Just Testing - Derek Robinson - Christmas Island


Originally published in 1985 by Collins Harvill


Testimonies from Witnesses


"Just one big sand pile with coconut trees."


K TAYLOR – ROYAL NAVY


________




"We flew in I think it was on an American Airlines’ Stratocruiser, and we could go up and look around the cabin, the flightdeck. And I was up there virtually when we sighted Christmas Island, and the pilot said, ‘There you are, fellas, there's your home for the not so-many months.’ And it was a tiny little strip of sand on the horizon, and I thought, well , we've come something like twelve hundred and fifty miles from Honolulu; and if he'd have deviated a fraction of a degree, we'd have missed it and gone on to the Antarctic, I'm sure. it looks so diminutive, in all this ocean …"


J LYCETT - RAF BALLOON UNIT

________


"When we arrived at Christmas Island in late January 1958 - it took us almost a month to get there - it was a beautiful morning, you could see the little island and the coral reef and the tide coming in and breaking against the reef, it was lovely … It was one of these picture islands that you see, tropical island, very beautiful at six o'clock in the morning."


K MCGINLEY – ROYAL ENGINEERS

________


"It was three in the morning and when they opened the door to the plane when we arrived there, this blast of hot air came in like a furnace, and we stepped outside and the stench from the rotting vegetation nearly knocked you down. You got used to it after about two days, and you didn't notice it after that. But the first impression I got was ‘Oh God - what have we come to?’ You know: surely this isn't going to be where we'll be living for the next six months? It was sheer horror to start with."


T CHARMAN – SIGNALS CORPORAL

________


"It was clean-looking, very sunny, white beaches, blue lagoons- quite pleasant to look at, really. I wouldn't say it was ideal but it was interesting. At 23 it would be, wouldn't it?"


A ROSS – RAF

________


"I mean, it's flat; It's featureless; There's nothing to impress."


CHARMAN

________


"Wonderful, it were ... Oh, beautiful place. I mean, the wildlife sort of thing, birds, fish, view of the sea, underwater, things like that, were terrific. The most distinct thing I remember is the sea was as clear as could be. You could see the bottom at 200 foot. And really put pick things out, y’know, 200 foot deep. I remember I lost a watch. I was painting the ship’s side one day and I dropped a watch over the side. And I could literally see it go down and down and down, until it settled on the bottom. And it was amazing, y’know, the clarity of the water. It was ... unbelievable."


W JACKSON – HMS MESSINA

________




"I remember very definitely the surprise I got to see all the coconut palms in dead straight rows. It struck me as most odd. "


J MCLENNAN – ROYAL ENGINEER

________


"But you got used to it after two or three days, and you accepted it for what it was: it was just a pile of coral and a few plants and a few birds, and that was it - there just wasn't anything else, much. There's a bush which was called a tie bush, which is totally useless, coz you can't burn it, you can't eat it, you can't use the fronds for anything, it didn't have fruit. And that grew all around the main camp. And is absolutely a useless thing, but it rots and smells horrible."


CHARMAN

________


"I mean ... If you can visualise an army camp, which is normally a pretty desolate sort of place surrounded by walls, well if you can imagine walls being a few hundred miles of sea ... I mean, Hawaii - the only place of any size - was thirteen hundred miles away ... You did feel pretty cut-off. There was certainly very little there to do, other than the job in hand. And I think three thousand men on their own is not really the ideal arrangement."


MCLENNAN

________


"Twas absolutely tremendous. We had one of the best 12 months I've ever had in my life as a boy. I had some of the best companions I've ever met, and I still think about it. It was one big holiday, bar working; and we worked very hard there, they paced this out something terrific, we were working 12 hours a day there. We were swimming in the lagoons every weekend ... Every weekend we always got our compo rations and went to the Naafi and picked our beer up and went off to the lagoons. We cooked on the lagoon side; we swam continuously in the lagoons ..."


G COLLINS – ROYAL ENGINEERS

________


"We got to Christmas Island, we slept on the beach, we slept on the beach for a week and we brought the machinery ashore and built a port on Christmas Island, there was a port there, and roughly squared the poor up, and we cut a road through which was to base camp which was about something like I dunno nine, twelve mile long through the coconut plantation, and the airstrip was to be made up there, and basically we got the airstrip roughly cut out."


B GILLMAN – ROYAL ENGINEERS

________




"Basically there was the main camp, there was the naval side and there was the airfield. There were no roads at the time - they were just typical hard packed sand roads - but the British army in the next three months completed 25 miles of road. Worked extremely hard; I've never seen people work harder in my bloody life out there ... We would go to work at 7:00 o'clock in the morning, and they'd be working on the roads, and we'd return again at two o'clock in the afternoon and they'd still be working on the roads, until five o'clock at night. This is the British army, the Royal Engineers. And I would like to point out they were all five feet tall, but most of them were five foot bloody wide!"


ROSS

________


"We worked from dawn to dusk, had no lights in our tents, no recreation facilities, no showers or baths, so when we finished work, we ate, cleaned ourselves as best we could and went to bed. It was about three months before we had our first day off."


J BARNES – RAF

________


"We certainly did work hard, we were on the go all day six days a week. We had the Sunday off, I remember, and I remember when Christmas time came we were told that we were going to have Christmas Day and Boxing Day off. And this we were obviously rather pleased to hear. And we were told we were going to work the Sunday before and the Sunday after to make up for it, which really dampened our Christmas spirit quite considerably."


MCLENNAN

________


"The advance party of 400 army and some 40 RAF personnel arrived on Christmas Island on the troop ship Devonshire which we boarded at Fiji. Our equipment was on board a tank landing craft, HMS Narvik, which was awaiting us. I cannot speak for the troops but none of the RAF had any past experience of stevedoring so it was a real eye-opener when we were told our tents, bedding and food were on the Narvik and if we wanted it we had best fetch it. It then transpired that the stores ‘we’ required had been loaded first so at the bottom rear of the LCT and the government's ‘clutter’ stood between us and it . Some smart-ass had his head screwed on! My most vivid recollection is wading ashore chest- deep in water with a 5- gallon Jerry can of fuel, petrol, diesel, oil etc., balanced on a raw and sunburnt shoulder God there were thousands of those damn things."


MCLENNAN

________


"We arrived straight from England, it was a tremendous shock, the change in temperature, and very high humidities – the humidities I remember in particular, because I soon found I couldn’t wear my glasses, although I’m very short-sighted. Because water was constantly dripping off one’s eyebrows, - I realised what eyebrows are for but they just weren’t good enough – and dripping onto the lenses of one’s glasses. And I go so fed up with not being able to see through them I didn’t wear them."


MCLENNAN

________




"People did have the choice: those who didn't like the sun could work through the night. It was non- stop, 24 hours around the clock. Rigged up a stonecrusher that crushed up the coral in different sections ... A fleet of tipper lorries - thirty, maybe more, feeding from the stonecrusher to the cement mixer, and these massive gigantic great cement mixer, fed by a huge great skip with cement going into it non-stop … this thing pushed out the cement, and then they had a fleet of dumpers, queuing up! Zooming it away! And then they had another workforce of guys with … putting down shuttering, and laying it all ... Realise, it was going on 24 hours round the clock! With the stonecrusher to the cement mixer to the dumper to the guys laying the concrete - the organisation was great."


GILLMAN ________


"No bull, no parades. None whatsoever on the island. We were a proper working regiment, we were treated purely as workmen. I should think 80% of the men that were there with me were National Servicemen, they were all ex-craftsmen because we were all 21 when we joined up, not the average age of 18 ... And we all had served our time, every man was a craftsman in my squadron. And I think we were picked for that one reason. Cheap labour, I suppose, in a way. We were only getting about £7 or £8. We got £2overseas allowance. And we worked damn hard."


COLLINS

________


"Rough. Bloody rough. I find it rough. For a start ... Not because we were living in tents. I was used to that, because I was in the Boys Brigade and Scouts and everything else, I was used to that. But you know, there was nothing there. You couldn't do nothing, just work. Go and have a few bevvies and then go back to bed and get on with the work again. But ... after a time we got used to it. Well we had to, really, I suppose. A good Naafi. No Naafi girls, no. There was two WVS women; they must have been about 90 at the time, I should think. But every day they look marvellous. Always made you welcome. Yeah. I say there were 90 years old - they were 25 years older than what we were, you see, you know. But a nice pair of women."


B TATE – ROYAL ENGINEERS


________


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