- Eagles, James
- WWII operations, Letter to the Editor
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Sydney II
- June 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The recent edition of the Naval Historical Review with the single page article on the Inquiry into the loss of HMAS Sydney, written by Commodore I. H. Nicholson. RAN (Ret’d), interested me greatly.
I endorse Commodore Nicholson’s comments regarding the allegations towards the communications branch by people who know nothing of its work or the discipline involved – or the pride operators took in their work.
It is common knowledge nowadays that the Germans did know the British operational codes into 1943 and the whereabouts of all British and Allied warships at the outbreak of the war, and raiders at sea were given updates of warship movements in their areas of operation. Anyone in any doubt should consult the book “Hitler’s Spies” by David Kahn – the virtual sequel to his earlier work “The Codebreakers”. Both are excellent.
I made the argument that the captain of the Kormoran did have the secret callsign of the Straat Malakka when Sydney challenged him to give it. It is the only possible reason for Sydney approaching so close. This was denied at the public hearing in Brisbane by Barbara Winter. In her oral evidence at the Brisbane hearing she denied Detmers could have had access to this information. In reply to the Chairman’s question about it she replied:
“There is nowhere it could have been captured from…
… There had to be some place from which it was captured, and these callsigns were not put on air. They were not wireless. They were handed over at a port.”
(REF SOURCE: Transcript of Brisbane hearing 29 May 1998 pages FADT 543/544). and she denied they could have had it because of the time factor. The Chairman directly asked “So you discount it?” and she replied “Absolutely”. She also stated that the time factor was important, there was only a certain period when the callsign could have been compromised, passed to the Japanese and then to the Germans. As the Germans passed secret intelligence to the Japanese, from the :, a year before they entered the war, it is reasonable to suggest the Japanese also passed intelligence they obtained to Admiral Wenneker in Tokyo. Intelligence was a two way exchange after all.
At another point in the hearing the Chairman stated to Commodore R.W. Burnett, regarding the secret callsign.
“Given your theory that the captain of the ship, Detmers, had access to the secret callsign of these other ships, if we could somehow get information that proved that, it would perhaps change the historical story.” Indeed, there were several instances where the callsign could have been compromised but there is one source in particular which interests me.
There were up to five spies operating in Malaya and Singapore from 1940 onwards – one, a Captain Patrick Heenan, operated in Singapore/Malaya until the Japanese victory there. In “The Pregnable Fortress”, the author Peter Elphick wrote …
“Initially there was some confusion among the Australian pilots because the enemy escort ships were flashing the correct British recognition signal for the day, the letter `K’. The Japanese may have learned the signal from their officer spy Captain Patrick Heenan (he was shot on 13 February 1942 and his body thrown into Singapore Harbour), who as Air Liaison Intelligence Officer had access to such information.” Other callsigns were certainly compromised and the time factor here is relevant. The Air Liaison Intelligence Officer would have had access to these callsigns as air patrols would certainly have been challenging all shipping approaching Singapore and the only means of challenging these merchant ships was by using the secret callsigns. Look at Heenan’s title; Liaison and Intelligence are the two key words.
Winter has stated in her book that Sydney was identified only as she approached Detmers ship, however, Detmers himself wrote …
“… our trump card in the whole affair had been our effective camouflage; but for that the result would have been very different. However, we utilized our advantage to the full and we took the trick. Without that the Sydney would never have sailed into the trap.” (My emphasis). To set a trap, be would have had to know the Sydney’s movements, its identity, its ETA, and he had to have the secret callsign. Or does Winter consider Detmers was lying when he wrote the above passage?