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The Untold Story of a Secret Australian Operation in WWII Borneo


Christine Helliwell

Docklands, Victoria: Penguin Random House, 2021

Paperback   576pp   RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, February 2023


Operation Semut involved the insertion of a small group of Allied soldiers into Borneo in March 1945. It was British-inspired and was led by a New Zealander who had worked pre-war in Borneo for a British company, knew the country and hopefully, could re-establish contact with any locals who had survived the Japanese occupation. Britain wished to be ‘on the ground’ when the approaching Allied victory arrived – with a view to re-establishing its previous position as a colonial occupier.

The sixteen operatives selected were split into a reconnaissance party of eight to establish a base camp and drop zone, with the remainder following parachuting in three weeks later with the remainder of their supplies. The rugged terrain and the unknown reaction of the local natives (Dayaks) who had a history of headhunting, made for a concerning start to the operation. Fortunately the party was welcomed with overwhelming hospitality in the native longhouses – with the main hazard being the surviving the ritual drunken nightly feast at every village.

Quickly realising the area for which the force was expected to report on as well as harass the Japanese, the group split into three – so Semut 1, Semut 2 and Semut 3 were created and operated in three adjoining regions with Semut 1 being  the northernmost. Helliwell has provided an excellent background on Borneo, its history, topography, and its people, and has then concentrated on the exploits of Semut 2 and Semut 3 along the Baram and Rejang Rivers. [Semut 1 and Semut 4 are to be covered in another volume].

 The groups were frustrated with the paucity of resupply of food, radio replacement, weapons, and ammunition – often undergoing periods of virtual starvation. Periodically the original sixteen operatives had their numbers supplemented by reinforcements. They were almost overwhelmed with Dayak volunteers who provided excellent intelligence, navigation, and ambushing – often using blowpipes and machetes in lieu of the non-arrival of firearms and ammunition. Working down the major rivers, Semut 2 and Semut 3 cleared small villages of Japanese, whilst ensuring they did not break out into the countryside as Allied pressure on them grew. A major success was the liberation of an unknown number of prisoners from a Japanese prison at Batu Lintang.

Another delicate matter arising after the Victory in the Pacific Armistice was the Allied directive to cease all hostile operations against a Japanese foe who ‘ignored/would not believe’ reality. Initiative won out, and the force was eventually withdrawn in October 1945.

Helliwell has ‘spoilt’ her readers with her amazing knowledge of the geography and the natives. The changes in villages, and navigability of rivers in the 75 years that have lapsed, provide a ‘before and after’ picture of this part of Borneo which she obviously loves. A major aim of her writing was to give previously unsung credit to the Dayaks involved in Semut, and in this regard she has excelled.

The text is extremely readable, with numerous maps and photographs of the main characters in recent interviews. Despite Helliwell’s claims, the Notes are extremely detailed and quite prolific. An excellent account of an Australian war effort that is known by so few. This reviewer is looking forward to the release of the ‘other half’ of Semut,   


The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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