Mike Force, the AATTV and the relief of Dak Seang, April 1970

AATTV Shilston Group 01-01
Various insignia, including an exceptionally rare local made variation AATTV patch belonging to 25415 Captain Peter Shilston of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam whilst CO of the 1st Battalion 2 Mobile Strike Force (MIKE Force) in South Vietnam, March to August 1970. Note that key detail of the locally made AATTV patch has been intentionally obscured to deter unscrupulous fakers from making copies for the lucrative collectors market. Collection: Julian Tennant

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Over the years I have been fortunate to acquire a number of Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and ARVN Mike Force insignia from the family of the late Peter Shilston MC who is featured in some of the iconic Special Forces related photographs of the Vietnam War.

Mike Force was a colloquial name for the Mobile Strike Force (MSF) which was a key component of the United States Special Forces involvement in the Vietnam War. They were made up largely of indigenous Montagnard soldiers trained through the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) programme and led by American Special Forces (USSF) and Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) personnel. The Mike Force units fulfilled a number of roles during the war but are best known as a quick reaction force, securing, reinforcing and recapturing CIDG / USSF A-Camps. The short film below, shot by  a member from the 221st Signal Company in early 1969 shows Special Forces at Ban Me Thuot and also includes the Pleiku based Australian Army Training Team advisors who trained and led Mobile Strike Force units in II Corps.

25415 Captain Peter John Shilston, an infantry officer, deployed to Vietnam in late August 1969, initially serving with the Headquarters, Australian Force Vietnam (Army Component). On 28 February 1970 he was reassigned to the AATTV in Pleiku as commander of 211 Company 1 Mike Force Battalion, 2nd Mobile Strike Force Command, Det B-20, 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).

AATTV Shilston Fairley photo July 1970-01
South Vietnam, July 1970. Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) advisor, Captain Peter Shilston checks over the radio that a cordon was around a Montagnard village in central South Vietnam before sweeping through to search it. Captain Shilston is the commander of the 1st Battalion 2nd Mobile Strike Force, which operates out of Pleiku. A soldier of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), Captain Shilston comes from Williamtown, NSW. Photo: John Fairley. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: FAI/70/0595/VN

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In April 1970 Peter Shilston was involved in the action to lift the siege on the Special Forces camp at Dak Seang, that would result in the award of a Military Cross in recognition of his bravery and leadership. The siege and relief of Dak Seang was hard fought and came at great cost to the allied troops. It also resulted in two American’s, USSF Sgt Gary B. Beikirch and Ranger advisor, SFC Gary L. Littrell, being awarded the Medal of Honor.

Dak Seang Camp was located approximately 15 km north-east of the Tri-Border intersection about 12 km east of the Laos border and 64 km northwest of Kon Tum. It was an area of Kon Tum Province where the mountains rose to 1218m and the camp was on the eastern edge of Route 84 that ran along the Annamite Chain. The camp was first established by the 5th Special Forces Group and CIDG troops in 1964 to monitor infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was part of a long line of border outposts stretching from Lang Vei in northern Quang Tri province to To Chau in Kien Giang province in the south. From October 1966 it was manned by USSF Detachment A-245 plus, at the time of the siege, some 400 locally recruited Montagnards commanded by Vietnamese Special Forces.  

On 1 April 1970, the camp was besieged by the 28th North Vietnamese Army Regiment supported by the 40th NVA Artillery and elements of the 60th NVA Regiment. 1 Bn 2MSF, under the command of Australian Major Patrick Beale was, along with two Vietnamese Ranger Battalions given the task of breaking the siege. Of the three companies in the 400 strong Mike Force battalion, two were commanded by Australians whilst the third, by the USSF. 211 Company, under the command of Shilston, with fellow AATTV advisors, Warrant Officers Class 2 John Petit, George ‘Geordie’ Jamieson, Des Cochrane and Peter Sanderson serving as platoon commanders, were to lead the assault.

On 3 April, after redeploying by road to Dak To, the 1st Bn 2MSF then prepared for a direct air-mobile assault by helicopter onto the camp that same afternoon, however after doing a helicopter reconnaissance of the assault area they realised that air activity was too intense and an alternate LZ was selected some 2500m south of the camp. By 1700, just before dusk, Shilston’s, company was finally airborne and whilst in the air they received bad news. There would be no artillery or air support softening the LZ as it was needed in direct support of the camp itself.

As the first wave of UH1D helicopters began to descend they were met by an intense barrage of rifle, machine gun and rocket fire from the surrounding jungle. Shilston and Sanderson were in the first helicopters to touch down, right into the sweeping fire of a 12.7mm heavy machine gun at the side of the LZ. Followed by their Montagnards, the two advisors charged towards the emplacement whilst at the same time Cochrane’s helicopter moved to within meters of the bunker. Cochrane jumped out and silenced the gun with grenades. As the helicopters disgorged their troops a further six bunkers were cleared. WO2 Sanderson who had been wounded by a grenade was evacuated. The landings had been delayed by events prior to their departure from Dak To and by nightfall only 250 of the Mike Force troops were on the ground before the remainder of the insertion was postponed.  The troops on the ground dug in and were subjected to mortar, rocket and heavy small arms fire throughout the night.

The following morning, 4 April, the battalion waited for the remaining troops and supplies to arrive whilst enemy fire continued to rain down. Smoke and dust reduced visibility and caused mayhem as one of the helicopters landed with both gunners firing into the battalion area killing one soldier and wounding three. Then a helicopter gunship accidently shot up the battalion wounding the American commander of 213 Company and four Montagnards. Incoming mortar rounds eventually forced off the remaining helicopters with only six out of the ten scheduled able to get in.

At 1300 the battalion started to move off to Dak Seang with Shilston’s company leading but within 20 minutes the lead platoon, commanded by three tour AATTV veteran WO2 John Pettit, had run into a bunker complex. Three Montagnards were hit and Pettit crawled forward alone, applying first aid to the wounded before attacking the nearest enemy bunker. Firing as he went, he got to within two meters of the enemy before being fatally wounded. For his bravery he was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches and in April 2002 awarded the Silver Star by the USA in recognition of his ‘personal heroism, professional competence, and devotion to duty’.

Progress was slow and by the end of the first day the battalion had only managed to cover 500m before they were forced to halt for and aerial resupply of food, water and ammunition. The following morning, WO2 Lachlan ‘Locky’ Scowcroft arrived to join Shilston’s company. Shortly after beginning their advance north they encountered a new line of enemy bunkers which were eventually cleared by airstrikes and grenades. The NVA defences consisted of a serious of mutually supporting, camouflaged positions about 100m in depth. As one strongpoint was attacked it drew fire from at least one other. The Mike Force troops accounted for at least ten bunkers but had no time to check for enemy dead and continued to push forward.

After two hours the battalion had reached a point approximately 1300m south of Dak Seang when the NVA opened fire on Shilston’s company which had been given a ‘breather’ in the rear. The battalion closed into a defensive position, but no sooner had this been completed than they came under a heavy ground attack from the south-west and south-east from a company sized force which quickly overran two perimeter positions. The attack was only stalled by the arrival of a ‘Spooky’ gunship. Then as the attacks continued various sorties arrived over the area, delivering payloads of bombs, rockets and napalm. Unfortunately, one of the napalm cannisters exploded in the middle of one of the platoons killing four and wounding a further seventeen Montagnard troops. Fighting continued for the remainder of the afternoon and into the night as the NVA pressed the attack with mortars and ground probes.

The following morning, 6 April, dawn clearing patrols found enemy dead, discarded weapons and blood trails all around the position. All the patrols encountered resistance, but it became apparent that the largest concentration was to the south-western side facing 212 Company, commanded by AATTV  WO2 Alan ‘Aggie’ White, who also had fellow Australians WO2 Alex McCloskey and WO2 Ray Barnes serving as platoon commanders. This area to the southwest was the only ground which could possibly be prepared as a helicopter LZ. But, despite continued fighting the enemy would not be budged and the situation was becoming desperate. Surrounded, low on ammunition, out of water and with depleted numbers an atmosphere of fatalism had become to settle over the weary Montagnards. Death chants could be heard as the more seriously wounded began to die. Then, at dusk, with patrols fighting to keep the NVA at bay, the helicopter pilots decided to take a risk and descended into the clearing from tree-top level, evacuating the wounded and then the heavens opened with heavy rainfall, both delivering a much needed morale boost to the Mike Force troops.

That night and the following day mortars continued to fall on the position and the battalion was still fighting to keep their position intact when, in the afternoon, reinforcements from the 4th Battalion 2MSF, which also included AATTV advisors, arrived by helicopter from Nha Trang, landing on top of their position. They were placed under Beale’s command and sent to form the outer perimeter as NVA the assaults continued. ‘Locky’ Scowcroft was badly wounded necessitating his evacuation with the other wounded.

At first light of 8 April a clearing patrol from White’s 212 Company made contact with an enemy bunker just 30m outside the perimeter and withdrew with one killed and two wounded. A company of the 4th Battalion made three assaults into the position, supported by airstrikes and was forced back, but by early afternoon they had eventually fought their way into the enemy area. They found an extensive well developed HQ complex, measuring 100 by 250m, consisting of seventeen big bunkers, observation posts in trees and an outer perimeter with weapon pits and more bunkers. The reason for the savage reaction by the NVA was now obvious, the Montagnards perimeter was within meters of the NVA regimental headquarters and also between that and their objective of Dak Seang. By coincidence, the Mike Force troops had caused a major disruption to the control of the siege.

The following morning, the Montagnards moved out, with the 4th Battalion leading. When they reached a river obstacle, the 1st Battalion formed a perimeter on the west bank and the 4th on the east. Here the 1st Battalion was subjected to further attacks resulting in three Americans and five Montagnards wounded. In the afternoon a LZ was established in the 4th Battalion area, enabling the casualties to be evacuated and an ammunition resupply. But for the 1st Battalion on the other side of the river, ammunition had once again, become desperately low and they were only able to survive due to the bravery of four Vietnamese helicopter pilots who ran the gauntlet of enemy fire to throw out ammunition boxes over the position. Of the four helicopters, three were so damaged by fire that they were forced down on their way back to base and the fourth, which managed to limp home was written off as beyond repair.

On 10 April, under continuing heavy mortar bombardment, the 1st Battalion commenced moving along the west bank of the river White’s company leading. After covering 300m, 213 Company hit a bunker system which they engaged. Meanwhile, Shilston and White’s companies moved around a flank and formed a hasty position on a hilltop. They had reached the edge of the jungle adjoining the clearing around Dak Seang and could see their objective, a smouldering fortification, ripped, smashed and surrounded by bomb craters and the black napalm scars. Then, after fighting through and clearing two more bunkers, 213 Company joined them in the battalion position.

It had taken seven days of constant fighting to move 2500m to the outskirts of the camp. Then, whilst Major Beale contemplated the next move, a small group of Montagnards from the camp arrived to greet them. It indicated that whilst there may still be fighting ahead, the siege had been broken. Beale decided to keep the battalion in its position and received a further resupply of ammunition in the afternoon. Overnight, the NVA continued to mortar and probe the Mike Force positions causing more casualties but it appeared that they were beginning to pull back from the camp.

This realisation prompted Beale to follow up the enemy and at 0800 on 11 April the battalion moved around the southern and western perimeter of Dak Seang and along a bamboo covered ridge running north-west from the camp. White’s company had covered 500m when they hit another enemy bunker, killing several enemy soldiers before being pushed back by heavy machine-gun fire. Adopting a defensive position, an airstrike was called in and then, after four separate assaults, the position finally taken.

In the evening, after dark, a clearing patrol from Shilston’s company, led by ‘Geordie’ Jamieson went to investigate noises outside the perimeter. Just 30m outside the battalion perimeter they encountered more occupied bunkers and Jamieson was shot in the stomach during the ensuing firefight. WO2 Alex McCloskey from 212 Company crawled forward and dragged the badly wounded Jamieson back to safety. Shilston immediately led a reaction force into the area and with the help of 213 Company cleared the enemy. Jamieson plus other wounded, including an American advisor and six Montagnards were evacuated later that night.

The following morning, the battalion continued to move forward clearing enemy from the edge of the bush surrounding the camp and it was clear that resistance was crumbling, but after ten days of almost continuous fighting the strain was also showing on the Mike Force troops. The soldiers were tired and becoming more reluctant to go into action relying more and more on the advisors, both Australian and American plus a handful of hard-core ‘Yards’ to do the fighting.

At first light on 13 April clearing patrols were once again sent out, but this time there were no contacts. The danger to Dak Seang had passed and the NVA had withdrawn to positions 3000m away. The Mike Force troops had begun to follow them up when orders came over the radio net that the battalion was to be relieved and that afternoon at 1445 helicopters arrived outside Dak Seang to commence the battalion’s extraction to Ben Het. The following day they were taken by road back to Pleiku.

The siege had been broken, but it had come at a heavy cost to the Mike Force troops. They had suffered over a hundred dead or wounded casualties, over a third of the battalion’s strength. Five of the USSF advisors had been wounded. Out of the ten Australian advisors, one, John Pettit was KIA, ‘Geordie’ Jamieson and Lachlan Scowcroft were both badly wounded and evacuated to Australia. Peter Sanderson who was also wounded was evacuated but after a period of recuperation would return to the unit. For their actions during the battle, George Jamieson and John Pettit (posthumously) were Mentioned in Despatches. Des Cochrane received the Military Medal, Alex McCloskey, ‘Aggie’ White and Ray Barnes all received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Pat Beale was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Peter Shilston, the Military Cross. In 2010, through the efforts of Bruce Davies, co-author of The Men Who Persevered: The AATTV – the most highly decorated Australian unit of the Vietnam War, the Australian members were also officially recognised as recipients of the US Army Valorous Unit Award (VUA).

Around the same time as siege of Dak Seang was occurring plans were being made to demobilise the Mike Force units as part of the ‘Vietnamization’ programme. Arrangements started for the conversion of the Mike Force Battalions into Vietnamese Regional Force (RF) or Ranger battalions, with the advisor personnel being withdrawn or reassigned. According to Ian McNeill’s The Team: Australian Army Advisors in Vietnam 1962 – 1972, “From a strength of fifteen advisors in Pleiku… it fell to eight in May, five in June and four by 1 July.”

Towards the end of April, Pat Beale had become the senior RF/PF advisor in the Phuoc-Tuy sector and command of the 1st Bn 2MSF went to Peter Shilston. He took the 1st Bn 2MSF on its last operation near Route 509 on the Cambodian border from 14 June to 4 July. The operation was largely uneventful but was accompanied by Sergeant John Geoffrey Fairley, a photographer for the (Australians) Directorate of Public Relations whose images of Shilston have become some of the most recognised photographs featuring the Mike Force troops of the war.

On 26 August 1970, Captain Peter Shilston became the last Australian soldier to leave Pleiku and returned to Australia the following day. According to the AATTV Monthly report for July 1970 (R723/1/35) serial/para 7on that date AATTV will sever its seven year association with US and Vietnamese Special Forces.’ After returning to Australia, he continued to serve in the Australian Army, including spending time as an instructor at the 1st Recruit Training Battalion at Kapooka and ending his career as a major. He was formally presented his Military Cross by the Governor of NSW, Sir Roden Cutler VC,  during an investiture ceremony in April 1971. Peter Shilston died on 30 August 1993 and his ashes are interred at Ballarat New Cemetery.

MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV)
MIKE Force banner presented to Captain Peter Shilston MC (AATTV) at the conclusion of his tour in August 1970.

AATTV beret badge Peter Shilston
Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) beret badge worn by Captain Peter Shilston whilst commanding the 1st Bn 2MSF (MIKE Force). Collection: Julian Tennant

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Australian Airborne Insignia #4 – RAAF Combat Controller Teams

A look at the insignia of the Royal Australian Air Force, Combat Controller Teams (CCT) of B Flight, 4 Squadron, one of the newest additions to the Australian Special Operations community.

 

The Combat Controller Teams (CCT) of B Flight, 4 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force are a relatively recent addition to Australia’s special operations capability. They trace their origin to 2006 when the Australian Special Forces Commander asked the Deputy Chief of Air Force whether the RAAF was capable of fielding personnel similar to the United States Air Force Combat Controllers who had been working alongside Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan.

As a result, the RAAF Air Group Combat Commander established the Special Tactic Project Proof of Concept Trial. The aim was for selected volunteers to pass the commando training cycle and trained as Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) before deploying in support of special forces.

JTAC patches
Australian Joint Terminal Attack Controller patches 2006 – 2019. Whilst not exclusively Special Forces (the 5 week course trains personnel from all three branches of the ADF), like most contemporary Australian insignia, these JTAC patches have been extensively faked to supply the collectors market. These four patches are examples of original insignia requested for wear by the end users. Collection: Julian Tennant

Between 2008 and 2009, three intakes completed initial training and four members were deployed with the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG). This resulted in the ‘Combat Controller’ mustering (RAAF terminology for ‘trade’) and Air Surface Integration officer stream being created in 2012 and the CCT role declared an Initial Operating Capability.

RAAFCCT
RAAF Combat Controller Team member. Note the distinctive CCT qualification patch on his chest. Photo: Department of Defence.
RAAF CCT Havoc Strike
A Combat Controller from No. 4 Squadron calls in close air support from a PC-21 during Exercise Havoc Strike 2020. Note the 4 Squadron patch on his right shoulder.  Photo: Corporal Craig Barrett (Australian Defence Force)
Exercise Diamond Storm 2019
A Royal Australian Air Force No. 4 Squadron Combat Controller frees a quad bike from its pallet after a parachute insertion into the Mosquito Flats Drop Zone in the Bradshaw Field Training Area during Exercise Diamond Storm 2019. Note the CCT patch on his right shoulder and helmet ANF. Photo: Department of Defence.

Selection to become a combat controller is open to any member of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Volunteers first complete an 8 week CCT intake course which provides ground skills training and prepares them for the Special Forces Entry Test (SFET). Those who pass the SFET must then undertake around 18 months of testing and training in which they are required to complete the commando reinforcement cycle, JTAC, aviation meteorology, assault zone reconnaissance and air weapons delivery courses.

2020 Commando Selection Course
A Royal Australian Air Force combat controller from the Australian Defence Force School of Special Operations supervises Commando Selection Course candidates during an early morning physical training session at Holsworthy Barracks in Sydney, on Friday, 16 October 2020. Photo: Australian Department of Defence

The video below, shows the CCT’s conducting their annual parachute continuation training as part of Exercise Havoc Drop 20-1 which took place 13-17 July 2020 at Wagga Wagga in NSW.

Upon qualification they are presented their distinctive grey CCT beret and qualification brevet, becoming part of B Flight of 4 Squadron, RAAF, which is the squadron tasked with providing operational training to Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and support of the Australian Army’s Special Operations Command. The Squadron is divided into three main roles, FAC(A) is the airborne control of air assets, JTAC training (C Flight) and CCT (B Flight).

Since their formation, the CCT’s have conducted operations with SOTG, participated in several joint exercises with allied nations and recently in late 2019 early 2020, assisted in humanitarian operations within Australia as part of the ADF efforts to combat the devastating bushfires that swept large tracts of the east coast of Australia over the summer months.

AWM Canberra 2018-63
RAAF CCT display at the ‘From the Shadows: Australia’s Special Forces’ exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in 2017/18. Unfortunately I did not record the caption detail surrounding the RAAF CCT Commendation for Gallantry medal group shown in the display. Note the PVC Combat Controller Team patch. Photo: Julian Tennant

 

Beret & Insignia

Special Operations Education & Training Centre
 Special Operations Training & Education Centre Commando qualification beret parade, November 2019. 36 army personnel and 3 RAAF combat controllers passed the 14 month-long commando reinforcement cycle. The RAAF combat controllers are awarded the RAAF ‘air superiority grey’ berets whilst the army personnel receive sherwood green berets. Photo: Sergeant Janine Fabre (Australian Defence Force)

Once qualified, Combat Controllers are awarded a distinctive Combat Controller Team insignia which is worn as a qualification badge and (a variation) also on their beret. The badge (NSN 8455-66-162-5061) consists of a Fairbairn-Sykes commando dagger on a winged shield. The  dagger represents the close link combat controllers share with the special forces they support. The shield symbolises  the protection of ground forces, from harm during combat operations and the wings represent the air-power integration role of the combat controller.

CCT badge dress regs
Detail from the Air Force Dress Manual showing the embroidered Combat Controller Team qualification Badge.

The badge is worn on the left breast of dress uniforms, 3mm above medals/ribbons or flying badge if applicable. Cloth, metal and a mess dress miniature versions are used, depending on the uniform type.

RAAF CCT qual Nov 2020 small
One of the Royal Australian Air Force’s combat control officers wearing his qualification brevet, featuring a Fairbairn-Sykes commando fighting knife and wings, at the Australian Defence Force School of Special Operations commando reinforcement cycle graduation at Holsworthy Barracks, Sydney, on Friday, 13 November 2020. Photo: Corporal Sagi Biderman (ADF)

A similar design metal badge which features shortened wings is also worn on a black shield on the CCT beret which, unlike other RAAF berets is ‘air superiority’ grey, the colour signifying the presence of aviation in the daily duties of the combat controller. Mark Corcoran and Arthur Butler, author’s of the excellent reference books, Metal Uniform Embellishments of the Australian Army – Post 53 (‘QE II series’) volumes 1 & 2 also feature some of the prototype variations of the badge on their charliebravobooks blog which is worth checking out.

RAAF CCT insignia
Beret badge and Commando wings worn by the Combat Control Teams of B Flight 4 Squadron RAAF. Collection: Julian Tennant

CCT’s also wear a distinctive parachute qualification wing which differs from the standard Air Force parachutist badge. The wings are referred to in the Air Force Dress Manual as a ‘Commando Badge’ (NSN 8455-66-157-9911) and reflects the Army’s commando parachutist qualification design but has a white parachute with light blue wings on an Air Force blue background. A miniature version embroidered with gold bullion on a black background (NSN 8455-66-134-1212) is worn on the upper left sleeve of the mess dress jacket. The authority for the award and withdrawal of the Commando Badge is the Commanding Officer, 4SQN.

RAAF CCT wings dress manual
Page detail from the RAAF Dress manual showing the distinctive Commando parachutist wings worn by qualified CCT members of 4 Sqn RAAF.
RAAF CCT qual Nov 2020 2 small
Australian Army officer Major General Adam Findlay, AM, Special Operations Commander for Australia, presents a grey beret and congratulates a new Royal Australian Air Force combat control officer (left) at the Australian Defence Force School of Special Operations commando reinforcement cycle graduation at Holsworthy Barracks, Sydney, on Friday, 13 November 2020. Note the parachute wings. Photo: Corporal Sagi Biderman (ADF)

CCT’s have also been seen wearing a variety of Combat Controller Team patches and distinctive RAAF ANF insignia, some of which are shown below. At this stage, these insignia are less well known amongst collectors as they are tightly controlled by the unit and have not (yet) been subect to the massive number of fakes and reproductions that have occurred with other Australian Special Forces insignia. Sadly, it is only a matter of time before the fakes start appearing on eBay and elsewhere. If you do have original examples of the RAAF 4 Squadron or CCT patches or insignia, for sale or trade, I am really interested in hearing from you as I’d love to add these to my collection. 

RAAF CCT pitch black 2012 03
CCT and ANF patches circa 2012. A No. 4 Squadron Combat Control Team (4SQN CCT) member on board a C-130H Hercules aircraft during Exercise Pitch Black 2012. Photographer: LACW Shannon McCarthy (Australian Defence Force)
Exercise COPE NORTH 19
CCT patch circa 2019. A Royal Australian Air Force No. 4 Squadron Combat Control Team, load equipment onto a Japan Air Self-Defense Force KC-130H Hercules, as part of Exercise Cope North 19, Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Photo: Sgt Kirk Peacock (Australian Defence Force)

 

20200714raaf8494074_028
CCT helmet showing one of the patches worn by the team during Exercise Havoc Drop from 13 – 17 July 2020 near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. Havoc Drop is an annual training exercise to maintain the operational parachute currency requirements of 4 Squadron personnel. Photo: Cpl Dan Pinhorn, Department of Defence

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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.

Aust basic para pre 1998
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.

6RAR Para Coy Gp patch 3
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?

Aust Para PTF patch
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.

airborne platoon pts
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.

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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. For more photos go to this link.
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Australian Special Air Service Regiment 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.

From the Shadows: Australia’s Special Forces – The Operators’ video that was featured in the gallery during the exhibition

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Australian Airborne Insignia #3 – 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.

SASRGULF
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.

The Olympic Games. Sydney 2000, watching from the shadows.

With the recent G4S security recruitment debacle and the heightened threat of terrorist attack much has been made of the security preparations for the London Olympics. Security at the games has been a major concern since the dark days of the Munich Olympics in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists from the Black September Movement killed eleven members of the Israeli delegation and a policeman in the disastrous rescue attempt. This incident demonstrated the inadequacies of the Germans ability to combat domestic terror, resulting in the formation of their own federal counter terrorist unit, GSG-9. It was a wake-up call, causing most Western nations to evaluate and develop a much improved counter terrorist capability and preceded a wave of bombings, hijackings and other incidents that earmarked the 1970’s.

Insignia from Germany's GSG 9 counter terrorist unit brought back by a friend from SASR after a visit to the unit as part of the CT training build up in anticipation for the Sydney Olympics.
Insignia from Germany’s GSG 9 counter terrorist unit brought back by a friend from SASR after a visit to the unit in the 90’s as part of SASR’s CT training build up in anticipation for the Sydney Olympics.

Australia was slow to develop the CT response beyond that of the various State police SWAT type teams and it wasn’t until the Hilton Hotel bombing in Sydney in 1978 that the Federal Government decided to act. The responsibility was passed to the Special Air Service Regiment, which developed the Tactical Assault Group (TAG) as part of the Regiment’s roles and tasks. The role of TAG was filled by engaging one of the sabre squadrons and incorporated signals troop from 152 Signal Squadron as the Counter Terrorist (CT) squadron for a twelve month period as part of the regiment’s training and operations cycle. During the relatively quiet 1980’s and for much of the 1990’s being ‘on Team’ with the CT Squadron was one of the roles relished by many in the Regiment as other operational deployments seemed unlikely, with only a handful of soldiers from the unit being committed in support of UN operations. I recall the excitement expressed by many of my mates in 2 Sqn back in 1993 when we found out that Sydney would be hosting the Olympics in 2000.  The regiment’s cycle meant that it would be 2 Squadron holding the CT role in 2000 and at the time, in the days before Timor and subsequent jobs, it was something to look forward to.

Throwing a few downrange in the mid 90's.
Throwing a few downrange in the mid 90’s.

Very soon after the announcement by the IOC, the Australian Federal Government recognised that the security of the games would be beyond the resources of the host jurisdiction (New South Wales) and would require pooling of resources from other organisations including the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The ADF support to the Olympics was named Operation GOLD and commenced in 1998. Op GOLD employed 5622 ADF personnel in a variety of security and non-security roles. These were broken down into two joint task forces (JTF). The larger of these was JTF 112, which contained the bulk of the ADF commitment and was responsible for a wide range of support including transport and general security. It was the public face of the ADF commitment with uniformed service personnel wearing the round white Op Gold patch being seen at the various Olympic venues and activities.

Leading Seaman Musician Matt Jessop and Able Seaman Musician Ken Ellis, from the Royal Australian Navy, hold US Paralympian Erin Popivich high at the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games in Sydney 2000. Erin won gold and silver in swimming and carried her country's flag at the country's flag at the ceremony. The Operation GOLD patch worn by Australian Defence Force personnel who formed part of JTF 112 can be seen on LSMUS Jessop's sleeve. Design detail on the right.
Leading Seaman Musician Matt Jessop and Able Seaman Musician Ken Ellis, sailors deployed with JTF 112 as part of Op GOLD, hold US Paralympian Erin Popivich high at the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games in Sydney 2000. The Operation GOLD patch worn by Australian Defence Force personnel who formed part of JTF 112 can be seen on LSMUS Jessop’s sleeve. Design detail on the right.

But, watching from the shadows was the second task force, JTF 114 commanded by Brigadier Phil McNamara, Commander Special Forces. JTF 114 was the principal CT capability provided by 2 SAS Sqn, which along with Black Hawk helicopters from 5 Aviation Regiment and a response company from 4 RAR (Commando) who would be used to provide a cordon around any incident site. Together these units formed the TAG and were known as JTF 643 and optimised for CT coverage of the Sydney area during the games.

Olympic pin presented to members of the TAG of JTF 114 and patch worn by the TAG snipers around the holding area during their deployment in the Counter Terrorist Squadron during the Sydney Olympic Games.
Special Operations, JTF 114 Olympic pin featuring the Australian Special Operations Griffin holding an Olympic torch presented to the TAG and the patch worn by the TAG snipers around the holding area during their deployment in the Counter Terrorist Squadron during the Sydney Olympic Games.

JTF 114 preparation for the Olympics had begun well in advance of the game and six months before the opening ceremony, the CT squadron moved to Holsworthy barracks on the outskirts of Sydney to commence the final build up. Special training facilities were constructed in Holsworthy; at the Naval base HMAS Waterhen on the shores of Sydney harbour and another for launching SUR operations out to sea. The TAG refining their ‘ship underway’ drills, familiarised themselves with potential targets and conducting a variety of exercises based on Olympic venues and events. During the two weeks of the games, the SAS soldiers had full accreditation, with unrestricted access to all areas, allowing them to gain ‘situational awareness’ by moving discretely through the various venues and events as the games unfolded.

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Squadron photograph of 2 SAS Squadron with members of the NSW Police whilst serving as the TAG for the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

The Sydney Olympics concluded without major incident and had been a valuable operation for the SASR and Special Operations Command. A new skill set was developed based on hostage rescue scenarios within a chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (CBR) threat environment. This resulted in the formation of a Joint Incident Response Unit (JIRU) to combat a CBR or ‘dirty bomb’ threat. JIRU became part of Special Operations Command and eventually evolved into the Special Operations Engineer Regiment. It was also recognised that a second CT capability would be needed to deal with incidents elsewhere, possibly even overseas. During the Olympics this role was performed by 3 SAS Squadron (JTF 644) located in Swanbourne and eventually assumed by 4 RAR (Commando), now redesignated 2 Commando Regiment and who now hold full responsibility for the east coast CT responsibility in the form of TAG-E.