No Contest! The US Navy Destroys Australia's Special Intelligence Bureau

About Ian Pfennigwerth

Ian Pfennigwerth spent 35 years in the Royal Australian Navy, including command of a guided missile destroyer and was the Australian Defence Attaché in Beijing for two years. In retirement, he gained his PhD from the University of Newcastle in 2005. Ian now researches, writes and promotes Australian naval history, and has had five books published, with three others awaiting publication. He is also the editor of the Journal of Australian Naval History published by the Naval Historical Society of Australia.

It happened in ‘Monterey’ a long time ago – 70 years ago this October to be precise, in a block of apartments on Melbourne’s Queens Road. ‘Monterey’ had been requisitioned by the Australian Department of Defence to provide space for two signals intelligence organisations, one the Australian Special Intelligence Bureau headed by an Australian naval officer in British uniform, Commander Theodore Eric Nave. The other was the remnants of the US Navy’s signals intelligence Station CAST, which had been extracted from Corregidor before its fall to the Japanese Army. Its commanding officer was Lieutenant (later Lieutenant Commander) Rudolph Fabian.

The times were extraordinary, as were the two organisations, born of completely different backgrounds in very different circumstances. Fate, if that is how one should describe the Japanese assault launched southwards and eastwards on 7 and 8 December 1941, had now thrown them together and made them ‘allies’. It was left to the two commanding officers to turn the two units into collaborators working to break Japanese naval codes. As we shall see, given the vast gulf between them in methodology, ethos and structure, this was always going to be a tall order.

Nave at the time was 47. He had entered the RAN in 1917 by direct entry and had shown, serendipitously, extraordinary talent in mastering the Japanese language, which he demonstrated after living in country for two years in 1922-23. He was examined by the officials of the British Embassy in Tokyo (Australia at that time having no overseas legations of its own) and awarded the highest pass mark ever recorded by them. This fact brought his name to the attention of the Admiralty in London when it had decided that it needed somebody who could attempt to break Japanese naval codes. Ever since 1921, Imperial Japanese Navy( IJN) messages intercepted by the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had been piling up in the flagship of the British China Fleet for want of anyone who could sort and process them.

In 1925 the Admiralty asked the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board if it would consider a loan posting for Nave; the Australians agreed. Nave was wrenched out of the staff of the Admiral Commanding the Australian Fleet and dispatched to Hong Kong. A few weeks later he found himself in a hot cabin in the heavy cruiser HMS Hawkins. He’d expected to be employed as an interpreter; now he faced a pile of intercept forms with the instruction from the Commander-in- Chief China to break the code they were in. It was an inauspicious start, but within two months Nave had done just that, not only recovering messages in a simple operational code but uncovering the IJN’s radio protocols and relay responsibility system, as well as the organisation of superior and subordinate commands. For good measure, he broke another code before his two years loan service was up.

The British, and the Australians, were impressed. The British asked that Nave be sent to the Admiralty in London, a considerable privilege for a mere’ colonial’. In fact he was assigned to the Japanese desk in the Government Code and Cypher School, which was initially a great disappointment for Nave. However, his outlook improved when he began to break into the Japanese Naval Attaché code, as did his value to the British. By the time of the London Naval Conference of 1930, he had provided the Admiralty with the complete Japanese negotiating position, plus the IJN’s strategy for fighting a war with the United States. His reward was accelerated promotion to Lieutenant Commander and a very generous offer that he should transfer to the RN – another first. Urged by the RAN to accept, he did so in 1930.

Nave’s codebreaking career continued with further service in the China Fleet and in London. Then in 1937 he was sent to lead the codebreaking team in the tri-service, all source intelligence organisation based in Hong Kong, the Far East Combined Bureau (FECB). His success against a series of IJN codes of increasing complexity continued until the introduction in early 1939 of Naval Code D, designated by the US Navy as ‘JN-25′. Breaking Code D required a combined effort between London and FECB but by early December 1939, with FECB now relocated to Singapore because of Japanese pressure on Hong Kong, the new code was slowly giving up its secrets to Nave’s team.

Meanwhile, Nave’s health had been steadily deteriorating, but it was not until the diagnosis of ‘tropical sprue’ was confirmed that the reason became clear. He was painfully thin and unable to eat much, let alone cope with the pressure of his work, and the British in Singapore decided that he should convalesce in Australia before returning to FECB. The Australian doctors were appalled at his condition and made it clear that he could not return to service in the tropics until cured, and that was likely to take some time. At the end of his convalescent leave he therefore reported to Navy Office in Melbourne.

His arrival coincided with the discussion at high (Prime Ministerial) level about whether Australia should have its own signals intelligence capabilities. Both the RAN and the Australian Army had dabbled in the field, intercept stations had been established, and attempts had been made to break Japanese diplomatic codes. But what these organisations needed was an experienced codebreaker to take charge and to train others in the art. It can be imagined with what joy the gaunt shape of Nave was greeted by the RAN’s Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander ‘Cocky’ Long and the Director of Signal Communications, Commander Jack Newman, when he appeared at their doors.

In short order Nave began the assigned task of building up Australian naval signals intelligence  capabilities and by mid-1941, despite recurrent bouts of illness, intelligence  was flowing to Australia authorities from the ‘naval organisation’ as it was coyly named, and to the British. Then in May 1941 a joint Army-Navy meeting brokered by Commander Long agreed to combine forces under Nave’s leadership, and the Special Intelligence Bureau was born.

It was never a large organisation, and most of it was hand-crafted by Nave. He started with a handful of RAN personnel and some Australian Army officers, one of whom had some fluency in Japanese. He persuaded four academics from Sydney, who had been working with the Australian Army examining Japanese codes, to join him in Melbourne. One of these was the Professor of Mathematics at Sydney University – the nation’s most prestigious – Harold Room. Other members of the Bureau drifted in; some were identified by Commander Long’s network, others were British who happened to be in Australia. Nave trained them all, while undertaking most of the translation tasks himself. The Bureau’s accommodation, equipment and status were all garnered through patient effort by Nave, with none of the suppliers of this ‘largesse’ entitled to know the purpose to which it was put. Despite the importance of the work, from time to time he expressed some doubt about whether he should not give it all up and ask to be returned to the UK.

The Australians were keen to keep Nave; the British wanted him back. The doctors refused to let him go. Grudgingly, the British began to assign ‘minor’ codes – that is codes not used for main fleet communications by the IJN – to the Australian Bureau for investigation. This yielded immediate results, with able to decode message being sent from Japanese embassies and consulates in South America regarding the suborning of Latin American countries against the USA. Another break which would pay dividends later was into JN-4, the IJN submarine operational code.  As the shadows lengthened towards the end of 1941 the Bureau was doing as well as most foreign signals intelligence operations in detecting the inexorable slide towards war with Japan. The ‘Winds Warning’ message, alerting Japanese embassies to the imminent declaration of hostilities, reached Prime Minister Curtin at least as soon as President Roosevelt saw it.

The impact of the Japanese assaults on Malaya, Singapore and the Philippines –as well as on Pearl Harbor, a critical USN signals intelligence base, were immediate and crippling. FECB disintegrated and the remnants were withdrawn to Sri Lanka. An inquiry whether Australia could accommodate it was, unfortunately, mishandled – but then I wouldn’t be telling this tale. The Americans in the Philippines fell back upon Corregidor, where Lieutenant Fabian gave serious consideration to executing his men to save them from falling into Japanese hands. Before he could put this plan into effect, however, they were ordered out, and transported by submarine first to Java and eventually to Western Australia.

When the Station CAST remnants straggled into Melbourne, they were welcomed by Nave. He was aware that since early 1941 the British and Americans had been sharing information on JN-25, which had been his principal target before his medical evacuation from Singapore in 1939. He thought that he and his Bureau would continue this collaboration, but he reckoned without Rudy Fabian. That officer shared a popular American disdain for anything ‘British’, which is how he identified Australia in general and Nave in particular. He also shared the USN distrust of and dislike for the US Army: CAST (soon to be redesignated Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne – FRUMEL) was a USN organisation and the information it gleaned was only for US Admirals. If the Admirals directed Fabian to share that information with Generals – or even the ‘British’, God forbid – he would do as ordered, but no more. The fact that his unit was now involved in what we now call ‘coalition’ operations against a common enemy was immaterial. He was happy enough to accept material intercepted by the Australian Navy, but not to share the information this yielded.

The attitude of Nave and Australian intelligence generally could not have been more different.  They had been involved in a world war for nearly two and a half years, which had taught them that signals intelligence was a product for sharing – within strict security guidelines – and that the best intelligence was a synthesis of all-source information. That had been the guiding principle in FECB and in 1941 Australian Department of Defence had set up a Combined Operational Intelligence Centre targeted specifically against the Japanese. To this organisation Nave insisted on passing Bureau information, and he also tried to do the same with intercepts from FRUMEL. Fabian regarded this as akin to treason and a gross breach of security.

The arrival of General Douglas MacArthur and his appointment as Supreme Commander in the South West Pacific Area complicated this issue. Fabian refused to pass information to MacArthur’s staff and General Headquarters retaliated by mandating the setting up of a rival signals intelligence organisation, to be known as Central Bureau. Having few American resources, Central Bureau drew upon the manpower of the Australian army and air force, and Nave agreed to train these men and women in the rudiments of code breaking. If sharing intelligence had been treason in the eyes of Fabian, helping the Army, as he saw it, was heresy. Nave was now severely compromised and Fabian began moves to ease him out of the organisation he had founded and headed so successfully. Fabian started by cherry picking Nave’s best staff to work with the Americans. He segregated FRUMEL from the Bureau and refused to consider or to make use of the expertise of the civilians whom Nave had gathered around him. Sadly, Nave’s reputation as a successful breaker of Japanese codes had no appeal for Fabian, who hadn’t much experience to apply.

In contemporary and post-war writing the contribution of Nave and his Bureau are frequently disparaged or made light of, especially in regard to continued work on JN-25. Considering the first charge, it is frequently forgotten or ignored that it was collaboration between the Bureau and CAST personnel that successfully decoded Japanese plans for what they termed Operation MO, which led to the confrontation better known as the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. FRUMEL played an important role in decoding messages connected with Japanese plans for the invasion and occupation of Midway Island, and when the Allied assault on Japanese positions on Guadalcanal took place in August, there had been a change in JN-25, which was taking some time for the Allied code breakers to master. A significant amount of information on Japanese reactions was derived from JN-4, which was a Bureau speciality.

Regarding the role of the Bureau, and specifically Nave, in the attack on JN-25, evidence has now been discovered in British and US archives clearly showing that up until the day before he was removed from ‘Monterey’ Nave and his staff were contributing ideas on solutions to this major code. Nevertheless, Fabian was able to persuade his superiors that Nave had to go for the sake of FRUMEL’s continued success. The matter was taken up at the highest echelons and the Australian government accepted US advice that this course of action was appropriate. I would like to think that concurrence did not come easily, but I have no proof of that. Nave was out on his ear.

At this point Nave was rescued by the Australian Army. They wanted him at Central Bureau, now located in Brisbane with GHQ. However, the British had not given up – they were paying his salary after all – and a long and complex series of negotiations began, eventually involving General MacArthur himself. MacArthur won, and the British had to be content with some Japanese speaking consular staff in Nave’s place. Eric started work in Brisbane in early 1943, where he was put in charge of minor codes, which at that stage were the major contributors of signals intelligence available to GHQ. The system set up by Nave using mainly Australian army and air force field units to intercept operational messages and to advise field commanders of Japanese movements and intentions, was a model of successful integration of intelligence with operations. When Central Bureau move forward to the Philippines in 1945, Nave, still unable to serve in tropical areas, was left to write the history of Central Bureau and to shut up shop in Brisbane. His reward was to be made a member of the Order of the British Empire.

What of Rudy Fabian? His obstructionist attitudes eventually provoked a reaction and in 1943, with a fine sense of irony, he was relieved of his command and dispatched to India as a liaison officer with a British signals intelligence organisation. His departure produced an immediate improvement in liaison and exchange of intelligence between Allied agencies in the Pacific and around the world.

Whenever I tell the tale of Eric Nave, audiences are amazed that they have never heard of Australian codebreaking successes against the Japanese. The British have cornered the code breaking market with the magnificent saga of the penetration of Enigma – a machine cypher, unlike most Japanese military and diplomatic codes.  And ‘everybody knows’ that the Americans broke the Japanese codes. They didn’t do it by themselves, as I hope this short article demonstrates, and we ought to acknowledge the contribution made by our fellow Australians, for most of the time working in and around Melbourne, although the contribution from Brisbane was also significant.

‘Monterey’ still stands today. Would it not be appropriate that the efforts of the men and women who did such important work there during WW2 were recognised by a memorial, or at least a commemorative plaque?

Now a footnote: readers with an interest in having the whole story might want to consult my book A Man of Intelligence. Unfortunately, they cannot obtain copies from the Shrine of Remembrance, a few hundred metres from where this war-winning operation was centred, because the Shrine has decided that the book is not ‘Victorian’ enough to warrant a place in its shop. However, Melburnians could try Hill of Grace in Collins St, Hylands in Heffernan Lane or Readings in Lygon St Carlton. Alternatively, I’d be happy to supply copies through my Website www.nautilushistory.com.au

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