Royal Marines in the Indian Ocean

Port ‘W’ – Nancowry, The Nicobar Islands

In the event of war with Japan, the British Admiralty had long planned to defend British interests in the Far East based on Singapore.  To enable the Royal Navy to send reinforcements in the event of a war, the Admiralty intended to establish several secret refuelling bases or anchorages across the Indian Ocean.  The most important for these bases were: the Seychelles; Diego Garcia in the Chagos Islands; Addu Atoll in the Maldives; and Nancowry in the Nicobar Islands.  By the summer of 1941, preparations were being made to establish a defended base, codenamed Port ‘W’, on Nancowry Island.  In August 1941, steps were begun to requisition and fit out a base ship to provide accommodation for the forces which would build the base.  By the beginning of September, pre-constructed, portable huts were being prepared in Singapore for transport to the island.  These were expected to be ready by the end of October.  Elsewhere, a detachment of Royal Marines was organised to undertake the installation of coast defence artillery and supporting facilities.[1] 

The detachment was formed by the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (M.N.B.D.O.) which, in September 1941, was in Egypt.  The formation organised two detachments, codenamed Force ‘Shortcut’ and Force ‘Piledriver’.  Force ‘Shortcut’ was formed from the Headquarters and units of the Landing and Maintenance Unit, together with personnel from ‘Z’ and A.M.T.B. Batteries of the 1st Coast Regiment, R.M.  Force ‘Piledriver’ was formed from the Headquarters of the 1st Coast Regiment and three of its batteries.  In command of Force ‘Piledriver’ was Lt. Colonel W.B.F. Lukis, R.M. and Lt. Colonel L.O. Jones commanded Force ‘Shortcut’.  Force ‘Piledriver’, assisted by Force ‘Shortcut’, would construct facilities and defences at Addu Atoll, codenamed Port ‘T’.  Force ‘Shortcut’ was otherwise to be prepared for despatch to Port ‘W’ (Nancowry) at an as yet unspecified date where it would install four, 4-inch coast defence guns.  While Force ‘Shortcut’ assisted at Addu Atoll, a reconnaissance of Port ‘W’ would take place to establish the locations for the gun sites and other installations.  The personnel for Force ‘Shortcut’ were selected from Landing and Maintenance Unit, R.M., commanded by Lt. Colonel Jones, together with details from the 1st Coast Regiment, R.M. with four 4-inch guns and ancillary troops.  The structure of the Force was:

H.Q. Landing and Maintenance Unit,

- Landing Company, R.M.
- detachment Workshop Company, R.M., less details in Egypt
- Boat Company,
- ‘Z’ Battery, R.M.
- A.M.T.B. Battery, R.M.
- a signals section,
- No.1 Tented Hospital, R.N.[2]

It seems that the reconnaissance of Port ‘W’ took place beginning late October or early November 1941 (the copy of the report produced held by The National Archives is undated, but the catalogue entry gives a date of October 1941).  One of the officers involved, Major C. la R. Salter, R.M., of the Landing and Maintenance Unit, left Addu Atoll by sea for Colombo on 24th October on board the cruiser, H.M.S. Mauritius.  Lt. Colonel Lukis, who was also to play a part in evaluating the proposals for Port ‘W’, left Addu Atoll for Colombo on 29th November and did not return until 9th December.[3]

The reconnaissance report duly described Port ‘W’ as a land-locked anchorage with two entrances: one to the east and the other to the west.  The land was found to rise steeply from the water’s edge in nearly all locations and was covered mainly with thick jungle, palms, bamboo and mangrove.  It was found that it would not be possible to install a battery to cover the western entrance.  Instead, it was proposed to close this entrance with under-water defences and to establish both batteries to cover the eastern entrance.[4]  Having installed the guns, the Royal Marines of Force ‘Shortcut’ would be responsible for their initial manning.  The Marines would subsequently be relieved by an Indian Army heavy regiment consisting of a headquarters and two batteries.  Infantry defence was to be provided by an Indian garrison company consisting of a headquarters and four platoons.[5]

In the meantime, the conditions at Addu Atoll had resulted in a high sick rate amongst the Royal Marines.  This was of such concern, that on 8th November 1941, the Naval C-in-C East Indies wrote to propose that the men of Force ‘Shortcut’ be given a period of rest before undertaking construction of the base at Port ‘W’.  The support ship, Clan Forbes, was due to carry Force ‘Shortcut’ to land guns and stores at Diego Garcia on or around 30th November.  It was now proposed that after this task was completed, the Marines involved should then be given fourteen days leave in Ceylon.  Having rested, the men were to then sail for Nancowry in the Clan Forbes at around 19th December.  It seems this new schedule was agreed, and Force ‘Shortcut’ began preparations to leave Addu Atoll.[6]

During November 1941, Force ‘Shortcut’ unloaded the stores and equipment it would need to take with it to Port ‘W’.  These were organised and serviced and later loaded on board the Clan Forbes.  The personnel began embarking on 23rd November and the loading and embarkation was complete by the morning of 26th November.  The Clan Forbes left Addu Atoll that afternoon for Diego Garcia, where it unloaded two 6-inch guns, stores and equipment before leaving for Colombo on 4th December.  The ship arrived on the morning of 8th December and all personnel went to the Royal Navy Rest Camp, Diyatalawa.  With the entry into the war of Japan, however, the Admiralty once again revised its plans for bases in the Indian Ocean.  A signal sent on 14th December 1941 advised that the installation of defences at Nancowry would not now go ahead.  The Marines earmarked for this task, Force ‘Shortcut’, were to be retained ready to install further defences and facilities elsewhere in the Indian Ocean.[7]

24 June 2021

[1] Reconnaissance Report, Port ‘W’, ADM 202/454

[2] ADM 202/167; Reconnaissance of Port ‘T’, Addu Atoll and war diaries of Colonel C.T. Brown and Force ‘Shortcut’, ADM 202/453

[3] ADM 202/453

[4] ADM 202/454

[5] Addu Atoll, WO 106/3786

[6] Indian Ocean Bases: Addu Atoll, WO 106/3786

[7] ADM 202/138; WO 106/3786