Australian Airborne Insignia #2. The 6RAR Parachute Company Group

6RAR Para Coy Gp. Exercise Distant Bridge - Painting by K. Wenzel, commissioned by Lt Col. A.L. Mattay and presented to the Battalion.

“Exercise Distant Bridge” – Painting by Ken Wenzel  and presented to 6RAR by Lt Col. A.L. Mattay, who was CO from January 1980 until December 1981. Exercise Distant Bridge was the first deployment by the 6RAR Para Coy Gp and the largest tactical air drop in Australia since WW2.

In 1974, the Brisbane based 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) under the command of Lt Col Tony Hammett took on an unofficial parachute role. At this time Australia had a special forces capability in the Special Air Service Regiment and the reservist Commando Companies, but no conventional airborne unit outside of the Airborne Platoon attached to the Parachute Training School. Hammett, who had been parachute qualified since 1959 encouraged soldiers of his battalion to undertake parachute training, but once qualified, they remained spread throughout the battalion. There were attempts in 1977 and 1978 to gain official parachute status but these were resisted until early in 1980 when the Enoggera based 6 Task Force was given approval to raise an airborne group based around an infantry rifle company.

Beret badges of 6RAR Para Coy Gp

Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) and the unofficial beret badge of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Approximately 150 of the unofficial beret badges were produced and presented to members of the company, but were never worn. The badge is die-struck with two clutch grip attachments and has a small ‘TAIWAN’ hallmark on the rear. Collection: Julian Tennant

Delta Company, 6RAR, which had achieved fame for its performance in the Battle of Long Tan in 1966, was selected for the task. Whilst remaining as Delta Company, it was now also officially called the 6RAR Parachute Company Group and by February 1981 had reached its target strength of 180 men. Shortly thereafter, on the 10th of April 1981, four C-130H Hercules aircraft from No. 36 Squadron flew 162 paratroopers from the company group 1600 kilometers from Amberley in Queensland to a DZ at an old WW2 airfield near Ross in Tasmania for Exercise DISTANT BRIDGE. This marked the the unit’s first full-scale deployment as an airborne force and the largest Australian tactical parachute drop since WW2.

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Australian parachutist wings for summer (top) and winter dress (bottom) as worn by members of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Collection: Julian Tennant

Apart from the standard Australian Army parachutist badge, the paratroopers of the 6RAR Para Coy Gp did not wear any officially authorised insignia to distinguish the unit from other formations. However, the 2IC of the unit, Captain Richard ‘Dick’ Arnel did have insignia produced with the intention of having the design recognised as the official unit badge. The badge, featuring an upright SLR bayonet on a parachute with outstretched wings, over a scroll with the words “6RAR PRCHT COY GP” was produced as beret and collar badges, cuff links, tiepins, challenge coins as well as sports patches. About 150 sets of the beret and collar badges were made and issued to members of D Coy 6RAR but they were never worn. The cloth sports patches, which were made locally within Australia appear to have had production continued long after the demise of the unit and can still be found for sale in surplus stores and other retail outlets.

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Track suit / sports uniform patches of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. The patch on the left, which has been removed from a uniform appears to be a modified variation of the patch on the right. I am not sure why the original owner may have carried out this modification. Collection: Julian Tennant

The raising of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group signaled the start of a standing conventional airborne capability for the Australian Army and led to formation of the larger battalion sized group when, in October 1983, the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) was designated a ‘Parachute Infantry Battalion’. Members of the 6RAR Para Coy Gp made one final jump near Amberley in Queensland before handing over the role and 3RAR formerly assumed the parachute role on the 1st of December 1983. 3RAR maintained the capability until 26th of August 2011, when it relinquished its airborne status and reverted to the role of a standard infantry battalion. Australia no longer has any conventional airborne units.

6RAR Para Coy Gp tie clip

Tie-clip made for members of the 6RAR Parachute Company Group. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Australian Airborne Insignia #1 – Airborne Platoon?

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As yet to be positively identified Australian Airborne patch. The design is printed on calico / linen material, reminiscent of the patches sometimes used by Australian and Commonwealth units in the 1950’s.

This is the first of an ongoing series of articles which will take a closer look at some of the insignia used by the Airborne and Special Operations units of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

This week, my thoughts on a couple of mystery Australian Airborne patches which have not yet been positively identified. I suspect that both of the badges featured have a connection to the platoon of qualified parachutists, known as Airborne Platoon, that has been attached to the Australian parachute training units since the 1950’s.

Airborne Platoon has been an integral part of the parachute training activities carried out within the Australian Defence Force since 1951. The platoon formation was promulgated in Military Board Instruction 145 of 21 September 1951 and states,

“Establish in the Australian Military Forces a mobile group capable of providing Army, inter-service and public duties in the following fields.

  1. Land/Air Warfare tactical research and development;
  2. Demonstrations to assist Land/Air Warfare training and security;
  3. Airborne fire fighting
  4. Airborne search and rescue;
  5. Aid to the civil power – national catastrophes.

Method: By regular attachment of a rifle platoon from the Royal Australian Regiment to the component of the School of Land/Air Warfare. Platoon to be relieved annually.”

In subsequent years the role and tasks performed by the Airborne Platoon has evolved and today its function is different to that originally outlined above. Soldiers from Airborne Platoon, which number around 20, assist with various training activities conducted at the Parachute Training School (PTS). Colloquially known as ‘stooging’ these include providing sticks of qualified parachutists for trainees to use during advanced courses for example the stick commander’s course as well as demonstrating techniques, operating simulators and training equipment etc.

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Airborne Platoon 1963. Note the unit crest with the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” superimposed on the boomerang. Unfortunately I have been unable to ascertain the exact colours used for the crest, however I suspect it may consist of a white parachute, pale blue wings, red brown kangaroo and yellow boomerang. The members of the platoon when this photograph was taken in 1963 are as follows:  Back row L-R – John Clarke, Frank Carroll, Charlie Liddell, Wayne Blank KIA in Vietnam , Mick Caroll DCM in Vietnam, Tom Davidson, Alex McCloskey DCM in Vietnam, Jimmy Acorn, “Smudger” Smith Centre L-R -Ted Harrison, Bernie Considine, John Burling, Peter Wilkes DCM in Vietnam, John Mulby, Rob Perry, John Durrington KIA in Vietnam, Roy Cladingbole, Ron Gilchrist, Sitting Front L-R – Brice French, Bob Mossman, Maurice Barwick, Dick Collins, Bill Jenkinson, Lou Langabeer

Members of the platoon wear the maroon beret and wing type for which they are qualified, but my research, thus far, does not indicate the use of any other authorised uniform insignia. However, photographs of the platoon show that the platoon displayed a distinctive unit crest for official photographs and also at the platoon lines on base. The crest features a stylised version of the Australian parachute qualification with white parachute and blue wings, surmounted by a red/brown kangaroo above a boomerang. Photographs from the 1950’s and 60’s show the boomerang featuring the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” but by the 1970’s this had evolved to include the words “ROYAL AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT”.

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Airborne Platoon photograph showing members of the unit in 1973. Note the change to the unit crest including the replacement of the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” on the boomerang with “ROYAL AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT”

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Two members of Airborne Platoon by their unit crest displayed at their lines during the 1970’s.

The use of this crest could provide clues to a couple of unusual Australian military parachutist insignia that are known to exist but have not yet been formally identified. The first is a printed calico badge (shown at the top of the page) of the type used for shoulder patches by Australian Commonwealth Military Forces during the 1950’s and 60’s.

The second badge which I hold in my collection also incorporates the same design elements. The manufacturing style and weave of this badge indicates that it dates from the 1960’s and possibly made by the ACE Novelty Company in Japan. There are differences in scale, shape of the various design elements and colours when compared to the later RAR Airborne Platoon insignia. However, the symbolism used in both the badges and the Airborne Platoon crests leads me to suspect that both these two insignia may both have been made for and used by the Airborne Platoon in the first couple of decades of its existence.

Unidentified Australian parachute patch. Because of the symbolism used here and also with the early Airborne Platoon crest, I wonder if this badge may have been used unofficially on sports wear, jumpsuits etc by members of the Airborne Platoon at some point from the late 50's through 1960's? I don't know the answer and any additional information is welcomed. Collection: Julian Tennant

Unidentified Australian parachute patch. Because of the symbolism used here and also with the early Airborne Platoon crest, I wonder if this badge may have been used unofficially on sports wear, jumpsuits etc by members of the Airborne Platoon at some point from the late 50’s through 1960’s? I don’t know the answer and any additional information is welcomed. Collection: Julian Tennant

At this stage these observations are my own and unsubstantiated by any verifiable evidence that I am aware of. If anybody can provide any more information about either of the badges (or has an example of the printed calico patch for sale or trade), I would welcome your input and any additional information, so please contact me if you can help.

Note that this site has NEW content posted every Sunday! If you like what you see here, please follow this page via email or by using either the buttons below or in the column on the right. Knowing that somebody is looking at this gives me the encouragement I need to go through my archives and collection to develop the content for the page. And of course, feel free to contact me here, via email or by visiting my Facebook or Instagram pages

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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Detail from an Australian Special Forces operator display showing a ‘Punisher’ patch. I suspect that this may be a generic patch as the symbolism has become popular with several allied Special Operations units including one of the companies within 2 Commando Regiment. But I don’t think that this is one of the company specific patches.

The RAN ‘Special Duties’ parachutist wing

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Whilst many people think that these are a Special Air Service wing, because of its shape and similarity to the design of the brass stamped British tropical dress SAS wing. It is in fact a Royal Australian Navy parachutist wing although there is an SAS connection.

It was introduced in 1994 as the Australian Navy ‘Special Duties’ parachutist qualification for the sailors (primarily clearance divers) who had passed the SAS selection and counter terrorist training cycle in order to serve as part of the TAG (Tactical Assault Group) which at that time was part of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment. Within months of its introduction it was decided that there was sufficient water ops capability within SASR and the requirement to include the CD’s as part of the TAG was removed, making the insignia virtually obsolete overnight as no more sailors would be likely to qualify for it.

RAN Parachutist wings

LHS shows the standard RAN parachutist wings for mess (top) and dress uniforms whilst the SAS qualified ‘Special Duties’ equivalents are on the right.

CD officers at a dining-in night at Waterhen in 1999. Two of the CD’s can be seen wearing the mess dress Special Duties wing above their medal miniatures.

Sailors who have NOT completed the SAS selection and CT training cycle are awarded the standard RAN parachutist wing upon completion of their para training. This includes the Clearance Divers who now form part of the east coast based TAG-E which is structured around the Sydney based 2 Commando Regiment. Only sailors who have completed the SAS selection and CT training are entitled to wear the SDU parachutist wing.

Collectors should note that no cloth or bullion wings of either of the RAN para wings variations are authorised, nor are they worn. They are fantasy/fake items, made for collectors.

Fake RAN Special Duties wings

Fantasy/Fake SD parachutist wings made for the collectors market. The dealer who first posted these wings made the usual claims but has provided no evidence to substantiate the story. Subsequent investigations can find no evidence of them being requested or worn by anybody qualified to do so. Close inspection of the wing shape also indicates that it was made using the same machine used to make collectors copies of the Australian SAS wing.

 

A special pair of wings

Wings made for A troop 1 SAS sqn in Kuwait 1998

Wings made in Kuwait for A troop, 1 SAS Squadron during Operation DESERT THUNDER, 1998. Only twenty sets made.

These Australian SAS parachutist wings are amongst the most prized in my collection for a couple of reasons. Apart from their scarcity, they were given to me by Andy Russell who was serving in the SAS at the time and on 16 February 2002 unfortunately became the first Australian to be killed in Afghanistan, when the LRPV vehicle he was travelling in struck a mine. He left behind his wife Kylie and Leisa, his two-week-old daughter whom he had never met. Lest we forget!

Andy and Kylie Russell at Kings Park.

Andy and Kylie Russell at the war memorial in Kings Park, Perth. Andrew Russell was the first Australian casualty of the war in Afghanistan. He was killed when his LRPV struck a mine on 16 February 2002. He left behind his wife Kylie, and his two week old daughter, Leisa whom he had never met.

Andy gave me the wings in late 1998 not long after he returned from a deployment to Kuwait as part of a US led coalition known as Operation DESERT THUNDER. Contrary to popular myth, this was the first operational deployment by an Australian Special Air Service Regiment unit to the region. No Australian SAS troops had taken part in the first Gulf War although some of the Navy clearance divers of CDT4 who conducted important operations in and around the coast of Kuwait during that conflict had served as sailors in the water operations element of the SAS counter terrorist squadron prior to 1994. In the aftermath of the war, the United Nations sent UN Special Commission inspection teams to Iraq to monitor their weapons program and check for evidence of WMD’s. Two SAS signallers from 152 Signal Squadron, corporal’s Mal V. and Mark S. formed part of one of these teams in 1993 but that was the extent of the Australian SAS involvement with Iraq and the region up until that point.

Then, in late 1997 Iraq began to deny entry to these teams and in response, a coalition led by the USA formed with the initial intention of mounting air strikes to enforce compliance. In February 1998, the Australian Government announced that it had responded to a request from the USA to participate in the coalition. Part of that response included elements of 1 SAS Squadron (A and B troops along with their integrated 1 Sig troop from 152). The squadron was bolstered by the attachment of a troop from the NZ SAS, which formed D troop. This ANZAC SAS force set up camp at a large Kuwaiti air base known as Ali Al Salem.

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A Long Range Patrol Vehicle (LRPV) and members of the SAS Squadron during their deployment to Kuwait as part of Operation DESERT THUNDER in 1998. Note that the soldier on the left is actually flying the 2 Squadron flag, which indicates that this photo was taken towards the end of the deployment when, in May, a composite troop from 2 Squadron was rotated in to replace elements of 1 SAS Squadron just prior to the mission concluding and return to Australia.

The squadron’s roll was primarily to undertake combat search and rescue missions (CSAR) into Iraq to rescue downed aircrew and other coalition personnel. A secondary mission was to undertake tactical surveillance and response operations on the Kuwait- Iraq border and a third role was to provide a quick response force (QRF) capability to respond to small scale Iraqi raids. Familiarisation and preparatory training began immediately but two weeks after arriving, the UN struck a deal with Saddam Hussein and the planned air strikes were put on hold. The operation was renamed Operation DESERT SPRING and preparations continued until May when the squadron was reduced to a troop and then returned to Australia in early June.

At the time, Andy Russell was serving in A troop, which was 1 Squadron’s air operations / freefall troop. Whilst deployed to Kuwait, the troop had 20 sets of these ‘desertised’ SAS wings made up by a US army tailor. The wings were never meant to be worn, nor would they ever be permitted to do so. They were sold/distributed within the troop as a memento of the deployment and like many of the sub unit patches so often seen, inject cash into the troop ‘goffa fund’ which was used to buy soft drinks, beer etc for troop functions.

With only twenty examples made, it is definitely one of the rarest Australian SAS badges, but for me, they are even more special having come from a friend who was doing what he loved best, but taken before his time.