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- June 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
A Man of Intelligence – The Life of Captain Eric Nave, Australian Codebreaker Extraordinary.
By Dr Ian Pfennigwerth, Captain, RAN (Rtd).
Publisher Rosenberg Publishing P/L, Dural, 2006.
Reviewed by LCDR Ron Robb, RAN (Rtd).
This book is nominally the biography of Captain Eric Nave, who began his professional life as an RAN Paymaster but was engaged for most of his career as a Japanese codebreaker. He was on the General List, never attended any Naval College as a Cadet yet escaped the wholesale redundancy brought on by the 1920s-1930s Depression. He spent much of his life in the Orient, was transferred to the RN during the late 1920s (at their request and despite the fact that he was a ‘Colonial’) then returned to the RAN during WWII where he worked essentially for the Australian Army as an RN officer. He retired as an RAN Supply Captain, became a founding member of the post-War Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and was the inaugural President of the Naval Association of Australia (NAA). He married twice (his first wife having died) and raised a family, one of his offspring dying as a child. He was so adept at working the stock market as a hobby that he was offered a job by a well-known stockbroking firm. He died in 1993 aged ninety-four. For a nutshell biography all that would be hard to beat.
But this work also gives a very useful review of the increasingly uneasy relationships between Japan and the Allies during the inter-World Wars period. The book also affords a peek into the arcane world of the code and cipher business. Inevitably, those who know about the Pearl Harbour attack will be keen to see what part Nave played in the controversy as to whether it was conspiracy, incompetence or ignorance. This book will not give a clear answer but some of Nave’s own view can be surmised, and he was probably in as good a position as any to have an informed opinion.
Ian Pfennigwerth is uniquely qualified to have written this book. He was a Communications specialist officer, with long experience in the RAN, and was at one time the Director of Naval Intelligence. He served as the Defence Attaché in China and had privileged access to the Nave family records. His work manifests a long and meticulous search for defence and political data that must surely not have been seen for some 65 or more years. The narrative is loaded with technical detail but in a manner that can be understood by a lay person.
Not an easy plot to follow and it requires some attention to detail but it is as intriguing as a Frederick Forsyth yarn while demonstrating that truth is indeed often stranger than fiction. The illustration block is a mini-story in its own right.