When war broke out in August 1914, the recruiting offices set up around Western Australia were rushed with volunteers. These volunteers were all sent to the tents of the Blackboy Hill Camp in the Darling Scarp just east of Perth. The acting commandant was Major A.H. Bridges and he and adjutant Lieutenant J.H. Peck set about providing basic training for the recruits, whose physique and larrikin spirit were noted by many.
Commanding and organising raw recruits from the bush was not an easy task, and the commanders looked for ways to make their life a little more comfortable.
They knew that the group of young men that became “G” Company 11th Battalion needed to be as fit as possible to join the first Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Plans were already in place to gather troops from all over Australia and send them off in convoy from Princess Harbour in Albany.
They allowed Walter Witham (who had rapidly dropped his middle name ‘Moltke’ at the beginning of the war – it might have been German) and his capable wife Annie to serve scones and fresh milk from their Midland dairy to supplement the army diet.
The two youngest Witham boys, Alex and Roy, were in the habit of roaming freely behind their house in Swan View. They had acres of time to enjoy exploring the expanse of bush on Greenmount Hill.
Three thousand kilometres north-east of Perth, Korvettenkapitän Karl von Müller commander of the light cruiser SMS Emden had orders to disrupt Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean, which was often called the ‘British lake’.
In September 1914, as Mike Carlton reports in First Victory, his account of the hunt for the Emden, the German raider captured seventeen ships and sunk most of them with its 10.5 cm guns. Captain von Müller made a point of being chivalrous in his treatment of the captains and passengers of the ships he captured, and he went out of his way to make sure that every British sailor he captured was treated well and kept safe.
The outbreak of war had made the population of Perth hostile to Germans and fearful of an attack by sea. Had they known of the presence of the Emden so near their fears would have been confirmed.
One day the Witham boys wandering in the Darling Scarp came across a foreign man camped high on the Darling Scarp. Roy and Alex, at 8 and 10, considered themselves to be expert bushmen. They began a daring game of following this man’s every move without ever revealing their presence to him.
Every Monday, they discovered, this stranger would arrive on the Midland train, and tramp up to his campsite, now with Roy and Alex stalking him.
Each Monday afternoon, he set up a piece of equipment the size of a wooden suitcase. The purpose of this brown box was unknown to the boys. The man would spend time intently inspecting it, cranking a small handle to raise a hinged board with a circle of glass set in it.
Each afternoon, he checked this gear. He spent the rest of the day smoking and going for short walks in the bush. In mid-afternoon each Friday, he hid his brown box and disguised his tent with saplings, and set off for Midland rail station.
The boys needed proof that this stranger was as sinister as he appeared, so to begin with, they kept their secret game of stalking to themselves. By October, their parents were even busier at the camp. Large numbers of troops were moving south to Albany, getting ready to leave in the large convoy from Princess Royal Harbour on 1st November.
This extra military activity meant more customers at the Withams’ food tent. It also gave the boys the chance they needed. One night, they sneaked up to the camp, and watched the man operate his equipment. It gave out irregular flashes of light. From the ocean side of Rottnest Island, pulses of light shone back.
For two days, Roy and Alex excitedly argued about what to do with the facts they now had. Others, however, must also have reported the suspicious stranger and the boys tracking him. On or about Friday, 30th October, two mounted Military Police arrived at Greenmount State School at play time. All the children admired the tall sleek horses. The MPs asked the Head Teacher if they could take Alex with them. As the horses walked sedately up the hill away from the school yard, with Alex perched behind a policeman, the kids buzzed around the younger Roy. “What’s ‘e done? Where’s ‘e goin’?” Roy said nothing, although by the sinking feeling in his stomach, he could guess. On Alex’s return three hours later, he could still say nothing, as Alex had been sworn to secrecy. All that Roy ever got out of him was that he showed the MPs the campsite and watched them arrest the foreigner.
The Emden meanwhile on November 9 attacked and destroyed the wireless station on Direction Island, one of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The wireless operators managed to get out a distress signal which was picked up by the convoy. The Sydney, one of the battle cruisers escorting the troop convoy from Albany was sent to engage and destroy the German raider.
Several days later the exciting news came to Perth that the Sydney had sunk and
destroyed the German raider Emden and prevented a landing party from landing on the Cocos Islands.
Officially, the Sydney’s intelligence had come from the distress call from Cocos. Right up to their deaths in the 1980s, however, Alex and Roy believed that their foreigner was a German spy signalling to a colleague out at sea. This spy’s ultimate task was to guide the Emden closer in to Perth. The dates fit. The events fit. They could well be right.
- Ted Witham family (Roy is Ted’s father)