By Pierre Kosmidis
Photos and video submitted by Lionel Aitken and used by permission
A 13-part documentary series, focusing on Z Special Unit, a largely unknown Australian Special Operations element, is in the making and www.ww2wrecks.com has reached out to Mr. Lionel Aitken, the driving force behind capturing and producing all the interviews with surviving members of Z Special Unit.
Special Operations Australia, more commonly known to the public as “Z Special Unit”, was a WWII Special Forces and covert operations organisation operating in the Pacific. Australian, British, New Zealand, Canadian, South African, Indonesian, Timorese and Malay, “Z” Operatives fought a secret, undercover war in hellish conditions against a brutal enemy occupying force in the islands north of Australia.
Z Operatives undertook almost one hundred high-risk covert operations against the Japanese and were directly responsible for eliminating literally thousands of enemy troops, but the price was high – more than eighty Z Operatives lost their lives.
Operating in parties as small as two men, Z Operatives faced overwhelming odds against a barbaric and increasingly desperate enemy. Whether it was raising indigenous guerrilla forces, raiding targets of opportunity or performing hair-raising reconnaissance missions in close proximity to enemy forces behind the lines, the men of Z truly embodied the ANZAC spirit.
The Z Men kept quiet about their exploits for 50 years and even today, the full story has never been made public. The full story of Z operations during WWII is one of mateship, tragedy, courage and humour, but is one which has been largely overlooked, misunderstood and even ignored by the history books for these past 75 years.
Their stories are told through a wealth of rare archival footage, through interviews with the surviving participants, through re-enacted scenes, through interviews with current Australian Special Forces personnel, authors and historians as well as through wartime letters, maps, official records and photographs.
Each of the thirteen episodes is designed to be a standalone piece and while historical and technical accuracy is assured, each episode is written with a bias towards the human drama aspect of the operations described rather than just dry historical facts and figures.
Please tell us what inspired you to start this series on Z Force:
First I must correct you with the term “Z Force”. Although that term is widely used it is incorrect, the correct name for this group is Z SPECIAL UNIT.
As for what inspired me…as a child I was fascinated by all things military. I’m now 64 years old so in my younger days there were still a great many veterans from WW1 alive (including my Grandfather) and I heard a lot of “war stories”.
At that time there were of course very many returned veterans from WW2 who were still relatively young so I as a child it was part of the environment in which I grew up.
My first introduction to Z Special Unit came from a TV show when I was in my teens called “The Heroes” which told the story of the very first ZSU mission “Operation Jaywick”.
Approximately 25 years ago I became neighbours with a WW2 veteran who was not only a Rat of Tobruk but also an instructor for Z Special Unit at their top secret training base on Fraser Island, Queensland.
This further triggered my interest as I listened to his stories and learned of his exploits.
In 2010 because of my friendship with my neighbour I decided to voluntarily organise a reunion for the remarkable men of Z Special Unit at their former training base on Fraser Island and nearby Maryborough.
It was a great honour and privilege for me to organise and stage what was to be their final reunion.
It was at this time I suggested the idea of a documentary about ZSU to the men at the reunion and they wholeheartedly agreed to share their stories with me for the project.
It’s taken almost 9 years to reach this point due to the lack of interest from broadcasters in Australia for ZSU but in the new age of online streaming we now have new hope of completing the series and sharing the amazing stories of ZSU with a global audience.
The story of Z Special Unit is largely unknown to many. What is the reason you want Z Special Unit to be known?
For 35 years after the war ZSU was sworn to secrecy, not even their wives mothers fathers or anyone knew exactly what they did during WW2.
During interviews with many of the veterans over the past 9 years they spoke of things that even to that day their wives and families had never heard about before.
These men simply did not speak openly about their service for so long after they felt that no one would care nor want to know about what they did after 35 years of silence.
Some did write books on their exploits but for the wider public no one really knew much about ZSU and that holds true to this day…that is why I want their story told. There are some incredible and almost unbelievable firsthand accounts of what transpired in our over 100 hours of interviews with these amazing men.
They sacrificed their youth just as many servicemen do but these men were something far more than your everyday soldier, the were specialists and hand-picked to operate alone or in groups of 4 or 5 behind Japanese lines.
They all carried L pills (cyanide capsules) to be taken in the event of capture, their exploits behind enemy lines are truly remarkable and widely unknown and that is why we MUST complete this documentary series and tell their story.
Out of the many stories and testimonies on Z Special Unit, which one would you single out and why?
I have several “favourite” stories but to me they are all amazing but as far as stories of survival go the story of Sapper Mick Dennis and Operation Copper is a stand out among a plethora of incredible stories.
Mick was the sole survivor of a group of 8 men on Operation Copper.
Inserted onto the Japanese held Muschu Island the mission was doomed from the moment they paddled away from the naval launch that inserted them. Unexpected tidal movement and strong currents carried them off course and waves on the reef capsized their canoes, equipment and weapons were lost in sea.
Nonetheless they continued on only to be discovered by Japanese patrols, fighting their way through the jungle to escape they divided up into separate groups.
The Japanese were doggedly searching for them across the island and after several scraps were there enemy were killed so too were some of the operatives killed or captured all in fact expect for Mick. He hid out for a couple of days dodging patrols although at times exchanging fire with them and killing several.
Eventually Mick made his way back to a beach where he found some drift wood hoping to paddle out to the rendezvous point chosen to meet the naval launch but that was unsuccessful. He paddled through shark and crocodile infested waters several kilometres across the channel from the island towards Wewak.
This area was also heavily occupied but the enemy and Mick has several running battles and encounters with them before stumbling upon an Australian army patrol that took him back to camp. It was later learned that Mick’s fellow operatives who were captured had been tortured then beheaded.
Thanks to Mick’s courage and resilience the information he provided the intelligence section the heavy naval guns on Muschu Island that the mission had been planned to locate were silenced this preventing them attacking shipping involved in allied landings at Wewak.
Z Special Unit is essentially a precursor to current special ops units. What are the key lessons and experience you believe were learned from their actions?
Some tactics and survival methods developed and used by ZSU during WW2 are still implemented in today’s modern army.
The need for specialised training and hand picking candidates for Special Operations I feel is most certainly one thing that was learnt and is still employed to this day….only the best of the best made the ranks of ZSU and Special Ops today has the same philosophy.
How may anyone interested become a supporter of the documentary on Z Special Unit?
Those interested in this incredible documentary series honouring the veterans of ZSU can support us by donating towards the cost of the series here by clicking the “Donate” button at https://asecretwar.com/ and also by subscribing to our newsletter and by sharing the website link and the Facebook link https://www.facebook.com/asecretwar/
Tell us about the documentary itself; at which stage is it now, when do you expect it to be finished and then aired?
We’re about to enter the pre production phase of the project, we have over 100 hours of never before seen interviews and a mountain of research and photographs.
We need to raise $30,000 Aussie dollars over the coming weeks which will be used to shoot a cinematic trailer with full re-enactment scenes, we also need to write the scripts and prepare all the documents in readiness to complete the 13 part series.
We don’t have a release date to go to air as yet, firstly we must raise the money to complete the current phase of the project.
To date we’ve injected over $120,000 Australian dollars into the series but we need public support to continue.
Sifting through the archives, hearing personal stories and looking into the past: How much has this helped you in learning more on this obscure chapter of WW2?
I’ve learnt an incredible amount about ZSU during WW2 and I’m still learning more
I’ve not only learned about the operations that were conducted and tactics they used but also about the strength and character of the men who served with ZSU.
It’s also taught me about just how much the human body and mind can endure and still live a fruitful and content (although at time haunted) life. I’ve learnt about real courage and sacrifice and just how sacred mateship is.
It’s worth noting that ZSU had what amounted to their own air force which was known as 200 Flight (B24 Liberators which were used for parachute insertions and resupplying operatives in the field), they also used Catalina PBY’s
They also had their own navy, a fleet of “Snake Boats”, craft built to look like native fishing vessels in areas of operation. Zed also inserted into areas of operation using Dutch British and American submarines and US PT boats.
Zed were also permitted to choose their own clothing on operations and chose their preferred weapon. They trained in the use of Sleeping Beauties (one man submersible subs).
The list of what was available to the operatives is long and extensive, far too much for me to list here.
Whatever they wanted they asked for and were given NO questions asked!
ZSU carried out of 80 operations within which there were sometimes sub missions. They befriended natives and trained them in guerrilla fighting.