Friday 10 March 2023

The Mighty Krait, Ian McPhedran


To my surprise and disappointment, I noticed the other day that my last book review was back on the 23rd December 2021 and I know for certain that I have been doing a lot of reading since then, although not all focussed on military history, and a fair bit of historical military fiction and so I thought I would pick things back up with a review of a book that I read or perhaps I should say listened to during my recent visit down under.

I say listened to, because the need to restrict most of what I carried in my suitcase to mainly clothing, meant that the opportunity to take reading materials combined with often very restricted airline baggage allowances, imposed on me the need to adopt some new reading practices, namely the Kindle and Audible, the latter stepping up in this case as I enjoyed digging into a very Aussie title on our recent trip.

Commando raids and Special Forces are a well known and understood activity in my part of the UK, as we have, just down the road from my home town Exmouth, the Royal Marine Commando Training Centre at Lympstone, and personally I count many of my friends in and out of the hobby as former 'Bootnecks', as Royal Marines are fondly known, and we are justly proud locally of having such a famous special corps in our neighbourhood.

Royal Marine Commandoes training with their Mk. II 'Cockles'.

The first Commando training in the UK in WWII was very much an army activity, with the Royal Marines taking up the mantle of Britain's elite raiding force, alongside their army colleagues midway through WWII, that would eventually see five RM Commando's, 41, 45, 46, 47 and 48 land in the assault force on D-Day; and see one of the most famous of raids carried out in Europe by the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD) in Operation Frankton, 7th-12th December 1942, that would see ten men in five two man Mk. II kayaks, known as 'Cockles' attack German shipping in Bordeaux with limpet mines leading to six ships being damaged in the attack and only two men evading capture, the other eight either executed (six men) or dying of hypothermia while attempting to evade capture. The RMBPD would later form the corps of the elite Special Boat Service.

Before travelling to Australia, I was vaguely aware of similar units operated by the Australian forces in WWII against the Japanese, based principally on wider reading around Special Ops in WWII and watching in the late eighties the TV mini series, 'The Heroes' starring Jason Donovan, at the height of his fame from his role in the Australian TV soap 'Neighbours' that became very popular back then in the UK, that covered the raid on Singapore in 1943, Codename, 'Operation Jaywick' by an Australian special force, often referred to as 'Z' Force, although I have seen that term disputed as being less than accurate for the time the unit and others like it were formed.

A young Jason Donovan starring in 'The Heroes', from 1989

I remember that we would also end up watching the follow up series, 'Heroes II, The Return', that covered the second raid, the following year, codenamed Operation Rimau.

The Mighty Krait, a treasured monument to Australian Special Forces, afloat and on display at the Sydney National Maritime Museum, during our recent trip.

My curiosity in reacquainting myself with the two attacks on Singapore in September 1943 and October 1944, was further piqued by my surprise at seeing the little Japanese pearl boat, formerly the Kofuku Maru, later named the Krait after her internment in Singapore by British forces, still afloat and on display at the Australian Maritime Museum in Sydney.

The Krait was renamed after a very poisonous sea-snake, but of course changed by the men that would use her during the first raid when on first sight of her, quickly calling her the 'Crate', but with her very shabby look, enhanced to appear as a Japanese fishing boat, working as a perfect disguise in enemy waters around Singapore, she would end up as the most deadly of all Australian warships in WWII; causing the sinking of three enemy ships and the damaging of three others totalling 10,038 tons sunk and 15,557 tons damaged, and would seriously undermine Japanese prestige and confidence after their rapid and devastating successes in 1942.

The raid on Singapore in 1943, that would make this little ship famous, is a fascinating story, together with the disastrous gallant failure of the second raid in 1944 and after searching the net for various videos and references to books covering the history settled on spending my first credits with Audible to pick up The Mighty Krait, by Ian McPhedran and narrated by Peter Byrne.

Major Ivan Lyon in 1943

The audio book has 26 chapters and weighs in at just over seven hours of narration, but I found the experience riveting and hard to switch off, looking forward to putting on the headphones for a bit of pre-bedtime listening and finding Byrne's delivery well paced and nicely modulated to capture the drama and detail of the events described.

The book takes the listener through the full tale of the events that compelled a British Army Major, later Lieutenant-Colonel, Ivan Lyon, Gordon Highlanders, to team up with an Australian 'adventurer', Captain Bill Reynolds MBE., who acquired the Kofuku Maru in Singapore and with his Chinese crew successfully navigated his way from the beleaguered fortress bringing out evacuees and those rescued from other sunk ships to sanctuary in India.

Getting the band together - Back Row: Able Seaman (AB) Mostyn Berryman, AB Frederick Walter Lota Marsh, AB Arthur Walter Jones, AB Andrew William George Huston, Centre Row: Corporal Andrew Anthony Crilly, 2nd AIF, Acting Leading Seaman Kevin Patrick Cain, RAN, Leading Stoker James Patrick McDowell, Leading Telegraphist Horace Stewart Young, AB Walter Gordon Falls, RAN, Cpl R. G. Morris RAMC, Front Row from left to right; Lieutenant Hubert Edward Carse, Lieutenant Donald Montague Noel Davidson, Major Ivan Lyon, Gordon Highlanders, C.O. Operation Jaywick, Major Hubert Alan Campbell K.O.S.B, who didn't accompany the raid, Lieutenant Robert Charles Page, 2nd AIF.

Lyon also ended up in India and on hearing of Reynolds successful and enterprising escape, hatched a plan with him to go back to the Japanese controlled port on the basis that if Reynolds could use the small vessel to come out, it could be equally used to enable a raiding party to go in.

The description of Lyon in particular comes across as one of those privileged officer class types, with all the right background and connections that typified the British army of the time, but with that maverick, aggressive streak, together with an ability to inspire and lead others that seems common to other similar leaders of that era that decorated British Special Forces in the Second World War, such as David Stirling of Special Air Service fame, or Orde Wingate of the Chindits.

Behind Lyon and Reynolds, Byrne outlines the other characters from British Intelligence and S.O.E., 'Spooks' in todays parlance, who encouraged and facilitated the plan, opening doors to senior command from General Wavell in India, who recommended the raid should be launched from Australia rather than India, his rationale that it would be a less likely expected route; to Lyon and Reynolds working their way through the American and Australian Combined Command, eventually gaining favour to back the idea from the Royal Australian Navy, who would end up making available the bulk of the men required for Special Ops/Commando training together with the small crew to man the Kofuku Maru, now renamed Krait, that would take the party in and hopefully get them out.

The whole plan was nearly abandoned in early 1943 when it was deemed the Krait was unseaworthy due to its unreliable and failing engine, until a replacement engine was sourced from Tasmania that allowed things to proceed.

The collection of items relating to Operation Jaywick on display in the National Maritime Museum in Sydney, donated by the family of Lt. Hubert 'Ted' Carse, with his jacket, medals and combat knife, he carried with him during the operation.

Alongside Lyon, his command team would form with Lieutenant 'Ted' Carse RANVR, skipper of the Krait, whilst operational command during the raid would centre on Lyon himself, bringing his sailing knowledge of the local waters that would be vital in navigating the final approach into Singapore harbour, Lieutenant Donald Davidson RNVR and 2IC, and Lieutenant Robert Page 2nd AIF, with Davidson in particular standing out in training, leading from the front, and continuously encouraging the men to perfect their fitness and close combat skills.

Ted Carse was an important replacement for Bill Reynolds who took up an invitation by the Americans to return to Malaya to collect intelligence, Carse bringing to the mission experience in sailing the difficult waters around Singapore and its neighbouring islands, that would prove its worth in keeping the Krait safely sailing in enemy waters, navigating the difficult Lombok Strait and keeping up the disguise as a simple fishing boat whilst the raiding party were away, until sailing back to the agreed rendezvous point and then home.

Training underway with an experimental canoe at Refuge Bay Camp.

The account does an excellent job in covering the selection process for the final team of men with the weeding out process that inevitably followed, as potential candidates were eliminated and returned to units during selection and training which started in September 1942 at Camp Z, the secret training base set up in Refuge Bay, north of Sydney.

During the training the men were kept very much in the dark as to what their eventual target for all their training would be, and with the introduction to the Falbot kayaks and to the Krait that would carry them, speculation raged as to the location, with Rabaul high on the list; only added to with the successful proof of concept raid organised on Townsville Harbour, 'Operation Scorpion' that saw five boats enter the allied harbour in darkness on 20th June 1943, to plant dummy mines on allied shipping as the Krait made her way up and around the northern coast of Australia enroute to Exmouth, Western Australia, her final port of departure for the raid on Singapore.

The Krait set sail from Exmouth on the 2nd September 1943 headed for the South China Sea via the tidal Lombok Strait, with Lyons leading a team of four Britons and eleven Australians facing a dangerous journey through enemy waters disguised as an innocent Japanese fishing boat, and with all the men covered in skin dye and costumes designed to complete the look of Asiatic fishermen, but with small arms and cyanide pills close at hand, should the need arise.

The Japanese ensign carried aboard the Krait to complete her disguise as an innocent fishing boat.

The Lombok Strait proved a challenge that relied on Ted Carse's skill and judgement to allow the slow Krait to overcome the speed of the current that at one stage left the old pearl boat crawling past Japanese lookouts on the nearby shoreline at about one to two knots, but successfully passing unchallenged. 

The approach dangers were coupled with the need for finding a safe island, away from locals whose loyalties were uncertain, to prepare the kayak parties with the need to remain undetected in daylight hours whilst moving only at night, then to time their departure to make best use of prevailing currents to enable the raiding party to enter and leave the enemy harbour before daylight might reveal their presence.

The account covers all this detail with a well paced description magnified by all the tension that comes though in the personal accounts from the surviving team members that made the attack on the evening of the 26th-27th September 1943, with one of the accounts detailing how on pulling alongside one of the targets in preparation to attach the limpet mine, the crew had to freeze as a port hole above swung open and a Japanese crewmen seemed to gaze in their direction for an age before withdrawing his head and closing the port.

The extraction of the attack parties and eventual liaison with the Krait in preparation for return to Exmouth is all covered, together with the tense encounters with Japanese aircraft patrols and the close encounter with the former Dutch gunboat, under Japanese management, that was described of course as a destroyer, but that on close inspection and a few waves from the men on the Krait, turned away at the last moment and let the little boat, all set to ram the enemy, with explosives primed and small arms at the ready, to proceed on its way.

The account then takes the listener through the ramifications of the raid, the utter confusion by the Japanese as to what had caused them to loose six ships sunk or damaged in a closely guarded harbour, with their suspicions turned on the local population and the atrocities meted out by the Kempeitai in pursuit of local saboteurs, that became known at the 'Double Tenth Massacre' by Singaporeans, to record the horrors of executions and tortures that followed on October 10th.

The confusion caused to the Japanese led the Allied Command to keep the raid a secret, much to the frustration of Lyon in particular, who was keen that the raid should be used in the propaganda war and to mock the inflated confidence in Japanese claims to hold on to what they had taken.

In addition the potential to go back again in larger force was not unnoticed by higher command, particularly after the Jaywick members had reported about the additional ships they were unable to attack due to the limited number of mines and boat crews available to their operation.

The ramifications of this aspect are well covered, explaining the planning for the unfortunate follow up attack the following year, 'Operation Rimau', Rimau being the Malay word for Tiger, recalling the large tattoo of a tiger's face on Lyon's chest, and the plan to attack with more boats, later changed to using motorised semi-submersible canoes called 'Sleeping Beauties', taken to the drop off point by submarine, and requiring the commandos to capture a small boat to be used in the more confined waters of the nearby islands to support the attack.

The plan went awry when the captured boat was challenged by a Japanese patrol boat that, in the ensuing gun battle, saw one of its crew escape to raise the alarm that would see eleven men captured and later executed in Singapore whilst the rest were hunted down and killed in neighbouring islands whilst trying to evade capture.

The rest of the book covers the post war reflections of Jaywick, Rimau, other Australian special operations and efforts by the surviving Jaywick members, namely those that did not go on the Rimau operation to memorialise theirs and their comrades contribution to Australia's war in the South West Pacific, which like many of the secret operations of WWII had the details come out gradually and partially over time.

Interestingly the fate of the Krait and its recovery after its sale, post war, to a timber processing business in Borneo, to be eventually restored to her wartime presentation seen today, is well recounted, and for a non-Aussie listener to hear an account of the debate on how best to preserve this important monument to those times and folks, made for an interesting account, between those who wanted her to remain afloat, mainly the veterans versus those who could see that the long term preservation of the vessel would eventually require her to come out of the water.

So disclaimers up front, I am not a share holder in Amazon and do not intentionally promote their business here on the blog, especially after what they did to Tolkien and their disastrous 'Rings of Power' effort, no thank you Amazon, but I have to say that I enjoyed the Audible experience and have continued my listening alongside the painting desk since. In addition The Mighty Krait made for an excellent first title to start with and if the subject is one that might be of interest have no hesitation in recommending Peter Byrne's narration of this book which fired my interest during our recent trip to Australia and will feature in some of those posts to come, so it looks like my Audible listening is here to stay.

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