Thursday, March 11, 2021

Chatham Island in the South Pacific: The Coast Watch Story


In our third and final topic regarding the radio scene on the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific, we begin with information regarding the Coast Watch Service that was implemented by New Zealand in the middle of the last century.  

However, even before we present the Coast Watch story, let us share one item of radio information on Chatham Island that we recently came across.  Back in March 1991, the Radio Rhema Gospel radio network in New Zealand successfully applied for a mediumwave license for a station on Chatham Island.  The mediumwave frequency 612 kHz was granted, though no further information is given regarding this projected radio broadcasting station.  

Now on to the Coast Watch story.  It was back in the year 1929 that the Royal Navy in England first gave consideration to setting up a Coast Watch Service among the scattered islands of the South Pacific.  The basic plan at that stage was little more than an idea that would be implemented if needed. 

However 10 years later in 1939, hostilities in continental Europe were bristling, and the outbreak of a deadly war was looming on the horizon.  Four of the major European powers, (England, France, Germany and Holland) each supported island colonies in the Pacific areas, and there was thus the realistic possibility that European enmity could also involve the Pacific.

In the early part of the year 1939, before the declaration of open warfare on the European continent, England examined again the concept of a Coast Watch Service throughout the islands of the Pacific, inhabited and uninhabited.  As far as New Zealand was concerned, very practical plans were laid for the protection of their own many islands, as part of a more extensive plan for Australian participation further afield. 

Before the war began in September (1939), the ambitious plan for the New Zealand Coast Watch Service called for the establishment of 60 such stations to be located on islands generally somewhat under the influence of New Zealand itself.  Then subsequently, after hostilities erupted in distant Europe, New Zealand added another dozen Coast Watch Stations to the already established planned list.  At that stage, Chatham Island was also included.  Thus by March 1940, 62 stations were already active in the areas that were understood to be the responsibility of New Zealand.

As the system unfolded, the general plan for each Coast Watch Station was initially for the employment of three people; a radio operator, and two soldiers.  Collectively, those staff personnel were a mixture of trained servicemen, government officials, available civilians, escaped prisoners of war, and local volunteers.  

In addition, local native peoples acted as lookouts to provide information regarding enemy troop activities, air flights overhead, and shipping movements in the surrounding waters.  They were also involved in the rescue of friendly servicemen from downed airplanes and sunken ships.  Where it was possible, the foreign staff at each island station was rotated on an approximately annual basis.     

Each station was provided with a small radio receiver, and a low-powered and somewhat mobile transmitter.  The main crystal-controlled shortwave channel for each transmitter was the same throughout the entire Coast Watch system.  There were generally three call-in sessions each day, though these timings could be varied for secrecy, and for the forwarding of important information.

A control station in each cluster of stations forwarded significant information to either the large central station in Fiji or on to New Zealand itself.  The Coast Watch Station on Chatham Island sent their information on to Wellington direct. The equipment for each station was housed in a locally available hut, and usually, there was an additional secondary emergency hut some distance away that was hidden in a secluded area.

A valid follow-up question would be: Was all of that elaborate though largely secretive organization really necessary?  And perhaps also: Was the Coast Watch Service ever successful in its endeavors? 

The answer is: Yes, there were multiple occasions when a Coast Watch Service amply fulfilled its intended purposes.  However, in spite of the elaborate net of established stations, German raiders  still succeeded in sinking a total of 13 ships in the wider waters around New Zealand.  We tell the interesting story of one such event, a remarkable event that took place in the waters off the coast of  Chatham Island itself.

The Holmwood Story
A small inter-island steamer weighing just 546 tons was constructed at the Goole Shipyards in Yorkshire England in 1911 and it was named the Tees.  Some 30 years later, in mid-1940, the Tees was bought by the small Holm Shipping Company in New Zealand and renamed the Holmwood.  One of the main routes of the SS Holmwood was to traverse the 500 miles wide Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and the Chatham Islands, carrying cargo, livestock, passengers, and postal mail. 

At 2:30 am on Monday, November 25, 1940, the Holmwood left the wharf at Waitangi on Chatham Island bound for New Zealand.  Wireless messages from New Zealand had warned of German Raiders in the area, but no one at Chatham considered that there was any real cause for concern

Aboard the SS Holmwood was a crew of 17 and a list of 12 passengers.  The passengers consisted of three families, including 5 children, all from New Zealand itself.  The lone Chatham islander aboard the Holmwood was 19-year-old Clara Evelin Hough. Unknown to the Holmwood, three German Raiders, Kulmerland, Comet, and Orion, lay just over the horizon, though they were disguised as Japanese trading ships, complete with Japanese names and Japanese identification.  For several days in advance, these three ships were listening to the radio traffic between the Coastal Communication station ZLC on Chatham Island and their respondent radio stations in New Zealand.

Much of the traffic between ZLC and New Zealand was in plain text and not in code, in both Morse Code and English speech.  In this way, the three German/Japanese ships became aware of the time and date of departure for the Holmwood from Chatham Island, together with its list of personnel and cargo.  The German Raider ships were interested in obtaining the cargo aboard the Holmwood, live sheep, food and supplies, and general goods.

At 7:25 am many aboard the Holmwood were eating their breakfast and the ship was now 27 miles out west from Chatham.  Captain J. H. Miller suddenly became aware that his ship had steamed straight into a trap, from which there was no way of escape for the slow Holmwood.  The main German Raider, the Kulmerland with its Captain Pschunder ordered the Holmwood to stop, and not to send out a radio transmission.

Captain Miller aboard the Holmwood decided to come to a stop as ordered, and not to send out a radio transmission.  He himself was not only the Captain, but he was also the Radio Officer.  In order to avoid a bombardment that would have killed the passengers, and because his radio was only low powered and would not be heard in New Zealand, and because Maritime Radio ZLC on Chatham was not yet open for daily business, he decided to comply, and not send an out a radio message. 

The entire list of crew and passengers, together with a lot of the cargo, were transferred from the Holmwood to the Kumberland.  Then at 1:00 pm, the Kumberland fired on the now almost empty Holmwood with its heavy guns, and the stricken ship sank. 

But that's not the end of the story, and there is more to come. 
(AWR/Wavescan NWS 627)