Commando News Spring17

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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

carry out various undercover missions behind enemy

lines.

This Special Operations unit, SOE Australia, was an

offshoot of a highly secret wartime British unit, Special

Operations Executive, or SOE.

SOE was the brainchild of Britain’s Directorate of

Military Intelligence 6 (MI6), which was established in

1909 as the Secret Service Bureau or SIB in response to

a widely held belief that all Germans were spies. In

WW2 SOE was 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’s lineage (IASD):

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 com -

muni cation, carry out general sabotage, attack ship -

ping 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, allow -

ing 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

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, estab -

lished by SOE’s Freddie Spencer Chapman in 1941 to

train commando-style Independent Com pa nies (also

known as Commando Squadrons) and where, by

arrange ment 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

COMMANDO NEWS ~ Edition 11 I September 2017 9

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