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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

The Cape Expedition

The Cape Expedition

THE ESTABLISHMENT of coastwatching stations on the sub-Antarctic islands several hundred miles south of Stewart Island was known during the war, for purposes of secrecy, as the ‘Cape Expedition’.

War Cabinet decided in December 1940 that the uninhabited state of these southern islands was a threat to our security and that they should be occupied. It was already suspected that the German merchantman Erlangen, 6101 tons, which had sailed from Dunedin on 26 August 1939, ostensibly for Australia but in fact for South America, had eked out her scanty supply of coal with wood collected at the Auckland Islands. (This suspicion was confirmed when the Cape Expedition reached the Aucklands and discovered areas of newly cut rata forest on the shores page 31 of Carnley Harbour, also a cold chisel and chipping hammer with German markings.) The loss of the Holmwood and Rangitane in November 1940 also indicated that enemy raiders might be using the uninhabited southern islands as bases.

In February 1941 new intelligence hastened the despatch of the occupation parties. On 22 February an enemy pocket battleship was sighted in the Indian Ocean steaming south. Following a sighting to the east of New Guinea on 16 February of two unidentified southbound ships,* this report suggested a possible rendezvous between the warship and supply ships somewhere in southern waters. It was conjectured that the aim of the Admiral Scheer** (for so the pocket battleship was tentatively identified) was not the destruction of merchant shipping but the showing of the German flag in Japan. In the 1914-18 War the German warship Goeben had reached Turkey from Germany through the British blockade and helped the Turks to decide to enter the war against us. The Admiral Scheer might have had a similar mission, and it was estimated that she could reach the Auckland Islands from the Indian Ocean position, steaming at 15 knots, about 12 March.

Thus, when the small auxiliary schooner Tagua sailed from Wellington on 5 March with the first members of the expedition, the margin of time within which the stations might be established was very small. The Tagua was sheltering in Port Ross at the northern end of the Auckland Group on 10 March, and on the 13th entered Carnley Harbour. She might well have arrived to find the Admiral Scheer or the Orion*** fuelling from a supply ship. This would have been an unpleasant dénouement for her passengers and crew, even though it would have meant a hue and cry after the enemy ships. The coastwatchers and the crew of the Tagua had been instructed, in the event of meeting the enemy, to pretend to be on a fishing trip or to ‘adopt any other stratagem which you think will throw him off the real object of your party.’

It would have been difficult to convince even moderately suspicious German captors of the civilian innocence of the enterprise when the cargo included radio equipment, portable huts, and stores on a generous scale for a long sojourn in a cold climate. The Tagua, with merchant service officers, had eight RNZNVR ratings as seamen. The coastwatchers were civilians. Even if the code-books they carried could have been successfully destroyed, the evidence was enough to show them as civilians engaged upon a military enterprise, and their capture would have qualified them for execution as francs tireurs.

No raider appeared during the five years the Cape Expedition was in being. Two ships, both Allied merchantmen, were sighted by the most northerly group of coastwatchers during 1943, one westbound on 21 July, the other eastbound on 15 October. Although the military value of these stations remained negative, they carried out work of a scientific nature that had value for its own sake.

The Cape Expedition, in spite of its accelerated departure, had been carefully planned. The Aerodrome Services Branch of the Public Works Department undertook responsibility for manning the stations, providing the huts and finding suitable sites for them, and collecting the stores; its representative sailed in the Tagua in charge of the establishment of the stations.

* These were the German auxiliary cruiser Orion and her supply ship, the captured Norwegian tanker Ole Jacob.

** 10,000 tons, six 11-inch and eight 5.9-inch guns.

*** The Orion and the Ole Jacob, en route to the Indian Ocean, had rounded New Zealand to the south of Stewart Island on 5 March 1941.

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Although the notice was short, men were found. They had to be used to living in remote places, self-reliant but not self-sufficient, for they had to be co-operative and cheerful. The stations were small, four men at each, increased to five in the second year. At first they were civilians, but all were attested into the Army as privates in December 1942. The adventure itself was the inducement which attracted them.

Because of the rigours of the climate, food had to be provided on a lavish scale. Three years' supply was taken, as it was impossible to estimate when the expedition might be relieved. Clothing was provided in generous quantity, and tools and accessories to deal with every imaginable contingency. Portable pre-fabricated huts with double plywood walls and double windows were erected at the three stations. Each station had a dinghy and outboard motor, and the MV Ranui (57 tons) remained in the Aucklands to act as a link between them and, if necessary, the outside world.

In practice it was found that windproof clothing was more important than warm clothing. The temperature never fell very low; it averaged a little under 50 degrees throughout the year. But the islands were almost continuously clouded (an attempt in 1944 to survey them from the air had to be abandoned), and the west wind blew with force and constancy.

Three shore stations were established: No. 1 at Port Ross, No. 2 at Carnley Harbour, in the Aucklands, and No. 3 at Perseverance Harbour, Campbell Island. The Ranui's crew of four maintained a shore observation post at her usual anchorage, Waterfall Inlet, in the Auckland Islands.

The first instructions laid stress on concealment. Emergency radio stations were established in the vicinity of each station. The men were encouraged to carry out surveys, to take weather observations, and to interest themselves in the wild life of the islands. They made one signal daily by radio, at staggered hours to decrease the risk of their presence becoming known and the value of their work being compromised.

In June 1942 the stations began reporting weather conditions by daily signal. These reports were so valuable that in the third year trained meteorologists were sent down, and when the coastwatching parties were withdrawn in 1945 the Campbell Island station was retained as a permanent part of New Zealand's weather forecasting service. Geologists and naturalists were members of the second and later reliefs. Surveyors joined the first and second parties, and in the fourth and fifth years a special party of three was at work completing the survey of the groups. In this way much useful work was accomplished as a byproduct of the expedition's main purpose.

The work of the parties, apart from their coastwatching duties, was obviously a help in maintaining morale. Men with strong intellectual interests were likely to be better able to stand the loneliness and privations of sub-Antarctic life than others who could find no special significance in their environment. The health of the men was remarkably good, belying the forebodings with which the first parties were established. A nineteenth-century attempt to colonise the Auckland Islands had failed miserably, and a sheep station on Campbell Island had been abandoned in 1927. Both islands had a bad reputation for the inhospitable conditions in which shipwrecked seamen had had to live and which not all of them survived.

Neither the Aucklands nor Campbell Island were ideal homes. The Aucklands were largely covered with impenetrable rata forest, sprawling horizontally along the ground, and the open page 33 areas were peat bog. Campbell Island was open tussock, but the sea-elephant wallows made it difficult to walk about freely. The camps attracted an unbelievable number of bluebottles, and clothes, blankets, and ornithological specimens were quickly blown. The fish caught round the coast were too riddled with worms to be eaten. The great humidity of the atmosphere and the lack of sunshine had a depressing effect.

The chief compensation of living in the sub-Antarctic (apart from ‘time to think’, as one coastwatcher put it) was the abundant wild life, particularly seals and sea birds, which gives these coasts their special interest for the zoologist and birdwatcher. On the Aucklands, shooting wild pigs in the bush or wild cattle or blue rabbits on Enderby Island, provided both sport and fresh meat. The mutton from the flocks on Campbell Island was so good that in 1942 forty sheep were landed on Ocean Island, a small island in Port Ross, to supply a better quality of meat to the Auckland stations. This fresh food was a major reason for the good health enjoyed by all the men through the five years of the Cape Expedition's occupation.

The routine work of keeping the station going absorbed much of the coastwatchers' time. Every man in turn did a day's cooking, firewood had to be cut, and from time to time stores had to be brought up from the beach. ‘Coastwatching, conscientiously maintained, is not the relaxed occupation it might seem to be,’* for in the long daylight of summer a watch extended to six hours daily.

The coastwatchers were relieved every year. Some men volunteered to remain or returned after a year's interval; two of them spent three years in the sub-Antarctic.

* Report by Dr. R. A. Falla, 29 September 1945.