It felt like an impossible venture that became an outstanding success, and was fondly remembered last week on Australian Story. Operation Jaywick was a plan to blow up Japanese ships in Singapore harbour. Military HQ thought it sounded like madness in the year 1943. Australia was in danger of invasion, and Japan ruled Asia and controlled all the sea lanes. Put simply, a captured Japanese fishing boat with just fourteen commandoes was used to sail through these enemy seas to Singapore. Once there, six men paddled tiny canoes under cover of night into the fortified harbour and placed limpet mines. They escaped as ships blew up and sank and a massive pursuit began. Their story became a book by Ronald McKie rightly called The Heroes, and in 1986 I was asked to adapt it into a television mini-series, a co-production between Britain’s TV South and the Australian Ten Network.
International co-productions often have problems and it was nearly three years before much happened. A producer resigned, the silence seemed to suggest my first draft script might end up in a bottom drawer, until Valerie Hardy, head of drama for Channel Ten, approached Anthony Buckley and everything changed. Buckley, a producer of films like Caddie and Bliss had a choice of several other offers, but fortunately he chose The Heroes. In what seemed like weeks before he had a cast and a director, Donald Crombie, who’d directed my previous mini-series, The Alien Years.
As a war-time drama Heroes was different. There were no pitched battles. No shots fired in anger. Not a man lost. As Donald Crombie was quoted in Tony Buckley’s autobiography: “Unlike usual perceptions of war it’s not an action piece, but a character based drama with mounting tension. There are continuous close calls but no conflict.”
I think we all felt this. The immensity of their task created a growing pressure. The audience felt sure there’d be casualties and mayhem. How could a bunch of fourteen commandoes posing as Japanese fishermen sail almost two thousand miles, sink most of the ships and create panic in Singapore, then escape? The world premiere in Britain broke all records for any previous television drama of its kind, with over fifteen million viewers on its first night, and half a million more than this on the final night. My wife and I were in London with Tony Buckley, and we all watched the last episode at the home of UK producer Graham Benson. I remember Graham’s wife, who did not know the outcome, saying she felt sure someone would die, something alarmingly bad was due to happen. Over fifteen million other people were also tuning in to find out the result. The interest was widespread. The next day Tony had a request from Buckingham Palace. The Queen wondered if she could have a copy of The Heroes for a private viewing.
Shortly after this Graham Benson proposed we make Heroes II, the second Singapore raid, and wanted the same team of producer, director and writer. I had personal reservations as the second mission, Operation Rimau was a failure, and McKie had been misled into believing the Japanese had treated their captives with decorum. The last section of his book had them warmly admiring the commandos, claiming they showed no fear in court and faced death with gallant bravado in the true Bushido tradition. It felt bogus, and it was.
Fortunately we did not have the rights to use this final chapter. It was a vast relief when film producer Lee Robinson provided me with a box of classified army documents he’d been given some years earlier, for they revealed the truth of what had happened to Operation Rimau after capture. There had been no proper trials, no defence counsels allowed, no chance they had been treated as legitimate prisoners-of-war. Bob Page and his valiant companions were brutally beheaded. The false samurai code had been deliberately spread by authorities in Japan seeking to avoid prosecution for war crimes. Those factual documents enabled us to tell the true story.