Known officially as ‘Z Experimental Station’ or ZES, and colloquially as ‘The House on the Hill’, ZES was a wireless relay station, jointly established in July 1942 by Secret Intelligence Australia (SIA) and SOE-Australia, which had as its cover name Inter-Allied Services Department or ISD.
Both SOE-Australia and SIA were, at that time, under the umbrella of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB), along with the Royal Australian Navy’s Coastwatchers and a propaganda unit.
ZES, established in order to relay Morse-code wireless messages from behind-the-lines teams operating in New Guinea, had taken over ‘Fairview House’, a large a large hickory, kauri and red-cedar mansion near Cairns in far north Queensland. Designed by French architect Louis Severin for the grandfather of famous aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith, Fairview House was built in 1896 on a hillside estate, Fairview Farm, which sprawled across what was once known as Ah Ching’s Hill.
The site, selected by SIA’s Commander Kendall because of its good wireless transmission reception, was well away from prying eyes and was ideal. No reason has been recorded for the choice of name, Z Experimental Station, but it seems likely that it was inspired by either MI6’s long-serving Lieutenant-Colonel Dansey (code name Colonel Z), who commanded the undercover and short-lived Z Organization in the UK, or by General Blamey (head of SOE-Australia) whose signals, prefixed by a Z, ensured immediate attention.
Until June 1942 SOE-Australia’s personnel, mainly ‘old New Guinea hands’, were trained at the Guerrilla Warfare School at Foster, on Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory. However, the climate proved too cold for recruits who had lived for years in the tropics.
As ZES was the only SOE-Australia establishment outside its Melbourne HQ, and as the climate at Cairns was most definitely tropical, ZES became a ‘holding’ establishment for recruits as well as their training school.
Due to its out-of-the-way location, and with many civilians evacuated to the south, ZES guaranteed good security until the Cairns district became the assembly area for Australian troops operating in NG.
During the period that ZES was used by SOE-Australia, trainees were evenly split between Australian and Netherlands East Indies personnel (Indonesians, with a sprinkling of Dutch), recruited by the NEI Section.
When the wireless station was first set up at the end of June 1942, Lieutenant Anderson, AIF, was the Administrative commandant. However he was relieved in July by Captain Israel who was in turn replaced the following month by Major Trappes-Lomax, who had helped establish SOE-Australia. By the end of September there was yet another commandant, Captain Wolfe.
Wolfe later became Chief Instructor, assisted by Lieutenant Muirson. The senior Intelligence Instructor was Captain Richard (Dick) O D Noone, an anthropologist who had lived for many years in Malaya and was formerly attached to SOE-Far East. Noone’s assistant, Lieutenant Tahija who had been awarded the Militaire Willems Ordre for gallantry in the field, came from the Indonesian island of Ambon. Besides intelligence and jungle craft, other courses at ZES included boat handling, demolition and also signal instruction, which was conducted in a separate wing.
AIB radio operators at ZES
L-R rear: Allan McFarland, Roy Neal, William Arnold Cahill
L-R front: Thomas Reginald Atkin, Lesley Vincent O’Keefe, M McGann.
The Australians who trained at ZES were assigned to SOE-Australia missions in New Guinea and Borneo, to missions with the Dutch in the Netherland East Indies between June 1942 and late1943, and missions into Portuguese Timor from July 42. Most of the Dutch missions ended in disaster, with all personnel lost.
One of the Australians sent into Dutch New Guinea with a NEI party, known as Operation Whiting, was a signaller, Sergeant Len Siffleet. He and his two Indonesian companions, Privates N Reharin and F Pattiwael, were captured, and all three were beheaded in October 1943.
Siffleet, Reharin and Pattiwael, prior to their execution. This photograph, along with others, was found on the body of a dead Japanese soldier, killed in New Guinea, leading to the eventual identification of the perpetrators
SOE-Australia’s infamous ‘Scorpion’ Party also trained at ZES. The team, composed mainly of old New Guinea hands, was to mount an attack at Rabaul, New Britain. However, Special Operations were being viewed with great suspicion by the mainstream military hierarchy, which did not appreciate the potential of small, specially trained groups operating in enemy-held territory. The distrust was such that, unless those at the top could be persuaded otherwise, Scorpion would be cancelled, along with an SOE-RAN mission code-named Operation Jaywick, whose personnel were based at ZES while a new engine was procured for Krait, their transport vessel.
In April 1943, to get things back on track, the eleven-man Scorpion team, led by Captain Sam Carey, carried out a ‘raid’, by attaching dummy magnetic limpet mines to the hulls of Allied ships in the supposedly highly guarded Townsville Harbour. The successful ‘attack’, which sent the military into a state of panic until it was discovered who was behind the raid, proved the point, paving the way for Jaywick to go ahead. This mission successfully mounted a limpet attack on Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour in September that year.
One of Scorpion’s team members, Lieutenant Robert Page, was assigned to Jaywick but was captured and executed in 1945, while carrying out a follow-up raid, Operation Rimau.
SOE-Australia was dissolved in February 1943, to be resurrected in April as a separate entity known as Special Operations Australia (SOA) with a cover name of Services Reconnaissance Department or SRD. However, the influx of military personnel in the Cairns area brought to an end the use of ZES as a holding camp/training school.
AIB units, including the Coastwatchers and the Philippine Section, and SOA personnel moved to a new holding/training facility at Tabragalba, a former cattle property near Beaudesert, south of Brisbane, which had previously served as training camp for heavy battery and anti-aircraft training.
As part of the reorganisation, ZES was handed over to the Allied Intelligence Bureau’s Dutch organisation NEFIS III, which took over the duties of the now defunct SOE-Australia’s NEI Section.
However, SOA did not remain at Tabragalba. Following Jaywick’s success, SOA expanded greatly, resulting in the establishment of a purpose-built commando training school at Fraser Island in October 1943.
At the time of the dissolution of SOE-Australia, orders were given to destroy all the organisation’s records relating to its activities at ZES.
It is therefore difficult to estimate how many people trained or were held at ZES during this early period, when Special Operations were in their infancy. However, archival records show that about 66 Australians and 46 other SOE-Australia recruits, mostly Dutch Indonesians, entered the field after training at ZES, which was also used as an assembly point for parties and their stores and equipment, prior to insertion into enemy territory.
As a training school, ZES spawned some of SOE-Australia’s most experienced and daring operatives, who participated in some of the 81 missions carried out by SOE-Australia and SOA in WW2.
For further information on the formation of SOA, the Fraser Island Commando School and Operation Jaywick, see this web page. Operations Jaywick, Rimau, and the Scorpion ‘raid’, along with an account of the development of SOA, are covered in Lynette Silver’s book Deadly Secrets. An account of Borneo’s Operation Python, whose members trained at ZES, is in Sandakan A Conspiracy of Silence.