19 February 2007

Origins of the South Pacific Coastwatching Network

The idea for a coast watching network originated in the year 1919, beginning as a defensive measure to protect the long, and virtually unprotected, coastline of Australia. At that time, the country’s population was concentrated primarily in the southeast section of the continent; in the event of war, an enemy could launch a surprise air attack on this area by crossing a wide expanse of desolate territory. To counter this threat, a plan was developed to use civilian spotters as coast watchers. They were equipped with telegraph and radio sets and were expected to act as an early warning system to report unidentified aircraft.

In September 1939, Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt, Royal Australian Navy, was stationed at Port Moresby, New Guinea, and placed in charge of intelligence gathering operations. The coast watching organization comprised about 800 people—the majority positioned along the Australian shore. A Solomon Islands screen, to the north, consisted of a few hundred plantation owners and managers. This group of spotters was spread very thin along the coasts of Buka, Bougainville, New Georgia, and other islands of the Solomons chain.

Lieutenant Commander Feldt gave his Solomon Islands watchers the code name FERDINAND, after the storybook character Ferdinand the bull, who preferred to sit under a tree and smell the flowers rather than fight. Although FERDINAND comprised a small group of spotters, its intelligence-gathering network covered more than a half million square miles of islands and ocean. The nickname not only suited this band of observers but also reminded them of their assignment as lookouts, not fighters. During World War II, however, there were many times when the Solomon Islands coast watchers, with their backs to the wall, were forced to battle the Japanese.
SOURCE: Coast Watching in WWII: Operations against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, 1941–43, by A. B. Feuer (Stackpole, 2006), pp. xvii–xviii

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