WW2 and Tristan da Cunha is HMS Atlantic Isle

World War 2 was a very different experience for islanders compared to the First World War. German U-boat submarines and the battleship Graf Spee were seen off Tristan and, by 1942 a secret Royal navy establishment codenamed Job 9, later changed to HMS Atlantic Isle, was created.

Forces letter to HMS Atlantic Isle in 1945
Forces letter sent c/o the GPO in London to a telegraphist at HMS Atlantic Isle
Photo courtesy Cavendish Auctions

The role of Tristan da Cunha under the guise of HMS Atlantic Isle was to monitor and communicate enemy naval movements and act as a meteorological station. Training was given to operate radios and 16 island men were mustered as the "Tristan Defence Volunteers". It is also a matter of conjecture that HMS Atlantic Isle also operated as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) station and intercepted German naval "Enigma" communications in the south atlantic area for the Bletchley Park codebreakers.

While the SIGINT intercept role may never be officially confirmed, what is certain is the dramatic and positive impact on the community's infrastructure the wartime role had. Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Woolley commanded HMS Atlantic Isle and he was responsible for several new buildings including accommodation, a shop, offices, a purpose built school and a small hospital. Islanders were employed and paid in cash for the first time which they were able to spend in the new shop. Dr Woolley also reconstituted the Island Council, and, as Commander of HMS Atlantic Isle he in unwittingly appointed himself the first of the British Administrators who, unlike the clergymen, were official representatives of the British Government.

The post war viability of Tristan da Cunha community was now assured.

The HMS Atlantic Isle Commissioning Fiasco

The 1957 issue of The Trident published in London carried an account written by Cecil Hampshire describing the Royal Navy's Commissioning ceremony on Tristan da Cunha for HMS Atlantic Isle.

Despite being a shore establishment, the wartime work of Tristan da Cunha was originally known as "job 9" but, as often happens, the Royal Navy eventually decided the island should be commissioned as a warship. In line with this order, on January 15th 1944, Tristan da Cunha became HMS Atlantic Isle.

A local surf boat was chosen for use in the naming ceremony which would be performed by Mrs Woolley, wife of the Commanding Officer Surg. Lt.-Cdr. Edward Woolley, RNVR, using an empty champagne bottle filled with pieces of fruit, salt and a token tot of rum.

The ships company were paraded along with the Tristan da Cunha Volunteers, a home guard formed by the islanders. A penguin sat inside the boat, justified apparently by being the pet of one of the ship's company. As the ceremonial event proceeded the "Tristan da Cunha band" played Heart of Oak, the National Anthem and other appropriate music.

In truth, the "Tristan da Cunha band" was a lone Navy rating who happened to possess an accordion. Sadly "the band" had a broken ankle at the time so he was considerately sat in a bullock cart to perform. As the commissioning ceremony drew to a close the Tristan Volunteers' fired three volleys from their rifles. This immediately caused the bullock pulling "the band" to "incontinently bolt" depositing him, his accordion and crutches over a wide area.