Codebreakers : Inside the shadow world of Signals Intelligence in Australia’s two Bletchley Parks By Craig Collie (2017).A review by John Cook

CODEBREAKERS

It find it hard to control my desire to rabbit-on about this book as it had so much personal interest for me with an anti-Bruce Ruxton (look him up for his anti-gay stance as well as his good works) dividend built in. I am a war baby (1941) with a very few early memories of Brisbane as a garrison city and grew up with its physical remnants all around (air-raid slits in the school playground, those air raid shelters that transformed into bus shelters and some very enduring like Brisbane Eagle Farm airport) and its impact on folk life and stories (I had a 10 year older brother who was a teen at the time). I later enjoyed an early experience with Australian history at the U of Q and have since appreciated the gradual emergence of histories of Australian WWII experiences. My father and two uncles served in the North while another was used for his maritime cargo handling skills in the Northern islands by US troops, so I did not lack for background. I was raised with lots of war stories from the European theatre to read but very little from the Pacific. I did have a cherished and very beautifully illustrated children’s book about New Guinea Fuzzy Wuzzy angels which the 1974 flood dispatched but very little else except for my father’s wartime photos. In adulthood I developed a strong interest in the role played by code breaking in the European theatre of war especially at Bletchley Park and the works of the magnificent Alan Turing and his sad fate. I was aware that code breaking occurred in Australia and in Brisbane and this was re-ignited when reading Donald Friend’s diaries and his references to his involvement there. I was therefore primed and ready for this book.

 

Craig Collie is a TV producer and something of a Pacific war history specialist with titles that look at the perspective of the Japanese troops on the Kokoda trail, the Nagasaki bombing and the emergence of Republican China. His work seems very well referenced though I did find a couple of local clangers – I know of no Hotel Cathay in Brisbane but the old Café Cathay in Fortitude Valley would be the logical place for the meeting he mentions plus at last one street mis-spelling. All told, it seems factually well-backed and especially showing real insight into the characters involved and the disputing influences at work in the formation, development and utilisation of code breaking capacities in WWII Australia and its liaison with other similar centres.

 

After a false start at the hands of Imperial loving Menzies, even with a little typical subterfuge, starts were made even before the Japanese entrance into the war as Lt Commander Jack Newman and Commander ‘Cocky’ Long set up the Special Intelligence Bureau. These men were Navy and a lot of early influence came from this direction given British experience. The extra element required came from Commander Theodore Eric (Jack) Nave, who spoke native Japanese and had extensive experience in the Asian theatre and code-breaking. He played a long and often critical role. Given the specific difficulties of the Japanese language for coding and the use of different codes by different parts of the Japanese armed forces this was a continuing critical problem. The efforts required to set up a code breaking facility and maintain it against constant changes codes, its requirement for operational activities and the tug of war from national interests (US, Britain and Australia) and personalities (Macarthur and Blamey) were considerable and herculean efforts were required of all levels of personnel. As a parallel to Bletchley. I noted the role of IBM machinery that the US introduced and how it disappeared promptly post war (no lost advantages there.

 

The facilities located originally in Melbourne, then Brisbane, Port Moresby, Hollandia, Leyte and San Miguel following Macarthur’s progress and there is definitely no space here to canvass the inner workings, politics and worth of this work as the war progressed. I can only say – go read it, it is worth the time and effort. The book follows the arch of the war’s progress too its end and dissolution with one highlight being the role these men and women played in bringing down Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of Pearl Harbour. At the same time, this is not a vengeful book and makes clear some of the harsh experiences of the enemy.

 

The stand-out for me, in this work, was the portrayal of a top level key individual, Lt Colonel (eventually full Colonel) Alastair ‘Mic’ Sandford who is listed as Executive Officer of the Central Bureau and leader of its Australian Army Contingent. He was awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Bronze Palm amongst other honours (CBE much later) as he liaised extensively overseas while keeping a close eye of the smooth running of the Bureau.

 

Sandford was the scion of a wealthy South Australian, Sir James Sandford, and a young barrister when he enlisted in 1941. He saw key service in Crete and there joined intelligence. On return to Australia he played his key role in Central Bureau and after the war served in occupation force in Europe. He became an Executive for BP and lived to his fifties in Italy where he was made a CBE in 1968. Things were still secret enough then for no mention to be made as to why he received the honour. He was then a gay man living with his long term partner!

 

Collie makes things very clear in his coverage of the life led by the code-breaking community in Brisbane. There are references to Sandford’s batman who accompanied him

‘Constantly on the move, Sandford shuttled particularly between Brisbane and Hollandia, his batman with the inexpertly dyed blond hair moving back and forth with him. Homosexuality was seldom considered or mentioned. Colin Wainwright’s theatricality was regarded as comical – troops called him ‘The Bat-Man’ especially when compared with the somewhat aristocratic demeanour of his senior officer.’

 

Sandford was also associated with Donald Friend, the great Australian artist (now somewhat sullied because of his later preference for the under-age) who saw service and was in Brisbane working on the docks.

 

‘Donald Friend was an emerging talent in Australia’s embryonic art world. After enlisting in the army in 1941, he was posted near Newcastle, but after a breach of discipline he was moved to a labour battalion in Queensland. Living in an army camp and working on the Brisbane docks, he was told by his friend Bill Beresford that a Colonel Sandford was determined to meet him. Sandford wanted the painter to come to a dinner party at his house in Hamilton. Insouciant and with an air of detachment, Friend had been part of Sydney’s bohemian society before the war, as had Beresford, now a Captain in the Australian Army.

 

Friend phoned Beresford from a brothel disguised as a confectionary shop and suggested he meet with Sandford at ‘Major-General Ming’s HQ’, as they called Brisbane’s Cathay Hotel (??). They would have lunch and ‘discuss the matter in hand and go over all evidence available’. Friend’s diary is full of such cryptic references.

 

Private Friend had dinner at Colonel Sandford’s house the next night. Sharing similar backgrounds, the two connected. Both were the product of private schools, Sanford of Adelaide’s St Peters College, the other of Cranbrook, in Sydney. Friend was from a wealthy grazing family that had been hard hit by the Depression. He was three years older than Sandford, and his dry wit appealed to the young officer. The dinner was an occasion of ‘brilliant people, superb food, leisurely talk and a little fine music to listen to, discuss and talk about’ according to the diary. (my italics)

It sounds like a gathering of sensualists, but it was more than that. Mic Sandford, the golden boy of signals intelligence, was a participant in another secret world. Sandford was homosexual, but he presented so thoroughly masculine that few suspected it. With close friends and people who accepted homosexuality, however, he made little effort to pretend. The bohemian set Sandford socialised with were risqué and often reckless, but this was wartime. To a large degree, the rulebook of proper behaviour had been torn up. On one occasion, Friend reports turning up in a taxi outside Sandford’s house at 3 a.m., drinking Sandford’s beer with his heavily made-up batman. Wainwright had a bottle of Chanel No. 5 though where he got it from is anybody’s guess.

‘Chanel! Chanel! Don’t you realise? He screeched in ecstasy. ‘Chanel!’

Sandford was away that night. The taxi driver was drinking with them. They all smelt of French perfume.

‘You must stay the night,’ said Wainwright.

‘Not on your bloody life,’ replied Friend. ‘I can’t stay. I’ve got a parade at six in the morning.’

Friend thought the officers in the military were uninteresting, but Sandford was perhaps – and only perhaps – an exception, a ‘rarity’. Friend ponders in his diary whether Sandford would seem so special in peacetime. ‘Presentable, well-educated, a rather witty young man, you’d ask him to dinner occasionally, but he’s not in the category of my painter friends, merely an additional gilt curlicue in a rococo boudoir’. This was not a person to get very close to.

Thanks to his contact with Sandford, however, Friend was transferred to Central Bureau. He was glad to be relieved at last from navvy work on the wharves and given a clerical job inside. He was attaché to Gerry Room’s meteorological unit, but – aware of the importance of the documents he handled – he found the work stressful. No longer in camp but in a room in town, he complained of having to go bed early, ‘exhausted from the mental efforts of the day.’ Before long, he was suffering from eye strain.

The painter was a shrewd observer of people, however, sharing insights with Sandford on assorted social occasions. Of Macarthur he noted that most Americans disliked him as an egotist ready to sacrifice lives for self-publicity, but Australians regarded him as a hero.’

….

 

A few days later, Friend arrived at work to be told to come to Sandford’s Henry Street office.

‘Have you heard anything?’ Sandford asked the puzzled Friend. He hadn’t.

‘Well, you’re going to get a commission. I’ve approved it. Soon you’ll hear from a Major Dom. He’ll interview you. For God’s sake, look as though you’ll make a good officer.’

Friend was made a temporary Captain for six months, the same rank as his erstwhile friend Bill Beresford, and appointed an official War Artist with the Australian forces. He was to join immediately the northward migration of servicemen.

Four days later, Sandford invited Friend to dinner to thank him for the gift of an art book. The war artist asked if he could return to Central Bureau as a private when his commission expired.

‘Old boy,’ said the young Colonel, ‘wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, you can be sure of a job if you chose to join me.’

 

….

 

‘… In February 1946 he (Sandford) went to the United Kingdom, from where he joined the British Army of the Rhine, the occupation force in in Germany, as an intelligence officer, One of the main purposes became prevention of a Soviet Drive into West Germany, although Sandford was primarily keeping an eye out for any resurgence of Nazism. He came back to Melbourne briefly late in 1948 and addressed a weekly intelligence briefing at Victoria Barracks on the situation in Germany. Then he disappeared back to Europe.

In 1948 Sandford left the military and joined the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company soon to become British Petroleum (BP) as Manager of its Rome office. He lived in Italy for the rest of his life, moving into an ornate stone villa on a coastal cliff with his male partner and, later, their adopted son. He came back to Australia from time to time, keeping in contact with family and making no pretence about his sexuality, though he did not reveal it to his mother, who had always thought young Mickey’s friends were ‘very arty’. Sandford never again visited Australia.

 

 

Sandford seems to have had no further contact with his batman after the war was over. Donald Friend tells of a 1947 night out with a mate on the seedy side of Melbourne. They were watching young gay men on the beat being scrutinised when Friend spotted Colin Wainwright among them, ‘dyed and painted up like a Matisse houri.’

Let’s get out of here,’ Friend said to his mate.’

 

I apologize for this lengthy ‘note’ but thought that this content was exceptional and worth reading by any gay man told that his ilk were worthless in wartime. Whether an Alan Turing, a Mic Sanderson, a Donald Friend or a Colin Wainwright, gay men had roles to play from the most critical to the mundane and they did well, all praise to them.

 

 

 

 

 

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