The SRD operations – one of the greatest intelligence failures in Australian history!
In early 1942, as the war situation appeared to become more and more critical, Australia’s government agreed to the establishment of an organisation, the Inter-Allied Services Department (ISD) which later became. Special Operations Australia (SOA) and, in 1943, was yet again retitled as the Services Reconnaisance Department (SRD) of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB), the latter formed by MacArthur’s General Headquarters, South West Pacific Area (GHQ, SWPA). Given the multiple titles given to the organisation between 1941 and 1944 we will use the title SRD throughout to reduce confusion.
SRD’s brief was to conduct HUMINT operations behind enemy lines as well as sabotage and other direct action. This decision mixed two types of activity that do not mix. The first was the collection of intelligence, an undertaking that requires a quiescent target and sits uneasily with the second, the conduct of sabotage, disruption and propaganda operations to harass and annoy the very same target. These two activities cannot be run at the same time, as the experience of the SRD amply demonstrates.
The disposition of the Australian ground forces in the islands to Australia’s north is a classic example of what you should never do. The forces were distributed in small groupings, with LARK Force at Rabaul, New Britain, and Kavieng, New Ireland, SPARROW Force on Timor and GULL Force at Ambon. These small and isolated forces were never going to do much more than evade capture before surrendering. At Rabaul and Kavieng LARK Force was destroyed so swiftly that it resembled a rout and the Japanese were unable to catch many of the Australian troops before they ran off into the jungle. On Ambon, GULL Force was commanded by Harry Freame’s old handler, now Lieutenant Colonel, W.R. Scott, and it was quickly taken prisoner and subjected to a brutal captivity for the remainder of the war. On Timor, SPARROW Force, commanded in the field by Lieutenant Colonel William Leggett, inflicted serious casualties on the Japanese before it too had to surrender the bulk of its strength. Nevertheless, around 300 escaped the Japanese and joined up with 2/2 Independent Company, the one unit to maintain its cohesion, in Portuguese East Timor, where they conducted a guerrilla campaign until the Japanese forced their evacuation in December 1942. It was this that provided a significant boost to the ambitions of those within the SRD [Services Reconnaissance Department] and AIB [Allied Intelligence Bureau] who believed that a successful guerrilla war could be conducted against the Japanese in occupied territory.
2/2 Independent Company began to harass the Japanese who had arrived on Timor, which, as a Portuguese colony, was officially neutral. This neutrality was somewhat lopsided, as the Portuguese administration allowed the Australian force to utilise telephones and postal services to pass messages. Their situation improved further when they finally got an improvised radio working and regained contact with Australian forces in Darwin.
The situation on Timor was one the Japanese would not tolerate for long, and in June 1942 their relationship with the Portuguese administration deteriorated to the point where they cut the communications link to Portugal and lodged a formal complaint about Manuel de Abreu Ferreira de Carvalho’s administration of the colony. Finally, their limited patience having evaporated, the Japanese 48th Division, led by Lieutenant General Tsuchihashi Yuitsu, occupied the Portuguese half of Timor and set about suppressing the Australian and Dutch guerrilla units. Tsuchihashi swiftly pushed his forces into the hinterland, took important towns and secured much of the coastline. A significant portion of the 48th Division was then withdrawn to Rabaul in preparation for further advances south through the Solomon Islands ready for the invasion of Fiji and New Caledonia. This operation, although it never eventuated, was seen by the Japanese as more important, because if successful it would have resulted in them cutting off the direct shipping lanes from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of Australia.
The Australian commandos on Timor had now been contained to the areas around their bases, and the Japanese supported by local Timorese began a campaign of destroying them in detail. This resulted in an upsurge of inter-clan and intertribal fighting, as villages used the chaos to settle old scores. Some Timorese even revolted against the Portuguese.
For the Australian commandos, the hard reality was that the Japanese now had 12,000 troops on the island and they were not going to allow a stay-behind party of Australian and Dutch forces to continue operations. As the fighting alienated ever-growing numbers of Timorese, the position of the Australian and Dutch forces became untenable by early 1943.
As the Australian Independent Company was operating on Timor, the AIB was to conduct HUMINT, sabotage and other operations in Japanese-occupied areas. This was in line with the ethos of the SOE and its mission to ‘set Europe ablaze’. The success of the 2/2 Independent Company and the survivors of SPARROW in not being captured or destroyed led to the IJA moving more troops onto the island to deal with them and this in turn led to the arrival in September of LANCER Force, 400 men of 2/4 Independent Company. At face value, the situation on Timor looked as if it could lead to the creation of a viable guerrilla war conducted with local support. This attracted the attention of the AIB and the SRD.
In early 1942, two SOE officers, Major G.S. Mott and Major A.E.B. Trappes-Lomax, had arrived in Australia to advise the Australian Army on how to set up a local version of SOE. The outcome was that General Blamey ordered the creation of SOA and the ISD, which later became the SRD, commanded by Major Mott. In June 1942, this organisation was brought under the umbrella of the new AIB, which also oversaw the operations of FELO, the organisation responsible for propaganda in Japanese-occupied areas. The AIB was commanded by the DMI at LHQ, our old friend Colonel C.G. Roberts.
From the very beginning, AIB was double-tasked with obtaining intelligence about the enemy, which is why they form part of our story here, and taking action to weaken the enemy by sabotage and destruction of morale through commando raids and the creation of insurrection, which is not part of our story. As Rupert Long and Eric Feldt at the RAN had already identified, this was a recipe for disaster. As the official history of the SRD notes, in the period from July 1942 to August 1945, the SRD was ‘constantly engaged in field operations’, but ‘between October 1943 and June 1945, all parties in the field were in Japanese hands’. This makes the SRD operations one of the greatest intelligence failures in Australian history, at least as far as we know today.
The first mission undertaken by the SRD was Operation LION, a Dutch affair, led by First Lieutenant H.T. Van Hees. This party consisted of three men and was tasked with proceeding aboard the Prahu Samoa to Wotoe near Mailili in the Celebes on 24 June 1942. The party was successfully landed, and it is possible that a weak but unreadable signal from them was detected on 11 July. It was the last time anyone ever heard from them. That the first party to be sent to this area just disappeared did not seem to bother the planners at AIB or the SRD, who proceeded with the WALNUT series of intelligence operations and sent even more men there.
Operation WALNUT I, consisted of two men, Captain C.R. Sheldon, AIF, and N.P. Monsted, a Danish citizen who had lived in the Aroe (Aru) Islands. They were inserted at Dobo on 7 July 1942 to establish an intelligence organisation in the islands. The official SRD history describes Sheldon as a man reputed to be unpopular with the locals. These two men survived until August or September 1942, when they extricated themselves to Thursday Island aboard the lugger Express. At Thursday Island, their unexpected arrival led to a hostile reception and they were arrested.
With the failure of WALNUT I and following their release from custody on Thursday Island, Monsted sailed the Express to Darwin while Sheldon, along with Lieutenant R.W. Feetum and Sergeant J. McCandlish, was despatched on WALNUT II to join a Dutch official on Penamboela (Penambulai) Island who was in radio contact with Australia. On 8 March, they reported the locals as hostile and the Japanese aware of their presence. They were captured on 12 August 1943, and the Japanese extracted extensive intelligence from them on the organisation and personalities of the AIB, the SRD and their operational methods and equipment. In fact, the Kempeitai built a remarkably accurate profile of the AIB and the SRD from these men. They all died in captivity.
WALNUT III, comprising Monsted, Sergeants J.R. Plumridge and J.H. Dahlberg of the AIF, Sergeant J.A. Bloch, NEI, Mr Mitchell, an Indian, and five Indonesian seamen, sailed from Darwin to the Aroes in the Express on 28 January 1943. They reached Djeh Island, just north of Enoe (Enu), on 12 July. They were last heard from on 25 July 1943, after which the Japanese caught and killed all of them.
All three missions to the Aroe Islands had failed, with the loss of thirteen men for no intelligence return for the Allies. The intelligence gleaned by the Japanese was, however, extensive. It is likely they had completely compromised all of the Allied communications and codes used for special operations, and were obtaining intelligence useful against both the SRD in Papua New Guinea and the eastern archipelago and FERDINAND in the Solomons.
Operation MACKEREL, launched from Melbourne on 24 August 1942, was a party of three, Lieutenant G.C.M. Van Arcken, NEI Sergeant Raden Wirjomijardje Iswahjeodi and Seaman 1st Class W.F. Schneau. The party, along with two crewmen from the Dutch submarine K12, landed at Radjeg Wesi Baai, Java, on the evening of 14 September 1942. The landing boats capsized, the equipment was lost, and Van Arcken hurt his back. The captain of the K12 resurfaced on the morning of 15 September in full view of Japanese observation posts to successfully retrieve his crewmen and the rest of the party, and the mission was aborted. MACKEREL was lucky, because they at least survived.
The same could not be said for the small parties and individual agents who attempted to infiltrate Java on the six TIGER operations conducted from 10 November 1942 to 6 August 1943. Of the ten men despatched, one, Sergeant Raden, escaped from Kempeitai custody. The Kempeitai interrogated the rest, no doubt adding to the picture they were building of the AIB. All of these agents, except Raden, were executed. The TIGER operations should have alerted the SRD to the growing sophistication of the Japanese, as they kept TIGER I’s radio operational and fed disinformation to the AIB.
During this time, another operation, FLOUNDER, was launched on 18 December 1942 to insert a Dutch party onto Ambon from the US Submarine Sea Raven. The Japanese captured all eight members within a week of their insertion on 30 December 1942 and, the evidence suggests, Lieutenant H.F. Nygh RNN and the seven Indonesian members of the NEI military were all beheaded after interrogation.
By early 1943, all twelve SRD operations, LION, the three WALNUT missions, MACKEREL, the six TIGER missions and FLOUNDER had failed, with 34 dead, one hiding on Java, one who was warned off on landing and three recovered on MACKEREL. This is a death rate of 94 per cent for no intelligence return. Every mission had failed, and there were strong indications that the Kempeitai were now operating a double-cross system using the captured equipment and personnel.
All of this should have sent warning signals that the Japanese were an extremely sophisticated opponent, and that no further operations should be launched until a full threat assessment and cost–benefit analysis were completed. Nothing of the sort was done, and the AIB just kept throwing good men to torture and death. In fact, there was little or no oversight of what the AIB and the SRD were doing, and they were not being held answerable to a higher body charged with independently adjudicating whether the activity was worth the cost. If such a body had been in place, it would have shut down all SRD operations immediately.
The failure to conduct a thorough assessment of what was happening was made worse by poor tradecraft. The target area of operations was heavily populated and hostile. No one seems to have considered whether the Javanese and other peoples of the archipelago supported the Dutch. There seems to have been a wilful ignorance of the reality of the politics in the archipelago so that this reality did not stop operations.
On top of this, the series of operations, including MACKEREL and the TIGER missions, consistently used the same landing places. TIGER IV, V and VI were all landed at Pang Pang Baai. On an earlier mission, TIGER II, the practice of revisiting drop-off points almost resulted in the capture of yet another radio operator, his equipment and codebooks as he was about to be landed at the drop-off point used for TIGER I. The landing was aborted only because someone on shore sent a light signal in Dutch warning of danger.
As the SRD was running its missions in the Aroe Islands, Celebes and Java, it concurrently ran a series of operations into Portuguese Timor. These, codenamed LIZARD I, II and III, were intended to support the remnants of the various units, including SPARROW Force, that continued to operate there. There was no initial intention to conduct sabotage operations as part of LIZARD because, as The Official History of Special Operations Australia says, there was nothing of value to sabotage on the island. The intention was to run a guerrilla war to tie down Japanese troops.
The interest of the Japanese in Portuguese Timor was limited. The island had no strategic value or resources, and its only real use was as a point from which Allied forces could operate to disrupt Japanese activity on other islands and in the seas around Timor. This may be why the Japanese did not make it a target until 20 February 1942.
Before the arrival of the Japanese military on the island, there were twenty to 30 Japanese who worked for the Japanese Consulate, which had only opened in Dili on October 1941, when Consul Kuroki Tokitaro arrived. There were also Japanese civilians operating the offices of Dai Nippon Airlines and Nan’yo Kohatsu K. K. (the South Seas Development Company). These Japanese civilians had undoubtedly created networks among the Timorese and Indian residents on the island, which may have included Ishag Selam Rafig and his daughter Nora Rafig, who operated Toko Selam (Kupang Stores). This provided the Japanese with the necessary contacts to establish themselves quickly once they occupied the island.
This situation attracted the SRD because, unlike many of the other operations, LIZARD had the major advantage of being able to operate from the safe haven controlled by Australian troops, SPARROW Force, at Mape. LIZARD I, led by Captain I.S. Wylie, with Captain D.K. Broadhurst and Sergeant J.R.F. Cashman, was inserted from the launch Kuru at Suai on 17 July 1942. The safe haven was not as safe as thought, though, as IJN activity soon forced the move of SPARROW from Mape. It was during this move that all of SPARROW’s HF radios were sabotaged by unfriendly locals, forcing LIZARD I, now with the only operational HF radio, to accompany SPARROW HQ to Same. As the plans now being discussed for Timor included the evacuation of SPARROW and other elements, LIZARD I decided to extricate itself to Darwin on 17 August 1942. LIZARD I’s biggest accomplishment was the establishment of contact with Antonio de Sousa Santos, the Administrator of Fronteira Province, and Dr Carlos Brandau.
LIZARD II, made up of Captain Wylie, Captain Broadhurst, Lieutenant G. Greave and Sergeant Cashman, returned to Timor on 2 September 1942. The party established an operational post at Loi Uno and began caching supplies and arms before contacting the Chef de Poste at Ossu. Contact was then made with Manuel de Jesus Pires, the Administrator of Baucau Province, who had excellent connections within the Portuguese administration. The Japanese were onto LIZARD II within a week of its insertion, and moved a patrol down the Baucau Road in Viqueque District for a few days questioning the locals about LIZARD II’s location.
Despite the Japanese attention, LIZARD II, assisted by Pires, was able to establish a network of runners to carry messages, as well as the use of the services of friendly telephone operators to speak to contacts in Dili. They also arranged for the release of a Chinese Nationalist captain and five Chinese soldiers, and rescued a wounded RAAF crewman, Pilot Officer S. Wadey, from Ossu gaol. The intelligence gleaned from all of this was that the Japanese were controlling the Portuguese administration on Timor.
GHQ, SWPA wanted to meet with Pires to talk him into leading an insurrection against the Japanese in San Domingos and Lautém. The idea of raising this insurrection had been generated by a LIZARD II report that the behaviour of the Japanese was alienating the local population, both Portuguese and Timorese, and that arms and other stores were required to arm the potential insurgents. One hundred rifles and 10,000 rounds of ball ammunition were landed at Aliambata for this operation.
The Japanese countered these plans by arming the locals in Dutch Timor and loosing them upon the people of Portuguese Timor. The Japanese also brought in armed men from Alor and Wetar islands for the same purpose. On 1 October 1942, three Portuguese officials and 24 Portuguese colonial soldiers were massacred at Aileu, 25 miles (40 kilometres) from Dili, and the Portuguese Governor, Carvalho, sought to evacuate all Portuguese nationals to Mozambique. By the middle of October, the Portuguese administration had collapsed. For LIZARD II, there was a further blow, the loss of their leader, Captain Wylie, who had to be evacuated on 23 October by HMAS Vigilant because of malaria.
By the end of October 1942, LIZARD II estimated that 50,000 Timorese could be raised to fight the Japanese if they were armed. SRD advised LIZARD that this should not be done until a more appropriate time. The Official History of Special Operations Australia regards this decision as a tragedy, because it allowed ‘a genuinely aroused population to sink back into disgruntled apathy’. This evaluation gives the reader a clear insight into the unreality of SRD thinking. The enemy the SRD faced on Timor was a highly trained and very experienced military force with a reputation for aggression, competence and extreme brutality. They had good air and naval support, and plenty of heavy weapons including artillery. Any uprising would have been quickly put down. The decision not to proceed with this operation was the right one. The idea of 50,000 untrained Timorese going into battle against hardened Japanese troops doesn’t bear thinking about, even now.
Despite the questions over what would happen on Timor, the SRD reinforced LIZARD II with three more operatives: Lieutenant J.E. Grimson, W.T. Thomas and Signaller A.K. Smith. These reinforcements brought another 100 rifles with them and some Bren guns. Now LIZARD II had 200 rifles and some light machine guns for their guerrilla army.
At the same time, LIZARD III, with Lieutenant L.W. Ross and Captain R.C. Neave, arrived to collect raw rubber and succeeded in taking away a few tons of rubber to Australia. In response, the Japanese once more moved in strength down the Baucau Road and occupied all of the principal points, driving a mob of refugees before them. On 1 December, HMAS Armidale was sunk attempting to bring off more of SPARROW’s survivors and Portuguese refugees, consisting of the wives and families of Pires, a man named Don Paulo and some minor local chiefs attached to LIZARD II. The HNLMS Tjerk Hiddes finally evacuated this group on the night of 8–9 December. Lieutenant Greave was also evacuated because of ill health.
Around 23 December 1942, the Japanese mortared LIZARD II’s main post, killing ten Timorese and forcing the evacuation of the rest of LIZARD II to the secondary post near Hareapa. Now the previously supportive local leaders started changing sides. The Japanese hit more of LIZARD II’s posts and began a relentless chase of the survivors in exactly the same way they had driven the FERDINAND parties on New Britain and Bougainville. By 17 January 1943, the Japanese pressure had forced the withdrawal of the bulk of the LANCER Force elements that reinforced SPARROW, the Australian Independent Company, and the break-up of the small guerrilla force set up by LIZARD II. The intelligence network of runners and telephone operators was destroyed by 22 January 1943 with the disappearance of Don Paulo.
Eventually, on 10 February 1943, the remnants of LIZARD along with thirteen volunteers from the now withdrawn LANCER operation and a further seven LANCER men who were found lost in the bush, were evacuated by the submarine USS Gudgeon. This withdrawal coincided with an important development in our story, the arrival in Kupang of the 1st Platoon of the 5th Military Police (Kempeitai) commanded by Major Yutani Kiyoshi (Yujiro).
Major Yutani quickly established his HQ in Kupang and sent detachments to Soe in West Timor, Dili and Lautém in East Timor, and a small detachment to Atambua, West Timor. With the arrival of this unit, the Japanese counterintelligence capability increased dramatically, and the willingness of the local population to support Australian and other Allied operations dropped precipitously. This change was completely missed by the SRD and GHQ, SWPA.
The intelligence group left behind when LIZARD II was pulled out was renamed PORTOLIZARD, and consisted of 60 personnel, mainly regular Timorese soldiers, some Portuguese soldiers and some Nationalist Chinese soldiers. One Australian, Private D. Fittness of LANCER, had been left with PORTOLIZARD because he was too sick to evacuate with LANCER. The second-in-command was Augusto Leal de Matos e Silva, the ex-Chef de Poste at Laga. Communications for this group were the two ATR4 radios left by LIZARD II. Despite Captain Broadhurst having taken the ciphers to Australia with LIZARD II, the PORTOLIZARD party made contact with Australia and began reporting that it was hard-pressed by the Japanese. The radio discipline of PORTOLIZARD appears to have been poor, and they sent a flood of signals to Australia including four in one day. The Japanese SIGINT organisation would have had little or no trouble locating the radio, and would have been using the captured ciphers from the Java operations to read the content.
The situation on Timor had worsened considerably as the Japanese tightened their grip and the Kempeitai set up their clandestine intelligence networks. They also operated with the same levels of brutality as elsewhere, and kidnapped women for the IJA’s brothels and confiscated food. These actions led to severe unrest in the Viqueque area, which was seen as an opportunity by the AIB and SRD. The SRD now planned to send two parties back into Timor, to be led by Portuguese officials in the hope ‘that a spirit of competition between the parties would inspire them to achieve excellent results’.
As it happened, the Japanese prevented this idiocy from being put into action by massacring the Western Chief, Dom Alexio, and his family, leaving no friendly contacts alive in the west of the area of operations. That did not mean, however, that the SRD had given up on Timor. They planned to send another party, this one tasked with intelligence collection.
The cover name for this operation was LAGARTO, and it consisted of a party of two Portuguese men, Lieutenant Manuel de Jesus Pires and Patricio Luz, plus one Timorese. LAGARTO landed at the mouth of the Luca River on the night of 1–2 July 1943 and joined up with PORTOLIZARD.34 During this landing, LAGARTO lost all three of its radios. A signaller from SRD, Sergeant A.J. Ellwood, AIF, then joined them. LAGARTO first arranged by radio for the evacuation of 87 PORTOLIZARD personnel. This evacuation finally occurred on the night of 3–4 August 1943 because the Japanese made it impossible to get the group off any earlier.
The Japanese had no difficulty locating LAGARTO, and pursuing both it and the PORTOLIZARD party hard. On 9 July, 200 Japanese, supported by mortars and machine guns, attacked the party. The men escaped, but in doing so lost most of their equipment, although they saved the radio they inherited from PORTOLIZARD. Japanese mortars attacked them again on 11 July, following which they broke contact and were able to arrange the evacuation of the PORTOLIZARD personnel and camp followers.
The arrival of Ellwood was not a happy event. He had been selected to join LAGARTO because the SRD lacked faith in Pires’s leadership, but Pires had worked this out and resented Ellwood’s presence. On 5 August, the party was deprived of all its remaining food and stores when a small group sent to recover a cache was surprised by a Japanese patrol. With the Japanese and hostile Timorese now following them, LAGARTO attempted to escape by moving to Manatuto on the north coast. To ensure that the local villagers would not support the Australians, the Japanese chasing LAGARTO publicly tortured and killed all of the chiefs and villagers suspected of having assisted the party. It was a highly effective strategy, and demonstrated the stark reality of trying to build a resistance movement in the face of such an extremely brutal opponent.
LAGARTO’s move was ill disciplined, and conflict erupted between Ellwood and Pires. It may have been because of this that Ellwood was commissioned as a lieutenant on 17 September, so that he was of equal rank to Pires. The party was now 34 strong, comprising servants, bearers and camp followers, including the mistresses of Pires and Mateos da Silva, one of whom was pregnant. By 25 September, the Japanese were using tracker dogs and the entire population was too terrified to assist LAGARTO in any way. On 29 September 1943, as it moved along the Baucau Plateau, LAGARTO was ambushed by a large Japanese patrol. On contact, LAGARTO disintegrated, with a number of carriers, including those carrying the radio, cut down and everyone else running for the bush. Most of the personnel from LAGARTO were captured in such a way that it appears that the Japanese wanted them alive. One man, Patricio Luz, escaped and went into hiding. He survived the war.
The Japanese were by now so well informed on SRD procedures they conducted a painstaking search of the area through which LAGARTO had moved following contact. This unearthed Ellwood’s notebooks, codes and schedules, which he had, in accordance with SRD procedure, attempted to bury. A Japanese Major General, possibly Tanaka Toru, interviewed all of the captives, particularly Pires and Ellwood, at Kempeitai HQ in Dili, and a major named in the official history as Tanaka but most likely Major Kobayashi, conducted the interrogations, assisted by First Lieutenant Saiki Kasukane and a civilian from the Japanese Consulate.
The Japanese appear to have wanted a trusted radio net established with Australia, and they needed Ellwood and Pires to cooperate in this. The fact that Ellwood survived his captivity and Pires survived until he went insane and died in early 1944 is proof that they were singled out for special treatment. Every other member of LAGARTO died, the majority executed.
In the official history, Pires is blamed for the first compromise of the SRD’s cipher, as he handed over the emergency cipher early enough for the Japanese to send their first message to Australia on 6 October 1943. By the time this occurred, however, the Kempeitai had Ellwood’s ciphers and signal plan, as well as copious material collected from all of the other botched operations. The fact is that both Pires and Ellwood must have cooperated with the Kempeitai as soon as they were put through processing. Had they not, they would have been beheaded like the rest.
The Kempeitai wanted Ellwood to work his radio set for them, and to do this they had to balance out persuasion with pain before pampering him into compliance. They also needed to ensure that he did what they wanted and did not send any warnings of compromise. This is a hard thing to achieve, but the Kempeitai were very good at it. The fact that Ellwood was kept alive for so long proves that the Kempeitai turned him, but the message logs of the SRD provide the harder proof. Ellwood participated in the Kempeitai’s double-cross operation because he had no choice, and if the SRD operators and analysts did not detect that he was compromised, it was not Ellwood’s fault. The story that a seriously weakened Ellwood was forced to operate a Morse key with a Japanese operator to guide his hand is not credible. The Kempeitai would have known that the receiving operator would be very familiar with Ellwood’s hand,—that is the little quirks each operator has when they key a message. There is no way they would have had his keying ghosted, and the simple fact that Ellwood was not executed and that he survived the war indicates he cooperated.
The turning of intelligence operatives was standard Kempeitai practice. They used the full gamut of techniques, ranging from deprivation to physical abuse and perhaps a little torture, contrasted with moments of kindness, such as cigarettes immediately after capture. What we often overlook is that the Kempeitai were experienced professionals who were practised in all the techniques of winning cooperation. Leaving Ellwood to stew while the expendable members of his group were tortured within his earshot was simply softening him up for his subsequent interrogation. The Kempeitai probably kept Pires alive as a foil for Ellwood, and as a source of intelligence on his family and friends in Timor.
The Kempeitai would have used concurrent questioning of Ellwood and the Portuguese to play on the fears of each prisoner, and they would have used long sessions of repetitive questioning to isolate inconsistencies. Faced with expert interrogators who appeared to have obtained all of the most relevant secrets they had, it is unsurprising that the men of LAGARTO quickly surrendered their remaining secrets.
At some stage, probably as he approached mental exhaustion, the Kempeitai would also have shown Ellwood the extent of the information they had on the AIB and SRD. The shock to his system of finding out that the entire secret organisation was completely compromised would have been devastating. Before this they would have shown all the information they had captured locally, including the full nominal rolls of 2/2 and 2/4 Independent Companies, ciphers, message logs, recent Australian Army lists and documents. They also let him know they had his diary, ciphers and signal plan. Exposing their knowledge of AIB in this way would have removed any rational reason for continued resistance.
With Ellwood’s first signal back to Australia, the Kempeitai interrogators would have known they had peeled the onion back to its last layer. Once Ellwood had established routine communication without sending his warning word, they would have known they had him. He was released from close confinement and treated well. His rations improved and he was allowed letters, a magazine a month and given clothing. All of this indicates his Japanese handlers were happy with his performance.
That the SRD did not deduce that LAGARTO had been captured appears to the official historian to be ‘incomprehensible’, but it’s consistent with SRD’s management of the earlier operations in the Celebes and on Java. The fact is that the AIB and SRD were untrained in intelligence collection at this level. Their operational need to achieve something overrode the requirement for caution that is characteristic of all effective intelligence work.
The Kempeitai used Ellwood to compromise the security of all future SRD operations in Timor from this time forward, and, as AIB was now sending LAGARTO a flow of information on the conduct of the war everywhere, they were providing the Japanese with a broad insight into Allied operations. By the end of January 1944, the SRD had fallen for the Japanese double-cross so badly that they inserted the COBRA party of Lieutenant J.R.F. Cashman, Sergeant E.J. Liversidge and three Timorese, Paulo da Silva, Sancho da Silva and Cosmo Soares, into the waiting arms of Lieutenant Saiki of the Kempeitai and a company of soldiers who, along with Lieutenant Ellwood, were waiting for them at Dari Bai on 27 or 29 January 1944. COBRA was captured within an hour of its insertion.
The history of COBRA is almost identical to that of LAGARTO, even down to the abysmal tradecraft of the wireless operator, Sergeant Liversidge, who had written down the authenticator for the party being safe, ‘2926 Slender Silk Key’, in a notebook that the Japanese easily found.
The captured party was then taken and subjected to the same treatment as LAGARTO; the leader and radio operators were turned and began working a second trusted radio link to Australia. On 8 February, its radio operator, Lieutenant Cashman, sent his first message to SRD. The Japanese described him as ‘an excellent officer’ who ‘gave personal views as to future Allied Operations’.
As we have seen, SRD was so happy to hear from COBRA that it completely compromised Central Bureau’s SIGINT operations, sending a message on 7 March 1944 telling Cashman of the consternation at SRD when they read an ‘intercept Jap cipher naming you personally and apparently claiming your capture Jan 29’. Luckily, the Japanese were as complacent as the SRD, and their reaction to the compromise was ‘plain unbelief’ that the Australians could be reading their unbreakable codes.
After receiving the SIGINT report that COBRA had been captured, the SRD had first begun trying to get the authentication from COBRA it should have obtained at the very beginning. The party was told ‘Mother sends loving greetings for twenty-six’ and that Paulo’s daughter was born on 25 January [a reference to Timorese COBRA member Paulo da Silva]. COBRA replied on the same day in message 4, ‘PAULO had not yet returned’ and thanking SRD for the ‘relay of wishes for 26th. Give my love to Mother and Father.’ On 26 February, SRD attempted to obtain authentication, sending ‘Slender girl sends greetings’ and received a reply without the authenticator being repeated. This alone should have told SRD that COBRA was compromised.
Three days later, on 28 February, SRD asked for an acknowledgement of the greetings in the last message ‘from this particular girl’, who was then described as ‘not repeat not the fat repeat fat one’, which tipped the Kempeitai as to the significance of the phrase ‘Slender girl’. It was then that Cashman sent the authenticator that caused so much relief at SRD that it compromised the SIGINT on 7 March.
Given the clumsy exchange of messages with COBRA, the role played by LAGARTO in getting COBRA ashore on Timor, and the way LAGARTO had gone from being in dire straits to being secure so quickly, it should have been obvious to SRD and AIB that the whole Timor operation was compromised. The truth appears to be that optimism trumped hard analysis, and the scene was set for what the SRD’s own official history called ‘an operation with no redeeming feature at all’. LAGARTO led to the wretched deaths of nine more Australians, more Portuguese and scores of Timorese.
In early 1944, as the Japanese worked the survivors of LAGARTO and COBRA, the SRD was planning to insert another party, codenamed ADDER, into Timor.
ADDER, consisting of Captain J. Grimson, Sergeant E. Gregg, A. Fernandez, J. Carvalho and Z. Rebelo, went ashore just west of Cape Lai Aco on the night of 21–22 August 1944.59 Grimson and Gregg were killed in a firefight within hours of landing, Rebelo fell from a cliff and the rest died in captivity. The SRD received no news from ADDER at all. To add insult to injury, they tasked COBRA to find out what had happened. The Kempeitai must have had a good laugh about that.
Subsequent AIB operations in Timor did not run to plan either. Operation SUNBAKER ended in disaster on 17 May 1945 when the aircraft carrying the party crashed near Dili, killing all four members of the party and the crew of the aircraft. Operation SUNABLE ended on 5 July when the party came into contact with the Japanese; its leader, Lieutenant D.M. Williams, was killed and the rest of his party captured during the following week. Operation SUNCOB ended on 17 July with the capture of Captain W.P. Wynne and Sergeant J.B. Lawrence, who were added to the complement of LAGARTO and COBRA in Kempeitai custody.
In May 1945, it seems Central Bureau provided the first hard evidence that the Japanese were controlling the LAGARTO party when Japanese traffic carrying an AIB proforma (questionnaire) provided to LAGARTO was intercepted, decrypted and translated. SRD and AIB were warned:
Have obtained a new translation PROFORMA document picked up by JAPANESE. There is now no doubt what so ever that it was document dropped to LAGARTO repeat LAGARTO on January 19th. View fact challenge parties probably COMPROMISED LAGAROUT and COBREXIT will have to be replanned. ETD SUNFISH party and self for Darwin today.
The SRD finally proved what was happening on Timor in July 1945, when Operation SUNLAG, led by Captain A.D. Stevenson and consisting of Sergeant R.G. Dawson, AIF, and Celestino dos Anjos, forewarned of the compromise of COBRA and LAGARTO, parachuted into Timor on 29 June, an earlier date than the one supplied to LAGARTO and at a different location. Stevenson sent Celestino to elicit information from relatives in the area and was able to find out that the Japanese knew SUNLAG had arrived on the island.
Stevenson then arranged for a signal to be sent to LAGARTO, telling them that a supply drop was to be made at a drop zone on 1 July. Stevenson moved into an observation post overlooking the proposed drop zone and observed the arrival there of the Japanese and a white man he identified as Ellwood.64 This was the final proof of LAGARTO’s capture, proof that LAGARTO and COBRA had been turned, and proof that the string of disasters—COBRA, ADDER, SUNCOB and SUNABLE—had been engineered by the Kempeitai. Having established that the Japanese had been playing the SRD, Stevenson quickly got permission to evacuate his party from Timor.
By 22 July, SRD Darwin was requesting advice from its higher HQ for assistance in setting policy in relation to the now compromised LAGARTO. This action was prompted because the senior air staff officer in Darwin had refused any further RAAF support in making supply drops after he was told LAGARTO was compromised.
The decision by the RAAF to abandon LAGARTO was not accepted by SRD Darwin and they requested GHQ, General MacArthur, to order the RAAF to continue support to LAGARTO. The reply was, ‘Normal signal traffic and maintenance will be kept up…This is most important.’ The rationale was to maintain the illusion that LAGARTO was still trusted, in order to keep the captured members of the missions alive and so that disinformation could then be passed onto the Japanese.
The Timor intelligence operations ended on 12 August 1945, when the Japanese sent a message in the SRD code: ‘NIPPON for LMS [Lugger Maintenance Section]. Thanks your assistance for this long while. Hope to see you again. Until then wish your good health. NIPPON Army.’
On 13 August SRD replied:
Your signal received and understood. Thank for your good wishes. Please continue look after our soldiers. Will be good enough inform us of his welfare.
The Official History of Special Operations Australia intimates that the SRD and AIB remained ignorant of the compromise of their parties until they received this message on 12 August, but this is misleading. The SRD had begun to suspect something was wrong at the end of May 1945, when Central Bureau’s intercept reported the capture of COBRA. In yet another triumph of hope over reason, the possibility that the operations were compromised was discounted, although it has to be said, not by everyone. The SUNLAG operation was hard proof that everything the SRD had done in Timor and across the eastern part of the archipelago had been a complete waste of time. The whole series of operations stand as a warning against mixing intelligence collection and direct action. And against underestimating an opponent.