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Establishing Special Forces in Australia


Adapted with kind permission from

'SAS Phantoms Of The Jungle' by D.M. Horner





Establishment of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Britain.

(See article right)



Australia acts on British advice to establish Independent Companies for roles similar to SOE.

(See article right)


March 1942:

SOE Officers arrive in Australia. Inter-allied Services Department (ISD) established.

(See article right)


April 1943:

ISD renamed the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) following review of responsibilities in the Allied Intelligence Bureau.

(See article right)



Establishment of M and Z Special Units.

(See article right)



AIB reach full operational potential.

(See article right)


Post WWII:

Demobilization of Australia's Wartime Army.

(See article right)


July 1947:

No Special Forces in Australian Army organisation.

(See article right)



British 21 SAS Established.

(See article right)



British 22 SAS Regiment Established.

(See article right)



Early stirrings for raising Australian SAS unit.

(See article right)



Proposal for new Army organisation includes a SAS Squadron.

(See article right)




Churchill Carries the War to

German Occupied Europe


1940: British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, seeking to carry the war to German occupied Europe formed the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to coordinate all action, by way of subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas.




Initially SOE was the responsibility of the Minister for Economic Warfare and spanned three organizations: a propaganda organization, an organization within the Foreign Office to conduct sabotage and a War Office section to conduct guerilla warfare. As a result of a re-alignment of responsibilities, the guerilla warfare element remained with the War Office and grew into the Directorate of Combined Operations and eventually Combined Operations Headquarters.




These activities had a flow on effect in Australia when the Chief

of the Imperial General Staff in Britain sent a cable to Australian Army Headquarters outlining a proposal that special branches be established in the dominions to conduct para-military activities against the enemy, including raids, demolitions, and organizing civil resistance and sabotage in enemy or enemy occupied territories.



To assist in this the British proposed sending a Military Mission headed by Lieutenant Colonel J.C. Mawhood who arrived in Australia in November 1940.


Establishment and Training of

Independent Companies


1941: Royal Australian Navy (RAN) intelligence officers were appointed to supervise the civil servants, plantation managers and missionaries in the islands to the north of Australia, who had been organized prior to the outbreak of war, to provide intelligence and coast watching information should their islands be occupied by the enemy.



Concurrently, the Australian Army, acting on British advice had begun to train Independent Companies whose role would include raids, demolitions, sabotage, subversion and organizing civil resistance, as these activities would be carried out by SOE in Europe. Initially it was planned to send the first trained Independent Companies to the Middle East, however, perhaps anticipating a Japanese advance, it was decided to use them in the islands to the north and north-east of Australia to warn of the approach of Japanese forces and to remain behind and harass the invaders.






British SOE Officers Arrive in Australia


March 1942: Two British SOE officers arrived in Australia after service in Singapore and Java to assist in establishing a SOE organization, which supported by General Thomas Blamey, Commander in Chief of the Australian Military Forces, had the approval of the Prime Minister of Australia, John Curtin.




In May 1942 a new special operations organization, the

Inter-allied Services Department (ISD) was set up in Melbourne under General Blamey’s control.



Realignment of Unconventional Warfare Responsibilities


April 1943: ISD became the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) after an internal re-alignment of responsibilities in the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) which coordinated the various unconventional warfare organizations within General MacArthur’s Headquarters.



SRD was created to conduct SOE-type operations, including obtaining intelligence, and the ‘execution of subversive and highly specialized sabotage chiefly by means of undercover methods’. While SRD took time to gain operational momentum, the surviving Independent Companies, renamed Cavalry (Commando) Squadrons and later Commando Squadrons, conducted offensive operations against the Japanese in Timor and New Guinea.



Transfer of Personnal from Commando Squadrons to M and Z Special Units


1944: The Commando Squadrons had been brigaded to form the 2/6th, 2/7th and 2/9th Australian Cavalry (Commando) Regiments, the headquarters of which had originally been the Cavalry Regiments of the 6th, 7th and 9th Australian Divisions. Many Commandos eventually transferred to SRD and were allotted to either M or Z Special Units.



These units were the administrative holding units for Army personnel serving with the AIB. M Special Unit was the North-East Regional Section operating in New Guinea and the Solomons, while Z Special Unit was SRD and operated in Borneo and the Netherlands East Indies.



SRD also assisted SOE in providing manning and assistance in the conduct of Operation JAYWICK, the successful raid against Japanese shipping in Singapore in 1943 and Operation RIMAU, which was the unsuccessful attempt in 1944.




Parallel Between AIB Operations and SAS


1945: AIB realizes its full operational potential and although the Philippines Section had been separated completely from the organization, there remained 1659 Australian and British personnel, 1100 natives, 268 Dutch and 19 Americans on the AIB establishment.



In addition, AIB possessed its own flight of aircraft and its own surface fleet. General Sturdee, commanding the First Australian Army at this time, claimed that half his operational intelligence was collected by AIB parties.



Further it was estimated that AIB had killed 7061Japanese, taken 141 prisoners and rescued 1054 servicemen and civilians from enemy-occupied areas and with this emphasis on small groups operating deep behind enemy lines the AIB provided the closest parallel to what later became the Special Air Service (SAS) although Australian Special Forces actually owe their beginning to the Coastwatchers and the Independent Companies as well.



General Demobilization and Establishment of Full-Time Infantry Battalions



Post WWII: The Government of Australia demobilized most of the wartime Army, but did however establish three full-time infantry battalions in order to provide the Australian contribution to the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan.



New Australian Regular Army Organisation Does Not Include Special Forces


July 1947: The new Australian Defence Policy was announced declaring that the Australian Regular Army was to consist of three infantry battalions then serving in Japan and an armoured regiment. The Citizen Military Force (CMF), to be formed in 1948, was planned to expand to two infantry divisions and an armoured brigade, but no special forces were to be raised.



Special Forces had more success in Britain, where at the end of the war, Brigadier Mike Calvert, commander of the SAS Brigade wrote to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff suggesting an investigation into the results achieved by the SAS and other similar formations during the war.



The Directorate of Tactical Investigations at the War Office, headed by Major-General Sidney Rowell, an Australian officer on loan to the War Office, was directed to undertake the investigation. The War Office conclusions at the completion of the investigation were:


• There was unlikely ever again to be a war with static front lines, except perhaps for short periods.


• Small parties of well trained and thoroughly disciplined troops operating behind enemy lines achieve results out of all proportion to the numbers involved.


• Their operations are, and should be quite distinct from non-regular groups such as SOE, or Secret Service.


• The full potential for such units is not yet fully known but there is clearly scope for tremendous development.


• The role of SAS troops should never be confused with the normal role of the infantry. The SAS is more specialized.



British SAS Re-established as a

Territorial Unit


1947: As a result of the War Office study, a territorial unit, 21 SAS was born but it took the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 to initiate moves to form a full-time SAS unit.



22 SAS a Regular Army Unit


1952: 22 SAS Regiment is formed in the United Kingdom as a regular army unit, serving in Malaya until 1959.



Australian Officers Become Aware of Success of British SAS in Malaya



1955: Australian Army units begin arriving in Malaya and select Australian officers become aware of how successfully 22 SAS elements are operating in that environment.


Concurrently there is agitation for the raising of a SAS unit in Australia, especially from Stewart Harris, a journalist with the Brisbane Courier Mail who had served in 21 SAS for a year before migrating to Australia in 1951.



Harris had enthusiastically floated the idea of forming an Australian SAS unit with the Minister for the Army, Mr Josiah Francis and the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant-General Sir Sydney Rowell.




Although Harris gained support for the proposal from the Australian Governor General, Field Marshal Slim and others, it appeared that there was no real support for the idea in Australia, especially in senior Australian military circles at that time.



In 1954 however Captain John Slim, the Field Marshal’s son, was posted to Australia to join the United Kingdom Services Liaison Staff in Melbourne. John Slim had served with SAS in Malaya, had discussed the possibility of forming a SAS unit in Australia with David Stirling and contacted Stewart Harris on arriving in Melbourne. Slim wrote a supporting paper, which he gave to Rowell and Francis and also spoke to the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.





He also put his views to Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Wells, who became Chief of the General Staff in December 1954.



In March 1955 New Zealand announced that they would raise a SAS Squadron for rotational service with the British SAS in Malaya.




It is difficult to determine the effect of a post World War II change to the strategic environment, the conclusion of the Korean War, the defeat of France in Indo-China and the US Army forming the 10th Special Forces Group had on senior Australian Army thinking at the time. However it was decided that with the financial constraints of the day, if Australia was to raise true special forces they would have to be part of the CMF. Due to experience from World War II, the Australian Army was more inclined to form Commando, rather than SAS units and in January 1955 it was announced that two CMF Commando companies were to be raised, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne.



Military Board Details Reasons for Establishing SAS Squadron


1956: Saw the release of the Strategic Basis document, which reflected the changing strategic environment and Australia’s ability to prepare for and participate in Cold War activities and limited warfare. The document emphasized these contingencies should take priority over measures directed solely for preparedness for global war. As a consequence, Australia had to have adequate forces immediately available to deter or defeat any hostile action that might prejudice vital Australian interests in South East Asia.



A review of the Army’s operational forces and staff studies during 1956 concluded that the minimum requirement would be a ‘mobile, hard-hitting‘ regular brigade group in addition to the battalion group with the Strategic Reserve in Malaya and on 31 October 1956 the Military Board proposed to the Minister for the Army (Mr J. O. Cramer) that a new headquarters for the brigade be raised and that the brigade group would consist of two infantry battalions, one armoured regiment, one field artillery regiment, one field engineer squadron, one special air service squadron, and elements of signals, supply, transport, medical, ordnance and workshop units; with a strength of 252 officers and 4331 other ranks.



Many of the major units for the new brigade were already in existence, but the SAS squadron was a completely new unit and the Military Board proposal spelt out the reason for including it in the new brigade:


"This is a new unit to the Australian Army. The squadron consists of specially trained men capable of being parachuted behind or infiltrating enemy lines and of operating in small detachments for comparatively lengthy periods. They are trained in sabotage, the collection of intelligence, and similar commando-like roles.


Exercises in NATO armies have shown that these squadrons are suited for the difficult task of locating and advising to a commander, targets most suitable for engagement by either tactical atomic weapons, ground or air launched, such as guided missiles and cannon, or by rocket and bomb attack by the Tactical Air Force.




In Malaya, Special Air Service Units are proving of great value in operations calling for deep jungle penetration. Such troops can be dropped into areas virtually inaccessible to other ground forces. Here they establish liaison with local tribesmen, create confidence in remote villages, gain information of Communist activities and take rapid punitive action. In general they dominate the area in which they operate. It is clear how vital to the operations of our forces such units could be in event of war in South East Asia.


The nucleus for a Special Air Service squadron is available in the existing airborne platoon and in the number of other men who have been trained as parachutists."



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