The Complete History of the Confederate States in the Great War of 1916-1923
(Marcus Ambrose, published 1973 by the Confederate University Press, Chattanooga, DL)
Volume II: The Confederacy Joins the Fighting (1918-1919)
Chapter 43: Occupation of the Marion Islands
The occupation of the Marion Islands is the last of the Atlantic island occupations that made up much of the initial stage of active Confederate participation in the Great War. However, some historians follow the lead of First Sea Lord Winston Churchill's account of why the poor performance of the Royal Navy in the Great War was not his fault and consider it the start of the East Africa campaign. While the occupation was undertaken using forces from Mauritius and the Marion Islands are not in the Atlantic Ocean, the timing of the occupation, coming just two weeks after the taking of the Malvinas, and some eight months before the next significant military move in the area, the invasion of the Seychelles, means it makes more sense to think of it as the end of the Atlantic campaign.
The Marion Islands are a pair of volcanic islands located some 950 nautical miles southeast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The islands were discovered in 1663 by the Dutch ship Maerseveen. In 1772, Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne visited the islands and spent five days trying to land, thinking he had found Antarctica. In 1776, his expedition, now headed by his second-in-command, Jules Crozet, after the death of du Fresne, met James Cook in Cape Town. Cook subsequently set sail for the islands, but was unable to attempt a landing due to bad weather conditions. He named the smaller island after Prince Edward, the fourth son of King George III, and to the larger gave the name of Marc-Joseph Marion du Fresne.
Until the Great War, these islands were known as Prince Edward Islands. However, Major Andrew Hare, who commanded the CSMC detachment that landed on Marion Island to establish the initial Confederate presence there, was from South Carolina and chose to take the island's name as referring to the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, who fought against the British in South Carolina during the First American Revolution and to rename the smaller as Sumter Island, after the Gamecock, Thomas Sumter, who was also a Patriot leader in South Carolina fighting the British after the fall of Charleston in 1780. Major Hare also chose in his dispatches to refer to the islands as the Marion Islands, after the larger of the pair. These changes were adopted by the Confederate Navy Department during the war and were formally recognized after the war when the islands were incorporated into the Confederacy as the District of the Marion Islands, following the Treaty of Geneva. However, Commonwealth maps, while recognizing the change of name of the island group, still label Sumter Island as Prince Edward Island.
Because of their climate, location, and difficulty of access, the Marion Islands have never had any permanent inhabitants, but in 1908, the British government had granted a twenty-one year license for guano exploitation to one William Newton, and the island was of interest to sealers. However, these weren't the reasons that led Rear Admiral Cooper to send a detachment to take the islands. Radiated communications between Mauritius and the rest of Confederate forces had been haphazard ever since the daring seizure of the island at the start of fighting by the Confederacy in July 1918. The occupation of Tristan da Cunha in March 1919 had brought only slight improvement. It was determined that a radiation station would improve communications and also provide meteorological information useful to Confederate ships that would be rounding the Horn of Africa if the high command decided on a push into the Indian Ocean and British East Africa as the next stage in the war.
The strike cruiser CSS Intrepid, commanded by Ship Captain Isaiah McElroy and the amphibious support vessel CSS Bullfrog under the command of Corvette Captain A.G. Huger, reached the coast of the Marion Islands on the night of 29 May 1919. Next morning, the landing itself proceeded without any difficulty, not even the weather which is often problematic there, especially in late autumn. There were eight civilians associated with the guano operation and they sensibly chose to offer no resistance to the occupation. They were sent to the Bullfrog to be taken to Mauritius for internment.
The initial landing and supply operation was concluded three days later and the pair of ships departed. It wasn't until 6 June that the radiation station was operational, although actual radiations waited for nightfall. With fuel supply for the generator being a concern, radiations from the Marion Island station (call sign KM146) were limited to a window around local midnight when the conditions were generally most favorable for radiating to both Mauritius and Tristan da Cuhna.
While all went as originally hoped for, once the signals from Marion Island were detected by South African radiation stations, there proved to be a problem. While the guano operation had begun before the establishment of the Union of South Africa in 1911, and Newton had continued paying royalties from the guano mining to the British government, the South African government had assumed that the islands were under their control, although no formal declaration to that effect had ever been made in London or Pretoria. The South African government lodged a protest with the Confederate government on 10 June and on 13 June the Royal South African Navy left Simon's Town, heading for the Marion Islands. War was declared by the USA against the CSA on 16 June after President Wilson rejected the demand for withdrawal from the Marion Islands.
Reaching Marion Island that evening, at dawn of the 17th the corvettes (torpedo boat destroyers in Commonwealth Navy nomenclature) HMSAS Blood and HMSAS Vaal came in close and opened fire on the dock and other facilities built for the guano operation while their sister corvettes HMSAS Limpopo and HMSAS Orange remained further out with the frigate (first-class cruiser) HMSAS Good Hope, Since the shelling was not targeting where he had positioned his marines, Major Hare chose to have his artillery hold fire to save ammunition in case of an enemy landing and in hopes of drawing the other ships into the range of his guns. The former was not an actual concern as the South Africans, believing that they would be unable to hold the island against a countersortie, had not boarded troops for a landing. The latter concern would prove to be of considerable import.
After thirty minutes without a response, Commander P.K. Brooke ordered the other ships in with the intent of destroying the radiation tower that had been built on the northeastern slope of Francis Peak by gunfire from the Good Hope. The tower was far enough inland and high enough that it was beyond the range of the single BL 4 inch Mk VIII gun that the River-class corvettes were armed with. While the Good Hope was an obsolete eighteen-year-old vessel that had been transferred by the Royal Navy to the nascent Royal South African Navy in 1913 instead of being placed in reserve, its guns were still first rate. Commander Brooke could have fired with his two BL 9.2 inch Mk X guns at the tower from beyond the range of Major Hare's ability to respond, but he chose to come in closer to shore so that he could bring his broadsides of BL 6 inch Mk VII guns (eight on each side) to bear instead. In doing so, he brought the Good Hope well within range of all four Mk V 20 cm cannons at Major Hare's disposal and of a number of the Mk VI 13 cm howitzers, although their orders were to focus on the less armored corvettes. Major Hare also had the advantages of elevation and surprise.
The initial salvo of the 20 cm cannons scored two or three hits on the Good Hope. The Confederate account claims three hits in the first salvo, but Sublieutenant Archibald Greene, senior surviving officer of the Good Hope, reported only two hits were taken in the first salvo. What is not in dispute is that the fore 9.2 inch gun and the second pair of port 6 inch guns were taken out in that first salvo. The 13 cm howitzers were then able to fire two salvos against the South African flotilla before any counter battery fire could take place, scoring hits against the the Blood, Limpopo, and Orange, knocking out the Limpopo's four inch gun and forcing her to retire. The other ships continued to engage Major Hare's marines, taking additional hits, but not with the same frequency as before now that they were maneuvering. At 0925 local time a magazine explosion sank the Blood and Commander Brooke ordered the force to disengage. At 0933, before the force could be fully disengaged, the conning tower of the Good Hope took a direct hit, killing Commander Brooke.
Lieutenant Commander Milton Ashdown, aboard the Orange as the commander of the destroyer squadron, was the senior South African officer present. He chose to completely withdraw his force with all due haste, despite Sublieutenant Greene's advice that the force could withdraw and shell the tower from beyond the range of the Confederates with the remaining 9.2 inch gun on the Good Hope. Despite Ashdown's decision, Greene ordered the aft gun to fire at the tower while it was still in range as they withdrew, causing sufficient damage to knock the radiation station out of service for five days until repairs could be completed.
Ashdown would be court-martialed for his decision, relieved of his command, and demoted to Lieutenant. Greene would be promoted to Lieutenant Commander and given command of the Good Hope. Both Major Hare and his artillery boss, Captain Beauregard Jackson, would be promoted one grade, but would remain on the island until the marine detachment was replaced as the force responsible for garrisoning the Marion Islands by the 2nd Battalion of the 5th Coahuila Regiment in September 1919.