SPECIAL OPERATIONS AUSTRALIA AND THE FRASER ISLAND COMMANDO SCHOOL
In 1993, the Queensland Government commissioned Lynette Silver to conduct an investigation to establish the military importance of Fraser Island. The report was incorporated into a larger study, covering environmental, ecological and indigenous aspects, which resulted in Fraser Island gaining World Heritage status.
For a more detailed account of the establishment of Special Operations, see ‘Special Operations Australia and the role of Z and M Special Units’, on this website.
In the beginning
In July 1942 the Allied Intelligence Bureau was established in Australia to streamline and amalgamate all Allied secret agencies – Australian/British, Dutch and American. Included in this group was a fledgling special operations group, recently formed to carry out undercover missions behind enemy lines.
Although, being an off-shoot of the secret British organisation known as Special Operations Executive or SOE (created by MI6), the new enterprise was called SOE-Australia, its cover name was Inter-Allied Services Department (ISAD, or more often, ISD).
It was established on 17 April 1942 when SOE’ s Major Edgerton Mott was given the go-ahead to form an Australian-based special operations group along the lines of the British SOE. Things were just becoming organised, with funding and the formation of an administrative arm approved, when it was decided to transfer SOE-Australia to the control of the newly created Allied Intelligence Bureau. The special operations group suddenly lost its independence, its exclusive funding and control of its administrative unit as well as some very handy real estate.
Since its inception, SOE-Australia had experienced problems finding a suitable training venue for personnel recruited to its ranks. Although arrangements had been made with the Director of Military Training to access the Australian Army’ s Guerrilla Warfare School on Wilson’s Promontory, in southern Victoria, this location had proved unsatisfactory from security, accommodation, logistical and climatic viewpoints.
In June 1942 General Blamey, the Australian Commander in Chief, solved the problem by giving his approval for a training school and a holding camp for recruits to be established in far north Queensland, in premises known as Z Experimental Wireless Station – a name that appears to have been inspired by MI6’s long-serving Lieutenant-Colonel Dansey, whose code name was Colonel Z, and who had established an undercover group known as Z Organization. Z was also the prefix on General Blamey’s signals, ensuring immediate attention.
Formerly owned by the family of the aviator, Charles Kingsford-Smith, “Fairview House’, at Mooroobool, outside Cairns, was part of Fairview Farm, located on what was previously called Ah Ching’s Hill. From this relatively secluded site, which it shared with the Secret Intelligence Service, SOE Australia had been had been relaying messages from its headquarters in Melbourne to Dutch personnel operating behind enemy lines in New Guinea. When the new training establishment took over the buildings of the wireless station, it also inherited the name Z Experimental Station or ZES.
SOE Australia scarcely had time to take advantage of ZES for training when all its assets, including its administrative arm, were transferred to AlB.
Keeping to the Z theme, SOE-Australia’s administrative arm had been dubbed Z Special Unit. Its primary task initially had been to obtain stores and equipment for SOE-Australia, but its role was now expanded to act as a holding unit, to which the large number of Australian Army personnel recruited to the various units within AIB, including SOE-Australia, could be posted for administrative ease, and security purposes. All RAN, RAAF and overseas recruits remained under the administrative control of their parent bodies.
In February 1943, there was a huge reorganization and SOE-Australia ceased to exist. However, in April it was re-formed as Special Operations Australia (SOA), code-named Services Reconnaissance Department, or SRD. Unlike SOE-Australia, which had been forced to brook interference from AlB, SOA was virtually autonomous and came under the direct control of General Blamey. On Blamey’s orders, Z Special Unit was assigned to SOA exclusively as its procurement body, and administrative/holding unit for army personnel. Another administrative/holding unit, M Special Unit, was created to cater for the needs of Australian army personnel in the organisations that remained under AIB control.
The restructuring of secret organisations meant that Z Experimental Station in Cairns, which had been taken over by NEFIS, the Dutch Intelligence Section of AlB, was no longer available exclusively to the newly-formed SOA for training. Apart from Operation Jaywick, a raid on Singapore Harbour in September 1943, which was an exclusively SOE/RAN enterprise, special operations had been in limbo for months, so the lack of a proper training school was not a great problem until August, when Colonel Chapman Walker, SOA’s Director, put forward a proposal for thirteen sabotage missions, code-named Falcon, to be carried out in various locations from Timor in the west to New Ireland in the east. Since the Falcon missions, if approved by General MacArthur’s General Headquarters, would require the training of approximately 100 personnel, a tropical training establishment that offered both security and specialised facilities suddenly became top priority.
It was probably a report submitted by the RAN’s Lieutenant Eric Fox at Maryborough that alerted SOA to the possibility of using Fraser Island – a large sandy island that lay just off the coast of central Queensland. Although the strategic value of Fraser Island, which straddled the mouth of Maryborough’s Mary River, had not been fully appreciated, it had been the subject of an exhaustive reconnaissance. The recce, begun on 8 December 1941 (the same day that the Japanese entered the war), had resulted in a lengthy typewritten report that listed everything about the island from the climate, topography and vegetation to the communications, inhabitants (and their political leanings) and the number of firearms and vehicles located on the island. Despite the thoroughness of the reconnaissance, it had provoked no military action or, indeed, interest until Lieutenant Fox put pen to paper in late April 1943.
Earlier that month Hans Bellert, who maintained the Forestry Department’ s telephone line on Fraser Island, had sighted an unidentified submarine and found a box of cordite washed up on the eastern shore. His information, submitted on 21 April, resulted in Fox’s contacting Flying Officer Scott, Commanding Officer at the Sandy Cape radio detachment on Fraser’s most northerly tip, who reported that several interesting objects, including fuel drums and cordite, had been found on the beach about three weeks previously.
Concerned by these reports, Fox had informed his superiors that enemy agents could be using Fraser Island. After citing the evidence, he pointed out that the Navy did not have the resources to carry out the foot and sea patrols, aerial reconnaissance and round-the-clock surveillance, necessary to ensure the security of the island. Almost as an afterthought he also observed that if the island were used for commando training, for which it was well suited, the need for special patrols would be obviated.
Fox’ s report had scarcely arrived at Headquarters when there was a major security alert to the north of Maryborough. A Mackay man, employed at a fish trap at Glendowan Point, claimed that he had been taken into a Japanese submarine, tortured and interrogated and then released. On receipt of this information there had been an immediate investigation. However, after close interrogation, it was discovered that the story was a complete fabrication, invented by the informant to account for the fact that he had abandoned his employer’s fish trap and decamped with two poachers, who had been supplementing their catches at the expense of local fishermen.
Although the investigation proved the abduction story to be false, Fox’ s report caused something of a flurry. With a British Fleet Air Arm Base, as well as shipbuilding yards in Maryborough, his information had to be given due consideration, although the general policy, since it was believed that the danger to Australia of invasion had now passed, was to scale down coastwatching stations, not create new ones. By 30 May orders were issued to carry out a patrol of the island to establish where observation posts would best be sited and how the area could be made secure.
Reports submitted by Captain Hiskins who, following a brief reconnaissance in early June, was part of a 26-man team sent on 24 June to investigate whether there were enemy agents already on the island, were not reassuring. Although several interesting objects had been picked up along the eastern beach between June 6-7, his men had not found any agents or indeed any sign of anything untoward other than an empty bottle marked ‘Dai Nippon Brewery Co Tokyo’. The report indicated that the eight-day patrol had not been able to cover the island and that proper surveillance, given the size of the area and the lack of communication with the mainland, would be very difficult.
Difficult or not, the decision had been made that observation posts, manned by personnel transferred from other areas, were to be established. However, ordering the establishment of observation posts was one thing; having the orders carried out was quite another.
The RAAF stated categorically that it was out of the question to have any of its staff cope with extra duty. An examination of the logistics involved also revealed the great problems that would be encountered with supplies, communication and transportation. Roads, where they existed, could only be traversed with difficulty in a robust, four-wheel drive truck.
The argument over what was to be done about Fraser Island’s security may have continued indefinitely, had the solution, already suggested by Lieutenant Fox, not been staring everyone in the face. In September 1943 another reconnaissance, carried out by SOA’s Major H A ‘Jock’ Campbell, Major Harvey and Captain Jinkins, was ordered.
SOA needed a secluded training site for the Falcon project, to provide ample facilities for boat training, jungle craft and sabotage. Fraser Island needed to be constantly patrolled. The island, therefore, with its large freshwater lakes, suited everyone. As an added bonus, there were few inhabitants on the island. Apart from about thirty people associated with forestry activities, the only likely visitor from the mainland was Mr McLiver, a butcher from Nikenbah. As he held a grazing lease over a mere three kilometres, the entire area could be made available to SOA for training purposes. Given its usual predilection for choosing rather obscure cover names, SOA’s decision to call the new establishment Fraser Island Commando School (FCS), remains some thing of a mystery.
The Establishment of FCS
Once the site of the school and its requirements had been decided by Colonel Chapman Walker, in conjunction with SOA’s Director of Training Major Trappes-Lomax, Major Harvey returned to Brisbane to organise the erection of necessary buildings, water and electricity supplies, communication links, water transport and the dispatch of accommodation stores. Lieutenant Ross, who had been appointed to the staff of SOA’s Stores Directorate in late September, was posted to FCS as Quartermaster.
Until proper buildings could be erected, FCS was nothing more than a cluster of tents. Owing to the isolation of the island and the treacherous weather, major building construction, which had been entrusted to a Royal Australian Engineers Works Company, proved difficult. All building materials, accommodation, stores etc had to be transported to the island in army barges, under the direction of 52 Port Craft Company.
To cope with the staging and transportation of personnel and stores, the company found it necessary to set up a staging post on the mainland at Urungan. Initially this establishment, which also doubled as a medical screening and dental unit, was accommodated in a small rented house, but was moved later to a separate base nearby.
The safe return of the Jaywick team on 19 October from their long range mission to Singapore in Krait, an-ex Japanese fishing boat, reinforced the need for the special training school on Fraser Island. That the facility, under canvas, was opened for business barely a month after SOA’s reconnaissance was due almost entirely to the efforts of fourteen signalers. The signalers, under the command of Lieutenant Cashman, were impressed into six weeks of construction duty after being transferred from the Milton Staging Camp in Brisbane to Fraser, to establish a special signals wing of the training school.
By the time the first batch of recruits arrived, the signalers had erected a large canvas marquee as a signals office and a combined store/workshop/lecture area as well as a primitive cookhouse, ablution facilities, orderly room, hospital marquee and small tents for the incoming SOA trainees.
This initial intake of army personnel, recruited from battalions fighting in New Guinea, numbered about thirty. At this stage the camp staff consisted of orderly room personnel, cooks, a medical officer and three instructors, under the command of Major Campbell, a foundation member of SOE-Australia and who, until this time, had been heavily involved in organising Operation Jaywick.
Campbell was well qualified for his new posting. Apart from extensive SOE-Far East experience, he had first-hand knowledge of the training and logistical requirements for Jaywick, the SOE/RAN mission that had been provided with a never-ending secret supply of funds from SOE in London. This financial independence had allowed its party leader, Ivan Lyon, to create a one-off, exclusive training camp at Refuge Bay, near Sydney, despite the fact that perfectly adequate training facilities could have been ‘borrowed’ from ZES in Cairns.
The personnel who arrived at Fraser Island in November 1944 for the first of the eight Falcon projects had scarcely made any inroads into their training when General MacArthur’s GHQ dropped the bombshell. Not a single submarine could be spared for the missions. With no transportation, the December announcement meant that all but two of Falcon’s operations were cancelled.
Since, by this stage, it had been necessary to obtain the approval of seven generals, four admirals, one air-vice-marshal, three colonels, one group captain and sundry less senior officers, all hopes rested on the two remaining missions, both of which were air sorties. After three attempts, only one of these actually got off the ground. The first attempt ended when one of the diversionary aircraft, fully laden with bombs, crashed on take off; the second was cancelled owing to poor weather conditions and the third attempt, already well on the way to disaster with only four of the six planes earmarked for the diversionary raid taking off, was aborted when one transport plane developed engine trouble, forcing the pilot to jettison all equipment and stores. While returning to base, the other transport plane vanished, resulting in the loss of everyone on board.
Despite the cancellation of Falcon and the tragic outcome of its one remaining sortie, there was evidently no question at any stage of closing up shop, and training at FCS continued. In January 1944 Jock Campbell was succeeded by Lieutenant-Commander Donald Davidson, Jaywick ‘s training officer and a member of the successful raiding party. He brought with him FCS’ s first contingent of naval personnel, recruited from HMAS Cerberus, also known as Flinder’s Naval Depot.
FCS was still very much a tent city and the RAN’ s Lieutenant Walter Witt, for one, was most unimpressed by the camp facilities, especially the latrines. Having become accustomed to the amenities offered on a large cruiser, he was somewhat disconcerted to discover that on Fraser Island the army expected everyone to sit in a line over open-sided pit latrines, ‘like the front row at the stalls’.
Although Z Special Unit had been formed to reduce supply and administrative problems, the demarcation between the Australian Army recruits and the other services caused a few difficulties, not the least of which was the fact that the newly arrived sailors, who were not posted administratively to Z Special Unit, went unpaid for several weeks while the question of who was responsible for distributing their pay was resolved.
In February, shortly after Donald Davidson arrived, a highly specialised intelligence school, designed to equip party leaders and their deputies for secret undercover work, was also established at Fraser Island. Housed in a separate wing, under the control of Captain P M Moyes and operating under the cover name ‘School of Eastern Interpreters’, the school focused mainly on espionage techniques, advanced Malay and communications. However, the course also required students to have practical experience in undercover work in built-up areas, for which Fraser Island was unsuitable. In June that year, the school and its specialised instructors were transferred to a new site at Mt Martha, outside Melbourne.
Other training facilities used by SOA personnel were at Careening Bay Camp (Special Boat School), in Western Australia; Richmond, NSW (Parachute Training) Unit; the School of Military Engineering at Liverpool NSW; Signals Training Centre, Bonegilla, Victoria, and Advanced Training Camps at Morotai (Indonesia) and Darwin.
By the time Davidson left FCS for Melbourne in March 1944, to supervise the construction of vessels required for secret operations, the camp had been extended to accommodate Filipino students undergoing special training with SOA. That same month a small campsite was established at Lake McKenzie, to the north of the main camp, to cater for further training and holding of personnel assigned to the Special Raiding Section. This camp, which trained personnel for raids behind enemy lines, operated until December 1944.
Davidson’s replacement was Major L McGuin, who remained head of FCS until April of 1945, when he handed the reins to Major S R Leach.
Training instructors were recruited initially from Australian Army sources, with the majority coming from the Jungle Warfare School at Canungra, in south-east Queensland. In June 1944 a British instructor from Special Training School headquarters in London arrived, followed in November by Major Lucas, who took up the post of Chief Instructor and remodeled the existing syllabus on the lines of Special Operations instruction in the United Kingdom. In the early part of 1945, additional instructors also arrived from Britain. Since three of them (all cipher instructors) were female, this resulted in some rather innovative bathroom arrangements in what, until then, had been a strictly male oriented facility. By the time the war ended, between 25 and 30 instructors had been employed at the camp.
Training courses, which were undertaken six days a week, included physical fitness, swimming while fully clothed, demolition and explosives, unarmed combat, jungle survival, weapons training, small party tactics, folboat handling, navigation, enemy intelligence, wireless and signals communication, aircraft identification and, for certain selected students, specialised meteorology and medical courses. Security was absolute. Any breach of security led to quick expulsion and, with each intake kept strictly isolated from the next, trainees rarely mixed with anyone outside their own particular group.
The island itself and the adjacent mainland, which was sparsely populated, were ideal for land-sea exercises, while the interior of the island, with its patches of dense, wet, rainforest proved to be a good jungle-training ground. Wire meshing attached to the existing jetty, which went by the somewhat grand title of McKenzie’s Wharf, formed what was supposedly a shark proof enclosure, while the lake, also named for the same gentleman, was generally regarded as a much safer swimming venue. During the life of the school, there were at least two pearling luggers (Dove in 1944 and Pearl in 1945) for use as general sailing vessels and as escort boats during training exercises. In the absence of any naval vessels being anchored in the nearby deepwater anchorage, a steel transportation barge and the wreck of SS Maheno, sunk during a cyclone in December 1935, were used for limpet mine practice. Ironically, Meheno, a former passenger liner, bought for scrap by a Japanese firm, had sunk while under tow, was now being used as a practice target for raids on enemy shipping. As operational experience improved, less emphasis was placed on the instruction of raiding activities and more on the teaching of Malay, for which civilian instructors were employed.
On 6 July 1944 there was a fatality. Twenty-four- year-old Sergeant Albert James Potts, a soldier from the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorne, was accidentally killed during training. Unfortunately, although he was buried in Maryborough War Cemetery with full military honours, his name, along with the names of two other soldiers killed during specialised training and another, who was killed in action in New Guinea, have been omitted from the honour roll on the SOA (SRD) Memorial at Garden Island, WA.*
By the end of July 1944, although the rank and file continued to be accommodated in tents – a situation that remained until the end of the war – the administrative side of FCS had been greatly expanded. It was not before time. Although construction of permanent buildings had begun finally in March, constant labour shortages, which were alleviated somewhat by signals staff once again coming to the rescue, had been a major problem.
Canteens, a cinema, gymnasium, post office, library, signals training hut, mess huts, lecture huts, officers’ accommodation huts, a radio shack, a boatshed for storing folboats, a generator and pump rooms, Q store, administration huts, weapons and powder magazines, workshops, a well equipped ten-bed hospital and a Regimental Aid Post stocked with Red Cross supplies, were all now in evidence. These long-awaited buildings, although very functional, were rather uninspiring architecturally, in that almost all were corrugated iron army-type huts, painted the same shade of dark green. The remainder were either pre-fabricated or built from salvaged material or timber. With the vast improvement in the facilities as well as horse and mule lines for internal camp transportation and recreation, FCS was now in a position to accommodate 100 students at any one time.
In September 44, with the camp now well organised, a special cavern course was begun for selected parties of students. Devised by SOA’s Captain Sam Carey, a geologist with experience in New Guinea, in the false expectation that field parties would be required to hide out in limestone caves the course, regarded as more a toughening up exercise than anything else, was scrapped in February 1945. More useful were two Jungle Food Courses, run in March and May 1945, when FCS students who had little or no jungle experience we re sent to ZES in Cairns for instruction in jungle survival by two civilians from the Volunteer Defence Service.
By February 1945, with air transportation and stores drops proving invaluable for field operations, a partial mock up of a DC2 aircraft was installed for training purposes in a dry creek bed behind the boathouse. The following April instruction began on the technique of receiving stores from the air. Practical exercises were carried out, using SOA equipment, in conjunction with the RAAF’s 200 Flight, Leyburn – which now formed SOA’s Air Directorate. Some exercises also involved trainees being parachuted into the waters of Lake McKenzie.
On completion of the training syllabus, trainees were examined in the various subjects and classified as:
A – Party leader, outstanding
B – Very good – would make party 2IC
C – Good operative
D – Needs further training
E – Rejectable
This grading, along with detailed reports on each student, was passed to operational staff for further transmission to the group to which the student had been allotted.
At the completion of the course each batch of students, which usually numbered no more than ten, was given a combined land/sea exercise, which involved ‘raiding’ either vital civil installations in Maryborough or the Air Arm Base, situated outside the town. The exercise, carried out over two or three days, was deemed successful if the raiders managed to paddle their folboats from the island, up the Mary River to the town, recconnoitre the target area, place their ‘plastic explosives’ made of clay on the selected targets and paddle back again, undetected.
In 1945, with SOA field parties being instructed not to confront the enemy unless absolutely necessary, an ‘enemy communications base’ was set up on Woody Island. Transportation for the training exercises was supplied by the FCS schooner, and folboats.
After assessment, and depending on allocation, groups were then sent to Mt Martha for final folboat and sabotage training; to Richmond NSW for parachuting courses; and/or to Careening Bay Camp in WA for submersible boat (SB) instruction. With additional instruction completed, a final selection was made from eligible trainees for actual field operations.
By the time the war ended, 909 Australian, British, New Zealand, Dutch, French Canadian, Chinese, Timorese, Malay, Ambonese and American students had passed through the Fraser Commando School. Of these, 250 were officers.
At war’s end, the strength of SOA was 1700, of whom 1250 were Australian. Of these, 550 were trained as operatives. The rest, including women were instructional, camp, cipher or clerical staff. Of the 550 who trained as operatives, only 380 saw field service. A total of 81 parties and sub-parties were sent into occupied territory. A substantial number of these missions ended in disaster with their operatives compromised, captured or killed, while others were aborted or abandoned.
In the missions conducted 1943-45, 79 SOA men lost their lives. This tally does not include Australian servicemen who died while serving with AIB, such as Australian Signaler Leonard Siffleet. Thirty-two soldiers and airmen, on board planes assigned to SOA’s 200 Flight, were killed in three air crashes while supporting ground parties.
The SOE/RAN’s Jaywick was the only special operations style-mission to carry out its objective as planned, and return safely without a single casualty. However, six of the Jaywick team died on SOA’s follow-up mission, Operation Rimau, which took the lives of all 23 men involved. Ten of those captured were beheaded.
The Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945 brought all training to an abrupt halt. The following month, in common with SOA and all its facilities, Fraser Island Commando School ceased to exist.
*Two other two men who died during training were Private Albert Leslie Hayes from NSW, aged 35, who succumbed to fatal injuries on 4 August 1945 and Captain Benjamin Hooper, a doctor from Queensland who arrived at Fraser Island in June 1944 and completed the setting up of the permanent hospital.
Twenty-eight-year old Captain Hooper, who left FCS in October 1944, after being assigned to Robin Party, was drowned at SOA’s Careening Bay Camp on 3 March 1945. Lieutenant George Stevenson, from Victoria, was killed in action in New Guinea on 26 June 1943.