Krait during the Second World War

Krait during the Second World War. Photo: Australian War Memorial

Honouring brave commandos, finally

A secret Australian military unit that operated behind enemy lines during the Second World War is being honoured due to the work of ANU anthropologist Christine Helliwell, as ROSS PEAKE reports.

Dr Helliwell’s project to gain recognition for the role of the commandos of Z Special Unit, many of whom were killed by the Japanese, led to a ceremony in August at the Australian War Memorial.

Helliwell, an Associate Professor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, travelled for several months in the jungles of Sarawak on Borneo in 2015, recording the memories of local people about the Second World War.

In 1943, Z Special Unit members had sailed from Australia to Singapore on the Krait, disguised as an Asian fishing boat, in Operation Jaywick to conduct a successful raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour.

The unit subsequently conducted around 80 raids in the south-west Pacific, but many members died in these operations or were captured by the Japanese and tortured and beheaded. “They had a very high attrition rate,” she says.

During the last six months of the war, the commandos roamed the jungles of Borneo in Operation Semut – the Malay word for ant.

The soldiers had parachuted into the jungle, not knowing how they would be received by local people.

“There’d be groups of six to eight men, moving through the jungle on their own, recruiting guerrillas, operating over vast areas, with the Japanese hunting for them,” Helliwell says. “They all survived, that’s partly why it was so successful – it was extraordinary.”