On the night of 26 September 1943, men from Special Operations Australia’s top-secret Z Special Unit, paddling three folding canoes, carried out a daring and successful undercover raid on enemy ships in Japanese occupied Singapore Harbour. They had sailed 3,960 km from Exmouth, Western Australia, deep into enemy territory aboard the captured Japanese-built fishing boat Krait. This is the story of Krait, the men of Operation Jaywick, and of one Singaporean woman caught up in the nightmare that followed.
Bombing of Singapore. Photo: Imperial War Museum, HU 3378.
In 1941 the cosmopolitan British island colony of Singapore was a busy port at the crossroads of international trade and a lynchpin of Britain’s defence against looming Japanese aggression in the Pacific. Nicknamed the ‘Gibraltar of the East’, the island was defended by British, Australian, Indian and Malayan troops, batteries of 15-inch (380 mm) land-based naval guns and a Royal Navy base.
On 8 December – the day after Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor – Britain, Australia and their allies declared war on Japan. Within days the Imperial
Japanese Army invaded Hong Kong, Thailand and British Malaya, beginning a relentless march south to Singapore.
The Battle of Singapore lasted one week. The British surrendered on 15 February 1942 and approximately 80,000 British, Indian and Australian soldiers were taken as prisoners of war (POWs), joining 50,000 Allied troops already captured during the Malayan Campaign.
The Japanese occupation of Singapore saw acts of brutal oppression against civilians suspected of anti-Japanese sentiment. Over two weeks from 18 February, the Chinese community was targeted and systematically purged of ‘hostile’ elements in the Sook Ching, or ‘great purge’, when more than 6,000 people were executed.
Australian merchant seaman W R ‘Bill’ Reynolds took possession of a Japanese fishing boat, Kofuku Maru, seized in Singapore when the war with Japan began. He ferried 1,100 evacuees out to Sumatra (then part of the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) as Singapore fell and realised that the boat went relatively unnoticed by Japanese aircraft attacking Singapore, something that would prove valuable in the future.
In Sumatra Reynolds met Major Ivan Lyon, a British Army officer with the Allied Intelligence Bureau, and began hatching a plan for the vessel. The Dutch East Indies surrendered to Japan in March and Reynolds escaped on Kofuku Maru to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
Meeting up with Lyon again, the pair conceived a covert raid that would shock the Japanese with its audacity and stealth. Kofuku Maru was central to the plan, but it needed a new name. They renamed it Krait, after a small but deadly Asian snake, and the boat was transhipped to Sydney on a P&O steamer.
Krait at Camp X. Photo: Australian War Memorial, 067338.
Called ‘Operation Jaywick’, their plan was to attack Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour with a team of commandos disguised as the Asian crew of a nondescript fishing vessel – the Krait. They would use folding canoes to infiltrate the harbour and attach limpet mines to the hulls of Japanese ships.
Operation Jaywick was assigned to Z Special Unit (also known as ‘Z Force’), a specialist reconnaissance and sabotage unit formed by British Special Operations Executive officers who had escaped the Fall of Singapore. Although predominantly Australian, Z Special Unit also included British, Dutch, New Zealand, Timorese and Indonesian nationals.
1943: Fourteen men in a captured enemy fishing boat made a perilous undercover voyage to strike at the heart of Japanese occupied Singapore.
In January 1943 Krait joined 14 men who had trained for Operation Jaywick in secret for three months at remote Refuge Bay on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales. There they learnt how to fight, kill, wreak havoc and survive.
On its way north from Sydney, Krait’s Japanese engine died near Fraser Island and it was towed to Townsville to wait for a replacement to be shipped from Tasmania, putting the feasibility of the mission in doubt.
While the Jaywick team waited and continued their commando training, men from Z Special Unit in Cairns led by Lt Samuel Carey made a mock raid on Townsville Harbour on 23 June 1943, attaching dummy limpet mines to 15 ships, shocking Navy personnel and proving that Operation Jaywick could work.
Krait heading towards Singapore. Photo: Australian War Memorial, 045419.
Members of Z Special Unit aboard Krait during Operation Jaywick. Photo: Australian War Memorial, 045421.
Engine problems and general unseaworthiness plagued Krait, delaying the operation. It finally departed from Exmouth, WA, on 1 September 1943. Almost immediately, on-the-spot repairs were needed to repair a broken propeller shaft.
Passing through Lombok Strait on 6 September, Krait proceeded to the Java Sea. There the crew and commandos flew a Japanese ensign, wore sarongs and covered their bodies in ‘Helena Rubinstein’ dark tan makeup to disguise themselves as local fishermen. Whenever possible the crew hid out of sight below decks.
After crossing the Java Sea, Krait coasted along the coast of Borneo then headed for the Lingga Archipelago, a cluster of islands south of Singapore. On 18 September, six commandos disembarked in their two-man folding canoes at the island of Pulau Panjang. Krait then left for the relatively safer waters of Borneo with orders to rendezvous with the commandos on the night of 1–2 October.
Toasting the success of Operation Jaywick. Photo: Australian War Memorial, 134349.
The commandos island-hopped, paddling their folding canoes northwards through the archipelago arriving at Pulau Dongas on 22 September. There they observed Singapore Harbour traffic, where approximately 59,000 tonnes of Japanese shipping had gathered.
On 26 September, the six men in their three canoes slipped through the night towards their targets. Lyon and Huston were spotted by a Japanese crewman but ignored, while Davidson and Falls were nearly run down by a tug.
They attached magnetic limpet mines to the hulls of seven ships and fled the anchorage undetected. Early the next morning, six explosions shattered the darkness and six Japanese ships – 35,000 tonnes – were sunk or severely damaged. One mine had failed to detonate. Krait reached the rendezvous point on 2 October, collected the canoes and their crews and retreated back across the Java Sea through Lombok Strait to Exmouth, arriving on 19 October.
The Allies never admitted involvement...as a result the Japanese sought vengeance on Singapore’s civilians.
In Singapore the Japanese were stunned by the audacity and success of Operation Jaywick. Not believing that it was an enemy plot, they immediately suspected the civilian population. Local Chinese and Malays, prisoners of war and European civilians topped the list of suspects, and a wave of arrests, torture and executions followed. These reprisals are known in Singapore as the ‘Double Tenth’ after the 10 October, the date that mass arrests by the Japanese Kenpeitai (military police) began.
The misery caused in Singapore was an unintended consequence of Operation Jaywick and has raised questions about its justification, especially given its relatively limited strategic outcomes. The Allies never admitted involvement, probably to preserve Krait’s covert identity for future missions. As a result the Japanese sought vengeance on Singapore’s civilians.