WWII code-breaker Joan Sanders Majithia turns 100

Former Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service Joan Sanders Majithia was a code-breaker during the Second World War.

It’s been 75 years since Joan Sanders Majithia was formally discharged from the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service. But despite the passage of time, she still keeps her war-time secrets close to her chest, steadfastly honouring the pledge she made when she enlisted.

However, as she prepared to celebrate her 100th birthday on 31 July, the family of the former WRANS Writer convinced Joan the time was right to reflect on the extraordinary covert role she played during the Second World War.

‘Our work was top secret,’ says the centenarian from her home in Delhi, ‘and we were very well aware how important secrecy was because it was drummed into us every day.’

Then 23-year-old Joan Sanders joined the war effort in 1944 to ‘do her bit’, full of excitement about the prospect of travel and adventure. However, she ended up serving much closer to home, in a role she never imagined.

Talented with numbers, Joan was picked to join a top-secret codebreaking unit formally called Fleet Radio Unit Melbourne (FRUMEL) but known as Monterey, after the apartment building on Queens Road, St Kilda, Melbourne in which it was located. Monterey was a collaboration between Australian, US and UK naval forces — in effect, Australia’s version of Bletchley Park.

The apartments inside the building had been gutted by American forces to create a series of secret decoding rooms. A team of 80 women worked around the clock in small teams intercepting Japanese messages. They would translate the messages and decode them, then alert Allied command to the Japanese plans.

The unit operated between 1942 and October 1944 and is widely credited for playing a significant role in the Allied victories in the Pacific.

‘It was very exciting because we all felt we were contributing something special, and of course we swore we wouldn’t tell another soul what we were doing. The work was very time-consuming and intense, we worked 8-hour shifts, sometimes on the night watch. I liked the night watch because we could get up to a little bit of mischief,’ she laughs.

‘Nothing bad! But we could do our knitting or chat. During the day there was absolutely no chat and the chatterboxes who got too friendly with the Americans were swiftly taken away.’

The Monterey codebreakers played a vital role in the Battle of Midway in 1942, their work leading to the destruction of a Japanese convoy of more than 5000 army reinforcements and the death of Admiral Yamamoto, which proved a devastating blow to Japanese morale.

The women were acutely aware of the threat of Japanese invasion.

‘We knew that the Americans would shoot us if the Japanese landed,’ Joan says, ‘because the Americans knew what the Japanese would do to us if they found us and we’d be better off dead.’

Joan was born in India where her father served with the British Army, but the family moved to a remote sheep farm in Victoria’s western districts when she was 18 months old. She was working as a clerical assistant with a chartered accountancy firm when she enlisted in May 1944. She trained at HMAS Lonsdale but with her aptitude for numbers and problem solving, she was quickly deployed to Monterey.

‘I can still hear the officer shouting to us all, “Pick up your feet now! Stand to attention!”’, she smiles. ‘We were up very early and it was always quite hectic and not a minute was wasted. In winter our hands were blue with the cold.’

After the war, Joan was visiting an uncle at the Melbourne Club when she was introduced to handsome Indian Air Force fighter pilot Dalip Singh Majithia. They married less than a year later on 18 February 1947 at his family’s estate in Gorakhpur. The couple made a home in Delhi where they raised their two daughters, Kiran and Mira.

Dalip Singh Majithia, a highly decorated squadron leader who earned a reputation flying a Hawker Hurricane on the Burma front, turned 100 last year. He is India’s oldest living fighter pilot and still hits 120 golf balls every morning to keep fit.

Many of Joan’s colleagues took the secrets of Monterey to their graves, but in 2010 the veil was lifted when British Prime Minister David Cameron officially acknowledged their efforts. Those living received a sparkling gold pin with a note that read: ‘The Government wishes to express its deepest gratitude for the vital service you performed during World War II’.

‘The mood was always sombre,’ says Joan. ‘Everyone was terribly involved in doing what they could for the war effort and we had great perspective about what was happening around us, but of course we had fun too. I made some wonderful lifelong friends at Monterey.’

Joan turned 100 today. It is likely that she is one of only two surviving members of the Monterey team.

‘My mother told us about her life in Australia,’ says Joan’s daughter Kiran. ‘We knew the romantic story of her meeting our father and her coming to live in India. She told us she was very happy to have got a job in the Navy Office during World War Two, what fun it was and how she had made life-long friends, but that was all she ever said about it. My mother took her vow of secrecy very seriously. Even my father knew nothing about what she did during those years. We are very proud of her and my father for the service they gave during the war.’

By Sue Smethurst

Sue Smethurst is an award-winning author and journalist. She has written nine books, her most recent book ‘The Freedom Circus’ was published by Penguin Random House in November. She is currently researching the story of the Monterey women and their role in the war and would love to hear from any WRANs who served at Monterey, or their families. Sue Smethurst can be contacted at www.suesmethurstmedia.com

Portrait black and white photo of a couple, possibly dancing

Joan Sanders Majithia and Dalip Singh Majithia in their younger years.