External Affairs - Communications 1964-5

In September 1964(Aged 19) I was promoted to the Diplomatic Mail Section of the External Communications Branch of the Department of External Affairs, Canberra ( It was renamed Foreign Affairs).

My job was as a Safe Hand interdepartmental courier.

The Australian government had a network of overseas posts sending and receiving diplomatic correspondence in the form of (a) mail and (b) telegraphic cable.

The correspondence was either classified or unclassified and security clearances were given to handlers on the basis of a "Need to Know".

The order of classification for a "rank and file" staffer was:

  • Unclassified

  • Restricted

  • Confidential

  • Secret

  • Top Secret


I recall each classification having a colour - but my memory here is dim.

All External Communication staff had clearance to Top Secret level.

To get it, ASIO put the slide rule over you without your knowledge.

My job was to deliver overseas classified (Safe Hand) correspondence to the various government departments two times a day. In return, I signed for Safe Hand Mail destined for the overseas posts via the Diplomatic Mail Section.

I would scurry back to the department wherein colleagues would sort mail into boxes and then envelop a particular article; apply paper sticky paper seals; stamp the seals and then double envelop it.

Then a typist would give the item a registration number and list it in a schedule of items that was to be included in the diplomatic bag.

The diplomatic bag was either British Racing Car green - unclassified or classified - red.

The final step was to use molten wax on a specially applied binding and while still hot, apply a brass seal into the wax thereby leaving an embossed that would crack when opened.

The system was not tamper proof. It was to indicate whether the bag was compromised along the torrid path to an overseas post.

As added security a Safe hand Courier accompanied the Diplomatic Bag throughout the entire journey. (More on this latter)

I loved this job. I was a first grade footballer. I was being paid to lug weights; run up flights of stairs and beat the clock.

I was studying at night time. The results came out in November 1964.

I had matriculated. This meant (a) automatic graduation the Public Service's Third Division and (b) eligibility to study at university.

My First Car

In 1965 I purchased my first motor car - a second hand Morris 1000.

I paid £100 pounds.

My weekly wage was 11 pounds per week. The car was cheap. It was made in 1950; the selector gear was defective in as much as there was an almighty noise whenever I had it in reverse. Something to do with the Selector Gear - which would have cost a bomb to repair as the engine had to be removed to replace a small cog.

To avoid the noise I always parked the vehicle in a location where I did not have to reverse.

Petrol was 2 shillings and six pence a gallon. Peanuts you might say. But my weekly wage was about 12 pounds.

The conversion era was interesting. We were bombarded with helpful advertising to prepare us:

Cypher Clerk

Because of my elevation to the Third Division of the Public Service, I went from the Diplomatic Mail Section to the Cypher Section of the External Commications (ExComms) Division

My job was to use One Time Pads (OTP) to hand cypher and decypher coded outward and inward messages.

It was a shift worker position. I was awarded penalty allowances and an extra week's leave per year - great! Better still there were lots and lots of "chicks" engaged as machine operators and they far outnumbered the mere males.

The supervisor was Mac McLaren. No one knew his first name. He was a hockey aficionado. His claim to fame was umpiring matches at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. He followed the local rugby. As such, he rostered shifts around me as much as he could. It meant that I would not have to work all night and play first grade the next day.

OTPs were a back up to the automated Rockex machines. At the time it was a secret ENCRYPTION machine invented and shared by the Canadians for allied governments and used at posts all around the world - see Saigon (Destruction of Machines). The Pads were used as a last resort in third world countries when the capital city's power supply was irregular and the Head of Mission wanted to get messages out to Australia.

Some grey cell matter was required. As well as being quick with simple arithmetic - adding and subtracting, one had to solve corrupted parts of a message by using powers of deduction, extrapolation and thinking like the person on the other side of the OTP.

It was competitive - just like in a shearing shed. The "gun" cypher clerk was the one who could shear the sheep the fastest without nicking the ram.

The biggest crisis in my period as a cypher clerk was the 30 September 1965 coup in Indonesia where it was touch and go as to whether the communists would control the country.

Djakarta was in chaos and there were no public utility services.

The Military Attaches broke out the One Time Pads and then transmitted them by battery operated wireless transmitter to offshore naval vessels who transmitted the signal to HMAS Harman (near Quernbeyan) which passed it on the ExComms.

I had been handling the OTP's for over 9 months. I was one of the "guns".

But it did little for your nerves when the Secretary of the Department and his Branch Heads were standing over you at 2 am in their PJs and dressing gowns waiting for me to decode a cypher.

The staff in Jakarta were weary and tired and it was a case of "all hands to the pump there".

Therefore it was "garbage in - garbage out" and I had to nut out the corruptions.

As soon as one cypher was finished another "Dispatch" from a corroborating source was coming in.

It was the time of the Domino Theory - wherein there was a principle that if one Southeast Asian nation fell under communist control, all the other nations would follow and hence Australia would be militarily and politically isolated.

This was the reason that in 1965 our military contribution to Vietnam was being dramatically increased and National Service introduced.

The crisis abated and normal automated machinery came back on line as the electricity and power was restored.

While my personal "contribution" in facilitating "communication" did not change the geo politic, I look on this part of global history as indeed, memorable.

The machine that replaced the One Time Pad

When on a graveyard shift (precisely at midnight) we were deployed to set up the daily reset codes wherein two new whiz bang Alvis machines transmitted classified traffic in plain language to and from the communication hubs of (a) London and (b) Washington and proceed to process the messages for mass production to the various branches within the Department and other stakeholders.

We had to examine the content of the message and give a preliminary judgment as to who or what Section needed to be put on a distribution list.