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Mauritius A Brief Communications History (Part 1)

Mauritius A Brief Communications History (Part 1)

Originally published in the Spring 1976 Communicator Magazine

With the closure of HMS Mauritius on 31st March 1976, the Royal Navy will break a link with the island of Mauritius which goes back to the original British occupation of the island in 1810. However, for the sake of brevity I intend to confine my story to the communication aspects of the association.
mapThe 'Jewel of the Indian Ocean', Mauritius (or Ile Maurice) is set in the Indian Ocean roughly 20 degrees South, 50 degrees East. It has a land area of some 720 square miles, being about 38 miles long and 29 miles wide. The island was originally inhabited merely by birds and animals of which the Dode was the most well known. Arab and Portuguese sailors started using the island as a watering and revictualling stop of their voyages down the coast of Africa and to the 'Spice Islands' respectively. 

The Dutch were the first to attempt to colonize the island in about 1638 but their occupation was beset by many problems and they eventually withdrew in 1710. The French then took over the island in 1715 and under the inspired leadership of Labourdannais the colony grew. The French introduced the sugar cane on which the islands present economy is largely based. 

The French also introduced slave labour from Africa to work the sugar plantations and thus laid the foundations of the Creole part of the population.
Prior to the opening of the Suez Canal, Mauritius occupied an important position on the trade routes from Europe to the East and it was inevitable that it should become involved in the power struggle between the French and the British. After some initial reverses, which included the only major French naval victory of the period when a French fleet sank a small British squadron at the Battle of Grand Port in 1810, the British invaded the island and beat the French. The island remained a British colony until independence was granted in March 1968.

With the opening of the Suez Canal the strategic value of the island fell but it was still visited by HM Ships and was used frequently during both World Wars.

Naval communications ashore on the island began as far back as WWI when in 1915 a wireless station was built on a site in Rose Belle. It is rumoured that the original surveyors recommended that the station should be built at Belle Rose on the high plateau of Plaine Wilhelm but the contractors confused by the similarity of the place names, started construction in the wrong place. Be that as it may, the station at Rose Belle was in operation from 1915 to 1947 with the Navy occupying it until the mid 1920's.  A letter from CPO Tel Sidney Perkins of the 1918 Telegraphists Association reveals that the station used high power MF Spark Transmitters and operated in a chain of stations consisting of Admiralty, Malta, Aden, Seychelles, Mauritius, Durban, Port Nolloth (SWA), Bathurst, Gibraltar and Admiralty. Thus the whole of the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic was covered and HM Ships at sea could make use of the facilities provided. 

CPO Tel Perkins also tells us that the staff at the station was one Warrant Officer, one CPO Tel, four Leading Tels, six Telegraphists, a CERA and a CEA.

Round about 1923 the station was handed over to the Colonial Office as, with the introduction of HF, it had become surplus to naval requirements and, as far as I can discover, there was no naval communication on the island for a short period.
The next occasion the island was considered for naval communications was in June 1935 when the C-in-C, East Indies recommended the erection of a wireless station in Mauritius. Tests were carried out on various low HF frequencies with HMS Norfolk who was visiting the island and it was decided as a result of these tests that a site at Bigara would be suitable for a transmitting station and that Vacoas, already the home of the army garrison, would serve as a receiver sit and communication centre.

The advent of WWII hurried these proposals along and new equipment and buildings were installed. Mr. E. Goldsmith currently Private Secretary to HE the Governor General but then an HO Sparker, recalls that in addition to a Commcen at Vacoas and a transmitting station at Bigara there was also a torpedo and stores organisation on the old race-course at Floreal, an armament depot, a Naval Air Station at Plaisance on the site of the current international airport, a Port War Signal Station at Fort George (Port Louis) and a flying boat station at Tombeau Bay close to the site of the present receiving station. In addition, of course, was the normal army garrison supplemented by batteries of artillery at Port Louis and Mahebourg. 

It would appear that some 60 communicators were employed on the island at this time. Six or Seven manned the PWSS, about ten were employed in an HF/DF station situated on what is now a golf course and some forty in the Commcen and Bigara. When the war finished in 1945 a general run down began and the communications were put on a care and maintenance basis in about 1956. However, weekly schedules, first with Colombo and then, when the station boundaries changed in about 1957, with Simonstown were operated by the C and M personnel of whom CRELs Taylor and McGrath, both ex-CPO Tels, were the last. In about 1958 the weekly schedules to Simonstown were taken over by the Mauritian Local Volunteer Force operating from Port Louis. The Volunteer Force also provided services for visiting ships and became the only link with the outside world following the devastation caused by Cyclone Carol in 1960.

Merchant Ships in Area III. At Christmas time a further Morse broadcast (VC) was brought up to handle the immense amount of telegram traffic. As all ship-to-shore traffic was CW in those days, Mauritius (GXO) manned the 4,6,8,12,16 and 22 MHz components to deal with the high volume of telegram traffic, particularly telegrams from merchant ships. RS Acott who was an RO3 in Mauritius in 1962, recalls that the ship room was manned by seven locally employed civilian operators plus two naval sparkers to operate the Morse broadcast. He also said that the Christmas period was so busy it became a nightmare. It would appear that RS Acott's estimate of some 15,000 transactions per day would not be unrealistic. Certainly a traffic graph for 1972, when the area scheme was on its last legs, shows a daily transaction rate of some 8,500 per day.

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