For almost 6 months after December 7th, 1941, the Japanese war machine swept all before it in a series of attacks and offensives that shocked the United States and its allies. In this period, dozens of islands, most with insignificant names bound for glory, were set up to form barriers to protect the Japanese mainland. Moreover, it allowed the Asian continent to be exploited in full free from outside interference.
Then in June, 1942, the Battle of Midway occurred. Here, the power of Japan’s mobile spearhead of 4 aircraft carriers slid beneath the waves, victims of air attack, bringing an end to the havoc wreaked since December 7th, and allowing the U.S. and its allies to begin the bloody march to Tokyo.
Central to this march was Australia. By 1943, it played a principal role as a staging base for offensives in the Pacific. From here the U.S. had launched its first land campaigns, and Australia/New Zealand forces (ANZAC) were deeply involved in the island leapfrog operations, as well as sending scores of enemy ships to the bottom using aircraft and submarines.
With the tide now shifted, the war in the shadows played an increasingly vital role in striking the Japanese at every opportunity. For handling such tasks, Special Operations Australia (SOA), a joint allied military intelligence service, called upon its commando unit known as Special Unit Z, or Z Force, from which the best of the Australian army and Navy were drawn. And, until the end of the war, this small group of men, many of them trained and accompanied by veteran allied servicemen, would sew havoc upon Japanese installations throughout the Pacific.
One such endeavor, known as Operation Jaywick, became its most famous. Hatched in the mind of British Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Lyon, the plan seemed so brazen and so unorthodox that some thought it might actually succeed under the right circumstances. More important, if they could pull it off, they might be able to disrupt Japan’s supply of men and material, for a short while at least.
Created with a 61 year old Australian civilian named Bill Reynolds, the plan centered on a captured Japanese fishing vessel called the Kofuku Maru, which was seized by allied forces shortly after hostilities began. The 70 foot vessel had already evacuated some 1,100 personnel from Singapore before the garrison fell in 1942. Now in possession of Z force, it would be used again to go back… with a vengeance.
With Kofuku Maru, now renamed Krait after the venomous sea snake, serving as a base of operations, she would sail within range of Singapore, and find a small uninhabited island where a small team of 6 men with foldable, black-rubberized canoes would dispatch. This group would then paddle the final distance to the target over a period of days. Entering the harbor at night, they would slip alongside ships and attach magnetic limpet mines to the hulls, getting away before the timers went off. Then they would rendezvous with Krait and return to Australia… if all went well.
With the plan finalized and approved, Lyon selected his unit. They comprised 3 British and 11 Australians. In Cairns the team met, and later traveled to where the Krait was being disguised as a fishing vessel.
Former member Horace Young recalls seeing the vessel for the first time. “I thought it was the most dreadful thing I’d seen in my life. Even my trawler days, when I think of them, I thought they were bad enough, but nothing could equal Krait, I’m sure.”
With the team aboard, Krait departed New South Wales for Thursday Island, late summer, then to the U.S. base at Exmouth harbor, in Australia, where refueling and repairs were completed. At last, on September 2nd they set course for Singapore, a Rising Sun ensign being unfurled to wave on her mast once they left home waters. Likewise, the men completed the disguise, donning Japanese attire and staining their skins brown in the process so they would resemble fisherman from a distance.
For days, the slow vessel putted over the open sea searching for a suitable offloading point, when, on September 19th, it came upon a small hilly outcrop covered in lush green vegetation. It was known on the maps as Pandjang Island. Here the team, led by Lyon, offloaded their equipment and prepared for the final journey, as Krait slipped back out to sea and disappeared over the horizon.
Lyon’s men hid successfully from a passing patrol boat before setting out from Pandjang. They paddled out under cover of darkness toward nearby islands, where they took refuge during the day. Each night they moved a little closer to Singapore, with a final staging on tiny Subar island some 6½ miles from the harbor.
Launching in darkness the night of the 25th, they approached the mouth of the harbor with a noise as quiet as still water, slipping past the entrance into the vast girth of the channel, where dozens of ships large and small lay sleeping at anchor, their sailors on watch passing another boring night by staring out into the inky blackness that veiled the tiny force.
Hands grasped the limpets as the canoes rubbed along the smooth hulls. They dipped their arms, placing the mines just below the water line. Scanning around to see if they attracted attention, they moved on to other ships, repeating the process. Once their lethal cargo was emplaced the 3 canoes slowly veered themselves back toward the open sea. Exiting the entrance, they paddled for all their might to get enough distance between themselves and Singapore.
The effort succeeded. Despite a narrow encounter with a patrol boat, they were back ashore on Subar when, between 5:15 and 5:50 A.M., they recalled deep rumblings echoing across the darkened ocean. A dull orange glow grew over the horizon as 7 transport ships exploded in curls of flame and smoke.
Back in the harbor, seawater flooded through gaping holes left by the limpets, and soon the ships began to list to one side, before the ocean poured over the railings and they capsized into a boiling slick of flame and debris which scattered to lap upon the shore. In total 7 ships, all of them vital transports needed to carry reinforcements and cargo, now lay on the bottom of the harbor.
Knowing the Japanese would mount search parties immediately, the team remained hidden throughout the day on the 26th. Once night arrived, they pushed their canoes into the water a final time, heading for Pompong island, where they would beach and rendezvous with Krait.
After paddling and hiding another 6 days, the first team reached the island and was picked up. However, the other two teams landed on the wrong beach, and watched the Krait turn and head for home, fearing them lost.
Dejected, they resigned themselves to eventually, being captured and likely executed. Yet, the next night, they heard the coughing engine of the Krait again plying somewhere offshore. They had come back to look one final time, and were rewarded as the men signaled their location. After retrieving them the Krait set course for Australia, still flying the Japanese ensign and pretending to be fisherman until they reached home waters. There, after having to be tended to by a U.S. ship, she entered Exmouth and docked.
Unshaven and dirty, its jubilant though tired crew left their cramped and foul home for civilization. Horace Young adds: “Very clearly we had to say absolutely nothing to anybody about where we’d been, what we’d been doing, under pain-of-death type of thing. Had to remain absolutely secret. Above all, your relatives were not to know anything about it. Those were the clear instructions. So we only just had to say we’d been roaming around the Pacific around the islands, island hopping.”
They had no idea that the moment they stepped ashore was the moment they became legend, and the decrepit hulk they left behind soon would return to sea, to carry out more audacious raids as part of a motley force of vessels named after deadly snakes, carrying more Z force men into the night to strike killing blows against the unsuspecting enemy.
Ivan Lyon, wanted to return again to Singapore for a follow up raid. Decorated for Jaywick, he was eager to get back into action to repeat the success of September. In October, he commanded Operation Rimau which sank 3 additional ships. He never lived to speak about it, for he and a comrade were killed on one of their base islands after being discovered by the Japanese on October 16th.
(Featured Photo Credit: Mac’s Web Log)