The Wartime Memories Project - The Indian Ocean

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I was Cpl Fred Roles #1382808 serving with 357 Wireless Unit of the RAF in Ceylon early in 1944 when I was told that I was to be in charge of several other members of our unit and would be shipped to "Brown". We had absolutely no idea where that was.

Our job in the Far East was secret "Y" service which was listening to the enemy wireless transmissions and our unit was specialist in aircraft activity. We were loaded on to a small ship in Colombo harbour and it took 10 days to reach Cocos - stopping at what I think were the Maldive Islands on the way to provide supplies for the RAF personnel there. I was early April as far as I remember. On the ship was a small herd of goats which was to be delivered to somebody - we had no idea whom. Arriving at Cocos in the early hours of the morning was a wonderful sight. All we could make out was a row of tiny palm trees. It looked as though they were sticking out of the ocean.

The ship made anchor and we were amazed that we could see it on the bottom of the ocean. In no time at all there were dozens of small sailing ships around us being loaded with supplies we had brought and we were then told we would be going ashore in one of the ship's lifeboats. We were taken to what I now know was Direction Island and introduced to civilians from British Cable & Wireless who were operating the cable link. They were basically responsible for helping us set up our wireless (radio) sets, providing us with electrical power from their generator and getting local Cocos boys to climb up the coconut trees to install our antennae. We were immediately told that we must not make it evident that we were there as Japanese aircraft frequently overflew the islands and it was imperative that they thought Direction Island was uninhabited. They gave us room in one of their bungalows and we were to sleep on the verandah on the north side so that we would not be visible. They provided us with room to have a mess table to eat, another room for storage of equipment and a toilet area close by. They also provided 2 Cocos men to cook our food and do our laundry.

On the island at that time were 4 civilian cable operators, and one engineer - a hefty Australian in his late 40's whom we called "Old Chum". There were 2 Royal Navy wireless operators - a Petty Officer (who was later killed by a bomb) and a leading seaman who was seriously injured and we had to get a Catalina flying boat from Australia to take him to safety. Their job was to listen for enemy shipping - mostly German subs that surfaced at night and communicated with Berlin by wireless. There were also 2 Australian army meteorologists who sent up balloons from time to time to check the wind. We never understood what for as the only aircraft that came near were Catalinas that flew over the islands almost every night from Perth to Colombo.

Our job was to listen to Japanese aircraft patrolling the Sundra Strait between Sumatra and Java and my job included recording what we heard and transmitting it by cable back to our unit in Colombo. I was taught by the cable operators how to use their morse keys - they had 2 one for each hand. The left one was for dashes and the right hand was for dots. Tricky when you are more used to a regular morse key.

Anyway, after a short time we visited Home Island and were introduced to many of the natives. We had the opportunity of going into several houses and seeing their large families - all in one room. Sometime there would be close to 10 children - about a year apart in age. The young ladies were often bare breasted. We learned that the usual routine was that a young lady would become pregnant, the responsible young man and she would be married by the Governor and they would be provided with a house. Young men were encouraged to learn woodwork and metalwork and the young girls were encouraged to learn sewing for clothes. Late in my stay, one made me a shirt which was half white and half light purple ! All the young men were excellent sailors from an early age and also participated in fishing and harvesting coconuts for the copra trade. We understood they sailed quite frequently before the war to Sumatra or Java to trade the copra for food and cotton cloth.

We never saw the Governor but did see his house and the turtle pond he had close by to breed turtles for food. We also saw that some of the streets were named after Scottish streets - one I remember was Sauchiehall Street. When we visited the small kids would run away and hide from us - they called us "Devil men" (in their own language of course) as we had beards after we had been on the islands for a few weeks.

We had a soccer ball (from Cable & Wireless) and on one occasion we went over to Home Island to play some of the men - we never realized they knew anything about soccer. On one occasion 2 of us visited Home Island and stayed overnight. We were there for a dance ! All the ladies present were dressed up with decorations in their hair but the only music was from 3 ancient men who played fiddles and the only tune they knew was the Scottish "The Campbells are coming" which they played for about 2 hours. We danced a kind of jig but were not allowed to get too close to the ladies. They didn't think much of us anyway as we were white - and ugly as far as they were concerned. But we did have cigarettes so they were friendly enough !

We learned a few words of Cocos-Malay but I can't remember any except "Piggi" which I think meant either "take" or "going to". I can remember saying Piggi Home Island. We learned the words for hello, goodbye, thank you etc but after all these years they have gone from my memory.

We aso visited Horsburg Island once to see the army corporal who was there in charge of the gun with about a dozen East African soldiers. It was never fired, of course. We were taken over there in our white sailing boat called the "Elizabeth" and nearly lost our lived coming back as the weather was so windy and the sea was extremely rough. It took us a couple of days to recover our strength from leaning backwards over the side to keep the boat balanced. Our young native sailor was no more than about 12 years old but he was expert and we would never have survived without him.

We were often visited by Japanese bombers and on one occasion one of our guys was seen on the jetty and they machine gunned him and much of the island. After that we decided to dig some slit trenches (very hard going) but later on when we were bombed - very useful. 6 weeks was all we were told when we left Colombo would be the length of the mission so we only took minimum of clothing and toilet articles with us. After we were bombed it would seem the authorities were afraid to send a ship with supplies and to take us back to Ceylon so we had long hair and beards in time.

I don't know exactly when we were bombed but 2 "Betty" bombers struck Direction Island using antipersonnel bombs and heavy machine guns. The Naval Petty Officer was killed and we buried him at the Northwest tip of the island in a shallow grave with a small nameless wooden cross. The leading seaman who was seriously hurt and really in danger of dying was fortunately taken away in a Catalina which came from Australia and we carried him out into the lagoon to load him aboard. It wall had to be done quickly as the aircraft had only limited fuel. The bombers went over to Home Island and dropped a number of bombs there, terrifying the people most if whom fled across to West Island where there was no water or food. Some elders sailed over to me and said they held me responsible as this had never happened until was RAF had arrived. Anyway I was taken over to West Island and met with more elders to finally persuade them to return to Home Island where they had food and water. There were so many little children carried by the women it was amazing that none were dropped and drowned. It was an extremely hazardous trip for them.

After the bombing we had to wait quite a while before eventually being taken off. The ship that came was escorted by a British destroyer HMS Relentless and that is the ship I returned to Ceylon on. I believe that was in August 1944. The ship that came brought Royal Marines with antiaircraft guns etc to attempt to protect the islands. Where they were located we never knew because it was such a busy day and the ships had to get away that night. I believe the civilian Cable operators left when we did.

Fred Roles

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