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Fraser Commando School

  • Training facility
  • Wide Bay-Burnett

North White Cliffs, Fraser Island 4581

The Fraser Commando School (FCS), Fraser Island, functioned as an important part of Australia's Special Operations programme during World War II. Between October 1943 and August 1945 it trained over 900 personnel of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD), the cover name for Special Operations Australia (SOA), the Australian version of the United Kingdom's Special Operations Executive (SOE). Skills taught, among others, included unarmed combat and physical training; jungle craft, folboats (canoes), demolitions and weapons training.

The site is located on the west side of Fraser Island about 1.6km south of Kingfisher Bay Resort and Village. There is an old boiler on the beach near the FCS site, which is spread between the remnants of McKenzie's jetty and Beerilbee Creek in the south, to a hill just north of an area cleared for leading lights in the 1880s. The main camp site, most of which is located north of Beerilbee Creek, on the hill to the east of an access road, consists of a rectangle orientated southwest-northeast, with the building sites facing the northwest. Remnants include some concrete slabs, ceramic pipes, cuttings forming platforms for buildings or tents, building stumps, box drains, and possible latrine pits or foxholes around the periphery of the camp. Four corrugated iron water tanks on the brow of hill, and some telegraph poles, still existed in 1994. Visitors should take care not to further erode the building cuttings, or remove artefacts.

History

In April 1942 General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander in Chief of the Australian Military Forces (AMF or the Australian Army) and C in C of the Allied Land Forces, instructed Lieutenant Colonel GE Mott (former head of SOE in Java) to set up Special Operations in Australia, under the cover name of the Inter-Allied Services Department (ISD). The ISD later came under the control of General MacArthur's General Headquarters (GHQ) for the South West Pacific Area (SWPA), rather than Blamey's Land Headquarters (LHQ), which controlled those Australian Army forces not allocated to MacArthur.

The ISD was established by June 1942, and training facilities were required for operations. As security and climactic conditions were not suitable at the Guerrilla Warfare School at Foster, Victoria, a new school was established at Z Experimental Station (ZES) in Cairns. Most personnel were recruited (volunteers) from the AMF and in June 1942 a holding unit for army personnel within the ISD was created for administration purposes: 'Z' Special Unit. This unit held a unique position within the Australian Army; it was paid and controlled by the ISD, had no war establishment, and had 'cart blanche' authority to draw from Ordnance.

On 6 July 1942 the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) was established, to report on the enemy in the SWPA outside Australia, and also to weaken the enemy by sabotage and aiding local resistance groups. The ISD became Section 'A' of the AIB, while Secret Intelligence Australia (SIA) was Section 'B'; the Combined Field Intelligence (coast watching) Section was Section 'C'; and the Military Propaganda Section was Section 'D'. However, friction between the ISD and the AIB over funding, role and control eventually led to ISD being liquidated and Mott being relieved of duty in February 1943. In April 1943 a new organisation was created, Special Operations Australia. To avoid confusion between the names of the SOA and the SOE, from May 1943 the cover name Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) was used.

The SRD was basically autonomous from the AIB, and as 'Z' Special Unit remained with the SRD, a similar holding unit, 'M' Special Unit, had to be created for the AIB. The strength of 'Z' Special Unit (for Australian Army SRD personnel only, with personnel from the other services and the United Kingdom being detached to the SRD from other war establishments) was governed by a ceiling by ranks, rather than a set war establishment. In May 1944 this ceiling was 91 officers and 447 ORs; and by July 1945 it was 205 Officers and 996 ORs. This ceiling allowed specialists to be assigned to the unit as necessary, without the paperwork of changing a war establishment.

SRD training involved a Basic Course for all students, specialised training when required, and pre-operational training for formed parties prior to insertion. During the war the SRD had training establishments at ZES in Cairns; Fraser Commando School (FCS) on Fraser Island; the School of Eastern Interpreters in Melbourne (originally at FCS); Careening Bay Camp (Special Boast School), Perth; Camps 6 and 8 Mt Martha (near Melbourne); Advanced Training Camp, Morotai; and Advanced Training Camp, Darwin. Use was also made of Army Training Schools, including the Parachute Training Unit, Richmond NSW; the School of Military Engineering, Liverpool NSW; and the Signals Training Centre, Bonegilla.

FCS opened as the main SRD school for basic training in October 1943. The original impetus for the school was to train operatives for Operation Falcon, an ambitious plan formulated in August 1943 to carry out simultaneous attacks on 13 Japanese bases from Timor to New Ireland. The number of missions in Operation Falcon was gradually reduced due to a lack of submarine transport (helicopters were also supposed to be used, but were not available) and only one unsuccessful operation (Hawk—involving an air drop of men and supplies into the water) occurred in March 1944. One of the two transport aircraft had to turn back, while the other was lost with 6 SRD personnel. Although Falcon was a failure, the SRD personnel trained on Fraser Island were used on other SRD operations in the South West Pacific Area.

The most well known of the SRD's operations (although not using Fraser Island alumni) was Operation Jaywick, which struck at Japanese shipping in Singapore harbour in late September 1943. A former Japanese fishing supply vessel, renamed the Krait, set out from Western Australia in early September and set up a canoe base at Panjang Island, from where 6 SRD operatives in three canoes (folboats) set out and attached limpet mines to 6 Japanese freighters and 1 tanker, sinking between 37,000–39,000 tons of shipping. The men rendezvoused with the Krait in early October, and returned safely to Western Australia. However, another attempted attack on Singapore Harbour a year later, codenamed Operation Rimau, failed with the loss of the whole SRD party of 23 men (10 being captured and executed by the Japanese).

For the purposes of training men in boat skills and jungle craft for such missions, Fraser Island was considered ideal. It was also secluded, with no inhabitants other than a small forestry establishment. In addition, there were concerns in early 1943 that enemy agents might be landing on Fraser Island, and FCS would also solve that issue. In September 1943 a reconnaissance of Fraser Island was made by Major HA Campbell (a planner for Operation Jaywick), Major Harvey and Captain Jinkins, and construction on Fraser Island began prior to GHQ approval of Falcon on 6 October 1943. The first intake of students was 30 men from the army. The site chosen for FCS was at North White Cliffs, on the west side of the island. A natural anchorage known as Tyroom Roads lies off its cliffs. This area was used for a Quarantine station in the 1870s and an Aboriginal reserve in the 1890s. During the 1920s McKenzie's jetty, sawmill complex, tramline, village and the North White Cliffs School were operational to the south of the FCS site.

All building materials and stores were transported by the army barges of 52 Port Craft Company, with a staging establishment at Urangan, where the pier was used for FCS supply boats. Initially, FCS was only a tented camp, but permanent buildings were erected by a Royal Australian Engineers (RAE) Works Company from March 1944. These included messes and kitchens, post office, canteen, recreation hut, library, administration building, lecture huts, magazines, Q Store, latrines, bathhouse, showers, officer's accommodation huts, generator and pump rooms, petrol stores, sawmill, an open air cinema, gymnasium, radio shack, workshops, boatshed, and a hospital. Almost all buildings were corrugated iron huts, painted dark green. The parade ground and horse lines were on an area cleared for two navigational leading lights (operational at the site between the 1880s and 1984). A rifle range was located to the northeast of this cleared area.

FCS was eventually able to cater for 100 students. In March 1944 an addition was made to the camp for Filipino students undergoing special training with SRD (prior to insertion as radio operators in the Philippines), plus a small additional camp site was established at Lake Mackenzie for further training of personnel under the Special Raiding Section. The latter camp lasted until December 1944.

By July 1944 the FCS curriculum included a Basic Course "B", of 12 weeks, including 1 weeks leave in Brisbane and 1 week's practical exercise. Skills taught included unarmed combat and physical training; jungle craft, signals, Malay, sailing and navigation, folboats, demolitions, canoe surfing, map reading and compass use, weapons training, aircraft and ship recognition, swimming, rubber boats, horse transport (riding and pack saddles), reconnaissance procedure, identification of Japanese ranks, medical and security. A major exercise in the last week of the Basic Course involved a folboat raid on Maryborough, and attempting undetected dummy attacks on ships, railway sheds and the Maryborough aerodrome.

There was also a Basic Course "R" for further training of soldiers from the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra, selected for the Special Raiding Section. Special Courses "S" included: beach landing; a Naval Auxiliary Patrol (NAP) personnel basic course (for small craft crews—involving seamanship, weapons use and boarding); medical orderlies' course; signals; a conversion course (trained parachutists were taught water landings); and advanced demolition. Additional courses included meteorology, minor tactics, and receiving supply drops. Other short courses were run in Queensland from FCS, including a cavern living course (for limestone caves), taught from late 1944 to early 1945, and two courses in jungle foods were held in Cairns during 1945.

In February 1944 the School of Eastern Interpreters (an espionage unit) started at a separate wing at FCS, but this was then moved to Melbourne for urban training. In April 1945 training at FCS commenced in receiving stores from the air, and exercises were conducted with the Liberator aircraft of RAAF 200 Special Duties Flight, Leyburn. Some trainees were also parachuted into Lake McKenzie. By June 1945 FCS was the only training establishment still operating from Australia.

Major HA Campbell commanded at FCS until January 1944, when he was replaced by Lieutenant Donald Davidson (part of the Jaywick raiding party, later killed during Operation Rimau), of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), who brought with him the first naval personnel. Major L McGuinn took over in March 1944, followed by Major SR Leach in April 1945. Instructors were initially drawn from the Australian Army (chiefly the Jungle Warfare School), although some British instructors were involved from 1944. In all, a total of 25–30 instructors were recruited and trained, and by the time training ceased at FCS in August 1945 a total of 909 students, including 250 officers, had passed through. One training fatality, Sergeant Albert James Potts, occurred in July 1944.

By 31 August 1945 the strength of the SRD was 1701, with 785 staff in establishments (training, stores, cypher etc) in Australia; 260 staff in establishments outside Australia; 323 operatives in training, and 333 operatives in the field. Of these, 1251 were Australian service personnel. SRD casualties during the war included 111 who died during or immediately after their missions (including Australians, British, New Zealanders, Malay, Timorese, Portuguese and "other natives") plus 8 POWs.

After FCS closed in September 1945 its buildings were auctioned off and removed, and any live munitions were detonated at the rifle range. During the 1960s, the parade ground area and part of the FCS site south of the parade ground was used by timber contractors, who built some structures on existing concrete slabs and left various cast-off items in the area. The Kingfisher Bay Resort and Village opened to the north of the FCS site in 1992.

Source/comments

Fraser Island Commando School Site, Reported Place 24989, DERM.

Townrow, K; Cao, L; Langford, J, January 1994. North White Cliffs, Fraser Island; an Historic Archaeological Survey. Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, Maryborough.

Gill, GH, 1968. Australia in the War of 1939–1945. Series 2 – Navy. "Volume II – Royal Australian Navy 1942–1945."

National Archives of Australia M1/A. [SRD (Services Reconnaissance Department) Plans and Ops Branch -] Planning (General), I. 1945

National Archives of Australia, o2/A. Services Reconnaissance Department. History - Correspondence I. 1945

National Archives of Australia, o7/B. [The Official History of the Operations and Administration of] Special Operations - Australia [(SOA), also known as the Inter-Allied Services Department (ISD) and Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD)] Volume 1 - Organisation - copy no 4 [for Director, Military Intelligence (DMI), Headquarters (HQ), Australian Military Forces (AMF), Melbourne - abridged version of copy no 1] 1946

National Archives of Australia, o8/A. [The Official History of the Operations and Administration of] Special Operations - Australia [(SOA), also known as the Inter-Allied Services Department (ISD) and Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD)] Volume 2 - Operations - copy no 1 [for Director, Military Intelligence (DMI), Headquarters (HQ), Australian Military Forces (AMF), Melbourne] 1946

National Archives of Australia, Q1/B. [The Official History of the Operations and Administration of] Special Operations - Australia [(SOA), also known as the Inter-Allied Services Department (ISD) and Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD)] Volume 4 - Training Syllabi - Part 1 - FCS [Fraser Commando School] Syllabus; FCS Lectures - copy no 1 [for Director, Military Intelligence (DMI), Headquarters (HQ), Australian Military Forces (AMF), Melbourne][4cm] 1944–1946.

Queensland State Archives. Item 130792. Batch Files- "E" Series- Government Buildings. Urangan Jetty, Storage Shed, 1943–1945.

Dunn, P. 'Z' Special Unit in Australia during WW2

Dunn, P. Fraser Commando School Fraser Island, Qld during WW2.

Dunn, P. 'Z' Special Unit Supply Bunkers at MacKenzies, Fraser island, Qld during WW2.

Z Force heroes reunite at old training ground

Australian Commandos

Z Special Unit

Australian War Memorial Photographic Collection.

Last updated
30 June 2014