- Cox, Leonard J.
- History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Perth I
- September 1995 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Edited by Harry Knight (“Bogie” Knight)
This article is a tribute to the courage and fortitude of two very brave men, Sgt. Edward Cawthron of the Fortress Signals and Chief Petty Officer W/T Harry Knight, DSM, Royal Australian Navy.
These two men in operating a very basic short-wave radio receiver at the risk of instant execution by their Japanese guards, obtained news from the outside world, boosting the morale of their suffering comrades working on that infamous Burma Railway.
Sometime before that period, when Sgt. Ted was a POW in Singapore, he managed to collect and disguise various pieces of radio equipment, hoping that one day he would be in a position to assemble and hide a radio receiver. That day came sooner and more horribly than he could ever imagine.
Chief Petty Officer Knight served in the Royal Australian Navy Cruiser, “Perth” which in company with the American Cruiser “Houston“, was sunk in the Sunda Strait night action on 1st March, 1942.
The two ships were returning to Australia when they ran into a Japanese Task Force escorting a Java “invasion fleet”. They sank and damaged many transports that night. Both ships had survived the disastrous Java Sea Battle and were naturally low on ammunition. “Perth” expended her 6″ ammunition and resorted to firing solid practice shells at the enemy. “Perth” was actually withdrawing from the action when she was hit by a stray torpedo. Almost defenceless, she was an easy target for three more.
The Japanese invasion Commander lost his ship and was forced to spend sometime in the water with his troops. He would not believe “Perth” was only a cruiser because so much damage had been inflicted on his ships.
With reference to the book “Out of the Smoke” about “Perth“, Harry mentions the first time he met the Japanese was at Tjilatjap when they were taken prisoners after the open boat voyage which they had planned to sail the boat back to Australia.
I was privileged to work with both men in the Engineering Section of the PMG Department in Adelaide after World War II. I remember well Ted designing and making prototypes of transmission measuring equipment. He suffered greatly from his prisoner-of-war experiences and sadly died a few years later. Harry, at least in the short term seemed less affected and continued working for the PMG Department and Telecom until his retirement.
It was during a luncheon for Navy Communicators when Harry, as we all so often do in later life, spoke briefly about his POW experiences. This is his story:
Ted built his short-wave radio receiver disguised in the 2 cm false bottom of an old coffee tin 15cm x 10cm, containing burnt rice, which according to Harry, still tasted like burnt rice when hot water was poured on it. The receiver used a 1.5 volt filament valve with a 45 volt battery high tension supply. Both men would have known the necessary number of wire turns for the coil and the capacitor value of the turning condenser to resonate on the short-wave 20 and 30 metre bands. There were holes in the bottom of the tin to connect the aerial, the batteries, a single head-phone and access to tune the condenser with the flattened end of a piece of copper wire.
Batteries were smuggled in by friendly Thais on river boats, plus duck eggs and quinine, “both life saving items”. Charlie Letts, an Englishman living in Bangkok procured these items for the men, including any interesting news he may have overheard. Perhaps the Japanese thought Charlie was German – this does seem incredible!
The aerial was a length of insulated copper wire hidden in a 4 metre length of bamboo. It was left outside leaning against a tree during the day and taken inside at night.
Ted operated the receiver in the early days of the railway project, until some of the men were aware he possessed it. This meant he was now compromised. Ted was also aware an Air Force man was discovered with one and executed. With that in mind, the CO Lt. Col. “Weary” Dunlop and Ted decided that rather than destroy the set, Harry might like to operate it.
Harry lay on a bed of bamboo slats at night with a single head-phone pressed to his ear, reading and memorising Morse code, while his best mate Petty Officer Horrie Abbott in the next bed to him was completely unaware the radio receiver existed. No wonder Navy Communicators are well known as the “Silent Branch” of the Service.