Chapter 13

Chapter 13


Cocos Islands

When the week was up we took the train to Trincomalee, and settled in to our rented hovel, taking with us the little ayah who wanted to stay with us and did indeed until we left India for demobilisation. I still of course had my job to do and resumed it with the Company, the only difference being that I no longer lived in camp. By this time we had transferred to a different site on the harbour frontage called by the rather romantic name of China Bay, and there we were building a permanent wharf in concrete for future naval use. When this was nearing completion, I got a signal to present myself in Colombo as soon as possible, which I did, fearing the worst that it meant a transfer, and separation from Budge and Sue after such a short time. When I reported to Colombo I was told that I was to be one of a small party to survey a proposed site for an airstrip in the Cocos and Keeling Islands, which lay just over half way between Ceylon and Australia, and that we were to leave in a day or two. The other members of the party were an American Airforce Colonel, my C.O. a full Colonel,and a Brigadier from Mountbatten’s HQ,and it was all most terribly secret, so all I could tell Budge was that I would be away for a few days. In a day or two, we five went by car to a stretch of water near Galle on the south coast, and embarked in a Catalina flying boat and were flown to the Cocos, a flight of about twelve hours. We had a minimum crew and as I was the most junior officer, I had to sleep in the gun blister, a most uncomfortable place. We arrived early in the morning over this most picturesque group of coral islands and came down in the lagoon. Some Malay boats came out and ferried us ashore on to Home Island,and we had a rations breakfast. The group of islands consisted of Home Island, Virgin Island,and Long Island, in a circle round a lagoon of the clearest possible water. There was only one entry for larger vessels to the lagoon, and this had a rocky bar, and was only navigable at certain stages of the tide. The lagoon teemed with fish, and there were no sharks in it. As soon as we were ready we took a walk round the small island, and were introduced to some of the people, and also visited the ” palace” which was an ugly large villa built in white glazed lavatory bricks, and when we saw inside we got an insight in to Clunies Ross’s life style, as he had evidently left in a hurry, and nothing had been touched. Another interesting item was that all the garden paths were kerbed with upturned bottles, most of them antique in that they had rounded bases.


The islands belonged to a Clunies Ross, who somehow had become the ruler, and had been populated by a small number of Malays, who all lived on Home Island and grew copra on Long Island,and also built beautiful small boats. No money was allowed and the inhabitants got in exchange for their work and produce, tokens from Clunies Ross. Every few months a ship would arrive to collect and pay for the copra, and bring whatever goods and food had been ordered. Clunies Ross retained the cash , and sold the goods to the inhabitants in exchange for the tokens. It sounds like slavery, but it was not and most of the money that came to the Island was used for the benefit of the Islanders with their simple way of life. Certainly when we arrived they all seemed very happy, but Clunies Ross was not there, having left just before the Japs arrived on their one visit to the islands.


When we had finished our tour of inspection of Home Island, we were taken by boat to Long island, leaving the Brigadier behind to explain to the islanders what we were about, and to have preliminary talks on compensation, as it turned out that he was a Malayan Civil Servant in peacetime.On landing, to my great surprise, we were met by two bearded Americans, who were very surprised and happy to see us, and it turned out that they had been there some months operating a radio station that listened in to Jap broadcasts and transmitted them to their own HQ. They had been there when a Jap patrol had visited the islands and had concealed themselves in a well camouflaged dugout they had built, but fortunately the Japs had not bothered to call in at Long Island, but had concentrated on Home and Virgin Islands, and the islanders had not betrayed them.


On Long Island, my CO and I concentrated on taking soundings and making a short survey for the building of a jetty, while the American colonel did a similar sort of job for the siting of an airstrip.By the time that we had finished this work, it was time to leave to return to Ceylon, and once again we boarded the flying boat, taking the two Americans and their equipment with us. This increased the weight being carried, with the result that the Catalina had great difficulty in taking off, and for some reason we were all ordered to stand as far forward in the cabin as we could. Just as I was convinced that we would run ashore at high speed on Home island, the plane gave a tremendous lurch upwards that made our legs buckle, and we ended up on the floor, but at least we were airborne, and had an uneventful flight back to Ceylon.


By this time I knew that I would be put in charge of the building of the jetty on Long island, and so started to prepare for Budge and Sue to go to Ootacamund in South India, a delightful hill station where I had once spent a very welcome leave when stationed at Deolali. Budge was by now pregnant, and I knew that she would be well looked after there, as it was a very popular European station and very close to Wellington, which was an army peacetime HQ. At that time I only knew that I would be going to the Cocos for a comparatively short period, and hoped that I would be able to get leave later when the baby was due.


Not very long after, I got the orders to take only the men necessary to build the jetty and administer the detachment to the Cocos, while the rest of the Company went back to India. When I got these orders I arranged for my batman, a Madrassi, to escort Budge, Sue and the ayah to Ootacamund by train and ferry, which he was delighted to do, as I gave him a bit of home leave as well, and instructed him to report to the Company in India when his leave was up. I and my detachment then boarded a ship in Colombo and sailed for the Cocos.


The design of the jetty was not my responsibility, and I had simply to choose a site and see it built. This was not much of a problem as it was entirely of steel joist construction and simply needed bolting together, but much of this bolting had to be done under water, where our rather crude diving methods, of which we had had a lot of practice in Trincomalee, proved invaluable. It was a pleasant life with permanent sun, wonderful beaches and fairly easy work, and we were all very happy there. Unfortunately it did not last very long , and after a month or so I got a signal to return to India to rejoin my Company alone, leaving the detachment to follow as shipping became available. A cargo ship was lying in the lagoon preparing to return to Madras, so I embarked on it as the only passenger. Then followed one of the most boring journeys that I have ever had, about ten days of nothing but waiting for the next meal on a small steamer with hardly any deck space and nothing to occupy me. I was thankful when we docked at Madras and I got on to an R.A.F. plane and flew to Calcutta. After a night or two there in a room shared by four other majors, I made enquiries as to the whereabouts of the rest of my Company, and was told that they were in Burma, somewhere north of Rangoon. I collected a Jeep and my batman, who was in a transit camp in Calcutta, and prepared to set out to drive there. I was already not feeling very well, and had begun to run a temperature, so reported to the military hospital where I was told that I had bronchitis and must stay in hospital. I spent about 10 days in the hospital, and my batman called in every day to see me. When I was discharged, I went to the hospital car park to collect the Jeep and found that the battery had been stolen. It took two days to get a replacement , with reams of red tape, loss statements, enquiries etc., but finally we were free to go and set off for Burma. It was a most interesting drive, north east to begin with, then turning southwards and crossing the Irrawaddy and numerous small creeks. It was a well marked road by this time as the army supply line had been using it for some months, but some of the bridges were a bit frightening, being simply two steel cables stretched between the banks with boards laid across them. I confess that, when it was possible, I drove through the streams , rather than over them.


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