Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 35 

The empire is listening:  naval signals intelligence in the Far East to 1942

Author:  Jozef Straczek

{1} Of all the various forms of intelligence gathering, signals intelligence1 and cryptanalysis are the forms which have created the most interest among modern historians. The reason for this is not just because of the secretive nature of these functions, but also because of the contribution (and in some cases lack of contribution) made by signals intelligence during the Second World War. The role played by ULTRA intelligence in the European theatre of operations and the Middle East is well documented. The penetration, by the United States, of Japanese diplomatic, naval and military codes in the Pacific theatre is also well known. Much less, however, has been heard about the role played in signals intelligence (or sigint as it is known) by the Royal Navy and British Dominions in the Far East, both before and during the war.

{2} One of the reasons for this situation can clearly be seen in the manner in which sigint is dealt with in the Official History of British Intelligence in the Second World War. Professor Hinsley effectively writes off the coverage of British activities in this field in his introduction, by stating that he has "not attempted to cover the war in the Far East; when this was so much the concern of the United States".2 Such a dismissal of wartime operations would hardly act as an attraction to cover the more mundane peace-time operations and developments. In addition to this, the magnitude and success of the United States Navy operations, controlled from OP-20-G in Washington, has also tended to overshadow that of the Royal Navy. The size and effort that the RN put into signals intelligence in the Far East during the Second World War however, belies the treatment of it by Hinsley and others.

{3} Much of this effort had its foundations in the 1920s and 30s, when an Empire-wide sigint organisation was put in place in an attempt to monitor the transmissions and actions of the Imperial Japanese Navy. After the First World War, work on naval codes and ciphers by the RN virtually halted.3 The reason for this was the lack of a suitable naval target and the fact that the newly-established Government Code and Cypher School was concentrating on diplomatic intelligence. However, this decision was reversed in 1924, when a Naval Section was added to the GC&CS and naval interception stations were established to complement the existing direction-finding (DF) capability. The development of this signals intelligence network, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, is one of the lesser known aspects of Britain’s imperial naval history and co-operation.

Establishing the network

{4} Following the First World War, the British services built up a number of intelligence networks in the Far East. The Royal Navy, in particular, was very active in the region as, due to the lack of a European naval threat, it saw its raison d'être as being Imperial defence. Following Japan’s abrogation of the Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance, the Imperial Japanese Navy was also seen as the RN’s most likely enemy. This was a view reinforced, in many eyes, by increasing Anglo-Japanese political and economic competition in the region. Commencing in the early 1920s, the RN – assisted by the Pacific Dominions – began a silent war against the Imperial Japanese Navy. The scale of effort associated with this conflict is only now starting to become apparent.4

{5} In March 1921, at the Penang Naval Conference attended by naval commanders from the China, East Indies and Australia Stations, a number of recommendations were made concerning the establishment of additional DF stations. The conference proposed that two groups of stations be established: the first at Seletar (Singapore), Kuching (Malaya) and North Borneo; the second at Nauru, Rabual (New Britain) and in New Guinea. In addition to these, ships used for trade protection were also to be fitted for DF work, and a number of other portable units provided.5 The intention was that this extensive network would form part of the Pacific Naval Intelligence Organisation, to be established at the Singapore Naval Base when this facility was operational. At the time of the Penang conference there existed in Australia, New Zealand or Canada neither specialist signals intelligence facilities nor the trained people to operate them.

{6} With the re-commencement of naval cryptographic work in 1924,6 a dedicated Naval Section was attached to the GC&CS. The raw data for this section was obtained from the Royal Navy's intercept station at Flowerdown, Hampshire, England. This station was to prove inadequate for the task, especially with regards to intercepting Far Eastern traffic, and a system of using RN ships on foreign naval stations was put in place. This new method was given the designation "Procedure Y". As part of these changes a small naval cryptographic unit was established and attached to HMS Hawkins, flagship of the China Station. During the second half of 1925 it was planned to fit HMS Titania, the depot ship in Hong Kong, with a dictaphone for intercept work. To assist in the provision of raw material for the Hong Kong cryptographic unit, a specialised intercept station was established on Stonecutter's Island in Hong Kong, with a second station subsequently set up at Singapore. At the request of the Admiralty, the Canadians built an intercept and DF station at Esquimalt on Vancouver Island.7 The raw data from this station was dispatched to Hong Kong via mail steamer, and so took too long to arrive to be of any immediate operational value (though the Canadian material was useful in determining Japanese organisational structure and procedures, and the structure of the Japanese codes).

{7} With the commencement of work against Japanese naval codes, a number of problems became apparent. First of these was that the Royal Navy lacked sufficient numbers of Japanese linguists. The second was the training of naval telegraphists to read the Japanese morse. The problem of personnel was one which plagued not just the British effort, but the efforts of all those involved in this work.

The RAN contribution through the 1920s

{8} In the opening weeks of the First World War the RAN captured a number of German merchant ships. On board these ships were a number of commercial-type codebooks and other secret papers. The capture of these codebooks alerted naval authorities to the potential for capturing more important naval codes. To this end, when the German merchant vessel Hobart contacted Albany coastal radio station and appeared to be in ignorance of the outbreak of war, plans were put in place to capture any codebooks she may be carrying. As the ship steamed towards Melbourne the southern coastal radio stations jammed her radio so she was unable to receive any messages, even though this meant that other coastal radio stations could no longer continue to intercept W/T (wireless telegraphy) messages between other German vessels.

{9} On the Hobart's arrival in Melbourne a naval boarding party went on board and eventually managed to obtain a copy of the Handelsverkkehrsbuch (HVD) code. The Admiralty was initially advised of the capture of this code on 12 August 1914.8 A second copy had apparently been captured in Fremantle. On 7 September the Admiralty was provided with further details of the code and its key and informed that intercepted messages transmitted in this code were being broken in Australia. They subsequently forwarded a number of messages for decryption to Australia. The decryption work in Australia was done by Dr F. W. Wheatley, an instructor at the Royal Australian Naval College.9 As well as decrypting messages in the HVB code, the RAN was monitoring the movements of German ships by the use of Australia's coastal wireless service. With the departure of German ships from the Pacific and the defeat of Admiral von Spee, the RAN's first involvement with signals intelligence ended, and would not recommence until 1921.

Wheatley Group Shot
Dr F.W. Wheatley, seated third from left, with staff of the RAN College, 1925. RANC Historical Collection

{10} In February 1921 Paymaster Lieutenant T. E. Nave, RAN, was sent to Japan for language training. The potential usefulness of foreign languages had long been recognised by the Australian service: a 1912 Navy Order required all Commanding Officers to report annually ratings who possessed a knowledge of foreign languages.10 During the Penang Conference in March 1921, the Australian delegation was given a copy of the Japanese Telegraph Code for Naval Vessels. This code was subsequently reproduced and distributed to the ships of the Australian Fleet with instructions that telegraphists were to be exercised in the code once a week.11 In addition to this, telegraphists under instruction at the Signal School at HMAS Cerberus, the RAN’s main shore establishment at Westernport in Victoria, were also to be trained in the reception of Japanese morse. In an attempt to provide a degree of security to the code and its possesion by the RAN, it was originally intended to be described in official communications as the "Asiatic Telegraphic Code". This description was subsequently changed to the even more innocuous description of the "B telegraphic code".

{11} Following representations from the Fleet Commander, and as a consequence of guidance from the Admiralty, the training of telegraphists in the Japanese code was reduced to an ad hoc arrangement. One result of this decision was that when a qualified rating was required, in October 1924 to assist Nave in his work, none could be found. Steps had to be taken to subsequently train one.

{12} Notwithstanding Admiralty instructions to limit Procedure Y activities, the Secretary to the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board (ACNB) informed the Australian Naval Representative in London in 1924 that the RAN would be acquiring automatic W/T recorders which would aid in the copying of Japanese traffic. He also pointed out certain inconsistencies with the copy of the Japanese code held and requested advice from the Admiralty. A revised copy of the code was forwarded to Australia, as was a request to forward any intercepted messages to the Admiralty.12 Prior to being despatched to London, all intercepted Japanese messages were forwarded to Lieutenant Nave for examination. By this stage Mr R. A. Ball, a civilian employee of the Department of the Navy, was in Japan for language study; some time later a second naval officer, Paymaster Lieutenant W. E. McLaughlin, was also sent.13

{13} Nave was loaned to the RN and posted to HMS Hawkins14 in July 1925. He wrote to Australian authorities in September 1925 informing them of his functions and of his relocation to HMS Titania. By this stage W/T Red Forms had been received from the Admiralty and in November 1925 a group of completed forms were dispatched to the Director of Naval Intelligence in London. These reports crossed correspondence from the Admiralty informing the ACNB that "the results of experience of the China Squadron be awaited before any action is taken to arrange for the co-operation of the Royal Australian Navy".15 Yet again an attempt by the RAN to commence signals interception resulted in a false start. The Admiralty was informed on the 22 January 1926 that the RAN had ceased the interception of Japanese W/T.

{14} In April 1926 the Admiralty instructed the Commander-in-Chief China Station to provide a report detailing information which may be of assistance to the ACNB in conducting sigint operations. By the second half of 1926 the Naval Board was receiving copies of various instructions and directives concerning signals intelligence operations from the Commander-in-Chief China Station. Following receipt of these memos and a report on Japanese communications by Nave, it was proposed that the RAN recommence Y work concentrating on intercepting messages from the Japanese Mandated Territory. This proposal was given greater weight when the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff proposed using the sloop HMAS Mallow, fitted out with radio equipment, to eavesdrop on the Japanese in the Mandated Territory. After further investigations it was decided to use the steam yacht Franklin for the task. Franklin had once belonged to the RAN but was currently in the service of the Administrator of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. As such, her presence in waters close to the Japanese Mandated Territories would not draw any attention to itself.

{15} The operation commenced on 22 April and was concluded on 30 June 1927. Not all of this time was spent on Franklin, as the vessel remained in port during the final stages of the operation. Information obtained during the course of the operation included Japanese W/T procedures, secret callsigns and technical details of W/T stations. A total of 97 recordings were made of the Japanese transmissions for later investigation. The report of this operation was forwarded, along with the recordings, in the custody of Nave, to the Director of Naval Intelligence in London in November 1927. After examination, most of the messages were identified as either commercial or practice messages. On the basis of this discovery, the Admiralty advised the Naval Board that it did not consider it worth the RAN attempting any cryptographic work as sufficient information was being obtained from units on the China Station. However, the work of identifying W/T stations and their procedures was considered of value, and the area where the RAN could make a contribution.16 Whether it was the Admiralty' s intention to stop the development of an independent Australian cryptographic capability is not known, but this was the result of such correspondence. The RAN maintained only a small cadre of Y-trained telegraphists and no special facilities were constructed during the 1920s. By the Admiralty's own actions, the Royal Navy's future ability to obtain details of Japanese naval traffic in the region had been greatly reduced.

{16} While the Minister for Defence had been briefed on the original proposals of the Penang Conference, there appears to be no evidence to suggest that he or anybody else in the government of the day were aware of the interception operations being initiated by the RAN and the degree to which the Admiralty was involved. Correspondence on this issue was dispatched on a Navy-to-Navy basis and there was not, at this stage, a significant requirement for expenditure on facilities which would attract government attention.

Canadian co-operation

{17} At about the same time that Australia was being advised by the Admiralty to hold off on initiating any further action on "Procedure Y", the Admiralty requested that the Royal Canadian Navy establish an intercept and HF (high frequency) DF station at Esquimalt.17 The purpose of this station was to assist in the monitoring of Japanese traffic. The station was controlled by the Admiralty and instructions were issued to it via the Canadian Director of Naval Intelligence. The personnel who manned the station were trained by the Royal Navy at either Stonecutter’s Island or Singapore. The Canadians did not attempt any evaluation of the raw data from the station.

Establishment of the Far East Combined Bureau

{18} In November 1934, following a review of intelligence arrangements in the Far East, the Co-ordination of W/T Interception Committee in the United Kingdom agreed to the establishment of a combined intelligence and cryptographic organisation in the Far East by the amalgamation of existing single service intelligence bodies. The objective of this new organisation was to better co-ordinate the collection and evaluation of intelligence in the region. After much deliberation as to where to locate this new organisation, it was decided to co-locate it with the existing cryptographic unit operating at the Royal Navy dockyard in Hong Kong. Though established in Hong Kong this was not necessarily the permanent home of the organisation, as the naval base at Singapore was always intended to have, as one of its roles, a higher command function in wartime. The new organisation, known as the Far East Combined Bureau (FECB), commenced operations in April 1935. Though described as a combined organisation much of the cryptographic work done by the FECB was naval in nature, almost to the exclusion of the other two services as neither the Army nor the RAF had the required facilities.

{19} The new organisation was headed by a Royal Navy captain designated Chief of Intelligence Staff (COIS). He also served the Head of the Naval Section, which included the Far East Direction-Finding Organisation (FEDO) whose primary targets were German, Japanese, Russian and Italian naval units. The FEDO and the Admiralty's Reporting Officer organisation enabled the FECB to maintain an extensive plot detailing the movements of Japanese naval and merchant ships as well as other shipping of naval interest. There was also an Army and Air Force Intelligence Section. Each Section communicated directly with their parent intelligence organisation in London. The interception and analysis section of FECB, designated "W" Section, also communicated with the GC&CS in England. The main naval signals intelligence targets of the FECB were Japan and Russia.18

{20} The work of the FEDO and the intercept stations was controlled by the Y Sub-Committee, of the Co-ordination of W/T Interception Committee. The intercept program of the services was approved by this committee and determined in part by the needs of the "cryptographers and half by the needs of traffic analysts".19

{21} The duties assigned to the FECB were described as being to "collect all intelligence from all principal Authorities in the Indian-Pacific Oceans".20 The collection of intelligence was done by each of the individual services through their own organisations. The service sections would then select the information that they saw as being important and this would then be pooled for collation and distribution. Distribution of the intelligence would be in either the form of a statement of fact or an appreciation. Each service section would distribute the intelligence to its respective command. In the case of Navy, the principal recipients were the Admiralty, the Commander-in-Chief China and the Commander-In-Chief East Indies. If a combined appreciation was compiled then this would be distributed to the three services as a whole. Any differences of opinion which occurred in the compilation of this combined appreciation would be noted. Their aim was to build up a picture of the Japanese Order of Battle and provide advance warning of the possible outbreak of hostilities with Japan.21 After the FECB had re-located to Singapore, a Far Eastern Security Section was added to the organisation. The function of this Section was to monitor and counter subversive activities by the Japanese and Asian nationalist movements.

{22} As a consequence of the efforts applied by the FECB and GC&CS, the main Japanese military and naval ciphers had been broken by 1935.22 This meant that naval work could be redistributed so that by 1937 the Japanese naval codes and ciphers were being worked on exclusively by the FECB. The Naval Section at the GC&CS was working on other naval ciphers. However, as a consequence of changes to the Japanese cipher systems in 1938 and 1939, which rendered them unreadable, it became necessary to employ Army cryptographers at GC&CS on Japanese naval ciphers. These new systems began to yield to the cryptographic assault by September 1939. The first to do so was the Japanese Fleet code.23 In October 1940 Commander J. B. Newman, the officer in charge of the RAN’s shore wireless stations and Director of Naval Signals and Communications at Navy Office in Melbourne, visited the FECB. He subsequently reported that the W Section had "been virtually the sole source of intelligence since October, 1940, when the Japanese codes and ciphers were last changed".24 Unfortunately no information is provided as to exactly which codes these were. Newman went on to state that the degree of success being achieved had improved and that "Consular, Diplomatic, four figure naval and Merchant Ship broadcast codes and ciphers have now been made available from friendly sources".25

Commander Jack Newman, Director of Naval Signals and Communications (centre).
Commander Jack Newman, Director of Naval Signals and Communications (centre).  C380012

{23} The ability of the naval HF/DF stations at Stonecutter’s, Kranji and Bombay Fort (India) was tested in early 1939 when a tracking exercise was held using the cruiser HMS Kent as the target. These stations tracked Kent on her voyage from Hong Kong through to Sandakan in Borneo. The results achieved were mixed, with Kent at one time being fixed well to the west of Siagon! At other times reasonable positions were obtained. The exercise clearly demonstrated the need for additional HF/DF stations in the region.

{24} By 1940 the FEDO consisted of eight operational HF/DF stations with a further seven stations under construction, or planned.26 Intercept stations were located at Stonecutter’s and Kranji. These stations were complemented by those constructed and operated by Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Australia establishes a Sigint capability

{25} Though the importance of signals intelligence was recognised by the RAN, no real progress was made throughout the 1920s in establishing a sigint capability. Contradictory guidance from the Admiralty, and lack of facilities, funds and manpower, all contributed to delaying and hindering any independent role. This situation began to change as the thirties progressed.

{26} In May 1936 the Naval Board informed the Admiralty of their broad plans for the development of an RAN sigint capability.27 Included in the letter were the details of arrangements made by the RAN to cover Mandated Territory traffic, utilising the services of an ex-RAN telegraphist who was still an active member of the RANVR and employed as the radio operator on Nauru Island. This operation continued until 1939 when a new Administrator, who was not a naval reserve officer, was appointed.

{27} Construction of the HF/DF stations proposed at the Penang Conference in 1921 was also forecast, though not in the locations originally proposed. No station was built in New Guinea as the area was deemed to be too exposed. A station was erected at Darwin instead. A station initially proposed for Rottnest Island in Western Australia was subsequently located at Jandakot, near Fremantle, and a third station originally intended for Sydney was built at Canberra. As well as the HF/DF stations, two intercept stations were built for the Navy, one at Darwin and the other in Canberra. In 1938 the Shore Wireless Service was established to man the Navy's HF/DF network. The RAN stations formed part of the RN's FEDO.

RAN Wireless Station at Molonglo, Canberra, in 1945.
RAN Wireless Station at Molonglo, Canberra, in 1945.  C272909

WRANS operators in the Wireless Telegraphy Room at HMAS Harman, near Canberra, c.1941.
WRANS operators in the Wireless Telegraphy Room at HMAS Harman, near Canberra, c.1941.  C51989

{28} Coupled with the development of facilities, recruiting and training of operators for the HF/DF stations also commenced in both Australia and New Zealand, though it was not until late 1939 that the prospect of creating an independent cryptanalysis organisation was investigated. Paymaster Commander Nave, who had returned to Australia for medical reasons, assisted in the establishment of a small cryptographic organisation known as the Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB) within Navy Office. In April 1940 the Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, wrote to the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs seeking guidance,28 although not everybody saw the need to seek British views and approval on the subject of an independent cryptanalysis organisation.29 The British response, which was dispatched in October 1940, was not supportive "for the present"30 of the idea of a large-scale Australian-based organisation. It did however, propose a number of actions, such as training of selected personnel in London and continuation of existing co-operative programmes. The main concern appears to have been to prevent a duplication of effort, though this could also be interpreted as an attempt to prevent Australia from conducting an independent analysis of the same information being obtained by Britain.

{29} In January 1941 Captain F. J. Wylie, RN, the COIS at Singapore, visited Australia for discussions on intelligence and sigint matters. In the course of these discussions he advised that, with respect to Japanese naval traffic, the FECB receivers at Kranji could not read the traffic of the Combined Fleet by day. Some assistance in this was being provided by Stonecutter’s and Esquimalt. Kranji also could not read the day traffic originating in the Mandated Territory. Coverage of these areas by Australia was requested. Of lesser importance, but still requested, was assistance in covering Japanese consular and commercial (HF and MF) traffic, and South China traffic.

{30} The FECB was also interested in Russian naval and general traffic as the reception of these transmissions at Kranji was also poor.31 This traffic had been previously monitored by Stonecutter’s and Auckland32 but both stations had been switched to copying the Japanese five-figure code. The Russian material was required mainly for traffic analysis purposes.

{31} In light of these requests, an arrangement was reached with the Australian naval authorities whereby the Royal Navy would intercept Japanese communications covering "Japanese and Asiatic waters; and of the Combined Fleet, 1st Fleet, 2nd Fleet and their associated units in any waters".33 Australia would provide intelligence, to the best of her abilities, on "Japanese Naval activities in the Mandated Territory, and of the 4th Fleet".34

{32} By the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, the RAN had in place a HF/DF and intercept organisation supported by a small cryptographic bureau. This nucleus organisation would prove to be invaluable in the coming years.

New Zealand

{33} As part of the British Empire chain, New Zealand also had an important role to play in the collection of raw material for the FECB during the pre-war years. In particular, the New Zealanders had been monitoring Russian naval traffic for the FECB. By 1941 they were also working on copying the Japanese five-figure operational code for the FECB. From small beginnings, the New Zealand naval sigint capacity would develop so that it possessed a chain of HF/DF stations located at Awaru, Musick Point (Auckland), Waipapakauri and Suva (Fiji).35 These stations had direct communications with each other so as to obtain simultaneous bearings.

{34} Radio intercept stations were ultimately to be established at Awarua, Wairouro, Suva and Nairnville (Wellington). Any transmissions intercepted by these stations were forwarded to Navy Office in Wellington for on-forwarding. Another station had also been established at Blenheim, commencing August 1942. This station, designated as Naval W/T Station Rapaura, carried out Radio Finger Printing functions.36

Co-operation with the United States, Russia and Netherlands East Indies

{35} In 1937 the United States Navy and RN agreed to exchange technical information on the Imperial Japanese Navy. Information based on signals intelligence was not covered as part of this exchange. With the outbreak of war and the development of closer co-operation in a number of sensitive areas, the question of broad scale intelligence co-operation, including cryptography, emerged.

{36} Available records indicate that the first steps towards co-operation were initiated by Brigadier-General George Strong of the US Army on 31 August 1940.37 Following this offer, relatively slow progress was made. The next tentative step appears to have been a meeting in London on 23 October 1940, between Admiral Robert L. Ghormley, USN, Admiral J. H. Godfrey (the RN’s DNI) and Brigadier Sir Stewart Menzies (who administered GC&CS). Those present agreed to hold discussion in Washington in an attempt to broker an agreement. This agreement was eventually completed in December 1940.38

{37} During the course of the US-British Staff Conversations (ABC-1) the issue of intelligence co-operation was raised and it was agreed that there would be a "full and prompt exchange of pertinent information",39 and that "intelligence liaison will be established not only through the Military Missions but also between all echelons in the field".40 Though signals intelligence, and in particular cryptographic co-operation, was not specifically mentioned in the context of intelligence co-operation, it appears to have been included as part of the spirit of the agreement. This is borne out by the inclusion of HF/DF as part of the communications annex to the report. This annex stated that both the USN and RN would exchange information essential for the intercommunication between them. Included in this information was "data as to locations and organisation of strategic D/F stations".41 Furthermore plans were to have been drawn up for the joint operation of USN and RN strategic DF stations.42 The degree to which real co-operation emerged from these discussions is not known, especially as the Communications Annex was caveated as being "tentatively accepted subject to technical examination by the British Chiefs of Staff".43

{38} On 6 June 1941 the British Joint Intelligence Committee revealed the extent of Anglo-American intelligence co-operation in the Pacific, when American liaison officers were attached to the FECB. By this stage the FECB had been instructed that there should be a full exchange of intelligence with the Americans, including signals intelligence. As a consequence of this co-operation, a copy of the Japanese Merchant Ships Naval Liaison was received by the Australian Special Intelligence Bureau, more then likely forwarded from the FECB, in June 1941. This was possibly the type of material referred to by Commander Newman when he wrote that "Consular, Diplomatic, four-figure Naval and Merchant Ship broadcast codes and ciphers have now been made available [to the FECB] from friendly sources".44

{39} The German invasion of Russia provided Britain with a new, though unlikely, ally in the region: the Soviet Union. Having already fought two battles with the Japanese, the Russians were very interested in Japanese plans and capabilities even though their main attention was focused on the German onslaught. After the German attack, Britain began to supply intelligence, including signals intelligence, to the Russians. In return they expected to receive intelligence and other information. Negotiations with the Russians on formal exchanges were difficult, to say the least, and no formal arrangements were entered into along the lines of exchanges with the United States. The British, especially Admiral Godfrey, were pressing the Russians to allow them to establish a liaison office in Vladivostok.45 Had permission been granted, there is every likelihood that they would have attempted to establish an intercept facility along the lines of the one in Polyarno. The Russians however, refused. One of their concerns was the possible Japanese reaction.

{40} This did not mean though that the Russians did not exchange intelligence with Britain on Japan. In July, the Russians informed the British that the Kwantung Army was being placed on a war footing. This was followed by a series of meetings on Japanese order-of-battle topics. The information supplied to the British Army was especially of value due to the paucity of real intelligence they held on the Japanese Army. In the area of codes, the Russians informed the British that the Germans had supplied the Japanese with keys to a British code that they had broken. On 30 December 1941, the Russians provided the British with complete details of the Japanese naval communications network, as at October 1941, and informed them that all warship callsigns had been changed.46 While the exchange of intelligence between Russia and Britain did not reach the same levels as that with the United States, the Russians did provide information which was of value to the British and added to their own efforts in the region.

{41} The third main area of international signals intelligence co-operation in the region was with the Netherlands East Indies. Some details as to the extent of this co-operation are provided by documents relating to Captain Wylie' s visit to Australia in early 1941. While en route from Singapore on 28 December 1940, Wylie' s aircraft made a stopover at Tanjong Priok where he was met by Commander Burrows, the RN Liaison Officer. Burrows boarded the aircraft and received a verbal message from Wylie concerning "Y" co-operation.47 Unfortunately, the exact nature of this message is not revealed. In the course of his discussions with senior RAN officers, Wylie stated that there was an interchange of intelligence between the FECB and the Dutch but that no real intelligence was being provided. The surviving records indicate that during the course of these discussions there was no specific mention of Anglo-Dutch signals intelligence co-operation.

{42} In February 1941, Commander Newman attended a tri-national Combined Services Communications Conference in Singapore. While the report of the conference48 makes no mention of signals intelligence co-operation, a separate report submitted by Newman does. Newman stated that arrangements were in place with the Dutch to exchange diplomatic and consular intercepts for Mandated Island naval traffic. In addition to this exchange of information, the Dutch were also requested to co-operate with Australia in the interception of naval traffic from the Mandated Territory. The proposal was for the ACNB and Dutch authorities to co-ordinate their interception of Japanese naval traffic in the Mandated Territory so as to eliminate any duplication of effort.49

{43} Clearly, by mid-1941, the FECB were not only co-operating with the United States and Dutch signals intelligence organisations in the region by exchanging material but were also, in the case of the Dutch, either conducting or planning to conduct, operations with a degree of co-ordination previously not suspected.

Dissolution of the FECB

{44} Though originally established in Hong Kong, the final wartime home of any Far East based cryptographic organisation was always going to be Singapore. Singapore was not only a naval base but also intended to be the command centre for British military operations in the region. In August 1939, with the deteriorating military and political situation in the Far East, the FECB was relocated to Singapore. The intercept station on Stonecutter’s Island still remained operational, providing raw data to Singapore. The safety of Singapore was, however, to prove illusory, and after the fall of Hong Kong the decision was made to relocate again. Barely three weeks after the outbreak of war in the Far East, the first steps were being taken for the evacuation of Singapore.

{45} On 5 January 1942 the Naval Section of FECB, their equipment and records, were evacuated to Ceylon on board the transport Devonshire. In the course of the evacuation, records and equipment – including a purple machine supposedly held by FECB – were destroyed.50 The loss of Singapore and the intercept and DF stations necessitated re-arrangement of the RN's sigint organisation. The main base for the reconstituted signals intelligence organisation was to be HMS Anderson on the outskirts of Colombo, where about half the former FECB naval staff were located. Intelligence reports from Anderson were originated under the signal address of Captain on Staff, Colombo. The remainder of the staff were sent to Kilindini, Mombasa, to form HMS Alidina, and originated signals as Captain on Staff, Kilindini. This new naval signals intelligence organisation served the Commander-in-Chief Far East Fleet and no longer had the veneer of being a joint service organisation. Military and Air intelligence needs would be met by a second organisation established in India. To all intents and purposes, the FECB ceased to exist from the time the Naval Section was evacuated from Singapore.


{46} The establishment of the Imperial signals intelligence network in the Far East highlighted the benefits and pitfalls of Imperial association. The Royal Navy benefited from the resources being applied to this organisation by the Dominion navies. These navies provided facilities, trained personnel and raw information for use by the RN. The facilities and personnel provided by the Dominions absorbed scarce funds which they may have prefered to utilise to satisfy other requirements. The geographical dispersion of the Dominion facilities provided the RN with a degree of coverage and security that it may not have otherwise had.

{47} The downside of this Imperial co-operation for the Dominions was that often their own requirements became secondary considerations in the overall British scheme. The Admiralty, and British authorities generally, were not enthused at the prospect of Dominions developing independent analysis capabilities and thus drawing divergent conclusions from the collected intelligence. Their preference was to retain such capabilities solely under their direct control. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the Imperial connection was to prove beneficial to all parties during the course of the war.

{48} As well as these issues, other aspects relating to the development of the Royal Navy's signals intelligence capability in the Far East and its achievements need highlighting. These are: how successful was this organisation; and why has it been treated the way it has by historians?

{49} The answer to the first question is that the FECB was relatively successful in what they did. Sufficient records are available to indicate that a number of the Japanese codes and ciphers had been penetrated, and that the FECB was able to provide warning of the impending attack, though neither the timing nor the targets could be accurately identified by intelligence alone. Even had the FECB been able to accurately predict the timings and scale of attack, it is unlikely that this information would have prevented the subsequent chain of disasters that befell the Anglo-Dutch-American forces in the region. The defence problem in the region was not just one of adequate intelligence; but related very much to the inaccurate interpretations made by distant officials and inadequate planning to meet plausible scenarios. Furthermore, by December 1941, British and American attention and resources were very much focused on the Atlantic and European situation.

{50} The European focus has also resulted in the history of the FECB being neglected when compared to ULTRA. The destruction of many records and the slow release of surviving records in this area have limited the opportunities for detailed and accurate research in this area. Furthermore, many of the earlier authors of works on signals intelligence history have a direct connection with Bletchley Park and the European theatre, and so feel more secure in dealing with subjects closer to home. As more material is becoming available, more works are being produced which deal with what could be described as ULTRA’s neglected cousin.

{51} All of this should not however, detract from the achievements of the FECB and the signals intelligence organisation in the Asia-Pacific region. While the information obtained did not impede the Japanese advances in 1941 and early 1942, it did provide much of the basis upon which the subsequent war was planned and fought. The fifteen or so years of listening to the Japanese provided the British, and Americans, not only with an infrastructure on which to base the future expansion of capabilities and operations but also with a knowledge of Japanese procedures and organisations which was to prove invaluable in the war ahead.

© Jozef Straczek

The author

Jo Straczek is the Senior Naval Historical Officer in the Naval History Directorate, Department of Defence, Canberra. He has written or contributed to books and articles on naval history. Among his works is the reference book, The Royal Australian Navy: ships, aircraft and shore establishments (Sydney: Navy Public Affairs, 1996).



  1. The modern term "signals intelligence" is used here for simplicity, and to indicate all aspects of information obtained from communications.

  2. F. H. Hinsley, British Intelligence in the Second World War: its influence on strategy and operations (London: HMSO, 1979), p.x.

  3. William F. Clarke, "Government Code and Cypher School: its foundation and development with special reference to its Naval side", Cryptologia, vol.11, no.4, October 1987, p.221.

  4. As surviving archival material is released, and new books based on this are published. In the latter category, see Keiichiro Komatsu, Origins of the Pacific War and the importance of ‘Magic’ (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999) and Richard J. Aldrich, Intelligence and the war against Japan: Britain, America and the politics of secret service (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

  5. NAA, MP1587, item 311J, "Report of Penang Naval Conference–March 1921", dated 11 April 1921.

  6. Clarke, p.222.

  7. J. Bryden, Best Kept Secret: Canadian Secret Intelligence in the Second World War (Ottawa: Lester Publishing, 1993), p.8.

  8. NAA, MP1049, item 1914/0351, minute dated 14 December 1926.

  9. Arthur W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-1918, 2nd edn, (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1935), pp.46, 381.

  10. Commonwealth Naval Order 131 of 1912 – Return of Men with Knowledge of Foreign Languages.

  11. NAA, MP1049, item 1997/5/196 – minute by Director Signal Section dated 17 June 1921.

  12. NAA, MP1049, item 1997/5/196 – letter from Australian Naval Representative London dated 12 April 1924.

  13. Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957), p.9n, says that Nave was sent in 1925, and McLaughlin and Ball in 1927. But just as Nave was actually sent several years earlier than the year claimed, so was Ball. He had apparently served as an infantry lieutenant in the A.I.F., but no further details are known concerning his activities.

  14. The implication in James Rusbridger and Eric Nave, Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: how Churchill lured Roosevelt into World War II (New York: Summit Books, 1991), pp.30-1, that the ACNB was unaware of Nave's likely employment is unbelievable, given that the Naval Board was already using him in a basic cryptographic capacity.

  15. NAA, MP1049, item 1997/5/196 – Admiralty letter M.03049/25 dated 19 November 1925.

  16. NAA, MP1049, item 1997/5/196 – Admiralty letter M.0145/28 dated 21 February 1928.

  17. Notes on the History of Operational Intelligence Centre in Canada, p.2.

  18. NAA, MP1185/8, item 2021/5/529 – "Y, W/T and D/F", undated notes c.1940-41. Though unsigned this document is on Admiralty embossed paper.

  19. Captain H. R. Sandwith, RN, quoted in Bryden, p.128.

  20. NAA, MP1185/8, item 2021/5/529 – "Notes on Captain Wylie's Visit", minute by DNI dated 10 January 1941.

  21. A. J. Marder, Old Friends, New Enemies: the Royal Navy and the Japanese Navy – strategic illusions 1936-1941 (London: OUP, 1981), p.357.

  22. Hinsley, p.52.

  23. Hinsley, p.53.

  24. NAA, MP1185/8, item 1937/2/415 – "Establishment of a Cryptographic Organisation in Australia", DSC minute dated 19 March 1941.

  25. NAA, MP1185/8, item 1937/2/415 – DSC minute dated 19 March 1941.

  26. NAA, MP1185/8, item 2037/3/29 – Admiralty letter M.01003/40 dated 1 February 1940.

  27. NAA, MP1185, item 1997/5/305 – letter to Secretary of Admiralty dated 26 May 1936.

  28. NAA, A816, item 43/302/18 – letter from R. G. Menzies dated 11 April 1940.

  29. NAA, MP1185, item 1937/2/415 – copy of letter from R. G. Menzies dated 11 April 1940. This carries the annotation "We are not proud of this". The author appears to be Commander R. B. M. Long, the Director of Naval Intelligence, RAN, although Long’s biographer does not make this connection. See Barbara Winter, The intrigue master: Commander Long and Naval Intelligence in Australia, 1913-1945 (Brisbane: Boolarong Press, 1995), p.49.

  30. NAA, A816, item 43/302/18 – letter from Lord Cranbourne dated 15 October 1940.

  31. NAA, MP1185, item 2021/5/529 – "Y, W/T and D/F", undated.

  32. Whether this indicated an intercept station in Auckland or Auckland as the originator of reports is not known.

  33. NAA, MP1185/8, item 2002/2/260 – "W/T Procedure Y - Personnel", minute by DSC dated 26 March 1941.

  34. NAA, MP1185/8, item 2002/2/260 – "W/T Procedure Y – Personnel".

  35. Royal New Zealand Navy and Naval Facilities in New Zealand, paper dated 30 April 1944, p.25, copy held by Naval Historical Section.

  36. Grant Howard, Happy in the service (Auckland: privately published, 1985), p.50.

  37. Bradley F. Smith, The MAGIC - ULTRA deals (London: Airlife Publishing Ltd, 1993), p.43.

  38. Smith, p.52.

  39. AWM124, item 4/149, "United States-British Staff Conversations Report (ABC-1)", 27 March 1941, paragraph 19.

  40. AWM124, item 4/149, paragraph 19.

  41. AWM124, item 4/149, Annex 4 "Communications".

  42. AWM124, item 4/149, Annex 4.

  43. AWM124, item 4/149, Annex 4.

  44. NAA, MP1185, item 1937/2/415 – minute by DSC dated 19 March 1941.

  45. Bradley Smith, Sharing secrets with Stalin: how the Allies traded Intelligence 1941-1945 (Kansas: Kansas University Press, 1996), p.39.

  46. Smith, p.78.

  47. NAA, MP1185/8, item 2021/5/529 – "Visit Report" by Captain F. J. Wylie, dated 17 January 1941, Appendix 1- Itinerary, p.l.

  48. NAA, MP1185/8, item 2037/2/783 – "Report on Anglo-Dutch-Australian Combined Services Communications Conference".

  49. NAA, MP1185, item 1937/2/415 – minute by DSC dated 19 March 1941.

  50. Jack Bleakley, The eavesdroppers (Canberra: AGPS, 1992), p.26. For an alternative view, see R. Erskine, "When a Purple Machine went missing: how Japan nearly discovered America's greatest secret", Intelligence and National Security, vol.12, no.3, July 1997.