Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Radio Scene on Disputed Diego Garcia

Diego Garcia (US Navy)

We interrupt the regular flow of topics here in Wavescan, to bring to you a matter of important international information.  On Monday February 25, (2019) the World Court in the Hague, Holland, issued a judgment against Britain regarding the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.

 According to this non-binding legal opinion, the top United Nations court stated that Britain had acted unlawfully in the decolonization process and should relinquish control over these islands.  Accordingly, Judge Abdulqawi Yusuf stated in his summary of the decision, that Britain was under obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Islands as rapidly as possible. 

In response, it is reported that the British Foreign Minister, Mr. Alan Duncan, has declared that the British Foreign Office will look at this United Nations opinion very carefully, though the matter is a dispute only between Britain and Mauritius.  Let’s go back and see what happened.

There is a long line of more than a thousand islands stretching more than a thousand miles from northern Lakshadweep to the Chagos Islands, which in reality is the top of an underwater mountain range in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.  The Chagos Archipelago at the southern end of this long geographic chain of islands is a cluster of 7 atolls containing a nest of 60 coral islands.

The total land area of the Chagos Islands is just 21.7 square miles, and the largest island is Diego Garcia with a total land area of 12.7 square miles.

In its earlier pre-history, the Chagos Islands were uninhabited, though they were known to the dwellers in the southern Maldive Islands.  There were occasions when Maldive fishermen were accidentally marooned in the Chagos, and sometimes rescued.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the Chagos Islands in the 1500s; and the  French subsequently laid claim to them.  In 1814, the French ceded the islands to Britain by treaty, though they were then governed from Mauritius.  The first successful settlement, on the largest island called Diego Garcia, was established in 1793, and it was made up of Europeans, slaves from Africa, and other island peoples.

In November 1965, the United Kingdom bought the entire Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius for a total of £3 million.  Two years later, the British government paid an additional £2/3rds million for all of the properties on the Chagos Islands.  During the 1960s and 70s, the British resettled the three thousand Chagos inhabitants to the Seychelles and Mauritius, for which they paid Mauritius yet another£2/3rds million for resettlement.

A joint military base, British and American, was built on Diego Garcia, the largest overseas military base in the world.  If this large military base is no longer needed for international security in the region, Britain states that the islands will again revert to the sovereignty of Mauritius.

Back during the early part of the year 1914, the German light cruiser SMS Emden, under the command of Captain Karl Friedrich Max von Mueller, visited several islandic areas in the Pacific Ocean, particularly the German colonies, as they were at the time.  When World War 1 began in Europe on July 28, 1914, the Emden moved into the Indian Ocean, sinking or capturing more than two dozen ships on the way.

In early October (1914), the German Emden visited the British island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago for repairs and crew refreshment; and here it was that the British garrison on Diego Garcia gave the ship and its crew a right royal welcome.  The British garrison on Diego Garcia was unaware that war was already under way between England and Germany.

With no wireless station on Diego Garcia, war news had not yet reached that isolated island, more than two months later.   The SMS Emden went through its repairs and (some say) a complete repaint, and it was stocked up with local provisions for which payment was made in British Pounds that had been captured from British ships.  Then on October 10 (1914), the Emden successfully and safely departed from Diego Garcia without the demonstration of any hostility.

During the month of May 1940, some three quarters of a year after World War 2 began, the first radio station was installed in the Chagos Islands.  A resident on the island of Mauritius, Paul Caboche, received orders from the British government to travel to Diego Garcia and to set up his own amateur radio station there, as a Secret Wireless Radio Station.

On Diego Garcia, radio operator Caboche was expected to transmit to Mauritius information in Morse Code about local shipping movements, possible enemy activities and any suspicious events in the area.  His tactical callsign was simply the letter T in the English alphabet, and the station in Mauritius was identified with the letter W.

In addition Paul Caboche at station T was also to communicate regularly with another similar station on the nearby Saloman Atoll which was identified with the callsign 2Y.  If these two radio operators and their clandestine radio equipment had been established in the South Pacific instead of the Indian Ocean, they would have been described as Coast Watch Stations.

More on the radio scene on Diego Garcia next time.
(AWR-Wavescan 525)