Semut: The untold story of a secret Australian operation in WWII Borneo

Semut copy


The untold story of a secret Australian operation in WWII Borneo

By Christine Helliwell

Published by Michael Joseph/Penguin
RRP $34.99 in paperback | ISBN 9780143790020

Christine Helliwell is an anthropologist who has spent almost forty years studying Borneo’s indigenous Dayak peoples.

Her research included special operations conducted in Borneo during WWII by Australia’s Z Special Unit, helped by the first hand account provided by a veteran of the campaign, the late Jack Tredrea.

In March 1945, a handful of young Allied operatives were parachuted into the remote jungle at the heart of the Japanese-occupied island of Borneo, east of Singapore, with a plan to recruit the island’s indigenous Dayak peoples to fight the Japanese.

Yet most had barely encountered Asian or indigenous people before, spoke next to no Borneo languages, and knew little about Dayaks, other than that they may have been – and could still be – headhunters.

So begins the story of Operation Semut, an Australian secret operation launched in the final months of WWII.

Focusing on the operation’s activities along two of Borneo’s great rivers – the Baram and Rejang – the book provides a detailed military history of Semut II’s and Semut III’s brutal guerrilla campaign against the Japanese revealing the decisive but long-overlooked Dayak role in the operation.

Helliwell captures the sounds, smells and tastes of the jungles into which the operatives are plunged, an environment so terrifying that many are unsure whether jungle or Japanese is the greater enemy. And she takes us into the lives and cavernous longhouses of the Dayaks on whom their survival depends.

VERDICT: The result is a truly unique account of the encounter between two very different cultures amidst the savagery of the Pacific War.

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