- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations, History - WW2, History - Between the wars, Biographies and personal histories, Naval Intelligence
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
People over-impressed by spies and espionage are fond of quoting the observation attributed to the French General Napoleon Bonaparte around 1795 when he estimated that a spy in the right place was worth twenty thousand troops. Perhaps he didn’t pay his spies enough as he won the Battle of Wagram then lost the battle at Waterloo, lost his attempt to take Moscow, lost his position as Emperor of France and was finally exiled to the island of Elba. However, his observation about the worth of spies was certainly correct when applied to the Coastwatching Organisation in the Pacific during World War II.
The original Australian model began in 1919 when selected personnel in coastal areas were organised on a voluntary basis to report in time of war any unusual or suspicious events along the Australian coastline. The concept was quickly extended to include New Guinea (not Dutch New Guinea) as well as Papua and the Solomon Islands. In 1939 when WW II commenced, approximately 800 Coastwatchers came under the control of the Royal Australian Navy Intelligence Division. Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt had operational control in the north eastern area of defence of Australia which encompassed Australian Mandated Territories, Papua and the Solomon Islands.
Eric Feldt had previously been a navy man but resigned to work for the Australian government in New Guinea. He grew to know and understand the island people, the plantation managers, assorted government officials and they in turn learned to know and trust him. It was because of him that when the war with Japan began many civilians became Coastwatchers and opted to stay in New Guinea rather than be evacuated as the Japanese war machine advanced down through the Pacific to New Guinea. If they were caught, they would receive no mercy from the Japanese and be executed. As part of the administration process, Lt Commander Feldt decided the organisation needed a generic code name to distinguish the Coastwatchers activities from other naval intelligence activities that he also controlled within the Naval Intelligence Division. He chose Ferdinand from a popular children’s book of the time about a Spanish bull that refused to fight and only wanted to sit quietly under his favourite tree and smell the flowers.
‘It was meant as a reminder to Coastwatchers that it was not their duty to fight and so draw attention to themselves, but to sit circumspectly and unobtrusively, gathering information.’
Malcolm Hugh Wright
One example amongst many of the Coastwatchers was Malcolm Hugh Wright. He had been an Australian government patrol officer in New Guinea prior to the beginning of World War II. Described as a dark, cheerful young man with a soft voice, fluent in pidgin English, with a flair for meticulous planning, and, coupled with his good humour, was seen as a considerate and racially non discriminatory man. In 1939, he resigned from the civil service and joined the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR.) with the rank of Sub-Lieutenant, for training in the Anti-Submarine Branch. When Rabaul in New Britain fell to the Japanese in January 1942, Wright applied to the Royal Australian Naval Intelligence Division to be used in some capacity because of his knowledge of the islands, the natives, their customs and his proficiency in pidgin English, the language used to converse with the natives. He even deliberately failed the anti–submarine course so he would have more chance of a transfer. His pleas to Naval Intelligence were finally heard and he was ordered to report to Melbourne to meet Feldt, who offered him a chance to return to New Britain as a Coastwatcher.
Transported by the United States submarine S42 to and from Adler Bay in New Britain on 12 July 1942, Wright’s first covert assignment consisted of spending a week in the village at Merai gathering intelligence on the Japanese build-up at Rabaul and assessing the attitude of the natives towards the Japanese, which at the time was unknown. Reliance on the goodwill of the native population was essential for the planning and operation of any future covert landings and was to play a big part in all operations in the coming New Guinea and Solomon Islands campaigns.
In December 1943, the US Navy requested the Australian Naval Intelligence to establish a Coastwatching outpost in New Britain to cover the southwest seaway from Rabaul. Lt Commander Feldt asked newly promoted Lieutenant Wright to plan the operation. Wright was joined by Peter Figgis, an Intelligence Officer in the 2/22 Battalion AIF, and Les Williams, who was a corporal in the Armoured Division of the AIF. He had been a member of Z Special Unit and had volunteered for service with the Coastwatchers. It was decided that Cape Orford was the most advantageous place to set up a Coastwatching post but native help was vital. Wright went to see Sergeant Simogan of the New Guinea Native Constabulary who was a great friend of Wright’s during his days as a patrol officer. He was in the police barracks at Hanuabada just outside Port Moresby and eagerly agreed to join the group. The other native members of the team, Sanga, Arumei and Sama were recruited as they were locals from the planned area of operations, had valuable contacts and wanted to return home.