The Wargamer

25 June 2017

Historical Article: Operation Jaywick Commando Raid

Allied Commando Raid on Singapore Harbor 26-27 September 1943

Published on 19 FEB 2015 7:27am by John Dudek
  1. world war ii, pacific theater, background / research material, naval combat, asia, english

Three two-man canoe-kayaks manned by British and Australian commandos paddled silently along and unobserved into the blacked out roadstead of Japanese occupied Singapore Harbor on the night of 26/27 September 1943.  Their targets were the dozens of dark and shadowy Japanese merchant ships and tankers anchored throughout the harbor.  With some 45 ships to choose from anchored nearby, theirs was a truly target rich environment.  One by one, the Allied canoe boats fanned out to choose their individual ship targets. Each boat silently glided alongside their chosen ships to quietly plant magnetic "limpet mines" with attached timers below the waterline before casting off in search of other prey.  Any inquisitive Japanese crewman who might have looked over the side of their ships could easily spy the attacker's menacing canoes lurking below.  Yet somehow the merchant ship and tanker crews remained completely oblivious to the sabotage operation taking place around them and the earth shattering explosive climax that was soon to follow.  Perhaps their being anchored in an extremely well defended harbor in a rear area backwater of the war played a major role in their complacency, but many of them would never see another sunrise.

Special Operations Executive was a concept that sprang from the fertile mind of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in June 1940, immediately following Nazi Germany's conquest of all of Western Europe. He called for the full co-ordination of all British propaganda and sabotage organizations under one single banner.  Its mission was to train, arm, and equip resistance movements throughout all of occupied Europe as well as to mount commando raids to militarily counter the German Army occupation through sabotage and an armed insurgency. To quote Churchill, "To Set All Of Europe Ablaze."  Special Operations Australia was an offshoot of this concept that came into being in March 1942 in response to a long series of Allied defeats in the Pacific Theatre of Operations. SOA was a joint Allied military intelligence organization dedicated to carrying out their own sabotage and propaganda operations throughout all of Southeast Asia, especially in the conquered territories so recently lost to the ascendant Japanese Army and Navy.  A commando unit was established in June 1942 known as Special Unit Z.  It was comprised primarily of officers and men from the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army, and British Army. In light of the continued highly successful and relentless Japanese Army conquests of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and their advances in Burma, the Allies were desperate to find some way to slow the Japanese rate of advance. Japan's "Achilles Heel" during this 1,000 mile long campaign across Burma to the very gates of India was seen to be her logistics system supplying their army in the field.  The Japanese relied primarily upon ship borne transport to meet this supply need. The Allies quickly realized that any major losses in Japanese transport shipping could have grave and dire consequences on continued Japanese military operations in Burma. Early in 1943, a plan was put forward to attack Japanese fuel tankers and merchant ships in Singapore Harbor.  The plan was devised by an Australian civilian Bill Reynolds and a British officer Captain Ivan Lyon.  It called for a number of commandos to travel to the area around Singapore in a captured 21 meter-long Japanese fishing boat Kofuku Maru with both ship and crew disguised to look like natives.  Upon arrival, they would launch a number of 2-man collapsible canoe kayaks to make a night time attack upon the ships in harbor with limpet mines.  The ship was renamed MV (Motor Vessel) Krait after the highly poisonous Asian snake and the operation given the code name of "Operation Jaywick," named after a powerful room deodorizer used in Singapore homes. The plan was given the "go-ahead" by General Archibald Wavell and in mid 1943 the MV Krait along with 11 Australians and 3 British crewmen set sail for Broken Bay, New South Wales Australia to begin intensive training for the coming operation.

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With the crew's training period complete, Krait departed on 13 August 1943 for the US Naval Base at Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia for routine repairs and final preparations.  With a top speed of six and a half knots and a cruising range of over 7,000 miles Krait and crew again set sail for Singapore on 2 September 1943, looking exactly like the Japanese fishing boat she once was.  Every step was carefully taken to make both crew and ship appear every bit as what they were disguised to be.  Even the ship's garbage was carefully examined before throwing it over the side.  This was done to keep anyone from finding non-native Australian or European refuse. Her crew wore the proper turban and other native head gear as well as sarongs for clothing to appear to be Malay in origin, even though none of the crew could speak the language.  They even went so far as to stain their skin dark brown with dyes to look more like the native fishermen they portrayed.  Unfortunately, the tropical sun's heat caused a great deal of skin irritation rashes to break out among the men of her crew, but at least they were safe from the probing eyes of enemy aerial reconnaissance or any passing Japanese ships.  With a Japanese flag flying at her masthead, the Krait arrived off Singapore on 23 September.  That evening three canoe-kayaks and six men were launched from the Krait.  They established a base of concealment in a cave on a small island near Singapore Harbor after paddling some 31 miles.  The crews then rested for the entire day before launching the raid the following evening. Their first raid attempt on 24/25 September failed due to the swiftly changing high tides, so they returned to their hide out.  The canoe boatmen tried again the following evening of 26/27 September, this time with much better results.

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That night the three two-man crews silently glided into the harbour at different points and quietly selected their targets.  After the physically arduous task of paddling into the harbor, their nerves were now strained by the closeness of the enemy - one noise in attaching the mines could have led to a curious sailor raising the alarm.  Even if one person aboard a ship had idly looked over a railing or through a porthole in the right direction, saboteurs could have been seen which would have led to the failure of the mission, and their capture and certain death.  Fortunately their training and luck held, and nobody saw them in the shadows of the hulls of the target ships.

Limpet mines contained about 5 lbs. of high explosives, a seemingly small explosive charge for so large a job, but when placed six feet below the ship's water line, the mine's explosion caused an insultingly large and potentially devastating hole to be made in the hull of any unarmored ship.  In addition, each SOA agent was issued a six foot long "placing pole" to properly position the mine onto the hull at the required depth. After affixing the limpet mines to the ships the crews then silently paddled out of the harbor towards their chosen hiding spot, and, despite the exhaustion and tension of more than eighty kilometers of paddling in enemy waters, listened to hear the roar of their mines destroying the enemy ships early the next morning.  The first massive explosions went off around dawn, sending up huge gouts of harbor water skyward while sinking or severely damaging at least seven merchant ships and tankers amounting to over 39,000 tons of badly needed Japanese supply shipping.

The commandos remained in concealment for several days to allow the raid's commotion to die down before returning to the Krait on the second day of October.  Their return to Australia was almost uneventful, except when they encountered a Japanese patrol boat in the Lombok Strait.  The patrol boat circled the Krait, carefully examining both crew and fishing boat from a distance.  In the meantime a number of Krait's crew then in concealment prepared their BREN guns and other weapons for immediate use to fight to the death if need be.  Krait's brown skinned deck hands continued with the ruse, waving and smiling happily at the patrol boat while the Japanese flag continued flapping and flying at the fishing boat's mast head.  The patrol boat eventually moved away without challenging the intrepid ship and crew. Following this single unsettling incident, the Krait arrived at Exmouth Gulf without further incident on 14 October 1943.  The raid was a complete success and the astonished Japanese were at a complete loss to find anything of the raid's origin, method of attack, or the assailants involved and the Allies deliberately chose not to enlighten them.

Claimed Results:

The Commanding Officer Ivan Lyon in conjunction with the other raid participants prepared a detailed report upon return and it is this document that has formed the basis of sinking and damage claims ever since.  The following taken from report summarises the results:

"No. 1 Canoe:  Major Lyon/ AB Huston

Failed to locate blacked out shipping in the area south of Pasir Panjang.  On the return successfully attacked the tanker Sinkaku Maru 10,000 tons in Examination Anchorage.  The tanker was burning fiercely at dawn.

No. 2 Canoe:  Lieut. Davidson/ AB Falls

Entered Keppel Harbor through the boom but did not locate suitable targes on the East and Main Wharves. Subsequently launched successful attacks on two interisland ships and a freighter of 5,000 tons at anchor in the Western end of Singapore roads.  No observed results.

No. 3 Canoe:  Lieut. Page/AB Jones

Successfully attacked a 4,000 ton freighter at Bukum Wharf, a similar vessel at the buoy off Bukum and a 4,000 tonner in the Examination Anchorage.  At 1430 hours the freighter off Bukum was seen to have sunk by the stern and be lying with her bows clear of the water." 

Operation Jaywick took the shocked Japanese military in Singapore completely by surprise.  Their authorities never believed it possible that such a destructive raid could ever originate from Australia, let along arrive off Singapore completely unobserved by their own naval and air reconnaissance forces.  The Japanese believed the sabotage attacks on their shipping were the actions of local Communist Chinese guerillas and in response, they exacted a massive wave of reprisals, making wholesale arrests, while carrying out many summary executions and torture among the local population.  Firm in their belief that their actions were the source of the raid, the Japanese authorities never increased their aerial or seaward patrols to keep such a raid from ever happening again.  As a result, Special Operations Australia, buoyed by the success of Operation Jaywick, began planning for another raid upon Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbor the following year with a new generation of greatly improved, modern armaments and the welcome tactical support of British submarines.  Code named Operation Rimau, the attack was carried out in October 1944 with many of the same participants taking part as those of Operation Jaywick.  Unfortunately here was where the similarities ended.  While the Allied raiding party managed to sink 3 Japanese ships in Singapore Harbor with limpet mines, their cover was quickly blown as the Japanese found their hiding place on the outlying islands and engaged them in a firefight until they surrendered.  Of the 23 Allied raiders, 13 were killed outright in the fighting and the other ten were captured including the redoubtable Captain Ivan Lyon.  The surviving Allied saboteurs were tried in a Japanese court and executed on 7 July 1945.

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Most Allied commando raids early in the war had the desired effect of bringing the war home to the Axis enemy's own back yard, both in Europe and the Pacific, and in doing so, shattering their perceived safety. After 1944 they were no longer necessary in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.  By this time the Allied forces had arisen phoenix-like from the ashes of their earlier destruction, much improved in manpower, material and ten times stronger than before.  These renewed legions of men, material, ships and aircraft would exact a mighty reprisal and a final deadly reckoning upon the Imperial Japanese Empire to bring about a fiery end to World War II.