May 4th 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY What counts is who you have in your corner

EDITORIAL Political unrest over man-made drought in Murray-Darling Basin

FEDERAL ELECTION The ALP's climate policies will devastate our very way of life

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Labor to people traffickers: "We are open for business"

GENDER POLITICS Radical gender laws rushed through Tasmanian Parliament without Government backing

RURAL AFFAIRS Tiny PhD study used to assess live sheep trade

ENVIRONMENT Ocean is a brake on the climate

EUTHANASIA Helter skelter is already working full time

ART AND CULTURE Taipei preserves China's 5,000-year heritage

POLITICS AND SOCIETY What the future holds for the right side of history

HUMOUR This can't be right ... even in politics: The Shorten Run

MUSIC East West: Earthy sounds of Eastern liturgy

CINEMA Missing Link: Stop-start Victoriana

BOOK REVIEW Milligan's revised hit on Cardinal Pell

BOOK REVIEW Top secret history told from the inside

BOOK REVIEW Foretaste of a bloody century



Books promotion page

Top secret history told from the inside

News Weekly, May 4, 2019

AUSTRALIA’S FIRST SPIES: The Remarkable Story of Australia’s Intelligence Operations, 1901–1945

by John Fahey

Allen and Unwin, Sydney
Paperback: 456 pages
Price: AUD$34.99

Reviewed by Chris Rule

John Fahey’s book is a history of the birth and early development of what have become Australia’s intelligence community and its international connections.

It details the organisations involved, operations, sources and methods, successes and failures, key individuals, and intra and inter-agency wrangling. It deals with the problems of professionals dealing with bean-counting bureaucrats; and it highlights the security issues that have plagued Australian intelligence from the start.

Fahey contends that Australia’s intelligence operations originated in a desire to protect Australian interests whenever those interests didn’t coincide with those of Great Britain. The first operation commenced in early 1901, against the French and British in the New Hebrides.

He also states that the secret history of a nation is a more reliable “indicator of what actually happened” than the public record: hardly controversial given that there are good reasons why sensitive operations cannot be part of the public record until years/decades later. Furthermore, he points to the importance to Australia of keeping the British and Americans committed to Asia.

Australia’s first spymaster was Atlee Hunt, who was Edmund Barton’s private secretary and, at the same time, secretary of the Department of External Affairs. He built an informal intelligence network by co-opting Australian government officials, both state and federal, and also businessmen. Two notables were James Sinclair, the Victorian trade representative in Singapore, and John Suttor, the trade representative for NSW in Kobe, Japan.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) is very prominent in this history. Until the creation of the RAN, in 1911, Australian naval resources were extensions of the Royal Navy (RN). The RAN was important in the development of the Australian intelligence system through its connections to the British Admiralty’s intelligence collection and reporting system. When World War I broke out, the RAN was better prepared than the Australian Army to conduct intelligence operations and was better prepared than at the start of World War II.

One of the great successes of the RAN at the start of World War I was the seizure of German maritime codebooks, including those of the HVB (merchant navy) and SKM (Imperial Navy), by September 3, 1914. This enabled Australia to start decryption of German maritime traffic. Initially the British did not have their own copies of these codebooks and so were dependent on Australia for reading the traffic.

The RAN was also involved in Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) throughout World War I and till the end of World War II. It was also involved in Human Intelligence (HUMINT) operations, through Coastwatch operations, which commenced in 1920 with the appointment of Ancell Gregory as the first coast watcher. Gregory’s brief was to report on foreigners – particularly the Japanese – and their activities in Northern Australia.

During World War II, the organisation became a battleground between the RAN and the Army as the Army tried to take control of it. The Navy used it only to collect local intelligence. The Army wanted it to become the equivalent of the British Special Operations Executive. As such it would be used to conduct guerilla operations and sabotage.

Another significant part of this book is details of the involvement of Australia in the SIGINT effort during World War II. This concentrates on the efforts of Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne (FRUMEL) and Central Bureau (CB).

FRUMEL, which involved RAN personnel, particularly women, was controlled by the United States Navy (USN), which was its main customer. CB on the other hand was an Allied organisation involving Australian, U.S., British and Canadian personnel. It had a wider customer base than FRUMEL, meeting the intelligence requirements of General MacArthur’s South Pacific HQ, the USN, and also “the “strategic requirements of Britain, the U.S., and other allied powers, including New Zealand and Nationalist China”.

Relations between FRUMEL and CB were fraught because FRUMEL feared ceding influence or authority to the U.S. Army. It would be worth reading the relevant chapter in this book in conjunction with David Dufty’s book. The Secret Code-breakers of Central Bureau, which was reviewed in the December 16, 2017, edition of News Weekly.

In relation to FRUMEL, there are two photos, which are supposedly taken at FRUMEL HQ, the Monterey flats. That building is an art deco style apartment building located on the corner of Queens Road and Princes Highway, St Kilda; the two photos are of a barracks-like building. The closest barracks to the Monterey flats were at Albert Park. Fahey is not the first one to have got this wrong; so did Mike Smith, in his book, The Emperor’s Codes, published in 2001.

This error has been tracked down to the mislabelling of photos in the official archives, which hopefully will now be rectified.

SIGINT operations during World War II were focused on Japan for obvious reasons, but Australian concerns about Japan began in the 1890s. This book shows that Japan was the major target of intelligence operations, particularly the Imperial Navy (IJN) and Imperial Army, from the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905.

I found this book worth reading. It was very interesting and generally well researched and written. However, it was not an easy book to read because of the amount of detail involved.

In addition to the question about the Monterey flats, there were other things which I take issue with:

  • First, when discussing the Curtin government’s policy of not allowing Australian women to work on the frontline, overseas, his attitude was polemical. He called this policy patronising, sexist – who had ever heard of the word in the 1940s – and narrow minded.
    I found it ironic, given this viewpoint, that, when referring to the recruitment and training of women as intercept opera­tors, he did not mention the work of Florence McKenzie, who anticipated the need and trained 1200 women as Morse operators.
  • Second, in relation to the Battle of Savo Island on August 9, 1941, Fahey says that the official Admiralty report attributed the sighting of the IJN force to a RAAF aircraft in the vicinity. He goes on to say that there was no record of a RAAF aircraft in the area at the time and that the report of a RAAF aircraft in the area was, probably, used to hide the real source of the sighting, SIGINT.
    However, in their book, Disaster in the Pacific: New Light on the Battle of Savo Island, Denis and Peggy Warner disagree. In it they say there were reconnaissance missions flown by the RAAF, in the area, on August 8; at least two aircraft reported sighting the IJN force.
  • Third, in his chapter on Australian Signals Intelligence in the 1930s, Fahey details the RAN’s targeting of the IJN Training Squadron that visited Australia in 1932. As part of the operation, it was found that the phrase “For Exercise” was in the preamble of all messages sent by the squadron, “possibly indicating that the IJN telegraphists were under training, or that the squadron was a training establishment, or that the IJN was avoiding using encrypted traffic while in Australian waters”.
    I would remove the word “possibly” and delete all words after “establishment” in that sentence. After all, he has already said that it was a training squadron. Also, the RAN would have known it was a training squadron and would have been expecting to intercept exercise traffic.

I will finish by saying, that, given his work in the Defence Signals Directorate, Fahey has credibility in relation to intelligence operations in general and in the field of SIGINT particularly.

In recommending the book – as do I – Peter Edwards in his review of the book in The Weekend Australian, November 3–4, 2018, commented that it “should be read not only by members of today’s agencies but by anyone interested in how intelligence agencies should and should not operate”.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


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