How Australian code-breakers helped win the Pacific War

by Julia Millen / 02 November, 2017
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A new book by David Dufty looks at two Australian code-breaking units who deciphered Japanese signals in World World II.

December 4, 1941. Japanese naval code ­messages become unintelligible: the Japanese Pacific fleet is ominously silent. Three days later, 105 Japanese planes attack Pearl Harbour; the Pacific War has begun.

By early 1942, the Japanese had invaded the Philippines, and General Douglas ­MacArthur retreated hastily to Melbourne. Under his forceful leadership, the Australian Government ­established an intelligence network to work closely with the Americans.

David Dufty’s detailed history examines the work of the two code-breaking units engaged in deciphering Japanese signals: the ­Australian Special Wireless Group and Central Bureau. Initially based in Melbourne, Central Bureau was a research and control centre for signal-traffic analysis, code-breaking and intelligence reporting.

Bletchley Park cryptologists had already solved the Japanese naval code and knew how it worked. Breaking the code involved ­learning enough code words and indicators so that messages could be read, which also required a knowledge of Japanese.

The narrative follows the progress of military operations and technical developments in intelligence, including accounts of how intercepted signals helped the Allies turn the tide. There are also personal stories told by former personnel, which show a human side of code-breaking.

Dufty’s history is a rich source for readers with a specialist interest in intelligence, but the lack of illustrations – especially maps – ­is frustrating. Americans in the units received military honours, but few Australians were recognised for their crucial role. For those still alive and their descendants, Dufty’s book provides some recompense.

THE SECRET CODE-BREAKERS OF CENTRAL BUREAU, by David Dufty (Scribe, $55)

This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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