History Detective

WWII Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit Case 12

Episode Summary

This episode looks at the formation of the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, during World War II.

Episode Notes

During World War II, Aboriginal Australians were generally not accepted into the armed forces, the Army, Navy nor Airforce. However, this all changed after Japan entered the war and the government began to fear the security of the Northern Territory. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Soldiers in the north of Australia were recruited. More than 800 signing up to join the uniformed Torres Straight Light Infantry. But there was another group that will be our focus for today. The group was made up of 50 non-uniformed men with incredible tracking skills, who became known as the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.

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Reflection Questions

  1. Why is important for a historian to find corroborating evidence when trying to prove a hypothesis?
  2. Why do you think the army at the time had rules around the enlistment of Aboriginal people?
  3. Censorship is where the government ban certain things from being printed in newspapers. Explain what you think the motive of the government was in censoring Aboriginal soldier’s participation in the war effort?
  4. Why was it economically beneficial for the army to use Aboriginal men for their reconnaissance unit?

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Contact: Twitter @HistoryDetect, Instagram @HistoryDetective9, email  historydetective9@gmail.com

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All original music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and then I explore how that story might be reimagined through song. This is Case 12: The Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.

Before we begin, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners are warned that the following podcast contains descriptions of deceased Indigenous persons. AndI would like to acknowledge the Yugumbeh people, the traditional owners of the land from which this podcast is being recorded today.

During World War II, Aboriginal Australians were generally not accepted into the armed forces, the Army, Navy nor Airforce, in fact this was even baked into the fitness section of the Australian military Regulations, “No person is to be enlisted voluntarily unless he is substantially of European origin or decent.” So, this meant that only Aboriginal men who could prove they enough European ancestry were able to join. For example, in 1940, 11 Aboriginal men applied to join up, 5 were deemed acceptable as being 25-50% European, and the other 6 men were rejected. However, this all changed after Japan entered the war and the government began to fear the security of the Northern Territory. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Soldiers in the north of Australia were recruited. More than 800 signing up to join the uniformed Torres Straight Light Infantry. But there was another group that will be our focus for today. The group was made up of 50 non-uniformed men with incredible tracking skills, who became known as the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.

Before we begin, I would like to put into context how Aboriginal people were treated by white Australians and government institutions before WWII. Due to the dispossession of the Aboriginal people from their lands and the systematic killings of tribes, the government relocated many Aboriginal people and put them on reserves. These reserves were created as the government realised that the Aboriginal people were a dying race, albeit at their own doing. The state governments had also started creating Aboriginal Protection Boards. These Protection Boards were the ones responsible for taking away Aboriginal children from their families and placing them in group homes. In these reserves, the government created laws that stripped Aboriginal people of their basic human rights. They lost the right to freedom of movement, freedom of labour-the government would keep their wages “safe” and that money would never be seen again- some states forbade marriage without permission, and control over their own property, among other restrictions. These rules varied from state to state. Additionally, at this time Aboriginal people were not counted as Australian citizens and most were not entitled to vote; so they were basically stripped of their land, money, freedom and had no political voice in the very government that controlled their lives. In fact, many elderly Aboriginal veterans of the First World War, were unable to get the old age pension simply because they were Aboriginal. Aboriginal Rights activist groups had begun to emerge and were fighting for their right to both enlist and vote, often falling on deaf ears.

Some Aboriginal men did manage to enlist early on, only to find themselves discharged a few months later. This deeply affected the morale of the men. And 75 years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and the president of the Australian Aborigines League and his loyal followers, refused to stand for the Australian national anthem. The anthem at this time was “God Save the King” and he is noted to have said, “We have no king now, and no country.”

As I said earlier, the threat of Japanese invasion loomed and so the army needed manpower and thus created to segregated Torres Straight Light Infantry. It is funny, when I went to my usual haunt for primary sources, Trove, I couldn’t find any newspaper articles between 1939 and 1945 that mentioned the Aboriginal soldiers. I was a bit perplexed and as I was reading a book called “Black Diggers” by Robert Hall, I found this corroborating testimony. “Australia sharply reduced their coverage of Aboriginal affairs during the war years and those few articles and letters which were published tended not to report the Aboriginal contribution to the war effort. You have to question why the press would put a blanket censorship on Aboriginal participation in the armed forces. 

There is so much more to the story of the Light Infantry, but today I want to take a deep dive into the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.

The Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit was under the command of Donald F Thompson, he was an anthropologist- that is someone who studies people, society and culture. In 1928, he was given a grant of £600 to go to Cape York- that is right at the tippy top of Queensland, or the northern most point of Australia. He was also commissioned to go and make friends with the tribes of Arnhem Land, that’s at the top of Northern Territory. Because North Queensland and Northern Territory were not as populated by Europeans, many Indigenous tribes still existed and Thompson spent 2 and a half years learning their language, adopting their lifestyle and establishing relationships with many of the leaders.

Cut to 1941, Thompson was a Flight Lieutenant in the Air Force and he gave a lecture at the Victoria barracks in Melbourne about the Arnhem Land tribes. In the audience were the Army Chief of Staff and the Director of Military Operations. They were struck with the idea of harnessing the skills of the Arnhem Land tribes to form a covert reconnaissance unit that could protect and patrol the northern coast and would be headed up by Thompson, who already had well established relationships the many of the tribes and could speak the language. And so, he moved from the Airforce to the Army to head up the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.

In the Army’s eyes, one of the enormous benefits of using Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders for this job, was the only wage they would have to pay was Thompson’s and a couple of other white officers. In the words of the Director of Military operations, “The costs of services provided by the natives would be repaid in trade; tobacco… fish hooks, wire for fish spears, tomahawks and pipes…It will be seen that the costs would be very moderate for a plan which [would] ensure a very comfortable degree of safety to Darwin.”

In his report on the Northern Territory Coastal Patrol, Thompson corroborates this by writing, “the natives who had been recruited for the special force were repatriated and rewarded with presents of knives, tomahawks and tobacco.” They were also issued with, 2 pieces of calico and a strong blanket, a brass disc carved with a number to wear around their neck and “Each man received a weekly issue of at least three sticks of tobacco at all times”. He also writes about their work ethic, “every man in this unit carried out willingly and cheerfully what should have been the work of two men”. He further sings their praise by saying, “Freely, and without complaint, they submitted to the rigorous discipline, and without pay, without any guarantee of reward, with only the most primitive equipment, and without arms or weapons, they gave their best in loyalty, unrelenting hard work and sweat, in the stronghold of the people from whom they had known neither justice nor understanding.” 

He goes on to describe the length of their deployment, “the wireless operator worked for 10 months…7 days a week” and another, “served continuously for 18 months without a break.” All work, no pay.

It was not until 1992, 50 years after the recon unit operated that the Australian government finally awarded medals and backpay to any surviving veterans of the unit and their families.

In 1942, the unit had begun its intensive training, they did military drills, surprise attacks, night approaches, infiltration, regrouping, marching and patrols. One exercise involved a long night swim through a mosquito infested, mangrove filled river. Despite these conditions, they approached the rendezvous successfully and silently. 

Thompson describes the calibre of men that he recruited for the unit, “The men selected were especially fine specimens, all people who had grown up in an area where tribal feuds were still carried on, and where guerrilla fighting still plays an important part in their lives, most of these men were renowned warriors with almost legendary reputations for their prowess as spear fighters.” 

To ensure that the unit was truly covert and not recognisable as being affiliated with the Army, Thompson insisted that they did not use guns, but only traditional weapons. However, he did make an exception and trained them in the use of Molotov Cocktails- which are a kind of petrol bomb in a glass bottle, with a rag out the top that you light before you throw. Thompson wrote that they “proved adept in handling Molotov Cocktails and looked forward eagerly to an opportunity of demonstrating their new skill.”

They also went bare foot and did not wear uniforms. Thompson even trained himself to go bare foot, so his army boot prints could net be tracked. Additionally, the unit did not need a supply line as they were adept at living off the land, and this was yet another economic bonus for the army, not having to continually supply these soldiers with food.

By 1943, the army had time to create and train a company of white soldiers who were called the Northern Australia Observation Unit. Their job was to monitor the entire north coast for enemy activity. They were more of a traditional army with horses, uniforms and guns and so the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit were disbanded. The new unit received both pay and rations and were ordered that they could use Aboriginal trackers informally- by informally, that meant that they would not pay them or give them rations. 

Donald Thompson was later awarded an OBE- which is basically a medal from the Queen for outstanding civil service. 

But, unfortunately, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the unit received very little recognition for their work, despite Thompson’s glowing commendations in his report. In 1949, when Thompson was attending an ANZAC Day march in Darwin, the Department of Native Affairs did not allow his right-hand man Raiwalla to attend the ceremony. 

As a side note, this was not the only time that the Australian Army used Aboriginal knowledge for the defence of the North. In 1981, they began a unit called Norforce, whose main job was to find areas susceptible to invasion. In fact, Norforce is still in operation today. It is an Army reserve unit, they generally do surveillance  and try and detect foreign threats and drug smugglers, however in 2020 they were deployed for several other missions including Operation Bushfire, which was helping to clean up Kangaroo Island in South Australia after the devastating bushfires and then Operation Covid 19 Assist- where they worked on checkpoints of the borders of the Northern  Territory, ensuring that vulnerable remote Indigenous communities were protected from the threat of Covid-19. As of recording this episode in January 2021, there have only been 98 cases recorded and no deaths. That is a wonderful effort at keeping the community safe.

I would love to hear any suggestions for future episodes, so please get in contact. You can follow me on Twitter @HistoryDetect,  Instagram @HistoryDetective9 or head on over to www.historydetective.com where you will find a transcript, links to all of the source I mention and you can join my mailing list. 

Now I would like to play you a song that I wrote called Who Decides the Heroes I have popped a lyric video on YouTube if you are into lyrical analysis.

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

Who decides the heroes

Strangers on the shoreline

Fear sets in

Encircled by menace

Shells flying


And who decide the heroes

Who writes the rules

Who controls the silence

Objections overruled


Cast your net

And collect your men

Threats from afar

Time and time again


And who decide the heroes

Who writes the rules

Who controls the silence

Objections overruled


We will run the gauntlet

And show you the way

Protect this land

All work no pay


And who decide the heroes

Who writes the rules

Who controls the silence

Objections overruled x3

If you are a teacher or student, you will find reflection questions in the show notes. A link to my website with the transcript, the song lyrics and a list of references are linked in the show notes. However, if you want a readymade lesson to go with the podcast, you can head on over to my Amped Up learning store where you will find resources for this and every episode of history detective. Also, you can find Shadow of a Shark the song from Case 6 of season one, on all of your music streaming services. The entire season one album will be released in mid 2021.

Next time on History Detective, we will investigate the WWI Russian Women’s Death Battalion and its founder Maria Bochkareva. 

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See you next time!