A War on the Southern Ocean – The Cape Expedition

After ANZAC day this week, I got thinking about some of the military operations that happened in the Southern Ocean. From 1940 to 1945, a team of men lived on Campbell Island in order to guard the area from German ships and provide ample warning to the mainland of an attack from the south.

The story of how these men came to find themselves on the island began with a single ship leaving the port of Dunedin in August of 1939 with a supposed course for Australia. The 6000 tonne German ship, Erlangen, was rumoured to be using the Sub-Antarctic Islands as a base, removing large quantities of timber for fuel and remaining near the islands, ready to attack New Zealand should the orders come. In 1940 two ships were lost to German raiders, which fueled the rumours and resulted in the creation of a coast-watching team.

The Erlangen being "scuttled" (deliberately left to sink) later in its life. (Photo: PST!)

The coast-watchers, who operated under the code name of “the Cape Expedition” discovered that a large patch of forest had been removed in Carnley Harbour on the Auckland Islands, and so the New Zealand government set up three bases; on Campbell Island, Auckland Islands them up on Campbell Island to guard it from any further attempts by German ships to pilfer the area for resources and alert the mainland of any attempted attacks from the south.

Each team began with four men, but were increased to five in the second year (1941). Many began their coast-watching careers as civilians, but were made privates in the New Zealand Army from 1942 onwards. When they weren’t watching the sea for ships, they researched weather patterns, observed wildlife, and did small surveys. In their spare time, they hunted introduced mammal species such as wild pigs on Auckland Island, sheep on Campbell Island, and cattle on Enderby Island

Remains of the coast-watchers hut. (Photo: Te Papa)

Eventually, the New Zealand government found their data so regular and useful that they began to deliberately place men with an interest in natural history on the islands. These individuals included geologists, meteorologists, surveyors, and naturalists joined the party. While the positions were filled by different men each year, some remained longer by choice such as the naturalist J. Sorenson who remained on Campbell Island for four years.

Once the war ended in 1956, the coast-watchers station was abandoned and used for meteorological research on weather patterns in the area. A large proportion of the information gathered by coast-watchers was later released in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research Cape Expedition series of bulletins.

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2 thoughts on “A War on the Southern Ocean – The Cape Expedition

  1. Fantastic post! Love your write up on one of the little know snippets of sub-Antarctic history.

    The coast-watchers were responding to a very real threat. As you say, German raiders did sink several ships off New Zealand’s coast and they also laid a number of minefields which claimed another couple of victims here.

    After discovering the activities of the Erlangen there was a genuine concern that uninhabited places like the sub-Antarctic Islands might be used by these Raiders as bases. It sounds far fetched but this actually happened on another sub-Antarctic island. A German warship called the Atlantis stopped at Kerguelen Is. in Dec 1940 to repair and replenish water supplies. One poor sailor was killed due to a fall and was buried on the island, sometimes referred to as “the southernmost Nazi war grave”.

    • Thanks very much! It’s such an interesting area and I find myself writing more and more about the history of the region. I’m hoping to investigate a few more ship-wrecks in the coming weeks.

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