Monday, November 27, 2017

The Radio Scene on Rottnest Island

The Island of Rats, that is Rottnest Island, lies just off the Western Australian coastline opposite Perth and Fremantle.  This island has featured on two separate occasions in massive wide area searches in the Indian Ocean. 

            The first occasion was after the firefight in the Indian Ocean off the Australian coastline between the two navy vessels, the Australian HMAS Sydney and the German HSK Kormoran, on November 19, 1941.  That was 76 years ago this weekend.

            The two warring ships tragically destroyed each other in a fierce battle lasting just one hour.  Both ships were sunk, with a heavy loss of life.  Aboard the Kormoran were 400 crew, 300 of whom survived and were taken prisoner along the Australian coastline.  Aboard the Sydney however were 650 men, none of whom survived, making it Australia’s deadliest wartime disaster.  The Australian naval authorities became aware of the deadly naval battle only when survivors of the German raider Kormoran arrived in lifeboats on the Western Australian coastline. 

            The first search over the ocean was carried out informally and unofficially by a Fairey Battle airplane on November 23 (1941), four days after this tragic wartime engagement.  The Fairey Battle was a light single engined bomber from England, and in this initial search flight over the Indian Ocean, the plane used Rottnest Island as its reference point.  During the two following days, a flight of 6 Hudson Bombers flew a fan shaped search pattern, again referenced on Rottnest Island, though no ship debris nor survivor lifeboats were found.

            It was not until 2008 that the wreckage of both the German Kormoran and the Australian Sydney were located by the Finding Sydney Foundation which was using sophisticated underwater technical equipment.  The scattered wreckage of both ships was found 12 miles apart in ocean waters 1½ miles deep, 128 miles west of Shark Bay in Western Australia in March 2008.

            The second major aircraft search in which Rottnest Island featured again began in March 2014, when the Malaysian airliner MAS370 went missing over the Indian Ocean.  This passenger plane with more than 200 passengers and crew began a regular scheduled flight from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to Beijing in China.

             After one hour in flight, the plane turned around and flew back across the Malay Peninsula and then out over the Indian Ocean.  When the fuel was exhausted, the plane fell into the ocean. 

            Several different search patterns were implemented, with some based on Rottnest Island as a reference point.  Though some debris has washed up on distant shores, the wreckage of the sunken plane itself has not been rediscovered.  This search and recovery effort developed into the largest,  most extensive and most expensive aviation search in the history of the world. 

            The Island of  Rats, Rottnest Island, is 7 miles long and 3 miles wide, and it lies 11 miles due west of Fremantle on coastal Western Australia.  On the map, it looks like a scrawny ancient monster.

            This island was known to the Aborigines as Wadjemap who did inhabit it at times in the ancient eras, though not since European discovery.  The first European discoverers were Dutch explorers (1610), and the first to land on the island was Willem de Vlamingh who went ashore on December 16, 1629; he spent 6 days on this small and rather featureless island.

            It was Vlamingh who named the island Rotte Nest in the Dutch language, which later became Rottnest.  Vlemingh discovered the rare Australian animal the Quokka which is best described as a miniature variety of Kangaroo.  He thought that it was a large type of rat.

            The first European settlers were William Clarke and Robert Thomson together with their families, in 1831.  The island has since been used as a prison for Aboriginal criminals, a reform school for boys, an internment camp for Germans and Austrians during World War 1, and an internment camp for Italians during World War 2.  These days the island has a resident population of about 100, and it is a tourist destination for ½ million visitors each year. 

            Southwest of Rottnest Island is a ship graveyard, 7 miles in diameter, and the first ship was deliberately sunk there in 1910.  Since then, 47 historically significant ships have been sunk at that location, in addition to a whole host of American lendlease vehicles and aircraft towards the end of World War 2.

            The first wireless experiments in Western Australia took place during the year 1899.  A spark transmitter was installed in the Royal Yacht Club in Perth and a small police launch carried a coherer receiver on the Swan River and on Swan River Lake. 

            Right towards the end of that same year (1899), the police launch ventured out from the Swan River in an attempt to establish wireless communication with Rottnest island.  The simple electrical signal was lost soon after the launch entered open waters.

            Just six years later (1905), the Postmaster General, the Honorable Austin Chapman, made an official statement in which he indicated that the Australian government was giving consideration to installing a wireless station on Rottnest island.  Three years later though (1908), the federal government stated that the Western Australian wireless station would be installed on the mainland, not Rottnest.   Ultimately, the wireless station, with the projected callsigns POF and later POP, was installed at Applecross as VIP in 1912.  

            However, a communication station was installed on Rottnest around 1933 and it was on the air under the callsign VKN on 1620 kHz, just immediately above the standard mediumwave band.  Four years later (1937), the navy announced that they would install a communication station on Rottnest, and during World War 2, the army did so too, in conjunction with a radar station. 

            This army station was installed on the bottom floor of the 3 storied Rottnest Fortress.  It was this station, under Naval Commander Victor Ramage, that declared that they had heard no wireless signals from the two ships Kormoran and Sydney during their firefight 450 miles to the north.
(AWR/Wavescan 456)