- A.N. Other
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval Intelligence, WWII operations, History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
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- December 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Sub-Lieutenant Y.L. Zhang
This essay came a close second in the Naval History Prize of the New Entry Officer Course intake No. 46. Sub- Lieutenant Yanyi Zhang is a qualified engineer currently undertaking the Weapons Electrical Engineer Application Course at HMAS Cerberus.
‘Fabian did not want Nave, the US Army code-breakers were very happy to have him. Fabian’s dislike of Eric Nave was very fortunate for us. Nave became an indispensable person, reading air-to-ground messages containing the weather which gave away the intended target for the day.‘ Joe Richard -US Army code-breaker
Much has been written about the Allied effort to crack enemy codes before and during World War II. The majority focuses on the successes against German codes or on American efforts to exploit Japanese diplomatic and military codes. The extent of Allied penetration of enemy codes during WW II has long been hidden behind a wall of silence and the Australian contribution to Allied code breaking efforts has rarely been acknowledged and almost never given the credit it deserves.
This essay will explore the work of one brilliant RAN officer, Captain Theodore Eric Nave, who was a naval paymaster and an Australian cryptographer. His service before and during WW II would provide significant naval intelligence to those on the front line. This essay will detail how his work contributed to the efforts of defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy, what we can learn from his life successes and setbacks and the how events that shaped his career are relevant to today’s Royal Australian Navy.
A Fledgling Career
Theodore Eric Nave was born in the then colonial city of Adelaide on 18 March 1899. In his early years, Nave excelled in his studies; normally top of his class. He also grew fond of cricket, where his left-handedness was no boundary. After completing high school at age 16, Nave joined his father to work at the South Australian Railways. It was here where Nave performed administrative duties, which were to be a key benefit to his future career. By 1916, with the backdrop of a devastating war, the RAN College wanted to ‘Australianise’ its officer ranks and so advertised nationally for six midshipmen to perform administrative duties for the duration of the war. Nave’s excellent school results and railways experience meant that he was a natural selection and on 1 March 1917 he joined the RAN.
Whilst serving in the training ship HMAS Tingira in October 1918, Nave began thoughts of studying Japanese. At the time, officers had to demonstrate competence in a foreign language in order for promotion to sub-lieutenant. Which language was Nave to choose?
Looking through Kings’ Regulations [the regulations governing the Navy] I noticed that extra pay of 6 pence per day was paid to those qualified in French or German, but those proficient in Japanese received 5 shillings [ten times as much]. This discovery set me thinking. T.E. Nave
And so doing, on 28 November 1918, Nave applied to his commanding officer to study Japanese.
At the time, interest in Australian officers studying Japanese had developed during the Great War, when Japan had been an ally; escorting Australian troop convoys and deterring German raiders in the Indian Ocean. It was decided that selected Duntroon cadets would be taught Japanese, so the Naval Board sought to find out how much it would cost them to support Nave’s studies. They later discovered Mr. Miyata, a language teacher at Fort Street Boys’ High School who gave discounts for multiple students. Nave would commence ten weekly lessons for three terms. Understandably this was hardly the way to achieving competence for a complex language like Japanese. But as a testament to Nave’s intelligence and diligence, by the end of his tuition, Nave scored an astounding 90% for his exam. It was to no surprise that in February 1921 Paymaster Lieutenant T. E. Nave, RAN, was to be the first Australian naval officer to train in Japan for two years’ language training. It was over these two years that Nave’s grasp of the language blossomed as well as his cultural understandings of a previously perceived alien nation.
There is also no doubt that to understand and speak a people’s language is the shortest road to understanding its people. T.E. Nave
The hard work that Nave demonstrated during his studies serves as a role model for future leaders on NEOC 46. Nave’s story has shown that dedication to academics will bear fruit in later years, especially when serving in the fleet. It portrays a good culture of hard work that should be fostered in the RAN.
The Need for Japanese Translators
Arguably, 1921 marked the start of the Australian contribution to the establishment of the British signals intelligence capability in the Asia-pacific region. Potential usefulness of foreign languages had long been recognised by the Australian service: a 1912 Navy Order required all Commanding Officers to report annually, ratings who possessed knowledge of foreign languages! Secondly; the Australian delegation at the Penang Conference in March 1921 was given a copy of the Japanese Telegraph Code for Naval Vessels. This code was subsequently reproduced and distributed to the ships of the Australian Fleet with instructions that Telegraphists were to be exercised in the code once a week. In addition to this, Telegraphists under instruction at the Signal School at HMAS Cerberus were also to be trained in the reception of Japanese Morse Code.
The British were growing suspicious of Imperial Japan’s territorial ambitions, especially in China, where Britain also had strong interest. London was deciding on whether to abrogate the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Treaty. In the end, they decided that the best course of listen and wait for by breaking into Japanese codes, especially naval codes. Unfortunately, few in the fleet had adequate knowledge of the Japanese three system alphabet. Someone with a really good grasp of the Japanese language was sorely needed.
There is lesson to be learned here. If Australia intends to play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific region as stated in the 2009 Defence White Paper there needs to be a greater understanding of our neighbours; whether it is during peacetime or conflict, friend or foe. In order to properly understand our neighbours, one must understand their language. As shown above, having servicemen with adequate grasp of foreign languages will have unexpected long term returns into the future. Given the RAN’s engagements in the Gulf and the Asia-Pacific, to neglect or lose sight of the importance of language training would be to weaken the capabilities of the RAN fleet. While battles have not been won by intelligence alone, they have been lost through inadequate appreciation of intelligence assessments.
Enter Lieutenant Eric Nave. In July 1925 it was decided that the RAN would lend their brilliant Nave to the Royal Navy for two years aboard HMS Hawkins then serving with the China Fleet. By this stage, Nave’s command of Japanese meant that within a year, he was able to penetrate the operational code. By his second year he had broken another and charted the radio hierarchy of the Imperial Japanese Navy, this included the organisation of its fleets and the key call signs used. Nave’s work did not go unnoticed. The British Admiralty, and the new clandestine intercept and code organisation – the Government Code and Cipher School (GCCS) would request Nave’s services in 1927 and the RAN happily obliged.
The types of codes which Nave worked on breaking were book codes. Book codes used groups of four or five numbers to represent words or phrases from a chosen book. The numbers were then encrypted again using a standard table, so that the groups from the book were not those transmitted. The work of decoding was to run this process in reverse. There could be as many as 90,000 groups in a code book, with several alternatives for common words or phrases, no doubt making the code-breaker’s task difficult.
In his later years, Nave began rotations between GCCS and the Far East Bureau where he became head code breaker. Nave’s health had deteriorated rapidly due to contraction of ‘sprue’, a tropical disease causing ulceration of the mouth and enteritis. In December 1939, Nave was declared medically unfit and evacuated to Australia for recuperation. By May 1940, Nave’s recuperation period had ended. However, still unfit for tropical service, he was to report to Navy Office in Melbourne, where he was made head of a new Army-Navy Special Intelligence Bureau tasked with generating code-breaking expertise. The British assigned Nave in cracking the JN-4, a submarine fleet code; this was to prove crucial to the war effort.
Relentless Japanese attacks in the South-East Asia, resulted in the evacuation and disbandment of the British code-breaking efforts in the region. The American unit also narrowly escaped and made its way to Melbourne to join forces with Nave’s bureau to form Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne (FRUMEL). This joint Australian-American agency is rightly credited with major success against the Japanese before the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway.
During this time, perhaps due to a clash of egos or possibly nasty office politics, Nave was subject to a smear campaign orchestrated by Lieutenant Commander Fabian, the USN commander of FRUMEL. Nave thought he was fighting the Japanese, and was passing FRUMEL information to all Australian headquarters that were authorized to receive it. Instead, Fabian alleged that Nave lacked security consciousness and was ejected by the Americans from the FRUMEL.
Nave’s work was sorely needed in a time where fears of an imminent attack on his country were high. Who was going to bat for our Nave? None other than General MacArthur. In July 1942, MacArthur ordered the establishment of his own signals intelligence organisation – the Central Bureau in Brisbane. Nave was to head the department. He and his department were in large part responsible for MacArthur being able to predict the Japanese military moves such at Milne Bay. The Australian code-breakers were responsible for warning the US Navy on 2 January 1941 that by the end of that week, USA would be at war with Japan.
At war’s end, Nave’s final code-breaking responsibility was as head of codes in the newly established Defence Signals Bureau, where he served until 1949. Later on, he helped establish ASIO, serving until his retirement in 1959. He died in 1993.
This essay has illustrated the contributions made by Captain Eric Nave to Australia’s WW II efforts. Through hard work and persistence, Nave showed key principles of leadership: being proficient, knowing yourself and to seek self-improvement, to provide direction and keep your team informed. Today’s RAN officers should aspire to these characteristics. The events that shaped the war with Japan in WWII exposed weakness in the RAN and serves as a reminder and a guide to our future engagements with our Asian partners. The conflict between Nave and Fabian showed the importance of teamwork and how leadership style is critical in the management of the unit and its personnel.
Editorial Note: For reasons of space the bibliography and endnotes have been omitted. The full text of the essay is available upon request from the Naval Historical Society.