The new British battleship HMS Prince of Wales in Singapore Harbour, 4th December 1941. She had arrived with HMS Repulse, together forming ‘Force Z’ – designed to deter Japanese aggression.
Hong Kong Island was ceded to Britain in 1840 after the Opium War and twenty years later the Convention of Peking added the Kowloon Peninsula and Stonecutter’s Island. Stonecutter’s Island was less than a mile off the west coast of Kowloon and approximately three miles due north of Victoria, the capital of Hong Kong, one of the small, seemingly unimportant dependencies around the Island.
Like countless other captains in the Royal Navy, Captain Leach sailed many times through the passage between Stonecutter’s Island and Hong Kong, which encompassed approximately 32 square miles. Since there was a small Royal Navy facility on Stonecutter’s, he may have visited the island. In 1935 Stonecutter’s became extraordinarily important because that year the British created a top-secret wireless station on the island which could intercept a huge volume of Japanese naval signals. These included signals between Commander-in-Chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and the Combined Fleet, as well as a wide variety of other naval signals from ships or shore installations. This intelligence gathering was carried out by an organisation called the Far East Combined Bureau (FECB), a joint command of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. Their headquarters was in Hong Kong where they continued to operate until 1939 when it was deemed too vulnerable to a Japanese attack. Over the summer and autumn of 1939 it relocated to Singapore except for the staff manning the intercept station at Stonecutter’s Island who remained there until just before the Japanese captured the island on 11 December 1941. Almost two years earlier the FECB had established another powerful intercept station in Singapore.
Prior to 1991 references to the FECB in the Second World War histories were few and far between; Churchill’s six-volume history of the conflict contains not a single reference. The Japanese Thrust by Lionel Wigmore makes only three minor references in footnotes, which quote Compton Mackenzie’s Eastern Epic ‘General Percival … was depending for his judgment about Japanese intentions and Japanese fighting efficiency on the Far East Combined Bureau …’ In 1979, the official British intelligence historian F.H. Hinsley wrote British Intelligence in the Second World War, which contains an oblique reference to FECB stating that as of September 1939, ‘It remained possible … to keep track of [IJN’s] main naval movements.’ This footnote must be read in light of his disclaimer in the Preface where he states, ‘… there are unavoidable omissions. The most important of these is that we have not attempted to cover the war in the Far East.’
The 1995 The Oxford Companion to World War II devoted two paragraphs to the Far East Combined Bureau written by the general editor, I.C.B. Dear, a former officer in the Royal Marines. Dear writes, ‘The FECB’s records were probably destroyed and opinions vary as to how much the Bureau contributed to breaking the Japanese Navy’s JN-25 cipher …’ One can only assume that if the records of this intelligence bureau had not been located by 1995, then they will never be discovered. Dear would have been aware of a controversial book first published in1991 entitled Betrayal at Pearl Harbor – How Churchill Lured Roosevelt into World War II. The co-authors James Rusbridger and Eric Nave assert that Churchill knew that a Japanese task force was headed for Pearl Harbor and that he failed to warn Roosevelt. Rusbridger and Nave claim that on 25 November 1941 the FECB intercepted a signal from Admiral Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, to Admiral Naguma, Commander-in-Chief of the First Carrier Strike Force, which read, ‘the Task Force will move out of Hitokappu Wan [Tankan Bay] on the morning of 26 November and advance to the standing-by position on the afternoon of 4 December and speedily complete refuelling.’ In the Preface written by Rusbridger he asserts that by 26 November Commander Malcolm Burnett RN ‘had personally advised Churchill in London that the only logical target for the impending attack was Pearl Harbor.’
The co-authors were a curious pair. Rusbridger had written two earlier books both of which were controversial, The Intelligence Game and Who Sank Surcouf? Eric Nave had distinguished service in the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy. In 1988 Nave, who was 90 at the time, was living in Melbourne when he received a telephone call from Rusbridger who told Nave that he had come across his name in the unpublished diary of one Howard Baker who had been in Java before the war; the diary had ‘an intriguing reference to an Australian naval officer called Commander Nave, who had broken the Japanese naval codes before the war.’ Rusbridger flew out to Australia and spent days recording interviews with Nave. It is highly unlikely that Nave was much involved in either the research or writing of Betrayal at Pearl Harbor, which was extensive, and the publisher’s editor had to turn ‘a long technical manuscript into final concise print’.
Besides claiming that Churchill knew in advance from the aforesaid FECB intercept of 25 November 1941, and from later intercepts, that a giant Japanese strike force of aircraft carriers was at sea headed for Pearl Harbor, the book also claims that following the Japanese surrender Churchill sent secret instructions to FECB headquarters in Ceylon to destroy all of its archives. On both claims their book is a failure. The first depends on the alleged FECB intercepts and the uncorroborated statements of Commander Malcolm Burnett, OBE, RN to an historian named Dr Andrew Gordon. Burnett died on 17 July 1984 three years before Rusbridger decided to write his book and it seems unlikely that either co-author interviewed Dr Gordon, who is never quoted. There is a brief reference to Commander Burnett’s widow that requires comment. Rusbridger asserts in the Preface that after the first edition to their book was published, certain memories were awakened, including that of Commander Burnett’s widow, Mary. It is claimed that in December 1991 she appeared on American television and confirmed what her late husband had told Dr Gordon. Neither the television station nor the television programme is identified. Rusbridger makes no claim that he interviewed Mary Burnett and every statement that Rusbridger has attributed to Commander Burnett is unverifiable.
The claim that Churchill instructed FECB to destroy its archives after Japan’s surrender is even more untenable. The co-authors cite as their source Lieutenant Commander W.W. Mortimer, RNR (Ret.). Mortimer is never quoted directly and what he actually said to the co-authors will never be known. One of the co-authors (probably Rusbridger) added this aside, ‘Whether Churchill had the authority to do this seems doubtful …’ Churchill did not have the authority since he was no longer prime minister at the time of Japan’s surrender and it is regrettable that Rusbridger chose to make these claims against Churchill the main focus of his book.
Correlli Barnett’s book Engage the Enemy More Closely: the Royal Navy in the Second World War contains some scathing criticism of Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and as Prime Minister but no mention of Churchill knowing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Barnett describes Britain’s woeful lack of intelligence about Japanese operational plans for war against Britain and the US throughout 1941 as follows:
The British in particular, last in line to receive gleanings from ‘Magic’ and then by no means all of them, could only guess, grope and argue about Japanese intentions and plans – the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Foreign Office and Sir Robert Craigie, the ambassador in Tokyo, the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister themselves.
In stark contrast Rusbridger and Nave claim the Far East Combined Bureau was able to intercept and read virtually every important signal of the Imperial Japanese Navy at least until 4 December 1941. Without giving precise dates they describe FECB’s achievements in the first years of its operations as follows:
FECB read all the Japanese messages with ease and had prior knowledge of every operation they planned. The first advice usually came after a War Cabinet meeting in Tokyo and would be sent in the Commander-in-Chief’s code. A typical message would read, ‘Instructions have been issued for the capture of Canton. This will be known as Operation Y. Further details will be given by Chief of Naval Staff.’ This immediately helped FECB identify the much longer messages that would shortly be intercepted in the Blue Book code. These would give precise details of the number of transports, escorting warships, the Army units involved, landing place, route to be taken, and so forth. Not a single message escaped the listening post in Hong Kong. The powerful intercept station at Stonecutter’s sucked up everything transmitted from Japan and by any ship at sea.
On 1 June 1939 the Japanese Navy introduced a new code system; however, FECB and GCCS (Government Code & Cipher School), which by the autumn of 1939 had moved to its wartime home at Bletchley Park some 50 miles northwest of London, soon broke this new code. According to Rusbridger and Nave:
So by the end of 1939, GCCS and FECB could read JN-25, used between navy headquarters in Tokyo and all their ships and shore stations; the naval attaché traffic, which was still using the Red Machine; the Commander-in-Chief’s code; and several other low-grade codes, such as the Appointments Code, which contained little of importance.
With respect to the critical period just before Pearl Harbor and the simultaneous Japanese attacks on Northern Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, Rusbridger and Nave write:
The exact total of messages sent by Yamamoto between 20 November and 7 December to his Task Force at Tankan Bay, and later while at sea en route to Pearl Harbor is not known, because all Japanese naval records were destroyed before the end of the war. But at least twenty such messages were intercepted and exist today in the National Archives, Washington D.C. thus proving beyond any doubt that radio silence with the Task Force was broken after it had assembled and sailed … The American intercepts all bear postwar decryption dates … but Nave is adamant that every message intercepted by the Americans would also have been intercepted by the British, and because JN-25 had been broken by him since the autumn of 1939, all these intercepted messages would have been read without difficulty or delay by FECB and GCCS.
They identify two Japanese signals of the highest importance allegedly intercepted and read by FECB on 20 November and on 25 November.
One of the first, decoded by FECB on 20 November, was from Yamamoto in Tokyo, using his combined Fleet C in C call sign, KE RO 88, to his Task Force waiting at Tankan Bay. Here for the first time in print is the signal that effectively set in motion the war in the Pacific: ‘This dispatch is top secret. To be decoded only by an officer. This order effective as of the date within the text to follow: At 0000 (midnight) on 21 November, repeat 21 November, carry out second phase for opening hostilities.’
The prefixes at the start of this message, which was known to FECB because they could read JN-25, showed that it was addressed to the Second Fleet (YA KI 4), the Third Fleet (E MU 6), the Fourth Fleet (O RE 1), the Combined Fleet (RI TA 3) and the Eleventh Air Fleet (SU YO 4), indicating that a large group of warships, including carriers, had assembled somewhere as part of the first phase of opening hostilities, and that the second phase was about to begin.
Regarding the signal of 25 November, previously quoted, Rusbridger and Nave write:
On 25 November FECB decrypted Yamamoto’s next set of instructions to his waiting Task Force in JN-25: ‘The Task Force will move out of Hitokappu Wan [Tankan Bay] on the morning of 26 November and advance to the standing-by position on the afternoon of 4 December and speedily complete refuelling.
While Rusbridger and Nave give FECB full credit for intercepting and reading both of the aforesaid signals, the source notes reveal that they had relied on quite a different source – the National Archives in Washington DC. Moreover, the National Archives records reveal that the 20 November intercept was not decrypted until 26 November 1945. The source of the 25 November intercept was also the National Archives, but it was not an intercept at all, but instead a document recovered from the wreck of the Japanese cruiser Nachi that was sunk in Manila Bay in November 1944. These inconsistencies alone cast doubt on their claims that Churchill had been forewarned by FECB of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Rusbridger’s book is replete with numerous source notes. It also contains in the Appendices verbatim copies of documents, some of which are marked ‘top secret’. Nevertheless, the sources that he has cited and the verbatim documents that he has reproduced fail to include any original sources relating to Far East Combined Bureau except for a very few retired officers concerning events that had taken place more than 40 years earlier. Rusbridger obviously considered his co-author, Eric Nave, his most important individual source.
Eric Nave joined the Australian Navy in 1917 at the age of eighteen. Two years later he was eligible to sit for his examination for promotion to sub lieutenant and chose to study Japanese for his required foreign language. The GCCS (British Government Code & Cipher School) became aware of his fluency in Japanese and his promise at code and cipher breaking. In mid 1927 at its request Nave was loaned to the Royal Navy to work for this code-breaking school and by the end of 1930 he was its most experienced Japanese code breaker and was invited to transfer from the RAN to the Royal Navy. The London Gazette on the front page of its issue for 2 December1930 announced that by special order of King George V, Nave had been transferred from the RAN to the Royal Navy effective 27 November 1930. In 1937 the Government Code & Cipher School sent Nave to Hong Kong to continue his work at Far East Combined Bureau. He arrived there in the autumn of 1937 only a few months after Japan had started its offensives against China’s coastal cities.
Nave soon became a key figure at the interception station on Stonecutter’s Island and at the headquarters of FECB in the naval dockyards on Hong Kong Island. Because the Japanese naval Code (JN-25) was periodically altered, GCCS and FECB coordinated their best efforts to break the altered code. In the autumn of 1939 Commander Malcolm Burnett RN flew out from London ‘to FECB to give Nave the reconstructed dictionary and current keys’165 to the reconstructed JN-25 codebook.
Since Hong Kong was much more vulnerable to a Japanese attack than Singapore, the headquarters of FECB was relocated to Singapore in August 1939 but the Stonecutter’s Island facility continued to intercept Japanese naval signals.
It was not until 2006 that a retired officer in the Royal Australian Navy, Ian Pfennigwerth, wrote Nave’s biography. A Man of Intelligence: The Life of Captain Eric Nave, Australian Codebreaker Extraordinary was first published in Australia in 2006. Pfennigwerth served in the Royal Australian Navy for 35 years, the last ten of which were spent primarily in the intelligence sphere; he served as Director of Naval Intelligence for three years. His book on Nave was clearly motivated by a desire to set the record straight and to celebrate ‘the magnificent work done by this Australian’. Pfennigwerth writes convincingly about Nave’s brilliance both in his ability to break Japanese Naval codes and in his translating ability. He is also convincing about the success of the intercept station on Stonecutter’s Island from October 1937 until February 1940 when Nave served with the FECB.
In a 1989 BBC interview Nave spoke of the signals intelligence that originated from Stonecutter’s Island.
The reception there in China, and particularly from Hong Kong, Stonecutter’s, was excellent. We could read Tokyo [Radio] twenty-four hours a day; and the possibility of missing an important dispatch, I think, just didn’t exist. Atmospherics, of course, was one thing; but we generally could overcome that. We could get static very bad at times. It was difficult, yes; but for the most part we were not in a position where you could miss a certain period during the day, or a whole message at any time. You had confidence that you could read all the traffic.
In February 1940 Nave was sent to Australia on sick leave suffering from a rare illness called Tropical Sprue. At that time the cause was unknown and there was no satisfactory treatment; however, living outside the tropics clearly improved a patient’s chances of recovery. Eric and his wife Helena embarked at Singapore on a Dutch ship for the voyage to Australia in February 1940. The significance of that date is that it represented the end of his work with Far East Combined Bureau, but Rusbridger’s and Nave’s book suggests that Nave was privy to the work of FECB in the months and weeks leading up to the Japanese attacks on 7 December. In fact Nave was over four thousand miles from Singapore for at least twenty months before the start of the Pacific war. It is unlikely that Nave had any first-hand knowledge of the FECB’s code-breaking operations at any time after February 1940.
In Australia Nave was able to render invaluable service to the newly created Special Intelligence Bureau, which he commanded before Pearl Harbor; yet Pfennigwerth found no involvement by Nave or Special Intelligence Bureau in any intercepts that would show that the IJN had a powerful strike force of aircraft carriers headed toward Pearl Harbor.
It can be confidently stated that Eric Nave and the Special Intelligence Bureau had nothing at all to do with the alleged intelligence ‘failures’ that might have given warning of Japanese intentions to attack Pearl Harbor.
Pfennigwerth has made a point of informing his readers that Betrayal at Pearl Harbor has been severely criticised. He quotes one critic as follows:
The noted writer on cryptanalysis, and the author of The Codebreakers – David Kahn – made the following reference to Betrayal at Pearl Harbor in an October 1991 article defending the work of the codebreakers in the lead-up to the Japanese attack: ‘Aside from the fact that Churchill wanted the United States to fight Germany not Japan, the claim [that Churchill concealed foreknowledge of the attack from Roosevelt] is not only not substantiated by any documents (it is based chiefly on hypothesis and ‘must have beens’) but it is vitiated by technical errors … it is improbable that the British … would have limited exchanging code group recoveries with the Americans, when they would have benefited as much if not more than the Americans from learning as much as they could about the Japanese.’
Pfennigwerth then commented:
These are, in my view, perfectly fair criticisms of the book but as the reader will now realise, the hypotheses and ‘must have beens’ were not the work of Eric Nave. Its publication damaged his reputation and portrayed him as something of a crank … It would have been better had his name been left off the title page …
INTELLIGENCE THAT FAILED II
As for Rusbridger, his journalistic sensation making with Betrayal at Pearl Harbor brought him more notoriety than fame, and precious little fortune. He died by his own hand on 16 February 1994 in allegedly bizarre circumstances, apparently unable to meet the demands of his creditors.
Rusbridger was a charlatan, but he succeeded in beguiling a number of prominent people in Britain, America and Australia. One respected British historian, John Costello, even worked for a time as an adviser to Rusbridger and Nave. In his source notes to Days of Infamy Costello wrote, ‘When the original British publisher bowed out after the government issued a ‘D’ notice to prevent Nave from publishing his memoir, the author of this book ceased to have any responsibility for either the manuscript or the conclusions of the work that finally appeared in 1990 [sic] under the title Betrayal at Pearl Harbor.’ Another of Costello’s source notes refutes one of Rusbridger’s more scurrilous claims. ‘Mortimer’s 1982 letter to the author does not state that Churchill (who was no longer prime minister when the war ended) had personally ordered the destruction [of the FECB records] as Rusbridger and Nave claimed in Betrayal at Pearl Harbor.’
Ian Pfenningwerth and John Costello are among few serious scholars who have written extensively about the Far East Combined Bureau FECB. Neither, however, has examined the question of whether this arcane signals intelligence organisation could have detected the presence of the 22nd Air Flotilla on airfields around Saigon prior to 8 December. It is rather astounding that neither author seemed to comprehend the enormous threat this flotilla posed to Prince of Wales and Repulse.
By sending HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse to the Far East Churchill had hoped to deter Japan from any new aggression that would lead to a war with Britain and America. While deterrence failed, the presence at Singapore of these two capital ships did cause Admiral Yamamoto to reinforce the 22nd Air Flotilla with 27 additional torpedo bombers. This has been well documented by historians Martin Middlebrook and Patrick Mahoney:
The third step taken by the Japanese to protect the invasion convoys from Prince of Wales and Repulse was to reinforce the air units assigned to the area. Since there was no separate Japanese Air Force, an earlier plan had called for army planes to cover the landings. Yet the Japanese Navy had no confidence in the army to provide the necessary scale of air cover, and Admiral Yamamoto Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Navy had ordered the 22nd Koku Sentai – the 22nd Air Flotilla – to move from its airfields in Formosa to Indo-China. Rear Admiral Sadaichi Matsunaga, the 22nd Flotilla’s commander, had moved his headquarters to Saigon and his aircraft had followed … But, when the arrival of the two large British ships at Singapore became known, Admiral Yamamoto decided to strengthen this force by taking part of the Kanoya Air Corps away from the 21st Air Flotilla in Formosa. In this way, twenty-seven Mitsubishi Navy Type 1 G4MIS flew into Saigon just in time for the new war.
The original date that the 22nd Air Flotilla – which consisted of almost 70 long-range bombers capable of carrying either bombs or torpedoes – arrived at airfields in southern French Indo-China cannot be pinpointed; however, it is believed to have been in late October. The reinforcements from Formosa arrived on 5 December.
Admiral Yamamoto’s October order redeploying the 22nd Air Flotilla from Formosa to southern French Indo-China might well have been intercepted and read by FECB. What is virtually certain is that Admiral Phillips, Captain Leach and Captain Tennant never received any intelligence reports about the 22nd Air Flotilla, much less the reinforcements from the 21st Air Flotilla.
Leach clearly did not underestimate the threat that Japanese aircraft posed to his ship as well as to HMS Repulse. On the evening of 6 December he had spoken to his son, Henry, about the enormity of the odds they were up against. It can be assumed that he had discussed these concerns at length with his good friend, Bill Tennant, the Repulse’s captain. Of the three senior officers in Prince of Wales and Repulse, Admiral Phillips was the most dismissive of Japanese airpower. He would not, however, have ignored any intelligence from FECB that the 22nd Air Flotilla had been redeployed and reinforced, and there would be records of his requesting information about the number of aircraft, their type, range and armament. He would not have gotten such precise information from FECB and in that climactic first week in December signals intelligence was no substitute for human intelligence out of French Indo-China.
One individual could have revealed much about the composition of the 22nd Air Flotilla to the British. He was Vice Admiral Jean Decoux, the 57-year-old Governor General of French Indo-China. It is all too easy for historians to dismiss Decoux as just another Vichy collaborator who was little more than a lackey of the Japanese. While he never declared himself for the ‘Free French Movement’ of the enigmatic Charles De Gaulle, Decoux was a substantial historical figure who had the courage to follow his convictions.
After July 1941, his position was unenviable. The Japanese Army had already occupied part of northern Indo-China and the Japanese Navy had established a forward naval base at Cam Rahn Bay. There were strong units of the Japanese Army and the Japanese Army Air Force in the south around Saigon and Japanese warships controlled the seas around the colony that stretched from the Chinese border in the north to the Thai border in the south.
Decoux could expect no reinforcements from Admiral Darlan as the latter’s heavy ships at Toulon were short of fuel, but even if he had possessed an adequate supply of fuel, it would have availed him nothing because the Royal Navy controlled both ends of the Mediterranean. Admiral Darlan, therefore, could not send any warships to the Far East without the consent of the British. It was not only the overwhelming Japanese military presence that concerned Decoux. The Japanese using intimidation and coercion were systematically stripping his colony of its mineral resources and its rice crop, which at the time was the third largest in the world.
Notwithstanding the Japanese presence, Decoux controlled all French military forces in Indo-China and governed the native populations that consisted of the French protectorates of Cambodia, Laos, Annam, Tongkin and the colony of Cochin-China. His army numbered 80,000–100,000, but most of them were ill-equipped native recruits; however, Decoux did have hardened troops of the French Foreign Legion under his command. His tiny air force had at least one squadron of Morane-Saulnier M.S. 406 fighter aircraft, and on 8 June 1940 one of these aircraft in the hands of a superb pilot shot down three Messerschmitt Bf 109s in fifteen seconds. The French Navy in Indo-China included the light cruiser Lamotte-Picquet armed with eight 6.1-inch guns in four turrets and two sloops, Admiral Charner and Dumont D’Urville, each armed with three 5.5-inch guns in three turrets. These sloops had been designed for tropical service with special arrangement for circulation of cool air.
Decoux’s guiding principle was to use his military forces to assert French sovereignty over the entire colony; however, he knew that at any time the Japanese could arrest him and demand the surrender of his forces. In the event that his forces refused to surrender, he felt certain they would be annihilated. Why the Japanese did not disarm the French forces in Indo-China early on remains a mystery. It is conceivable that Japan thought Vichy France would eventually declare war on Britain and that Decoux’ forces could be used to garrison Indo-China, thereby releasing Japanese troops for operations elsewhere.
Decoux insisted that the Japanese comply with their treaty obligations to compensate the French for everything that was exported to Japan including the vital rice crop. He resolved to defend the borders of French Indo-China from any aggression by Thailand, which later would become Japan’s ally by declaring war on Britain and the US. At the same time Decoux wanted to safeguard some 40,000 Europeans, most of whom were French, and to protect the inhabitants of Indo-China from starvation. In mid September 1940, three months after France’s surrender, Thailand demanded that France cede certain border territories together with some islands in the Mekong River. Decoux rejected this demand and took the drastic step of calling up French males throughout the colony between the ages of 40 and 50.
In January 1941 after Thai troops had crossed the border, Admiral Decoux ordered his naval units to sea. His small squadron led by the cruiser Lamotte-Picquet engaged and defeated most of the Thai fleet sinking or disabling two coast defence ships armed with four 8-inch guns. A few months later the Japanese intervened. Under the guise of mediation, Japan forced the French to cede all of the disputed territory to Thailand. These events did not go unnoticed by the American Secretary of State, Cordell Hull. On 6 April he told the British ambassador Lord Halifax that the government of Thailand had colluded with the Japanese to secure Tokyo’s aid in their war with the Vichy French.
Notwithstanding this three-month war, Thailand ceased to pose any real threat to French Indo-China. The Empire of Japan was a different matter. Admiral Decoux and his superiors in Vichy well understood their grim choices: an undeclared war with Japan resulting in an overwhelming military defeat, abject surrender without resistance or an accommodation with Japan that would preserve the semblance of French rule.
On 19 July the axe fell. The Japanese envoy in Vichy delivered his government’s ultimatum that Japan demanded the right to occupy all of French Indo-China with the provisos that France would retain sovereignty and that Admiral Decoux would continue to be Governor-General and the Commander-in-Chief of all French military forces. The Vichy government quickly acceded and within ten days the Japanese occupied southern French Indo-China including Saigon and its airfields, which placed Japanese aircraft within range of Singapore for the first time. From then until the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, Admiral Decoux and his staff had front row seats to the stage on which the Japanese were marshalling their military might for the most egregious act of aggression in their entire history.
In contrast, the British military in Singapore had little knowledge of what was happening in French Indo-China other than official announcements from Vichy and Tokyo. Their two most important channels of intelligence were the Free French organisation in Singapore and a secret channel with Admiral Decoux. The Free French organisation was headed by Monsieur Baron who was more successful at public relations than he was at acquiring military intelligence. The channel to Decoux seems to have been the brainchild of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, Commander-in-Chief China, the highest ranking Royal Navy officer in the Far East. Although Decoux was well known to a number of Royal Navy officers with whom he had worked prior to the fall of France, it is unclear whether he and Admiral Layton ever met. Early in 1941, with permission of the Admiralty, Layton opened secret negotiation with Decoux. The story that was leaked to the press was that the Commander-in-Chief China offered economic aid to the French Governor-General in exchange for a pledge not to interfere with British shipping in the coastal waters of French Indo-China. The possibility that Decoux, who had only a handful of warships, might order them to interfere with British shipping seems preposterous. The possibility that Layton was trying to improve relations with Decoux in order to open a possible channel of military intelligence seems much more plausible.
By the autumn of 1941 Decoux’s situation was becoming critical. The Japanese continued to demand the colony’s mineral resources and most of its rice crop. For compensation the Japanese sometimes paid the French in a currency printed by the Japanese exclusively for use in French Indo-China. Since the currency had little real value, inflation threatened to destroy the economy, and with the forced export of rice, starvation loomed.
While Decoux like many other officers in the French Navy deeply resented the attack ordered by Churchill on French ships at Mers-el-Kébir where 1,000 French sailors perished on 3 July 1940, it seems doubtful that he was either pro-German or pro-Japanese. What has been largely overlooked is that in early 1941 Decoux and Admiral Layton commenced secret negotiations. The American war correspondent, Cecil Brown, had exceptionally good sources in Singapore and was keenly interested in what was happening in French Indo-China. His diary for 7 October 1941 reads in part:
My contact with the Free French finally bore fruit today. Dr. May and M. Baron, head of the Free French movement here, gave me a good story. They showed me secret documents they’d just gotten hold of revealing the extent of Vichy’s collaboration with the Japanese … At the moment the Japanese are exerting all kinds of pressure on Vichy to surrender additional oil storage facilities and to permit Japanese control of the entire postal system, telegraph and communication … the ‘honor’ with which the Japanese carry on their business dealings is shown in their treatment of the French in Indo-china. I saw a document showing that under two treaties the entire coal production of Indo-China was reserved for Japan as well as the entire output of iron, tin, manganese, chromium and antimony … Under the treaty, payment by Japan was to be made in gold dollars or in goods. After the agreement was made the Japanese informed the Vichy authorities in Indo-China that their gold was frozen and that they would pay with goods and raw materials … On September 18th, Decoux was asked by a reporter of Tokyo Nichi-Nichi if he was satisfied with the Franco-Japanese agreement. ‘Until now,’ Decoux said, ‘Indo-China has completely fulfilled all that was asked of her. She has sent everything that Japan has requested and that we promised to send, but the Japanese have not sent us the goods that they promised. We have difficulties getting things we need from the Japanese, and we reserve our opinion on answering that question until the promised goods arrives [sic].’
Seven weeks later Brown was able to get a story from Duff Cooper, Churchill’s representative in Singapore, that the latter should never have revealed. Brown’s diary for Friday 28 November reads:
Duff Cooper is still working on his report on the Far East. He was astonished to find that Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton was carrying on diplomatic relations with Indo-China. The story I get is this: Some time ago Layton telegraphed the Admiralty that he didn’t want to dissipate his forces and the French in Indo-China had some naval units which could cause some trouble and interfere with shipping. He therefore asked if he could negotiate with Indo-China. He was told to go ahead. As a result he negotiated with Admiral Decoux, the Governor-General in Indo-China, an accord that if the French didn’t interfere with shipping on the China coast or infringe on British naval rights then certain raw materials, but not war materials, would be sent to Indo-China.
How much raw materials reached Indo-China is unclear. The real import of what Cooper revealed to Brown is that Admiral Decoux had a secret means of communicating with Admiral Layton.
The 22nd Air Flotilla and part of the 21st Air Flotilla with almost 100 naval aircraft capable of carrying either bombs or torpedoes were clearly prepared for action on 8 December. Their presence on airfields around Saigon would not have escaped the attention of the French. The deployment of an entire flotilla could not have been accomplished without some cooperation from Decoux’s senior air force staff officers. While Decoux’s air force was not large, nevertheless his aircraft would have made routine flights over the three airfields around Saigon and his pilots would have reported to him on the numbers and the types of aircraft they had seen from the air. It is highly probable that the Saigon police learned in late October that the commander of the 22nd Air Flotilla, Rear Admiral Matsunaga, had established his headquarters in Saigon. Admiral Decoux, whose headquarters were also in Saigon, could make reasonably accurate estimates of the Japanese naval air presence. Even if he had not had a naval background, Decoux very likely would have understood the threat that the 22nd Air Flotilla posed to Prince of Wales and Repulse in the event they were to venture into the Gulf of Siam.
Why did Decoux withhold this vital information from Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton? This is indeed a troubling question. In the recent past Decoux had been involved with the Royal Navy and he had reason to loathe the Japanese. In September 1940 the Japanese Army had overrun a French Fort in Northern Indo-China and massacred the garrison; 800 French soldiers had perished. This happened despite the fact that a few days previously French officials had signed a treaty giving Japan the right to use certain airfields and port facilities in northern Indo-China.
Decoux might well have been tempted to tell Layton what he knew about the 22nd Air Flotilla; however, he did not. His primary loyalties lay with ‘La Belle France’ and the French Navy. He knew that if the Japanese learned that he had given Admiral Layton this vital information, they might have summarily executed him. The Japanese would have dismantled the entire French colonial administration and interned all French military forces including the hapless Governor-General. This would have ended French sovereignty in Indo-China, perhaps forever. It, however, seems probable that Decoux informed Admiral Darlan of the massive build-up of Japanese naval aircraft.
The British had obtained some French naval codes in early July 1940. On 1 July 1940 Admiral Darlan had ordered all French ships to return immediately to French ports. The French submarine Narval commanded by Capitaine de Corvette Drogou received the order in the Mediterranean and broadcast a reply that became symbolic of Free French resistance everywhere. ‘Trahison sur toute la ligne, je rallie un port anglais.’ (‘Betrayal all along the line, I am making for an English port.’) A few days later Narval arrived at Grand Harbour, Malta. Capitaine Drogou promptly turned over the French naval codes to officers of the Royal Navy.
There is no historical evidence that FECB intercepted or read any signal from Decoux’s headquarters in Saigon to Darlan’s headquarters in France; however, that possibility cannot be entirely excluded in view of the probable destruction of all the FECB records for 1941. The monitoring stations on Stonecutter’s Island and at the Singapore Naval Base certainly had the capacity to intercept a French naval signal coming from Saigon; however, it is probable that these two stations were too busy intercepting Japanese naval signals to bother with any French ones. Furthermore, although the British had acquired the French naval codes used by the submarine Narval in early July 1940, Admiral Darlan may have changed all his codes long before the 22nd Air Flotilla’s appearance in southern French Indo-China.
The failure of British intelligence in the Far East is not easily explained. The biggest problem for historians is the lack of official records. British historians almost unanimously agree that the official records of the Far East Combined Bureau were probably destroyed after the Japanese surrender.
The private records of Admiral Jean Decoux and his official records as Governor-General were probably destroyed months prior to the Japanese surrender. Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi, who commanded all Japanese southern armies, had established headquarters in Saigon early in 1945. By then French Indo-China was his strongest bastion in south-east Asia. His army was still formidable and he had a secure land line of communication with China where Japan maintained armies totalling a million men.
Terauchi was determined to fight to the death against any American invasion that seemed likely to be launched from the Philippines, which General MacArthur’s forces had largely liberated by the end of February. Terauchi was concerned about what Admiral Decoux would do in that event. In November 1942 Vichy French forces in French North Africa had initially resisted US and British landings, but by 1945 the Vichy government no longer existed. Although Decoux’s native troops seem to have been largely demobilised, he still commanded up to 10,000 French soldiers and an unknown number of French Foreign Legion troops.
On 9 March 1945, Terauchi demanded that Decoux place his forces under Japanese command. When Decoux refused, he was arrested and the French garrisons were surrounded ‘and in the fighting that followed about 1,700 French troops were killed or simply massacred.’ Before he received this ultimatum Admiral Decoux had probably already ordered the destruction of all sensitive records.
If the precise causes of these intelligence failures remain unknown, their consequences are apparent. Admiral Phillips, Captain Leach and Captain Tennant would have been able to devise a far better battle plan had they had accurate information about the 22nd Air Flotilla. War would come to Singapore all too soon. The individual who would have the forthcoming responsibility for the deployment of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse was Admiral Sir Tom Phillips. The Admiral did not know half of what he would be up against.