Secret and Special: The untold story of Z Special Unit in the Second World War


Secret and Special

The untold story of Z Special Unit in the Second World War

By Will Davies

Published by Vintage/Penguin Random House | RRP $34.99 in paperback
ISBN 9780143784982


It’s always interesting to understand what intrigues an author so much about a subject that they are determined to tell the story.

In Will Davies’ case, his interest in Australia’s secret military reconnaissance unit was peaked as far back as his schoolboy days in the 1960s.

It was soon after the declaration of war on Japan that Australia established a secret military reconnaissance unit, based on the British Special Operations Executive (known as SOE) and called the Inter-allied Services Department.

The unit was tasked with the role to “obtain and report information of the enemy … weaken the enemy by sabotage and destruction of morale and to lend aid and assistance to local efforts to the same end in enemy occupied territories.” In 1943 it became known under the cover name Special Reconnaissance Department (SRD) and included some British officers who had escaped from Singapore.

After arriving in Australia, they assembled in Melbourne, forming the nucleus of ISD and together with some Australians established what became the Z Special Unit.

Training began in a number of locations around Australia including on Fraser Island off the Queensland coast, In Broken Bay near Sydney, at Careening Bay in Western Australia, at the “House on the Hill” in Cairns and at East Arm near Darwin.

From these training areas and bases, Z Special undertook intelligence gathering and raiding missions throughout Southeast Asia including New Guinea, Singapore, Timor, Malaya, Borneo, Vietnam and the Dutch East Indies. 

The first operation was Jaywick in September 1943, led by a 28-year-old officer from the Gordon Highlanders, Captain Ivan Lyon.

Using an old Japanese fishing boat renamed Krait this captured vessel was re-fitted and provisioned for a voyage from Australia to just south of Singapore where it released six commandos in three folding kayaks to attack Japanese shipping in the harbour.

They placed limpet mines on several Japanese ships sinking 40,000 tons of shipping. After the successful attack, they paddled south, were picked up by the Krait and successfully returned to Australia. This was followed by Operation Rimau again led by Lyon but this time things went very wrong very early. Identified, they made a fighting withdrawal but all of the raiding party were shot or captured, with the last ten being executed just before the end of the war. 

During the course of the war, Z Special Unit carried out 81 covert operations in the Southwest Pacific theatre.

While the unit was disbanded after the end of the war, many of its techniques would be modified and used by Australian Special Forces to this day.

These men, many of whom did not survive, endured horrendous conditions on what amounted to suicidal missions. Their contributions should not be forgotten.

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