Eric Nave

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Captain Eric Nave OBE (1899–1993) was a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) cryptographer, noted for his work with joint Allied intelligence units during World War II. He served in the navy from 1917 to 1949.


As a midshipman, Nave needed to be proficient in a foreign language to gain promotion. In 1918, he chose Japanese because "extra pay of 6d per day was paid to those qualified in French or German, but those proficient in Japanese received 5/0d" – five shillings, i.e. ten times the rate for French or German.[1] He spent two years from February 1921 in Japan to study as an interpreter, obtaining the highest final exam score of any service interpreter. He was seconded to the Royal Navy Sigint section in 1925, then the Government Code and Cipher School in London in 1927. In 1930 he was sent to the Far East Combined Bureau, in Hong Kong and later in Singapore.

Second World War[edit]

In 1940, Nave was transferred for health reasons to Melbourne, where he set up a small RAN cryptographic unit in Victoria Barracks. The unit had a core of naval personnel, with an appreciable number of university academics and graduates specialising in classics, linguistics and mathematics, e.g. Athanasius Treweek and Arthur Dale Trendall.[2]

RAN codebreakers were responsible for warning the US Navy (USN) on 2 December 1941, that by the following weekend, the US would be attacked by Japan. The USN response was that there were no hostile acts west of the date line.[3] On Sunday 7 December in US time zones (8 December in East Asia and Australia), Pearl Harbor was attacked, at the same time as other Allied bases, took place

Officially at least, in early 1942 the unit became part of FRUMEL, an "inter-naval" (joint USN-RAN-British) cryptographic unit, and moved to the "Monterey" apartment building in Queens Road, Melbourne. FRUMEL was commanded by USN Lieutenant Rudi Fabian, formerly of Station CAST in the Philippines. Nave was reportedly forced out of FRUMEL and "Monterey" by Fabian, who apparently regarded him as a "security risk", because Nave wanted to cooperate with an analogous "inter-army" unit, Central Bureau. According to his staff, Nave often kept keys to new codes passed on by the Americans and British to himself, which might have been acceptable as a training exercise in peacetime, but not in time of war. Treweek said: "We always looked forward to his day off. We’d get the keys to his safe and find all this material in there." Nave also had difficulties with his superior, Commander Long, the Director of Naval Intelligence, whom he considered a man of no great ability.[4]

Nave subsequently joined Central Bureau, in Brisbane. Joe Richard, a Central Bureau veteran, said later that "[i]f Fabian did not want Nave, the US Army codebreakers were very happy to have him ... Fabian's dislike of Eric Nave was very fortunate for us. Nave became an indispensable person" in "reading air-to-ground messages containing the weather" which "gave away the intended target for the day."[5] It was Nave who warned, a month before it happened, that the Australian base at Milne Bay, at the eastern tip of New Guinea, was to be invaded in late August 1942. This enabled the deployment of reinforcements.[3] The Battle of Milne Bay was decisively won – the first time the Japanese had been defeated on land by the Allies.


Nave was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1946 and joined the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation[6]

Much of a 1991 book that Nave co-authored with James Rusbridger apparently reflects Rusbridger’s views rather than those of Nave, particularly a claim that Winston Churchill deliberately did not pass on warnings about Pearl Harbor, in order to get the US involved the war. According to British historian Peter Elphick, in a 1991 interview on Japanese television, Nave "repudiated a large slice of what Rusbridger had written, calling it speculation".[7]


  1. ^ Ian Pfennigworth 'A Man of Intelligence: The Life of Captain Eric Nave, Australian Codebreaker Extraordinary', Rosenberg 2006, p22.
  2. ^ Jenkins (Battle Surface), pp. 43-44.
  3. ^ a b Boettcher, B., The Codebreakers in the South West Pacific (2009) ("Eleven Bloody Days - the battle for Milne Bay"; Chapter Three, pp. 16-23).
  4. ^ Jenkins (Battle Surface), p. 159.
  5. ^ Smith (2000) page 171.
  6. ^ Smith (2000) page 278.
  7. ^ Elphick Chapter 9 (p. 182 of the 1997 paperback version).

External links[edit]


  • Elphick, Peter. Far Eastern File: The Intelligence War in the Far East 1930-1945 (1997 & 1998, Hodder & Stoughton, London) ISBN 0-340-66584-X
  • Jenkins, David. Battle Surface: Japan’s Submarine War Against Australia 1942-44 (1992, Random House, NSW Australia) ISBN 0-09-182638-1
  • Pfennigwerth, Ian. A Man of Intelligence: the life of Captain Theodore Eric Nave, Australian codebreaker extraordinary (2006, Dural, NSW) ISBN 1-877058-41-6
  • Rusbridger, James and Nave, Eric. Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: how Churchill lured Roosevelt into War (1991, O’Mara, London) ISBN 1-85479-162-1
  • Smith, Michael. The Emperor’s Codes: Bletchley Park and the breaking of Japan’s secret ciphers (2000, Bantam London) ISBN 0-593-04642-0