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The Japanese used hundreds of spies throughout Malaya prior to their invasion in December 1941. Those agents helped the emperor’s generals gather all types of information about terrain, military fortification and readiness of units, road and rail networks, and anything else that would be of help to the Twenty-fifth Army, which had the task of seizing this British possession.

In the two years leading up to the invasion, Malaya and Singapore were awash with spies and fifth columnists, most of them Japanese or locals working to throw out their British imperial masters. One of the most effective agents, however, was none of these, but a serving British officer—a traitor whose work enabled his country’s enemies to destroy the Royal Air Force during the first crucial week of the campaign.

The turncoat was Patrick Vaughan Heenan, born in Reefton, New Zealand, on July 29, 1910. His mother, Ann Stanley, bore him out of wedlock. In the small mining town of Reefton, such events were not that unusual. During Patrick’s first year, Stanley met a man, George Charles Heenan, who was the son of an Irish civil engineer working in northern India. Heenan had attended Cheltenham College and then, like his father, took up a career in mining.

Shortly after meeting, George and Ann traveled to Burma posing as man and wife. Patrick was baptized Patrick Heenan at the St. John Catholic Military Church in Rangoon on April 21, 1912. Although he was now “legitimate,” Patrick’s dark complexion gave rise to suspicions that his real father was of Indian or Maori descent, a stigma that meant the youngster would never be entirely accepted by the local British establishment.

Six months after Patrick’s baptism, George died and Ann was again on her own. She worked odd jobs to scratch together a living for herself and her son. After 10 years she became governess to a British family. Patrick was educated at mission schools that covered only the basics of reading, writing and mathematics. His “low” education, his dark skin and his mother’s position as a servant ensured they would both remain second-class citizens in Burma. In 1923 the British family returned to their home country, taking their governess and her son with them. Neither had seen Britain before.

Once established in England, Ann sent Patrick to the respectable Sevenoaks School as a fee-paying boarder. Patrick, however, struggled to keep up with his classmates and became something of a loner. Academically, Patrick excelled only in history; but he did succeed athletically at swimming, rugby, cross-country and boxing.

In January 1927 Patrick continued his studies at George Heenan’s old school, Cheltenham College. At 16 he was three years older than most other new students. The school was known, among other things, for preparing young men for admittance to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst and the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Perhaps caught up in the spirit on campus, Patrick joined the college’s Officer’s Training Corps (OTC).

Even with membership in the OTC, Heenan did not make friends at school, and some of his classmates later remembered him as “graceless and a bore with a gloomy face,” someone who did not fit in. Despite his lackluster status among classmates, Heenan did impress his instructors, rising to the rank of sergeant and receiving a recommendation from his commanding officer, Major J.R. Holland, on his application to the Supplementary Reserve.

In 1929 Heenan failed the School Certificate Examination, which ruled out his admission to Sandhurst or Woolwich. Barred from a military career, the disgruntled graduate took a job with a business firm in London. Although the work was dull, it did allow him time to open a back door into the army. In February 1935, he was commissioned in the Territorial Army and assigned to the Bedfordshire Regiment.

Heenan then used his reserve commission as a springboard to a regular commission, which he received shortly afterward. He was then placed on the unattached list to the Indian army. Service in this imperial force required that a newly commissioned officer spend his first year attached to an all-British battalion before being posted to command Indian troops. Heenan’s posting was to the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, at Poona, 75 miles southeast of Bombay. No doubt relieved that Patrick had finally found some direction in his life, Ann Stanley saw her son off on February 15, 1935. She would never see him again.

Heenan’s first posting did not go well. His one-year apprenticeship was extended to 18 months. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. J.P. Duke, refused to recommend the lieutenant for service in an Indian battalion. According to one officer: “The Warwicks’ CO had doubts about Heenan’s ability to fit into the Indian army. Heenan was a difficult chap to fit into anything.”

Word of Heenan’s deficient performance spread throughout the army. It was humiliating and, in part to rid himself of a troublesome and embarrassing officer, Duke had Heenan transferred to the 1st Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment, where he served until October 1936. Eventually, his application to the 1st Battalion, 16th Punjab Regiment, was accepted and Heenan at last joined the ranks of the Indian army, where his background and the color of his skin would be less detrimental to a military career. Although he had finally achieved his goal, the frustrations of his early years in uniform had left their mark. A superior officer, Major Alisdar Ramsey Tainsh, later recalled, “Heenan had a huge grudge against society and was out to get his revenge.”

Hoping to make an impression at his new posting, Heenan got involved in athletics and eventually won the heavyweight boxing championship of India. Lacking social skills, however, he bungled this momentary gain: Soon after becoming champion, he was reprimanded for bullying the smaller officers in the regimental mess and transferred to the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, which was derisively nicknamed the “Rice Corps.”

He remained there until late 1939, and despite his four years in uniform was still a lowly subaltern. It was while toiling away in this anonymous posting that the time came for Heenan to take his “long leave,” which was due all officers serving in India and lasted about six months. Most eligible men used the time off to tour the Far East or return home to England. Heenan took a different course. Rather than go home to his mother, whom he had not seen in three years, he spent his entire leave in Japan.

At this point, Japan was already mired in conflict with China, and most people recognized that a larger confrontation in Southeast Asia was not far off. Other British officers who found themselves in the “Land of the Rising Sun” frequently found themselves the target of the Kempeitai—the Japanese secret service. And Heenan was no exception.

When his leave was up, Heenan returned to his unit, where some of his fellow officers were surprised at his newfound expertise in photography and the use of various types of radio equipment. What they did not know was that he also had compiled an impressive list of contacts in Malaya as well as with personalities in the anti-British Indian Independence League. They were also unaware that he was in regular contact with Japanese agents who had ensconced themselves in every corner of the British empire. Perhaps motivated by either money or a desire to redress earlier humiliations, or both, Heenan was soon deeply engaged in spying for his new Japanese masters just as the British empire was about to confront one of the greatest threats in its history.

At the outbreak of the war in Europe in September 1939, Heenan returned to the 16th Punjabis. Even here, he found himself serving in relative obscurity, being sent to fight marauding warriors along the northwest frontier rather than taking part in the “main event” in Europe. Combat, however, suited the lieutenant. Heenan was many things, but he was no coward. In the irregular and often brutal guerilla fighting, the officer demonstrated courage and bravery under fire and even earned a measure of respect from some of his fellow officers. After one engagement, his battalion commander noted that he had “acquitted himself well.”

Promoted at long last to captain, in October 1940, Heenan transferred to his regiment’s 2nd Battalion, which was about to depart with the rest of the 6th Indian Brigade for Malaya. The battalion arrived at Ipoh in November 1940 and two months later moved north to the Thai border at Arau in Perlis. A seemingly routine course of events had now placed a motivated Japanese agent at the very center of what would soon become a major theater of the war. From his billet in the northernmost Malayan state, Heenan’s espionage activities went into high gear, as he busied himself gathering vital information on British defenses in Malaya.

According to historians Peter Elphick and Michael Smith, “Patrick made a number of clandestine trips into Thailand, passing information to a mysterious ‘Dutchman,’ a frequent cover for a German agent.” This information was then passed back to Tokyo through the Japanese embassy in Bangkok. Proof of the importance of this information was later unwittingly provided by the Far East Combined Bureau (FECB), which controlled British intelligence operations in the region. Without knowing who was involved in the intelligence leaks, agents of the FECB reported that “Japanese espionage and intelligence activities are widespread, efficient and comprehensive.”

Hoping to destroy what they recognized as a significant threat, the FECB worked diligently to put a stop to the intelligence leaks. They eventually concluded that the Singora Consulate, 50 miles north of the Malayan border, was the key northern center of the Japanese espionage network. What they did not know was that a relatively obscure captain in the 16th Punjabis operated through this hub. As Elphick and Smith wrote, “Of all the individual agents in the Japanese network, Heenan must have become one of the most important, a spy within the Allied forces and one with access to secrets vital to the Japanese in the opening hours of the attack.”

As bad as the leaks were for the British, they were about to get worse. On March 18, 1941, Heenan was selected to join a newly formed unit that was intended to securely exchange secret intelligence between the 11th Indian Division and the RAF. His new job would be as a grade three intelligence officer.

To prepare for his new assignment, Heenan received extensive training at Seletar and was eventually posted to the 300 Air Intelligence Liaison Section (300 AIL), which was headquartered at Alor Star. The unit had four officers, two NCOs and 16 enlisted men and helped prepare the defenses at the three main British airfields on Penang. Its chief responsibility was to coordinate the collection and distribution of reconnaissance photos taken by the army and RAF. Up to his eyes in his traitorous activities, Heenan was sure to pass copies of any relevant photos—along with other classified information—on to the Japanese.

Private Fred Cox, the unit’s dispatch rider, occasionally filled in as the unit’s driver and was sometimes assigned to transport Heenan. After the war, he wrote that he drove Heenan three or four times to a plantation near the Thai border just north of Alor Star. “Each time the trip was to be for reconnaissance, but he ordered me to remain in the staff car, whilst he went into a bungalow occupied by a Dutchman. He made light of the visits, but I was told not to mention it to anyone. But after the second trip, I reported it to the CO, Major James France.”

It was Major France who began the slow process of monitoring and collecting information on the unusual actions of one of his officers. His suspicion increased when he learned that during one of Heenan’s absences from the unit he had taken a party of Section 300 AIL troops on a “ground exercise” that involved taking photographs of all the junctions and crossroads from Alor Star up to the border and even into Thailand itself. Next, France learned that Heenan had persuaded the station commander that he had permission to review France’s most classified papers, which were kept in the commander’s safe.

The alarm bells should have rung much louder at this point as the pieces of the puzzle began to come together. Amazingly, France could not persuade anyone that Heenan clearly presented a security risk. In fact, rather than keep a more careful eye on Heenan, the British continued to provide him with additional sources of useful intelligence. He was assigned to the team that was preparing the intended response to any Japanese invasion, and he also had access to the details of the air recognition strips, which allowed pilots to identify friendly forces on the ground. He knew the daily air recognition codes used by pilots and airfields to identify friendly aircraft.

Undeterred by his superiors’ lack of concern, France worked on his own to obtain proof of Heenan’s covert activities. He arranged for a couple of officers to take his suspect for a Sunday drive to a club for a drink. With Heenan out of the picture, France searched his quarters and discovered a typewriter with a false bottom “which contained copies of situation reports, aircraft positions and strengths, and a map of the aerodrome indicating bomb dumps, fuel stores, and AA guns.” France now believed he had what he needed to prove his subordinate’s duplicity, and he made plans to meet with Maj. Gen. Murray Lyon, the commanding officer of the 11th Division, to present his findings. He planned to leave the next morning—December 8.

His plans were changed by the arrival of Japanese aircraft, which heralded the long anticipated invasion. The enemy aircraft hit RAF airfields the length and breadth of the peninsula, only sparing Alor Star. Four hours after their first attack, the Zeros struck there as well. Moving with speed and precision, the Japanese pilots caught No. 62 Squadron’s men on the ground as they were refueling after a mission.

Private Jack “Bladder” Wells later remembered that on the day the Japanese attack started, Heenan disappeared repeatedly: “Every time we made a move, Captain Heenan seemed to push off somewhere.” With the collapse of its position in the north, RAF command ordered all units to withdraw south the next day. As part of that move, the members of 300 AIL busied themselves by packing everything.

Caught up in the general chaos of the start of the war and the responsibilities of hastily evacuating his unit, France had either forgotten—or not had an opportunity—to contact Lyon as he had intended, or even to detain Heenan. It was during those hectic few hours, however, that the major discovered the irrefutable proof that Heenan was a traitor.

The squadron chaplain had asked France to take his field communion set in the staff car when he left, which France did. Upon arriving at Butterworth, the unit’s new location, while unloading a truck France discovered another communion set, an exact copy of the padre’s. “I collected the mystery case and examined it,” France later recalled. “Inside the case was a two-way radio receiver and transmitter along with batteries. I told the driver to return the fake case to the truck and the two of us hid and waited. Before very long, Heenan arrived, picked up the case and dashed off into his tent.”

This time France took the time to contact Lyon at Penang. The 11th Division commander responded quickly and dispatched a detachment of military policemen to arrest Heenan. Leaving nothing to chance, France then had his driver, Private Jock Grove, give the captain a lift into town on a false errand. “I drove north and stopped the car outside the police station,” Grove remembered. “There were suddenly police everywhere, all armed with Tommy guns, and they arrested Heenan and took him away.”

The arresting officer was Chief Inspector “Sandy” Minds of the Straits Settlements Police Force. He took Heenan to the Penang police station and charged him with espionage. The court-martial began on Friday, January 2, 1942. Major France attended the three-day trial providing evidence, and Heenan was found guilty and condemned to be shot.

While awaiting his execution, Patrick Heenan was confined at Tanglin Barracks in Singapore. He was still there when the Japanese crossed the strait on February 13. Afraid that the condemned might be rescued before the sentence could be carried out, officers at the prison decided to execute Heenan themselves. He was marched to the harbor and summarily shot, his body then dumped into the water.

Japanese success in Malaya is often explained by Britain’s failure to properly secure its possession in the 1920s and ’30s when it had the chance. Even though they were regarded among the most important holdings in Asia, Malaya and Singapore were provided with insufficient men and aircraft to mount an adequate defense when the time came. To that explanation, however, must be added the part played by a disgruntled British captain. Sleeper agents and spies were in Malaya well before Heenan began his traitorous activities, but none provided the enemy with such specific and critical information as he did. His information allowed the Japanese to strike the RAF with precision on the first day of the invasion and eliminate that threat almost before the first soldier crossed the border. With no air cover, there was little the British could do to stop the Japanese columns as they raced down the peninsula and destroyed Britain’s Far East empire in a matter of weeks.


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.