Exhibition: From the Shadows – Australia’s Special Forces

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From the Shadows: Australian Special Forces exhibition at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra is open until 8 September 2018.

Australia’s special forces trace their history back to World War 2, with the operations conducted by the Independent Commando companies, Navy Beach Commando, the Services Reconnaissance Department SRD (Z Special Unit) and the Allied Intelligence Bureau (M Special Unit). Post war, the skills and traditions were maintained by the commando companies which later evolved into 1 Commando Regiment and then in 1957 by the raising of a Special Air Service Company which became the Special Air Service Regiment in 1964. 2 Commando Regiment evolved out of the re-tasking of the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, to take on the commando role becoming 4 RAR (Cdo) in 1997 and then 2 Commando Regiment in 2009.

Command and control for Australian special operations units was initially maintained by the Directorate Special Action Forces – Army (DSAF) which was formed in 1979 and underwent several changes, becoming Headquarters Special Forces (1990), Headquarters Special Operations (1997) and in 2003 Special Operations Command (SOCOM). Commanded by a Major General, SOCOM also brings other special operations support units under its control, namely the Special Operations Logistic Squadron (SOLS), Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER), Special Operations Training and Education Centre (SOTEC) and Parachute Training School (PTS).

In keeping with the requirements of special forces operations, the activities of many of Australia’s special operations units have, largely, been kept out of the public domain despite a gruelling tempo of operational commitments that has barely let up since the INTERFET deployment to East Timor in 1999. Public interest in the units has grown markedly and this temporary exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra provides a rare insight into the activities of the Australian special forces in recent years.

Developed in partnership with SOCOM, this exhibition features items held behind closed doors in the Special Air Service Historical Collection, Commando Regiment collection and other sources as well as some artifacts from the AWM’s collections. The displays provide some historical insights into the development of the units along with uniforms, equipment and artifacts related to its various roles, tasks and operations with an emphasis recent operational deployments.

It had been several years since I was last able to visit the AWM, so I recently took advantage of an opportunity to visit Canberra and spend a few solid days checking out this exhibition and the other displays. As previously mentioned, From the Shadows draws on objects held in the unit collections and not available for public viewing. There are over 600 artifacts on display and I was surprised to find that many of the SF related items that are held in the AWM collection such as SAS trooper Don Barnby’s uniform from Vietnam or objects relating to Z Special Unit’s operations against the Japanese, remained in their respective exhibition areas which further helps to contextualise these units roles in the conflicts represented.

The photos that I have included here are just a taste of what is on offer in the From the Shadows exhibition and I’ll leave my other photos from the AWM collection for another post. From the Shadows runs until the 8th of September 2018. If you can make the trip to Canberra to check it out, I strongly recommend that you do, it is an excellent exhibition. More details about the exhibition can be found at the Australian War Memorial website. The ABC also did a piece about it when the exhibition first opened in 2017 and it is worth taking a look at. You can find a link to their article here.

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WW2 period Australian parachutist wing worn by a member of Z Special Unit, Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD). This is a locally made variation of the Australian parachutist qualification. The standard issue Australian wings were generally not available for issue at the posting locations of Z Special (SRD) personnel, so locally procured variations, often hand made, such as this one were procured by operatives for use.

WW2 British No. 2 Commando beret

WW2 British No. 2 Commando beret on loan from the 1 Commando Regiment Historical Collection. This is an interesting inclusion as it was not worn by Australian commandos, but I could find no explanatory caption to give more information. The British commando unit that used this beret was disbanded in 1946 and the Australian commando companies were formed in 1955. Whilst there must be some connection and I can only assume it was donated to the unit museum by a former member of the British 2 Commando I wonder what the curators rationale was for including this item in the display?

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Early 1950’s period flag of 1 Commando Company (CMF).

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A unique and very early Commando Company beret which features the first 1955 issue pattern commando company beret badge that was produced with vertical striations at the centre of the boomerang. Also attached is an early basic parachutist wing, which is possibly of WW2 British vintage. The headband of this beret has also been modified by removing the bottom half to show the sherwood green of the beret beneath the black band (the regimental colours). I suspect that this beret has been modified by a veteran after his service in the commando companies as it is unlikely these modifications would have been permitted during service.

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On loan from 2 Commando Company, this parachute smock was worn by WO1 Douglas “Dutchy” Holland during his time as a PJI at the Parachute Training School at Williamstown. ‘Dutchy’, who had served in the RAF from 1940 until 1948, qualified as a (RAAF) PJI in 1954 and retired in 1962. He decorated this dennison jump smock with various Australian and foreign parachute insignia.

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Australian Special Forces HALO parachutist.

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Artifacts related to the Tactical Assault Group (TAG) counter terrorist teams.

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TAG Assaulter

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During the 1970s and into the 1980s, terrorist hijacking of commercial aircraft were not uncommon. Members of SASR used aircraft models such as this example, during counter-terrorism training for planning an assault on an aircraft and to discuss tactics for recovering hostages.

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Detail of the Members of an aircraft model used by SASR in the 1980’s, during counter-terrorism training for planning an assault on an aircraft and to discuss tactics for recovering hostages. Note the Airfix SAS toy soldiers which were released after the British SAS conducted the now famous assault to free hostages held by terrorists in the Iranian Embassy in London in 1980.

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Pong Su life buoy. The skills and experience of the Tactical Assault Groups (TAGs) in boarding vessels moving at sea have enabled them to contribute to a number of ADF operations conducted with other government agencies such as the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Customs. On 20 April 2001 members of the SAS with the TAG provided force elements that boarded the suspected drug smuggling vessel MV Pong Su off the coast of New South Wales. The SAS boarded the vessel by Seahawk helicopter and Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB). Once the vessel was secured, officers from the AFP and Australian Customs Service boarded the Pon Su to gather evidence and make arrests. They discovered 40 kilograms of heroin and the victim of an alleged homicide. MV Pong Su was thought to have smuggled almost 125 kilograms of heroin.

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Maritime counter-terrorism assaulter. A maritime counter-terrorism assaulter of Tactical Assault Group (East). During the 1980s and 1990s Royal Australian Navy (RAN) clearance divers served with the Special Air Service Regiment and today they work with TAG-East to conduct maritime counter-terrorism duties. In addition to providing a Clearance Diver Assault Platoon, the RAN’s support of TAG-East has included a team of clearance diver snipers and underwater medics.

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Uniform of Private Matthew Martin, 1 Commando Regiment. Private Martin wore this uniform in Timor-Leste during Operation Astute in 2006-7. In the early hours of 4 March 2007 he was among Australian forces that assaulted rebel leader Alfredo Reinado’s compound in the village of Same, about 50 kilometers south of Dili. The rebels were killed, but Reinado escaped. He was shot dead leading an attack against the Timorese president and prime minister on 11 February 2008.

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Australian Special Forces uniform worn during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Australian Special Forces uniform worn during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Sig Sean McCarthy KIA 8 July 08

Headrest from the seat used by Signaller Sean McCarthy, 152 Signal Squadron, SASR. KIA Afghanistan 8 July 2008. Signaller Sean McCarthy was on his second rotation to Afghanistan when his vehicle “Derelicte” was hit by a roadside bomb. He was killed in the blast. This vehicle headrest inscribed with the details of the incident commemorates McCarthy and is on loan to the Australian War Memorial from the Special Air Service Historical Foundation. McCarthy had received a commendation for his courage, skills and mission focus during his deployments with the Special Operations Task Group.

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JTAC Combat Control Team items from B Flight, No. 4 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

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The Special Air Service constructed this ‘storyboard’ collage in Afghanistan to display the weapons and equipment found on the body of a Taliban insurgent they had killed. Code-named ‘Depth-charger’, the insurgent carried a diverse range of equipment: a Soviet AK-47 dating from the early 1950’s, a Soviet Makarov pistol, locally manufactured binoculars and ammunition pouch, and an American radio. Much of his equipment was personalised with bright fabric and reflective tape additions.

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4 responses to “Exhibition: From the Shadows – Australia’s Special Forces

  1. Great pics and nice detail!! Can’t be easy to shoot in those low light, high reflective conditions. I tried at the Infantry Museum in Singo and came a cropper!

    • Thanks mate. Just spent some time working out where the reflections were falling and then took almost all of them with my iphone, so there is a bit of noise when they’re blown up. If you have an iphone I recommend the Procamera app (not sure if it is available for android phones). It gives you a fair bit of exposure, focusing and other control.
      cheers
      jules

  2. Pingback: ‘Dutchy’ Holland’s Para Smock | JULESWINGS

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