H: The super secret war heroes

Z unit – triumph and disaster

 The Operation Jaywick crew

In March 1942 an offshoot of the British Special Operation Executive (SOE) was established in Australia. In London the new organisation was known as Special Operation Australia (SOA) but it was given a cover name in Australia, the Inter Allied Services Department (IASD or ISD).

Some SOE British officers who escaped to Australia from Singapore formed the nucleus of ISD at its headquarters in Melbourne. In June 1942 the Australian service personnel in ISD were administered by Z Special Unit. The unit was sometimes incorrectly referred to as “Z Force”.

The Z men, many of them mavericks from Australian military units, were trained in explosives, camouflage and silent killing behind enemy lines. They carried cyanide pills in case of capture.

They are best known for a 1,800 mi (3,000 km) voyage on a daring 1943 raid called Operation Jaywick. Seven ships were sunk in enemy-held Singapore Harbour, but a follow-up mission, Rimau, was an abject failure with all 23 participants killed.

Z Special Unit was assembled from mainly Australian, British, Dutch and New Zealand members but it also recruited fighters of Timorese and Indonesian heritage.

The unit is said to have carried out 284 missions in the Pacific, sneaking into places such as Timor and New Guinea. By war’s end, 32 men from Z Unit were in Borneo, working in four areas against 30,000 enemy soldiers.

Sworn to secrecy, Z veterans were not allowed to tell anyone of their experiences until 1980.

In 1943 some officers of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) wanted to strike the Japanese in their secure strongholds.

Then Captain Ivan Lyon, 28, of the Gordon Highlanders, teamed up with Australian Bill Reynolds, 61, and hatched a plan to attack the Japanese in Singapore harbour. They would launch collapsible canoes carrying commandos who would attach limpet mines to the Japanese shipping. The Plan was approved by the top brass and Operation Jaywick, with a 14-man force, was launched.

Their secret training base was established just out of Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Reynolds owned a battered Japanese coastal vessel 68 ft by 10 ft (21.3 m x 3.3 m) called the Kofuku Maru, in which he took scores of refugees out of Singapore. He renamed the vessel the Krait.

 The Krait

The triumphant Operation Jaywick raid on Singapore Harbour in September and October 1943 is recorded for the Australian War Memorial magazine (2003) by Brad Manera:

“Operation Jaywick was a raid on shipping in Japanese-occupied Singapore harbour between September and October 1943. The raid was carried out by members of Special Operations Australia (SOA) from Z Special Unit. The team comprised of four British soldiers, and 11 AIF and Royal Australian Navy personnel, commanded by a British officer, Major Ivan Lyon.”

Engine trouble

Disguised as Malay fishermen, Lyon’s team travelled from Exmouth in Western Australia to Subor Island, 6.8 mi (11 km) from Singapore, in the MV Krait. The Krait was a slow-moving, wooden-hulled vessel and suffered engine trouble for the duration of the voyage.

 Commemorative plaque near Exmouth WA

Reaching the island three-and-a-half weeks after leaving Australia, the team launched three two-man collapsible canoes (folboats). Lyon and five others then paddled into Singapore harbour. Arriving at night they split up and slipped from ship to ship attaching limpet mines, paddling another 45 mi (80 km) to rendezvous with Krait six days later on 2 October.

When the mines exploded, seven ships were sunk or badly damaged. The Krait recovered the canoeists and sailed back to Australia.

Over the course of the war, the Krait was said to have sunk more shipping than any other ship in the Australian navy.

In a subsequent mission, Operation Rimau, the raiding party was detected by the enemy, hunted down and executed. Seventeen of them are buried in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore.

Seven members of Operation Jaywick, including Ivan Lyon, took part in the Rimau raid, which was also directed at shipping in Singapore Harbour.

This time, the unit comprising 23 men planned to use one-man motorised submersible canoes after being delivered close to the harbour by submarine. They were to capture a fishing boat and sail it into the harbour.

They left their base near Perth on 11 September 1944 aboard the British submarine HMS Porpoise.

The raid went according to plan until a coast patrol spotted their commandeered junk. The Australians fired on the patrol boat but its crew was able to report what they had encountered. It was decided to abort the raid and make the rendezvous with the rescue submarine HMS Tantalus that was standing by.

One of the Z crew reportedly made it into Singapore Harbour and destroyed three ships before fleeing. Eighteen of the raiding party made it to Merapas Island. There they were attacked by a Japanese unit and fought the Japanese off with the loss of two men.

The men from the unit split into two groups, one setting off to meet the rescue submarine on 7 November. But the submarine wasn’t there. It was hunting enemy shipping, it was later revealed, and was not made aware of the urgency for picking up the raiding party.

The rescue submarine did not reach the rendezvous area until 21 November. The deadline for picking up the raiding party was 7 December and when that passed the survivors tried to make their own escape, island hopping through enemy held territory from Singapore back to Australia. Members of the raiding parties were captured, killed in firefights or drowned.

The captured men were put on trial for espionage by their Japanese captors, found guilty and beheaded on 7 July.

Z unit is credited by the Australian Army as the basis for the modern Special Air Services Regiment (SAS).

Operation Menzies

The history of Z Special Unit is recorded in Silent Feet, (G.B. Courtney, MBE, MC, Slouch Hat Publications).

Operation Menzies, described in the book, involved a group of six men. A former member commented to his family: “It’s accurate as far as it goes”. The comment reflected the secrecy that still surrounds much of the force’s wartime activity. This veteran wasn’t even able to tell his immediate family precise details and wasn’t allowed to talk of his service at all until 1980. He told of training for the operation on Fraser Island off the Queensland coast. He spoke highly of the Dutch submarine crews, the DC-3 pilots who dropped supplies to the troops in the danger zones and the Fuzzy Wuzzies, the name given by Australian troops to Papua New Guinean people who during World War II assisted and escorted injured Australian troops down the Kokoda trail.

Operation Menzies took place in Dutch New Guinea. A Dutch submarine carried the six operatives from Darwin to the Vogelkop Peninsula area where they went ashore in folboats. Their mission was to observe and report enemy activity on aerodromes at Samate on north-east corner of Salawati Island, on Jefman Island in the Sele Strait and at Sarong on the north-0east tip of Vogelkop.

The mission was fraught with danger as they were close to Japanese troops all the time. The six men spent 100 days in the jungle during the wet season. They reported on Japanese bomber movements daily and discovered an airfield that was camouflaged by day and used by the Japanese by night to avoid American bombing raids.

After noting greatly increased Japanese activity in the area, they six were taken by PT boat to Sansapor where it was decided they should be returned to Melbourne. They returned without serious injury or illness, a good result when it is remembered that the first two parties sent to the area on such missions reportedly disappeared without trace.

The 600 or so members of the Z Special Unit never congregated as a whole force. Members only came together when nominated for particular missions.                

Many of the war records of Z Special Unit members remain in sealed envelopes.

Apparently soldiers who joined Z Special Unit were offered 5 shillings a week danger money.

Z Special Unit was the subject of an SBS documentary series Australia’s Secret Heroes which featured interviews with original Z members — and put descendents of the operatives through the unit’s arduous training.

The missions and bravery of Z Special Unit are commemorated at the Australian War Memorial. The plaque was unveiled by Jack Tredrea, 96, of Adelaide.

Mr Tredrea was a member of the Z Special Unit that as part of Operation Semut in Malaysian Borneo, that involved parachuting into the jungle with weapons and cyanide pills.

Operation Semut involved four “squads” each of eight men. By the end of the war, Operation Semut had made more than 2,900 kills and taken more than 300 prisoners.

  • This article first appeared in Elite Special Forces by Chris McLeod, Wilkinson Publishing, 2015


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