Whilst perusing aerial photographs of Christmas Island taken in 1944 and 1945 one in particular from the 1944 series stood out. I saw some odd objects that didn’t seem to belong to the general landscape that were photographed below from the plane. Zooming in to the photo I was amazed to see aerial bombs mid air, that had just been dropped from that plane, above the Incline. In the process of finding out more about that mission, I discovered a British submarine had also opened fire upon the Island in 1944 and that a small band of Secret Intelligence Australia (SIA) men were briefly there too in the first half of 1945!
I’d like to thank Teresa Barlow for finding for me, a brief mention to this mission buried in a chronology list in “We were the Christmas Islanders”. Despite an error in the reference, it was enough to get me started on finding out some little known facts about Christmas Island’s war history. Vicki Thomas, Librarian, Heritage Services, Department of Lands, Planning and Heritage has been very helpful and went above and beyond to help me with an obscure reference that I found in a heritage report on the Corunna Downs Station and also finding more information for me about the mission.
The reconnaissance and bombing attack
The story starts with a WW2 top secret air field that was established next to the Corunna Downs homestead 39km from Marble Bar, Western Australia. The two bitumen runways stretching 1,500m and 2,000m respectively were especially designed for the American heavy, long distance B-24 Liberator bombers.
It was from this airbase that The RAAF No. 24 Squadron, No 25 Squadron and the United States Army Air Corps 380th Bombardment Group flew reconnaissance and bombing missions against the Japanese in the Dutch-East Indies (Indonesia).
In January 1944, a single B-24 Liberator bomber from the 380th Group left Corunna Downs and made a 17 hour armed reconnaissance flight to the Japanese-occupied Christmas Island.1
In his book “Black Swans over Java“, Ian Duggan writes:
The operation’s objective was to photograph and determine what the Japanese were doing on the island apart from mining the phosphate rock. The operation was considered successful, but due to a shortage of fuel, the bomber landed at Port Hedland on its return instead of flying all of the way to Corunna. 2
What isn’t said is that on the 10th January the bomber dropped a few “presents” for the Japanese. The photograph below shows aerial bombs. Apparently anti-aircraft installations were the target.3
In his book, “Suffering through strength“, John Hunt’s map of “Japanese Installations and fortifications 1942-45”, 4 shows that Japanese AA guns were located close to the locomotive shop and railway sidings at the top of the Incline. Were these the target?
The area shown in the small dashed circle above shows a plume of smoke. It looks to be lower than the surrounding clouds and has denser edges. The location ties in with the trajectory of the bombs but off course for the Japanese AA guns at Drumsite. Is this where the bombs detonated? The plume does not show in the first photo of the aerial bombs above.
The image below shows the AN-M30A1 100lb aerial bomb. It looks very similar to the aerial bombs being dropped on Christmas Island.
Most interestingly, in an excellent video exploration at the Corruna Downs airbase, Alan Nobrega aka “The Land Cruiser”, filmed and photographed many war remnants that are still on that historic abandoned site. This includes frames that housed the body of the bombs that the Liberators dropped. Many thanks go to Alan for allowing me to include two of those photos below.
Prior to the reconnaissance/bombing mission, the Australian and New Zealand British Phosphate Commissioners wanted to take over the Christmas Island phosphate lease and expected that the Island would be retaken in the near future. They were keen to resume mining as soon as possible upon the withdrawal of the Japanese. This would have benefited Australia with increased superphosphate supplies.
In a series of secret and confidential correspondences, 5 the aerial survey of Christmas Island was discussed at the highest levels of Australian Government right up to the Prime Minister, John Curtin.
Part of teleprinter message from Frank Bullock, Director-General of Agriculture to William Sculley, Minister for Commerce talks about this:
I am assured by Mr Gaze, of the British Phosphate Commission, that the opening up of Christmas Island would result in increased supplies for Australia, and that, in order to know the immediate position, the aerial survey suggested should be undertaken in order that the exact position in respect to plant should be known as speedily as possible. Mr Gaze has suggested to me that you might be disposed to ask the Prime Minister to request G.H.Q. to have aerial photographs of the Island taken at once. Colonel Fawcett and/or Captain Paris could advise the airmen undertaking the work as to the objectives to be photographed and either or both would be glad, I understand, to go on the plane if circumstances permit. In view of the above, might I suggest that the reaction of the Prime Minister to the proposal be obtained, as I feel that any possible potential source of superphosphate supply should not be overlooked, and I am not a bit happy at the shipping prospects from Africa or Florida.
Captain Paris, referred to in the above correspondence, was John Rupert Paris, who had been the Island Chief Engineer and Works Manager. He was evacuated prior to the Japanese invasion and was indeed on that surveillance/bombing flight. After the war he became the Island Manager (1945-1949).
It would seem then that the mission had a few objectives; determining what the Japanese were
up to, an aerial survey of plant and drop a few bombs along the way.
I am in the process of finding a copy of the Operations Record Book entry for this flight and will be interested to see the mission brief and if it also discusses the bombing. I hope to be able to add that when it comes to hand.
The submarine attack
Later that year (1944), on the 30th September, a British Admiralty communique was reported in the Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore) under the title “32 Japanese vessels destroyed – Toll taken by British submarines”. 6 In part of that communique it was stated “Oil tanks on Christmas Island, to the south of Java, were bombarded and a number of hits scored.” The quoted line above was also reported in a number of British newspapers too.
Further details about that episode were found on Gudmundur Helgason’s excellent uboat.net website. The submarine involved was the HMS Spiteful (P227).
The armaments of the HMS Spiteful were: 7
- 7 × 21 in (533 mm) torpedo tubes (6 × bow, 1 × stern)
- 1 × 3 in (76 mm) deck gun
- 20 mm Oerlikon AA gun
Here is the submarine report: 8
22nd August 1944
HMS Spiteful (Lt.Cdr. F.H. Sherwood, DSC, RCNVR) bombarded oil storage tanks at Christmas Island.
(All times are zone – 6.5)
0929 hours – Dived in position 10°11’S, 105°38’E and closed Christmas Island.
1230 hours – No shipping was seen in Flying Fish Cove. Three oil storage tanks were seen and selected as target for a gun action.
1734 hours – Surfaced for gun action. 5 Rounds were fired for 2 or 3 hits. The enemy also opened fire with three guns and machine guns.
1737 hours – Dived and set course for Australia.
Australian Intelligence on the Island
And finally, it was a surprise to learn that a unit of Secret Intelligence Australia (SIA)* was, for a brief time, on Christmas Island in 1945. This fact is revealed in an interview of Ira Berkley (Dick) Withers, formerly LAC, RAAF. 9 He talks of his war time experiences. Trained as a telegraphist in 1943 he was transferred to the Allied Intelligence Bureau – SIA and operated out of Snake Bay (Melville Island) until about December 1944. Several months later he was part of a group of seven men taken by boat to Java. They found themselves in a dangerous situation and ultimately had to leave. This would be prior to the 25th June 1945 when Dick was on Cocos Island. His next destination after Java was Christmas Island. Here is the relevant part of the interview regarding Java and Christmas Island:
So you had those operatives in place – what was the process from there for you? Did you then move to Christmas Island?
No we weren’t in Java for very long there because we were too close to a radio station they just put us in.
So you were initially landed in Java?
Yes. Southeast Java.
And what was your role to be there?
Well we were a repeater station for them, and did our own general intelligence too. We had to do it. That’s how Bugis [Abdullah Bugis] and Nor [Abdullah Nor] that used to go and do these little things while we hid in the scrub. And our idea was get their information, code it and send it back to Australia.
So take us through landing in Java and why you ended up moving from there?
… that’s when we transferred to there [Java]. I now believe that Prow [boat Prau?] was under the auspices of Force 136 **. It worked out of Trincomalee and Ceylon and they put us in there, helped us along there and they were the ones that picked us up and took us to Christmas Island. Now we knew there was Japanese on the north coast of Christmas Island so they landed us on the south coast. When we got there Chader [Captain Wilfred John Chater] and Bugis – and there were Malays there too – found out that there’d been a band of marauding deserters from the Indian army. When the Japanese came down these Indians had turned from their British office, slew them and became a marauding band, partly pro-ally but sort of going around the Island and living on there like that. And Chader decided that well the way they were going round that he’d heard, that we’d better get out of this place because we need a reasonably safe place because we were going to be on the air working all these stations and back to Australia. We were going to have to spend a fair bit of time on the air and we wanted a nice little safe spot where we could be not worried by too many intrusions from the enemy so then it was decided that we’d go to Cocos Island.
So it was Java, then Christmas, then Cocos?
And what was the problem with the Java situation – why did you have to move to Christmas?
We were too close to Japanese base and there was a high-powered Japanese transmitter very much close to us. Now when a transmitter transmits it sends out also a ground wave, not only go out in the air but the ground wave comes along and the strength of it just clogged our … , I just couldn’t get out. I spent about 72 hours just with the radio on all the time trying to get out to Snake Bay to say ‘Help, help! Get us out of this place’. We were just too close.
Where Dick’s party landed on the south side of Christmas Island and exactly how long they stayed is unknown. It is interesting to think that Chater and Bugis were able to make contact with some Islanders and were told of the mutiny. Were they also able to inform the Islanders that the tide of war had turned against the Japanese? There would surely have been an exchange of information.
* Secret Intelligence Australia (SIA) was a British political unit under the command of Captain Roy Kendall. It was known as Section “B” of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB). A signal intercept and code-breaking unit, SIA was modelled on the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). SIA was charged with the “Collection of information of the enemy and his activities through certain special means and channels concerning which detailed secret instructions will be issued from time to time”. ~ Australia @ war
** Force 136 was a far eastern branch of the British World War II intelligence organisation, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The organisation was established to encourage and supply indigenous resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory, and occasionally mount clandestine sabotage operations. Force 136 operated in the regions of the South-East Asian Theatre of World War II which were occupied by Japan from 1941 to 1945 ~ Wikipedia
1. Heritage Council of Western Australia, Register of Heritage Places, Corunna Downs Station, “Miller Manuscript, 1962”
2. 73 Operations Record Book. Entry 10-1-1944 (sheet 16).
3. We were the Christmas Islanders, chronology page 82. (Corunna Downs incorrectly referred to as “Carnarvon Downs”)
4. Suffering through strength, John Hunt page 195.
5. Aerial reconnaissance of Christmas Island, National Archives of Australia, NAA: A816, 59/301/44
6. Civil & Military Gazette (Lahore) – Saturday 30 September 1944 page 3
8. Originally sourced from the British National Archives – Admiralty: War History Cases and Papers, Second World War / Admiral submarines: patrol reports of HM Submarines STORM, SURF, SPITEFUL, SCORCHER AND SCYTHIAN – ADM 199/1870
9. Transcript of interview with Ira (Dick) Withers, 17th November 2003, Australians at War Film Archive (Archive No 1164) Reference to CI: Tape 7, 10:00 minute mark https://australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/1164