The volunteers wondered just what they were getting into when, as they prepared to infiltrate Borneo, they were offered a cyanide pill.
Some secrets take a very long time to emerge. Such is the case with a secret military operation formed as the war in the Pacific reached the halfway point in 1943. Men as young as 18 were recruited from across the country and trained in covert combat to infiltrate the Japanese line.
When the recruitment officers of Special Operations Australia (or Z Special Unit as it’s now known) came knocking they gave out only one clue about the nature of the work. They asked for volunteers to do certain operations, dangerous operations.
The aim was to train a group of Australian men and drop them behind Japanese lines in South East Asia to gather intelligence.
The army generally didn’t even know this unit existed, let alone the government. It was extremely secret because they were doing things which were not approved of by the Geneva Convention.
The soldiers were also kept in the dark. They had no idea. They just knew it was going to be something a bit different and they were told as little as possible. They were just told to go and report to Fraser Island and that was it. There, more than 1,000 soldiers over three years were taught skills in espionage, explosives and parachuting. They underwent the training but they didn’t know what the mission was going to be until the last minute.
Because it was a secret organisation, the groups were kept separate from each other to form tight security because if one group was captured and tortured and gave information they wouldn’t know about the other organisation.
Many soldiers never left the island but for those who did, they were dropped in islands in South East Asia, including Borneo.
It’s believed over 100 men, or one tenth of SOA, was killed in combat. Men unlucky to be captured by the Japanese were tortured for information, before being beheaded.
Because of this threat, soldiers were given cyanide tablets to take if they were caught. As they lined up on the airstrip to go in for the jump each one was handed a cyanide tablet, so they knew then that it wasn’t going to be any fun because they were jumping blind. They didn’t know if there were any Japs in the area or anything
One of the first Z Special operations involved going into Singapore Harbour. They sailed a Japanese fishing boat, MV Krait, all the way from Australia to just off Singapore. They used collapsible canoes to paddle into the harbour at night and blew up a number of Japanes Ships.
Due to the sensitive nature of their work, the Z Special soldiers were not immediately recognised upon their return.
The families of men who were killed in action or missing in action were never told what happened. Some of them have only found out in very recent years what actually happened.
This would eventually be Australia’s largest undercover World War II operation and these Australian secret soldiers struggled to find their place in war history.
Despite the efforts of the soldiers, the Australian Army’s assessment of SOA has been damning. The army believed little was accomplished by SOA during the operation. Their assessment is that very little was really of value and probably the most damning bit of all is that the activities of Special Operations Australia did not alter the course of the war by a single day.
After the war, SOA soldiers were forbidden under the Secrecy Act to speaking about the operation. For more than 30 years, while returned soldiers were celebrated during ANZAC day commemorations, SOA troops were left with no recognition.
A plaque dedicated to the Z Special Unit was unveiled at the Austalian War Memorial on Monday 1 August 2016.
Come along to our museum talk on Saturday, 7th July at 2:00 pm to hear Greg Clancy speak about “Hitler’s Lost Spy” and the Australian connection