|Avis Part Eight - A Time of Conflict|
(Illustrated version available from the Ascension Island Heritage Society)
As WWI approached, Ascension had become a key centre for the Eastern Telegraph Company's (ETC) cable network. Linked to South America, Africa, Cape Verde Islands, and on to Europe, telegrams were being read and retransmitted throughout the day and night. The ETC staff and the Royal Marines garrisoning the island had settled down into a good partnership.
The 1913 plans for the defence of the island make interesting reading. They note that Fort Hayes mounted one six-inch and two four point seven-inch guns as well as Maxim machine guns. Fort Thornton, now without its blockhouse, mounted one six-inch gun and two three-pounder guns. Fort Bedford high on Cross Hill, mounted two six-inch guns. The guns could cover all the beaches from English Bay to Southwest Bay, only Northeast Bay being outside of their arc of fire. It was envisaged that the Island Garrison would be reinforced shortly after war was declared. At night, picket posts were to be set up in outlying areas, with the ETC staff volunteer force being responsible for the post on the Comfortless Cove road to Georgetown.
Other precautions included the preparation of an emergency hospital in the spare magazine space at the rear of Fort Hayes. Spare ammunition was stored in the reserve magazine on the outskirts of town (now the Cable & Wireless store on the 1st fairway of the Georgetown Golf Course). However, the guns were quite old and not very efficient. The plans note the fact that damage to the forts was likely if the guns had been fired at the extreme angles necessary to shell either English Bay or Southwest Bay!
With the outbreak of war, all these precautions were put into effect, with the Marine reinforcements arriving in January 1915. Before this, the garrison was very nervous, and all women and children were evacuated to the mountain, in case the island was attacked. For several days, a strange merchant ship could be seen in the distance, and it was thought that this was a supply ship for a German commerce raider.
With the destruction of the German South Atlantic Squadron in December 1914 at the Battle of the Falklands, life returned to normal for a while. The supply ships continued to call, although occasionally one was sunk leading to shortages and restrictions among the population. However, people still went on leave, including in 1916, Hedley Cronk and his family, returning to UK and arriving in the middle of a Zeppelin raid. They were due to return to Ascension on the Alnwick Castle Mail Ship in 1917, but for some reason Cronk was summoned back to the island one boat earlier. The family was very lucky, the Alnwick Castle was torpedoed in the Bay of Biscay, and the survivors spent 3 weeks in an open boat. Two passengers on this unfortunate ship were the French Consul and his wife returning to St Helena. They survived, although the Consul's wife lost her toes due to frostbite.
In 1915, the Admiralty sent a complete radio station to Ascension including operators and Marconi contractors to build and maintain it. The secret project was well planned. The party arrived safely and the station was built at a site that became known as Wireless Plain, behind Cross Hill. The buildings were sited on the flat area to the east of Needles Water Tank, with six 300-foot tubular masts erected between the main building and the present petrol station site. The mast bases can still be seen, as can the occasional mast sections, both at the One Boat site, and throughout the island. The sections were regularly recycled as roof supports for tunnels and WWII defences.
The station staff also had to provide their own accommodation. A prefabricated barrack block was also shipped and built in Georgetown. It is still there today, known as The Anchor Centre. The radio station was a spark transmitting and receiving station designed to maintain contact with the Fleet. It was an ideal site. Signals to and from the ships could be passed back to the UK or the base in South Africa via the undersea cables. The station was abandoned when the Marines left the island, and was demolished in 1937, with the masts being felled and left to rot.
The war passed with little or no excitement for the Ascension garrison. In 1915 the sports facilities were improved with the addition of a 9-hole golf course in Georgetown. With football, cricket and hockey regularly being played it was indeed a sporty location. There was obviously an annual athletics meeting. Photographs from the turn of the century show an obstacle race set up on the running track, including an identical slippery board to the traditional one used today!
With the end of the war and the return to peace, the Admiralty once again set about decommissioning Ascension, and a decision was made to close the base. The forts were stripped of their guns, and the ammunition disposed of. Much was taken out to sea and dumped, indeed one shell came back during the refurbishment of the pier in the 1990's. Divers spotted it close to the steps, it was brought on shore, the pier evacuated, and eventually it was driven to a remote place and exploded with a very large bang!
In 1920, the African labourers, the Kroomen, went on strike claiming that their contracts had expired. They were arrested, imprisoned and soon saw sense. Trouble reared again however a year later when a riot broke out in the Kroo section below Fort Hayes. The Marines were called out, and a general fight followed lasting an hour. Eventually the Kroomen were overpowered and marched off to be kept in Fort Hayes. In October 1921, HMS Dublin brought more St Helenian labourers to the island, and the Kroomen returned home to Sierra Leone.
Ascension finally wound down, Naval stores were auctioned off; rockets, cordite and other pyrotechnics were burnt at a massive fireworks display. The Lloyds signal station on Cross Hill closed, and on the 20th of October 1922 the Royal Marines handed over the island to the ETC staff. Ascension ceased to be a military base, and became a dependancy of St Helena. One disappointed man was Hedley Cronk. He had hoped to be able to complete his eradication of the prickly pear. Hedley had expected to be allowed to keep working until his retirement in 1923, but that was not permissible. He had changed the face of the island significantly, introducing many new species to the island and controlling others. His reward was a small pension, £100 per year.
This is Ascension however, and nothing goes smoothly, including a hand-over from military to civilian rule. The ETC records contain a message from a bemused Assistant Manager to the General Manager who was visiting the mountain. The Marines were in such a hurry to hand over the island, even though they were not leaving at that moment, that the Assistant Manager had to sign for everything immediately. The process couldn't even be delayed to allow the General Manager to return from the mountain. His thoughts echoed others in Georgetown;
"I've just signed for an island. What happens now?"