- Gregory, Mackenzie J.
- Naval Intelligence, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- April 1993 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Australian Coast Watching Service owed its genesis to a suggestion by the then District Naval Officer, Western Australia (Captain C.J. Clare R.A.N.) in 1919. He submitted, that selected civilians, on a voluntary basis, should be organised along coastal areas, to report in wartime unusual or suspicious circumstances.
This suggestion reached the Chief of Naval Staff via a Navy Staff paper, with the added recommendation that the scheme embrace New Guinea, Papua and the Solomons. C.N.S. approved, and the Minister of Defence caused a committee from the three services to discuss the Navy proposal.
The scheme was generally approved, but it was left to the Navy to implement through their Division of Naval Intelligence. Much of the detailed work in building up the organisation fell to Walter Brooksbank, a civilian, working in the Naval Intelligence Division at Navy Office. Much credit is due to him for his zeal and efficiency in carrying out this work.
Coast Watching Appointments
Those appointed came from Post Masters, Missionaries, Civil Airline Pilots who flew coastal routes, and Planters operating in the island chain.
By the time war was declared in September 1939, some 800 people were ready to operate in the Infant Coast Watching Service.
Initially, pedal radio sets were distributed, but later, tele radios were to become available.
The Island Coast Watching Service
Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt R.A.N. was recalled to the Navy from the Emergency List of the R.A.N., and the Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander R.B.M. Long R.A.N. gave Feldt the task of setting up Coast Watchers in the islands to the North and North-East of Australia.
By the time Japan entered the war, Feldt had recruited and set in place, a chain of Coast Watchers on islands off Rabaul, at Kavieng and on New Ireland. Eric Feldt had, in the main, picked Australians living and working in the area, they were always independent and resourceful men who commanded the respect and loyalty of their native people.
This group were responsible for obtaining and feeding intelligence and information into Macarthur’s Allied intelligence network. It was soon realized that many of these people would be forced to work behind enemy lines as the Japanese would quickly invade and invest themselves into Allied Territory. To protect civilian Coast Watchers from a charge of spying, it was necessary to commission them into one of the services, and many were to become officers in the R.A.N. Reserve.
The First Enemy Sighting
On Tabar, Sub Lieutenant C.L. Page (later captured and killed by the Japanese) made the first Japanese sighting on 9th December, 1941, an enemy aircraft on its way to reconnoitre Rabaul.
On 4th January, 1942 Rabaul was bombed for the first time by the Japanese. Page warned of their approach, and Mackenzie at Rabaul passed on the warning, so casualties were thankfully light.
Rabaul and Kavieng soon fell to Japanese invasion in January 1942.
On Bougainville, outside Kieta, Lieutenants Jack Read and Paul Mason R.A.N.V.R. used their tele radios to maintain contact with Port Moresby.
By the end of February 1942, Lae and Salamaua were Japanese occupied and once again one of Feldt’s front line people was in danger.
Leigh Vial had been hastily commissioned into the R.A.A.F. as a Pilot Officer, and was flown into Salamaua only a few days ahead of the Japanese invasion. (Feldt had realised that he had very little time to send in Vial before the Japanese arrived – he then chose the R.A.A.F. to help him with a quick commission rather than the R.A.N., as he believed Navy red tape would preclude Vial joining the Navy in time to beat the Japanese).
Vial set himself up in the hills overlooking the airfield at Salamaua and over the next six months, he was dubbed as the “Golden Voice” by people at Port Moresby, as he passed on his warnings of impending air raids from both Lae and Salamaua.
The Coast Watchers Remain
A number of Feldt’s Coast Watchers remained in their position even though the Japanese had invaded their islands.
The Japanese soon realised the importance of the Coast Watching intelligence to the Allies, and continually tried to hunt them down; thus adding more pressure to these resourceful men as they lived, worked and moved behind enemy lines.