Our codebreaker grand aunt, Ruth Harris, had an important role in the success of the D-Day Normandy landings – as a secret Enigma operator at Bletchley Park during World War Two.
WRNS Petty Officer Ruth Alison Harris was recruited to work in ‘Station X’ and was a supervisor in the famed Hut 11 which housed Alan Turing’s ‘bombe’ machines. By cracking the codes of intercepted Nazi signals, the bombes and their operators are credited with saving countless thousands of lives and shaving years off the war.
Bletchley Park compiled vital intelligence for Allied commanders in the 18 months leading up to D-Day then, critically, throughout the invasion as they monitored threats to the fleet at sea, the Germans’ reactions and troop movements.
Aunt Ruth and her many colleagues were decrypting 5000 messages a day.
In those tense final days before the invasion, Bletchley Park gave the Combined Chiefs of Staff extraordinary detailed reports of German deployments in Normandy, including numbers of troops, vehicles and tanks – even serviceability and maintenance information.
The codebreakers also confirmed that the Enemy High Command had swallowed the deception structured in Operation Fortitude – that the Germans belief was complete in an expected invasion in the Pas de Calais area… not Normandy.
Ruth was a favourite aunt of our mother, Mary Louise Harris ,and the closest in age.
She was the youngest sister of our grandfather Gordon Harris, pictured far right in wedding photo.
In that photo you see teenage Mum (second from left) as part of Ruth’s bridal party when she married Peter Gell.
Ruth is listed as being a supervisor in Hut 11 and a brick bearing her name has been unveiled in a commemorative Codebreakers’ Wall.
Ruth was among a select group of WRENS – more formally the Women’s Royal Naval Service(WRNS) – brought into Bletchley to work on the bombes in 1941.
They intercepted all sorts of German messages – too many to list here – but notably those to and from the U-boats. It’s estimated Enigma saved one and half million tonnes of Allied shipping (350 ships) and turned the tide of the war after several years of massive and demoralising losses to U-boat wolf packs.
Because of the Official Secrets Act, Bletchley operators until recently never talked about their critical role.
Winston Churchill had visited Bletchley in September 1941 and dubbed the codebreakers “…the geese that laid the golden eggs ..but never cackled.” The women of Bletchley Park were unsung heroes of the war. They took their vow of secrecy so seriously that more than half a century went by before a few spoke publicly of their experiences.Ruth died without doing so. I was lucky enough to meet this lovely lady in England in the early 1990s but unlucky not to then know her incredible war service
Aunt Ruth didn’t even discuss it with her son Paul who recently visited Bletchley Park to see his mum’s commemorative brick.
Ruth lost one of her brothers, secret service (SOE) agent Bob Harris when he was assassinated serving in Persia. Another brother Paul was a medic hero at Dunkirk assisting wounded before his own evacuation. Her oldest brother, our grandfather Gordon, ran guns to the Free French and briefly was also in SOE. Other siblings also served.
Mum loved her Aunt Ruth dearly and it was wonderful they were able to catch up every now and then over the years when Mum visited the land of her birth.
It was the moment ABC News cameraman Willie Phua captured one of the most influential images in history: Tank Man.
We were on the balcony of our Beijing Hotel room filming a convoy of tanks rumbling out of Tiananmen Square on the day after a massacre which claimed an estimated 10,000 lives*. It was June 5, 1989.
“Max, come and look at this,” said Willie suddenly and softly, calmly gesturing me to look through his view finder. And there he was: a man holding shopping bags, and holding up the might of the People’s Liberation Army as he stood defiantly in front of the lead tank.
Hairs stood up on my neck as I stepped back quickly to let Willie focus. Only minutes before, we’d filmed as people scattered and fell in one of the random volleys of automatic fire from troops in the square, to clear Changan, ironically named the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
Yet this lone protestor was clambering onto the top of the tank, remonstrating with the commander and another crewman who emerged from another turret. He could have been picked off by sharpshooters along the route or from within the tank itself. Or simply crushed, like many before in the horrendous prequel.
We watched as he stepped off the tank and stood to one side, vigorously waving the tank backwards towards the square. But with a belch of smoke, the tank started lurching forward several metres. Tank Man – he’ll forever be known as that – darted back in front of the steel monster. We held our collective breath. The tank stopped. More gesticulations came from the protestor. Then followed a feint and parry as the commander tried to steer his machine around him.
Just as it seemed this would be his dance of death, several bystanders raced across and bundled Tank Man to the other side of the boulevard and out of danger. He disappeared out of Willie’s lens frame and from sight forever.
Because we (ABC News Australia) were in a pool arrangement with the agency Visnews and the BBC and NBC among other networks, our footage would be disseminated widely and used by others. For decades, Willie would not receive due credit.
How we got the footage out is a different heart-in-mouth tale. The Chinese authorities had pulled the plug on satellite dishes in Beijing. The only way to get the footage to the ABC in Sydney was to find a ‘pigeon’ carrier to take it to Hong Kong for satelliting from the Visnews office.
But we had to get the tapes to the airport first. The city was in martial lockdown. If we went ourselves, we’d almost certainly be held up and have our footage confiscated. Selecting what we hoped was a sympathetic local (Willie talked to him first) on a bicycle pedicab, we gave him our labelled brown bag package and a note. Our note was a plea to the recipient to get the footage out. We told him to cycle to the airport, go to the Qantas counter and give the bundle to someone in the check-in queue.
We gave our pigeon five hundred US dollars and off he pedalled. It worked!
The image of Tank Man has become one of the most recognisable in history. Time magazine included it in the 100 most influential images of all time. Tank Man’s stand has become an international symbol of freedom and courage.
Willie was one of only three television cameramen to capture the Tank Man drama. The others were NBC’s Tony Wasserman and CNN’s Jonathan Schaer, who’d locked off his camera on his balcony. Several snappers took iconic stills including Jeff Widener (AP) , Stuart Franklin (Time/Life) and Charlie Cole (Newsweek) whose image was included in Life: 100 Photographs which changed the World.
On that balcony with us over those dreadful nights and days of June 3-4-5 – and with us in lead-up drama – was ABC radio’s Peter Cave, who filed riveting Walkley award-winning reports for both news and current affairs, and Willie’s nephews Sebastian Phua, Joe Phua and Jone Chang.
The Phua clan was all based in ABC’s Singapore bureau.
Like generations of young, green ABC correspondents, I was guided through the drama by Willie, a legendary cameraman who himself had been inspired by the late, great Australian photo journalist Neil Davis.
Willie’s efforts for the ABC and for Australia itself would eventually bring him an Order of Australia. This was no small achievement given that he is a Singaporean national! It happened because of determined efforts by a group of his old ABC colleagues.
Willie was recognised for helping Australians understand the region with his footage from all the pivotal moments in Asia for more than 30 years. For many of us privileged to win Walkley awards and other gongs, we owe it to the dignified, modest little bloke on the other end of the camera.
Willie is 91 now and still going strong. He loves nothing more than a ‘pork chop’ (in-house lore for a beer) with his Aussie mates.
source for 10,000 dead : recently declassified cable by UK ambassador June 5, 1989 with his source from inside China State Council
***Footnote: Sadly, we’ve lost Sebastian Phua to cancer but his brother Joe has become a legend in his own right with the BBC and, appropriately, will be filming Tiananmen Square anniversary events in Hong Kong this week – with former ABC correspondent now with the BBC, Stephen McDonnell.
They were images that would have frozen the blood of China’s hardliners.
A 10,000-strong contingent of the People’s Liberation Army humiliated – by the people.
The fate of the Tiananmen Square protest was sealed in a sea of ‘victory’ signs overnight of June 2-3 in 1989 – caught in my small camera snapshots (photos above) of the so-called People’s Power turnback and the footage of our ABC cameraman Sebastian Phua.
The soldiers were brought to Beijing from the distant Sichaun province in China’s southwest and forced to march for hours to the city’s outskirts. They were unarmed. Their goal was to take Tiananmen Square.
We’d raced out into the night and the commotion. Large chanting crowds had blocked the troops just short of the square. There was no violence. The dishevelled young soldiers – many with sweaty tunics, caps and even boots discarded – looked busted, bewildered and beaten.
Some were carrying their comrades too foot sore to continue on their own.
Protestors were clapping the retreating troops and calling out : “Long live the People’s Liberation Army” . “The people are the same as you” . “You have been used; you are innocent”.
Sebastian had a small footstool and climbed up to get some of the most memorable scenes recorded that night. It was an intoxicating atmosphere and all of a sudden it got even more heady as the people started singing The Internationale. Some might find this odd given that it’s the socialist anthem and was the de facto China communist party song. Democracy was the demand. But the core message of enslaved masses making a stand was a good fit, they explained.
Sebastian panned across the line of young, glistening faces as they sang the chorus. I’ll never forget that scene. It gives me chills every time I play it back, even now. If anything sums up the idealism that would be shattered within 24 hours , that piece of vision does.
Another image from the night that resonates so sadly: A protestor triumphantly holding up his trophies for the night – a pair of soldier’s boots and an army cap.
Thirty years ago today – May 30, 1989 – the Goddess of Democracy changed everything in China when she was erected in Tiananmen Square.
We were there; right at the very front with the students as they hauled the four giant pieces of plaster – head and torch segment in front – from the Beijing Technical College down to the square. People surged out of the darkness from all points. The procession became one million plus. Heart, hope and torches lit the route.
We were ten days into martial law.
But rebellion, idealism and democracy fever cut through the air.
Chants went up: “People of China stand up” “Long live democracy”
The students began singing The Internationale. Spine tingling.
ABC cameraman Sebastian Phua and cousin Chang on sound quickly motioned to me to do a PTC – trade for Piece to Camera. Reporting down the barrel of the camera. (*Their uncle and head of the ABC crew the legendary Willie Phua in coming days would film the Tank Man on June 4).
I did my PTC – which will be part of ABC Four Corners 30thanniversary special this coming Monday, June 3 – and Sebastian panned off to a rousing chorus of The Internationale anthem.
Everyone had thought the weeks-long Tiananmen protests had fizzled out. But the Goddess made sure it wasn’t – and made sure the end, when it did come, would be bloody. They erected the 10-metre high statue right in front of the portrait of Chairman Mao. Wise old Willie told us: “The Generals will not like this at all.” How right he was. For Sebastian – our talented, exuberant friend who we’d lose so damn early to the cancer curse – and for Chang and me, there was something surreal about the Goddess taking form in the square. Piece by Piece. You could almost smell the Politburo’s collective chagrin.
We filmed her with a giant rosy sun, almost an encouraging flame around her torch, as student sculptors clambered quietly on the scaffolding making the finishing touches. The crowds came back. Young mums and dads pedalled in, with their babies and toddlers in baskets in carts behind their bikes. It was quiet. Too quiet.
“Guadalcanal saved the Pacific, and the Coast Watchers saved Guadalcanal” – American Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey
Australians rightly are proud of the famous Coast Watchers for changing the course of the Pacific War in WW2 – but too few know that some of the bravest of that illustrious group were Papuan New Guineans.
On ANZAC Day, let’s not forget Paramount Luluai Golpak MBE , Sir Simogun Pita MBE and their fellow PNG heroes.
Australians and Americans owe them a massive debt. Many owed them their lives. We all owe it to them to never forget.
Golpak and Simogun risked their lives – and that of their families – operating behind Japanese lines, fighting the enemy and gathering critical intelligence for the Allies. Between them they’d saved Diggers escaping the Fall of Rabaul and numerous downed US and Australian airmen.
They’d been recruited by legendary coast watchers Malcolm Wright, Peter Figgis and Les Williams.
Golpak was from Sali Village in Pomio (New Britain) where there’s a school named after him. In 1961 one of the pilots Golpak rescued, Wing Commander Bill Townsend, was on hand as a special memorial was unveiled in Sali. Townsend is pictured below with Golpak’s son Kaolea .
I am indebted to former Pomio Kiap George Oakes for these marvellous colour photos of that event.
Author Peter Stone (Hostages to Freedom, the Fall of Rabaul) wrote about Golpak:
“Golpak showed tremendous loyalty, initiative and ingenuity in resisting the Japanese, and in assisting downed airmen and Allied Intelligence Bureau units in East New Britain.”
The incredible bravery of men like Golpak and Simogun is highlighted in various other books including Patrick Lindsay’s excellent The Coast Watchers, Malcolm Wright’s If I dieand this special tome on the two men by Eric Johns.
Forged under fire, the bond between the Papua New Guineans and Australians was unshakeable and the latter group ensured the courage and service of their brothers-in-arms was not forgotten higher up in the army and establishment. Both men were honoured as Members of the British Empire.
Simogun was born at Bargedem in East Sepik and had connections to Salamaua. He’d joined the mandated Territory of New Guinea police force and was a sergeant at Nakania in New Britain at the outbreak of the war.
In December 1942 in Australia Simogun joined a coast watching patrol destined for West New Britain and led by the naval officer Malcolm Wright. After preparations near Brisbane, on 30 April 1943 the patrol was landed from the submarine USSGreenling at Baien village, near Cape Orford. An observation post was established, from which Japanese aircraft and shipping movements were reported. In October 1943 the party crossed the rugged interior of New Britain to Nakanai, where they operated as a guerrilla force. Simogun led local men in attacks on Japanese troops. About 260 were killed for the loss of only two men. The party was withdrawn in April 1944. Simogun is credited with having maintained the morale of the group under often very difficult circumstances. Warned that the operation would be dangerous, he had replied: ‘If I die, I die. I have a son to carry my name’. He was awarded the BEM for his war service. Later he entered politics.
Simogun was the only Papua New Guinean to serve on all four Legislative Councils, from 1951 to 1963. Elected to the first House of Assembly (1964-68) for the Wewak-Aitape electorate, he was an active and influential member and under-secretary for police. Dame Rachel Cleland observed that he was a natural orator, whom no one could equal in style.
Appointed MBE in 1971, Simogun was knighted, recommended by the government of Papua New Guinea in 1985. He had married three women: Wurmagien from Alamasek village, Wiagua (Maria) from Boiken, and Barai (Bertha) from Kubren village at Dagua. Wurmagien had two children, Wiagua one, and Barai eight. Sir Pita Simogun returned to Urip in the 1980s and died on 11 April 1987 at Wewak. He was buried with full military honours at Moem Barracks army cemetery.
If Rabaul in its halcyon days was the pearl of the Pacific town, then the human gem of the Pacific was its famous hotelier Ah Chee.
A small man with a large heart, Ah Chee’s innate kindness, generosity to those in distress and quiet dignity made him deeply admired, respected and befriended across racial lines in a time when that was sadly uncommon.
On his death in 1933, The Pacific Islands Monthly published an extraordinarily moving tribute – titled A Chinese Gentleman – saying he would ‘be mourned around the world’ and on reading it (see below) you can understand why.
It’s the stuff of potential documentaries and feature films about one of the most colourful destinations in one of the most fascinating eras of Pacific history. Ah Chee (Chee Jour Chee) should be better known. He sits easily among the pantheon of early settler characters in New Guinea including Emma Forsayth, Richard and Phebe Parkinson, Ah Tam, Governor Albert Hahl, George Brown, Rudolph Wahlen, Jean Baptiste Mouton, Bishop Coupé and Peter ‘the island king’ Hansen.
But like Ah Tam (himself an inspiring story for another time), Ah Chee had a tougher path to success than the others, simply because the overt racism of the time against Chinese who’d been brought to the islands as ‘coolies’. Rather than harden his heart, this discrimination had the reverse effect on Ah Chee, who opened his doors and, by default through his generosity, his wallet … to all and sundry.
*Ah Chee was decorated by Germany for his kindness to Germans awaiting deportation during WW1 and honoured by Chiang Kai-shek for his many donations to Chinese causes. Many down and out Australians benefited from the generosity of the man who started life in Rabaul as a cook. He’d served as a boy steward with the British Fleet before being brought to Rabaul in 1912 under indenture to the NGK.*from author Peter Cahill Needed but not Wanted, Chinese in Rabaul 1884-1960
Ah Chee’s Hotel eventually became the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the establishment under both names spawned generations of experiences and legends. Errol Flynn was but one of the colourful guests.
Here is the PIM article, which appeared in ‘North of Twenty-Eight’ column, probably authored by RW Robson who later wrote the Queen Emma book.
A Chinese Gentleman
“The last papers from Rabaul tell of the death of Ah Chee, who will be mourned round the world. Old Germans, of the Hasag- Hernsheim era, grieving in Hamburg for their lost estates in the Mandate, will pause sadly to remember him, and hundreds of Australians who knew him will join them.
“‘Ah Chee kept the hotel opposite Ching Hings in Rabaul, on the corner of Chinatown. Other hostels came and went. The new post-war Mandate Administration formed three clubs and a “white” pub opened its doors, but “Ah Chees’ survived.
“There was a large bar on the ground floor and a dining-room in which an old German musical box with a peculiarly sweet voice played “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” over and over again.
“The hotel of Ah Chee was built of wood and set on volcanic ground, so that every sound in it was amplified. The walls of its bedrooms, which opened through French lights on to a broad verandah, had been cut off a foot or so from the ceiling for ventilation. Each room was furnished with a specklessly clean bed with a sheet and a mosquito-net, a washstand and one chair.
“Bed is the coolest place in Rabaul, and to lie there in the evening a decade ago was a cosmopolian adventure, for nothing was hidden in Ah Chee’s. You could hear every sound in the bar—the “prosits” of the sad expropriated, the “Ludwig-two-bottle-beer-he come” of the Civil Service, the arigatate kamisen of the visiting Jap skipper, the lusty “Whisky soda along King George— quick-time” of the arrogant police in for their free “nine o’clock”; the whispered love tale on the verandah ; the domes tic discussion three doors down ; the sage debate between committeemen as to whether the salary of you, a stranger, would be £6OO a year, which would make you eligible for membership of the Rabaul Club. Somebody, perhaps, would be playing a concertina round the corner, not loudly enough to mute the malarial sobbing of the sick Teutonic planter just bereft of the results of his life work.
“Above all the medley song would rise.
“German voices in the dining-room lifted the roof with “Ein Pflanzer auf ein Kiistenreis ” The musical box did its best; the picture-show gramophone across the road blared “Susie”; the stewards off the Norwegian boat shouted “Ja, jeg elsker dette landet” without blotting out the insistent “You did,” “I didn’t” of two Cantonese engaged in a long-drawn quarrel in the street against a background of native sing-sing wafted across the hot kunai grass in the moist square.
“Through all the babel and turmoil moved Ah Chee, never disturbed, always gentle, kind and smiling. When the young Australian girl next door fell ill of fever and the oppression of the tropic atmosphere, the little man was there in person with cool drinks and comfort.
“When the drunken sailors on the steps at 3 a.m. were moved to wrath because you threw water on them as they sat singing “Ma,” it was Ah Chee who arrived, placatory, pleasant, unruffled, and, looking smaller than ever in a pair of loose pyjamas, persuaded the outraged mariners not to knife you and burn the house down.
“Fights in the bar, attempted suicides, gurias which seemed likely to shake Rabaul into the sea, oppressive ordinances, cheeky locals —none of them rattled Ah Chee.
“And the poor were always with him. The German deprived of his property by the fortune of war, the shell-shocked youngster ruined by high living, the gambling fool with the empty pocket, the weakling taken in crime and in search of bail, the hungry and the thirsty, deserving and undeserving—all patronised him. Paper and pencils were cheap. One more chit would be added to the pile in his little office with a gentle “Some time you will pay me.” But nobody ever did.
“Ah Chee was a legend through the Pacific. He even got into the songs of the colorful Bismarcks in the days when “Willst du reich werden” was still sung:
Will you be wealthy? Down to Rabaul flit, Stay at Ah Chee’s for months and pay by chit;
Fill up your sleeves with ace and king and joker,Then start indulging in a little poker.
Produce those jokers from your sleeve—be stealthy, And then if you aren’t caught you’ll soon be wealthy.
“A fortnight after Ah Chee died, his flowerlike wife and his fine young son did something on Christmas Eve which must have pleased the spirit of the little hotelkeeper. They gave a banquet in his memory. Eighty people came to it. Men of the old German time, civil servants, white traders, Orientals joined in a party which only needed the Absent Guest of Honor to make it a representative human historical gallery of all Rabaul’s past.
“But I’ll wager that a good many of the guests owed Ah Chee a lot more gratitude than is represented by sitting at a man’s dinner-table as the guest of his estate. ”
Ah Chee’s legacy continues to this day through his descendants in Papua New Guinea.
His son Chin Hoi Meen became a pillar of society, famous photographer and war hero who helped rebuild his beloved Rabaul after its destruction in World War Two.
*The hotelier’s son was given official recognition for his wartime bravery in 1949 when he was awarded the King’s Medal for courage and service in the cause of freedom. This medal is intended to acknowledge those who perform “acts of courage entailing risk of life or for service entailing dangerous work in hazardous circumstances in furtherance of the Allied cause during the war.”
In 1954, Chin Hoi Meen was presented to the Queen as a war hero in Australia for his services to the Allied Forces and for risking his life to rescue two American pilots who were shot down. * courtesy Noel Pascoe
Ah Chee should be remembered as a Legend of Rabaul.