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Strike swiftly: A history of Australian Special Forces (Part One)

Special forces units are some of the most storied in not just the Australian Defence Force, but around the globe. Defence Connect will take a look back on the history of these units and the role they’ve played in our military past, and the role they’ll play going forward.

Birth of Australia's Special Forces

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The lineage of Australia's special force units can be traced back to World War II, with the Z Special Unit and M Special Unit that Australian personnel played their part in.

The Z Special Unit was a joint Allied unit that comprised personnel from Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand the UK, and carried out over 80 covert operations in the south Pacific, predominantly in Borneo and the islands of Indonesia (area formerly known as the Dutch East Indies).

The unit was formed in March 1942 at the suggestion of General Thomas Blamey, who was commander of the Allied land forces in the south-west Pacific region, and was modelled after the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), based in London.

The Australian Z Special Unit originally featured several SOE operatives who had escaped from Singapore after its occupation by Japan, and were crucial in the set-up and training of the first set of operatives for the unit.

Training schools for Z Special Unit were set up all around Australia, most notably in Refuge Bay in Sydney, as well as Z Experimental Station in Cairns.

The unit's first "mission" was Operation Scorpion, which was a mock exercise that was kept secret apart from a few Allied personnel, and involved the deploying of dummy mines to ships in Townsville's port.

While the original operation was somewhat of a success, with the planting of the dummies on 10 ships, including two destroyers, the mines were soon discovered and led to the arrest of Lieutenant Samuel Warren Carey, who was a Z Special Unit Officer.

The Royal Australian Navy held concerns the mines were real despite a letter from General Blamey assuring that they were in fact dummies, and Carey would be released only on the condition that he was cast out of Z Special Unit.

Despite this setback, and panic created, the operation gave Z Special Unit the lessons needed to carry out their next task, Operation Jaywick, in which they would undertake attacks, this time real, on Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour.

A group of disguised operatives, made up of 11 Australian and four British personnel, departed Western Australia with the appearance of Indonesian fisherman, and successfully sunk or damaged four Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour on 26 September, nearly four weeks after departing Australia.

The group escaped successfully, after waiting until the panic had died down in Singapore Harbour.

The group used the same mines they deployed against Australian ships in Townsville, however this time they were armed.

While this original mission was an undeniable success, future operations would prove more and more dangerous. 

Operation Rimau, the follow up mission to Operation Jaywick, was intended to conduct further attacks on Japanese ships in Singapore Harbour, however their cover was blown after being challenged by a Japanese patrol boat, leading to the scrambling of personnel from different ships on their way to Singapore.

Despite these setbacks, Z Special Unit was able to sink three ships in Singapore Harbour, however 13 personnel were killed in action, with the remaining 10 captured and executed by the Japanese in 1945.

Another operation that had mixed results was Operation Copper, conducted in New Guinea by Z Special Unit, who were tasked with conducting reconnaissance on Japanese defences and validation of naval weaponry still in position.

Poor weather led to the discovery of the unit, with a manhunt conducted by the Japanese to snuff out the personnel involved in the raid, with just one escaping to report on the situation on the island.

While this information proved vital, the other seven men involved in the raid were killed, with their remains only discovered in the past deacde on Muschu Island.

M Special Unit conducted similar tasks as Z Special Unit, but were mainly focused on gathering intelligence on Japanese shipping and troop movements, compared with the sabotage carried out by Z Unit.

While these units were retired at the end of the Second World War, their bravery and success led to the raising of the 1st and 2nd Commando Regiments post-war.

Formation of Commando Company

Following the Second World War, and in the midst of the Malayan emergency, it became clear that the need for Australian special forces units for operation within the south-east Asian region was paramount.

Due to financial constraints, and a general apprehension to the formation of a special forces unit, the original personnel would have to be drawn from the Army reserves, which resulted in 2 Commando Company being formed in February 1955 in Melbourne, and 1 Commando Company five months later in Sydney.

While the vast majority of personnel were brought in from the reserves, a number of senior commanding staff had served in the Z Special Unit and M Special Unit in World War II, with the companies drawing their heritage from these units.

These companies also were heavily involved in the formation of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR, or just SAS) in 1957, with some members either assisting or joining the new regiment.

Three years after its formation, the SAS was given responsibility for commando and special forces operations, after humble beginnings featuring just 16 officers.

In 1964, the SAS gained regimental status, and a year later had approval for the raising of a third squadron, and would soon be involved in their first conflict in Borneo.

Working alongside the British Commonwealth force stationed in north Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation, the SAS troopers worked at stopping Indonesian infiltration into Malaysia, conducting reconnaissance patrols and cross border operations, including ambushes and contacts with Indonesian soldiers.

While their involvement was never admitted to during the conflict, it's estimated at least 20 Indonesian soldiers were killed by the SAS, with a loss of three soldiers for the regiment.

Following their successful deployment in Borneo, the SAS were soon called upon for the Vietnam War, and were tasked with providing intelligence to the deployed Australian force, based out of Nui Dat.

SAS deployments rotated yearly, with each of the three squadrons completing two tours each before their total withdrawal in 1971.

Their missions consisted of reconnaissance patrols, observation of Viet Cong movements, and long range offensive operations and ambushes.

The squadrons typically operated in small groups of four to six men to increase their speed and effectiveness, and were usually deployed by helicopter by No.9 Squadron RAAF.

Their involvement in the Vietnamese War was considered a success, with the SAS conducting over 1,000 patrols, with nearly 500 confirmed Viet Cong killed, with an additional 100 estimated killed. 

Their own losses totalled one KIA, one dying from wounds, three accidental deaths and one death from illness, with one also missing.

To be continued.

Strike swiftly: A history of Australian Special Forces (Part One)
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