The Coast Watchers

The Coast Watchers:

Behind enemy lines; the men who saved the Pacific

Book review by Jerry Lattin


the coast watchers - cover shot

Lindsay, Patrick: The Coast Watchers: Behind enemy lines; the men who saved the Pacific. William Heinemann (London) 2010; Random House Australia. 416 pp; $34.95 (paperback).


The Coast Watchers were an organised force established in the 1920s to observe and report shipping and aircraft movements visible from the coast. Its members were recruited initially from expatriate private citizens and government officials mainly in what are now PNG and Solomon Islands – then under colonial rule by Australia and UK respectively.  With the beginning of World War II, the force went on a war footing; members were given ‘protective’ military rank, and measures were put in place for them to be supported by local labour and police.

When Japan entered the war, and subsequently occupied parts of the area, the Coast Watchers became the stuff of legend. Many operated for months behind enemy lines, isolated and invisible, maintaining a flow of useful — sometimes vital — intelligence, rescuing stranded allied airmen and distressed mariners, and helping to evacuate non-combatants. Their influence on the Pacific war was considerable.

The achievements of the Coast Watchers are well recorded in official histories, and are known in outline by most people with an interest in the Pacific war. But strangely, general accounts of their achievements are recounted in only two published historical works: The Coast Watchers by Eric Feldt (1946), and Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons (1977) by Walter Lord. The first of these is a general history of the organisation written by the man who largely created it, and ran it for much of the war. It is therefore unquestionably an authoritative and comprehensive history, but hardly an objective one. Walter Lord, an American popular historian, later produced a book narrower in scope than Feldt’s, confined to activities in Solomons. It is well written, entertaining and interesting. Both these works are available second hand.

Other existing works on the Coast Watchers, numbering a handful, are mostly personal memoirs, and deal with small fragments of a big picture. Most of them are now virtually unobtainable.

Patrick Lindsay’s work is therefore a most welcome and timely addition to the relatively scarce published material available on the topic. It is reasonably comprehensive, and while it breaks no new ground, it is more than a regurgitation of material already written. It sets the scene well, paints colourful pictures of characters, and devotes several opening chapters to establishing the strategic context in which events occurred.

Feldt, a graduate of the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC), had been in the first college intake in 1913. He served at sea in WW I and made Lieutenant before resigning in 1920. He joined the Australian administration in New Guinea and acquitted himself well, rising to the rank of District Officer. In April 1939, recognising that war was likely, Feldt transferred back to the RAN’s Emergency List of Officers. In August 1939, a month before war was declared, he was approached by a former RANC classmate, Lieutenant Commander R B M Long, then Director of Naval Intelligence, to revamp the existing Coast Watching organisation and put it on a war footing. Feldt jumped at the task; by September he was travelling through the islands by all available means, assessing the members of the organisation and recruiting new ones. As his deputy, he later took on board yet another classmate from the RANC: Lieutenant Hugh Mackenzie, who had been invalided out of the RAN with poor eyesight, and also worked in New Guinea as a planter. Mackenzie’s first assignment was as Naval Intelligence Officer to Lark Force, the army garrison on its way to Rabaul — and more of that later.

Essential to the organisation’s proper functioning were decent radio communications. The only practical radio option available for the task was high frequency, also known as short-wave.  Feldt gave his Coast Watchers the AWA 3B teleradio. It was robust, and its communications performance was adequate. But it was bulky. It was driven by car batteries, that had to be re-charged on a petrol-driven charger. The set itself was three one-man loads; its back-up of batteries, charger, petrol supplies, antenna equipment and necessary spares boosted its carrier requirements to between 12 and 16 men. Coast Watchers didn’t travel light.

The book describes very adequately the key elements of the war in which Coast Watchers played a part.

These included the evacuation of the defeated Australian garrison at Rabaul in January 1942, in which a Coast Watcher, Keith McCarthy, and two army officers with the Australian New Guinea Administration Unit (ANGAU — Papua and New Guinea were now under military rule) organised the escape routes and brought to safety about 450 men of the original 1400-strong force. Among the successful evacuees was Hugh Mackenzie, their Naval Intelligence Officer and Feldt’s deputy. (Virtually all of the rest never survived the war, though most were lost when their POW ship, SS Montevideo Maru, was sunk by a USN submarine.)

During the first six months of the Japanese occupation, several Coast Watchers were captured in New Ireland and New Britain. Despite their ‘protective’ military rank, nearly all were executed; only two survived the war. Execution was not confined to Coast Watchers, it was a fate met by civilians too, including missionaries — some of them from neutral countries — who stayed at their posts tending their flock. But as the war grew older, Coast Watchers became smarter. They practiced much tighter communications procedures, disguised their positions better, and were prepared to move at a moment’s notice. Few more were caught.

Central to any Coast Watcher’s history were the services rendered by Jack Read in northern Bougainville, and Paul Mason in the south. The US Marines on Guadalcanal had no carrier-based air cover, with only their P38s at Henderson Field for air defence. Japanese land forces were all around them and were reinforced almost every night; the American logistic chain was fragile and infrequent. Japanese land-based bombers were within easy range. Read and Mason between them were able to give precise details of nearly every incoming raid, in time to get the P38s airborne and high, and AA stood-to. This crucial intelligence served the Marines for several critical months, but was achieved only by Read and Mason playing cat-and-mouse to remain ahead of their pursuers. They were never caught

Hugh Mackenzie also played a key role on Guadalcanal. Several Coast Watchers were actually on the island but well beyond the Henderson perimeter. They provided accurate and timely information on enemy troop, shipping and aircraft movements that helped ensure the security of the lodgement. Their activities and radio traffic were co-ordinated by Mackenzie under his famous radio callsign KEN.

Lindsay tells these and other stories well, illuminating them from several sides and adding colour to the characters. Naturally he had to be selective in what minor events and anecdotes he included, and he missed a few that this reviewer would have thought appropriate for inclusion — but that’s just a personal view.

The author also declined a chance to break new ground. The later editions of Feldt’s book describe the second phase of the Coast Watchers’ war, when some of them became guerrillas — mainly on Bougainville and New Britain. The fact that the guerrillas took over 5400 enemy lives for the loss of only 47 Coast Watchers and support staff speaks for itself. Tellingly, Feldt commented that the necessity of pursuing these operations was debatable, since the remaining Japanese were cut off and isolated. Lindsay chose not to re-open the ethical issue raised by Feldt, though he does deal with the guerrillas.


The book is well illustrated with black-and-white photographs, mostly new to this reviewer. All maps are grouped together at the front of the book. They are generally adequate, bar one: Mason’s escape-and-evasion activities on Bougainville took him from one end of the island to the other, and are described in detail in the text. But it’s impossible to recreate them from the highly-simplified map provided of the island. Locations mentioned in the text could have been included on the map; better still, show Mason’s track. Mason’s is a gripping story, and deserved better treatment.

This book is a new release that re-tells a slice of history in fresh language and will re-awaken interest in the impressive achievements of Commander Eric Feldt OBE RAN and his team. It is highly recommended to readers with an interest in RAN history and the history of the Pacific war.











HMAS ARMIDALE – A Survivor’s Account

Armidale ‘42:

A survivor’s account

Book review by Jerry Lattin


armidale 42 -- cover image

Col Madigan, Jan Senbergs, Don Watson. Armidale ‘42: A survivor’s account. Macmillan Art Publishing, South Yarra. 1999. 69 pp; RRP $33.00.


This book falls into no recognisable literary category, and comprises elements of formal history, personal wartime reminiscence, and theme-based graphic art. It nevertheless delivers, verbally and pictorially, a unique, vivid and personal view of the events leading up to a small Royal Australian Navy action in World War 2, the action itself, and its aftermath.


The definitive story of the sinking of HMAS Armidale near Timor in 1942 was told in Frank B Walker’s Armidalethe ship that had to die (Kingfsher Press, NSW, 1990). The Madigan/Senbergs/Watson work adds a new dimension to that conventional history, embellishing the tragedy with images that enter the soul. Drawn from a fragment of war, its essence is memory and imagination.


Armidale ‘42 opens with an essay by Don Watson which recreates the historical and strategic setting in which the drama unfolded, and describes dispassionately the events themselves. Those events are adequately covered in more detail in Brian Swan’s two-part article on the sinking of HMAS Armidale, which begins on page 19 of this issue, so will not be summarised here. Suffice to say that Watson’s essay is vivid, thought-provoking, and beautifully written—as one would expect from a master wordsmith.The essay is followed by the text of a brief address given by Col Madigan – himself an Armidale survivor – at a1998 celebration in Darwin for the 56th anniversary of Armidale’s launching. It reads almost like poetry, but his better contribution comes later.


The Armidale Drawings by Jan Senbergs (executed in pastel and acrylic wash on paper, and purchased by the Australian War Memorial) are preceded by the artist’s explanation of their genesis in an unrelated professional collaboration between himself and Madigan. The drawings themselves—11 including the frontispiece, all sparing in the use of colour—are vivid, impressionistic, stylised, filled with life and death, hope and hopelessness. They portray recognisable key events in the action and its consequences.


Notwithstanding the excellence of Watson’s introduction and the Senbergs drawings, the heart of this book lies in Col Madigan’s major contribution, titled The Armidale diary. Written mainly in the third person, the diary is a reflective ramble through a 1988 reunion in Armidale NSW. Old shipmates meet again; they share memories, recall horrors, and reminisce about lost comrades. The narrative flicks back and forth between 1942 and 1988, and few readers will encounter a more moving depiction of what it was like to be sunk by air attack and to survive in an open boat at sea for over a week. (Madigan survived  in the whaler and was rescued nine days after the sinking.) Subdued criticism of the dilatory attempts to locate and rescue survivors is implied rather than expressed. As a bonus, Madigan’s story is illustrated by his own drawings, which admirably complement those of Senbergs. His lightly-limned pen-and-ink vignettes illuminate his narrative brilliantly.


Australia has a long tradition of sponsoring ‘War Artists’, including some of the nation’s finest painters. Their work stems from life on active service, often in the battle itself, and has an authenticity and immediacy that gives it historical authority.  In this book, the pictorial contributions from Senbergs and Madigan extend the boundaries of that tradition: Madigan’s sketches are from memory of events that occurred decades before; and those of Senbergs go even further:  his work derives from imagination, intuition and research; and from the oral and verbal depictions of others.  For this reviewer, at least, it worked.


The book is tied together by a short essay by art historian Jenny Zimmer entitled  Remembering and imagining. Zimmer’s piece puts into context the imaginative work of Senbergs, and links it to the contributions of the other two authors. She  ties the Senbergs drawings to Théodore Géricault’s massive 1819 painting The Raft from the Medusa, drawn from a similar incident – which inspired one of Madigan’s sketches.


Armidale ‘42: A survivor’s account unashamedly appeals to the emotions. It is nevertheless a work of integrity that illustrates with word, brush and pen the consequences of war at sea against superior air power.


Col Madigan, barely out of his teens in 1942, became a successful architect. The work of Jan Senbergs is represented in the National Gallery, in all state art galleries, and several international collections. Don Watson was speech writer for Paul Keating among many other achievements.


The book’s production is high quality. Its 250mm x 240mm format may be inconvenient for some bookshelves, but was probably dictated in part by the dimensions of the Senbergs drawings. The drawings are printed separately and pasted in—a nice extra quality touch. An index is neither provided nor needed.


The publisher is Macmillan Art Publishing—so clearly the Macmillan Group regards this as an art book, not a history book. Macmillan AP assures us that the book is available on order, (ISBN 9780958574365 may be helpful for readers wishing to order) because interested buyers are unlikely to find copies on the shelves of Australian bookshops. The reason is that the main artwork (The Armidale Drawings) is lovingly stuck in by hand in small runs, only when required. Overseas, Amazon has both new and second-hand editions available in the $45 – $55 range. The rather-high second-hand price (which makes Macmillan AP’s new price look like a steal) no doubt reflects the book’s comparative rarity.




The Path of Infinite Sorrow

BOOK REVIEW: The path of infinite sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track


by Fred Lane


Collie C. and H. Marutani. The path of infinite sorrow: The Japanese on the Kokoda Track. Allen and Unwin: Crows Nest. 2009. 291 pp plus, maps, footnotes, references, index and 16 pp of photos. $28 to $35 paperback

(This review was first published in NOCN 82, 1 September 2010.)


Three score and more years on, the gut-wrenching wartime Kokoda Track tragedy remains vivid in the minds of those of both sides who were there, and many others who were spared the fighting. This book, by historian-researcher Hajime Marutani and television producer Craig Collie is a compilation of unit records, diaries and personal stories of Japanese, Australian and other soldiers who fought there. This is the first book to present the coherent story in the words of  Japanese participants.


Errors and brilliance

Examples of errors and of brilliance were common, in both sides. Brilliant commanders were summarily relieved in the field, by both sides. Others should have been, but were not. Armchair strategists did not understand the terrain nor why some battles were won or lost.


Malaria, dysentry and other diseases and accidents felled more soldiers than bullets, even with the jungle-savvy Japanese. The environment and excellent layered Japanese defence towards the end of the New Guinea campaign frustrated high commands, including Douglas MacArthur, ensconced safely in Brisbane, and Thomas Blamey, chafing in Moresby.


Did the brutal environment predispose brutal human behaviour? “For the troops, it had been a descent into hell in a deceptively majestic land,” say the authors eloquently, of the six-month campaign.


The 20-chapter book starts with a description of the terrible Japanese conditions on Ioribaiwa Ridge, overlooking Port Moresby. The next three chapters go back to describe the Japanese political and military history that led into the 1941-45 Pacific War. The last eight include descriptions of the tenacious post-Kokoda mop-up fighting, including American contributions, around Buna, Gona and other Japanese New Guinea bases.


South Seas Force

The South Seas Force, then a 2000-strong element of the Japanese 17th Army, is the prime Japanese force of interest. It started landing at Gona on the northern coast of New Guinea in the evening of 21 July 1942, under the command of Major General Tomitaro Horii. Initially ordered to capture Kokoda and explore the feasibility of an overland approach to Port Moresby, the sortie was suddenly upgraded in Rabaul by a blow-in gung-ho officer with good political connections and a great Malaya record, Lieutenant Colonel Tsuji. The task transformed into a reinforced spearhead attack on Port Moresby, with a traditional  Japanese “left hook” from Milne Bay. Tsuji did not have the authority to make such an order, but the decision was not reversed at 17th Army Headquarters, Rabaul, when the ruse was discovered some weeks later, “because of the possibility of having to re-reverse it in a few weeks”.


After a punishing fighting march across the Owen Stanleys, the Japanese reached Ioribaiwa Ridge, 42 kilometres from Port Moresby and within sight of the Gulf of Papua by 16 September 1942. The four- to six-week fight over 160 kilometres of unforgiving terrain and intermittent strong opposition is described in graphic detail. Only 1500 of the eventual 6000 Japanese troops who set out were in any condition to fight. Even then, survivors were starving and exhausted. Some companies of 180 had only 50 or 60 fit men, many of whom had to act as stretcher bearers for their own sick and wounded.


Other, much greater, events interacted with the fate of the South Seas Force. Between 4 and 7 June American carrier aircraft destroyed the cream of the Japanese carrier navy at Midway and turned back the Midway Island invasion fleet.


Milne Bay

The Japanese invaded Milne Bay on 25 August, but were defeated and pushed out within a fortnight. Their Guadalcanal toehold was also being seriously challenged by American Marines. Importantly, the extended Japanese supply line was proving vulnerable to Allied aircraft and submarine interdiction.


The Japanese expected little opposition to their Milne Bay landing. Instead, there were 5000 infantry and 4000 others dug in and waiting, including two RAAF squadrons of P-40 Kittyhawk fighter-bombers. Of 1940 Japanese Marines landed on 25 August 1942, only 1320 were evacuated a fortnight later. Of those, 310 were wounded.


Sir William Slim quote

Field Marshall Sir William Slim, in a widely cited quote (McDonald and Brune, 1999) said, “Australian troops had, at Milne Bay in New Guinea, inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. If the Australians, in conditions very like ours, had done it, so could we. Some of us may forget that of all the Allies it was the Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army; those of us who were in Burma have cause to remember”. Although the Milne Bay action is described  in refreshing and accurate detail, Slim’s statement was not mentioned in this Kokoda book.


Then, as Guadalcanal operations drained more and more support from Rabaul, Horii’s South Seas Force was ordered to withdraw, back over the punishing Owen Stanleys, to the original targets, Isurava and Kokoda.



The authors refer to the appellation “chockos” given to the poorly trained B Company of the Australian 39th Battalion, Civilian Militia, whose average age was only 18 years. They were so poorly equipped that all they had to dig in with were bayonets, bully beef tins and helmets. They were the first to be thrown into the defence of Kokoda and the Owen Stanleys, before better-trained and war-hardened AIF soldiers could be rushed back from the Middle East (at Curtin’s insistence and to Churchill’s chagrin). Even these professional soldiers found it hard going. At Isorava, directly after Kokoda, the Militia had retired to the rear, but determined Japanese attacks on 29 August pushed back even the fresh AIF 2/14th Battalion.


“Chocko” was certainly a derogative term at the time, but perhaps not so much because they were regarded as “chocolate soldiers”, as the authors attest, but, in the PC-speak of the times, because of the single-band chocolate-coloured rough texture puggaree on their slouch hats. The AIF pugaree was made of lighter-colored finer woven multi-layered khaki material.


Wharfies to soldiers

After working the Port Moresby wharves for months, B Company of the 39th Battalion Militia suddenly kitted up and tramped across the Owen Stanleys to be thrown virtually immediately into battle. Despite facing well-trained professional Japanese soldiers skilled in jungle warfare and particularly adept at outflanking strongpoints, these part-time soldiers acquitted themselves well. Finally, the staged withdrawals of the AIF’s 2/14 and 2/16 Battalions of the Seventh Division, achieved one desired effect. Exhaustion, starvation, sickness, low ammunition and long supply lines were now Japanese worries.


As we have seen in more recent times, guided tourist “Track” excursions can have fatal results even for fit adult males with abundant medical precautions and support. In 1942, soldiers not only negotiated this same terrible terrain, but in appalling weather. They moved to a life or death timetable and prepared for life or death firefights every few days. In the Owen Stanleys, the soldiers of both sides could rely only on what they carried on their own shoulders.


By September 1942, many of the Japanese at Ioribaiwa were close to death. Boots, clothing and equipment were rotting. By the time they staggered back to Kokoda, two thirds had a serious thiamine deficiency and related beriberi with impaired strength, restricted mobility, reduced mental capacity and night-blindness. The Gona field hospital had 500 beds but more than 2000 patients. Cannibalism was not uncommon. “Troops were reduced to a primal level, such were the inhuman conditions,” in which Kokoda battles were waged, assert the authors. The diaries, unit records and personal recollections all strongly support this statement.


Army Support

Despite some heroic and effective efforts, poor air/ground cooperation led to a number of errors, ranging from supply drops falling into enemy hands to bombing own troops. Honed and sustained chiefly by the American Marines, the early days of modern Close Support systems can be seen developing from the Kokoda Track experience.  The lessons were there for those who would listen. Unfortunately, many of these lessons had to be painfully re-learned in Korea.


Apt title

The path of infinite sorrow is aptly titled. This ultimately sad tale  is nevertheless very easy to read. Importantly, for the first time, this book describes Kokoda in the words of the Japanese who fought there.


The text is well supported by 16 maps, 41 photographs, a dozen or so pages of footnotes, a comprehensive index and an impressive bibliography.




HMAS SYDNEY – Australia’s Greatest Naval Tragedy

Book review by Kevin Rickard

Frame,T. HMAS Sydney, Australia’s greatest naval tragedy. Hachette Australia: Sydney. 2008. pp. 412 rrp.$34.99.

In the afternoon of 19 November 1941, two large ships sighted one another for the first time off the coast Western Australia. Within an hour, after a ferocious battle, both ships would be mortally wounded; by morning, both had sunk. One of the ships was the RAN Leander-class light cruiser HMAS Sydney, lost with all hands, 645 men. The other was the German auxiliary cruiser, Kormoran; Crippled by Sydney’s gunfire, she was scuttled. Of Kormoran’s 399 crew, 318 survived.

The Australian Prime Minister, Mr. John Curtin, officially announced the loss of HMAS Sydney some nine days after the event on the afternoon of 30 November 1941. It was a major blow to Australian morale and military capability. Her crew represented 30 per cent of the RAN’s war time’s casualties.

Perhaps the most striking and humbling aspect of Bishop Tom Frame’s book, HMAS Sydney, is the list of names of the officers and men lost in the action. To read through this list of names, from CAPT Joseph Burnett to Salvatore Zammitt, the Canteen Manager, brings home the terrible tragedy of the event. VADM Russ Shalders writes “if you only read one book on this tragic event in Australian naval history and want all the facts and theories presented in a balanced way, Tom Frame’s book is for you”.


The Right Rev. Assoc. Professor Tom Frame is an Australian Anglican Bishop, historian, academic, author and social commentator. He is a graduate of the RAN College at HMAS Creswell.

Frame sets the stage superbly for the battle by detailing the history of the two ships before their ill-fated meeting. Sydney had covered herself with glory during operations in the Mediterranean under the command of CAPT John Collins RAN. She served as a key element of the seventh cruiser squadron of ADML Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean fleet. In the battle of Cape Spada CAPT Collins displayed great initiative and tenacity in pursuing the Italian light cruisers Giovanni delle Bande Nere and Bartolomeo Colleoni. Sydney‘s action sank the latter and severely damaged the former. During this time Sydney also provided convoy escorts, attacked Italian land bases, provided anti submarine protection, and carried military equipment for the allied base in Crete. She successfully took part in the battle of Calabria and operated as an integral part of the British fleet. In January 1941 she was ordered home, and arrived in Sydney Cove to a justly-deserved heroes’ welcome and a Freedom-of-Entry March into the city of Sydney in February 1941.

Sydney spent the early months of 1941 on escort and patrol duties in the Indian Ocean. On 15 May 1941 CAPT Collins RAN handed over command to Captain Joseph Burnett, RAN.

Collins, and Burnett were both graduates of the first entry to the Naval College in 1913. Burnett, who had come from Navy Office to take command of Sydney, was regarded as an active and industrious thinker, an accomplished sportsman and athlete. He possessed an attractive personality, an engaging demeanor, was easily liked, and was generous and compassionate.

The characteristics of Joseph Burnett, the gentleman, were in stark contrast to those of his final opponent, Korvetten Kapitan Theodor Detmers. This man by all reports appears to have been a ruthless, scheming, opportunistic Nazi pirate of the high seas.

The Kormoran was a Kriegsmarine merchant raider. Originally the passenger vessel Steiermark, she was the largest merchant raider operated by Germany during World War 11, mounting six 150mm (5.9 inch) guns, plus two 37 mm guns and five 20 mm cannon. She was also equipped with six torpedo tubes, two twin tubes on the upper deck and a single underwater tube on each side.Before encountering  Sydney, she had enjoyed considerable success in both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. She had attacked eight vessels in the Atlantic and three in the Indian Ocean while being at sea for almost a year. Her crew was tough, confident and battle-hardened. In late 1941 her intention was to mine shipping routes off the coast of Western Australia especially near Cape Leeuwin and Fremantle. However, wireless signals alerted her to the presence of HMAS Canberra so she decided to sail north and mine Shark Bay.

Detmers was the youngest man to command a German merchant raider. By the time he engaged Sydney he had sunk some 80,000 tonnes of shipping and had been awarded the Iron Cross First Class. Utterly ambitious, Detmers was determined to achieve the 100,000 tonne target and receive the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He was a ferocious and formidable opponent for the less battle-hardened CAPT Joseph Burnett of the Sydney.

In an attempt to analyse ‘what happened’ in the action between Sydney and Kormoran, Frame tries to piece together evidence based on the interrogation of the German survivors, including Detmers.

According to Detmers the cruiser seemed completely unaware of Kormoran‘s true identity, partly because of deliberate and confusing signal traffic between the two ships. At 1730, with the cruiser “somewhat more than a mile away” Kormoran revealed her identity. Striking the Dutch flag and hoisting the German ensign took six seconds. The raider then slowly turned to 260 degrees to improve her torpedo shot. Kormoran‘s first and second (gun) salvoes fell short but salvoes three, four and five struck the cruiser’s bridge and the director. Kormoran‘s anti-aircraft and starboard 37 mm guns then directed accurate fire into the cruiser’s bridge, her torpedo tube space and Walrus aircraft. It was not until Kormoran‘s fifth salvo that the cruiser returned fire from X turret. Turrets A and B did not fire, and two or three salvoes from Y turret passed over the raider. Kormoran was hit on her funnel and in the engine rooms. Kormoran fired her first pattern of torpedoes at the cruiser after the eighth or ninth salvo. At least one of the torpedoes struck under the cruiser’s forecastle and the bow was almost submerged by the blast. The cruiser then crossed the wake of the raider which was fired upon by the cruiser’s after turrets and a pattern of four torpedoes that passed astern of the raider.

Around 1745 the cruiser was burning fiercely abaft the bridge. She was proceeding south at slow speed and would sink soon after. Detmers ordered “cease fire” at 1825; Kormoran‘s engine room was badly damaged and scuttling action began. The fierce action had lasted less than an hour. The mortal damage to Sydney probably occurred within the first three to four minutes of the engagement. The command team of the Sydney were almost certainly killed by Kormoran’s third to fifth salvoes.

There is speculation within the text as to why Sydney came so close to Kormoran. Perhaps this was a tactic approved by the captain of Sydney in consultation with the command team. Maybe firing on Kormoran was delayed because she could have been transporting allied prisoners of war.

In the latter half of the book Frame carefully analyses and dissects a number of books, controversies and events which occurred in the years following the sinking of Sydney. In the “Post Mortem” chapter an Admiralty instruction on tactics advised “that commanding officers underestimate the offensive power of raiders!” In the chapter “Genesis of Controversy” VADM Sir John Collins wrote “that Sydney was lost because she failed to observe prudent tactics” and “a vessel’s description agreeing with her name is no guarantee that she is not a raider”. Frame also deals rather critically with writings by Jones, Montgomery and Gill. The possible role of a Japanese submarine in the sinking of Sydney is also dismissed on very logical grounds.

Attention is given to the finding of the carley float and its consequent forensic analysis by the Australian War Memorial. There was no absolute proof the float came from Sydney. The body in the carley float (originally buried on Christmas Island) could not be precisely identified but the Commonwealth agrees that the man probably came from from Sydney. The remains were interred in the nearest Commonwealth war cemetery near Geraldton.

A Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) was convened in August 1997 with broad terms of reference. A recommendation was that no one group ‘owned Sydney. The committee said Australia should “move beyond animosity and antagonism” in relation to the Sydney mystery.

The last chapter of the book deals with the finding of the wreck of Sydney by American David Mearns and the search ship SV Geosounder. He used a deep-water towed side-scan sonar for location purposes and later a remotely operated vehicle to photograph and view the wreck. His activities were part funded by the Finding Sydney Foundation and part supported by Commonwealth and some State governments.

The finding of the wreck of Kormoran was announced by the Foundation on 12 March 2008. Just five days later the wreck of Sydney was found in 2468 metres of water. The wreck is now observed as a war grave.

Soon afterwards, the government announced that Terence Cole QC would head a commission of enquiry into the loss of Sydney and report to the Chief of the Defence Force. ACML Houston admitted the enquiry would take some time since twenty three kilometres of documents had to be examined. The enquiry made little sense to Frame. He thought it was pointless. and elected not to make a submission to the enquiry. Instead, he suggested that the wreck should be examined by experts so as to draw some conclusions about the conduct of the engagement.

AB Bill Pitt, crew member of Sydney writing to his mother in Melbourne in 1941, said “I do not think I will be home for my birthday. I am beginning to feel old at 21”. Six weeks later Bill Pitt and every other man on board Sydney was dead.

Frame’s book is a scholarly and comprehensive work on HMAS Sydney from beginning to end. Frame, an objective and thorough historian, writes about a matter which is precious to the RAN and is a subject of emotional feeling in the Australian community. This book is compulsive reading and stands as a fitting memorial to all those 645 officers and men who gave their lives for this Australia.

hmas sydney book cover



A man of intelligence

A man of intelligence

book review by Kevin A. Rickard

Pfennigwerth, I. A man of intelligence: The life of Captain Eric Nave, Australian codebreaker extraordinary. Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd: Dural. 2006.  304pp., 18 pp. of plates, illustrations and maps. $29.95 paperback.

A man of intelligence is the biography of an enterprising and successful Australian Japanese code breaker, CAPT Theodore Eric Nave OBE RN ret. The book is written by CAPT Ian Pfennigwerth RAN ret, a communicator and a previous captain of HMAS Perth and Director of Naval Intelligence.

Lad from Adelaide

The story tells in some detail how a lad from Adelaide with intelligence, ambition, diligent application and considerable good fortune carved his own special niche in the arcane world of codebreaking. It portrays and explores Nave’s entire career, especially during the period between WW I and WW II, when Nave served at sea on the China Station as an RN officer. While posted to the RN cruisers HMS Kent or Hawkins and visits to Hong Kong or Shanghai, Nave was able to intercept signals from the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

Plain language

At first he decrypted those IJN signals emanating from Nanjing, Shanghai and Tianjing that were in plain language, but later because of his skill both at cryptanalysis and the Japanese language he was able to break the IJN codes. He was thus able to decipher numerous important signals from the Japanese fleet.

The above events coincided with the time when the Japanese were brutally invading parts of China. The Naval duplicity of the Japanese at this time in their dealings with the British and the United States was calculated and eventually lethal, especially to the Americans at Pearl Harbor. This was due to the secret build up of the IJN Far East Fleet in contravention of the Washington Naval Treaty.

Through Nave’s special cryptanalysis and language skills much vital information about the Japanese fleet was forwarded to the Admiralty in London from the China Station.

This is an intriguing part of the Nave story. While serving in the Far East Combined Bureau, Nave and British Intelligence had access to high level Japanese information via the powerful British intercept station on Stonecutters Island off Hong Kong. In this context there is reference to a book called Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill lured Roosevelt into World War II, co-authored by James Rushbridger and Eric Nave. Pfennigwerth contends that certain statements by Nave have been mischievously transformed by Rushbridger. Further, the allegations that the British, and by inference Nave, were aware of plans to strike Pearl Harbor are conjecture by Rushbridger.

Japanese language skills

Nave developed an amazing ability to comprehend and speak Japanese. He had been sent by the RAN to Japan to study Japanese in 1921, in part due to his own suggestion. In the city of Hakone near Mt  Fuji he immersed himself in Japanese life for two years. He obtained a deep understanding of the Japanese language, Japanese customs and bushido. He occasionally reported to the British Embassy in Tokyo where he readily passed examinations in Japanese and liaised with British Naval officers and civil servants who were later to become valuable and influential friends when he was in Britain.

After several years on the China Station with the RN, he contracted tropical sprue, a debilitating malabsorption state that necessitated his return to Australia in the early ’40s. But he had much more to offer. Initially this was with Frumel, the Fleet radio unit in Melbourne. Here he clashed with a difficult USN officer. That officer’s and the American mindset at the time, was actually typified in a statement attributed to General MacArthur in a discussion with Prime Minister Curtin that “the US building up forces in the Commonwealth is not so much from an interest in Australia but rather from its utility as a base from which to hit Japan”.

Nave worked with the Australian Army in Central Bureau in Brisbane from 1942-45, essentially operating as a member of MacArthur’s staff. He was then involved with the first Signals Intelligence Bureau and the development of the Defence Signals Organisation in Melbourne.

After finally leaving the RN in which his commission had been gazetted in London in 1930, 13 years after joining the RAN, Nave was involved in the very beginnings of ASIO. Nave was Head of Section C, responsible for the policies and standards of ASIO’s personal vetting. Accordingly, he had much to do with the security of both the first Royal Tour of Australia in 1954 and the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He also became peripherally involved in the infamous Petrov affair during the Menzies era.

42 years service

After 42 years of Government service, Nave retired in 1959. But he still had much to offer. He went on to become the National President of the Naval Association. Here he was influential in the concept of Navy Week and Navy Day on October 4, the anniversary of the entry of the First Australian Fleet into Sydney Harbour in 1913.

So the book follows the career of an intelligent young man who joined the RAN in 1917 as a Midshipman Paymaster. The RAN almost missed him. He was initially informed that he had failed the RAN entrance exam in history, his strongest subject. But, after the timely intervention of an Australian Senator, at the request of Nave’s father, Nave was told the following day, he had passed the examination for entry to the RAN with access to a permanent commission.

The manuscript is rather technical in parts, regarding cryptography and signals. However this is all swept up within the background of the fascinating historical events of the ’30s and ’40s in South-East Asia and Australia’s war with Japan. All these events had great relevance to the subsequent destiny of Australia.


Jutland, 1916

Jutland book cover

Jutland 1916

 Book review by Fred Lane
Steel, N. and P. Hart. Jutland 1916: Death in the grey wastes. Cassell: London, 2003. 439pp. Photographs and Maps. Paperback $19.75.

The biggest naval battle since Trafalgar in 1805 was the 1916 Battle of Jutland. Fought during 31 May and the early hours of 1 June, between no less than 250 warships, it pitted two brilliant admirals against each other: ADML Sir John Jellicoe and VADM Reinhard Scheer.

The latter’s fast scouting group of five battlecruisers under VADM Franz Hipper crucially outperformed Jellicoe’s equivalent, four Queen Elizabeth class battlecruisers under VADM Sir David Beatty. In one sense it was fortunate that the British could read German navy cyphers but the failure of a small number of critical communications from the Admiralty to Jellicoe in the strategic sense, and from Beatty to Jellicoe in the tactical sense, led to a less than satisfactory British outcome.

The Kaiserliche Marine entered WW I with fewer heavy units than the RN, but they hoped to lure small elements of the Grand Fleet into traps that would in time lead to numerical equivalency.

The build-up and battle are eloquently described by Steel and Hart. Sheer’s near major success is attributed, in part, to operational and tactical shorcomings in the British fleet, especially with Beatty’s Fifth Battlecruiser Squadron.

Ample warnings of gunnery, communications and armour deficiencies were demonstrated at the Battle of Dogger Bank in January 1915. These warnings, however, were chiefly ignored. Both the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine planned North Sea sweeps around May and June 1916. This was known to the Admiralty, but they delayed passing this important enemy intelligence to Jellicoe.

At Jutland, Beatty was correctly deployed ahead of Jellicoe’s main fleet when he ran into Hipper’s ships. The enemy smartly and correctly retreated towards their main body, enticing Beatty to follow. This, plus a Beatty-ordered “turn in succession” instead of a “turn together” contributed to the loss of two RN battlecruisers. His own ship, HMS Lion, was only saved by the heroic action of a mortally wounded turret officer who flooded his magazine. Then, Beatty’s signals, such as “Enemy bearing SE” were of little help to Jellicoe when he had no idea of Beatty’s whereabouts.

Superior fleet handling

Finally, the German ships were generally handled in a superior manner. Scheer’s brilliant “Turn about together” manoeuvre, when his T was crossed, had never been used in war before, but it saved the German fleet from a severe mauling. The British lost 14 ships and 6094 men at Jutland. The German losses were 11 ships and 2551 men. Both sides reported heavy damage to many units.

Victory was claimed by both sides. In fact, although they might well claim a tactical victory on the simple grounds of ships and men lost, the Kaiserliche Marine never again challenged the Royal Navy in a fleet action. Therefore the RN had very good grounds to claim a strategic victory.

Hard Jacka

Hard Jacka

Hard Jacka cover

 Book review by Kevin Rickard

Lawriwsky, M. Hard Jacka: The story of a Gallipoli legend. Mira Books: Chatswood, 2007. 421 pp. 16 pp of plates, illustrations, maps.

General Peter Cosgrove, in his introduction to Michael Lawriwsky’s book, Hard Jacka, mentions that in the Australian Army’s pantheon of men there is none more inspirational, none more courageous than Captain Albert Jacka, VC, MC and Bar. In this sensitively crafted story of Jacka and his mates as well as the “heads”, we learn much, not only about the incredible bravery of Jacka and his many battle skills, but also of his clashes with authority.

The latter was at first with Lt Col Dare, the battalion commander who would not recommend Sgt Major Jacka for officer training, and later, clashes of Captain Jacka with Brigadier Charles Brand about tactical matters during fighting on the Somme. There is no doubt about the bravery of Jacka, but the details of these disputes provide insight into the character, fortitude and ambition of the man.

The fictionalised words attributed to Jacka and his contemporaries by Lawriwsky come from much meticulous research by the author, whilst their context and reality bring Jacka and his friends to life in the mind of the reader.

L/Cpl Jacka won his Victoria Cross at Courtney’s Post, Gallipoli, on 19 May 1915, in the darkness of those fatal trench systems in hand-to-hand fighting with the Turks. Jacka was assisted in his extraordinary exploits by Privates Poliness and De Araugo and Lt Crabbe. This VC was presented to Jacka by the then Prince of Wales during a luncheon at Buckingham Palace in 1916 with five other Australian recipients.


Many thought Lt Jacka’s extraordinary heroism on the ridge at Poziers in the Somme deserved a bar to his VC. His deeds there appear to have been understated by Dare and an MC was the result. At Poziers Jacka, leading the fifth platoon of the fourteenth battalion, withstood a ferocious German bombardment and, although seriously wounded, led a bayonet charge to capture the position. His brother, Bill Jacka thought he would not survive his wounds but he did so, at the Third London General Hospital, once more to return to the battles at the Somme.

At Bullecourt he won a bar to his MC, which was presented to him in the field by Sir William Birdwood in May 1917. At Polygon Wood in 1917 Capt. Jacka took effective command of the fourteenth battalion in the field, perhaps deserving another VC, but his role in that victory was unrewarded.

In between reading about the legendary and heroic deeds of Albert Jacka and also of his special attribute for the assessment of the enemy in conflict, we read also about the feelings, fears and reactions of many of Jacka’s friends, some of whom were to be tragically and heroically killed in the mindless slaughter. We read about such men as Capt. Ted Rule, Capt. ‘Lofty’ Williamson, Sgt ‘Curly’ Croft, Padre Andrew Gillison, Maj. Percy Black and Capt. Harry Murray. The story of his proven friend, Lt Harold Wanliss, of whom much was expected politically, carries much pathos. He fell in love and was betrothed to Jean Campbell while on leave in Scotland. Wanliss was later killed in action before he could wed Jean.

Mayor of St Kilda

Jacka survived the war, returned to Victoria, entered local politics and became the Mayor of St Kilda. He died in January 1932 at the Caulfield Military Hospital at the early age of 39 from complications of his many war wounds. “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old; we will remember them.”

Hard Jacka is an extraordinary account of a great Australian hero, well written and a great, but sad, pleasure to read.