Last of his kind

Moss Berryman took part in one of the most daring commando raids in Australian military history.

21 April 2020

Studio photo portrait of elderly man wearing medals and on his lapel what is probably a badge indicating Z Force.

Moss Berryman in 2016. Photographed by Helen Roberts for the AIPP Reflections Project Honouring our WWII Veterans.

Just before midnight on 11 October 1943, a Japanese warship drew alongside the Krait — an unarmed sampan. On board the Krait, were Mostyn (Moss) Berryman and 13 other British and Australian personnel heading back to Australia after one of the most daring commando raids of the Second World War. They were in the Japanese-held Lombok Strait, flying the Japanese flag and posing as Malay fishermen.

Moss had concealed himself but had his Bren gun trained on the warship. Everyone on the Krait waited anxiously for a searchlight to be turned on them, or to be hailed, or simply to be fired on. They had all been issued with cyanide capsules to be taken in the event they were captured.

Moss had joined the Navy the previous year. He was still in training in Melbourne when he heard that two British officers were looking for volunteers ‘to go somewhere and do something’. During an interview, ‘we were asked if we could swim, whether we could sail or row boats, and if we could fire rifles and revolvers,’ says Moss. ‘About two dozen of us were selected.’

It was only when his training began in the Melbourne suburb of Frankston that Moss discovered he was now part of Z Force — a joint Allied special forces unit formed to operate behind Japanese lines in South-East Asia.

‘My mate and I looked sideways at each other,’ says Moss, who was 18 at the time. ‘We were basically Sunday school boys. We had no idea how we were going to learn to kill people.’

Shortly afterwards Moss and about 15 others were sent to Refuge Bay on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, where their training continued. Their commanding officer Major Ivan Lyon was preparing them for Operation Jaywick — an audacious raid on Singapore harbour using collapsible canoes launched from the Krait.

Formal black and white photo of 15 men in various uniforms.

Members of Operation Jaywick. A/g Able Seaman Moss Berryman is top left; Major Ivan Lyon is centre, seated. Australian War Memorial, 045424.

Originally called the Kofuku Maru, the Krait is a 21-metre Japanese sampan that was based in Singapore before the city was invaded by the Japanese. It had been requisitioned by the British to evacuate civilians before being acquired by Z Force.

Moss was among eight commandos chosen for Operation Jaywick, along with six crew. In late August 1943, the Krait set off for the US submarine base in Exmouth Gulf, halfway up the Western Australian coast. After provisioning, they left the base on 2 September, heading due north.

It was only when they were at sea that Lyon told everyone aboard the nature of their mission. ‘We knew Singapore was thousands of miles away,’ says Moss.

‘We also knew that the Japanese did not have a good record of treating prisoners well. But Lyon was very shrewd when it came to keeping our confidence up. If we looked downcast, he would say, “This isn’t dangerous, it’s exciting.”

‘Still, I think if we had known [that we would be going to Singapore] some of us may not have volunteered [for Z Force],’ Moss laughs. ‘There were definitely times we thought, What the Hell are we doing here? We’re getting five bob a day for this?’

Fuzzy photo taken from the prow of the sampan looking aft. Most of the eight men visible are smiling.

Some members of Operation Jaywick aboard the Krait en route to Singapore. The dye they used to disguise themselves required constant re-application. Moss Berryman is bottom right, applying dye to the back of a fellow commando. Australian War Memorial, 067336.

To get to Singapore, the Krait had to sail nearly 4,000 kilometres, much of that in Japanese-occupied territory. It took more than a fortnight. Life aboard the Krait was acutely uncomfortable. Most of the space below decks was filled with 44-gallon drums of oil; there was practically nowhere to sleep or eat. And there was the ever-present threat of detection. To disguise themselves, they wore sarongs and constantly applied foul-smelling brown dye to their skin.

‘It got easier as we went further into Japanese territory,’ says Moss. ‘We were just another boat. I spent a lot of the time at the top of the mast with binoculars looking out for any craft. I would yell out if I saw any and we would give them a wide berth. Occasionally, a Japanese float plane would fly over and we would stand in a circle pretending to unpick fishing lines.’

On 18 September, the Krait arrived near Singapore and offloaded six commandos in three two-man canoes. Much to their disappointment, Moss and his mate Fred Marsh were told to stay behind and ‘babysit’ the Krait as the crew could not use guns.

For the next two weeks, the six canoeists remained completely out of touch with the Krait, stealing into Singapore Harbour and attaching time-delayed limpet mines to seven vessels.

Painting of a canoe in foreground with moored ship in background, at night.

One of the two-man canoes that sunk or badly damaged seven ships in Singapore Harbour in September 1943. Australian War Memorial, ART28537.

Having sunk or badly damaged all seven ships, the canoeists eluded Japanese patrols and tried to rendezvous with the Krait on the night of 1–2 October. Only one of the canoes turned up. Lyon had told the Krait’s crew to leave that night no matter what, but they ignored these orders and came back two nights later. Happily, the other two canoes appeared out of the dark.

It was on the return journey that the Krait encountered the Japanese. Lyon had packed the prow of the sampan with high explosive for such an eventuality. The plan was that if they were fired upon, they would turn the Krait into the stern of any attacking ship, destroying both vessels.

Moss reckons the warship observed them for about 15 minutes, after which it simply peeled off and disappeared into the night. Why the Japanese took no action isn’t clear. ‘It was pure luck,’ says Moss.

They returned to Exmouth on 19 October, having been away for 48 days.

Operation Jaywick was one of the most successful clandestine raids in Australian history. However, it had a bitter aftermath. The Japanese authorities, humiliated by the attack and totally unaware of how it took place, inflicted savage reprisals on Singaporean civilians, who they suspected of mounting the attack. Lyon had intended that Jaywick be publicised to rattle the Japanese and boost Allied morale. But senior commanders decided against this as they wished to conduct similar raids in the future.

One of these raids — Operation Rimau — was again conceived and led by now Lieutenant Colonel Lyon and involved once again attacking Singapore. Moss was given the opportunity to volunteer for it, but chose not to. This was wise as sadly Lyon and everyone else who took part were killed.

Moss spent the rest of the war serving on the destroyer HMAS Vendetta.

After the war, Moss eventually became a stock broker. He married and had four daughters. Now 96, and in reasonably good health, he lives in a retirement village in his native Adelaide. He remained in touch with several members of Operation Jaywick for many years.

He has visited the Krait several times since it was restored by the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney where it is now docked. On one memorable occasion, Museum staff took the Krait around Sydney Harbour with Moss and his family aboard.

Several books have been written about the raid, and in the 1980s a miniseries was produced aptly called The Heroes, which Moss says was fairly accurate.

Moss is the only member of Operation Jaywick still alive.

The sampan moored next to a small pier with a submarine in the background along with various office buildings.

The Krait at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM), Sydney. Photo courtesy of the ANMM.