Keeping watch

Between 1941 and 1945, far from the battle fronts of Europe, Africa or even the Pacific, a handful of hardy volunteers kept a look-out for the enemy on two uninhabited island groups in the subantarctic.

Written by       Photographed by Kim Westerskov

“We all went on board for the farewells. Cameras were clicking all over the place … the skip­per took our party into the cabin to toast us in rum… handshaking all round … then we slipped over the stern into our boat. We started the motor and circled the Ranui as the anchor was raised. Jack was playing his pipes all this time … The skipper blew the siren as a farewell. Jack answered by playing a lament … To the sound of siren and pipes we both moved off at full speed on a paral­lel course down the harbour. As the Ranui got underway we drifted astern.

“It was a good farewell. Now we’re alone. It’s a strange feeling. Just the five of us on the island with no news of home till mid­winter. We certainly feel cut off from the outside world. We had a rum and drank to the success of the party. I think and hope we shall be a happy crowd.”

It was the beginning of 1944, and Ron Balham, a 22-year-old New Zea­land biologist and meteorologist, was starting his second wartime year as a coastwatcher in the bleak subantarctic. He had spent his first year on the Auckland Islands; now he and his four companions, Laurie Pollock, Jack Carlisle, Arnold Stanbury and Robin (Tub) Oliver, were stationed on the even more re­mote Campbell Island, some 600 kilometres south of Stewart Island.

The men were taking part in a secret wartime mission, code-named the ‘Cape Expedition’. The objec­tive was to warn of the possible use of Campbell and the Auckland Is­lands by German or Japanese warships. Five men were stationed at each of the Cape Expedition camps—two camps on the Auckland Islands, one on Campbell Island—to watch for enemy ships. Small, well-camouflaged huts on prominent points provided shelter for the watchers as they kept the islands’ main harbours under observation from dawn until dark. (During the last year of the war, watches were reduced to morning and evening.)

The Cape Expedition was just a small part of a Pacific-wide coastwatching operation. During the war, New Zealanders were stationed at 62 depots around New Zealand and in the Pacific. As well as the subantarctic islands, the Chatham Islands, Raoul Island and Norfolk Is­land had coastwatching camps.

Most watchers were civilian vol­unteers, and many had no idea where they were being sent. John Douglas, of Wellington, was a post office worker in 1941 when he was approached by his em­ployer to take part in the Cape Expedition.

“All I was told was that there was a bit of a panic on, and they needed someone to go some­where—they didn’t know where or for how long, and all they could say was that it would be isolated, and there would be no correspondence by mail with New Zealand.”

Douglas accepted the posting, and spent the following year in the Auckland Islands at the Ross Harbour camp. During his year of absence, his wife received no in­formation about his whereabouts or activities, apart from a monthly mimeographed note stating tersely: “This is to advise you that Mr Douglas is in good health.”

Because the war never penetrated deep into the southern latitudes, the Cape Expeditioners were in no dan­ger of enemy confrontation, and had little to report. In fact, only two ships were sighted during five years of surveillance (1941-1945), both of them liberty ships passing by peace­ably on the Aucklands’ northern ho­rizon. Coastwatchers further north in the Pacific were less fortunate: on Tarawa, in the Gilbert and Ellice Is­lands, 17 New Zealanders died at the hands of the Japanese.

Despite remoteness from the war front, the imperatives of watch duty for the Cape Expeditioners never wavered, even if its hours varied to take account of summer and winter daylight, and opportunities arose for the competing interest of meteoro­logical and scientific work.

Ron Balham describes the typical summertime watch routine:

“Today I’m watching 9am to 5.15 pm. Our new arrangement is: one day 9am-5.15pm. The following day you are cook and that night you go to the lookout at 6pm, do the watch till dark, sleep there and do the watching from dawn to 8am, then you are off for three days. At present we watch from about 4.10am-9pm.”

In bad weather, merely getting to look-out posts over the craggy, tus­sock-covered terrain could be haz­ardous. Balham remembers going to check for shipping in the smaller second harbour, Northeast Bay. It was a “filthy day with a north-west gale and rain and low cloud”, he recalls.

“The tops were as wild as ever—a gale with terrific gusts, so I just stumbled and reeled where the wind took me. I saw the harbour all right, then the cloud came down. I contin­ued along the ridge towards the coast, though, not knowing the area I was in, I wasn’t sure of my direc­tion. Semi lost in the wilds! I made up my mind if I kept straight ahead I would come out at the fence line below Col [a hill peak near the men’s camp]. I staggered on and eventually came to the outcrop from where I had started. Another instance of walking in a circle in a mist.”

Even the local sooty albatrosses were sometimes defeated by the wind:

“The wind was making a landing by the birds most difficult. The wind rushing up the cliff turns back a wa­terfall, so that little water drops over the cliff. The water thus turned back was freezing on the cliff edge today. Well, the sooties tried for half an hour. They’d make a run, manoeu­vre for a landing, stall, and remain stationary for a second, above the ledge, but the wind wouldn’t allow them to drop the few feet on to the ledge. After about 30 minutes each they managed it. They’re marvellous flyers. I doubt if it would be possible to better them.”

The harshness of the weather dominated every aspect of the men’s lives, including the task of recording and transmitting weather readings to New Zealand:

“The 6am observations are be­coming a fair swine now. The morn­ings are so cold (around or below zero) and windy that by the time I’ve been out to the screen and coded up the report I am pretty chilly, and find it very hard to get to sleep again. This morning I kept on my shirt and filled a hottie from out of the stove tank, and yet was pretty uncomfort­able in bed.”

Weeks of driving wind, rain and no sun were the rule:

“Down here, and I’ve now been in these latitudes ‘of cold grey seas and cold grey skies’ for nearly 18 months, one has to become accus­tomed to drab colourings, and the soul simply screams out for bright colours such as one would find in warmer climates. There are a few exceptions on really fine days—blue sky, white clouds and green scrub—but for the most part we live in a world where all the colours are dull: grey seas and skies, brown peat, grey rocks, dull green scrub and yellow­ish green tussock everywhere. An occasional sunrise is really the only time when the warmth of colour of northern lands touches us. I’m sure our eyes must be affected when we return to brilliant sunshine—time will tell.”

Prepared for extreme isolation and equipped for the worst the ele­ments could throw at them, an enor­mous amount of equipment, from egg-beaters to tobacco, rifles to hair clippers, was provided. The men’s prefabricated living quarters were comfortable, if cramped, well pro­tected from the wind and rain and from the view of possible passing ships. Double-lined walls and dou­ble-glazed windows provided good insulation, and electricity for light­ing and radio was supplied by motor generators and six-volt storage bat­teries.

The expeditioners were also well supplied with food rations, includ­ing luxuries like chocolate and rum. Their only sources of fresh food were the island’s sheep—remnants of an ill-fated sheep-farming indus­try established between 1895 and 1931—some carefully nurtured but scrawny cabbages, and the occasional wildlife specimen killed and skinned for scientific study. Taking such exotic fare was not always wise. On one occasion a royal alba­tross, dispatched in the interests of science with chloroform, wound up on the dinner table under the culi­nary title ‘Roast Epomophora’, only to be pronounced inedible due to the chemical having pervaded the flesh. More success was had with eggs:

“Laurie was cook and turned on a dish at lunchtime which few people indeed had ever tasted: omelettes made from black-browed and grey-headed mollymawks’ eggs. The three eggs were sufficient to make six large omelettes and they were très excellent!”

The team’s camaraderie was es­tablished early, and was essential to the smooth running of the camp. Ron remembers:

“After dinner all had a discussion as to how we are going to fill in our evenings … there is the question of swot and recreation … we agreed to have set ‘quiet’ evenings so those who want to, can swot. This is better than pleasing yourself as it would be hard to get the place quiet every night … This business of everyone going their own way is no use at all, and leads to most of the trouble that’s been on these stations. After all, apart from the wireless, we have to provide all our amusement, and this is hardly possible with half the chaps going their own way, and do­ing something else.”

Later Ron reflected on how well the group had worked together:

“We have been here five months now … we all get on exceedingly well together, realising our own limitations and profiting by it. To my knowledge there has never been a harsh word spoken, which speaks highly of everyone concerned, and especially Laurie [the leader], who has moulded the life of the camp on what he feels is best from his previ­ous knowledge. Naturally, we have our off-days, when we would like to be in new surroundings, but these soon pass. It’s only to be expected when five chaps are shut up to­gether, cut off from all others for a year, that they should think a little. Down here small points seem im­portant, indeed out of all proportion to their real value, and it is by realis­ing this, and constantly remember­ing this, that harmony can be main­tained.”

All duties, including domestic chores, were shared. Cooking was apparently one of the most enjoy­able, and became a particularly sat­isfying outlet for creativity:

“I did Arnold’s cooking for him today. Laurie was also present, for we were putting on a spread in hon­our of Robin. Actually, we’ve never had such fun in the kitchen before. Everything seemed to go wrong. Firstly I made some cherry jelly and couldn’t get the wretched stuff to set, added some more gelatine and not so bad. Only trouble, I doubled the recipe and had to use nearly every basin in the place for ‘wetted’ moulds. Had a disaster with a sponge. The oven was too hot—out it went. However, the next was a little beauty. Laurie also burnt some patties. Nevertheless we had a good laugh. The boys arrived back about 9 and sat down to a reasonable table.”

Ron was being modest. The “rea­sonable table” consisted of oyster cocktails, rum punch, celery soup, whitebait patties, roast lamb and mint sauce, peas, potatoes and corn, cherry flan and cream, raspberry meringue tartlets, sponge cake, bis­cuits and cheese, raisins and nuts, Waitemata beer, rum and cigarettes.

Special occasions, like birthdays, winter solstice and other festive days, were honoured with due cere­mony, including the provision of colourful printed menus and spec­tacular efforts in the kitchen:

“Having promised the boys I would make some marshmallow Easter eggs, I set to work after dinner and turned out some super marsh­mallow. The problem was how to coat it with chocolate. Everybody had suggestions, even as far as mak­ing plaster-of-paris moulds for the chocolate coating. We melted choco­late and applied it too hot—with dis­astrous effects—melting the delicate marshmallow underneath. However, after a considerable amount of re­search decided to coat the sweet in one block. This was done with suc­cess.”

Christmas celebrations in 1944 also went well:

“The meal was excellent and the drinks were good. Laurie’s sparkling hock went very well too. After the spread we sat outside sipping our drinks and had our photos taken. We played bridge till nine. Tub went up to the look-out to change into his Father Christmas outfit. Before tea we had tied our presents on to the tree. Most of us hadn’t any suitable presents, but Laurie had a good stock of soaps etc and he came to the rescue. Father Xmas appeared at 9.30 and he was excellent, too. He had his thigh boots on, and was draped around with scarlet survey­ing tape and adorned with cotton wool for a beard and eyelashes etc. Amidst much hilarity he dished out the presents … I led the boys in carol singing … After more rums I left for the look-out to sleep—rather a bother to have to climb the hill, but that’s too bad. Well, we had a very merry Christmas. I wonder if anyone further south had one as good, certainly many further north didn’t.”

More regular entertainment re­quired no less ingenuity, and an extraordinary variety of activities was organised. Saturday night parties were held, sometimes in fancy dress and always with singing and danc­ing, the proceedings eased along by the weekly rum ration:

“All dressed as usual for the Sat­urday night concert. Rum flowed freely and we sang long and loud, finishing up with supper, a short discussion on social security thrown in for good measure, and Joe Brown’s town hall dance. Laurie reckons I’m getting on well with my dancing. However, had my doubts.”

Debates and speeches occasioned some serious thought, at least as far as the selection of topics was con­cerned:

“Impromptu speeches were the order of the day, or rather the evening. Each had three. Mine were: ‘Prohibition—pros and cons’, ‘The Advisability of Women Wearing Red Flannel Drawers’ and ‘The Advis­ability of Smoking’. Some of the oth­ers were ‘Why Does a Clock Tick?’, ‘The Food Value of Schnitzels’, ‘Nudism’, ‘On Going to Church’, etc. She was a good show and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves.”

A highlight was the midwinter sports tournament, nicely timed to lift spirits at the gloomiest time of year:

“We arranged a programme for our midwinter sports we are holding before the 22 June. The items are: rowing race (course to be decided), ‘Tenikoits’, nail driving contest, ar­chery contest, .303 (200 yard), .22 (25 yard), .45 (10 yard) shooting con­test, water drinking contest, table tennis, quoits, darts, tiddlywinks and hopscotch. Points will be awarded for each contest: 5 for a win, 4, 3, 2 and 1, so that everybody will score something. Laurie was elected president, Jack secretary, and me treasurer. I’m responsible for the prizes, which will be a cup for the winner and miniatures for the others, suitably engraved.”

The contests were held over a period of a month. On the last day of competition, Ron reported, “The cove is just like a lake, so off we went for the boat race. Unfortu­nately, one of the rowlocks is miss­ing from the dinghy, so some fenc­ing wire is used, which makes row­ing very hard, as both oars are not the same distance away from the seat. It was a very close contest and was good fun. Four of us were at the starting line in the big boat while the other pulled like blazes up to the head of the cove, round a tin and back again.”

The need for secrecy meant that the Cape Expeditioners were unable to send any but the most essential personal messages back to New Zea­land on their radio transmitter. How­ever, they received official informa­tion about resupply ship move­ments, and, when atmospheric con­ditions allowed, were able to pick up news and entertainment pro­grammes from radio stations in southern New Zealand. In this way they heard of the invasion of Nor­mandy by Allied forces in June 1944:

“Heard over the BBC at 6pm the German reports about an allied land­ing in France, and was very stirred by the official news which came through about 8pm to say that the landings had started this morning … After supper we drank a toast in whisky to the boys. God, our wishes go out to them today and let’s hope it will be as bloodless as possible. Found it pretty hard to get to sleep with the news occupying all my thoughts.”

The next month the outside world intruded once again when the isolation was broken by a visit from the resupply vessel Ranui. Tension mounted as news came that the boat’s arrival would be delayed by several weeks:

“This delay mightn’t seem much to people in different circumstances, but the prospect of having our mail put back about three weeks is a real blow to us here … We all feel like pricked balloons.”

Even when the Ranui‘s departure for Campbell Island was confirmed, the anticipation became almost un­bearable:

“Well, the Ranui was to have been here yesterday. Jack and I are very impatient—the others seem to be able to contain themselves better. but we are simply itching to see her and get our mail. Late this afternoon I went up to South Col and had a good look around. We are a little worried and can’t understand why she isn’t here. Can her engines have broken down? Hardly both of them. Well, where is she then? Piled up on the west coast? Hardly; perhaps she’s lost; the weather hasn’t been the best and she couldn’t have taken a navigational sight. This is the sort of thing we have been discussing, and of course getting nowhere.

“Tonight it cleared and it would be possible to take a star sight, so if she’s still okay then she should be here tomorrow, for she can’t be that much off course in a trip of 24 hours.”

She wasn’t, and the wait was worth it. Along with the new faces and fresh food came the precious mail—including 45 letters for Ron.

If Campbell Island’s bleakness is matched by the extremity of its iso­lation, it is in some measure com­pensated for by the richness of its wildlife, and this was keenly appre­ciated by members of the Cape Ex­pedition. As the importance of coastwatching duties decreased dur­ing the final year of the war, the island’s flora and fauna afforded the men superb opportunities for scientific research and observation, much of which was later published. Ron Balham’s informal accounts of the habits of some of the island’s birds and mammals make fascinating reading.

“This afternoon I had Penguin Harbour (North East Harbour) to in­spect and I spent about half an hour watching the Royals in flight. There was one pair in particular —the fe­male was standing around making the usual calling sound, lifting the head and then down onto the breast etc., while the male bird was making a circuit about … He would come in on a long glide and pass within about 15 feet of my head, then away to gain height for another gliding dive. What a wonderful sight to see these birds with a wing spread of about 10 feet glid­ing through the air, the wind mak­ing a light hissing sound as it passes over the leading edge.”

Albatross chicks were also en­tertaining, if somewhat less ap­pealing at close quarters:

“The Royal chicks are doing well and all appear to have lost their first down. All sit up and snap their beaks indignantly as you trudge up the hill. Perhaps they resent your intrusion into their territory and would sooner be left to their rain, wind and cloud. I scratched one on the chest, to be beaten off by the young fellow vomiting oil over my hand and leg.”

Proximity also encouraged in Ron a healthy respect for elephant seals, which spend much of their time in malodorous mud wallows, and fur seals, recovering in numbers from the ravages of hunting in the 19th and early 20th cen­turies:

“There were only two fur seals in the cave, where we keep the ther­mometer. Before going in it’s advis­able to heave a few rocks in and about the cave to bring the seals out, as it would be a nasty business to corner a wild, scared fur seal. They’ve got it all over you when it comes to getting over the rocky ground. They’re real wizards. Doug last year was standing on a rock, photographing one of them, when it made a dive for the rock and Doug had to jump and got badly shaken and bruised. It’s always a good plan to avoid getting between the sea and them when the ground is difficult to get over, and especially when the rocks are slippery. I came across one near the point about 30 feet up a rocky slope. He slid down this slope on his belly and in a second or two was in the surf.”

Much more endearing were the sea lions, or hair seals, as Ron de­scribed them:

“The tide being fairly low and going out, I was able to continue on to NW Bay via the coast route. The beach here has quite a large number of hair seals, numbers of which chased me. They are great fun—one gets really attached to these seals and is really pleased to see them again after the elephants. On coming upon an elephant in the tussock, 10 to one he’ll just raise his head and cough all over you. Perhaps he’ll get up and show his disapproval, but none of the lively interest is taken as when one meets a hair seal. They’ll chase you and show some enthusi­asm for life and the strange things it brings along. After I made a count I amused myself chasing and being chased by the seals. If you hold your ground, a seal will usually come lumbering up … hold a branch out and he’ll stop … they are extremely comical in the way they look at you ­a mixture of bewilderment and a sense of being hurt.”

Once, while out on a venture to Windlass Bay, Ron sighted some­thing that really excited him:

“About a quarter of a mile out in the bay below us there appeared to be breaking water, yet I hadn’t seen rocks there before. I soon realised what it was. There were two whales spouting. Good stuff! Then we saw a number of them all over the bay. I should imagine there were about 15 of them in all. They were moving very slowly, gently rising to spout then disappearing again. Now and again you could see a fin, or the head may break the sur­face, rise, then sink tail first.

“These dark shapes rising and falling resemble a sub­marine, I should imagine. They certainly thrilled me, and although I was trying to do some shore collecting, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. There was a strong off­shore wind, but we could hear them as they broke surface and blew … They were here the same time last year and previous years and presume they are the same. Then they are Right Whales, and are here to scrape the barna­cles off their bodies.”

North West Harbour on Campbell Island was used as a whaling base for some years before the First World War. The southern right whale was highly prized for its oil and baleen, and massive catches around the southern ocean brought the species to near extinction. Artefacts from that era remain on Campbell Is­land—a grim reminder of times when even the inhospitality of the subantarctic was no barrier to com­mercial exploitation

Today, the only human habitation on Campbell Island is that of the staff of New Zealand’s southernmost meteorological station. Despite the advantages of sophisticated elec­tronic communications systems and reliable emergency air transport, the island’s isolation remains—and is it­self a powerful attraction to the sci­entists and other workers who elect to go there each year.

Ron Balham captured well the es­sence of what it is like to live there when he began to set his thoughts towards home:

“I’m going to find it hard to be back amongst all that bullshit and red tape, after two years away from it all. How I hate it, and how I’m going to miss this show where there’s no red tape—(though a lot of good natural bullshit)—only a healthy and interesting life amongst good chaps. I know how I’ll long to be back; that is another reason why I don’t want to leave yet. It’s like drinking one’s fill at an oasis before going out into the desert again. I’ll probably have trou­ble with adjutants and like parasites—bless them all!”