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Australia's War 1939 - 1945
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Overview
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The Coastwatchers Memorial light at Kalibobo Point, Madang Harbour, New Guinea.
[AWM P0279.001]
Block sketch cards of
Japanese war vessels.
[Admiralty, London, 1941, AWM 940.545952 B651 1941]
Spotters from the New Guinea Air Warning and Coastwatching network read their mail in a clearing at Rouna Falls, Papua. May 1942.
[AWM P01035.005]
Commander Eric Feldt, OBE, Royal Australian Navy, Naval Intelligence Division. Norman Carter, Sydney, 1957.
[Oil on canvas 76 x 61 cm, AWM ART27504]
Coastwatcher's teleradio
[RELAWM OL00283.001]

The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
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Some of the Coastwatching teleradio stations in the South West Pacific area, December 1941 – December 1943.
[DVA]

Watched and Warned and Died that We Might Live

[The epitaph on the Australian Coastwatchers Memorial at Madang]

The first coastwatching organisation was established in 1919 by Captain J G Clare, RAN, who believed there was a need to develop a network of observers to monitor the islands to Australia’s north. The Coastwatchers on the northern and north-western coasts of Australia were usually cattle-station managers or missionaries and in Papua and New Guinea, usually plantation mangers who had lived in the islands for some years and so had local contacts and local knowledge. By the mid-1920s their area included the Bismarck Archipelago.

In 1935, Commander R B M Long, Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) in Melbourne worked to close the gaps in the coastwatching service. He sent Eric Feldt – a retired Royal Australian Naval officer with many years’ experience of the civil service in New Guinea – to be in charge of intelligence there. Feldt, himself an Islander, knew the other islanders, the planters and the government officials and was trusted by them.

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A local wireless telegraphist operator operating an AWA 3BZ teleradio at Segi Coastwatchers station, British Solomon Islands.
[AWM 306814]

With Japan’s entry into the war this island screen became the front-line. The Coastwatchers communicated by radio through existing radio stations or by teleradios that had been loaned by the Naval Board. They were given some instruction and a code with which to make their reports on any hostile movements and to report any item of intelligence value. It was a lonely and precarious existence.

After the capture, torture and murder of Percy Good, an elderly copra planter on Buka Island, off Bougainville, all civilians were enlisted into the RAN in the belief that their combatant status would protect them if they were captured by the enemy.

In 1942 when General MacArthur assumed supreme command of the South West Pacific Area it was decided that the Coastwatchers should become part of the Allied Intelligence Bureau under the direct command of General Headquarters (GHQ). By then there were over a hundred teleradios all linked to their own centre, either Port Moresby, Rabaul, Tulagi or Vila and all using a special, rarely used frequency to avoid attracting attention

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Coastwatcher Captain Martin Clemens, a member of the Solomon Islands Defence Forces who remained on Guadalcanal throughout the Japanese occupation, is pictured here with local policemen.
[AWM 043648]

The Coastwatchers were supported by all three services. Aircraft dropped their supplies and submarines and PT boats landed them and removed them. The assistance and loyalty of the local population was essential: they performed a vital role in guerrilla operations and intelligence gathering.

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Read reports transmitted by Coastwatchers in the field.

A small Australian army signals unit, the New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company (NGAWW), also existed as a single entity between February 1942 and 1945. In October 1942, the unit was officially renamed ‘New Guinea Air Warning Wireless (Independent) Company’ as part of New Guinea Force and later, as part of the Corps of Signals in October 1943. These Army ‘spotters’ served in the valleys, highlands and around the coastline of New Guinea and nearby islands as signallers. All members of the unit were volunteers and their unit colour patch was a double diamond, being the ‘independent’ unit (later ‘commando’) insignia. By 1943-1944, the NGAWW had 75 outposts in New Guinea and surrounding islands in the South-West Pacific Theatre of Operations. The unit was disbanded in 1945 and its members have been commemorated with a plaque in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

More than 600 Coastwatchers served in Australia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands during World War II. They included RAAF, AIF, RAN, 1 WRAN, (Women’s Royal Australian Naval Officer) US Marines and US Army personnel, members of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defence Force and 13 civilians. The thirty eight Coastwatchers who died are not always identifiable on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial since their names are listed with their operational units and not as Coastwatchers.

 

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[Monro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand, Viking Kestrel, Penguin USA, 1936]
'Ferdinand'

Commander Eric Feldt, RAN, decided that the organisation needed a generic codename to distinguish the Coastwatchers' activities from other areas of naval intelligence also under his control. He was also keen to choose a name that wouldn't indicate the nature of their activities to any casual listener. He chose the name 'Ferdinand', from the popular children's classic, The Story of Ferdinand, which was written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, and first published in 1936.

I chose Ferdinand … who did not fight but sat under a tree and just smelled 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. Of course, like their titular prototype, they could fight if they were stung.

[Eric Feldt, The Coastwatchers, Melbourne, 1946, p.95]

The Coastwatchers often had to move their camp to avoid discovery by the enemy. Moving was difficult because they also needed between twelve and sixteen carriers – usually local indigenous men – to help them carry their radio and equipment. Their radios were powered by car batteries, which were charged by a petrol engine weighing 70 pounds (30 kilograms).

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Most of the teleradio sets used by the Coastwatchers were Type 3B. They consisted of a transmitter, a receiver and a loud speaker which were transported in three metal boxes measuring 60cm x 30cm x 30cm. The men with teleradios transmitted messages in the 'Playfair' code, but the 100 or so others without teleradios could only pass a message to Naval Intelligence by sending a runner to the nearest radio base, sometimes days away. Later in 1942, the Navy replaced the 'Playfair' code with a high-grade cypher code that was specifically devised by the cryptographers for the 'Ferdinand' operations. It was called the 'Bull' code.

 

 

Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Australia at war 3 September 1939
Libya and the Siege of Tobruk 1941
Greece and Crete April-May 1941
Syria and Lebanon June 1941
Malaya December 1941 to Moresby May 1942
Australia under attack 1940-1945
Coral Sea, Kokoda, Milne Bay May-September 1942
El Alamein October-November 1942
The Home Front 1939-1945
The Coastwatchers 1941-1945
Australian prisoners of war 1940-1945
Little-known operations 1939-1945
Papua 1942-1943
The Japanese retreat March 1943-January 1944
War at sea 1939-1945
Air war Europe 1939-1945
Bougainville, Borneo, New Britain, New Guinea 1944-1945
8 May 1945/15 August 1945
Silhouettes such as these were issued to Coastwatchers so that they would be able to clearly identify enemy shipping and could then report on the ships and their movements.
[Block Sketch cards of Japanese War Vessels, Admiralty, London, 1941, AWM 940.545952 B651 1941]
Coastwatcher's teleradio
[RELAWM OL00283.001]
The working lighthouse at Kalibobo Point, Madang Harbour in New Guinea is a memorial to the Coastwatchers who survived and to those thirty-eight who did not. It commemorates all those who carried out lonely and dangerous duties and all the local people who supported them. The light was officially switched on for the first time on 15 August 1959 by Senator John Gorton, Minister for the Navy in the presence of Commander Eric Feldt, dignitaries and local residents.
[AWM P0279.001]
Spotters from the New Guinea Air Warning and Coastwatching network read their mail in a clearing at Rouna Falls, Papua. May 1942.
[AWM P01035.005]
Commander Eric Feldt, OBE, Royal Australian Navy, Naval Intelligence Division. Norman Carter, Sydney, 1957.
[Oil on canvas 76 x 61 cm, AWM ART27504]