Operation Pallium


Operation Pallium


An Unforgettable Visit to Pitcairn Island




Robert Settle





Many people will have heard of Pitcairn Island and the part it played in the Mutiny on the Bounty but very few of us will have visited this remote part of the world. In 1976 RFA SIR GERAINT was deployed there on Operation Pallium, on the first phase of vastly improving access to and on the Island by constructing a proper jetty and a protective breakwater as well as building new roads too.

This was to be accomplished with the assistance of personnel from a Royal Marines Boat Squadron, the Royal Corps of Transport and of course the Royal Engineers. The ship was also carrying a newsman who intended interviewing the descendants of the mutineers writing another book concerning the Mutiny on the Bounty for M.G.M. who were planning another film of the same name.



The ship arrived at the Island just after lunch on Saturday 22 May and no sooner had they rung “Finished with engines”  when two of the local longboats pulled alongside and the inhabitants clambered aboard, laden with fresh fruit and wood carvings for trade. One of the two Royal Marines Landing Craft, which had been carried as deck cargo, was lowered into the water to begin a recce of the harbour, using an Islander as a Pilot.

The swell that day was quite tame and this made the job a lot easier, but unfortunately, with the Islanders being Seventh Day Adventists, they would not allow any work to be done that day so we were unable to begin ferrying any of the cargo ashore.

The Islanders only link with the outside world at that time, other than via their radio, was with four 36 foot longboats, two with motors and a dozen or so canoes with outboard engines, although the latter were mainly used for fishing on very calm days. The longboats were used to go out to meet the few passing ships to get supplies off and to sell local handicrafts on a bartering basis to the crews. The longboats, with a crew of five men, had to be launched through a constant very heavy surf and getting in and out of this was always a danger and with a total Island population of just 57, an accident could have very serious consequences. Some years previously the Island Council had approached the Commonwealth Office to ask what could be done. A civilian firm was engaged to undertake an appraisal, but the envisaged expense was too high and the influx of a large number of construction workers would have totally upset the natural balance on the Island in many ways . Finally the Army was approached and by cutting out a lot of the original plan and having just a small team of technicians and by utilising the available labour on the Island, the scheme was approved.

The ship brought out 1 x Officer, 1 x Warrant Officer, 2 x Sergeants, 1 x Corporal and 2 x Sappers. Their task was to lengthen the current small jetty, deepen the water alongside it (by using explosives), improve and widen the 45 degree road to the only town and to build a new road across the island to a possible quarry site. All this would then improve things for the second phase which was due to begin the following year comprising a slightly larger team to build large breakwaters either side of the new jetty.     


RFA Sir Geraint at anchor

RFA Sir Geraint at anchor off Pitcarin Island


Work started very early the following day (Sunday) and by it’s end over 30% of the cargo in the form of 450lb bags and drums of cement had been landed, but the following day the swell had got up which made the loading of the boats very difficult both alongside the ship and also at the jetty where they continually bumped the bottom and damaged their propellers. In addition it had rained overnight which made the road from the jetty to the equipment dumping ground completely impassable for the only Island tractor. This resulted in all work stopping until the Army built up from parts a caterpillar tractor which could actually use the road. Unfortunately one of the Sappers caught his hand in the fan of the tractor while test running it, cutting the tendons. The ship’s doctor spent 3 hours operating but the Army workforce was reduced by one as the man had to return to the UK with the ship for further treatment. While the ship carried just 3 day’s worth of actual cargo work, because there was no secure anchorage at the island, the stay there was very much at the mercy of the weather, a full 3 weeks had been allocated for the task. In reality, the last bit of cargo went ashore on the 2 June.  This also gave some personnel the opportunity to get ashore to stretch their legs, but there was not much there. The main square in Adamstown consisted of the church which housed the Bounty Bible in a locked glass case, a dispensary for the local nurse (trained in New Zealand), the Post Office and a Community Hall. One of the anchors from the Bounty is also in the square. There was only 1 shop on the Island (Co-Op) which was opened for 2 hours a week. The grave of Tom Adams, the last mutineer who died in 1830, could be seen and it was well-tended. Adams had been taught to read by Midshipman Young and he in turn taught the Tahitian men and women the Bible – the only book on the Island for some time. Another site to visit was Fletcher Christian’s cave.


The Boat Shed

The Boat Shed at the landing


The Islanders were not supposed to drink, smoke or eat meat but the men who came aboard the ship for a barbecue drank whatever was put in front of them, ate loads of steaks, chops and sausages and all of them swore like Troopers.  Once all of the cargo work was completed, there were a few days left to enjoy the limited resources of the Island and to talk at length with the really friendly locals. The ship was due to sail on the morning of  7 June so on the day before, the entire Island inhabitants were invited aboard for lunch, with the ship fully expecting about half to turn up. In the event, all bar 5 Islanders arrived and enjoyed a fare of chips, sausages, eggs and beans with plenty of squash and jellies. The children were royally entertained with an aerial ropeway, swings and rides on the forklift trucks and everybody had a really enjoyable time. Finally it was time for the guests to depart and their boats made 2 circuits of the ship, waving and singing the Pitcairn goodbye song.  

SIR GERAINT sailed the following morning, doing a circuit of the Island and blowing the whistles as they passed Adamstown for the last time. Then it was across the Pacific to the Panama Canal and finally back home to Marchwood at the beginning of July.