Stephen Loosley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ad­mi­ral Isoroku Ya­mamoto, ar­chi­tect of Ja­pan’s treach­er­ous but stun­ning at­tack on Pearl Har­bor on De­cem­ber 7, 1941, was a bril­liant strate­gist. Yet he knew his skills were tem­pered by his na­tion’s mil­i­tary and ma­te­rial lim­i­ta­tions. In­formed of Ja­pan’s suc­cess in dev­as­tat­ing the US Pa­cific fleet, he mused that all Ja­pan had achieved was to awaken a sleep­ing gi­ant and fill it with a ter­ri­ble re­solve.

That was ac­cu­rate in ev­ery de­tail, but what the ad­mi­ral could not fore­see was that Amer­i­can re­solve would in­clude his death as ret­ri­bu­tion for the slaugh­ter at Pearl Har­bor, and in di­rect con­se­quence of Ja­panese pro­pa­ganda declar­ing Ya­mamoto would dic­tate the peace terms to the Amer­i­cans in the White House.

In Craig Col­lie’s Code Break­ers, Ya­mamoto looms large in the sec­tions on the turn­ing points of the Pa­cific War: the bat­tles of the Co­ral Sea and Mid­way, the am­bush of Ya­mamoto’s plane by Amer­i­can fight­ers over the Solomons.

All th­ese al­lied vic­to­ries were the prod­uct of painstak­ing, in­sight­ful, some­times bril­liant code­break­ing by Amer­i­can, Aus­tralian and Bri­tish sig­nals in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts.

Col­lie has pre­vi­ously writ­ten a splen­did ac­count of the Kokoda cam­paign from a Ja­panese per­spec­tive: The Path of In­fi­nite Sor­row (2009), with Ha­jime Maru­tani, which was pen­e­trat­ing in its re­search and orig­i­nal in its con­clu­sions. His other books on the bomb­ing of Na­gasaki and the Chi­nese repub­li­can rev­o­lu­tion make him a fine wartime his­to­rian.

Code Break­ers, an en­gag­ing and en­light­en­ing book, adds to this author­ity. It is the best book on the sig­nif­i­cance of crypt­anal­y­sis in the Pa­cific War since El­liot Carl­son’s Joe Rochefort’s War (2011), a bi­og­ra­phy of the renowned Amer­i­can code­breaker at Sta­tion Hypo, Hawaii.

Col­lie traces the stum­bling devel­op­ment of Aus­tralian ef­forts at sig­nals in­tel­li­gence be­fore World War II. It is a story of po­lit­i­cal hes­i­ta­tion over­shad­owed by imperial as­ser­tions of power.

One episode tells an epic story. The per­cep­tive lieu­tenant com­man­der Ru­pert Long, the di­rec­tor of naval in­tel­li­gence, rec­om­mended to the chief of naval staff of the RAN, ad­mi­ral Rag­nar Colvin, that a ded­i­cated sig­nals unit be es­tab­lished in Aus­tralia to in­ter­cept and de­code the ra­dio traf­fic of po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries, par­tic­u­larly Ger­man trans­mis­sions.

“The Colvin pro­posal was con­sid­ered by the De­fence Com­mit­tee in early 1940 and passed to Prime Min­is­ter Robert Men­zies in April,’’ Col­lie writes. “Men­zies was un­con­vinced. Most en­emy — that is, Ger­man — mes­sages were transmitted in Europe and the At­lantic, and he saw Code Break­ers By Craig Col­lie Allen & Un­win, 400pp, $32.99 FECB (Far East Com­bined Bureau) as al­ready cov­er­ing Asia. None­the­less, he wrote to the Do­min­ions Of­fice seek­ing the views of the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment. It was in no rush to pro­vide them.”

Men­zies’ re­liance on Bri­tish de­ci­sion mak­ing nearly had se­ri­ous con­se­quences for Aus­tralian ca­pa­bil­ity and se­cu­rity: “In Oc­to­ber, 1940, Bri­tain’s Sec­re­tary of State for Do­min­ion Af­fairs, Lord Cran­borne, fi­nally replied to Prime Min­is­ter Men­zies, say­ing he saw no reason to set up a large-scale in­tel­li­gence body in Aus­tralia.”

De­spite this, an Aus­tralian crypt­anal­y­sis ca­pac­ity did emerge, with re­gional back­ing not only from Bri­tish naval per­son­nel in the re­gion but from the Dutch (East Indies) and New Zealand. The prime mover in this pol­icy, which saw the es­tab­lish­ment of the Spe­cial In­tel­li­gence Bureau, was the RAN di­rec­tor of sig­nals and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, lieu­tenant com­man­der Jack New­man.

This fun­da­men­tal step en­abled Aus­tralia to

USS Ari­zona dur­ing the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor

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