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Special Operations Commander Australia address at the plaque dedication on the 70th anniversary of Z Special Force

Major General Jeff Sengelman, DSC, AM, CSC, address at the plaque dedication on the 70th anniversary of Z Special Force, the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Monday 1 August 2016.
1 August 2016
Major General Jeff Sengelman, DSC, AM, CSC
Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Check against delivery.

Minister, honourable member, distinguished guests, veterans, ladies and gentlemen


Most especially, I wish to extend a warm welcome to the veterans of Z Special Force and their families and friends.  I would also like to acknowledge the superb efforts of those involved from the Australian War Memorial, the Special Air Service Association, the Australian Commando Association and, in particular, the families of veterans for their dedication to make this commemoration possible.

On so many occasions in the recent past I have stood at this sacred national memorial and been mesmerised as its Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, with incredible oratory skill, has honoured and strengthened our collective memory of the extraordinary sacrifice of all those Australians who have served in conflicts past and present. With a visible passion, deep respect and genuine emotion, he quite literally brings to life the war stories of our past and the people it touched. It ensures we remember with a dignity and honesty that says much about us as a nation. It also helps us try to understand and comprehend the scale and impact of the sacrifices made, and how these contributed so directly to the freedoms we enjoy today.

This morning, as we come together for this Z Special Unit Plaque Ceremony, and in recognition of the special operations heritage of Z special force, as Special Operations Commander Australia, the honour of delivering the commemorative address falls to me.

Today, with us here, are 15 surviving Z Special veterans and the widows of 22 more. Although it has taken more than 70 years, to each of you, can I say on behalf of a grateful nation, that with this plaque dedication, we honour and remember the enormous sacrifice, we pay formal tribute to the incredible feats of Z Special Unit and we reflect on the heavy impact on families and friends of those who were left behind. 

The history of the Special Operations Executive and the exploits of its units and operatives in Europe during the Second World War are generally well known and recorded.  However, the war that unfolded in what was back then referred to as the Far East, is sometimes considered the ‘forgotten war’ and it follows that the contributions of Special Operations operatives in this theatre are comparably less well known and recorded.

Even today, many Australians simply don’t realise that the efforts and sacrifice of those special operations operatives, including Z Special Force, who served in our region, were just as daring, enterprising and substantial as in any other theatre of World War Two.  That their contribution was directly related to the defence of Australia and its neighbours, in my eyes, only adds to the importance of their service and the significance of their recognition here today.

For those who do not know, Z Special Unit was a secret element of the Australian Military Forces and a principal force element of Special Operations Australia during the Second World War.  Today, the men and women in Special Operations Command continue to study the recorded history of Z Special. The archives were only released in 1981 and unfortunately, many of the original records were sanitised at the end of World War II, so much will never be known.

The organisation was part of the highly classified Allied Intelligence Bureau and operated under the cover names ofInter-Allied Services Department and Services Reconnaissance Department.  The veterans of these organisations were the pioneers of Australian Special Operations. 

Although it was unique at that time, they recognised the importance of joint and combined organisations as vital to the successful execution of Special Operations.  Accordingly, Special Operations Australia during World War Two included soldiers, sailors and airmen from Australia, Britain, France, New Zealand, Holland, Canada, the United States, Malaya, China, the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies (Dutch and Indonesian), Papua New Guinea, Portuguese Timor, British North Borneo and Sarawak.  This was a true team of teams and very much reflects the way we continue to operate today.

Special Operations Australia conducted over 80 operations, comprising over 264 missions into enemy occupied territory in the Pacific and South East Asia theatres from June 1942 onwards.  These were high-risk missions with operatives being parachuted behind enemy lines from Liberator bombers, or inserted from the sea by submarines or aboard disguised vessels such as the Krait or the famous Snake-Boats.  In all, 164 of these operatives were killed, 75 captured, and 178 were declared missing-in-action.

In all, over 300 Z operatives operated in small groups behind enemy lines throughout the Asia-Pacific for nearly four years.  Their purpose was to conduct clandestine operations including sabotage and collection of information to support the eventual invasion by Allied Forces. 

They worked with indigenous fighters and, together with these brave people, managed to control large swathes of territory to undermine and disrupt Japanese operations.  They reported on the movements of land and maritime forces and conducted raids that struck at the heart of enemy capabilities. Their presence and activities created doubt and uncertainty amongst the enemy and provided solidarity and resolve to their indigenous partners.  Consequently, they helped forge a unique Australian Special Operations identity that still resonates strongly.  

While techniques, equipment and technology available to special operations today may have changed remarkably since then, I would offer that there is much that would be common in the character, courage and commitment between Z special operatives of the past and their modern counterparts.  In fact, I don’t doubt that given the chance, each of the Z special veterans with us here would happily show us a thing or two given the incredible skills and experiences they have!

So what made them ‘special’?  Well primarily, they were asked to do a great deal, with very little and at great personal risk. Moreover, they volunteered to do it.  Subsequently, in the course of extremely arduous and demanding training, they were individually selected and went on to undertake missions of such audacity, risk and daring; that even now, stand apart.

After surviving their insertion, by methods that at the time were still new and developing, they had to evade detection. They operated in isolation, surrounded and outnumbered by a ruthless enemy in some of the most challenging terrain imaginable, sustaining themselves with only the equipment they could carry and what resources they could win locally. 

Their success depended on their ingenuity, guile, endurance, teamwork, and their personal ability to gain the confidence and trust of local indigenous people, alongside whom, they would operate and fight. 

These factors characterised the superb and better-known successes exemplified on Operations such as Jaywick and Semut.  In 1945, the Semut operatives tirelessly trudged from kampung to kampung through the remote interior of Borneo, now part of Malaysia and Indonesia.  Together this team controlled an area of 16,000 square miles containing 125,000 people where the enemy could not operate freely.

There were many extraordinary successes and there were also missions that ended in tragedy, like those that were mounted in the early years of the war like Lizard in Timor, and Perch in Irian Jaya where so many operatives were lost.

Or Operation Rimau in October 1944 where operatives were evading south from Singapore through what is now the Riau Province of Indonesia. All of these brave men were ultimately lost but the psychological impact on the enemy was substantial.  To know that there were men like this, willing to undertake such risks, so far away, without any support and who could strike them anywhere, at any time, had a profound effect on the enemy.

For me, the incredible story of Sapper Dennis, the sole survivor from Operation Copper conducted near Aitape in April 1945 underscores this point. His seven companions all perished, four in the sea, another three in an ambush. His subsequent seven-day evasion back to an Australian unit, for which he was awarded the Military Medal, was simply amazing.  

I say this, not to single him out, but to highlight the risk and uncertainty that routinely characterised these kinds of missions, and in some respects, are factors that endure for modern special operations today.

To the Z special veterans here.

You might be interested to know that Special Operations in 2016 still includes the capacity to conduct clandestine activities to support national and strategic requirements.

As with our forebears in Z Special Unit and Special Operations Australia, our operations continue to be characterised by their joint and interagency nature and the ability to integrate and work with counterparts and cultures from around the globe.  We remain a team of teams, and we always will be. 

Our adversaries today are different, but they are no less ruthless. I suspect that those of Z Special who were involved in recovering the Sultan of Ternate on Operation Oppossum, or rescuing the airmen on Operation Raven would relate to the adversaries current special operations forces, have and are continuing to face in the Middle East.

While thankfully we are no longer faced with the imperative to issue cyanide tablets to our operatives, we continue today to expect tight operational security and endure interrogation if captured. Our communications procedures are still mindful of Operation Lagarto in Timor where faulty staff procedures led to the compromise of several groups in succession.

Even though our submarines and other technology are very different from the incorrigible sleeping beauty submersible canoes, in other ways we are no more advanced.  Lieutenant Malcolm Wright who strapped his dinghy on the outside of the submarine before inserting into New Britain as a coast watcher might be surprised to know that not much has changed!

Those of you in 200 Flight would be pleased to know that in the air these days we can parachute from 25,000 feet as well as from a very low level. Pleasingly, though, we do not have to pack our own parachutes like Sergeant Danny Shepherd and his team did the night before inserting into Borneo. 

On the sabotage side of life, the standard demolition charge of one and three quarters pounds of plastic explosive designed to fit inside a railway "I" beam is still used, although its relative importance has diminished.

And unlike Operation Starfish, we would probably use beacons and target designation systems to direct bombs onto targets in the Lombok Strait.

Those of you who served in the Far Eastern Liaison Office would note the current use of the internet to wage modern propaganda war or Information Operations as it is now known and nowadays the headquarters for Special Operations approximates what you would recall as the headquarters of the Allied Intelligence Bureau in Queen's Road in Melbourne.


Z Experimental Station, or what you knew as the ‘house on the hill’ behind Cairns burnt down some years ago, but you can rest assured that today their modern equivalents means that there are other ‘houses’ on other hills, and their utility serves exactly the same purpose.

Today, training that you would have associated with Fraser Island is done all around the country and overseas. The modern daily programs still have a lot of commonality with Z, although modern operators are just as likely to be carrying a computer, as they will be a rifle.

The Lugger Maintenance Station at the leper colony in Darwin is long gone, but we have maintained the tradition of naming our offshore safety craft after your snake-boats. The Coral Snake is alive and well in Gauge Roads off Fremantle.  

The Z signallers will not be surprised to learn that radio communications are still fickle, and while there are many technological advances with digital and satellite equipment, they still require constant attention and care to keep Mr Murphy at bay.  I am reminded of the story of Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Lyons who deployed with a radio but no codes. That would not happen today (I hope!) as radios now electronically generate their own codes.

I conclude my remarks by citing Professor Alan Powell from his account of the Allied Intelligence Bureau in his book ‘War By Stealth’, “yours is an image of courage, endurance and daring left by men who fought a ruthless enemy in the forests and mountains of South East Asia. Theirs is a tale to be remembered.”

The record, shortly to be enshrined in the Z Special Unit plaque dedicated here today, clearly shows that the volunteers who served in Z Special were not found wanting in our nations time of great need, and it was indeed, their finest hour.

Operatives of Z Special Unit, past and present, on behalf of every Australian, the Australian Defence Force and in particular, all members of Special Operations Command Australia, we salute you.

Thank you.

Last updated
26 February 2018
Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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