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The signal unit

Matilda Simmons
Sunday, March 11, 2018

ON MARCH 11, 1920, The Fiji Times & Herald ran an article to remember the Signal Unit of the Fiji Defence Force and their work during World War I. It was established in 1914 at battalion strength to defend this country from German raiders. While Fiji was far from the main arena of action, it was involved in two historic incidents. According to Robert Lowry's Fortress Fiji: Holding the Line in the Pacific Way, 1935-45, in September 1914, the British radio station in Suva picked up a message from the German East Asia Squadron allowing the admiralty to plan the ill-fated Battle of Coronel that resulted in the sinking of two British warships by the German squadron. In September 1917, Captain von Luckner and crew members of the German raider See Adler that had been wrecked in French Oceania were captured by a party of Fiji Police on Wakaya while trying to escape in a launch.

The Signal Unit was started with the enrolment and attestation of 12 men.

At that time it was intended to keep the unit to a maximum of 15 men for the first year, but as the year progressed and the situation in Europe became more acute, further recruits were called for and were duly forthcoming. At the same time, the rate of training was speeded up, and instead of doing one night parade a week, the men were soon doing three, with Saturday afternoons and Sundays thrown in for good measure. Progress was rapid and at the end of six months most of the original members had passed qualifications tests set on the basis of 12 months' normal training.

"The outbreak of war saw a further intensification of training, as well as further recruitment, so that to-day the unit is one of the considerable strength, with sections at Ba and Lautoka, in addition to the parent body in Suva. Keeness and enthusiasm are evident in all ranks. In addition to intensified training the war was responsible for something more, for since September last, the unit has had to take its part in the defence of the Colony, and although little can be said of this, it will be sufficient to state that, almost since the outbreak of war, signals has supplied signal personnel each night for certain outposts.

"Due largely to demands in Britain, equipment was slow in coming on hand in the early days of the unit, and much was done by members in the way of improvisation. Undulating country between Samabula and Vatuwaqa was chosen for the exercise, which proved a most interesting one. Briefly the position was that Northland was attacking Southland with superior forces. The various stations were established in the morning and communication opened up by line telegraphy and telephony, the lines to connect the instruments being quickly run out by the cable — laying sections, so that the signal centre was connected with battalion headquarters, the flank companies and reserves.

"Several exercises were held by the signal unit as war raged in another part of the world.

"That meant that signal offices which had been established in the morning had to be quickly dismantled, cable-reeled in, and the whole transferred to the new positions and cable relaid. Wireless and visual signalling provided for the maintenance of communications during the laying of the new lines. Then, in the afternoon, certain lines were reported to have been damaged by shell-fire, and communication was maintained by visual methods, which, though naturally slower than telegraphy proved quite effective. It may not be generally realised that lamp signalling is effective in daylight. This exercise, like previous ones held, provided a valuable practical lesson in army signals work under varying conditions. It brought to light weakenesses in certain systems, demonstrating where improvements can be made and above all it proved to those outside the unit just how much practical training has been accomplished in the short space of a year."

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