Code Breakers - Inside the shadow world of signals intelligence in Australia's two Bletchley Parks by Craig Collie -Book Review

This is the story of people from many diverse backgrounds coming together in Melbourne and Queensland during the Pacific War from 1941 to 1945. Their eventual objective was to break Japan’s military codes and thereby play vital roles in the successful allied Naval and Land operations from the Coral Sea to the Philippines and Japan. It starts with the pre-War history of a number of the men who would ultimately contribute significantly to the formation of two secret organisations – FRUMEL and the Central Bureau. Both organisations would be responsible for provision of vital code breaking, analytical and intelligence gathering information to the US and Australian military and political leaders.

Allen & Unwin, 2017  Paperback 400 pp RRP: 32.99

Allen & Unwin, 2017
Paperback 400 pp RRP: 32.99

After a disparate start in the first four chapters laying out the background and context for many of these people coming together, the essence of the book comes together in Chapter 5 with an entertaining description of the establishment of the Joint Australian and US code breaking facilities called the Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne (FRUMEL) in the early months of 1942 in Melbourne.

From then on, and with the arrival of General MacArthur in Melbourne in March 1942, the book describes the part played by FRUMEL together with the start up of it’s sister organisation the “Central Bureau” in the context of early impressions held by allied military and political leaders who were trying to understand Japanese war strategies and intentions.

Clearly, all and any intelligence provided by both organisations together with their specialist knowledge and constant interaction with individuals in European, mainland American and other security stations were to become vital in understanding enemy operations, and how counter decisions were to be made and then implemented.

Separate descriptions of early decoding and translating activities in 1941 by Australians, the British in Singapore, the US Navy in Seattle and the Dutch in Bandung all lead into the theme throughout the book that the Allied intelligence and code breaking communities were more often than not acting in any united manner. Individuals in many cases worked primarily for their own governments, and in many cases appear to be as self-interested as they were intent with the provision of useful and timely intelligence.

Military leaders were also sceptical throughout 1942 of the benefit and usefulness of the intelligence initially provided by FRUMEL. By the time FRUMEL had been formed and found a way by the end of 1942 to co-ordinate and shape the mix of eccentrics, academic professors, security obsessives and lone-wolf operators into a powerful intelligence weapon of war, they were to become the platform for building on the successes of the next three years.

The Central Bureau came into being towards the end of 1942, and for the rest of the war, becomes the dominant organisation centred in Brisbane with outstations in Northern Queensland and New Guinea. A number of the important players moved from FRUMEL to the Central Bureau.

The book deals with the part played by the two intelligence units in the various campaigns and events such as the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, the shooting down of Yamamoto’s aircraft, the leapfrogging takeover of the northern parts of New Guinea, the US led invasion of Leyte and then Luzon in the Philippines, and then the final capitulation. Right up until August 1945, Field Wireless Units of the Central Bureau were not far behind invading forces, and in many cases, in the second waves providing direct support.

Under the backdrop of the War, there are some very entertaining descriptions of key figures such as Eric Nave, the specialist Japanese code breaker, the fanatical security administrator from the US Navy, Rudolph Fabian, and the dogged but effective ex-Radio man and Technician, Joe Richard who played a significant role in breaking the Japanese Water Transport Code. But the individual who provides more insight than others, and seems to have infiltrated at the highest level was the extrovert and intriguing “Mic Sandford”. The descriptions on the side such as the withdrawal of Allied soldiers and sailors from Corregidor by USN submarines, the discovery of code books in a metal box near Sio, and the linking up of the Wireless Units with front line troops in Leyte and Luzon are fascinating.

Notes towards the end of the book are good reference material, and the organizational chart, maps and photographs provide excellent context and clarity to understand the overall story of the men and women in the “code breakers” community who were based in Australia and provided so much rewarded effort and information during the War.

Reviewed for RUSIV by Peter Wickham, June 2017

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