Secret & Special is a compelling anti-war history, telling the story of the Z Special Unit in World War II

Will Davies. Picture: Tristan Davies

Will Davies. Picture: Tristan Davies

  • Secret & Special: The untold story of Z Special Unit in the Second World War, by Will Davies. Vintage Books, $34.99.

This is a sad book, quite unlike the usual approach taken by those who write Australian military history.

While the bravery, integrity, resilience and initiative of the men in Z Special is never questioned the usefulness of their tasks, the ability to plan their operations and to assess the risks involved is revealed as deficient and, in many cases, wasteful of lives.

Will Davies, a seasoned historian and writer, pulls no punches. With chapter headings like The Great Tragedy of Lagarto, The Ill-Fated Operation Copper and The Audacious Disaster at Rimau, the reader will quickly learn what to expect.

In the Rimau operation, every single operative was killed. One brave soldier, a captain, Keith Stringfellow, leader on other operations, said, when asked to volunteer for Rimau, "I don't think I'll accept this one . . . it was dangerous and not very well- planned". That, unfortunately, was true of many of the operations Will Davies describes in Secret & Special.

In 1940, the British formed what was then known as the Special Service Brigade, later the British Special Operations Executive. In Australia from June, 1940, Independent Companies were formed for special operations.

With many changes of name and methods, eventually Z Special emerged to "take the fight to the Japanese by operating to the north of Australia in enemy-held territory, striking in remote and unexpected places to destroy Japanese manpower and facilities and to undermine the enemy's morale".

Early success in Operation Jaywick gave Z Special a reputation for efficiency and daring that may have lulled planners into a disastrous false sense of invincibility. Travelling on the rough and ready fishing vessel, Krait, to within paddling distance of Singapore Harbour the operatives entered the Harbour unseen, attached limpet mines to Japanese shipping, destroyed much shipping, and thoroughly confused the enemy. All operatives escaped capture, thus encouraging a mind-set that was as foolhardy as it was unwarranted.

Members of Z Special, recruited from the AIF, therefore volunteering twice, conducted 81 raids and operations before the war ended. The men were highly trained, encouraged to use their initiative, bursting with fitness, and eager to take the fight to the Japanese. But in many cases their lives were thrown away recklessly. Most members of Z Special quickly came to understand the futility of war.

Telling a big story, Will Davies cannot dwell on individual acts of courage but he makes an exception for the remarkable account of the escape and survival of Sapper Edgar "Mick" Dennis on Maschu Island, close to the north coast of Papua New Guinea, opposite Wewak. "We were all well-trained and gave no thought of failure," Dennis wrote, but they had lost their boats on arrival, most of their equipment was ruined by falling into the sea, and there was no clear path of escape to Australian lines.

Slowly the number of Z Special operatives was savagely reduced as the Japanese, in overwhelming numbers, hunted the Australians. Eventually Mick Dennis was on his own, with no food, dwindling ammunition, and hunted along jungle tracks.

The account of his survival makes thrilling reading. Dennis eventually escapes to Papua New Guinea, where he figures the AIF front-line might now be. He makes good his escape and survives the war to die at Maroubra, Sydney, in 2015.

The reader will be satisfied to discover Dennis's courage and resilience, but must ask, what was it all for? It seems these men were inserted into a Japanese stronghold just to make nuisances of themselves and to keep the Japanese on high alert, unable to move to other more necessary tasks.

Should such bravery and training, of men of generosity, determination and such young lives, have been so wasted on such an obscure mission? It is Davies' strong contention that the achievement did not justify the cost, a theme to which he returns again and again. This is an anti-war military history.

Davies makes the point that Z Special records were locked away as soon as the war ended, with no access for researchers until very recently indeed.

Justified as a security measure to cover the modus operandi of similar but later sections of Australian army intelligence gathering, Davies suspects is that the high security classification was imposed to prevent the story of bungles being told. But in not telling the story at all, the men of Z Special were simply forgotten.

If this is true, it is reprehensible. Eventually the records had to be opened. Through thorough, detailed, and gruelling research, Davies now has the story.

Secret & Special deserves a wide readership and a special place in the canon of Australian military historical writing.

This story A sad waste of young, vibrant lives first appeared on The Canberra Times.