Eric Nave, Codebreaker

Eric Nave: RAN code breaker

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.

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).

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.

Secret build up

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

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.