The Secrets of Chesterville Road

One of Moorabbin’s great untold stories concerns the wartime wireless receiving station in Chesterville Road. This unprepossessing establishment was set up in 1942 in a series of makeshift buildings amid the market gardens, and in an area that was then the ‘backblocks’ of Moorabbin. Declassified defence records from World War 11 show that this unlikely encampment was concerned with some of the war’s most sensitive secrets and its operations contributed significantly to changing the course of the conflict in the Pacific.

The station was established in March 1942, when sections of market garden properties owned by Arthur McKittrick, Peter Briggs and William and Roy Sullivan were abruptly requisitioned by the Australian Government on behalf of the Director of Naval Works. The acquisition was made under Section 54 of the National Security Regulations, which allowed the Commonwealth sweeping powers in wartime. The properties – a total of 6 acres of land on the north corner of Chesterville and Keys roads, opposite the junction with Wickham Road – appeared to have had little to commend them to the cause of national defence. The area is today the site of some of Moorabbin’s important industrial enterprises, but in 1942 it was all rustic open spaces, largely used for market gardening activities, and some sand extraction.

Aerial survey photograph shows the site as it appeared in 1946. Chesterville Road running from south to north. The market garden paddocks have overtaken the countryside. The McKittrick homestead fronts Chesterville Road and Peter Briggs’ property is to the west of Chesterville Road. Neill’s waterhole can be seen nearby, on the southern side of Wickham Road.

There were two houses associated with the site – the McKittrick home, a weatherboard building with wrap-around verandah, and a smaller brick cottage on the western side of Chesterville Road, owned by Peter Briggs. Both dwellings were characteristic of the very basic market gardeners’ homes in the area at the time, and were without electricity or sewerage.

Within days of the formal acquisition by the Navy, a team of workmen arrived to erect radio installations – eight 25-metre wooden masts arrayed in a rhomboid pattern at the rear of the site, and set back from Chesterville Road. The poles were strung with wires and surrounded by barbed wire fencing, the cluster taking up sections of both the McKittrick and Sullivan market gardens. Several large huts for accommodation and administrative purposes were hastily erected closer to the road. These were rough and ready structures, for the walls and ceilings were unlined and offered little protection against heat or cold.

The first personnel to arrive were a number of WRANS (Women’s Royal Australian Navy) and a larger contingent of US Navy servicemen. The uniformed Americans were an unexpected presence in this rural, out-of-the-way setting. They were also relatively numerous for there were to be a total of 35 US Navy servicemen employed at the base. Most were deeply tanned, indicating prior service in the more tropical regions to the north. The Americans gave the appearance of being open and friendly towards their new neighbours, but were reticent about the reason for their somewhat incongruous presence amid Moorabbin’s market gardens.

Gladys Stott, who was then Gladys Marriott, a young girl working on her family’s property nearby, remembers the Americans and the station well. One of her daily tasks was to take the family’s cows to graze in fields adjoining the base. “We probably did think at first that it was a little strange to see them there, but it was wartime, and you didn’t ask questions,” she says. “I think we were told later that messages from shipping were handled through the base.” This impression had a basis of truth. The radio station, which could receive but not transmit, was a Navy listening station, it was not concerned with the business of Allied shipping, but with some of the most secret transmissions of the Japanese who were then advancing rapidly through the Pacific and threatening an invasion of Australia. The ramshackle radio operation dealt with the interception of Japanese coded communications, and the gathering of information critical to the Allied fortunes in the war.

Gladys Marriott, aged 15, in the potato fields of her father’s property which adjoined the Naval listening station. Her cousin Graeme (centre) and young brother Alfred are with her in this photograph Courtesy of Gladys Stott.

One of the great secrets of the war was that the Allies had gained access to communication codes used by Japan. As early as 1940, the Americans had broken the Japanese diplomatic code know as “Red and Purple”. Later that year they had deciphered other codes, including the Flag Officer’s Code use by the Japanese Navy. Transmissions intercepted by the listening station could be decoded to provide immensely important information about Japan’s war plans, the movement of its forces, and often the specific location of members of its high command. The decoding intelligence had already been used by specialist units in listening posts in Washington, Hawaii, Singapore and the Philippines, the last unit operated under the code name CAST. It was members of CAST, evacuated by submarine prior to the fall of Corregidor, who had come to Moorabbin.

Declassified documents show that Moorabbin had been selected as a listening post because it was in an area considered free of significant electrical interference, and close to Allied command headquarters which were then effectively based in Melbourne following the arrival in April 1942 of the commander of the southwest Pacific forces, General Douglas MacArthur. Moorabbin’s radio unit was able to provide command intelligence with critical information through its interception of the coded transmissions from Japanese surface shipping, submarines and the forward Japanese command positions. These messages helped shape the Allied response to the then inexorable Japanese advances in the Pacific.

The intercepts were of such importance that they could not be re-transmitted by telephone or local radio links, but had to be forwarded by hand. This led to the most noticed manifestation of the radio base in the Moorabbin neighbourhood: the despatch riders seen regularly puttering along South and Chesterville Road through the sea of market gardens. Most people living in the area at the time seem to remember the despatch riders. They were seen every two hours, day or night. Their destination was a three-storey building in Queens Road near St. Kilda Road called Monterey Flats. This building housed the Directorate of Naval Communications and the code-breaking unit called FRUMEL (Fleet Radio Unit – Melbourne), a joint US-Australian naval operation specialising in the analysis of Japanese coded communications.

Wartime despatch riders who were such a familiar sight in the Moorabbin area when the wireless receiving station was in operation. Jack Barker (on the right) rode with messages strapped to his body and carried a gun which he was told to use if impeded.
Courtesy of Jack Barker.

Through the declassified documents now available, it is possible to understand why the Moorabbin station had to be established with such haste, and to what great effect. As early as April 1942, FRUMEL Moorabbin was intercepting critical information relating to the advance of the Japanese invasion fleet on Port Moresby. This intelligence allowed the depleted American fleet to deploy with greatest effect in the Battle of the Coral Sea in which, for the first time in the war, a Japanese invading force was turned back. FRUMEL, with other listening stations in the Pacific, also alerted the Allies to the deployment of another invasion force destined for Midway Island. This information played a part in the significant Allied naval victory, the Battle of Midway.

FRUMEL was able to track messages giving the movements of the Japanese naval commander, Admiral Yamamoto, the man who had planned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto’s plane was ambushed by Allied aircraft and shot down over the Solomon Islands in April 1943. FRUMEL’S most important interception – later described as ‘one of the three most important messages to be decoded in the war’ – was the confirmation that the Japanese had abandoned the amphibious invasion of Port Moresby and planned instead an overland attack on Papua’s capital. The coded intelligence showed the Japanese were preparing an assault from the north coast of Papua across the Own Stanley Range. Australian forces were to be involved in this long and harrowing military action along what became known as the ‘Kokoda Trail’.

The FRUMEL unit remained in Moorabbin for two years until November 1944. Their achievements during that time could have been described as heroic, although their living conditions in Chesterville Road were hardly those fit for heroes. Official correspondence concerning the base refers to amenities of the most rudimentary kind. A plea by the commanding officer was made early in 1942 for extra protection for the accommodation huts used by the Americans. The veterans of Corregidor found themselves freezing in huts that had no interior lining or ceilings. In summer there were urgent calls for screening for doors and windows and the buildings were infested with flies. Another request concerned the bathhouse attached to the huts used by the WRANS. The bathhouse had been built without a door and the base commander indignantly complained that his female staff were being forced to perform their ablutions ‘exposed to the gaze of passers-by’.

Lloyd Williams of East Brighton, then employed as an engineer with the Allied Works Council, remembers inspecting the base in early days of its occupation and describing the conditions as ‘minimal’. ‘I had the distinct impression that everything was pretty limited and that the place was just stuck out there in the middle of nowhere,’ he says.

Despite the highly secret nature of their work, the Americans were sociable and pleased to make contact with their neighbours. Gladys Stott remembers the station’s cook regularly waiting with coffee for her when she rode by on her daily chores pasturing the family’s cows. Further along Keys Road, Hilda Parkinson transformed the front room of her house into a shop stocking sweets, soft drinks and groceries which were sought after by service personnel from the base. Hilda’s son, Clive Parkinson, says his mother later provided a laundry service for the Americans and Clive remembers that as a young boy seeing rooms of the house cluttered with US Navy uniforms in the process of being aired or ironed.

Tony Sheppard of Heatherton remembers the Americans for a somewhat different reason. As a boy, one of Tony’s favourite recreational areas was Neill’s Waterhole, a deep muddy pool in Wickham Road near the intersection with Chesterville Road. The waterhole interested Tony Sheppard because it contained many small redfin, a fish not common in such places around Moorabbin. After the Americans left, Tony Sheppard revisited Neill’s Waterhole to find it invaded by yabbies, but bereft of redfin. He says:

‘What had happened was the Americans had decided to fish the waterhole and they did it with hand grenades. They landed a few fish all right, but finished off the whole lot of them in the process. I think it must have been boredom.’

The rough and ready conditions at the base probably proved too much for some of the American personnel. A number of them, generally the more senior members of the unit, were to find more congenial accommodation in the local hotels, the Moorabbin Hotel on the highway and the Royal Oak in Cheltenham. The operators of the local taxi services prospered by ferrying the servicemen to and from the hotels to complete their shifts. There was at least one romantic outcome because of this arrangement. As Gladys Stott recalls, one of the American officers, Lieutenant Tony Novak who was billeted at the Royal Oak, was later to marry Shelagh Blackburn, the strikingly attractive daughter of the Royal Oak’s proprietor. The couple lived in Moorabbin for a period following the war before settling in the United States.

There is no remaining trace of the wartime radio base. After its closure in 1944, the radio equipment was relocated, the temporary buildings disposed of, and the land and farmhouses returned, with some argument over compensation, to their owners. The site has long since been overtaken by industrial development.


  1. First published in: Cribbin, J., Moorabbin: A Pictorial History, 1862-1994.
John Cribbin
27 June 2018
World War II
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