No. 2ACS COCOS ISLAND
Extract from the book Always First by David Wilson
As the workload and responsibilities of 5ACS in Japan declined in 1948, negotiations between the governments of Great Britain and Australia were to result in a major deployment of 2ACS to Cocos Island during 1951. An airfield had been constructed on West Island, the largest island in the group, during World War II. During May 1948, the United Kingdom High Commissioner enquired regarding the requirement to maintain this airstrip for defence purposes. On 10th June 1948 the Australian Defence Committee recommended that the facility be retained. However, in March 1949, the United Kingdom High Commissioner advised that the United Kingdom Government did not regard the Cocos Island airstrip as essential for its defence purposes. The Australian Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, and Lord Pakenham discussed the matter during April 1949. On 29th June the British Government conceded that if Australia was interested in using the airstrip that it would be the responsibility of the Australian Government to rehabilitate it.
In November 1948 Qantas Empire Airways flew a survey flight from Perth, via Cocos Island and Mauritius to Johannesburg. The results of this survey were analysed by the Department of Civil Aviation whose Minister submitted a proposal to the Prime Minister, Mr. R.G. Menzies, on 27th April 1950 that a direct air service between Australia and South Africa was a viable proposition. An essential element of the project was the rehabilitation of the airfield on Cocos Island. This proposal added weight to the strategic assessment that the Cocos Islands `would be necessary as a staging point on the only alternative route' should the normal air route to the United Kingdom through Indonesia and Singapore be broken. In the case of war, the airfield would be used as a base for maritime reconnaissance aircraft on anti submarine and convoy escort work. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal George Jones, was of the opinion that it was `essential that the Cocos Island airstrip be rehabilitated as soon as possible'.
2ACS was allocated the task. Squadron Leader Percival Lings travelled to Melbourne for discussions with Wing Commander Dale and his staff at the Directorate of Works and Buildings on 25th June 1951 to discuss the move from Woomera. The first members of 2ACS arrived at Cocos Island on 18th November aboard the Dongala. An officer and eight airmen arrived from Port Adelaide aboard the Canara on the 28th. The third party of 40, led by Flight Lieutenant S.R. Scott, welcomed the trip after spending three weeks on the drill square at RAAF Base Pearce. They arrived at Cocos Island on 25th November and established themselves in a group of buildings near the old control tower on West Island. Although in good condition, the buildings were full of rubbish and swarmed with centipedes. The men suffered discomfort until stretchers were unloaded and a mobile cooker made available to supply hot meals. The party worked from 6 am to 9 pm daily to unload 500 tons of stores and equipment before preparing a campsite for use by the main body on its arrival on 19th December.
The main body of 2ACS consisted of 444 officers and men who embarked by train at the Woomera Siding on 8th December. The train travelled through Port Pirie and arrived at Outer Harbour, Adelaide next morning, where they boarded the Cheshire. After suffering from heavy seas en route to Fremantle three sets of dentures were lost overboard the men were given a day's shore leave at Fremantle on 14th December.
The subsequent voyage to Cocos Island was a mixture of pleasure and training to prepare the men for disembarkation. Pleasure came in the form of games of skittles, tombola and tours of the engine room and bridge. A highlight was the concert performance by members of 2ACS two nights out from Cocos Island, the climax of which came when Captain D.K. Potter [the ship's master] was presented with his own gold cigarette box. This item had been skillfully removed from his day cabin. No doubt the captain was equally amazed to be presented with the ship's bell, which had been removed from the forepeak under the nose of the officer of the watch. For training, a scrambling net was slung from the highest deck aft down to the hatch cover of No. 5 hold. Captain Potter personally supervised three disembarkation trials and the value of this training was apparent when the men disembarked on 19th December without incident.
The arrival of the main force coincided with the failure of most of the unit's refrigeration units. Due the unavailability of freezer space, almost 20,000 pounds of fresh meat and fish remained aboard the Cheshire. By the end of December basic foodstuff like potatoes, fresh fruit and canned vegetables was being replaced by rice, barley and paw paws. Despite the efforts of the refrigeration mechanics, the units in the butcher's shop failed resulting in a possible health risk in that thawing meat dripped blood and water onto the sand, becoming a breeding ground for flies. The medical officer arranged for the area to be treated with a mixture of sump oil and distillate, the sand dug out from beneath the refrigeration unit and a concrete block poured in its place. Fly wire was placed around food storage and preparation areas to prevent food contamination, and innovative garbage can holders manufactured to lessen the area available for flies to breed. Before the hygiene and dietary problems were overcome, dysentery was a cause of concern. Conditions at Cocos Island were the subject of adverse reporting; the Brisbane Telegraph of Monday 4th February 1952 stated that the `shortage of fresh meat and vegetables and lack of proper facilities has brought most of the 500 airmen working on Cocos Island to "near mutiny"'. This claim was contradicted by Squadron Leader Lings who reported on his arrival late in January that `the high morale already existing mounted still higher with the arrival of mails, fresh foods, cigarettes and tobacco, films, amenities and equipment with which to work'.
An unfortunate accident occurred while men were attempting to augment their slender fresh food supplies by using a barge to fish off Direction Island. Leading Aircraftman A.D. Jones was hit on the head by the handle of a winch used to wind in the anchor. The medical staff decided that he required medical treatment not available on Cocos Island, and arrangements were made for a Lincoln aircraft to fly a mercy mission from Pearce, Western Australia. As the squadron lacked heavy equipment the preparation of the old wartime strip for the arrival of the aircraft had to be undertaken by hand. A wartime Liberator bomber, which had been abandoned on the approaches, was burned. The Lincoln, captained by Flight Lieutenant A.B. Boyle, landed on 3rd January and Senior Sister Helen Cleary took charge of the injured airman for the flight back to Pearce. The aircraft had carried much needed mail, and a small amount of fresh food to the island on its outward flight. Unfortunately, refueling the aircraft for the return flight depleted the existing stock of aviation fuel on Cocos Island, delaying the inauguration of a scheduled air courier service until further supplies were received aboard the tanker Heather on 26th January.
Scott brought the food situation to the attention of Squadron Leader Lings at Fremantle on 16th January. Lings, three other officers and ten airmen had departed from Port Pirie on the Palikonda on 28th December 1951. Lack of space on the ship resulted in 66 items of plant and motor transport equipment and 220 tons of cement and 430 drums of bitumen being left behind. Unforeseen delays due to a lack of urgency in loading the ship (five days in Melbourne, 12 days at Port Pirie and 13 days in Fremantle) resulted in the ship arriving at Cocos Island on 23rd January 1952. The cargo of the ship, which included 50 tons of fresh and tinned foodstuffs, was unloaded on West Island. The unloading of the Palikonda, anchored eight kilometres off shore, was completed on 12th February.
During February construction began in earnest. The men toiled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in the debilitating climate to remove the old wartime pierced steel planking before preparing the new airfield. To ease the workload, the squadron technicians modified a standard le Tourneau ripper by welding a cutting edge to the ripper shank in place of the shoe. This machine was used to cut the matting into 50 metre squares, which were rolled up and towed away by D 7 and D 8 tractors. As there were no building materials on Cocos Island it had to be to be imported. The only natural resource, coral, was obtained from `below water level using drag lines, excavators and bulldozers and excavating the coral into big stockpiles [from] where we would transport it by carry all [to the] area where we were excavating the runway'. To obtain clean coral aggregate for concrete work, a gravel washing and screening plant was improvised to remove silt. Four or five hundred thousand coconut palms had to be removed before the construction of the runway could commence. Work progressed steadily and the first aircraft to use the new airstrip was a Qantas DC 4 courier, which flew three test flights from the new strip on 18th July. The main runway was completed on 26th July, enabling a Constellation flying the route proving flight to Johannesburg to land and depart for Mauritius next day. The inaugural flight on the route passed through Cocos Island on 1st September. To make this possible, the men of 2ACS had unloaded 19 ships, constructed a 3,048-metre runway, a control tower, permanent buildings and roads in addition to maintaining its own installations and equipment..
Individuals worked six days before being given a day's relaxation. A five team cricket competition was arranged, and a three match series of soccer was played between the squadron and Malays who were employed by the owner of the island, John Clunies Ross and his family, on Home Island and lost two games to one. An open-air beer garden was constructed with a bar equivalent in size to the best in Kalgoorlie and the recreation area included facilities for entertainment and boxing tournaments. Once a fortnight the courier aircraft from the mainland brought in fresh food and six 16 mm movies films. Excursions were made to Home Island by parties of 100, where the copra sheds, native villages and boats built by the Clunies Ross family objects were of interest. The Commander, Percival Lings recalls that John Clunies Ross:
... lived in the manor or the Oceania house which had been transported brick by brick by [his] ancestors ... I liked him very, very much. He was always in trouble with the Australian government over the costs of the clearing and his demands for five pounds per tree for compensation for the coconut palms, which were pushed down. Mind you they were worth it because each tree would produce something like four or five hundred nuts each ... at sixpence a nut.
He was very, very generous ... socially. He would invite me across on Saturday night to have dinner ... and we would play chess ... till all hours of the morning and then he would bring me back ... to work on West Island.
[His wife] would come across ... and we made her an honorary bar manager so she would get behind our bar at Corns Island and dispense drinks to the officers, and she was rather friendly with our two nurses [who] would reciprocate by assisting for any medical requirement at West Island...
The two nursing sisters, Ethel 'Maggie' Morgan and Vivienne Boswell, who arrived with the main party aboard the Cheshire, were the only females on West Island. They had a remarkable effect on the morale of the troops. A hospital was established in the dilapidated control tower and the two nurses domesticated themselves in a tent `comprising two folding camp stretchers, two folding chairs and two wooden packing cases for clothes. At a later stage ... the Department of Civil Aviation Project Administrative Officer, Mr. Jim Thompson, supplied us with mattresses, mosquito nets, cupboards with drawers and ground covering malthoid'. A lounge was fabricated by relocating their second tent fly, so they could entertain in style against the backdrop of breakers breaking on the reef 180 metres offshore.
The western foreshore of West Island consists of a coral shelf extending 180 metres seaward before falling away steeply into the ocean. At this point there is always a heavy break and a very dangerous undertow. Swimming near this area was forbidden.
On Sunday, 6th April, HM ships Zeebrugge and Narvick were anchored off shore, and Wing Commander Lings invited officers and men to spend the afternoon ashore to be entertained by members of 2ACS the intention was for the men to participate in sporting contests and social activity, but the former was curtailed due to heavy morning rain. The visitors from the two ships arrived at mid afternoon and other ranks were welcomed at the airmen's beer garden overlooking the reef. Although the senior naval officer, Captain G.C. Colville, had been advised that swimming was not allowed on West Island five members of the naval party did not heed this advice, or that of 2ACS members on the safest areas to swim, with tragic results.
The first intimation of danger was when the men were sighted on the reef. By the time Corporal J.D. Kelly swam to the reef, the five men had been swept to seaward. Kelly, too, was swept out to sea by the huge surf. He advised the Englishmen to swim further to seaward, away from the dangerous surf, before being dumped back on the reef. He told Leading Aircraftmen R.M. Stewart and M.P. Rowan who had arrived to assist that it was too dangerous to proceed over the reef. Stewart and Rowan did not obey and dived into the surf. At this stage the Englishmen had been in the water for half and hour and Stewart was able to assist one through the breaking surf, before noticing that Rowan was in difficulties. Leading Aircraftmen E.J. Black and R.K. Higgins were now in the water, and Black was able to push another sailor onto the top of a wave from where he was washed to safety. Higgins supported Rowan until a huge wave engulfed all the men. Rowan was torn from Higgins' grasp, and disappeared.
Black and Higgins, completely exhausted, managed to regain the reef, and were assisted ashore. Leading Aircraftman K. Mason had entered the surf to assist Rowan, and was within a few yards of him when a breaker hit them both. Mason swam to seaward. Leading Aircraftman I.A. Hamilton had arrived at the surf line in a lifeline. Seeing Mason in difficulties, he slipped the line and swam to assist. The two men found an English sailor, Pringle, and were later joined by Stewart.
A second line was deployed. The rescue party (Aircraftman P.J. Eccleston, Leading Aircraftmen Craddock and D.H. Lorman and Squadron Leader S.R. Scott) swam over the reef. Scott, realising that the party was not serving any useful purpose, signalled the linesmen ashore to haul them back. As the line had caught in a crevice in the reef and broken on the landward side, it was some 15 minutes later that Scott and his party realised that they were not being hauled to safety. The four men were exhausted, and Eccleston sank before the rope could be tied around his waist. The three survivors hauled themselves to the reef using the lifeline, but Craddock was so exhausted that Leading Aircraftman L.D. Sorenson swam out to him and supported the exhausted airman until the two men were pulled to safety.
In the meantime, Stewart and the three other survivors had been sighted about half a mile off shore. Rain reduced visibility to 18 metres, but a fortuitous break enabled the searching airmen to sight them about 600 metres from their point of entry. Stewart had remembered a break in the surf some five kilometres from the accident and guided the exhausted party to this haven, where they were assisted ashore by a party of searching airmen. Mason collapsed, and Stewart, although chronically fatigued, insisted on personally applying artificial respiration to his colleague. The four men had been pummeled by tumultuous surf and heavy swells for two and a quarter hours.
On 4th February 1953, 2ACS was advised that the Queen had approved the award of the George Medal to Corporal R.M. Stewart. On 1st September 1952 the Minister for Civil Aviation, Mr. H.L. Anthony, unveiled a plaque erected in memory of the three servicemen who lost their lives on 6th April 1952: Aircraftman Peter James Eccleston, Leading Aircraftman Michael Paul Rowan and Able Seaman John Emery Atkinson, Royal Navy.
The airfield at Cocos Island was officially handed over to the Department of Civil Aviation on 30th September 1952. Prior to this event, 2ACS had begun their withdrawal from Cocos Island aboard the Dorsetshire on 9th August 1952, when 224 men and equipment returned to Australia. Projects to be completed for the Royal Navy on Direction Island and for the Department of Civil Aviation at West Island were the responsibility of a detachment of 65 personnel (known as Detachment `A') under the command of Flight Lieutenant Hal Pannell. The main body departed on the Tyalla for Townsville, on
23rd September 1952. The final eight remaining members of Detachment `A' tradesmen no longer required were posted from Cocos Island as tasks were completed departed for RAAF Base Pearce on 24th January 1954.