Report by

Taff Mugford Orph Mable

         
           
           

Inauspicious start with the usual delays at South Cerney(Air Movements) and Lyneham. The RAF employed their usual ‘Hurray up and wait’ system. The outbound flight was via the Isla du Sal in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africawhere the accommodation was in the Portuguese Air Force Sgts Mess

We were made very welcome. They sang Portuguese folk songs to us and we replied with Rugby songs; we think we had a very good night but the memory is a little blurred! At one point someone asked the Duty Sgt if we could see his pistol, and it was kindly past across and promptly stripped down. Unfortunately none of us (including him) could put it back together!

 

Ascension Island is approximately 7 miles by 7 miles in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean more than a thousand miles from the nearest Land(Africa). No rain on the coast and 120 inches p.a. on the Mountain.

The island is basically volcanic rock with very little vegetation apart from ‘Green Mountain’ virtually in the centre of the island. There is also one area inland that is actually below Sea Level where the temperatures are unbelievably high!

There were few social places on the island but those that were there (Two Boats village, C&W beach club and the American Volcano club on the base) made us very welcome as there were few visitors to the Island. (Ascension Island was, and still is we believe, classed as a Restricted Area preventing visitors from just ‘dropping in’!).

Initially getting to them when off-shift was difficult, as we couldn’t always get a lift from the ED’s or Troop Admin.

This was quickly solved when FUB won a green Hillman Imp from an American when playing Spoof in the Volcano Club. That car was then available to off-shift people to go sight-seeing and socialising.

On Ascension, we landed at Wideawake Airfield (so named because of the Widewake Terns which nest on the island). The airbase was operated by the USAF as a base for bomber training in the Atlantic. Arrival formalities were pretty minimal and the crew were soon off to the various locations that we had been allocated around the island.

The USAF provided vehicles to move the cabins into location as we were only able to take one Landover with us. This Landover was jealously guarded by the ED’s which meant the Troop Admin bods had to requisition an old Ford van for their use. Transport on the island was pretty scarce.

A high point of the exercise social side was the Baseball/Cricket challenge with the USAF – We hosted them for Cricket on a concrete wicket at English Bay (which we won) and they returned the compliment at their base (Softball which they won) – they put on a huge barbecue with the centrepiece being a huge fish – Yahoo Taff recalls.

The accommodation area was located at English Bay, in very basic ‘concrete boxes’ which gave us only 4 walls, a door and a roof. Camp beds (army issue…ugh) and the floor was where we kept our personal gear. Not a lot of luxury on this trip! Immediately next to our accommodation site was the BBC World Service Atlantic Transmitter site with a huge array of very big aerials and masts.

The equipment sites were a little way away from the accommodation with the transmitter being the furthest on Donkey Plain (Jack-ass Flats to the Yanks). Putting op the 80ft masts in the very hot dry conditions with ground that was solid rock, brought its’ own problems.

We bent quite a few of the mast pins and copper earth spikes in the process! It was slightly easier at the Receiver site - just as well as we had more ‘sticks’ to put up. The effort putting mast pins and earth rods was tremendous and all completed on the day we landed. (The photo of Orph, outside the bedroom, just about asleep with beret on the back of his head bears witness to this)

Having worked like Trojans for the first 24 hours and established comms back to the UK, things quickly dropped into a regular shift pattern. The Duty TE tech was based in the accommodation area at English Bay and acted as telephone orderly, only going to site for crypto changes and the rare breakdown.

The BBC World Service powerful transmitters next door made conversing on the telephone ‘interesting’. I was also picked it up on FUB’s hi-fi speakers without any connections! The Troop Bar (essential to morale!) was open air and with a constant wind of around 5 knots, which you had to take account of when playing darts(cross wind).

Music was provided by FUB and ‘fairy lights’ by the ED’s. Bread was produced on the island (delicious old fashioned bread) 5 days per week at the bakery in George Town which Ray Heeley collected at the same time as going for more bar stock. (Tennants Export Lager – cans with girlie pictures on them.)

 

Not long after arriving on Ascension, we were lucky to witness a rare event at the airfield. A C5 Galaxy arrived (delivering a huge generator). It needed the whole of the runway and seemed to breath-in as it went between the hills either side of the runway. It seemed like the whole island population turned out for this and every vantage point was taken.

The ‘Boss’ (Capt. Chris Dakin) organised a trip to the NASA tracking station on the island. The tour was very interesting (enlightening!) and the NASA Team were really friendly. Amongst the many keepsakes they gave were a whole load of cloth and plastic patches for most of the US space missions up till that moment. (Trivia – if you listen to Jeff Wayne’s’ ‘War of the Worlds’ the Ascension tracking station gets a mention right at the end!).

One of the NASA guys took Bones, Ted Shimmin, and Taff on a hike to the top of Green Mountain – apparently the path to the top, complete with tunnels, was built over many years for a wife of a previous Portuguese governor and a huge Gold fish pond constructed at the top surrounded by a Bamboo forest so that the lady could enjoy the ambiance!

The pond was still there as the photo of Bones witnesses. The lower slopes of Green Mountain, was also grazed by a small herd of Friesian Cows to supply fresh milk to the island. The Volcano Club and its full sized shuffleboard, was very popular– we became quite proficient. The base also boasted a very small ‘Gift Shop’ (Orph bought a Sieko ‘Bellmatic’ watch there – it still works brilliantly 42 years later…also several Zippos!)

The natural isolation of Ascension Island was great for wildlife and we were able to see huge turtles drag themselves up on the beach to lay eggs and on the same night watched baby turtles scrabbling to get to the water. That was a wonderful experience! Taff and Owen experienced walking through the Wideawake Tern Colony.

We captured a baby octopus from a large rock pool and ‘tersted’ it's camouflage abilities out on a tartan blanket. We swam with the black fish and threw crabs to them to witness the feeding frenzies. Not to mention Owen Evans frenzy with a machete, liberally attacking Black Fish!

We went night fishing off the quay and caught some great fish which we ate until the sharks came in – we hooked a very large Shark which we tried to land but we straightened the gaff trying to pull it out!!

This was also where the BBC equipment cooling water was fed out so it really encouraged fish…

Ascension Island - A Geographical & Historical Sojourn

Ascension Island is an isolated volcanic island in the equatorial waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, around 1,600 kilometres (1,000 mi) from the coast of Africa and 2,250 kilometres (1,400 mi) from the coast of South America, which is roughly midway between the horn of South America and Africa.

It is governed as part of the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, of which the main island, Saint Helena, is around 1,300 kilometres (800 mi) to the southeast. The territory also includes the "remotest populated archipelago" on earth, the sparsely populated Tristan da Cunha archipelago, some 3,730 kilometres (2,300 mi) to the south (about thirty degrees of latitude) and about halfway to the Antarctic Circle.

The island is named after the day of its recorded discovery, Ascension Day, and is located at 7°56′S 14°22′WCoordinates: 7°56′S 14°22′W, about as far south of the equator as tropical Venezuela is to its north. Historically, it has played a role as an important safe haven and coaling station to mariners and for commercial airliners during the days of international air travel by flying boats.

During World War II was an important naval and air station, especially providing antisubmarine warfare bases in the Battle of the Atlantic and throughout the war. Ascension Island was garrisoned by the British Admiralty from 22 October 1815 to 1922.

The island is the location of RAF Ascension Island, which is a Royal Air Force station with a United States Air Force presence, a European Space Agency rocket tracking station, an Anglo-American signals intelligence facility and the BBC World Service Atlantic Relay Station. The island was used extensively by the British military during the Falklands War.

Ascension Island hosts one of five ground antennae (others are on Kwajalein Island, Diego Garcia, Colorado Springs and Hawaii) that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigational system.

 

The Spanish explorer João da Nova, sailing for the Portuguese Crown, allegedly discovered the island in 1501, but his discovery was apparently not registered. Thus, in 1503 when the Portuguese navigator Afonso de Albuquerque sighted the island on Ascension Day, in the church calendar, he named it after the feast day. Dry and barren, it had little appeal for passing ships except for collecting fresh meat.

Mariners could hunt for the numerous seabirds and the enormous female green turtles that laid their eggs on the sandy beaches. The Portuguese also introduced goats as a potential source of meat for future mariners.

It is possible that the island was sometimes used as an open prison for criminal mariners, although there is only one documented case of such an exile, a Dutch ship's officer, Leendert Hasenbosch, set ashore at Clarence Bay as a punishment for sodomy in May 1725. British mariners found the Dutchman's tent, belongings and diary in January 1726; the man had probably died of thirst or suicide.

                                         
 

In February 1701, HMS Roebuck, commanded by William Dampier, sank in the common anchoring spot in Clarence Bay to the northwest of the island. Some sixty men survived for two months until they were rescued. Almost certainly, after a few days they found the strong water spring in the high interior of the island, in what is now called Breakneck Valley (there is a much smaller water source, lower on the mountain, which was named Dampier's Drip by people who probably misinterpreted Dampier's story).

Organised settlement of Ascension Island began in 1815, when the British garrisoned it as a precaution after imprisoning Napoleon I on Saint Helena to the southeast.

On 22 October the Cruizer class brig-sloops Zenobia and Peruvian claimed the island for His Britannic Majesty King George III. The Royal Navy officially designated the island as a stone frigate, "HMS Ascension", with the classification of "Sloop of War of the smaller class". The location of the island made it a useful stopping-point for ships and communications.

The Royal Navy used the island as a victualling station for ships, particularly those of the West Africa Squadron working against the slave trade. A garrison of Royal Marines was based at Ascension from 1823.

In 1836 the Beagle voyage visited Ascension. Charles Darwin described it as an arid treeless island, with nothing growing near the coast. Sparse vegetation inland supported "about six hundred sheep, many goats, a few cows & horses", and large numbers of guineafowl imported from the Cape Verde islands, as well as rats, mice and land crabs; he agreed with the saying attributed to the people of St Helena that

"We know we live on a rock, but the poor people at Ascension live on a cinder".

 

                                         
 

He noted the care taken to sustain "houses, gardens & fields placed near the summit of the central mountain", and cisterns at the road side to provide good drinking water. The springs were carefully managed, "so that a single drop of water may not be lost: indeed the whole island may be compared to a huge ship kept in first-rate order."

In commenting on this, he noted René Primevère Lesson's remark "that the English nation alone would have thought of making the island of Ascension a productive spot; any other people would have held it as a mere fortress in the ocean."

 
 
 
 

In 1982 a British task force used Ascension Island as a staging post during the Falklands War, though according to Matthew Parris, "...at the start of the Falklands conflict Washington at first refused Britain permission to use the USA-operated airfield facilities for refuelling RAF jets. Only after Mrs Thatcher intervened with Ronald Reagan did the Americans reluctantly concede."

The Royal Air Force deployed a fleet of Vulcan bombers and Victor tankers at the airfield. Vulcans launched the opening shots of the British offensive from Ascension in Operation Black Buck. The RAF also used the base to supply the task force. Because of the increase in air traffic during the war, Wideawake was the busiest airfield in the world for a short period.

The Royal Navy's fleet stopped at Ascension for refuelling on the way. Following the war, the British retained an increased presence on the island, establishing RAF Ascension Island, and providing a refuelling stop for the regular airlink between RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, and RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands

As of 2004, it was reported that the Composite Signals Organisation, an arm of GCHQ, continued to operate a signals interception facility on Ascension.

As of 2007 NASA continued to list Ascension Island as a "downrange site" used for range safety instrumentation. In particular, the Post-Detect Telemetry System used to acquire launch vehicle telemetry includes a station on Ascension

In 2008 British diplomats requested sovereignty, at the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UN CLCS), over 77,220 square miles (200,000 km2) of submarine territory around the island. This would enable exploration into new reserves of oil, gas and minerals, though none are thought to exist

 

                                         
 

The island hosts many communications and relay stations, exploiting the island's strategic position in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Both the BBC and Cable & Wireless Worldwide have communications posts there.

The European Space Agency (ESA) also has a tracking station on the island that tracks the Ariane 5 and the Soyuz rockets shortly after they take off from Kourou in French Guiana.

Ascension has one local radio station and one relayed from St. Helena. It also receives broadcasts from the British Forces Broadcasting Service and television services for the US military.Ascension Island has the international calling code +247 and has 4 digit numbers on the island.

The island provided a base for a NASA communications dish during the space race in the mid-1900s. The island was chosen due to its central location in the Atlantic. Sites were chosen due to their proximity to orbital paths - generally along the equator.

Until 2002, tourism was virtually non-existent because of the inaccessibility of the island to transport, the absence of guest accommodation and the need for a sponsor.

Limited air travel has, however, been made available in recent years to the public by the RAF, and the Georgetown Obsidian Hotel together with a number of guest cottages that have been opened. All visitors are required to obtain an entry permit before travelling.

Sport fishing is the main attraction for many of the visitors.

The island also boasts what is sometimes called the worst golf course in the world.[34] That course, on the outskirts of Georgetown, has since been replaced with a similar one located between the settlements of Two Boats village and Georgetown; the course has 18 holes and the greens are in fact 'browns', a reference to the sand and oil mix used to make them. The rest of the course is made up of volcanic ash and rocks.