Secret & Special

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


Will Davies

Melbourne: Vintage (Penguin Random House), 2021

Paperback   400pp    RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Rob Ellis, March 2021


It is relatively easy to write the history of a wartime battle or a major campaign which has taken place in the past two hundred years, because there is usually a vast amount of archived material, and, from more recent times, records of interviews with participants, to call upon. Doctor Davies has taken on a much more difficult task - the history of the Services Reconnaissance Department [or SRD], a part of Z Special Unit of the Australian Defence Forces, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Fighting Service.

The SRD was established to provide a highly skilled intelligence-gathering unit, which could also carry out attacks on Japanese forces on the islands to the north of Australia between 1942 and 1945. It was modelled on the British Office of Special Services [OSS] which carried out irregular operations against Nazi Germany and was known to the more orthodox Armed Forces as ‘The Bureau of Ungentlemanly Warfare’.

When World War 2 started, the Australian Defence Forces had been suffering from years of austerity, neglect and divergence. The greater part of Australia’s wartime volunteer forces was serving in the Libyan Desert, the Mediterranean Sea, and over Britain and Eastern Europe under RAF Command.

General Blamey, then commanding the AIF, proposed the formation of a unit, similar to the OSS, to back up the existing RAN Coast Watch Organisation - the ‘Coast Watchers’. The Government agreed, and the unit was established under the direction of an officer seconded from the OSS, at a variety of locations in the 3 eastern States. Funding was obtained from Australian, American and Netherlands sources.  Direction and command were shared by the Far Eastern Liaison Office [FDELO], the American Philippines Regional Section and the Dutch Netherlands East Indies Armed Forces. With this came some confusion as to which body had control over the unit’s operations. 

General Blamey ensured that Australia, who provided most of the personnel, also had control and leadership. As the USA was providing a large part of the budget, and some backup facilities, there was an attempt by the Commander-in-Chief South West Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur US Army, who tried to have all operations finally under his authority, via his Intelligence chief, Brig Gen Willoughby. These issues were sorted out, and the parent unit, Z Experimental Station [ZES] commenced recruiting and training SRD’s operatives - eventually 205 officers and 996 other ranks who served.

There followed three major operations: ‘Jaywick’, a raid on Japanese supply ships in Singapore Harbour was successful. ‘Rinian’ and ‘Copper’, raids of a similar scale and intent, were not, and casualties in these were heavy

The SRD operated across the arc of Timor, North Borneo, Java, Sarawak the Celebes and Molucca Islands, and Malaya, usually in small groups of from four to 20 operatives, with the help of expatriate residents - planters, merchants, police, administration and Government Patrol officers [who had not been interned or executed by the Japanese], by some Portuguese and Dutch troops who had evaded capture.

Many indigenous people fed the operatives, guided them through the jungles, and gather

Several SRD operatives were inserted into Timor both during and after the operations by ‘Sparrow Force’, 2/40th Battalion and 2/2nd Independent Company. Many of these men were evacuated, killed or captured.  Most of 2/2nd Independent Company’s survivors took to the hills and, later reinforced by 2/4th Independent Company, carried on a guerrilla war, tying down, initially, about 15,000 Japanese troops, a force which grew to more than 30,000 - troops the Japanese needed elsewhere.

Over twelve months, these commandoes killed an estimated 1,500 Japanese, for the loss of only 40 from their units. All were facing almost certain death if the operation failed, and many did give their lives, often at the hands of the Kempaitai, the Japanese Military Police.

Carrying out the painstaking research for this book must have been difficult, because much of the data was categorised MOST SECRET until some 30 or more years after World War 2 ended and was unavailable to researchers.

Despite this handicap, Dr Davies has produced an interesting and informative book. It gives a clear picture of some previously barely-known operations by a relatively small force of Australian and Allied servicemen, aided by a large number of indigenous peoples.  All of them were working with often-inadequate equipment, rations and clothing and medical care, in extremely difficult terrain.

Two minor criticisms - there is not a glossary of the numerous acronyms that have been used, as in all military histories, and the maps do not always show the location of many places mentioned in the text. 



The RUSI- Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing this review copy.

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