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Operation Rimau

Operation Rimau

An account of a top–secret WWII raid drawn from records and archive

  • As told by M. J. Hyland
  • Music by Nils Frahm

Not long after midnight — on 11 September 1944 — a submarine (the HMS Porpoise) leaves Fremantle with 23 men. Each man has a cyanide pill in his pocket and each man knows only this: Operation Rimau is a top–secret espionage mission. 1

The Rimau men are commandos, hand–picked after intensive training, but the details of the mission are so sensitive that they don’t know a damned thing about what will happen — who or what the final target will be — nor the terror and trouble they’ll face. 2

There’s cause for confidence, though: the Porpoise is loaded with a secret espionage weapon: new technology known as ‘The Sleeping Beauty’: one–man submersible canoes designed by the British to attack targets at the height of the Pacific War.

In theory, when a stealthy Sleeping Beauty gets in range of target,
it launches, strikes and then slips quietly away; invisible to the enemy.

“When we first came across the Sleeping Beauties,
we thought ‘this is going to be interesting’.”

How to make a Sleeping Beauty

The crew don’t know the details of the final raid, nor that the Rimau mission is backed by extensive planning: a 79-page document with maps, moon charts, notes on the whereabouts of enemy submarines, local fishing vessels and ‘uninhabited’ islands. 3 And, the men haven’t a clue about the ultimate target: a raid on Japanese shipping in the heavily patrolled waters of Singapore Harbour.

According to the plan, before the crew reach the ‘unknown’ target, they’ll first need to capture a local fishing boat; use the native boat to sail under cover and in darkness and then drive the Sleeping Beauties an enormous distance to Singapore Harbour. And if all that works, the men will attach limpet mines and detonators to the hulls of Japanese ships. 4

But the raid is so treacherous that survival depends as much on equipment and planning as the improvisational skills and cunning of the crew (all of whom voluntarily transferred from less dangerous units into Special Operations Australia, a commando force that worked behind enemy lines in South-East Asia known as “Z. Special Unit”).

Among the Rimau men is a Sydney medical student, Robert (Bob) Page whose father, a Papua New Guinean administrator was held prisoner by the Japanese; the adventurous Walter Carey from rural NSW whose travels had taken him to New Guinea and China as a member of Mission 204; a New South Wales farmer — the tall and steady W.G. Falls; and a truck driver — J. T. (Jack) Hardy — who trained as parachutist; the Wangaratta boy — A.L. ‘Blondie’ Sargent, and the Englishman who became a Jackaroo in outback Queensland, Donald Davidson. 5

Captain Robert C. Page, AIF, NX19158

Lieutenant Walter G. Carey, AIF, NX58159

Able Seaman W.G. (Wally) Falls S/6543

Lance-Corporal J.T. (Jack) Hardy, AIF, NX140476

Lieutenant A.L. (‘Blondie’) Sargent, AIF, VX15290

Lieutenant-Commander Donald Davidson, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve

Six of the Rimau men were crew on an earlier Operation — Jaywick — (September–October 1943) — a covert raid, similar to Rimau, during which they paddled in canoes to Singapore Harbour, attached limpet mines to the hulls of ships and destroyed more than 36,000 tonnes of essential Japanese shipping.

Jaywick was a triumph, its crew were decorated, but its
outcome and details remained a fiercely protected secret.

Ivan Lyon was commander of Jaywick and now he is commander of ‘Rimau’ — the Malay word for tiger — chosen because of the large multi-coloured tiger-head tattoo on Lyon’s chest. 6

Lyon’s track-record is maverick but impressive and he’s spent months pushing for the launch of a second raid in spite of grave concerns — not least of all that, so soon after Jaywick, the enemy is on high and vengeful alert. 7

He couldn't talk freely to me.

A ‘Safe’ Island — 24th September, 1944

Merapas: Position — approximately 00°56’NORTH 104°56’40” EAST.

Thirteen days after the men leave Fremantle, the submarine Porpoise — which is loaded with 15 Sleeping Beauties — surfaces next to a small, remote island — Merapas — south-east of Singapore. The men will use Merapas as a base and for safe storage of supplies.

From the diary of Donald Davidson — 23 Sept 1944

“Spent a cool night. Slept none too well. The change from close quarters in PORPOISE to the accented peace of this island was too abrupt for sleep. The scents of the flowering trees and lily pads was more delicate than any that ever came out of PARIS. A sign of welcome.”
“(Merapas is) as ideal a place as can be expected. Very few islands are entirely uninhabited, and of those that are inhabited MERAPAS is as good a hideout as could be hoped for.”

Walter Carey is asked to act as watchman on Merapas and he’s equipped with a silenced Sten rifle and a revolver. The rest of the crew set out in Porpoise in search of a local fishing boat for capture.

“Lonely job, which I don’t envy him, in the least.”

27thSeptember 27

The crew haven’t found a native junk and the delay poses a real threat to the mission: no native boat means no subterfuge and no way of sailing ‘undercover’ within range of Singapore.

“…the absence of boats is…unexpected and annoying…”and “…it will be just hell if junks have decided to go inland for some peculiar reason…”

Davidson’s frustration is worsening; he’d seen plenty of native boats, just a year earlier, and in “…the vicinity of the Borneo coast”.

The men are restless and nervous so they perform a ceremony — a rain-dance they hope might conjure a boat for capture and —

“…each officer with a finger on its head and chanting, ‘Find me a junk, Get me a junk, Wichety wichety, Bring me a junk’.”
“Yesterday, CHAPMAN completed a “Joss”, intricately carved out of a stick of carbon. It took him two days. The upper half was like a cannibal&Rsquo;s idol, or Ju-ju; the lower half was carved in a heavy spiral to give it a rotary motion when swimming. A monocle (DAVIDSON’S totem) and the Battle of Britain scarf (LYON’S charm) were put to its eye and round its neck and it was gyrated through 360°.”

At long last — @ 1300 hours on the 28th — a two-masted 40 tonne
fishing boat is spied: the Ketapang Prahu — the Mustika.

The men capture and board the Mustika and, on 30 September, Davidson writes:

“PORPOISE came alongside after dark and took us in tow. Loaded 7 SBs and 2 containers of stores. PORPOISE cast off at about 0300.”

From now on, the crew must fend for themselves.

Subterfuge - Going ‘Undercover’

1st October 1944

The men need to go ‘undercover’, (to reach the final target undetected) and so they wear a rough disguise — bare feet, face paint, and sarongs — and spend long stretches below deck to avoid being spotted. Even the labels on supplies, cooking utensils and rations (‘compo’ or ‘romp’) are camouflaged and, when a plane or ship is seen, the men raise the Japanese flag. 15


Ten long slow days later — when the men are within reach of the final act: a major raid on the Japanese in Singapore Harbour — disaster strikes: They sail too close to the island of Kasu, on which there’s a township. The men didn’t know about the township, but now, they’ve been seen, and it’s too late. 16

A local police boat comes to investigate; the crew panic and mistake the unarmed police boat for enemy patrol. They shout, ‘Patroller! Patroller!’ then open fire within view of the settlement on Kasu. The patrol boat sinks and most of its crew are killed.

Now, there is no chance of a stealth attack
on Singapore Harbour and Lyon calls off the mission.

15th October

The men split into four groups and head for Merapas in dinghies. This is their best hope for survival, the only real chance to meet up with the rescue “pick-up” team on the submarine, Tantalus. 17

16th October

One of the smaller groups, led by Lyon, takes a risk: they ask locals on Pangkil island about Japanese shipping. The locals report this encounter to the Japanese, and Lyon and his men are tracked down by a Japanese vessel. 18

There’s a battle and heavy fire — and heavy losses: On Soreh island, Lyon and Ross are killed. Stewart is captured and Davidson and Campbell are wounded during an escape attempt.

Both men are found dead by the Japanese on the island of Tapai.

Those who aren’t killed or captured make it back to Merapas and there, they use tactical training to keep cover. But soon they too are discovered by Japanese patrol: Riggs and Cameron are cornered and killed while they cover for their mates. 19

With the men hounded from the Merapas base by the Japanese, they face a two thousand kilometre journey back to Australia through occupied waters.

The extensive planning for the mission didn’t cover strategies for a protracted escape. The men are alone in the South China Sea to the north of the Equator, and must find a way home through hostile and busy shipping lanes. The men have acted in haste, thinking that in two smaller groups they’d have a better chance of escape. 20

The first group travel quite quickly on small fishing boats and, remarkably, commandeer a large junk from its unwilling crew. The second group paddle in their mates’ wake — hopping from island to island — desperate to avoid discovery, and wait for a break to reach Australia. 21

None make it home.

5 days later — 21 November

“None of the Rimau men were waiting…”

Account drawn from Walter Chapman's report.

The Tantalus submarine finally arrives at Merapas. It’s after midnight and Major Walter Chapman and Corporal Ron Croton make their way ashore. Tired from long weeks cooped up in the sub, the men rest until first light.

On Merapas, they find a camp in disarray: ration tins strewn on the ground and fires kicked out. It’s clear that the Rimau men Chapman watched sail off on the Mustika have returned to the island because there’s a heavy iron cooking pot from the boat among the debris, but there’s no-one to be found.

Something is wrong: hidden in the undergrowth is a small rake used to sweep over footprints in the sand, a tool cherished by its owner, Davidson. Why would he leave it behind? Why leave the camp in a mess, which would be a conspicuous sign for the enemy? The men have disappeared, but there is no clear evidence of a skirmish. 23

The next night, Chapman and Croton paddle back to the Tantalus to report the bad news. The men won't be picked up : “It was agreed that no further purpose would be served by returning next night”.


December 1944

The ten surviving men — those not killed in skirmishes on the islands or killed or drowned during escapes — are captured and taken by the Japanese to Outram Road Gaol where they are held for trial ‘for espionage’. The gaol is filthy, overcrowded, and infested with vermin and disease. Fellow prisoners show the signs of malnutrition and physical degradation. Those who transgress an unwritten code of rules are beaten by guards. 24

The survivors suffer the same, stink the same and come to look the same: emaciated with long beards and knotted hair.

In the final weeks Roma Page imagines her husband — though terrified and hurting — “was thinking of me longingly and devastated that he was leaving me”. 25 Years later she will read his last letter, written in blue crayon on borrowed paper, dated 28 September 1944:

“It is a glorious feeling to have of a waiting wife at the end of the journey. This time I’m going to knock everyone over in my having to get to you, darling and I’m going to swing you around in my arms until you are quite giddy.” 26

3 July, 1945

All text from the trial transcripts of Captain Robert Page:


Question 1: Is there any point that you wish to object among the charges that were read for you just now?
Answer: No, there is none. They are quite correct.
Question 2: Is there anything that you should like to differ from all the statements that Major Ingleton had made just now? Or any opinion?
Answer: None, except that I saw once Lieut-Col. Lyon wearing his badge of rank on the junk, but where it was I have forgotten.
Question 3: Did you also not use beret cap or badge of rank after off Merapas Island?
Answer: I did not use it since we left Pejantang Island.
Question 4: We are given to understand that you were wearing sarong on the junk? Is it correct.
Answer: It is quite correct.
Question 5: Did you bring over that sarong from Australia?
Answer: I used the one which I found on the junk and so I do not know where it came from. I am inclined to consider that it was the one used by the Malayan crew of the junk.
Question 6: Did you also shoot at the time when your party attacked the police boat near Kasu Island?
Answer: Yes, I did. I thought it was a navy patrol ship and I shot it.
Question 7: How many times did you fight against the Japanese force after that?
Answer: Once on the Merapas Island and once on the other island. I am not sure if I killed any of the Japanese troops. 27

Robert Page is 25 years old.

There were headlines in the paper that were a terrible shock.

No mercy is ‘permitted’, in part because the Japanese interpret the mission’s ‘crimes’ in strict accordance to a particular martial code of heroism. The court likens the Rimau men to Japanese who died in the failed 1942 Japanese submarine raid on Sydney harbour:

“We do not hesitate to call them the real heroes of forlorn hope.”
“The last moment of a hero must be glorious. It must be historic and it must be dramatic. Heroes have more regard for their reputation than anything else. This is the feeling of the Japanese people.” 29

It’s the morning of July 7, and the men are taken to the execution site. Japanese sources say that as the men meet their fate, they are in ‘good spirits and composure’. But records of exhumation show that the burials were neither ‘glorious’ nor ‘honourable’.

The Rimau men are buried in three graves, each grave four-foot deep. Five are blindfolded and one is ‘partially’ decapitated. No identification is found with the bodies, and none wear shoes. The site of burial is ‘thick scrub on the shoulder of a hill’ and marked by two brown, wooden crosses. 30

The men are exhumed on 21 November 1945
and later reburied in Singapore’s Kranji Cemetery.


Operation Rimau: an account of a top-secret raid
drawn from records and archive

As told by M. J. Hyland
with Dr James Waghorne

  • Music by Nils Frahm
  • Sound design by Sameer Sengupta
  • Photography (Indonesia, Singapore, Australia) by Christopher Farber
  • Location consultant (Indonesia and Singapore) Lynette Silver
  • Location video editing by Peter O'Donoghue
  • Location map by Joined Up Films/ Siamese
  • Design and development by Snepo
  • Design by Cristina Lavenuta
  • Development by Dan Morris
  • Produced, conceived and directed by SBS Online

Sleeping Beauty Documentary:

  • Producer/director: Kylie Boltin, SBS Online
  • Cinematography: Andrew McLeod, Andrew Grant
  • Editing: Rosie Jones
  • Logging: Joanne Garcia
  • Sound design: Mark Street
  • Norman Wallace interview: Joined Up Films
  • Critical Past Archive: 65675039087, 65675039088, 65675039090.

“Sleeping Beauty” Construction & Design Team

  • Chuck Anderson: Lead Construction/Design
  • Ian Begg, Mckenzie Marine: Construction/Design
  • Calum Kennedy: Lead Design
  • Simon Anderson: Design


  • “Went Missing”, “Said & Done” and “It Was Really, Really Grey”
  • Composed and Performed by Nils Frahm
  • Used by permission of Manners McDade Music Publishing Ltd
  • Administered By Hebbes Music Group


  1. Prosecuting Attorney’s Address to the Court, ‘Full Account of the Australian Special Overseas Operation Party: Judicial Department, 7th Area Army’, pp. 31–19, MP742/1 336/1/755, NAA. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/39
  2. Interview with Norman Wallace, Joined Up Films.
  3. ‘Plan RIMAU’. A3269 E4/B, NAA. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235241/1
  4. Ibid., 1. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235241/1
  5. Refer to personnel files. See also Lynette Silver, Deadly Secrets: The Singapore Raids, 1942-5 (Binda, NSW: Sally Milner, 2010), 119–121, 143–4, 147, 209, 212–3, 217–8.
  6. On Lyon, refer to Silver, Deadly Secrets, 77–84; Brian Connell, Return of the Tiger, (London: Evans Brothers, 1960), ch. 1.
  7. Silver, Deadly Secrets, ch.10.
  8. ‘Rimau Project: Lt-Comdr Davidson’s Diary’, p. 2, A3269, E4/D. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235240/15
  9. Ibid., p. 4. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235240/18
  10. Ibid., p. 3. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235240/16
  11. Ibid., p. 6. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235240/23
  12. Ibid, p. 6. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235240/23
  13. Ibid., p. 7. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235240/24
  14. Ibid., p. 7. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235240/24
  15. Major Ingleton testimony, ‘Full Account of the Australian Special Overseas Operation Party: Judicial Department, 7th Area Army’, pp. 31–6, 8, MP742/1 336/1/755, NAA. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/39
  16. Ibid., p. 31–8.; http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/46 cf. Silver, Deadly Secrets, 238–40.
  17. Ibid., p. 31-9.; http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/47
  18. John J. Ellis, ‘Report on Search for Allied Personnel in Riouw Archepelago (sic)’ 13 October 1945, MP742/1 336/1/755, NAA, cf. Silver, Deadly Secrets, 244–62. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/70
  19. Silver, Deadly Secrets, ch. 14.
  20. Ibid., ch.14.
  21. Ibid., ch.14.
  22. Ibid., ch.14.
  23. Major W.W. Chapman, ‘Report on Attempted Pickup of “Rimau” Party’, 18 December 1944, A3269, E5/A, NAA; cf. Connell, Return of the Tiger, 176–87; cf. Silver, Deadly Secrets, ch. 13. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/235242/14
  24. On conditions at Outram Road Gaol, see interviews in Hank Nelson, P.O.W. Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 1985), ch. 13.
  25. As told to SBS Online, 13 June 2014.
  26. Personal letter from Robert Page to Roma Page, 28 September, 1944.
  27. Testimony of Major Ingleton, Captain Page, Captain Carey, Lieutenant Sargent & Other Accused, ‘Full Account of the Australian Special Overseas Operation Party: Judicial Department, 7th Area Army’, pp. 31–6, 8, 11, 12, 14, MP742/1 336/1/755, NAA. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/39
  28. Interrogation of Interpreter Furuta, 21 October 1945. MP742/1 336/1/755, NAA. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/93
  29. Prosecuting Attorney’s Address to the Court, ‘Full Account of the Australian Special Overseas Operation Party: Judicial Department, 7th Area Army’, pp. 31–20, MP742/1 336/1/755, NAA. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/39
  30. Capt. R.S. Ross, RAMC, Memorandum, 21 November 1945, MP742/1 336/1/755, NAA. http://soda.naa.gov.au/record/403646/16

Archive and Images

Chapter 1: The Mission

  • AWM F07364
  • AWM P00908.002
  • AWM P01447.001
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/59(B)
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/39(B)
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/42(A)
  • Critical Past Archive: 65675039087, 65675039090

From Plan Rimau:

  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/B
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/B
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/D
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/D

The Rimau men:

  • AWM045416
  • AWMP05790.002
  • AWM045408
  • AWM P08670.001
  • AWMP00838.002
  • AWM045404

Operation Jaywick:

  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/56(A)
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/5(B)
  • AWM 044463
  • AWM067336
  • AWM 134349
  • AWM 045422

Chapter 2: Launch

  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/D
  • AWM P00604.011
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/D
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/D
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, E4/D
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/59(B)
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/58(B)
  • National Archives of Australia: A3269, Q11/59(A)

Chapter 4: Conviction

  • AWM045146
  • AWM 101099