The Coastwatchers 1941-1945

Watched and Warned and Died that We Might Live

[The epitaph on the Australian Coastwatchers Memorial at Madang]

The first coastwatching organisation was established in 1919 by Captain J G Clare, RAN, who believed there was a need to develop a network of observers to monitor the islands to Australia's north. The Coastwatchers on the northern and north-western coasts of Australia were usually cattle-station managers or missionaries and in Papua and New Guinea, usually plantation mangers who had lived in the islands for some years and so had local contacts and local knowledge. By the mid-1920s their area included the Bismarck Archipelago.

In 1935, Commander R B M Long, Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) in Melbourne worked to close the gaps in the coastwatching service. He sent Eric Feldt – a retired Royal Australian Naval officer with many years' experience of the civil service in New Guinea – to be in charge of intelligence there. Feldt, himself an Islander, knew the other islanders, the planters and the government officials and was trusted by them.

With Japan's entry into the war this island screen became the front-line. The Coastwatchers communicated by radio through existing radio stations or by teleradios that had been loaned by the Naval Board. They were given some instruction and a code with which to make their reports on any hostile movements and to report any item of intelligence value. It was a lonely and precarious existence.

After the capture, torture and murder of Percy Good, an elderly copra planter on Buka Island, off Bougainville, all civilians were enlisted into the RAN in the belief that their combatant status would protect them if they were captured by the enemy.

In 1942 when General MacArthur assumed supreme command of the South West Pacific Area it was decided that the Coastwatchers should become part of the Allied Intelligence Bureau under the direct command of General Headquarters (GHQ). By then there were over a hundred teleradios all linked to their own centre, either Port Moresby, Rabaul, Tulagi or Vila and all using a special, rarely used frequency to avoid attracting attention.

The Coastwatchers were supported by all three services. Aircraft dropped their supplies and submarines and PT boats landed them and removed them. The assistance and loyalty of the local population was essential: they performed a vital role in guerrilla operations and intelligence gathering.

A small Australian army signals unit, the New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company (NGAWW), also existed as a single entity between February 1942 and 1945. In October 1942, the unit was officially renamed 'New Guinea Air Warning Wireless (Independent) Company' as part of New Guinea Force and later, as part of the Corps of Signals in October 1943. These Army 'spotters' served in the valleys, highlands and around the coastline of New Guinea and nearby islands as signallers. All members of the unit were volunteers and their unit colour patch was a double diamond, being the 'independent' unit (later 'commando') insignia. By 1943-1944, the NGAWW had 75 outposts in New Guinea and surrounding islands in the South-West Pacific Theatre of Operations. The unit was disbanded in 1945 and its members have been commemorated with a plaque in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

More than 600 Coastwatchers served in Australia, New Guinea and the Pacific Islands during World War II. They included RAAF, AIF, RAN, 1 WRAN, (Women's Royal Australian Naval Officer) US Marines and US Army personnel, members of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defence Force and 13 civilians. The thirty eight Coastwatchers who died are not always identifiable on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial since their names are listed with their operational units and not as Coastwatchers.

A local wireless telegraphist operator operating an AWA 3BZ teleradio at Segi Coastwatchers station, British Solomon Islands

A local wireless telegraphist operator operating an AWA 3BZ teleradio at Segi Coastwatchers station, British Solomon Islands. [AWM 306814]

Ferdinand

Commander Eric Feldt, RAN, decided that the organisation needed a generic codename to distinguish the Coastwatchers' activities from other areas of naval intelligence also under his control. He was also keen to choose a name that wouldn't indicate the nature of their activities to any casual listener. He chose the name Ferdinand, from the popular children's classic, The Story of Ferdinand, which was written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, and first published in 1936.

I chose Ferdinand … who did not fight but sat under a tree and just smelled the flowers. It was meant as a reminder to Coastwatchers that it was not their duty to fight and so draw attention to themselves, but to sit circumspectly and unobtrusively, gathering information. Of course, like their titular prototype, they could fight if they were stung.

[Eric Feldt, The Coastwatchers, Melbourne, 1946, p.95]

The Coastwatchers often had to move their camp to avoid discovery by the enemy. Moving was difficult because they also needed between twelve and sixteen carriers – usually local indigenous men – to help them carry their radio and equipment. Their radios were powered by car batteries, which were charged by a petrol engine weighing 70 pounds (30 kilograms).

Most of the teleradio sets used by the Coastwatchers were Type 3B. They consisted of a transmitter, a receiver and a loud speaker which were transported in three metal boxes measuring 60cm x 30cm x 30cm. The men with teleradios transmitted messages in the 'Playfair' code, but the 100 or so others without teleradios could only pass a message to Naval Intelligence by sending a runner to the nearest radio base, sometimes days away. Later in 1942, the Navy replaced the 'Playfair' code with a high-grade cypher code that was specifically devised by the cryptographers for the 'Ferdinand' operations. It was called the 'Bull' code.


Last updated: 30 April 2020

Was this page helpful?