Led by flagship HMAS Australia, the Australian fleet enters Rabaul in 1914. While this was seen as a great triumph, Australian naval intelligence had already achieved a greater victory. This is the second in a new series on Australia's early intelligence activities.
Reading John Faye’s 2018 book, Australia’s First Spies, I was struck by the relative sophistication of
early intelligence efforts. I was also struck by the way that bureaucratic and political
infighting tarnished that early promise. Australia
Three intelligence networks were important in the first two decades after Federation.
The first and least important was military intelligence.
In November 1901, British Major General Edward Hutton was appointed as the first General Officer Commanding the newly formed Australian Military Forces. Hutton, an experienced soldier who understood the importance of intelligence and the need for armies to study other armies, began building military intelligence.
On 1 July 1909, Hutton was replaced by Australian born Major General John Hoad. Hoad was an ambitious man and an effective bureaucratic politician, but he had little knowledge of, or interest in, military intelligence, and the function decayed.
The second intelligence network was the civilian network established by Atlee Hunt.
A lawyer, Hunt had been Edmond Barton’s private secretary in the period leading up to Federation. In May 1901, Barton appointed Hunt as secretary and permanent head of the Department of External Affairs to which, until 1909, the Prime Minister's Office was also attached.
Hunt immediately began to build an intelligence network using, among others, the overseas trade representatives appointed by the Australian colonies, now states.
"The third and by far the most effective Australian intelligence network was that founded by the newly formed Royal Australian Navy"
It was Hunt who launched Australia’s first ever international spy mission in 1901 when Wilson Le Courtier was sent to the New Hebrides to spy on the competing French and British interests in that territory,
The third and by far the most effective Australian intelligence network was that founded by the newly formed Royal Australian Navy.
Today, we think of the successful invasion of German New Guinea in as the first successful action by the Royal Australian Navy.
That’s true at one level, but it’s not really correct. Arguably, the most important RAN success, one that had a significant effect on the outcome of the First World War, was the breaking of the German maritime ciphers.
I will tell you this story in my next column.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 23 January 2019. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here 2017, here 2018, here 2019