Operation Jaywick was one of the most daring and celebrated special operations undertaken in World War II. In September 1943, eleven Australian and three British army and navy personnel raided Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour, sinking or badly damaging seven ships and, against great odds, made it back to Australia.
The Singapore raid was conceived by a British Army officer, Major Ivan Lyon. He had escaped from Singapore when it fell to the Japanese in February 1942 and knew the waters to its south. A former Japanese fishing vessel, renamed the Krait, which had been captured off Singapore in December 1941 and sent to Australia, was secured to transport the raiding party to Singapore.
The raid was planned by Special Operations Australia (SOA). Most of the raiders came from its Z Special Unit. The plan was to sail the Krait to an island off Singapore and then three teams of two men would paddle two-man canoes into Keppel Harbour, Singapore, and attach limpet mines to Japanese ships. The plan was audacious and the chances of failure high.
The Krait, a slow moving, wooden hulled vessel, was to be disguised as a Malay fishing boat - and its crewmen endeavouring to look Malay by staining their skin. The vessel was about 20 metres long, and into it was crammed the 14 men of the raiding party, three collapsible canoes, limpet mines, communications equipment, weapons and supplies. On 1 September 1943, the Krait slipped out of Exmouth Harbour, used by the US Navy as a submarine base, heading north towards the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia).
On 19 September 1943, after searching for a suitable base for the three canoe teams, the Krait pulled into a small, hilly, jungle-clad island, Pandjang Island, where the six men of the raiding teams with canoes and equipment were offloaded. Before dawn next morning, the eight other members of the raiding party left in the Krait to spend over 10 days sailing north toward Borneo and back again, hoping to avoid detection by Japanese aircraft and ships.
After narrowly avoiding detection by a Japanese patrol boat, the canoeists left their island haven, paddling towards Singapore by night. Hiding out on islands, they finally reached Subar Island, 11 kilometres from Singapore, and launched the raid from there. The canoes were low in the water, weighed down by limpet mines, and the paddlers battled currents and evaded enemy vessels to reach the target area. Undetected, they attached limpet mines to several vessels, dumped excess equipment and endeavoured to get as much water between themselves and Singapore before the mines exploded early on 26 September 1943. They reached their hiding places shortly before dawn, hearing the mines exploding. Seven Japanese transport ships were sunk.
Over the following nights, the canoeists paddled towards the rendezvous point. After midnight on 2 October, the first two were picked up by the Krait. Several anxious hours were spent waiting for the other four men to reach the rendezvous point but finally the crew of the Krait had to sail. The missing four canoeists had somehow missed the Krait in the darkness and were on the wrong beach. They saw the Krait sailing off and resigned themselves to being stranded deep in enemy territory. However, the crew of the Krait had decided to give the four missing canoeists one more day and returned that night and retrieved them. Jubilant, the raiding party began the voyage home.
The journey towards Australia was long and hazardous - with enemy patrol boats and aircraft to be evaded, as well as local fishing vessels whose crews could easily report a suspicious vessel to the Japanese. However, the men of the Krait were able to avoid detection and the vessel chugged back into Exmouth Harbour on 19 October 1943. The audacious raid had been a stunning success. Most of the raiding party were decorated or mentioned in despatches.
Operation Jaywick would have a tragic follow up. A year later, Lyon organised Operation Rimau, with a larger team, and more complex equipment, to carry out another raid on Singapore. Transported to the area by submarine, the raiding party was detected and all were either killed in action, died attempting to escape or were captured. The last 10 men, held prisoner at Singapore, were executed on 7 July 1945. Among the dead were six men who had taken part in Operation Jaywick.
The Krait, one of the most famous and historically significant vessels preserved in Australia, is displayed at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.