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About Z Special
The Services Reconnaissance Department


Origins of Special Forces
Z Special Colour Patch

Established in early 1942, the evolution of the Services Reconnaissance Department was painful and somewhat complex. Originally part of an organization known as Special Operations Australia, it was an offshoot of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) created after the fall of France in May, 1940.

The concept behind the British SOE was to continue the fight in Europe using guerrilla tactics, while gathering information to assist the allies prepare for their eventual return. It was also considered a political necessity, the British having virtually been thrown out of Europe, needed to demonstrate that they were still in the fight and the occasional act of sabotage, though of little strategic or even tactical importance, would go a long way in demonstrating that fact.

The SOE immediately ran into opposition from traditional elements within the British military who regarded such unconventional operations as “below the belt” – an archaic attitude when such tactics had been used successfully during World War One in North Africa by T.E Lawrence and several other exponents of the technique. There was also a strong element of envy from some high ranking officers who regarded guerrilla warfare as undermining their authority. To have operatives running around enemy territory blowing up railway lines and bridges while their own battalions were restricted to training exercises on the Salisbury Plains offended their self esteem.

However, the SOE was supported by Winston Churchill who had no such qualms about ungentlemanly conduct in war. He insisted it be funded adequately and encouraged them to develop all the dirty fighting techniques they could. In many ways the development wing of the SOE resembled the high tech laboratory of a modern spy novel, with all types of gadgetry ranging from miniature cameras to land mines disguised as cow pats.

During the early days of the SOE, the British created two other similar organizations that were to influence its operations. The first was the Long Range Desert Group. Formed in North Africa in 1940 under General Wavel, the LRDG’s primary function was to infiltrate enemy lines to gather intelligence. A small unit initially with only one hundred and fifty men, they operated in patrols of forty, using modified trucks and jeeps that could operate for weeks at a time without resupply. These patrols would range deep into enemy territory and although reconnaissance was their primary task, they often attacked targets of opportunity then escaped to strike again miles away.

Chevrolet 30cwt
Long Range Desert Group 30cwt Chevrolet fitted with weapons and radio equipment for patrol work

So successful were they that the concept was expanded and the LRDG soon gained control over a major portion of the operational area, forcing the Italians to retain large forces around many installations to guard against these sudden attacks.

The second organization was the Special Air Service – the SAS. Founded in 1941 by Lieutenant David Stirling, the SAS was to eventually change conventional thinking about how wars could be fought, but like the SOE, in its formative days it also suffered from opposition by many senior military officers.
A Scottish laird and an impressive figure at six foot five inches tall, David Stirling commanded attention wherever he went. Prior to the war he’d established a reputation as an adventurer, was a devotee of physical fitness and trained for a British expedition to climb Mount Everest. Regarded by some as an eccentric, he’d always demonstrated a can-do attitude. He tended to think outside the square, had a healthy disregard for unnecessary authority and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.

Stirling joined an infantry battalion soon after the war’s outbreak, expecting to find the adventure he craved. After earning his commission and disappointed with what he considered was outdated military thinking by his superiors, he transferred to a commando battalion. There he thrived, being encouraged to develop new ideas and techniques. He quickly formed his own opinion on how the war should be run – a somewhat bold presumption for a Lieutenant only twenty six years of age who’d yet to see active service.

When his unit arrived in North Africa in early 1941, it was promptly deactivated and used as a reserve pool for other British infantry units. At the time the British, commanded by General Wavel, were being hard pressed by Rommel’s Africa Corps and replacements were needed in existing units. There was also an element of mistrust in what were regarded as “elitist” forces by the conventionalists in Wavell’s staff. Although the Long Range Desert Group had proved its worth, the last thing these officers wanted was a proliferation of such units and took every opportunity to stifle any suggestions regarding creating more.

During the following months of inactivity Stirling met up with Jock Lewes, an Australian officer serving with the Welsh Guards and this meeting would prove to be the beginning of the Special Air Service Regiment.  Lewes had already been experimenting with parachute training and wanted to use aircraft to fly small forces behind enemy lines then parachute them onto their objective.

Stirling liked the idea and together they began working out the methods required. It was during an “unofficial” parachute training exercise that Stirling accidentally snagged his canopy on the tail of the aircraft resulting in a leg injury that hospitalized him for two months. This forced immobility gave Stirling plenty of time to think and he spent much of it working out details of his Special Forces concept.

In July, General Wavell was replaced by General Auchinleck. At this time Stirling was still recovering from his injury and being close to the General’s HQ, decided to circumvent normal channels by presenting his idea directly. He knew that this would be the only chance for him to get a hearing, as submitting his concept via the normal chain of command would only meet with rejection from staff officers he knew were biased against such radical ideas.

To get into Auchinleck’s headquarters he equipped himself with crutches, hobbled past the guards without opposition and managed to meet with the Deputy Commander, General Ritchie. Stirling presented his ideas and left Ritchie with the notes he’d made while in hospital. Ritchie was impressed and presented the idea to Auchinlek. Both Generals saw an opportunity to use the new unit, as an offensive against Rommel’s Afrika Corps was planned for November.

Although the Long Range Desert Group had proved itself, it was mainly occupied in Italian territory and its men weren’t trained in parachuting. To perform the same role they’d either have to recruit more men then train them, or take men out of the line, which was an unacceptable option. So it was expedient to adopt  Stirling’s idea, especially as they already had a pool of men trained in commando tactics that Stirling claimed were being wasted. Auchinleck agreed and Stirling was put in command.

The new unit was to consist of sixty-six men and named "L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade" – a cover to make the Germans believe it was larger than it actually was.

While the concept looked good in theory, the first mission on 17th November, 1941, was regarded as a failure. Parachuted behind the German Army in Gazala to gather intelligence and harass the enemy, high winds and rain scattered the sixty strong force with the result that only a third made it back. However, Auchinleck’s operation against Rommel which began the following day was a success, with Stirling’s force credited with helping divert attention.  Lessons were learned and the SAS persisted.

A major change to operations was dropping their dependence on insertion by parachute. With the Long Rang Desert Group having established themselves as the experts in movement behind enemy lines it was only logical that the two units co-operate. The LRDG would drop off SAS troops at a designated point and then collect them at a predetermined rendezvous. The two units worked well together, creating a composite model for the future.

Back in England the Special Operations Executive was able to draw on the experience gained by these two units and although its European operations were considerably different in nature to those in North Africa, there were many lessons that were applicable. By 1942 the SOE was starting to achieve considerable success in Europe, with particular emphasis on France. Although some of its activities included sabotage, a major portion of its activities was devoted to creating an agent network throughout occupied France and preparing the resistance for their part in the invasion of Europe.  

So when Singapore fell to the Japanese, it was only to be expected that the British would try to apply the SOE model to the Pacific area. Supported by Australia’s General Blamey, it was proposed to create a similar style of operational force drawing from experienced British and Australian personnel. However, the American commander, General MacArthur wasn’t enthusiastic about having a foreign Special Forces intelligence unit operating in what he regarded as his personal theater of war. He’d experienced problems with Dutch Intelligence units operating from Australia into Indonesia and wanted control over every aspect of any new organization, something the Australians and British military were reluctant to agree with.

In June 1942 the Americans created the Allied Intelligence Bureau to co-ordinate operations between all allied intelligence organizations in the Pacific. Despite protests by Blamey and other senior Australian and British officers, both governments agreed to the arrangement – after all the Americans mounted a powerful case for it. They were the major force in the area and were in a position to provide support in the form of equipment and personnel. On the surface it seemed a logical argument, however in practice it was MacArthur’s way of gaining control. It was a complicated arrangement that initially proved almost unworkable.

The British and Australians, drawing on their experience in Europe and North Africa, wanted to begin operations immediately. While the North African experience had shown that the emphasis should be on reconnaissance, they also appreciated the unbalancing effect that well planned raids could have on the enemy. Transposing such operations to the Pacific theater, however, presented a new set of problems.

Insertion by vehicle or aircraft was generally not an option as the main access routes into enemy territory in the Pacific were usually via water. Fortunately SOE Europe had already developed a range of alternative infiltration techniques including kayaks, underwater breathing apparatus and even miniature submersible craft. Some of these could readily be adapted to Pacific operations and there was no shortage of experienced personnel willing to try.
Another problem that complicated Pacific operations was the fact that whereas in some African and European operations it was possible for the British to blend into the local population with minimal disguise, in Asia, they were easily recognized. This added to the difficulties of infiltration and extraction. 

Drawing from experienced Australian and British personnel, the Services Reconnaissance Department began as a small organization based in Melbourne. The parent organization was theoretically still the Special Operations Executive, which in turn was part of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, but in reality it was an awkward arrangement plagued by red tape and interdepartmental bickering. Within months interference with the AIB by the Americans was causing problems with operational planning, and disputes at Headquarters level were common.

To the American’s credit many of their officers directly involved with the Allied Intelligence Bureau realized that General MacArthur was the root cause of most of these problems and helped as best they could – often to the detriment of their own careers. As one US officer assigned to the AIB put it: “You know that Mac’s in town because his ego arrives eight hours ahead of him.”

There was also a practical aspect to their co-operation. They knew that the British had over two years of specialist operation experience and they wanted to get up the learning curve quickly so that they could create their own special forces. By co-operating they’d hopefully avoid many of the costly mistakes made by the British.

 In an attempt to distance the department from the ongoing conflicts between the Allied Intelligence Bureau and MacArthur’s HQ, the name Z Special Force was adopted for the operational arm of the Services Reconnaissance Department. Despite inadequate funding, resistance from elements within the Australian command and MacArthur’s interference, Z Special managed to survive, achieving modest but useful successes during its first year of operations.

In September 1943, Z Special achieved what was probably its most notable success with Operation Jaywick when eleven commandos transported from Australia in a converted Japanese fishing boat, paddled canoes into Singapore harbor and sank seven Japanese freighters with limpet mines then escaped without a casualty. To many, Jaywick proved the special forces concept in the Pacific, but ironically it also served to increase the animosity towards them from conservative elements who still regarded Z Special as little more than publicity seeking extroverts.  SRD’s detractors pointed out that sinking enemy ships or blowing up oil storage depots might be great public relations exercises but contributed little to the war effort.

M.V.Krait, converted Japanese fishing boat, Kofuku Maru, used in Operation Jaywick

However, the one area where consensus was reached was the value of accurate  reconnaissance information. Such intelligence was capable of ensuring the success of an operation by eliminating much of the unknown and the western desert experience had soundly demonstrated this. Montgomery’s axiom of “time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted” was almost universally accepted within the Australian command and by 1945, as the Australian Army prepared for the final push against the Japanese, Z Special reconnaissance patrols were in big demand.

Even so, the constraints applied by General MacArthur remained and were further aggravated by political neglect  – as far as Canberra was concerned, the Pacific War was on the downhill run and it was time to start reigning in the purse strings. The SRD was an easy mark for the bean counters due to the very nature of its secrecy and despite protests from senior military officers, it began to find itself being short funded. It was against this backdrop that Z Special operations were conducted in the closing months of the Pacific War.


The Muschu Island Mission

Copyright 2006