History detective, historian, investigative writer & specialist tour guide

THE FORMATION OF SPECIAL OPERATIONS AUSTRALIA
AND THE ROLE OF Z AND M SPECIAL UNITS.

The Origins of Special Operations in Australia

In July 1942, following the fall of Singapore and the occupation of the Far East by Japanese troops, an intelligence organisation was established in Australia to amalgamate all existing and newly established covert agencies, operating under Allied control in the South West Pacific Area.

Named the Allied Intelligence Bureau or AlB, it included the Royal Australian Navy’s highly successful Coastwatchers, a propaganda unit known as Far Eastern Liaison Office (FELO), the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/SIA), a Dutch East Indies intelligence unit (NEFIS), the United States’ Philippine Regional Section (PRS, operating in the southern Philippines) and an Australian/British Special Operations group, which was to carry out various undercover missions behind enemy lines.

The new Special Operations unit, SOE Australia, was an offshoot of a highly secret British unit, Special Operations Executive or SOE. The brainchild of Britain’s Military Intelligence 6 (MI6), SOE had been created to cause havoc in occupied Europe and was answerable only to Winston Churchill, who instructed its operatives ‘to set Europe ablaze’.

In order to maintain security, and not compromise the British organization, SOE Australia was given a cover name – Inter-Allied Services Department (IASD or, more usually, ISD). It had as its nucleus several British secret service agents who had worked for SOE Far East but had managed to escape to Australia before Singapore and the islands of the Dutch East Indies fell to the Japanese.

SOE Australia was established on 17 April 1942 when Majors Edgerton Mott and Ambrose Trappes-Lomax, of SOE Far East, were given approval to form a special operations group along the lines of the British SOE. Mott, who was also adviser on special operations to Australia’s Director of Military Intelligence, Lieutenant-Colonel Caleb Roberts, was appointed Director of the new organization. Overall control was vested in America’s General Douglas MacArthur, with Australia’s General Blamey in ‘immediate control’.

The role of SOE Australia was to be similar to that of SOE in Europe: insert trained operatives into enemy territory to gather intelligence, harass lines of communication, carry out general sabotage, attack shipping and organise local resistance. The cost, estimated by Mott to be 100,000 pounds sterling per annum, would be met every six months by the various Allied governments. Mott also used his persuasive powers, in the interests of security, to convince Blamey to accept the principle that SOE Australia should not only operate without any detailed accountability to other Commonwealth military establishments, but also pay its personnel using SOE Australia’s funds.

Promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, Mott was ordered by Blamey to immediately set the wheels in motion. It was easier said than done. It was not until 17 May that he was able to obtain suitable office accommodation at ‘Airlie’, a magnificent mansion at 260 Domain Road in the upmarket Melbourne suburb of South Yarra, allowing him and Trappes-Lomax to move out of their tiny office at Victoria Barracks, organise their staff and recruit suitable operatives for specialized training.

‘Airlie’, South Yarra

‘Airlie’, South Yarra

Most of the recruits came from the three Australian services, particularly the Army. After passing initial muster, they were sent to the Guerrilla Warfare School near Foster on Wilsons Promontory in Victoria, established by SOE’s Freddie Spencer Chapman in 1941 to train commando-style Independent Companies (also known as Commando Squadrons) and where, by arrangement with the Director of Military Training, SOE Australia had its own section. By June the organisation, known internally by SOE staff in London as ‘Force 137’, was functioning on a proper basis and planning began to get under way.

There was no problem finding suitable applicants, but the training program at Foster soon ran into problems – security was difficult to police; there were no holding arrangements for operatives awaiting the commencement of the course; and the cold Victorian climate was detrimental to the health of soldiers who had been serving in hot tropical zones.

With Foster’s climate proving unsuitable, plans were put in train during June for the establishment of a new training school at ‘Fairview House’- a large hickory, kauri and red-cedar mansion, built in 1896 on a hillside estate, Fairview Farm, located on the outskirts of Cairns in far north Queensland. The property, formerly owned by the grandfather of the famous aviator, Charles Kingsford Smith, had already been earmarked by SOE-Australia for use as its wireless relay station.

Known officially as ‘Z Experimental Station’ or ZES, and colloquially as ‘The House on the Hill’, the site was ideal, being well away from prying eyes, particularly as many of the civilians had been evacuated further south. No reason was given for the choice of name, Z Experimental Station, but it seems likely that it was 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. General Blamey’s signals, prefixed by a Z, ensured immediate attention.

Z Experimental Station

Z Experimental Station

To provide a cover unit for civilians and to provide a holding unit for the large number of Australian army personnel recruited from the AIF, an administrative/holding body, which had an independent procurement authority, was created. In keeping with the already established Z theme, it was known as Z Special Unit. Only Australian army personnel were posted to this holding unit. All non-Australian personnel and all RAN and RAAF recruits, being much fewer in number, remained under the administration of their own branch of the services.

Despite its swashbuckling and theatrical title, Z Special Unit was purely administrative: it had no war establishment, no war equipment table, no insignia and no colour patch. Being non-operational, it could not plan or carry out missions in its own right. However, the carte blanche procurement authority made it extremely useful, allowing it to draw whatever was required from ordnance stores and giving it a unique role in the Australian Army.

Things were just becoming organized at SOE-Australia’s HQ, when MacArthur’s General Headquarters dropped a bombshell. To keep a tight rein on what the Americans considered to be the sometimes maverick tendencies of the Dutch and British agencies, and also believing, quite rightly, that the British and Dutch were more interested in regaining their colonial empires than furthering MacArthur’s plans to retake the Philippines, GHQ issued a directive to amalgamate all irregular Allied units.

SOE Australia, SIS, NEFIS, the Coastwatchers and FELO were now under the umbrella of the Allied Intelligence Bureau. To Mott’s horror, in one fell swoop SOE Australia lost its independence, its specialised funding and control of its exclusive administrative arm, Z Special Unit. Since the other organisations that made up AlB were strapped for cash, had no means of cutting red tape to obtain supplies and equipment, and lacked a holding unit for AIF recruits, SOE Australia’s loss was most definitely their gain.

Mott, whose chain of command had been Blamey and then MacArthur, discovered that there was now another level of command – Lieutenant-Colonel Roberts, now AIB’s Controller.  However Roberts, who had a reputation for working at a snail’s pace, was controller in name only. His deputy, Colonel Alison Ind, United States Army, was also the Finance Officer. This arrangement gave MacArthur’s GHQ indirect control over SOE Australia since, without American approval, any proposed mission ‘would die from financial anaemia’.

As large numbers of Australian Army personnel were being recruited to the various covert organisations controlled by AIB, they too were now ‘posted’ for security and administrative reasons to the newly acquired Z Special Unit. However, all other recruits (RAN, RAAF and all overseas personnel) remained under the administrative control of their parent organisations.

Reorganisation

In February 1943 there was a huge re-organisation of AlB. SOE-Australia was dissolved, its Director Colonel Mott was relieved of his post and, for some time, the future of special operations in Australia was in very great doubt.

However, at General Blamey’s direction, in April 1943 Special Operations Australia (SOA) was formed. In late May, as a security measure, it was code-named Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD). The term SOA was only to be used at the highest level. Under the restructure, SOA was virtually autonomous and came under the direct control of General Blamey, to whom it was answerable.

To further differentiate SOA personnel from those with other covert units, ‘secret numbers’ were introduced. The numbers were prefixed by letters to identify the role of the individual at a glance.

AK:  Army/civilian operatives

AKN: Naval personnel, including operatives

AKR: Air Force personnel including operatives

AKS: Signalers

AKX: headquarters staff

AKO: Ordnance staff

AKV: Instructional or camp staff

AKQ: Female staff

Z Special Unit was not a victim of the shake-up – the fact that it was an extraordinarily useful tool had scotched any suggestion that it too be dissolved. However, instead of remaining with AIB, it was handed to SOA for its exclusive use. To cater for the administrative needs of the Australian soldiers who remained with AIB, M Special Unit was formed. All AIF personnel who remained with AIB were now transferred from Z’s administration to that of M.

Bernard Bastick, a former Coastwatcher recruited from the AIF, was one of those affected by the administrative re-organisation. In 1942 Bastik, unlike his naval coastwatching counterparts, had come under the administrative control of Z Special Unit. In 1943, when SOA appropriated Z Special Unit for its exclusive use, Bastik, along with all AIB’s Australian army personnel, was transferred to the administrative control of the newly created M Special Unit.

Confusion reigns

The switching from Z administration to M was not without its problems.

In 1942 Sergeant Leonard Siffleet, an Australian army signaler, was inserted into Dutch New Guinea on an AlB (NEFIS) mission, code-named Whiting. Initially he was under the administrative control of Z Special Unit but, in May 1943, following the reorganization, administrative responsibility for Siffleet automatically shifted to M Special Unit.

This was straightforward enough until Siffleet disappeared in September 1943, generating a flurry of paperwork as Z and M Units tried to establish who was responsible for his pay and when. It was later established that the unfortunate Siffleet had been captured and beheaded at Aitappe, in October 1943.

This graphic photo of Siffleet’s execution was found on the body of a dead Japanese

This graphic photo of Siffleet’s execution was found on the body of a dead Japanese

The fact that Z Special Unit administered only to the Australian army component of SOA also created a few hiccups closer to home. Although the unit had been formed to reduce administrative difficulties, a demarcation dispute arose in late 1943 when sailors arrived at SOA’s brand new training school at Fraser Island, Queensland. Being RAN, they did not come under Z Special Unit’s jurisdiction, which only handled the pay of Australian army recruits. Consequently, the seamen went unpaid for several weeks while the matter was resolved.

Myths and Misconceptions

The creation of Z and M Special Units, coupled with secrecy surrounding SOA, whose personnel were briefed on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis, has led to many long-standing and enduring misconceptions about the roles of the two administrative bodies – so much so that they have acquired the status of the operational organisations to which they actually administered.

Entries such as ‘posted to Z Special Unit/ transferred to M Special Unit’, recorded on army service dossiers in the interests of protecting the identities of SOA or the covert units under the AIB umbrella, have compounded the problem: most people believe that Z and M Special Units were alternate names for SOA and AIB, or were separate, elite commando forces within those organisations. To further confuse the issue, the headstones of AIF personnel, killed in action while carrying out covert missions with SOA or AIB, have been inscribed as serving with ‘Z Special Unit’ or ‘M Special Unit’ – their administrative and holding bodies. As personnel recruited to SOA and AIB always remained on the war establishment of their parent unit, the correct inscription should be, for example, ‘2/3 Pioneer Battalion, KIA while serving with Special Operations Australia’.

Since 1975, a large file entitled the History of Special Operations Australia – Organisation, which records in detail the establishment of SOA, has been available to any member of the public who cared to visit Australian Archives in Canberra. In more recent years this material has been digitised and is on line. Despite this easily accessible information, many people, including professional military historians, not only elevate Z and M Special Units to ‘operational’ status, they also constantly refer to these purely administrative bodies as Z and M Forces.

Both names are complete misnomers.

The term ‘force’ seems to have its roots in Western Australia where a former member of SOA’s Instructional and Camp staff, Major Colin Ednie-Brown, formed an ex-service association in 1946.

Unaware that the real name of the organisation he had served in was Special Operations Australia, and believing that ‘Z Special Unit’, or any mention of ‘Z’ was highly secret – too secret a name to be used – Ednie-Brown’s fledgling organisation in WA referred to itself, correctly, as Services Reconnaissance Department, or SRD Association. This terminology was also adopted by a sister organisation in NSW, formed the following year.

The secrecy surrounding SOA was such that members of the West Australian SRD Association believed that Z Special Unit was actually the parent organisation, subdivided into SRD, AIB, M Special Unit, FELO and NEFIS. For Anzac Day 1949, this ‘information’ was distributed to the press.

The SRD Association in WA was responsible, however, for erecting possibly the only correctly named special operations’ memorial in Australia – The Services Reconnaissance Department Memorial on Garden Island, south of Perth. Overlooking Careening Bay and SOA’s wartime maritime training camp, the memorial lists the names of those who died while carrying out SOA/SRD missions, along with Len Siffleet, who was actually attached to AIB.

The SRD Memorial at Garden Island WA

The SRD Memorial at Garden Island WA

The publicity surrounding the unveiling led to the publication of more erroneous information and claims, including several attributed to Jack Sue, who was said to have loaded rice on Japanese warships while dressed as a coolie and that his SOA party, after observing POWs in their camps and toiling through the jungle on one of the infamous ‘death marches’, had snatched Australian POWs from the column and taken them to safety. Neither of these claims is correct.

After Ednie-Brown’s death, leadership issues arose and membership of the SRD Association dwindled, so much so that it was down to 23 members in 1974 when Keith Scarff, who had also served with SOA’s Instructional and Camp staff, broke away and formed his own organization. He called it ‘Z Special Force Australia’ and invited Jack Wong Sue, another disaffected member of the original association, to become Chairman of the new organisation. Z Special Force Australia adopted as its emblem a stylized commando dagger through a Z, and also issued badges to members featuring a gold or silver Z. Other state organisations adopted a similar logo to WA, based on the traditional commando knife.

As no WW2 covert organisations, including SOA and its Z Special administrative unit, had any wartime colour patch or insignia, these dagger and Z emblems are purely post-war, ex-service affectations.
Z Force was a catchy title and it was not long before the WA members who joined the new organisation were referring to themselves as ‘Z Men’. The term Z Force was also picked up and embraced by others, including the president of Z Special Unit Association NSW – an imposter who claimed to have served with SOA. During his 10 years of misrule, ‘Z Force’ was popularised and gained credence. Although, in the 1960s the names ‘Z Special Force’ and ‘SRD’ were dropped in favour of ‘Z Special Unit Association’ by the various State groups, ‘Z Force’ had entered the public arena and was here to stay.
More than seventy years on, with the proliferation of countless websites dealing with covert missions, confusion about the roles of Z and M Special Units is far greater than in wartime. Much of the erroneous material appearing on them is due to a failure to carry out basic research and the reliance on ‘information’ distributed or promoted by ‘Z’ ex-service organisations. It was only in 2016 that the Australian War Memorial gave an undertaking to correct misleading information displayed in the Museum’s galleries. Other errors cannot be so readily fixed, especially those set in bronze or stone. For example, a handsome bronze plaque at ‘Airlie’, SOA’s wartime headquarters, donated by Z Special Unit Association Victoria and featuring the Z and dagger, states:

“During World War II ‘Airlie’ was headquarters for Special Operations Australia, also known as ‘Z’ Special Unit”.

Yet another bronze plaque, unveiled in Canberra in August 2016, is dedicated to ‘Z Special Unit of Special Operations Australia’, reinforcing the impression that Z Special Unit was an operational unit within SOA. According to the plaque, ‘personnel from this unit [Z] were involved in more than 80 operations in Asia and the Pacific 1942-1945’,  a claim that effectively ignores the contribution made by all of SOA’s  RAN, RAAF and non-Australian personnel, who had no connection to Z Special Unit.  

The Z and dagger, invented in the 1970s and appearing in various forms on countless plaques, badges and ‘wartime’ memorabilia, have become synonymous with SOA missions, along with flags and banners featuring a free-flowing Z, in the style of the 1960’s TV hero, Zorro – a masked swordsman who slashed his trademark initial at every opportunity.

The Zorro-style insignia on a memorial at Hervey Bay, Queensland

The Zorro-style insignia on a memorial at Hervey Bay, Queensland

The Z and dagger are such powerful images, and the misinformation surrounding Z Special Unit so distorted, that ex-members of the various WW2 Independent Companies/Commando Squadrons have been seduced into thinking that they are connected in some way to the so-called ‘wartime commando units, Z and M Special’.

Consequently, some Independent (Commando) Company Associations have added a Z and M to their unit’s Double Diamond colour patch insignias. As Z and M Special Units were non-combatant, administrative organisations, there is no connection whatsoever between the commandos of the Independent Companies and people who served with SOA/AIB, apart from the fact that, in the very early days, SOE Australia had used the same training facility on Wilson’s Promontory.

Commando Association banner, with M and Z in the double diamond, surrounded by authentic Independent Company colour patches

Commando Association banner, with M and Z in the double diamond, surrounded
by authentic Independent Company colour patches

The Independent Companies were true commando-style outfits, trained to carry out hit-and-run missions, in the style of the original Commandos – the Boers of South Africa. After the 1943 re-organisation, the role of SOA and AIB operatives was primarily intelligence gathering. Although sabotage was the objective for three SOA missions in 1944-45, and parties in Borneo organized native guerrilla bands to harass the enemy in 1945, SOA’s brief was not to engage the enemy unless absolutely unavoidable. To this end, SOA operatives were well-schooled in the art of silent killing, but only if absolutely necessary: the aim was to collect intelligence from behind enemy lines – and live to tell the tale.

The status of Operation Jaywick

Due to general ignorance and the reliance placed on Internet sites, misinformation in regard to Z and M Special Units continues to gain credence. Consequently, it is very easy for members of the public, including prominent officials and historians, to be misled, especially when a ‘well-known’ story, such as Operation Jaywick, is constantly recycled as a ‘Z Special’ operation.

This successful raid on shipping in Singapore Harbour in 1943, using a captured Japanese fishing boat renamed Krait, has long been promoted as an SOA/‘Z Special/Z Force’ mission.

However, Jaywick was, and always has been, an SOE/RAN mission: funded directly by SOE in London and carried out with the co-operation and assistance of the RAN, at the direction of the Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander R M Long, who had established the Coastwatchers and was able to appreciate Jaywick’s potential.

Some of the raiding party, and ship’s crew, on board Krait prior to the mission

Some of the raiding party, and ship’s crew, on board Krait prior to the mission

By the time the party left Australia in August 1943, after suffering a long delay due to engine problems with Krait, Jaywick’s transport ship, SOA had been established, leading to the erroneous assumption that Jaywick was an SOA operation. However, files in Australia and Britain confirm that credit for the actual raid, the only special operations-type mission in Australia to successfully carry out its objective without any casualties, belongs to SOE Australia. SOE in the UK not only sanctioned the plan in May 1942, it also controlled the operation and supplied a never-ending stream of funds to finance the entire operation through a secret bank account at the Kings Cross branch of the Bank of NSW.

This financial independence enabled the party leader, Ivan Lyon (a secret agent previously attached to MI6 and SOE Far East in Singapore), the luxury of maintaining his headquarters in a secret flat at Sydney’s Potts Point, employing a highly paid civilian on what was a military mission, and establishing ‘Camp X’, a one-off, very exclusive and very expensive training camp at Refuge Bay, to the north of Sydney. This was used for training from September 1942 until January 1943.

Jaywick’s Camp X, Refuge Bay, on Broken Bay to the north of Sydney

Jaywick’s Camp X, Refuge Bay, on Broken Bay to the north of Sydney

Other Popular Jaywick Myths

It is also claimed repeatedly that Operation Jaywick ‘blew up and sank’ seven enemy merchant vessels, destroying an estimated 37,000 tons of shipping. Magnetic limpet mines were attached to seven vessels by the raiders, but it appears that the explosives on one vessel did not detonate.

Several Japanese signals, intercepted and decoded by United States intelligence, revealed that six ships were damaged in Singapore Harbour in the early morning of 27 September 1943, when holes about two metres wide, running from engine room to stern along the waterline, were blown in the sides of the targeted vessels. However, within days all but two of the ships were salvaged and put back into service.

Hakusan Maru, one of the two ships attacked by Jaywick and not returned to service

Hakusan Maru, one of the two ships attacked by Jaywick and not returned to service

That six ships were damaged and two remained sunk was placed on the public record in 1949 by the Royal Australian Navy, and in 1950 by WA’s SRD Association, which reported that, ‘as we all know’, two ships (Hakusan Maru and Kizan Maru) remained sunk, while four others, including Nasusan Maru, a converted tanker, were soon returned to service. Nasusan Maru was later torpedoed by the United States submarine Tang in the Koshiki Straits, 40 miles south-west of Nagasaki, on 24 June 1944, killing eleven crew. The seventh ship targeted by Jaywick was evidently undamaged.

However, in the general hype about the Jaywick raid, the names of the three ships recorded above became lost. Although in recent years concerted attempts have been made to name all seven ships, the only additional ship that can be positively named is Arare Maru, a former Dutch tanker named Paula. According to Japanese records, this vessel was mined and sunk in Singapore on 27 September 1943.

It is possible that two of the four remaining craft are Shosei Maru, formerly Solen, a British oil tanker, which was under repair in Singapore for five weeks following the Jaywick attack, and Nichiren Maru, a cargo vessel, also in port from 20 September to 11 November 1943. The seventh ship, on which the limpets are believed to have failed to explode, was ‘identified’ by Jaywick’s Donald Davidson as Taisho Maru, but this vessel was in Japan at the time. There were two or three ships in Singapore that could qualify as the 7th ship, but the evidence is insufficient to nominate any particular one. Based on the available information, the total tonnage of the sunk or damaged ships was just under 26,000 tons.

With only two ships put out of action permanently, the impact on the Japanese was not great in the military sense. However, this was of secondary importance, as the primary aim of the raid had always been one of propaganda: to penetrate enemy waters, carry out an attack and show the world that the Japanese were not invincible. It did not matter what was attacked, as long as an attack took place.

Once the raiders were safely home, their mission complete, the news of their triumph was to be trumpeted to the world, causing panic and humiliation among the Japanese and raising the spirits of the Allied nations at a time when morale was at a low ebb. Unfortunately, as Jaywick’s propaganda value was never exploited, neither the enemy nor the general public had any idea that a small band of men had pulled off the seemingly impossible. The only celebration held was among themselves.

The six Jaywick saboteurs, safely home, toast their success in secret. (L to R) Wally Falls, Donald Davidson, Andrew Huston, Ivan Lyon, Arthur Jones, Bob Page

The six Jaywick saboteurs, safely home, toast their success in secret.
(L to R) Wally Falls, Donald Davidson, Andrew Huston, Ivan Lyon, Arthur Jones, Bob Page

When the top brass at SOA discovered from intercepted enemy signals that locals in Singapore were being blamed for the attack, orders were given at the highest level to keep the raid a secret. This decision resulted in an appalling purge of the civilian population by the Japanese kempei- tai (military police), in a reign of terror, known as the Double Tenth Massacre, which began on 10 October 1943. It lasted for months and took the lives of many innocent people.

The failure to capitalize on Jaywick’s propaganda potential reduced this brilliantly planned and executed mission, carried out by a daring and intrepid band, to a side-show with tragic consequences.

The Recorded History

Information on Jaywick and all SOA missions is held in wartime files, along with a mass of paperwork explaining the establishment and organization of both SOE Australia and SOA, and detailing all missions planned or carried out. The successes, the disasters, the bungles and the mismanagement are recorded there for posterity. The roles of Z and M Special Units are also clearly defined as being holding/administrative units for the Australian army component of SOA and AIB. No more, and no less.

Members of the public who seek information on wartime missions and personnel under ‘Z Special Unit’, and find nothing, usually assume that the files are too secret to be released. A search under the correct name ‘Special Operations Australia or SOA’, will reveal the falsity of this assumption. All SOA files have been available to the public since 1975, the year that the thirty-year restriction was lifted. Also, on that date, all personnel who had sworn an oath under the Official Secrets’ Act were automatically released from that undertaking.

The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, compiled by Australian Army historians, was collated from material held in these archival files. The following extract, indexed under ‘Special Operations Australia’, not only sets the record straight in regard to the terminology, it also puts the activities of SOA into perspective: an assessment that some, who are unfamiliar with the contents of the archival material, might regard as harsh.

AIF personnel attached to ISD were administered by Z Special Unit.

In February 1943 ISD was disbanded and replaced by SOA which, under the cover-name of the Services Reconnaissance Department, conducted operations from that date until the end of the war . . .

Despite the glamour attached to special operations, it cannot be said that SOA missions achieved anything of significance . . .

In the final analysis SOA operations were characterized by inefficiency, inappropriate objectives and unreliability. They did not greatly hamper the enemy and did not shorten the war by a single day.

Information on the structure and activities of SOA is also available in files held at National Archives of Australia and in Lynette Silver’s book, Deadly Secrets. For a detailed analysis of ships in port at the time of the Jaywick attack, see the article by Peter Cundall on http://www.combinedfleet.com