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Nave, Theodore Eric (1899–1993)

by Ian Pfennigwerth

This article was published online in 2017

Theodore Eric Nave (1899–1993), naval officer, code-breaker, security specialist, and supporter of naval veterans, was born on 18 March 1899 in Adelaide, eldest child of Thomas Henry Theodore Nave, clerk, and his wife Ethel Sophefia, née Petterson. After leaving Hindmarsh District High School, where he was a good scholar and fine cricketer, at sixteen Eric joined the South Australian Railways as a clerk. Keen to serve in World War I, he obtained an appointment in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) on 1 March 1917 as a paymaster’s clerk, with the rank of midshipman, and served at sea in the Pacific. He chose Japanese to demonstrate a required foreign language proficiency and discovered an instinctive affinity for the language. This seemingly trivial decision determined the course of his life. He was promoted to paymaster sub-lieutenant in 1920 and lieutenant in 1921.

While studying in Japan (1921–23), Nave surprised officers at the British embassy with his grasp of the language. The British were concerned that Japan had designs on their Far East and Indian interests, but their intelligence-collection efforts were hampered by a lack of linguists and code-breakers. After Nave returned to Australia, the British Admiralty asked the RAN that he be lent to their China Fleet as an interpreter and (with the RAN’s knowledge) for secret code-breaking duties. While on the China Station (1925–27), he succeeded in breaking two Japanese naval codes. Impressed, the Admiralty then asked that Nave be lent to work in London; in January 1928 he joined the Government Code and Cipher School, Britain’s signals intelligence headquarters. His progress was spectacular. Made head of the naval section, he deciphered two more Japanese codes, one being the naval attaché code, enabling the British  access to Tokyo’s exchanges with its attachés in Europe. He was promoted to paymaster lieutenant commander in 1929.

Keen to retain Nave, the Admiralty offered him generous employment terms, which he accepted. His appointment with the RAN was terminated on 29 August 1930 and he transferred to the Royal Navy (RN) the next day. His career thenceforward comprised postings to the Far East and London; in 1937 Nave became head of the code-breaking section of the all-source Far East Combined Bureau in Hong Kong. He was promoted to paymaster commander that year. Japanese incursions southwards in China created demands for more intelligence and threatened the bureau’s existence. Nave’s health deteriorated in the tropical climate and he was admitted to hospital late in 1938. In August 1939 the bureau was evacuated to Singapore where, on 2 September at the Anglican Cathedral, he married Helena Elizabeth Gray, a nurse who had cared for him in hospital.

In London and Singapore the code-breakers struggled with the Japanese Navy’s new main fleet code. Although they broke some code groups by Christmas 1939, nearly forty thousand remained unsolved. At this juncture Nave’s health collapsed and he was sent to Australia to recuperate. There the RAN applied his skills to enhance its own code-breaking capabilities, despite Admiralty demands for his return. In May 1941 he formed the joint army-navy Special Intelligence Bureau in Melbourne, where his team made considerable progress against Japanese codes. United States Navy code-breakers, whom the Japanese had forced from the Philippines, arrived in Australia where, together with Nave’s organisation, they formed the Fleet Radio Unit, Melbourne. Differences in philosophy and command relationships, however, doomed their cooperation and, after contributing to successes against the Japanese in the Coral Sea and Solomon Islands, in October 1942 Nave was ejected from the organisation he had founded.

Nave’s return to Britain seemed inevitable until, at the request of the Australian Military Forces, he was posted to General Douglas MacArthur’s Central Bureau in Brisbane in December. Placed in charge of the section dealing with Japanese naval material, he quickly made his mark, particularly in training field units to break codes in forward areas. In 1944 he was promoted to acting captain. He helped ensure that Australia’s wartime code-breaking experience and expertise were preserved in a permanent Australian organisation, later known as the Defence Signals Bureau.

Nave was placed on the RN Retired List on 18 March 1949, having ceased duty with the RAN the previous day. On 20 October he became a senior officer in the newly formed Australian Security Intelligence Organisation based in Melbourne. In October 1950 he was promoted to assistant director, ‘C’ branch, investigation and research, and in 1957 became regional director for Victoria. He developed procedures for security vetting, and was responsible for security during the 1954 royal visit and the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Nave retired in March 1959.

He was a gregarious and charming man who had many friends. Active in the Naval Association of Australia, he became its first national president in 1960. Following the death of his wife in 1969, he married Margaret McLeish Richardson in December 1970. In 1972 he was appointed OBE for services to ex-servicemen. An enthusiastic gardener, he was president and life member of the Brighton Horticultural Society.

In 1991 Nave was named as co-author of James Rushbridger’s controversial book, Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill Lured Roosevelt into World War II. The book argued, without evidence, that Churchill withheld from Roosevelt decoded Japanese messages about its planned attack on Pearl Harbor, to ensure America’s entry into the war. Nave later repudiated the claim and denied any part in making it. Survived by his wife, two of the three daughters, and the son, of his first marriage, he died on 23 June 1993 at Mooloolaba, Queensland, and was buried in Brighton cemetery, Victoria.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Elphick, Peter. Far Eastern File: The Intelligence War in the Far East 1930–45. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997
  • Funch, Colin. Linguists in Uniform: The Japanese Experience. Clayton, Vic: Monash University, 2003
  • Jenkins, David. ‘Our War of Words.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1992, 37
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, Nave, Theodore Eric
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, Officers (RAN) personal record—Theodore Eric Nave
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, Nave, Theodore Eric
  • Pfennigwerth, Ian. A Man of Intelligence: The Life of Captain Eric Nave, Australian Codebreaker Extraordinary. Dural: Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd, 2006
  • Smith, Michael. The Emperor’s Codes: Bletchley Park and the Breaking of Japan’s Secret Ciphers. London: Bantam Press, 2000

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Citation details

Ian Pfennigwerth, 'Nave, Theodore Eric (1899–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nave-theodore-eric-17834/text29420, published online 2017, accessed online 16 January 2019.

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