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- RAN Ships
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- September 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Sub Lieutenant Nicholas Seton RAN
…I feel so sad. What a waste – what a stuff up. It makes one feel a little bitter about the poor intelligence andcommunications surrounding each operation. Frank Nolan, 10 May 1998 (Evans 2002 p.197)
With this essay SBLT Nicholas Seton, RAN won the Naval Historical Society History Prize awarded at the recent NEOC graduation ceremony. Nicholas was born and raised in country South Australia in the small town of Morgan. He lived here until commencing academic studies at Flinders University in 2014 and subsequently the Australian Maritime College at Launceston, Tasmania in 2016. From there he graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering, Naval Architecture (Hons).
On joining the RAN Nicholas entered the New Entry Officers Course at HMAS Creswell which he completed in June 2019 and has since been posted to HMAS Cerberus for an Engineering Officers Application Course. Following this he expects to be posted to sea as an Assistant Marine Engineering Officer.
Throughout the Second World War the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) operated a series of little warships, notably theFairmile B type, in operations above Australia’s northern shoreline deep into enemy territory. One of the most noteworthyand contentious of the operations conducted by these ships was the support and continued resupply of the captured Lagarto Party in Japanese occupied Timor, under direction from the Australian Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD).
This paper will illustrate how the SRD operations repeatedly placed the crews of these vessels in danger unnecessarilydue to their inability to realise the compromised state of the Lagarto Party. We also examine the Australian naval Fairmile B and operations in Timor from February 1943 through to April 1945, encompassing Operation Mosquito, the failure of the Lagarto party, Operation Bulldozer, Operation Adder, and the discovery of the compromised states of the parties.
At only 112 ft the Fairmile B was one of the smallest warships operated by the RAN during the Second World War.Although small, they had significant capabilities with both anti-air and anti-submarine weaponry, and soon became avaluable asset in the RAN’s arsenal. Much of the work conducted by the Australian Fairmiles, in addition to the regular convoy escort and anti-submarine duties, were based out of tropical areas of northern Australia and throughout NewGuinea and Timor.
Fairmile Motor Launches (MLs) 814 and 815 were both operating out of the Port of Darwin at the time of theoperations, conducting rudimentary escort and anti-submarine duties within the harbour. At the time, Darwin was astrategic operational outpost for military forces operating throughout the occupied island nations to the north of Australia(Evans 2002 p.130).
These vessels, however, although the best designed vessel in the RAN’s arsenal, were not particularly well suited to the high humidity and open ocean transits which they were forced to endure during operations throughout Australia’snorthern waters. Originally designed for operations in the Northern Hemisphere, undertaking short transits around the UKand across to occupied France, they were never designed for the work which they were used for by the RAN. High humidity caused these wooden vessels to begin rotting, and with limited airflow through the internal spaces, they werenotoriously hot, damp, and uncomfortable.
The Lagarto Party
Operation Lagarto began on 10 February 1943 with the insertion, via submarine, of a three-man team led by Portuguesepilot, Lieutenant Pires, a civilian radio operator, Patricio Luz, and two Portuguese NCOs. The purpose of the operation was to act as informants on the Japanese operations and report back to SRD headquarters in Melbourne, as well as facilitate the evacuation of approximately 70 refugees caught up in the conflict (Central Intelligence Agency 2008). In order to undertake such a bold evacuation from well within enemy lines the only viable option was by sea, using smallshallow draught vessels that would be capable of getting close to shore and escaping at high speed.
The Evacuation – Operation Mosquito
Operation Mosquito was the code name for the first of two resupply and evacuation missions undertaken by RANFairmiles in support of the Lagarto operation. Australian MLs 814 and 815 were chosen and modified for the trip, which included the construction of a large temporary stern ramp for the purpose of the launch of a canvas and wood landing craft which was to be used to transport personnel and supplies from ship to shore. Along with the operation brief, ML 814 was supplied with a fake Japanese naval ensign for use when operating close to the Timor coast. It was upon the mutualagreement of the officers onboard ML 814 that they would morally refuse to fly such a flag on an Australian ship and thus they stowed the ensign in the potato locker for the remainder of the trip. That ensign is now on display at the AustralianWar Memorial in Canberra (Hordern 1994).
An Australian sergeant of the 2/4 Australian Independent Company, A.J. Ellwood, was to be inserted into the LagartoParty to act as a communications link back to the Melbourne headquarters of SRD. Ellwood joined the ship’s company on1 August 1943 along with two other SRD members and a specialist navigator. All members other than Ellwood would return to Australia with the Fairmiles. Both MLs 814 and 815 departed Darwin bound for Melville Island in order to refuel the vessels prior to the long transit up to Timor. The amphibious operation was a success, with the evacuation of anumber of refugees and the safe insertion of Ellwood and the required rations. As the vessels cruised away at top speed there was a feeling of a job well done (Evans 2002 p.142-149).
This extended transit from Melville Island to the Timor coast, an approximate distance of 1200 km, is well beyond what was originally designed for such a small vessel. In order to achieve the transit distance, and a fast evacuation, all the depth charge armament was removed from the vessels, thus leaving them vulnerable in the event of enemy submarinecontact. This operation can be seen as a success; although the vessels and their crews were pushed beyond normal operational conditions, the outcome was exactly what was asked of them. Operation Mosquito was seen as necessary in order to continue operational effectiveness in occupied Timor, even though it was highlighted in January 1943 that recapture of Timor had been ruled out (Evans 2002 p.195).
In order to escape enemy territory as quickly as possible these vessels were to leave their operation location at their maximum speed. Due to the remote location that they were operating in, however, they were required to conserve fuel on the journey to their rendezvous point. The brief for all supply operations was for a slow, 10 knots transit to the rendezvous point where they were to be shadowed by RAAF Beaufighters (Hordern 1994). This slow transit not only endangered these small boats but also the aircraft protecting them from above. When transiting across the open ocean attack from the air by prowling Japanese patrol aircraft was increasingly likely, thus revealing their position and potentially their mission.
Failure of the Lagarto Party
It was just under two months later, following the successful evacuation and resupply, that the Lagarto party, along with Ellwood, was surrounded and captured by the Japanese. When captured, Ellwood was unable to burn his ciphers and papers and therefore buried them in the sand nearby. This inability to burn classified material, which would have been the protocol in that situation, evidently led to the compromised position held by the SRD. Following the discovery of theburied papers and cipher, the Japanese tortured Ellwood until he unwillingly began to operate his cipher, re-establishingcontact with the SRD. With the SRD unaware that the entire Lagarto Party had fallen into enemy hands, the SRD continued to undertake aerial resupply drops and share intelligence. Consequently, Ellwood was forced to update the SRD with party movements and operations, this time faked by the Japanese (Central Intelligence Agency 2008).
Insertion of Cobra – Operation Bulldozer
This is the point in the operations at which the ignorance of the SRD can be highlighted. Followingon from the re-establishment of communications between the compromised Lagarto Party and the SRD in Melbourne, it was the SRD’sdecision to make a second insertion of intelligence gathering operatives into occupied Timor to assist the Lagarto party in their operation. This new party, named Cobra, was to be put ashore using a similar method to the evacuation of civilians during Operation Mosquito, this time using only ML 814. Details of this operation were passed on to the compromisedLagarto party prior to the amphibious landing. As a result, the party was met on the beach by a group of Japanese sympathizers posing as local villagers. Shortly afterwards, the entire Cobra party had been captured by the Japanese, withmany members of the party ending up in prisoner of war camps on the island where they were beaten and tortured, as wellas the capture and compromised use of their radio communications with Melbourne. This decision by the SRD to not onlyland the Cobra party, but to inform the Lagarto party of their intentions ultimately led to the capture and torture of thesemen (Evans 2002 p.159-162).
The biggest wrongdoing by the SRD in this whole affair that can be highlighted was the use of authenticators, which when included in a signal are words indicating that the sender has not being compromised. The first Lagarto party had not been issued such an authenticator when originally landing in Timor. Worse still, the Cobra party, once captured andforced to establish communication lines with Melbourne in a similar way to the Lagarto party, began to omit theirauthenticator from their transmissions, as per protocol if captured. This should have been an obvious sign to the SRD that something had gone very wrong in Timor. The SRD, however, oblivious to the omission of the authenticator, continued to communicate with the Cobra party, reminding them in one transmission to start use their authenticator. This inexcusableerror ultimately led to the continuation of supply and insertion missions across Timor.
This negligence in regard to the authenticator ultimately cost the lives of the entire third party to be landed on Timoreseshores, the Adder Party. They too were landed using another RAN Fairmile, ML 429, which took four attempts to successfully land the party, finally landing on 21 August 1943 (Evans 2002 p.169-171). This operation involved placing the Fairmile crews in danger behind enemy lines a total of four times, only to have the embarked SRD captured and killed within hours of landing, indicating a clear waste of personnel and resources.
Discovery of Compromise
It was not until April 1945, 19 months after the capture of the Lagarto party, that intelligence reports began to realise that both the Lagarto and Cobra parties were in fact in enemy hands. This came after the realisation that the documents, air dropped to both teams, had found their way into the hands of the Japanese. The gravity of the situation was immediately realised and all future planned support operations for the Lagarto or Cobra parties was immediately ceased. The war ended only five months later (Central Intelligence Agency 2008).
These resupply operations, although successful in their own right, can be seen as failures considering the lack of impactand cost of human life, in both death and detention. The success of the naval operations can thus clear the RAN of anyinvolvement in the failed operations which occurred ashore, although the operations can be seen as an unnecessary risk to the lives of all the crew aboard the multiple vessels and aircraft involved in the operations. These missions pushed theoperational limits of both the vessels and crews, given that the vessels were not designed to undertake long rangemissions across open ocean. The original design for the Fairmile was for inshore and littoral operations with occasional sprints across the English Channel, and were not designed for open ocean multi-day transits. Although all small boats and aircraft involved in these resupply operations were not compromised, the risk taken by sending these vessels on theseoperations was immense. It can be argued that the potential risk which the crews of these vessels, for all operations following the initial evacuation, were exposed to during their voyage was unnecessary due entirely to the neglect of theSRD to detect the comprised state of the Lagarto Party.
Evans, P. (2002). Fairmile Ships of the Royal Australian Navy, Loftus, Australia: Australian Military History Publications.
Central Intelligence Agency. (2008). A Small South Pole. Retrieved 6 April 2019, from https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent- csi/vol4no4/html/v04i4a08p_0001.htm.
Hordern, M. C. (1994). Contact! HMAS Rushcutter and Australia’s Submarine Hunters. Australia, The Anti-Submarine Officers’ Association. Royal Australian Navy. ‘ML 814.’ Retrieved March 2019, from http://www.navy.gov.au/ml-814
Knowing two senior members of our community who served in ML 814 retain clear memories of their war service, the opportunity was taken to ask if they would care to comment upon the essay. The following response was received from the (former) SBLT John Dowey, RANVR.
RAN Involvement in SRD Operation Timor 1943-1945
I am a long-time friend of Marsden Hordern – in war and peace. We served together on ML 814 in Darwin in 1943 – with the passage of time Marsden is almost certainly my oldest colleague. We both have a close link with those dangerous and tragic SRD operations in Timor; Marsden with ‘Mosquito’ and me with the somewhat ludicrously named ‘Bulldozer’.
Marsden has sent me a copy of your email 7 June and SBLT Seton’s essay. I was delighted to see a younger generation’s interest in the history of those traumatic years, which was kept secret for so long. It helps to deepen society’s understanding of those perilous times and appreciation of the brave men, who risked – and, in some cases gave – their lives in compromised and fruitless intelligence operations. Seton is a talented writer.
I still retain strong memories of the time I spent on that enemy beach that night quite oblivious of the situation that would emerge later for the ‘Cobra’ party. I was a raw 20-year-old sub-lieutenant with no training or experience in such an operation. It was only after the landing party returned to the ship, the landing craft hoisted aboard and ML 814 was speeding away from Timor that the reality of that night set in for me. I am sure there was a great collective sigh of relief by all aboard 814.
In the ensuing years I have become a very good friend of Jim Ellwood. I have a deep appreciation of his bravery in volunteering to return to Timor as the sole signaller to the Portuguese Commandos and how he was let down by his command back in Australia. I know he has made his peace with present Japanese society after his trip there in 2011 (when he accompanied another POW, Sister Johnston of Rabaul Hospital). Whether he could ever forgive his SRD senior officers is arguable. I enclose a copy of my message to him last January on the 75th anniversary of that fateful night. I did not meet up with him.
I am not a great believer in oral history written many years later, unless supported by documentary evidence of about the time of the event. I try to remember Mark Twain’s aphorism – ‘I find that the further back I go, the better I remember things whether they happened or not’. Unfortunately, Fairmile ship logs do not appear to have been lodged in the Australian Archives to any extent – the ML 814 book(s) seem to be an exception. I accessed the log for Jan/Feb 1944 in 1998 and still have some handwritten notes. Of course, some oral history is more compelling than others. The narrative of the tragic ‘Adder’ operation written by my Darwin colleague and peacetime workmate, Trevor Vear, for Contact! The History of HMAS Rushcutter, provides a detailed account (page 433) of how ML 429 was nearly lost on a Timor reef that night. I also discussed ‘Adder’ with Harry Wadds, ML 429’s CO during our meeting.
I enclose copies of –
ML 814’s Sailing Orders for Operation ‘Bulldozer’
Report on Operation ‘Bulldozer’ 27-31 January 1944 (I wrote the Report for the CO LEUT R. Lewis, who added the final para.).
Additionally, in case you may find it of interest, I enclose a copy of an article Jim Ellwood sent me last year. It is an article on the SRD ‘failings’ (1943-45) by a W.A. University Law Lecturer and Military Law Research Fellow, Narelle Morris. It underlines for me the unnecessary risks the Darwin Fairmiles and their crews faced on SRD operations 1943-45.
Finally, may I take the opportunity to congratulate you on the June issue of the Review. Bravo Zulu.
Note: copies of the enclosures mentioned in the above letter are available on request to the Editor.