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    Avis Part Ten - And So Back To Conflict
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(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)

At the start of WWII, Cable and Wireless were back in their splendid isolation on Ascension Island. They must have been nervous times; the island was undefended, other than a few rifles, with German ships known to be at large in the South Atlantic. Indeed the German Pocket Battleship Graf Spee passed within range of the St Helena guns on its way to the Battle of the River Plate. The Governor gave the order not to fire, fearing a terrible retribution.

Precautions were taken against invasion, and almost immediately the abandoned camp at English Bay became useful. A store shed from English Bay was removed and re-sited in the middle of the island at Two Boats, as an emergency fuel store. It's still there, used as a workshop by the residents of Two Boats. Spare line terminal equipment was secreted in the lava. An engineer and the foreman mason were dispatched to hide it in a secret location, and to keep the information from the management in case they were captured! The efforts of these two can still be seen close to the rifle range behind the Georgetown Golf Course. What looks to be a natural cave is in fact man-made.

In April 1940, the Ascension Defence Force was formed, soon strengthened by the sending of an officer and NCO from St Helena to assist with training. Quite what the small force could have achieved was luckily never put to the test. Christmas Eve 1939 saw the first main alarm on the island. Despite the "careful" watch being kept for shipping, a submarine was spotted close to the island. With much relief, the British flag was finally identified, and the General Manager, Mr. Steven Cardwell went out to speak to the Captain of H.M.S. Severn. Supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables were sent to the submarine, which continued on its journey. The journey wasn't wasted. Cardwell was able to discover that the ship had approached on the surface, and the lookout had a very embarrassing time explaining why he had not seen the submarine earlier!

In the spring of 1940, the island acquired some new inhabitants, Marconi workers from the Civilian Shore Wireless Service. They operated a HF/DF station monitoring the frequencies used by German Naval Traffic. The remains of the station, a circular earth mat and the base of the generator hut can still be seen today on the Ash Plains near Benin City. Connected to the cable office in Georgetown, the station was one of three working closely together; the others were at Sierra Leone and St Helena, and similarly connected to their cable office. If any of these stations picked up a signal, a flash alert was sent to the other stations by inserting a series of characters in the cable stream, and stating the frequency and bearing. The other stations would monitor the frequency allowing cross bearings to be taken.

It was 1941 when the next influx was seen into Ascension, when a small detachment of troops arrived to man the island's new defences, two 5.5 inch guns that were being sent out from the UK. These guns themselves had a history, as they were part of the secondary armament of HMS Hood, removed in 1934 during a refit in Malta. Only the guns themselves were from the Hood, the gun shields are a different pattern to those used on the Hood. They remain there today, the last part of HMS Hood that exists, as the ship herself was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Strait, with only 3 survivors out of her crew of almost 1500. Somehow the heavy guns were offloaded and transported to Fort Bedford where they were mounted onto the old fort that in a previous war had housed two 6-inch guns. There followed the usual argument over how the island with its limited resources could ever manage to support the extra troops. Eventually a compromise was reached. The troops were housed in Governors Lodge on the slopes of Cross Hill - it was never the same again! A mess hall and a bungalow for the officer in charge were acquired by raiding English Bay Camp once again. So now Ascension was once again defended. Were the guns ever fired in anger? Well, yes they were - on one occasion.

November 1941 saw a German U-Boat pack operating in the South Atlantic including U-124, under the command of submarine ace Kapitanleutnant Jochen Mohr. U-124 was having a troublesome cruise due to contaminated lubricating oil stocks. She was meeting with some success however, until on the 2nd of December she had sunk the then neutral U.S merchant ship Sagadahoc, and Mohr immediately started thinking about his coming court-martial for attacking a neutral ship. Worse was to come however, as the British identified the U-Boats supply ships and sank them. With the threat of submarines, the cruisers sinking the supply ships did not stop to pick up survivors. U-boats converged on the area, and rescued the 400 plus survivors. The submarines shared the survivors out, and dangerously overloaded, set about returning to Occupied France. U-124 was carrying 104 survivors in addition to her crew, but it occured to Mohr, that the only way to get such a large number to occupied France was to do it as soon as possible on the surface. This could best be achieved if the British could be convinced that the U-Boats were still in the South Atlantic. So he decided to attack Ascension.

On December the 9th at 1200, U-124 approached Ascension Island on the surface, looking to either sink a ship, or shell the Cable Station. He was quickly spotted and shelled by the Hood guns. The gunfire from Fort Bedford was far too accurate, and the U-Boat was forced to crash dive. However the ruse worked; the British were convinced the submarines were around Ascension Island, and all the U-Boats reached France without further trouble. He was never court-martialled as by the time he reached France, Germany had declared war on the USA following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour.

Later in the war Mohr was sunk and killed while attacking a British convoy. Virtually his last signal to base was a reply to a question he had been asked by the German High Command. Did Britain have a secret weapon? Until then Radar had been ineffective in detecting their small conning towers. Many U-Boats were being sunk while they attacked on the surface at night. No, Mohr did not believe that there was any secret weapon, it was just bad luck. Within 2 days he was sunk by a British sloop having been detected attacking on the surface at night by the new British invention - Centimetric Radar.

So the first phase of Ascension's war came to an end. There was continuing activity, but only by one man. In November 1941, before the US entered the war, Mr. Cardwell, the C & W General Manager received a secret cable from the Governor of St Helena asking him to survey sites for an airfield that the US Government was considering on Ascension Island. Cardwell saw that there was only one possible site for an airfield, an area known as Waterloo Plain in the southern part of the island. The plain was relatively flat, and faced the prevailing wind. It was unfortunately one of the wideawake nesting sites, but in recent years they had moved to a more southern location. Cardwell sent off his report and waited for a reply. The response was to change Ascension forever.


Copyright © 2000, Graham Avis
Created by Stephen C Fowler
Last revised on the 9th of February 2002