Arthur Lappage

The Cocos and Keeling Islands: Singapore 1943 / 47

By David Taft

Photo:Arthur in uniform

Arthur in uniform

Photo from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:Arthur far right back row: taken on a training course

Arthur far right back row: taken on a training course

Photo from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:Arthur Lappage March 2008

Arthur Lappage March 2008

Photo from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo:The location of the Cocos and Keelings Islands

The location of the Cocos and Keelings Islands

Photo from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Arthur Lapage

Arthur Lappage was born on the 14th November 1922, in Islington, London, and his civilian work was as a Draughtsman, General Engineering then Architectural. In January 1943 he joined the Corps of Royal Engineers following a course at Ripon and passing the necessary exam he was accepted into the RE Engineer Services the specialist branch of the RE with the rank of Lance Corporal. After service with Chief Engineer Glasgow South he was selected for overseas service.

Pineapples On The Beach

He originally believed that he had been posted to assist in the construction of an Oil Pipeline from India into China. However on arrival in ColomboCeylon he found himself billeted in a large empty house in Buller Road Mount Lavina the wonderful coral beach was nearby and Arthur has fond memories of buying fresh pineapples from the vendors who prepared them with a large knife. This was a rare treat as pineapples had long since disappeared from shops at home. It was also at the tender age of 23 after a football match with a RA Heavy Ack Ack unit that he tasted whisky for the first time finding it a disappointment.

The Start Of Operation Pharos

The house proved to be an ideal for the purpose of preparation of Operation Pharos. The construction and operation of an Allied air base on the Cocos and KeelingIsland in the Indian Ocean. This group of strategically important Islands would be perfect for the construction of an airfield which would help in an assault on Java, Sumatra and air deliveries to Malaysia.

A Large Outline

Arthur was briefed by his CO Lt Col Brown RE and was allocated a room in the house which was always to be kept locked. There he was to enlarge the out line of the southern part of West Island. The outline measured about twenty feet by four from a survey conducted in March 1944 was used as a reference. This drawing was then used in consultation with the RAF to determine the position of the runway the supply road and associated buildings. As can be imagined the logistic planning for such an undertaking was vast with every item needing to be shipped to the island and assembled in the correct sequence. A vast undertaking which was planned and executed without a single computer!

Life ON S.S. Maharaja

Arthur when the time came was dispatched to the Cocos Islands on a ship called the SS Maharaja. This was a rather a dilapidated old tub and the troops on board were rather surprised to find themselves out at sea without an escort or in a convoy. On enquiring why they were told that the threat from the Japanese had receded and there had been no reports of enemy submarine activity in the area. Being seen by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft was the greatest fear and strict black out was maintained. The tension and atmosphere on board was also probably assisted by the circulation of the story that the owners of the ship would not be to bothered if it never returned.

After a week and after going through a storm in which a heavy bulldozer broke free threatening to damage the hull of the ship they arrived at the Islands.

Hard Work In The Sun

Some of the work undertaken on the Island was of a very hard physical nature. For instance on one occasion soon after his arrival Arthur along with all other ranks below Warrant Officer was told to report immediately to the beach-head. On arrival they discovered a huge consignment of cement had been collected by infantry landing craft from a sea transport and needed to be unloaded manually as quickly as possible so the craft could return for further loads to be transported back. In the hot sun men were required to carry one cwt bag each from the craft to a stacking area about 100 yards away.

A Tropical Disease?

The next morning Arthur awoke to find his body covered with puffed raised red patches his Warrant Officer (Chief Clerk) along with one of the sergeants who had served in West Africa agreed that they recognized the complaint and gave it a terrifying name. They also said it was extremely contagious and if they were not careful they would all catch it. From that moment on no one would come near to Arthur.

Off To See The Medical Officer

Arthur joined a long queue to see a Medical Officer. On examination the MO enquired if his salt tablets had been taken as instructed. On hearing that they had been he suggested Arthur return to camp and drink a quantity of salt and water. On returning Arthur filled a mug with salt and topped it up with water. His stomach and taste buds did not react to the strong solution and Arthur was able to spoon the salt out of the mug and swallow it. The next morning his skin was clear and his mates were prepared to come close again. His body had been completely drained of salt through excessive perspiration.

How To Find Out More

Life soon settled down to a pretty regular routine and there was much to be done. And Arthur remained on the island for both VE and VJ day., Arthur is at present writing up his exploits more fully for his friends and relations to enjoy and also recommends two books "Operation Pharos" by Ken Rosam (ISBN 1-873203-58-6) a copy of which is in Crawley Library and "Kings of the Cocos" published in 1950 and written by John Scott Hughes" which tells the history of the Islands. However one story worth relating is how the end of the war in Europe was over on the Cocos Islands three days before it was actually in Europe.

The Cocus Clarion

Mindful of the importance of moral one of the first orders given by the CO was that the priority each morning was to inform all those on the Island of the latest International News. A battery operated radio was "obtained" and this was the only source of information. Cpl. Jock Burns became the editor of a newsletter the "Cocos Clarion". This was printed up on an old duplicating machine and had many avid readers. However as the population grew from a few hundred towards the target of three thousand the RAF launched its own news sheet "The Atoll". The RAF with its access to high powered transmitters and receivers could contact any part of the world and had no use for a small portable battery powered receiver. At this stage of the war it was obvious everything was going our way and it was obvious peace in Europe was imminent.

War Over?

The Islands then suffered a large storm and contact was lost with the outside world as the RAF had their aerials blown down. Cpl. Burns who listened to the battery powered radio each morning to obtain the international news broadcasted by an Australian radio station was still able to listen in! However the battery power was extremely low and reception was bad. Jock Burns did not want to disappoint his readers so he listened very carefully to the barley audible broadcast. He became convinced that the war in Europe was over. This wonderful news could not be ignored and the Clarion was able to carry a wonderful scoop.

Lets Party!

Word quickly spread and everything stopped that morning. The Officers and SNCO offered spirits from their own meagre supply and other ranks who had existed on one bottle of beer per month unearthed their precious supply which had been buried for this very occasion. All were enjoying their celebrations when the RAF re-erected their aerials and contacted the outside world. They quickly discovered that the war was actually still going on. The RAF Newssheet "The Atoll" was later able to publish a correction and VE day was officially declared three days latter. Not a drop of beer or spirits was to be found on the island on VE day but it was accepted that the European war was not their war which still needed to be won and work continued as normal.

Will The Liberator Fly?

After service on the Island Arthur flew out with 99 sqd in a Liberator Bomber. They had been posted to Batavia now (Jakarta) to help get public services going again. (I.e. Electric / water supply and drainage and monsoon ditch clearing. The pilot of their particular plane came the evening before departure to inspect their unit stores and personal items they intended to take with them. He put on an expression of concern stating that the Liberator was designed to take a heavy load in the bomb bay only not spread all over the aircraft. On the day of depart char their plane was  with others on the hard standing of the airfield but theirs remained stationery as they watched the others take off. A sergeant Air Mechanic pretended to be frustrated and explained that his job was to get the air craft airworthy and three feet off the ground after that it was not his concern. He also explained that the plane was suffering from a "drooped mag" with little explanation as to what that might mean. All this was for the ears of a first time flyer.

Called To The Cockpit.

They were finally aboard to the aircraft and were then called to the cock pit. He again explained about his concern of the weight in the air craft. He then explained that they could help the situation by at his signal as they thundered down the runway gaining speed to transfer their weight to the rear of the aircraft as soon as possible. This all made sense to the rather green flyers as they waited and readied themselves for the signal at which they were to attempt to race to the rear of the aircraft.

Helping It Fly

At the given signal as they sped down the runway they soon paid the price for not reconnoitring and understanding the obstacles in their way. The first problem was the narrow width of the passage through the bomb bay it would have been better to decide the "running order" rather than all four fighting to get through at the same time. The next problem was getting through the small access opening in the bulkhead to the mid - gunners compartment. Arthur was lucky to only lose skin from his shins one colleague had an army boot thrust into his face. The air gunner had not been informed of the fun to be had at the army's expense and watched in amazement as four fighting breathless and exhausted maniacs sped through his small world trying to find the way through to tail end Charlie in a desperate attempt to get a large aeroplane into the air.

Improper Dress

It was while serving in Batavia (now Jakarta) that Arthur's Chief Staff Sear gent Tony Petty RE was part of the scheme to release personal to civilian life. Arthur was called into the Commanding Officers office and the Lieutenant Col. told him that he was improperly dressed and should be wearing the rank of a Staff Sergeant. His entry into the W.O. and Sergeants Mess had duly started another chapter in Arthur's life.

This page was added by David Taft on 02/06/2008.
Comments about this page

This is my Grandad, and we are all very proud of him.
We have all listened admirably to his experiences of the war and how he met my grandma.
He has kept alot of artifacts from his childhood and time spent in the war, still all in perfect condition.
It was a nice suprise to google my grandads name and see his own story for all to read, this is a very small extract in comparision to the stories we have all loved hearing from my grandads past.
It is also nice to know that all my grandads old Architectural drawings are going to the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham, Kent for everyone to admire and enjoy.
I love my grandad, as does everyone who meets him, with his gentle manner and great sense of humour, he is the best, and a perfect role model for me growing up.
Proud of you grandad.

By andrew lappage
On 23/11/2008

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