Doug Smith is a resident at Vasey RSL Care Frankston South and was involved in a secret mission during World War II

Doug’s Top Secret Role in World War II

* 7 June 2023 *

Vasey RSL Care Frankston South resident, Doug Smith, is turning 99 this July. Many years ago, when he turned 18, the year was 1942 and he volunteered for the Royal Australian Air Force.

Leaving his parents and younger brother and sister behind, he was sent off for training in wireless communications.

Six months later and proficient in Morse Code, his commanding officer offered him the opportunity to work on a special mission, but he wouldn’t tell him anything more until he accepted. With youthful enthusiasm, he said yes.

Doug joined a team that was kept completely secret for many decades, and he along with the others involved, had to sign to that effect. In fact, the document they signed was covered by both the Crimes Act and the Official Secrets Act which has no time limit on it. However, today, the information is public and Doug can talk about his wartime experience.

At the end of 1942, Doug was transported to Townsville where he found out that his new job would be to help fight the war in the southwest Pacific area by intercepting Japanese forces’ messages: he was put to work to learn Japanese code. Compared with the 26 letters and 10 numbers of the English Morse code, learning 71 Japanese symbols was a significantly tougher task reserved for those with an aptitude for the work.

Doug joined the Australian No. 1 Wireless Unit (WU) under General Kenney whose team of operators listened in to the Japanese forces’ communications and was part of the expanding program that listened 24×7 from stations across the region. “We had eight-hour shifts and most of the messages were during the day,” Doug says. “We listened around the clock but there wasn’t so much at night.” Doug was sent to New Guinea in the Forward Detachment No. 1 WU. Some time later he was taken back to Townsville to provide the new No. 2 WU with experienced operators in transit to Darwin.

Ultimately there were seven listening stations across the region and Doug spent the remainder of the war stationed at two of these: Darwin and New Guinea. Each team had around 14 operators, listening and writing down the very fast messages sent in Japanese kana code. These were handed over to a ‘decoding team’ to try and make sense of them. Accuracy was paramount.

Intelligence coming from Doug and his colleagues’ work was forwarded to the allies in the region, predominantly the US forces under General MacArthur. The work of this team had a major positive impact on the ultimate allied success in the Pacific.

In April 1943, their work provided full information of the Japanese intentions, resulting in the allied success at the battle of the Bismarck Sea. In August 1943 allied forces were able to destroy the majority of the Japanese air capability and even knew that the Japanese had run out of aviation fuel.

In early 1944, following the retreating Japanese in New Guinea, the allied forces discovered several steel boxes in a pit. These contained a copy of the Japanese army high-grade code books and with the Japanese unaware of this loss, cracking coded messages became simple for the remainder of the war, with devastating consequences for the Japanese.

At this time, Doug learned the operation of Directional Finding Equipment and was posted to Broome where he used these skills to pinpoint the origin of Japanese signals. He returned to No. 1 WU on 14 March.

Members of the wireless units were working as usual on the morning of 6 August 1945 when there was a sudden stop to all messages on all frequencies. When they found out later that the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, they knew they had been listening in to a significant moment in history. The messages began again and showed that the Japanese thought the bomb heralded the imminent invasion of Japan. Listening again after the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later, operators heard directives to place all prisoners of war on at least normal Japanese soldiers’ rations and release all Red Cross parcels to them.

Now a Corporal and in charge of a team of operators, Doug and No. 1 WU were on route via ship transport to the Philippines when peace was declared on 2 September 1945. All on board the ship were offloaded at Moratai where they spent several months before returning to Australia. Doug was discharged in January 1946.

The contribution of people such as Doug is very little known due to the secrecy demanded by the Australian government and the length of time they were required to keep it secret.

However, in 1972, a former employee of the US National Security Agency wrote an article in the American journal Ramparts, exposing the role of the Australian Defence Signals Division, and in 1985, Jack Bleakley, who had served with No. 1 WU in Townsville, Port Moresby, Nadzab, Biak and the Philippines began writing his book, ‘Eavesdroppers’, which was published in 1991. By this stage, all involved in this mission were already in their 60’s and 70’s.

In July 2009, UK Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, sent a medallion bearing the British Code and Cypher Emblem and a certificate from the UK’s Government Code and Cypher School to Doug and other members of this elite group (see below), stating, ‘The Government wishes to express to you its deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War II’. It is interesting to note that this statement still gives no indication of what this service actually was.

Despite all that he and his comrades achieved, the best memory Doug has of this time in his life, he says, is “Coming home”.

Then aged 21, he returned to his family and began work at the taxation office, which he did until his retirement in 1982. In 1949, Doug married his long-time sweetheart, Dorothy Tate. They went on to have a son and a daughter, many grandchildren and more great grandchildren. Doug was very happily married for 68 years, sadly losing his wife just six years ago, aged 89.

Doug’s room at Vasey RSL Care Frankston South has many happy photos of he and his wife and family celebrating special events and he has clearly had a rich and happy life.

But his part in World War II stays with him. After the war ended, the operators got together for an annual reunion in Melbourne which continued each year until about ten years ago.

Thanks to Jack Bleakley and his book, the secret work of these operators and their role in the allied Victory in the Pacific can now be fully appreciated.


With grateful thanks to Doug Smith for the opportunity to talk to him about his wartime role and for permission to publish his photos.