Guns for Nauru in the Cold War

L J Louis

The Cold War in Australia in the 1950s was all pervasive, distorting perceptions of threats to security and provoking extreme measures, that in hindsight seem absurd and might otherwise be dismissed as comical, except that they were unscrupulous and initiated at the highest levels. Events at Nauru were a microcosm and provide incites into the wider processes of the Cold War.

This tiny island, 2,200 nautical miles from Sydney, was a United Nation’s Trusteeship Territory, with the Australian Government exercising on behalf of the Joint Administering Authority (Aust, NZ and UK) full powers of legislation, administration and jurisdiction. Its deposits of phosphate were worked by the British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC) with a labour force of indentured Chinese recruited in Hong Kong.

Unrest had been endemic among the Chinese labourers and there was a history of violent disturbances. A riot in June 1948 had led to a declaration of a State of Emergency and the arming of Europeans; fifteen Chinese had been wounded, four fatally. In late 1949 further threats of violence had been firmly suppressed by the police, administration and BPC. The men lived and worked in poor conditions and were confined to their Location with no recreational amenities. Gambling was identified as the root cause of the unrest, and none of the inquiries and reports mentioned political agitation or subversion.1 But on 2S May 1949, the General Manager of BPC (A. Harold Gaze) signalled that a change in this assessment was about to take place when he requested the Department of External Territories to supply tear gas to the Nauru Administration before the next batch of recruits from Hong Kong arrived in mid-August, on the grounds, that, “in view of the march of events in China, the possibility of unrest among Chinese cannot be ignored”. The Department treated it as a matter of urgency and procured from the Department of the Army 50 respirators and 500 Generators Lachrymatory No 2 MK4 which were dispatched on the BPC ship ‘Triadic’. The Acting Minister in the Labor government had given his approval on condition that the shipment was kept secret.2 With the advent of the Chinese People’s Republic and intensification of the Cold War, opinion of the Chinese on Nauru was transformed to excite fears of communist subversion and takeover.

As part of the crusade to destroy communism, the Menzies government enacted the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in 1950. The government expected that when this took effect, communist-inspired disruption would occur. To ensure that essential services were maintained, Prime Minister Menzies established a top secret planning operation, code-named “Alien”. Under the energetic direction of Brigadier E.W. Woodward (from February 1951, Major General and Deputy Chief of the General Staff), comprehensive contingency plans were drawn up, which included use of the armed forces to mine coal and man wharves and ships.3

On 8 November 1950, the Prime Minister informed the Acting Minister for External Territories about ‘Operation Alien’ and requested “urgent action”. After prodding by Woodward, the Secretary of the Department (J.R. Halligan) identified a potential threat at Nauru from communist-inspired disturbances among Chinese engaged in phosphate production. He sought advice on how such an emergency could best be dealt with from the Administrator (R.S. Richards), who in turn called for a report by the Director of Police (Major T.H. Code). The Nauman Police Force comprised 1 sergeant major, 2 sergeants, 2 corporals, 6 lance corporals and 39 constables.

On 7 January 1951 Code reported to the Administrator that he had been keeping a close watch on the Chinese, and they did not appear to have been affected by communist activities in Asia and the SW Pacific; but he hastened to add “I have not overlooked the fact that a good percentage of the Chinese here are communist.” He had plans to enlist “reliable” Europeans as special constables to guard the armoury, BPC powder magaine, powerhouse and wireless station. With thirty .303 SMLE rifles, six Owen submachine guns and three Bren guns in the armoury, Code requested an additional twenty rifles; and the Administrator advised the Secretary, Department of External Territories of this emergency requirement. Arrangements were made with the Department of the Army through Brigadier Irving of the ‘Alien’ Committee, and with the assistance of General Manager Gaze, twenty.303 rifles, bayonets and accessories, in three cases labelled ‘merchandise’, were shipped on the BPC’s ‘Anatina’ to the Administrator of Nauru.4 This was accomplished with some political excitement, as shipping had been delayed by an overtime ban by waterside workers who had no inkling of ‘Operation Alien’, and thought they were engaged in an ordinary industrial dispute.

The Director of Police at Nauru had served in the (British) Indian Army, and had been an “instructor on lachrymatory gas” and “its uses in unlawful assemblies and riots in Palestine.” When making the request for the additional rifles, Code had also sought generators lachrymatory (tea gas). The army held no stocks, so Woodward suggested that Colonel Longfield-Lloyd of the Commonwealth Investigation Service might be able to secure supplies from the police in NSW or Victoria. As this and other avenues were unproductive, a special order was placed with the Defence Research Laboratories (Maribyrnong) for the manufacture of 100 grenades. After delays, this was completed and with the personal help of General Manager Gaze, the grenades were secretly dispatched to Nauru on the BPC ship ‘Trienza’ on 7 November 1951. Thus the Department of External Territories was able to report that it had met its obligations to Operation ‘Alien’ in regard to Nauru.5

It was fortunate that use of the generators lachrymatory was not required. With only a three-year life in the tropics, by 1954 much of the old stock had deteriorated and had to be destroyed. More worrying was the inability to identify some of the ‘Bakelite Gas Grenades’, as they did not match the descriptions provided by the army. In a test, Code exploded six of the grenades which did not emit a lachrymatory cloud but burst into small fragments. These ‘Bakelite’ grenades were probably anti-personnel not tear gas grenades.6

In 1950 the Joint Planning Committee and Chiefs of Staff Committee in a report on the “Defence Problem” at Nauru, identified “a serious internal security threat owing to the preponderance of able-bodied indentured Chinese labour”, and likelihood of sabotage of the cantilever loading plant. The Department of the Army sent Brigadier R.F. Monaghan to investigate, and he presented a detailed report on the defence of Nauru in June 1951. He recorded the male adult population as 110 Europeans, 430 Nauruans, and 1,400 Chinese, and was of the opinion that not more than half of the Europeans were suitable for enlistment in a CMF unit. He reported that there was “no internal security plot” and “no signs of subversive activities.” “The Chinese are completely under control but are highly inflammable material for any eloquent subversive agent.” His recommendations included, “One (platoon) should be organised as a carrier platoon. Apart from the training interest, it would be particularly useful for internal disturbances.” The Department of Defence requested the Department of the Army to implement the agreed measures for the defence of Nauru: to raise a rifle company for local guard and patrol duties; and to install two 3.7 inch guns. The Army repeatedly deferred action, pleading budgetary priorities.7 This concern about security at Nauru would have been heightened by the presence of the US Air Force meteorological station which functioned on the island in the first half of 1951. Anxious to appear a good ally, the Australian government in mid 1950 had readily agreed to the establishment of this station which was to provide information to Joint Task Force 3 and undisclosed operations on Eniwetok Island. Given Nauru’s status, this action by the Australian government was of dubious propriety, but was consistent in its disregard for democratic scruples.8

The Chinese workers on Nauru did not become a direct military threat to the security of Australia, but in the Cold War the ubiquitous communist menace assumed another guise. The Departments of Army and Defence claimed “that a significant leakage of strategic materials to China is being exploited by Chinese labourers repatriated to Hong Kong from Nauru.” On 29 April 1953 the Department of External Affairs sought action by the Department of Territories which turned the pressure on the Administrator at Nauru for a solution. This he accomplished by instituting searches of the belongings of the labourers prior to embarkation. The “strategic materials” uncovered were hand tools, screws and the like, and copper wife and scrap metal which the labourers had pilfered from the BPC Piant and an island littered with wrecks from the Japanese occupation during World War II.9

ASIO demanded a role in the fight against communist subversion on “Nauru, but Colonel Spry, Director- General, received a setback when the BPC on 10 June 1953 provided the political intelligence which was confirmed by the Administrator, that all the Chinese were supporters of the nationalist government on Formosa, and that there was no evidence of any communist activity.10 While this did not, deter ASIO in its obsession to uncover communist connections, the BPC in a couple of strokes exorcised the communist spectre at Nauru. Its new terms of employment from mid 1950 reduced the period of engagement of Chinese labourers from two years to twelve months and it set out to replace them with Gilbert and Ellice Islanders.11 Severe casualties of Cold War paranoia in Australia were not treated so lightly.


  1. Australian Archives, Dept of External Territories CRS A 51811 item B 11816 Parts 1-4; item EA 11816.
  2. CRS A 45211 item 6612071.
  3. See my article “‘Operation Alien’ and the Cold War in Austra1ia” to be published in Labour History in 1992
  4. Dept of External Territories CRS A 518/2 item HM 161211. Application of ‘Operation Alien’ to Papua New Guinea involved shipment of 2,300 .303 rifles and 200,000 rounds of ammunition, ibid, and items W 161212 and BH 83611. From its assessment that, “there are no native problems” on Norfolk Island, the Department did not think that any emergency measures, other than shipping, were required there by ‘Operation Alien’. For a wider context of ‘Operation Alien’, see Dept of the Army, MP 72918 item 1214311237.
  5. Dept of External Territories CRS A 518/2 item HM 16/2/1, item W 161212.
  6. Ibid. Though a minor episode, this is evidence of the indispensable role of senior public servants in prosecuting the Cold War to absent lengths. Without lachrymatory generators, the Administrator of Nauru pressed the Department for replacements with the type specified in technical detail by Cude. Years of Departmental inquiry followed, only ending with Australia House in London and a private firm, Civil Protection Ltd, and its price list. The Administrator on 3 May 1956 then advised the Department that no further action was required.
  7. Dept of Defence CRS A 5954/1 item 144412; A 579911 item 21411952.
  8. Dept of External Territories CRS A 518/2 item Be 11816; A 579911 item S8119SO; A 51811 BK 11816 pt 1. This correspondence does not mention atom bomb testing.
  9. Dept of External Affairs CRS A 1838T1 item 311171211: Dept of Territories, CRS A 183811 item 3111316; Dept of Territories CRS A 518/2 item CF 11817.
  10. ASIO CRS A 6122 XRl3S9.
  11. Dept of Territories CRS A 518/2 item J 11816 pt 2.