Reviewed by Norrie Sanders
January 1942 and the Americans are in retreat – just one month after the devastating Japanese attack on the American base at Pearl Harbour, that forced the United States into World War II. General Macarthur’s headquarters in the Philippines is under siege and 76,000 Americans are eventually captured. Some are evacuated by sea in hair-raising escapes. Among the last to leave are radio operators, waiting for days in stifling heat in their bomb-proof tunnel.
Australia – the last safe haven in the South Pacific – is to be their new home for the next few years. In that short time, a few commandeered residences in Melbourne and Brisbane will become the epicentre of Allied operations to intercept and decode Japanese radio messages. Within six months, the code breakers will play a part in the Battle of Midway and within two years, will be as indispensable to the war effort as frontline troops and military hardware.
Craig Collie’s meticulously researched account of signals intelligence opens with a riveting history of the days immediately before the Pearl Harbour attack. He skilfully weaves the disparate pieces of signals intelligence into a narrative in which the allied military planners are forced to make critical decisions with limited – and sometimes conflicting – information about Japan’s intentions. At this time, the Japanese military codes were yet to be deciphered, nor was there a co-ordinated effort by the Allies to do so. Despite this, deciphered diplomatic codes pointed to a Japanese attack and Australian cryptographer Eric Nave even predicted the date of the attack.
“Transmission of the one-word message ‘HARUNA’ the name of a scenic mountain in central Honshu, is detected on 4 December . Whatever uncertainties there may have been in the Winds message, for Nave they have now been erased. War is about to break out, he is sure, even if he has no clues about how or where.”
Although Australian cryptographers had some knowledge of Japanese codes, early 1942 was ground zero for allied signals intelligence about Japan. Through a combination of hard work, skill and serendipity, the ability to crack military codes developed rapidly in a few short years. Even by the pivotal Battle of Midway, just six months after Pearl Harbour, signals intelligence was able to provide decoded Japanese naval messages that were crucial in helping the American fleet to avoid a second catastrophic attack.
As MacArthur prepared to retake the Japanese strongholds in the Philippines in 1944, his signals chief specifically requested Australian wireless operatives. “They wanted the best and this unit was the best available. In an invasion force made up entirely of US troops and support, the Australian radio intercept unit would stand out as the exception.”
Craig Collie is well credentialed, having previously written two books from the same war, covering Nagasaki and the Kokoda Track. Perhaps his background as a film maker helped, because although the book is commendably replete with facts, figures, names and places, it always manages to entertain, without resorting to cliché or melodrama. He displays a deft hand in dealing with sensitive issues intelligently and empathically, while avoiding obviously partisan positions.
In these war books and other historical works, he includes Asian perspectives – both China and Japan. Code Breakers is unashamedly composed from an Australian perspective, but the extended treatment of Admiral Yamamato is both respectful and insightful.
The book works on a number of levels. The central theme follows the breaking of the codes themselves and the contributions by military and civilian operatives, most of whom develop their skills on the job. Several central characters – Australian, American and Japanese are portrayed with useful background on their upbringing and motivation as well as the complex interplay of political and military webs in which they operate. Clearly evident is the author’s respect for those characters who are accomplished leaders or experts. By contrast, the infighting and jealousies seem more appropriate to bureaucrats than to soldiers and sailors defending their countries.
Eric Nave (later commander Nave) – is a central figure throughout, and serves the author’s narrative in several ways. Nave spent time in Japan before the war, became fluent in Japanese, joined the Royal Navy, then returned to become Australia’s premier cryptographer.
Craig Collie does this repeatedly with other important people to the story – they come and go over the war years and provide a degree of continuity in what is a fairly complex web of organisational and geographical interactions and changes. The flow chart and the maps provided in the book are very welcome in this regard, though a few key elements are omitted.
Some of the characters emerge as heroes and others as somewhat flawed, but any criticisms are nuanced and presented with some understanding of motivation. For example, one of the American naval intelligence chiefs was not well-liked and was dismissive not only of Australians and Brits, but also other US Services. He was very single minded in relation to sharing information. Collie helps us to understand his ambition and suggests that some of his security anxiety was well founded. Despite this, there is a gentle hint of schadenfreude when he is ultimately sidelined.
Without labouring the point, the author depicts the extraordinary skill that was required to undertake this intelligence work – from radio intercepts through to decryption and analysis. The reader is left in no doubt as to the difficulty of the work, but rather than presenting detailed technical explanations, Craig Collie focusses more on the human side. A critical breakthrough in one of the codes was provided by an American soldier working in a house in suburban Brisbane. Joe Richard asked to be given some code breaking tasks because he was having trouble sleeping after the death of a colleague. The story of his success, sitting on an open verandah through the long hot nights of a Brisbane summer, is compelling.
An irony not lost on the intelligence operatives is that they were deliberately starved of information about the war. “[US Admiral] Nimitz had insisted that neither the British nor FRUMEL [Joint US Australia signals intelligence] should be briefed about the gathering intelligence on the Midway Operation. He was unaware of the irony that his own most crucial intelligence had originated from Melbourne.”
One consequence was that the local Australian papers were eagerly scanned for results of some of the military battles, by the very people who were supplying intelligence for the same battles.
The narrative weaves signals intelligence work with some of the famous battles of WWII, in a way that builds tension. It also reinforces the role of seemingly minor factors that can even alter the course of the war.
It is a credit to Craig Collie that he was able to assemble and analyse such a compendium of information, which uniquely underscores the Australian contribution. The result is multiple stories and characters, set within a solid and entertaining history of signals intelligence in the South Pacific.
by Craig Collie
Allen & Unwin