Patrick Heenan’s Radio and the Flying Doctor

In my paper published as HMAS Sydney II and Operation Fish 1941, it was stated that a British army officer and traitor in the British army in Malaya, fed information to the Japanese from a secret wireless set he had obtained.  This traitor was an Air Intelligence Liaison Officer (AILO) and worked between the three services and had access to the secret callsigns used by the Allies in the Far East.  In Odd Man Out the story of the Singapore traitor, Patrick Heenan written by Peter Elphick and Michael Smith on page 183/4 they wrote:  “The Air Liaison Section could scarcely have been bettered as a platform from which to obtain useful information for the Japanese……..He would also have had access to details of the Air Recognition Strips, which allowed pilots to identify friendly forces on the ground, and to the daily changing Air Recognition Codes used by the pilots to identify friendly aircraft….”

                                               Odd Man Out, The Story of the Singapore Traitor,
                                               Peter Elphick & Michael Smith, H & S, London, 1993.   

 This also applied, of course, to the recognition signals for shipping as well and thus the secret callsign for the Straat Malakka, or whatever alias the Kormoran had assumed.  This callsign would have been then available to the Japanese and passed to Admiral Wenneker in Tokyo and passed in turn to Kormoran via the Kulmerland replenishment in October 1941.  This is supported by the fact that Elphick and Smith write on page 184 :  “During the initial landings at Kota Bharu, several air crews reported that Japanese warships were signaling to them using the correct Air Recognition Code of the day – “K”.  This information reportedly came from Douglas Gillison, in Royal Australian Air Force, 1939-1942, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1962.  

The statement regarding the amount of information and its usefulness to the Japanese has been challenged by another writer in his book, claiming that Heenan’s wireless could not have been that good and he has written the following statements:


            “In RAF circles stories began to circulate of fifth columnists sending
              messages to the Japanese by radio.  With this information the Japanese
             were alleged to have been able to time their attacks to catch RAF air-
            craft on the ground.” 

            “Nonetheless an air liaison officer based in northern Malaya, Captain
            Patrick Heenan of the 3/16th Punjabis, was later arrested and executed
            for espionage.  Apparently Heenan had spent part of a six month furlough
            in Japan in 1938-39, and he had continued to mix with Japanese at
            Singapore in 1941.

            Heenan had been in the habit of making clandestine trips into Thailand,
            and he was caught in possession of a small, disguised radio transmitter. 
            Heenan may have flirted with Japanese intelligence, but exaggerated
            estimates of his effectiveness have little basis.  Small radios in 1941
            barely worked in jungle over any distance.  The idea that the Japanese
            based their plans around the messages of a British traitor at a vital
            stage of the war is preposterous.”

                                        Singapore 1942, Britain’s Greatest Defeat, Alan Warren, 
                                                                      Talisman, Singapore, 2002, page 65.

 It was noted by Elphick, in Odd Man Out, that another officer at the same base as Heenan had his suspicions aroused when he looked into a window and noticed Heenan typing on a typewriter; “…he carried a portable wireless, which we all thought was a small typewriter, but he was seen in a small native hut in Butterworth typing without any paper in the machine.”  This has been repeated by Peter Elphick in his book, Far Eastern File [page328], where he wrote: “At least one European was detected using a secret transmitter for this purpose.  The European referred to was, again, Captain Patrick Heenan.  He was arrested at Butterworth Airfield near Penang, on the morning of 10 December [1941], and at the time, he had in his possession two radio transmitters, one which looked like a typewriter…..”

 A transmitter that looked like a typewriter was certainly unusual, but there was such a transmitter operated by a typewriter keyboard and it had been invented in Australia by Alfred Traeger, the same man who worked on the wireless sets for the flying doctor service in outback Australia.   

 A Morse operator, to obtain a good ‘hand’ at the morse key, needs to spend about 200 hours of tedious practice to obtain a sending and receiving speed of about 20 words per minute.  This was more time than children, mothers and stockmen and other people working on outback stations could spare and in their eagerness to get on the air with their new wireless sets soon found their morse code efforts were far from acceptable or readable.  Added to this was the problem of power, generators were expensive to run, batteries were dangerous (using acid) and out of the question and eventually the pedal powered wireless set came about after much experimentation.  Distance, weather, dust and monsoonal rain were other factors facing the inventor of the pedal radio.  This led to experiments which produced a compact, crystal-controlled wireless set that was reliable, had a good range, could operate in any weather and had a simple but effective power supply.

 “His [Alfred Traeger’s] ingenious mind sought constantly for ways to improve the radio gear and he had no sooner conceived the idea of an ‘automatic keyboard’ than he set to work to build one, The result was a miraculously simple piece of equipment, no larger than the portable typewriter which it resembles.  Operators no longer had to learn the Morse code and laboriously key out dots and dashes: they simply pressed the lettered keys of the automatic board.”

       The Flying Doctor Story 1928-78, Michael Page, Rigby, Australia, 1977, page 98/99.

Another writer explained it even better, when he wrote, ”One of the most interesting points …… of Traeger regarding a story of his invention of a typewriter in 1931 which sent a morse character when a key was tapped.  If a ‘K’ was tapped on the keyboard the equivalent morse character was transmitted by wireless,  This enabled people in the outback sending good morse without actually being trained in the morse code so that children or stockmen on the station were able to call the flying doctors with easy to read morse.”               Traeger, The Pedal Radio Man, Fred Mckay, Boolarong Press, 1995.

 The first of these automatic keyboards was not available until April 1932 and after that it was full speed ahead¸ the sets being snapped up as soon as they were available.  It is easy to imagine the interest in such a machine that would be aroused in a government which was planning a war in the Far East. The Japanese were famous for copying the inventions of others and putting them to a new use.  It would have been a simple enough operation to adapt the machine from a pedal radio power supply to a fixed power supply while still maintaining the wireless sets’ compactness and reliability.

It was well known by the British, that their wireless sets worked badly in the conditions that were existing in the Malayan jungle and the sets were prone to breaking down, but was that any reason to attribute the same thing to Japanese wireless sets ?  Certainly the British of all people should have known that the Japanese had used wireless with their navy as early as 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima when they destroyed the Russian fleet. So it would appear to be typical of the superior attitude that the British held of the Japanese in 1941, where the writer above describes Heenan’s work as ‘preposterous’, even though they managed to be thoroughly beaten by the Japanese and lost Singapore into the bargain.  While the British writer is obviously ignorant of Traeger’s inventions and work with the wireless and keyboard and it appears that the same was the case in 1941, the British government would probably not have used a wireless set invented by an Australian, even if they knew of its existence.  The British High Commissioner, Sir Ronald Cross, in Australia during the war years has been described as ‘lecturing Australian Ministers as if they were small and rather dirty boys” and referred to Australians as “inferior people.”  

The choice of Sir Ronald Cross as the British High Commissioner to Australia in 1941 was an interesting one.  The Governor-General was the representative of the King, the High Commissioner was the representative of the British government.  In his ground-breaking book SOE The Special Operations Executive 1940-56, the author M.R.D. Foot wrote a number of books on special operations during the war and was a former S.A.S officer.  In it Ronald Cross does not rate a mention and the first information regarding the Ministry for Economic Warfare (MEW) is that it was set up under Hugh Dalton in 1940, on the instructions of Churchill.

In fact, the MEW was set up under Ronald Cross who headed the service from 1939 to 1940, and he was followed by Hugh Dalton. It’s curious that he should be omitted as its founder by M.R.D. Foot.  Cross was also at one time one of the Lords of the Treasury and Minister for Shipping and Duff Cooper a former First Lord of the Admiralty and Financial Secretary to the Treasury.  Like the special government representative that was sent to Hong Kong in 1939 and Duff Cooper that was sent to Singapore in 1941, Australia was given a former Treasury official and a former Minister of Economic Warfare in  May 1941.

 James Eagles ©
Townsville  18.12.05