Codebreaking in Melbourne and Geelong during World War One

For several years the Monash Museum of Computing History has held walking tours of significant sites re the history of computing in central Melbourne.

Led by Prof Graham Farr, the tour visits both the Monash University’s museum at Caulfield campus and then different locations around the city area. We pause at a set of solitary bluestone gate posts and cast iron gates in Lonsdale Street which was once the site of a house, long since demolished, named ROSTELLA. Rostella was a private home in the nineteenth century but became “Navy House” during the years just prior to and during World War One. It was the focus of Navy codebreaking activities in 1914.

The bluestone gateposts holding cast iron gates at 460 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne are inscribed with the name ROSTELLA and are the last remnants of a mansion that once stood on the site. The house was built in the late 1860s by Dr Thomas Naghten Fitzgerald. He was born in Ireland in 1838 and came to Australia in the 1850s. It was a gracious home with a tennis court behind. Fitzgerald built the neighbouring terrace (472-4 Lonsdale Street) as a hospital in 1887. He was associated with surgical positions at Melbourne Hospital from 1860, and consulting positions with St Vincent’s, Queen Victoria and Austin Hospitals. In 1884 he was appointed to the first clinical lectureship in surgery created by the University of Melbourne at the Melbourne Hospital. His daughter established a bequest in 1951 for the University of Melbourne to create a surgical scholarship in memory of her father.

A busy surgeon, Fitzgerald also collected artworks including the famous nude painting entitled “Chloe” by French artist Jules Joseph Lefevbre. Fitzgerald lent the painting to the National Gallery of Victoria but it caused a public outcry as it was considered to be too revealing. Fitzgerald eventually displayed it in his house in the front room. Again this caused problems as the painting could be seen by people passing by the window. “Chloe” moved to the back room. Fitzgerald died in 1908 and his estate was sold up including the house and paintings. “Chloe” moved again, this time to her longtime home at Young and Jackson’s Hotel.1

The house was leased to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1911 to be used as their headquarters and was known as “Navy House”. The Government established the Australian Fleet Unit in 1909 and it was granted the right to be called the Royal Australian Navy in July 1911.2 The house became the focus of naval activities during World War One. The Navy occupied the building until 1922 when it was then taken over by the Commonwealth Court of Industrial Arbitration.3

“Navy House” formerly “Rostella” during World War One. Note the terraces on the far side which are still extant. The County Court of Victoria is now beyond the terrace buildings on the north-east corner of Lonsdale and Williams Streets intersection.

The Commonwealth purchased the building in 1953 and continued to use it as a court building.4 The house Rostella was demolished in 1972 to make way for car-parking for the ABC staff who at that point occupied the old hospital terrace next door.5 The current 18 storey office block on the site was built in 2002.6 The hospital is now wedged between modern buildings and is on the heritage register7 but only the gates and their bluestone fence posts survive to mark the site of Dr Fitzgerald’s mansion.

During World War One the offices at Navy House were the focus of naval intelligence work to decode intercepted German wireless transmissions from the Pacific region. Britain declared war against the Germans on August 4, 1914 and Australia offered troops to support the war effort.8 Naval staff knew the importance of controlling and decoding German shipping communications. German vessels in Australian waters were seized and searched for codebooks. Several copies of the code used by the German mercantile fleet and overseas cruisers, called Handelsverkehrsbuch (HVB), were seized from vessels in Freemantle and Melbourne. The first books were found in Freemantle on 10 August 1914 and then, on August 11/12, 1914, naval staff were able to confiscate a codebook and, very importantly, instructions on the key to the HVB, from the German ship “Hobart” when it entered Port Phillip Bay.9 Commonly the term code is interchanged with term cypher, but they are different and require different techniques to break them. A code is the term for when the message is broken down into units with some linguistic meaning, such as syllables, words and phrases, and then each of these units is replaced by a codegroup (a short string of letters and/or digits). The operator uses a specific key to translate the message into code and then back to meaningful text. In a cypher, the message is viewed as a sequence of letters, or digits, or bits, without regard to their meaning, and this sequence is transformed somehow in order to conceal the message.10 The HVB was a code with a key. The Navy delivered the codebook and key to Dr W.F. Wheatley (1871-1955) who was an Instructor at the Royal Australian Naval College (RANC) located at Osborne House, Geelong.

An academic and linguist, Wheatley was born in 1871 at Kapunda, South Australia and educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide. He started his teaching career in 1890 and then he completed a BA degree at the University of Adelaide in 1904. He continued teaching in positions around Australia. He was appointed a Captain in 1908 with the Senior Cadets and helped draft the syllabus for the proposed RANC. He continued studying and gained a BSc in 1913 from Oxford, England and was awarded a DSc from Adelaide the same year. During his time in Europe, he visited Germany to work with German academics but also met notable Germans including Admiral von Tirpitz and General von Hindenburg. This visit improved his fluency in German. When Wheatley returned to Australia, he was appointed to be Senior Naval Instructor on 6 February 1914, and he joined the RANC at Osborne House, Geelong, Victoria, to teach mathematics and physics.11 The RANC was temporarily located at Osborne House until the buildings at the permanent site at Jervis Bay were completed in 1915.

The Navy informed the British in a report on August 12, 1914 that they had the seized German codebooks but this was apparently not noticed and was not acknowledged until a second message was transmitted repeating the information. Although there was earlier decoding work, the British naval intelligence cryptanalysis section was officially formed in October 1914 and became known as “Room 40”. They also later seized codebooks from German shipping but the RAN were the first to take a copy of the HVB documentation. Meanwhile the Royal Australian Navy was working on using the codebooks and intercepting messages from the German fleet and merchant vessels around the Pacific.

For a few weeks in 1914 all decoding of HVB messages were through Melbourne. These messages were intercepted from all over the Pacific as well as transmissions picked up from German naval traffic by the English. These messages were then sent to the Melbourne Post Office and delivered to Wheatley and his team at Navy House.12 There was some dispute by different government departments over the ownership of the original codebooks seized in Australian ports but 80 copies were made and 50 of these were sent to the Admiralty in England.13

Dr Wheatley revealed his work in the 1920s and 1930s. The Germans had altered the HVB key upon the start of the war but the structure of the code remained the same. Wheatley was able to understand the new key after looking at a large number of intercepted German messages in conjunction with the codebook.14 He later said that this took him three days and two nights and then he took time off to watch the Melbourne Cup. An hour later the key came to him.15 Wheatley worked out the cypher key used to encrypt messages sent by Vice Admiral Graf von Spee’s Pacific Squadron. This work, as well as seizure of documents on the ship Hobart, provided vital information on the movements of the German fleet in the Pacific. The information suggested that the German fleet was moving to South American waters. With this knowledge, the British fleet were able to prepare and later intercepted the German fleet at the Falkland Islands. After a sea battle, the German fleet was destroyed on 8 December 1914. The removal of the threat of the German fleet in the Pacific reduced the need for intercept and codebreaking activities at the RAN. The work gradually diminished and Dr Wheatley’s services were no longer required.

After his codebreaking work, Wheatley returned to teaching and was Headmaster of RANC from 1920-1930, by then re-located from Geelong to Jervis Bay. He was later Director of Studies at the Cranbrook School, Sydney for a year until retiring in 1932. He was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 1932.

This was the beginning of the work of codebreakers in the RAN and highlights the value of having linguists with mathematical skills. Combined with the capture of other codebooks, this was a significant start to the codebreaking efforts of the Commonwealth forces in the Pacific region in World War One. The codebooks continued to be very useful. Unaware that HVB had been broken, German submarines were still using HVB until the summer of 1915.16 Unfortunately all that remains of the site of this exciting wartime work are the bluestone pillars and gates of the old Navy House.

Barbara Ainsworth,

Curator, Monash Museum of Computing History, Monash University

Further reading:
Straczek, Josef 2013 “The Other Room 40 – Royal Australian Navy and Signals Intelligence 1914-18” pp.161-176 in Forbes, A. (ed.) The War at Sea: 1914-18 Proceedings of the King-Hall Naval History Conference 2013. Sea Power Centre – Royal Australian Navy, Australia.

Royal Australian Navy – Biographies – Dr Frederick William Wheatley. Accessed 6 November 2019 Accessed 6 November 2019

Also see Graham Farr, Barbara Ainsworth, Chris Avram, and Judy Sheard – Computing in Melbourne: A Historical Tour, online guide for self-tour.

1 Colin Macdonald, ‘FitzGerald, Sir Thomas Naghten (1838–1908)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, 3529/text5435 , published first in hardcopy 1972, Accessed online 6 November 2019.

2 Stevens, D. The RAN – A Brief History. Accessed 18 November 2019.

3 Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), Saturday 10 June 1922, page 8 A Naval Eviction Accessed 6 November 2019

4 Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), Wednesday 22 April 1953, page 14 Govt. owns it now. Accessed 6 November 2019

5 Sydney Morning Herald July 26, 2012, Webb, Carolyn. App tells the story of a Melbourne lost forever. Accessed 6 November 2019

6 460 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne VIC 3000. Accessed 6 November 2019

7 VHD. Former “Lonsdale Private Hospital” 472-474 Lonsdale Street, MELBOURNE, MELBOURNE Accessed 6 Nov 2019

8 ABC News. World War I: How Australia reacted to the outbreak of conflict, 4 Aug 2014 Accessed 6 November 2019

9 Straczek, Josef 2013 “The Other Room 40 – Royal Australian Navy and Signals Intelligence 1914-18” pp.161- 176 in Forbes, A. (ed.) The War at Sea: 1914-18 Proceedings of the King-Hall Naval History Conference 2013. Sea Power Centre – Australia. The_War_at%20Sea_1914-18.pdf Accessed 6 November 2019, see discussions by Straczek p16. The ship Hobart was seized and used for Australian war requirements and later sold off. She was renamed the Justin. The Age 19 May 1934 p.4 The Steamer Justin.

10 Farr, G., 5. Wartime codebreaking by FRUMEL and Central Bureau. Graham Farr, Barbara Ainsworth, Chris Avram, and Judy Sheard – Computing in Melbourne: A Historical Tour, online guide for self-tour.

11 Royal Australian Navy – Biographies – Dr Frederick William Wheatley. Accessed 6 November 2019

12 Straczek, Jozef H. 2008 The Origins and Development of Royal Australian Naval Signals Intelligence In An Era of Imperial Defence 1914 – 1945. A thesis submitted to the University of New South Wales in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy In The School of Humanities and Social Sciences 2008 p.32-33

13 Fahey, J. 2018 Australia’s First Spies. Allen and Unwin. Pp.46-50

14 Mail (Adelaide, SA: 1912 – 1954), Saturday 29 May 1926, page 11 Early War Days. Secret Service Work. AUSTRALIA’S CONTRIBUTION Accessed 6 November 2019

15 Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1931 – 1954), Friday 4 February 1938, page 7 FOUND KEY TO CODE AN HOUR AFTER CUP Accessed 6 November 2019

16 Sondhaus, L. 2017 German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea. Rowman and Littlefield. Maryland, USA. p.74; Fahey 2018 p.47

Contact Barbara Ainsworth about this article.

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