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


Australian Airborne Insignia #3 – The RAN ‘Special Duties’ parachutist wing


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 tasks undertaken by the TAG started to have greater emphasis on offshore recovery requiring specialist skill-sets. As a result, 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.


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.

2 SAS Squadron 2000
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.

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