be at the uninhabited Auckland Islands, or possibly at Campbell Island.

The New Zealand War Cabinet had previously decided that these unoccupied islands were a potential danger to the security of shipping in the Pacific, and arrangements were now hastily completed for their occupation by small coast-watching parties whose duty would be to report by radio details of any ships seen. The first men left Wellington in the auxiliary schooner Tagua in March 1941, and established camps at Port Ross and Carnley Harbour in the Auckland Islands, also at Perseverance Harbour in Campbell Island. Prefabricated huts were erected for living-quarters, these having double walls of plywood with an exterior covering of fabric. Each camp was established in a secluded spot, but in a place where easy access was available to a good position for keeping a look-out. In addition, each camp had a well-concealed emergency hut at some distance from the main station. It must be understood that each of the camps was occupied by four unarmed civilians, and in the event of any camp being in imminent danger of discovery by an enemy vessel it was desirable that the men should be able to evacuate it, and beat a retreat to a more secure position. Each camp was to report by radio at prearranged times daily. Fully-charged radio batteries were also maintained at the emergency huts.

In view of the war situation in the Pacific at that time, it was most uncertain as to when a relief vessel would be able to visit the islands, and an endeavour was made to supply each camp with sufficient food to last its occupants for a period of about three years. The 57-ton auxiliary ketch Ranui was also based at Waterfall Inlet in the Auckland Islands to act as a mobile coast-watching station and to provide an emergency means of transport between the stations and New Zealand.

Further cause for suspicion was soon forthcoming in connection with the activities of the Erlangen, as a considerable area of recently felled bush was discovered in the north arm of Carnley Harbour, near what is known as Round Point. The page 3work had been done unobtrusively. From the sea there was no sign of anything having been touched, but from the hills the denuded area was readily visible. Tools with German markings made it seem even more likely that the Erlangen was responsible. Confirmation of the theory eventually came from Captain Grams himself, who reported that after leaving Dunedin, New Zealand, he abandoned the idea of making for Australia, and decided to call at the Auckland Islands to await developments. Upon seeing the extent of the forest of rata he conceived the plan of utilizing it for fuel to take his ship to a neutral port. Difficulties soon arose, especially over the matter of getting the wood on board ship. Finally he decided to risk beaching the Erlangen, and by working long hours his crew managed to cut and load 20-25 tons of wood daily. In the meantime the chief officer and the Chinese quartermasters made two sails out of tarpaulins, and rigged the masts with yard-arms improvised from derricks. The long voyage to Chile was eventually accomplished, although not without incident. Fuel became so short that many of the ship's wooden fittings were fed into the furnaces, and food was in very short supply. Nevertheless there can be no doubt that the exploit amply demonstrated the resourcefulness of Captain Grams.

It seems probable that the enemy became aware of the occupation of the islands, as this could readily be done by maintaining a conscientious radio watch. At all events no visits were made by enemy vessels, whether or not any such visits had previously been made.

At the end of the first year of coast-watching the number of men at each station was increased to five, and the personnel were encouraged to utilize their spare time by exploring and mapping the islands, and by making scientific studies. Indeed it became the practice to include in the parties men who had scientific interests so that the maximum advantage could be gained from a unique opportunity of undertaking continuous scientific observations. A further innovation was the commencement of meteorological observations.

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This coast-watching expedition, in common with many others in various parts of the Pacific Ocean, was organized and maintained by the New Zealand Ministry of Works. It was the policy of that department to endeavour to arrange for a surveyor to accompany each expedition, so that an accurate map could be made. In most cases the existing maps were on a very small scale, and showed little detail. Furthermore most of the existing surveys had been carried out in the nineteenth century, and the latitude and longitude, especially the latter, could not be relied upon.

Although one surveyor had been located at Carnley Harbour with the first coast-watching party he had been unable to achieve any worthwhile results on account of the necessity for carrying out other duties, and also because of the difficult country and the persistent bad weather. This was unfortunate, as the existing map of the islands was known to be extremely inaccurate; indeed, it was commonly suspected that the errors in the chart might have been responsible for a number of tragic shipwrecks that have occurred in the Auckland Islands. Furthermore, the production of a detailed map was very desirable in connection with the extensive scientific investigations which were being carried out by members of the coast-watching parties.

For these reasons it was decided towards the end of 1943 to send a special survey party to carry out the necessary work. The result of this decision was that I was summoned to Wellington and asked if I would be willing to undertake the job. I had only recently returned from two years of somewhat similar work in the North and Central Pacific, and I had no hesitation in accepting, even though I felt a bit sceptical about the added inducement of possible treasure to be salvaged from the wreck of the General Grant.

Plans for the organization of the survey were immediately put in hand, and it was agreed that I would take two other men as permanent members of the survey party. These were Mr. Les Clifton, a mining engineer who had already spent a page 5year on Campbell Island, and Mr. George Easton, who was a survey cadet. Other men could be borrowed as required from the personnel of the coast-watching stations. Then followed the work of ordering stores and equipment. In some cases this meant getting articles made to our requirements, such as light-weight tents and special clothing. Much practical advice came from men who had previously been to the islands, and this was very welcome, as I had little idea of the nature of my future home, in fact I had barely known that the Auckland Islands existed. I soon learned that the most important article of clothing was the parka, a light waterproof smock with an attached hood.

As a safeguard in the event of capture by the enemy it had been decided that all members of the expedition should be enlisted in the armed forces. I was already a serving member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, but the other men were all civilians. Consequently, shortly before our departure, they were enlisted in the Army and issued with a special kit of clothing suitable for southern latitudes. A thorough medical examination was also carried out, as it was most important that every man should be in good health. A fairly comprehensive medical kit was held in each camp, but of course it could not be expected that any but the most simple ailments could be successfully treated.

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