by John H Marsh


The Union flag is ceremonially reaised on Prince Edward Island to mark its annexation by the Union of South Africa. In the right background is the entrance to the great cave which sheltered shipwrecked castaways

"OPERATION SNOEKTOWN" had already been under way for nearly a fortnight when a Pretoria pressman at last fell upon the secret. He represented the "Cape Argus" evening newspaper group, and a day or two before the year ended he approached a senior official of the Department of External Affairs for confirmation of a story he had obtained that the Transvaal had annexed the Prince Edward Islands for the Union. The official was rather dismayed, but he told the pressman that his Department was not in a position to confirm or deny the story officially. He added, however, that if the story were published he did not think it would be in the interests of the country. He reminded him that there was no censorship or Government control over the Press and nothing could be done to prevent his publishing his story if he still wished to do so. The journalist did not publish it.

The gaff was blown, however, on January 3. On that day most of the morning newspapers splashed the announcement that South Africa had planted her flag in the Antarctic. They disclosed that the Transvaal had annexed the island of Prince Edward. This had been done "last week, presumably on Boxing Day (December 26) to coincide with the occupation of Heard Island by the Australians". The occupation, it was stated, was linked with Field-Marshal Montgomery's recent military talks in the Union and Australia. The island was to be turned into an air base to form a vital link in communications in the Southern Hemisphere. The newspapers added that Defence Headquarters were still maintaining strict secrecy about the operation.

An astute journalist, following up a tip, had produced this "scoop" out of meagre information which

could not be authoritatively checked. Thus it was that he announced the annexation of Prince Edward Island the day before it actually happened, and ignored the annexation of Marion, which had taken place earlier that week. His deduction that the annexation was linked with the visit to the Union of Britain's Chief of the General Staff was reasonable, though erroneous.

The evening newspapers followed up with the disclosure that Marion had also been annexed and that Great Britain had recognised South Africa's right to occupy both. The newspapers were still being denied official information by the authorities. They gave the date of the acquisition of Prince Edward Island as "shortly before Christmas Day" and referred to "the coincidence of the visit to the Cape of a Russian whaling expedition and the Australian flag-hoisting ceremony at Heard Island."

These disclosures, and all the information that was added about the strategic value and history of South Africa's new possessions, aroused tremendous public interest. All the secrecy that had preceded the annexation of the Union's first overseas territory had added drama to romance. But the General Staff had not yet withdrawn the secrecy order. Consequently the Press were unable to publish official confirmation of their announcements, and the veil of mystery remained over "Operation Snoektown."

To the Press now the anticipated return of the Transvaal offered hope of dramatic first-hand stories, and they eagerly awaited her arrival. General Headquarters, however, radioed the Transvaal on the day after she began the homeward passage from Marion, informing her that the Press had unfortunately given undue publicity to "Operation Snoektown". They had even published the real names of "William" and "Orange". These reports were based entirely on conjectures and no official statement or confirmation had been forthcoming from any source. The Transvaal sas therefore reminded that the "Top Secret"

instruction was still in force and would remain so until an official statement was made by the Government. Fairbairn was ordered to address all his ship's company and passengers before they reached the Union, and to impress upon them the vital importance and personal honour of their not divulging to anyone at all the destination to which they had been or the object of their mission.

On the afternoon of January 7 the frigate Natal slipped unobtrusively out of Table Bay Docks to relieve the Transvaal's occupation party on Marion, and to take over the guard duties there. She took with her "Flotanets", rolls of heavy wire netting, and some building timber and bagged coal. The Transvaal had asked her to bring these down. The two ships made a rendezvous south of Mossel Bay, when Fairbairn passed over to Lieutenant-Commander Paul Dryden-Dymond, Captain of the Natal, his chart, "Antarctic Pilot", and information about local conditions which would probably be of value to him when he reached the islands. Despite careful rationing since the start of the voyage, the Transvaal's men had now exhausted their small supply of cigarettes, and they had begged the Natal by radio to "lend" them 5,000. When these came aboard they were received with joy by the home-bound frigate's crew. In addition to the dearth of cigarettes they had been suffering from a severe shortage of fresh water. It was turned on now in bathrooms and washplaces for only half an hour in the morning and evening.

The Transvaal returned to Cape Town at noon on Saturday, January 10. Though the authorities had not disclosed her projected arrival date, news that she had been sighted travelled quickly among the local pressmen. A small crowd of reporters and photographers were already on the quay when she came alongside. But a senior S.A.N.F. officer told them that they were wasting their time if they hoped to get first-hand accounts of their voyage from the men aboard

the frigate. The latter had orders not to discuss their trip, and, just to ensure that these had not been forgotten, they would be reminded of them before anybody was allowed on from the shore. The journalists were not inclined to abandon hope so easily, but when they learned that their continued presence on the quayside was the cause of the Transvaal's men being held back on board they gave in and, balked, published further stories about the extraordinary mystery with which "Operation Snoektown" was still being enshrouded by the Government.

Within an hour or two of the frigate securing alongside, Fairbairn was reporting to a conference of some of the principal men concerned with the fitting out of the forthcoming expedition on conditions on the islands. As a result of the information he was able to give about the difficulties in landing stores and establishing a settlement on the soggy ground, it was decided not to send the main hutments, which were intended for accommodation and working quarters, in the Gamtoos. They would be kept back for transport to the islands later. Instead the light hutments that were eventually to become storerooms, but which could be temporarily used as living quarters, would be taken in the first load together with a large quantity of heavy wire netting. It was already clear that there would be a race to establish the settlement before winter, and it seemed wise to plan, for the present, for temporary quarters that could be more easily and speedily erected, leaving the larger buildings to be put up later.

In his report to Commodore Dean, Fairbairn asked that his ship's part in annexing the Islands should be commemorated by naming the landing place used at Marion, "Transvaal Cove", and the point sheltering the landing place that was used on Prince Edward Island, "Sadler Point", after Petty Officer Sadler, whose zeal, energy and initiative had helped so much to make the landing there possible.

Fairbairn crystallised his comments on the experiences of the past three weeks in these words: "It only remains to say I am very proud to be the Commanding Officer of such a fine ship's company, every one of whom pulled his weight to the fullest extent, and had no other thought than to do the job given him to the utmost of his ability."

Copyright John H Marsh (1948)

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