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In about mid January 1940 a small unofficial Army group at the University of Sydney that studied Japanese codes was established by Eastern Command, Australian Army under the leadership of Mathematics Professor, Thomas Gerald Room. He was assisted by Mr. Richard Jenkins Lyons. Later additions to the group were Arthur Dale Trendall and Athanasius Pryor Treweek (a linguist) who were both members of the Greek Department. They handled many coded messages supplied to them by the Censorship Staff.

The Australian Government established a cryptographic analysis unit at Victoria Barracks on St. Kilda Road in Melbourne to decipher Japanese diplomatic codes. Commander Theodore Eric Nave, R.N. established the Navy unit in July 1940 which was known as the Cryptographic Section, Melbourne Communications Intelligence Unit.

By October 1940, Room and Lyons were attempting to crack the Japanese diplomatic and commercial codes by reducing the cipher groups into a Romanised Japanese text, which would then be able to be read by Japanese Linguists. This unofficial group did cryptographic work for the Australian Army.

"Eric" Nave recruited Professor Room and his three colleagues into this cryptographic analysis unit. This followed a meeting that Nave had organised with Commander Long, Col McKenzie, Lt. Col. Edwards, Major O'Connor, Captain Fleiter of the Australian Army and Professor Room and Major Treweek (Militia) on 2 May 1941.

Room and Treweek agreed to relocate to Melbourne subject to the approval of the University of Sydney. The Australian Army convinced the University to release Room and Treweek who relocated to Melbourne to join the unit which was known as the Melbourne Communications Intelligence Unit (or sometimes referred to as the Special Intelligence Section). Major Treweek was the first to report to the unit in Melbourne in mid June 1941.

Professor Room and Major Treweek started work in the unit led by Commander Nave on 18 August 1941. Some discussion was held on an appropriate rank and pay level for Professor Room but it was eventually decided that he would remain as a civilian in this military intelligence unit.

In about September 1941, Professor Room and Lieutenant Jamieson went to Bandung in Java to observe the intelligence techniques of the Dutch unit Kamer 14. They then travelled to the British Far East Combined Bureau (FECB) in Singapore to learn the code breaking methodology used by the British. The British Far East Combined Bureau was a sub unit of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) in London. Bletchley Park was another sub unit of GC&CS. FECB had been collaborating in secret with the US Navy unit in the Philippines. The importance of the use of tabulators such as the IBM Tabulator were later realised by these groups.

General Douglas MacArthur eventually escaped out of the Philippines in mid March 1942 and established his General Headquarters, Southwest Pacific Area in Collins Street, Melbourne. An Allied Signals Intelligence Unit called Central Bureau (CB) was established in Melbourne under the command of General S.B. Akin. Central Bureau operated from a large private house. The American component of Central Bureau was led by Major Abe Sinkov. Commander Nave's group with Room, Treweek and Lyons worked in the Monterey flats where the US Navy's Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne FRUMEL was located.

General Douglas MacArthur transferred his GHQ SWPA to Brisbane in July 1942 and Central Bureau relocated to a large two story house at 21 Henry Street, Ascot in Brisbane and a number of huts were erected in nearby Ascot Park beside Ascot Racetrack (Camp Ascot Park). Central Bureau was Australia's equivalent of Bletchley Park during WWII.

Commander Nave collaborated with both FRUMEL and Central Bureau. Lieutenant Commander Fabian, the Commanding Officer of FRUMEL grew increasingly unhappy with Nave's collaboration with Central Bureau. The British Admiralty were keen for Commander Nave to return to the Royal Navy, but it was eventually decided that Nave and his group should transfer to Central Bureau in November 1942. Richard Lyons returned to University of Sydney. Trendall and Treweek remained in Melbourne in a small Diplomatic Cipher group led by Treweek which became known as "D" Special Section or Diplomatic Special Section. Eric Barnes later joined this small group which may have also used the term Special Intelligence Section.  The remainder of the Cryptographic Section, Melbourne Communications Intelligence Unit then merged with FRUMEL after Commander Nave and Professor Room transferred to Central Bureau.

Professor Room and Major Sinkov were the two senior mathematicians at Central Bureau at 21 Henry Street. Professor Room eventually took charge of the operations in Hut 9 at Ascot Park located not far from 21 Henry Street. Ascot Park later became the Member's car park for Eagle Farm Racecourse. Professor Room's group in Hut 9 focused on deciphering the Japanese Meteorological Codes which were used by the Japanese to communicate weather conditions over bombing targets.

Professor Room realised the usefulness and power of the IBM Tabulators used by Central Bureau. In April 1944, he wrote to the Faculty of Science at Sydney University proposing that they set up a committee to investigate how they could use an IBM Tabulator and its usefulness and cost to install. He also proposed that the Faculties of Engineering and Economics and the Administrative Department be made aware of the proposal and invite them to appoint members to the committee. The Faculty referred the proposal to the Professorial Board and it appointed a Committee which recommended that a machine should be hired rather than purchased from the British Tabulating Machine Company in Sydney. The Committee also suggested that CSIR, the forerunner of the CSIRO, may be interested in obtained a machine as well.


Photo:- "Sydney University, T.G. Room and Codebreaking in WWII" by Peter Donovan and John Mack

Occupants of Hut 9 at Camp Ascot Park. FRONT ROW:- Capt. Donald Laidlaw, Lt. Judith Roe,
E.W. Bennett, Professor Thomas G. Room, Walter Scott, B.G. Smallman, C. Hill, Wilfred Varn.
SECOND ROW:- Robert Cochran, Max Gershun, R. Brown, Alan Cole, Frederick Lamb,
Sgt. Anthony A. Ashbolt, Lance Sgt. Charles T. Baker. THIRD ROW:- D.A. Gross, C.E. Bevan.


AWAS Lt Judith Roe (QF270198), Captain Donald Hope Laidlaw (SX27443), Sgt. Anthony Alfred Ashbolt (VX111734), and Lance Sgt Charles Thomas Baker (NX195088) shown in the above photo worked for Professor Thomas G. Room in Hut 9. Judith was a recent graduate in mathematics from the University of Queensland. Judith Roe married Professor Eric Russell, the Chair of Economics at Adelaide University after the war. After the death of Eric Russell Judith went on to marry Tony Carson one of the brilliant young Englishmen sent to Australia to work with Central Bureau.


The Hut 9 Team.
Cyril Smith, Reg Williams, Colin Bevan, Barry Smallman,
Dick Smith (USA), Dick Wilkinson, Donald Friend. FRONT ROW:- Max Gershun (USA),
Judith Roe, Professor Thomas G. Room, Margaret Hill, Robert Brown.


Photo:- via Capt. Dennis Magennis

Lt. Judith Roe with Professor Thomas G. Room in Ascot Park


When General Macarthur captured Hollandia, large section of Central Bureau moved to Hollandia. Professor Room, being a civilian was not permitted to go with them and remained in Hut 9 in Ascot Park. Central Bureau later moved to the Philippines when it was recaptured.

In September 1945, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Sydney received the following commendation from the Secretary of the Department of the Army:-

"It is desired to inform you that in view of the unconditional surrender of the Japanese it will be possible to release Professor T. G. Room as from 12 October 1945 after which my Department will cease to pay his salary. The Army desires to take this opportunity to place on record its appreciation of the very valuable contribution made by Professor Room to the Allied War Effort since 18 August 1941 and the generosity of your University in forgoing his services for so long."

Professor Room took a holiday when the war finished and subsequently returned to the University of Sydney.



Sydney University, T.G. Room and Codebreaking in WWII
by Peter Donovan (School of Mathematics, UNSW) and John Mack (School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Sydney)


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This page first produced 7 August 2015

This page last updated 20 October 2021