The Australian Commando Memorial was dedicated on 16 November 1964 by the Lieutenant Governor of Victoria Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring. It was erected under the auspices of the Commando Association (Victoria) by Australian Commandos. The memorial ‘was erected to commemorate the birthplace of the commando in Australia and in memory of all the commandos who made the supreme sacrifice in World War II.’

The restored memorial was rededicated by the Premier of Victoria, John Brumby on 18 November 2007.

This brochure was written by Garrie Hutchinson  in November 2007 for the rededication of the memorial.

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Military Mission 104

Military Mission 104 led by Lieutenant Colonel JC Mawhood arrived in November 1940 with the idea of raising and training British style ‘special’ or ‘commando’ units, which had proved successful in operating against German occupied Europe.

The Australian Army decided to raise four ‘independent’ companies and train them at the innocuously named No. 7 Infantry Training Centre at Wilson’s Promontory, a national park since 1898. It was an isolated area of high, rugged and heavily timbered mountains, precipitous valleys, swiftly running streams, and swamps, sand dunes, thick scrub, bays and cliffs.

The Prom was ‘ideally suited for training troops who might fight anywhere from the Libyan deserts to the jungles of New Guinea, the only drawback being that in winter … the climate was often more polar than tropical,’ as  Captain Freddie Spencer Chapman instructor in fieldcraft wrote later.

Spencer Chapman was joined by Captain ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert, explosives; Sergeant Frank Misselbrook, signals; and Sergeant Peter Stafford, weapons to train the first Australian Independent Companies.

Spencer Chapman wrote that in the beginning: ‘We talked vaguely of guerrilla and irregular warfare, of special and para-military operations, stay-behind parties , resistance movements, sabotage and incendiarism, and darkly, and still more vaguely of ‘agents’; but the exact role of the … Independent Companies had never been made clear.’

The role of the Independent Companies would be ‘to stay behind, live off the country or be provisioned from the air, and be a thorn in the flesh of the occupying enemy, emerging in true guerrilla style to attack vital points and then disappear again into the jungle. We also visualised long range penetration of the enemy lines by parties highly skilled in fieldcraft and living off the country that they could attack their targets and get back without getting detected.’

The first three companies had completed were training by the second half of 1941. Initially destined for the Middle East, with Japanese threat growing, they were deployed in the islands to the north. The 2/1st Independent Company (sometimes just known as the 1st) was sent in sections to Manus, New Ireland, the Solomons, New Hebrides.  The 2/2nd to Timor,  and the 2/3rd  to New Caledonia.

No. 7 Infantry Training Centre

No. 7 Infantry Training Centre was established in January 1941 and was renamed the Guerrilla Warfare School, Foster in 1942. The location was variously referred to as being at Foster, the closest town to Wilson’s Promontory; Tidal River or Darby where the two training camps were actually located.

It was initially commanded by Major WJR Scott DSO, and from May 1941 by Major Stuart Love. Eight Australian and two New Zealand independent companies – some 3,000 men –  were trained before the Guerilla Warfare School was closed in November 1942. It was moved to Canungra in Queensland for conditions more appropriate to Australia’s tropical wartime needs. Another four companies 2/9, 2/10, 2/11, 2/12 were trained there.

The Camps

In 1941-1942 there were two camps at Wilson’s Promontory:  one at Darby River and the other at Tidal River, with complete accommodation for a full independent company.

An Independent Company consisted of 273 officers and men – commanded by a Major. There were three platoons of 60 men led by a captain, consisting of three sections led by a lieutenant. Plus all the other services to enable the force to operate on its own –  medical, engineers, sappers, transport.

No 1 Camp was in two sections at Darby River adjacent to the present day Lilly Pilly carpark. A chalet for visitors had been built south of the Darby River bridge in the 1930s after the road was constructed, and this served as the campsite for officers. When fully established the section north of the river had floored tents to sleep 35 NCOs and Sergeants, 46 Corporals and 62 OR.

Both had mess hits, lecture huts, ablutions, latrines, a combined kitchen,  six bed camp dressing station, a signals workshop and explosives store.

“All troops, officer and men were quartered in tents at No 1 Camp, which was in the valley floor surrounded by timbered hills, named Bishop, Oberon and Bloodsweat.”

No 2 Camp was at Tidal River camping area

“All that was there as we approached the Prom on the right hand side was an administration hut, a cook house and the showers and mess hall. This was virtually all there was there. On the left hand side was virgin scrub and they said, ‘Dump all your kit bags here’ and within half an hour covered in sand. ‘Well there’s your camp area; there’s your tents. You go over and bash the scrub down and pitch your own tents.”  Harry Levey, Harry Levey, 2/5th Independent Company.


The training, wrote Spencer Chapman, was ‘as practical as we could make it. Calvert, with his infectious enthusiasm, taught them how to blow up everything from battleships to brigadiers . . . . I taught them how to get a party from A to B and back by day or night in any sort of country and arrive in a fit state to carry out their task. This included all kinds of sidelines —a new conception of fitness, knowledge of the night sky, what to wear, what to take and how to carry it, what to eat and how to cook it, how to live off the country, tracking, memorizing routes, and how to escape if caught by the enemy.’

Officer and NCOs had six weeks of intensive training, and then they trained other ranks for a further six weeks. An independent company was  formed from those who were left standing.

A typical day was 8 am to 8.30 pm with fieldcraft experience, demolitions, a hill climb and swim, physical exercises, weapons training. Night lectures or a night march might follow including wading the Darby river in full battle dress or a map reading exercise combined with a cross-country ‘treasure hunt’.

Exercises were undertaken in full battle dress with full packs, using live ammunition and simulating war conditions. Soldiers were taught to blow up buildings, bridges and communications facilities and army vehicles as well as use field radios and coordinate activities with air drops of food and ammunition. Camouflage, ambush, lectures commando techniques and infiltration techniques were taught.

Training was “in very rugged conditions down there. Isolated rugged conditions. Hard – very hard training. On low rations – deliberately.  The sort of thing they would do is take you out and march you to the other end of Wilson’s Promontory and back, without food and water, smoking, anything like that, and without talking.

“Say you’d come back from a long hard exercise, and you’d strike the road about five or six miles from the camp down near Tidal River. There’d be trucks waiting there. And they’d say, ‘If any fellow is a bit knocked up, hop on the truck, and we’ll take you back to camp.’ Any of those who hopped on the truck were foolish, because they just stopped long enough back at camp to pick up their pack, and they were back for reposting.

“They’d take you out at night, with no blankets – a lot of it was to test you temperamentally, to see if you could put up with this sort of thing. If you growled and grizzled, you were on your way back.

“Every man learnt to be a signaller, and learnt to use explosives. There were a few casualties of course during training – deaths and injuries and fellows lost fingers and hands and things like that.”  Lieutenant Mick Sheehan 2/5th

‘On rare occasions a select few were allowed to go by trucks into the pictures at nearby Fish Creek. One night several very keen trainees and NCOs decided they would spring a surprise on the boys as they returned, by simulating the blowing up of a convoy. They only wanted to scare a truck load of boys so they dug a hole (for the charge) off the side of the road. When the trucks were only 100 yards away a trainee sergeant lit the fuse … things went terribly wrong. For some reason it was an instantaneous fuse, and it blew up the group. It killed the sergeant, and a corporal lost a leg, and another an eye.  …’ Andy Pirie, 2/5th Independent Company

To war.

The  2/1st Independent Company and No 1 NZ Special Company started training officers in February 1941.  2/1st formed on finishing training in May.

–       2/1 Independent Company (raised Oct 1941), also known as 1st Independent Company. Served in New Hebrides, Manus, Solomons, New Ireland. Many  2/1st members were killed or captured in the defending New Ireland, and later lost when the POW ship Montevideo Maru was sunk by the US submarine Sturgeon.

–       2/2 Independent Company (raised Oct 1941). Served as a classic stay-behind unit in Timor, and later around Madang, the Ramu Valley and New Britain in New Guinea.

–       2/3 Independent Company (raised Oct 1941) Served first in New Caledonia, then in 1942 around Wau/Salamaua, and at Balikpapan Borneo in 1945

–       2/4 Independent Company (raised December 1941) Replaced the  2/2nd in Timor, and in 1943-44 served around Lae and the Huon Peninsula Finschafen, and in 1945 on Tarakan

–       2/5 Independent Company (raised March 1942) Served around Wau and Salamaua in 1942-43, and then in Balikpapan in 1945.

–       2/6 Independent Company (raised March 1942) Served on the Kokoda Track in 1942, then in the Ramu Valley and Balikpapan

–       2/7 Independent Company (raised March 1942)  Served at Wau/Salamaua Madang, Ramu Valley and Wewak.

–       2/8 Independent Company (raised May 1942) served on Bougainville.

In 1943, the Australian Army reorganised its six frontline divisions as light infantry Divisions, and their cavalry squadrons were disbanded with the regimental headquarters being used to command the independent companies. The independent companies were redesignated as Cavalry Commando Squadrons and later  Commando Squadrons and were attached to the divisions during operations in New Guinea and Borneo.

–       2/6th Cavalry Commando Regiment – 2/7, 2/9 and 2/10 Commando Squadrons

–       2/7th Cavalry Commando Regiment – 2/3, 2/5 and 2/6 Commando Squadrons

–       2/9th Cavalry Commando Regiment – 2/4, 2/11 and 2/12 Commando Squadrons

The 2/1st Independent Company was never reformed after being decimated in 1941. The 2/2nd and the 2/8th retained separate identities throughout the war.

M & Z Special Units

After the beginning of the Pacific War, Special Operations Australia (SOA), a branch of the Allied Intelligence Bureau also formed two multinational, combined forces commando units: M Special Unit (primarily a coastwatching unit) and the more famous Z Special Unit (also known as Z Force), for Allied covert operations in the South West Pacific Area.

Z Force distinguished itself in Operation Jaywick, in which the unit posed as an Asian fishing boat crew, to infiltrate Singapore Harbour, where it mined and destroyed four Japanese ships, amounting to 39,000 tons, in September 1943. However, in 1944 the similar but larger Operation Rimau, which also targeted shipping at Singapore Harbour, resulted in the loss of all 23 personnel involved.

SOA used the ‘cover’ of the Inter Allied Services Department (IASD or often ISD) and  sent 81 small parties to Japanese occupied territories, between 1942 and August 1945. These parties, with enthusiastic local recruits in Borneo, harassed the Japanese  and probably killed more of them than did the invasions of the 7th and 9th Divisions in 1945. Australian losses were 69 dead and missing.

After the war – the Commando legacy

After the war, the commando units were disbanded. During the 1950s the Army realised it needed the skills possessed by the WW2 units.

Two reserve commando companies were raised: 2 Commando Company in  Melbourne in February 1955 and 1 Commando Company in Sydney in June 1955.

From 1957, some members of these joined the new Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), when it was raised. However the commando units retained a separate identity, with a greater emphasis on raiding and other larger offensive operations, rather than the special reconnaissance and Surgical Strike role which is the classic function of SAS units.

In February 1981, it was decided to unite the commando companies with a headquarters unit and link them with Special Operations Headquarters (SOHQ). 1 Commando Regiment was formed.

In 1996, it was decided to convert 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (4 RAR) from a light infantry battalion to a commando unit. 4RAR was renamed 4 RAR (Cdo).

In May 2003, Special Operations Command (Australia) was established as the administrative and operational headquarters for all of Australia’s Special Forces and commando units.