M.V. Krait - How a Japanese fishing boat became an Australian Legend
  Dear reader, researching this story was a bit of a nightmare. So many sources and so many variations in the 'facts'. Finally I found a book in the Exmouth library entitled "Krait: The Fishing Boat That Went To War" written by Lynette Ramsay Silver. This book had been so thoroughly researched by Major Tom Hall that I have no hesitation in accepting it as the definitive version. Of course, what follows is an extremely abbreviated summary of the complete story.  
     
 

How it all began

 
 

It was December 1941. World War II was raging and Japanese forces were advancing down the Malay Peninsula towards Singapore. Tied up at the dockside in Singapore's Keppel Harbour was a row of Japanese fishing boats which had been impounded at the outbreak of hostilities. One of them, Kofuku Maru, was to play a vital role in rescuing many hundreds of refugees fleeing the Japanese and later in attacking and sinking Japanese ships.

The British in Singapore were living in a fools paradise, not taking the Japanese threat at all seriously. At a time when civilians should have been urgently evacuating the island, supply ships were allowed to leave Singapore empty. It wasn't until the Japs were practically knocking at their door that the true situation dawned on the Brits. Possibly the bombs and shells raining down on them helped in this awakening.

A forty nine year old Australian civilian, Master Mariner Captain William Roy Reynolds - Bill to his friends - had lived in Malaya for many years and was very familiar with the waters in that part of the world. Seeing what was coming, Bill offered his services to various British authorities but was pompously rebuffed. Knowing of the impounded Japanese fishing boats tied up at the dockside, Bill carefully inspected each of them, selecting the Kofuku Maru (meaning 'Happiness') as the best of a bad bunch. Hiring a crew of Chinamen, Bill fuelled and provisioned the boat and, as the Japanese began pushing into Singapore, without fuss quietly slipped away.

Meanwhile, panic had overtaken the residents of Singapore and there was a mad dash to board everything that would float and to escape the island. As flotillas of mixed boats sailed south, the Japanese bombed and strafed them into oblivion. Thousands of men, women and children escaped the sinking ships and made it to nearby islands where they were stranded. Many were badly wounded, needing urgent medical aid.

Bill Reynolds made it the Kofuku Maru's mission to rescue as many as possible of the refugees under the very noses of the Japanese. He ferried boatloads from the islands up the Indragiri River in Sumatra from where they could continue west to the port of Padang and from there be rescued. Time and again he returned to enemy controlled waters to bring back more refugees. On one occasion the Kofuku Maru was challenged by a Japanese patrol boat and Bill had no alternative but to fight. Fortunately he had had the foresight to equip the boat with some defensive weapons. When the fishing boat opened up on the patrol boat with a Lewis gun, a Thompson machine gun and rifles, the patrol boat fled for cover. However, while Bill found this exchange exhilarating, his Chinese crew did not and deserted at the first opportunity. Bill had a constantly changing crew.

With Japanese forces now invading Sumatra it was time for Bill to leave. He followed the coast of Sumatra north west, travelling by night, putting into Dutch controlled ports by day. The Dutch port controllers were very upset by his arrival since the Japanese were expected within hours. The presence of an armed fishing boat in their harbour would not endear them to the invading force. However, the Kofuku Maru stayed ahead of the Japanese and escaped into the vast waters of the Indian Ocean, steering for India. As a navigation aid, Bill had a compass and a map, and that was all. However, he arrived close to his destination and headed for Bombay (now Mumbai).

 
     
  A daring Plan  
 

Whilst in Bombay, Reynolds met up with a British soldier, Captain Ivan Lyon, 28, of the Gordon Highlanders. Lyon, too, had just escaped from Singapore and had crossed the Indian Ocean in a far lesser boat than the Kofuku Maru! Reynold’s Japanese fishing boat gave Lyon a daring and courageous idea. If a Japanese fishing boat could sail out of Singapore under the noses of the Japanese, then it should also be able to said back to Singapore in the same way.

Commando Boat Krait, formerly the Japanese fishing vessel Kofuku Maru.

Lyon’s scheme was to use the Kofuku Maru to penetrate close to Singapore Harbour, relying on the fact that one more Japanese fishing boat, so common in those abundant waters, would blend into the background. From the Kofuku Maru a clandestine night attack could be mounted against Japanese ships in the harbour using limpet mines placed by commandoes in canoes.

Lyons approached the military authorities in Bombay with his idea but initially got no encouragement. Eventually he found a way to bypass army red tape and went direct to General Wavell in Dehli. Wavell was a like-minded character, not averse to using unorthodox methods to achieve his ends.

The General loved the idea and was happy to support it but with one proviso; the operation must leave from Australia, thus avoiding waters swarming with enemy activity. Wavell sent Lyon to Australia with letters of introduction to many influential people, both senior military offices and civilians.

For his part, Reynolds was charged with sailing the Kofuku Maru across to Australia. Her Deutz four cylinder diesel engine, however, was in the process of a major overhaul so nothing could be done until that was complete. Lyon left for Australia with Reynolds to follow as soon as the Kofuku Maru was ready.

In the meantime they decided to rename their little vessel the Krait (pronounced 'Krite') after a small but extremely deadly venomous snake found on the Indian subcontinent. The name would become appropriate, for like the reptile, Krait was to strike swiftly and surely before her victim realised she was there.

 
     
  Could Lyon Convince the ‘brass’ in australia?  
  It has to be said that the military ‘brass’ in Australia were not exactly overwhelmed by what many saw as a crackpot idea. The Americans were totally disinterested. Eventually, however, the plan was somewhat reluctantly accepted and became known as Operation Jaywick. A ship’s complement of fifteen commandoes was made up of eleven Australians and four British. They were sent for rigorous training at a certain ‘Camp X’ which consisted of a row of tents and a flagpole on a cliff top overlooking a river at Refuge Bay, north of Sydney. They were named ‘Z Force’.
 
     
  Ready to go, But where was the krait?  
 

Back in India, when the deadline came for Bill to sail, the boat was nowhere near ready. Bill was tearing his hair out. Everything that could go wrong with the engine overhaul, did go wrong. Her main bearings and big end bearings were shot, her cooling pump needed repair, her inlet manifold needed welding and her clutch required attention. In addition her air compressor (used for starting the main engine) and auxiliary engine needed to be replaced. The boat was transferred from a shipyard to the railway workshops and then on to another shipyard.

Training in Australia was completed, but still there was no sign of the Krait. Plans were considered to replace her with, perhaps, a pearling lugger or a trawler. News from India came through just in time that the Krait was loaded on board a P&O steamer and would be in a state of readiness on arrival in Sydney. The very next day that statement was retracted! The next news from India was that the steamer's departure had been delayed by two weeks. It finally arrived in Sydney on Christmas Day only to find that, war or no war, the docks were closed for Christmas until 4th January. Finally she was unloaded and it was found that her hull had been damaged in transit. The RAN engineers quickly repaired the damage and refitted her interior to accommodate stores and equipment.

At last the Krait sailed from Sydney, only to find - after all that work on her engine - that her cylinder head was cracked! Back she went for that to be rectified, then she tried again. Now it transpired that the engine's timing was all wrong. Eventually all was fixed and she sailed for Camp X where a rapturous welcome awaited her. Final preparations were rapidly completed and the Krait sailed at six o'clock the next morning captained by Lieutenant Hubert Edward Carse (RANVR) with (promoted) Major Ivan Lyon as mission commander.

 
     
  The journey north  
  The Krait sailed north up the east coast of Australia, bound initially for Thursday Island. After all the work carried out on her engine, the crew expected a trouble free voyage. However, five hours into her voyage the Deutz engine suddenly stopped. Bill Reynolds bled the fuel system and found it full of water and air, either of which will stop a diesel engine. Bill soon had it running again but after a few minutes the Krait stopped again with an overheated clutch. Reynolds had no option but to radio for help.

HMAS Peterson arrived from Newcastle to assist. Drifting out of control, the Krait, blown by the wind, rammed the larger vessel, damaging her bows. Not without difficulty a line was attached to the Krait's kingpost and the Peterson took her in tow. The Krait's kingpost, without further ado, snapped off. It was riddled with dry rot. To add to the humiliation of the Krait and her crew, she had to be towed to Newcastle backwards. In a desperate attempt to save face, Reynolds worked feverishly on the clutch and managed to get everything operational before they reached port. At least they could enter Newcastle with some dignity. On coming alongside the dock, Bill took the stern rope in hand and took a flying leap towards the dock. Unfortunately the rope snagged and Bill went head first into the filthy oily water, losing his essential (and only) pair of spectacles in the process.

Bill Reynolds could curse like only a sailor can, fluently, loudly and without ever repeating himself. He'd just about had enough, and gave voluble vent to his spleen from his unenviable position in the murky water. And who could blame him?

Once again the problems - this time with fuel and the clutch - were resolved. These were not the only difficulties encountered. Travelling up the New South Wales coast they had also suffered choked bilge pumps, a faulty generator, a seized front end bearing, blocked lubrication pipes and a seized air compressor. Then, before they could leave Newcastle, Japanese submarine activity off the coast was suspected and they were restricted from sailing for two more days. When they did get away they ran straight into stormy weather.

Before the Krait had even passed Townsville on its way north, a tremendous banging noise emanated from the engine room followed by an eerie silence. This time the engine had broken a connecting rod, poking a hole through the crankcase and generally self destructing. This time it would take more than a few spares and some T.L.C. to repair it - it was finished.

The boat was towed into Townsville where the engine was removed, and then towed north to Cairns where it was secreted away in a tributary of the Barron River until a new engine could be found. (The reliability of this boat is sounding more and more like our caravan.)

Time passed and no engine was forthcoming. Huge amounts of money had been poured into the project and now it was stalled again. The authorities, never enthusiastic, were now heartily sick of Operation Jaywick. The crew were dispersed for further training and Major Lyon asked to supply a good reason why the operation should not be cancelled.
 
     
  A Lucky Break  
  As it happened, a second secret operation, code named Operation Scorpion, was also on hold in Cairns. Scorpion, too, was en route to attack Japanese shipping with limpet mines using two-man canoes, though their destination was Papua New Guinea. Their commander, Sam Carey, sympathetic to Lyon’s plight, decided to keep his men on their toes with a real life Jaywick-style exercise. They would 'attack' Allied shipping in the heavily guarded Townsville Harbour using canoes and dummy limpet mines. If successful it would prove beyond doubt the viability of both the Jaywick and Scorpion enterprises.

Only the very top military officers were aware that this exercise was to be undertaken. Nobody at Townsville was told. Wearing dark clothes and with blackened faces, Carey’s commandoes successfully infiltrated Townsville under cover of darkness using five two-man canoes . . .

Come daylight, the Navy in Townsville discovered that fifteen ships in the tightly guarded harbour had limpet mines attached to their hulls. They believed the Japanese to be responsible and there was absolute shock and panic, as might be imagined. There was a huge uproar, but that was as nothing compared to their red-faced reaction when they discovered that Sam Carey had caught them all with their pants down.

Elsewhere, the military authorities had reviewed the Operation Jaywick situation with the Krait still stranded in Cairns without an engine. They had already decided to abandon the operation when word reached them, not only of Carey’s devastatingly successful ‘attack’ on Townsville using canoes, but also that a suitable Gardner six-cylinder diesel engine had been located in Tasmania and was on its way to Cairns. Their decision was hastily reversed – Operation Jaywick was on again.
 
     
  Exmouth Gulf for final preparations then north to Singapore  
 

With all the necessary modifications carried out to accommodate the new engine, and with a new propeller fitted, the Krait sailed on to Thursday Island then across the north of Australia to ‘Potshot’, the U.S. submarine base in Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia.

On 2 September 1943, the Krait left Exmouth Gulf and set course for the South China Sea. Her crew, now numbering fourteen - Bill Reynolds was not among them - were dressed as Japanese fishermen and their skin was dyed brown. They took great care not to discard overboard any garbage that might give them away. Labels were removed from cans of food and even the name ‘Gardner’ had been ground off the engine and all the spare parts.

Twenty two days later, Krait arrived off Singapore. As soon as it was dark, three folboats – collapsible canvas and rubber two-man canoes – each manned by an officer and a rating, left the Krait and began paddling to Pandjang Island, just outside Singapore Harbour. There the six men set up an advanced base. Two nights later they paddled silently into the harbour under cover of darkness, their canoes heavily loaded with mines. Avoiding detection, they attached limpet mines to seven Japanese vessels, then retreated quietly back to the island to watch the explosions. When the mines detonated an estimated 37,000 tons of Japanese shipping was sunk or badly damaged. The commandoes set off to paddle fifty kilometres back through enemy waters to rendezvous with the Krait.

Some time after midnight on 2nd October the first two commandoes were picked up by the Krait. Several anxious hours followed as the boat waited for the other four men to reach the rendezvous point. As the sky lightened the crew of the Krait were forced to sail. The four missing canoeists, who had somehow missed the Krait in the darkness, were on the wrong beach. They saw the Krait sailing off and resigned themselves to being stranded deep in enemy territory. However, their mates on the Krait were not ready to abandon them despite orders to the contrary. Returning the following night, they found the missing four and retrieved them. Jubilant, the raiding party began the homeward voyage. The commandoes believed they had certainly sunk one ship and either sunk or badly damaged six others. As happens in wartime, other reports of the damage varied greatly.

On her return voyage to Australia the Krait successfully avoided the attention of Japanese patrols, aircraft and even other fishing boats which might have reported a suspicious vessel. Only in Lombok Strait did the crew have some very anxious moments when approached by a Japanese patrol boat. For a reason they never discovered, they were not challenged and the patrol boat turned away and made off. The Krait arrived safely back in Exmouth Gulf on 19th October 1943 without a single death or injury.

Amazingly, intelligence reports from Singapore revealed that the Japanese had no idea that they had been attacked by Allied commandoes from Australia. Believing the mines were the work of local saboteurs they rounded up and imprisoned suspects, torturing and executing some. But . . . they took no precautions against a similar attack. To Major Lyon this must have seemed too good to be true - the way was still open for another attack. Consequently Operation Jaywick was followed a year later by Operation Rimau. This operation too, was planned by Major Lyon.

Operation Rimau was bigger and more sophisticated than Jaywick, employing a submarine to transport the raiding party to Singapore. The sub successfully dropped the commandoes off but during the raid things went terribly wrong. The Z Force was detected. Though three ships were sunk, all the raiders, including Major Lyon, were either killed, or captured and later executed. Among the dead were six of the men from the earlier Operation Jaywick.

 
     
  The Later History of the krait  
 

Following Operation Jaywick, the Krait had been sent to Darwin to join the Lugger Maintenance Patrol of the famous Z Special Unit. When the war ended the little fishing boat was sold to a private company and spent twenty years hauling timber down the jungle rivers of Borneo; gone but not forgotten.

In 1963 a body known as the ‘Krait Committee’ began raising funds to buy back the Krait and bring her ‘home’. In March 1964 she arrived in Brisbane aboard the P&O ship Nellore. On ANZAC Day in 1964 she sailed triumphantly into Sydney Harbour escorted by an armada of small craft. The State Governor dedicated her as a ‘Floating War Memorial’ and presented her to the Volunteer Coastal Patrol for training and rescue work.

The Krait is now on permanent exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour, Sydney.

 
     
  The brave men who sailed on the krait  
 

The crew of the Krait on Operation Jaywick:

• Major Ivan Lyon (Mission commander)
• Lieutenant Hubert Edward Carse (Krait's captain)
• Lieutenant D M N Davidson
• Lieutenant R C Page
• Corporal A A Crilly
• Leading Seaman K P Cain
• Leading Stoker J P McDowell
• Leading Telegraphist H S Young
• Able Seaman W G Falls
• Corporal R G Morris
• Able Seaman M Berryman
• Able Seaman F W L Marsh
• Able Seaman A W Jones
• Able Seaman A W G Huston

 
     
  A Few Details of M.V. Krait  
  Type: Fishing tender
Built: 1934 in Japan as the fishing vessel, Kofuku Maru
Length: 70 feet
Beam: 11 feet
Draft: 5 feet
Displacement: 68 tons
Speed: 6.5 knots
Range: 8,000 miles
 
     
  Bill Reynolds  
  About the time that the Krait was victoriously returning from Operation Jaywick, Bill Reynolds was on board a submarine, the USS Tuna, en route to Laut Island off the southern coast of Borneo. Three kilometres east of the island the sub surfaced and dropped off Bill in a small rowing boat. According to his cover story he was a black marketeer wanting to buy a junk loaded with quinine and rubber. In fact, his primary objective was to contact Chinese secret agents operating in the area and to purchase vital intelligence from them. With that intelligence in his possession he was then to sail the junk back to Exmouth Gulf. That was the plan.

Three days after setting foot on Laut Island, Bill Reynolds was a prisoner of the Japanese, having been betrayed by the natives. He was imprisoned on the mainland for three months before being transferred to Surabaya in Java where torturing prisoners was a way of life. When the prison became overcrowded, prisoners were executed to make way for new arrivals. On 8th August 1944 it was Bill's turn to make way for a new inmate. He was executed without trial by a firing squad.

Bill's widow, Bessie, was told nothing by the authorities; Bill had simply gone off and not come back. It wasn't until more information came to light five years later that Bessie could have Bill legally declared dead.

When Bessie applied for a War Widow's Pension she was told that, officially, Bill had not existed. He had risked his life many times to save over a thousand refugees when Singapore fell. He gave his life for his country, alone, far away and in the hands of a brutal enemy. A grateful Australian Government denied his widow a War Widow's Pension.