December 16th 2017

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COVER STORY The meaning of Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED Parliamentary stampede tramples freedoms

EUTHANASIA Palliative care remains the true solution

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The more Zimbabwe changes, the more it stays the same

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Putting the 'fair' back in the fair go for farmers

OPINION The new Reformation: How Christians found themselves on the 'wrong' side of history

PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY Why Marxists will not engage with opponents

ECONOMICS Kim Beazley rides in as a white knight for the TPP

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS Mergers could give unions a striking profile

MUSIC Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

CINEMA Casablanca: Contender for the 'perfect film'

BOOK REVIEW Australia behind the scenes in WWII

BOOK REVIEW Political sparks at the 'Friendly' Games

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Australia behind the scenes in WWII

News Weekly, December 16, 2017

THE SECRET CODE-BREAKERS OF CENTRAL BUREAU: How Australia’s Signals Intelligence Network Helped
Win the Pacific War

by David Dufty

Scribe, Melbourne
Hardcover: 352 pages
Price: AUD$49.99

Reviewed by Chris Rule

At the Canberra Writers festival in August this year, David Dufty, the author of The Code-breakers of Central Bureau: How Australia’s Signals Intelligence Network Helped Win the Pacific War, was asked why he had written the book? Dufty replied that he heard, in 2012, that the British government intended awarding Central Bureau (CB) veterans awards for their activities during World War II.

He wondered what they had done to deserve this and why the Australian Government hadn’t already done so. He began to do some research and eventually contacted some CB veterans. After speaking to them he felt a moral imperative to tell their story because he believed they deserved recognition.

What was Central Bureau, I hear you ask? According to a plaque at the front of Nyrambla, a house located in the suburb of Ascot, Brisbane, and used by CB during World War II, it was “an organisation comprising service personnel of Australia, USA, Britain, Canada and New Zealand”.

Their work consisted of providing signals intelligence (SIGINT) from “intercepted enemy radio messages” which made a “decisive contribution to the Allied victory in the Pacific war”.

Dufty defines SIGINT as the “science of understanding an enemy from its messages”. Exploitation can be through cryptanalysis, which is attempting to decrypt coded/enciphered messages; and traffic analysis, which is the obtaining of intelligence by studying the externals of the traffic. For example, looking for message numbering systems, preamble address groups (that is, groups which help in determining who the traffic is to and from and any other intended recipients, call-sign and frequency usage). All this can help in maintaining continuity on targets.

One shouldn’t forget the part played by the intercept operators: those who intercepted the traffic that made the work of the analysts possible.

In a nutshell, this is the story of the birth of Australia’s SIGINT capability and how it contributed to the Allied victory in the Pacific.

As Dufty says, when the war started, Australia’s SIGINT capability was virtually non-existent; Australia was a “backwater in the international espionage game”. By the end of the war there were “several signals intelligence organisations based in Australia” of which CB, based in Brisbane, was the largest and most active and it had “tentacles across northern Australia, the Pacific Ocean, and South-East Asia and as far as Luzon in the Philippines”.

Other SIGINT organisations that worked with CB were the Australian Special Wireless Group, Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne, Special D Section and Section 22. Also, there were organic Army, Navy and Air Force units.

Dufty acknowledges the major contribution of both the British and the Americans in the development of our SIGINT capability. The Allied cooperation in SIGINT during World War II became the basis of the UKUSA agreement, which was formalised in 1947. The Australian Signals Directorate, formerly the Defence Signals Directorate, which is a participant in UKUSA, is the successor organisation of CB.

Although there was some involvement by an Australian SIGINT unit, Four Special Wireless Unit, in Greece, on Crete, in the Middle East and North Africa, Australia’s SIGINT capability was mainly involved in the war against Japan.

This book takes us through the whole gamut of the war in the Pacific – Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, the fall of the Philippines, the movement of General MacArthur to Australia, Burma, Malaya, Thailand, the New Guinea campaign, the battles of Midway and of the Coral Sea, the killing of Admiral Yamamoto, the gradual pushing back of the Japanese until MacArthur fulfilled his pledge to return to the Philippines, the dropping of the atomic bombs; and, finally, peace in the Pacific.

SIGINT’s achievements were many. It was instrumental in preventing the invasion of Port Moresby from the sea; and in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway. This was possible because the Allies were reading the Japanese naval code, JN-25, sufficiently well to know what the Japanese were planning. Traffic analysis also played its part, along with another element of SIGINT, electronic intelligence, which came into play in the Coral Sea; the USS Lexington’s radar detected the Japanese fleet 70 miles away.

Another major success was the interception of an itinerary of Admiral Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of the Japanese Navy, in which he was to visit Rabaul and the island of Ballale. The U.S. Navy intercepted a partially readable JN-25 coded message, which tipped them off that Yamamoto would be at Ballale on April 18, 1943.

This message was transmitted from the Japanese Army signals office at Rabaul to the Japanese garrison commander on Ballale, using an army air-to-ground code, as that garrison didn’t have access to the JN-25 code. This was intercepted by an Australian intercept operator and, as it was fully readable, the whole of Yamamoto’s itinerary was obtained. This enabled the Americans to intercept the plane on which Yamamoto was travelling and shoot it down, killing the admiral.

There was controversy about this because the Americans claimed the credit for having intercepted the vital message, when, in fact, it was an Australian who had done so. A former colleague of mine who has read the book said he was “delighted” that Dufty had “really nailed the Yamamoto message and the crucial part played by the OZ interceptors”.

One can also claim an Australian connection with the breaking of the particular code, as it was Eric Nave who broke it in early 1943.

There were also SIGINT failures, one of the most serious of which was at Biak where the Americans, on the advice of CB, seriously underestimated the size of the Japanese defenders. It was estimated that there were 1,000 Japanese on the island. However, the real figure was closer to 11,000. Although the Americans eventually took Biak, casualties were much higher than anticipated.

At the Canberra Writers Festival Dufty was asked who were the most interesting characters in his book. He mentioned four: Eric Nave, Florence McKenzie, Alastair “Mic” Sandford and Stan Clark.

Eric Nave, probably the most famous Australian “siginter”, was a naval officer who became involved in SIGINT with the British in the 1920s. He had initially joined the Australian navy and transferred to the Royal Navy in 1923. He then joined the British Government Code and Cipher School (GCCS).

Nave had studied the Japanese language, including two years in Japan, in the early 1920s, when he was attached to the British Embassy. Eventually he went to Hong Kong, where he established Britain’s first SIGINT operation in Asia. In 1927, he became the first person to break a Japanese military code. He was, effectively, Australia’s first “siginter”.

Florence McKenzie was a qualified electrical engineer who had formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corp (WESS). She trained over 1,200 women in receiving and transmitting Morse code.

Though WESS was not a military organisation, McKenzie offered her trainees to the military authorities to help meet the shortage of signals operators at the time. Her offer was initially taken up by the Australian Navy; the Army and Air Force followed. The work she did was for the good of Australia; she received no pay.

Mic Sandford was trained by the British in Egypt. He was flamboyant and fearless. He went to Crete as an intelligence officer for the Australian Four Special Wireless Section. He was also the Ultra (that is, SIGINT) Liaison Officer to General Freyburg, the New Zealand officer in command of the defence of Crete. Eventually he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

Stan Clark joined Four Special Wireless Section in 1940. According to Dufty he demonstrated a “natural flair” for SIGINT, particularly in the field of traffic analysis.

Dufty shows a good understanding of traffic analysis and what it could achieve. However, as a former traffic analyst, at times I found myself asking, “how do they know that”? For example, the Japanese used three-letter abbreviated codes beginning with R to refer to place names in New Guinea. Dufty said that the traffic analysts knew that RZP was used to indicate Port Moresby. However, he doesn’t explain how they knew that. He also talks about how the traffic analysts could estimate Japanese troop numbers but doesn’t explain how they could.

When writing about how Hiroshima had been determined to be water-transport HQ, which led to it becoming the target for the atom bomb, he writes: “Decrypted messages, and above all comprehensive traffic analysis of the code pointed …. to …. Hiroshima.”

The code he is talking about is the water-transport code and I think he should have said, “comprehensive traffic analysis of the communications of the users of the code”.

Dufty, according to his publisher, is a “Canberra-based writer and researcher” who has a psychology degree; he is not an historian. That has not stopped him writing a very good book. It is interesting both from the perspective of the development of Australia’s SIGINT capability and also from the perspective of the history of the Pacific war and the part SIGINT played in it. It is very readable and I particularly liked the Antony Beevor-like style of short, pithy chapters. I recommend it.

The reviewer worked for Defence Signals Defence/Directorate, now Australian Signals Directorate, for 33 years.

Purchase these books at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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