While there is no direct, unbroken lineage between today’s Australian special forces and the Australian independent companies, commando squadrons, and special units of World War Two in the Pacific, it is acknowledged that the former were the antecedents of our present Special Air Service and Commando Regiments. Despite it being common knowledge that the independent companies – the first of Australia’s experiments with special units – were inspired by the potential of British commandos in occupied Europe, and the training of the initial companies was guided by members of the British 104 Military Mission, little else has been published about their beginnings. What follows then, for the historical record, is a concise outline of the birth of these independent companies in the Second World War.
The story began in June, 1940, with correspondence from the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS) to his Australian counterpart, Lieutenant General Sir Brudenell White, the Chief of the Australian General Staff (CGS).
The British had just begun to form, in secret, small units of men who were trained in skills beyond that of the standard infantry, for the purpose of ‘staying behind’ in enemy-occupied territory and conducting guerrilla warfare, including the sabotage of key facilities. Other tasks included conducting sea-borne raids from outside enemy territory. These units were the beginning of the British Commandos and S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive). The British encouraged Australia to develop similar capabilities, and Sir Brudenell White accepted the British officer to send a party of five – three officers and two Warrant Officers – to Australia to begin the process of doing so. The party was known as Military Mission 104, or the Mawhood Mission, named after its senior officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. Mawhood. Due to the secrecy of the project, when Gen. Brudenell White was killed in an aeroplane crash near Canberra on the 13th of August the same year, the informal arrangements which had been made between the two senior soldiers of Britain and Australia, caused a temporary confusion, as the Australian Federal Government Ministers who were required for the approval and funding of the Mission, had little or no knowledge of the same. This, however, was overcome.
Mission 104 had a parallel aim to that of developing Australia (and New Zealand’s) initial independent companies: the evaluation and development of the Australian Federal Security Service. From the scant available records, it appears that Captains Calvert and Spencer Chapman, and Warrant Officers Stafford and Misselbrook, were the principal instructors at No.7 Infantry Training Centre, while Lt. Col. Mawhood was more involved in the Security Service element of the Mission. This post will focus upon the aforementioned training centre.
The first of the British establishments was the Special Training Centre (STC) Loachailort, which began operating in June 1940, in western Scotland, and Australia’s No.7 Infantry Training Centre was to be loosely modelled on STC Lochailort.
The initial contact from the CIGS to the Australian CGS, proposed both to send “trained British Officers to your Dominion to assist in advising on establishment of the organisation and maintaining liaison for the future” and also that “Dominion Officers should be sent to this country to undergo a period of training in [the] special training centre,” by which he presumably meant the newly-established Lochailort. Just why the first option was decided upon over the second, the historical records have not indicated.
Captains Frederick ‘Freddie’ Spencer Chapman and Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert, were selected for 104 Military Mission by then Major J.S. ‘Jack’ Wilson of the Special Operations Executive. Captain Calvert, Royal Engineers, had been a member of the 5th Scots Guards, and spent six weeks as an assistant to the chief demolitions instructor at Lochailort. Just who selected Warrant Officers Stafford and Misselbrook is not known, however it is likely they had both passed through the STC, either as students or staff.
Lochailort had initially been set up by the British War Ministry’s Military Intelligence (Research) Section of the Directorate of Military Training, and was the first of a number of such schools created to teach future members of the SOE, Commandos, and other ‘special’ units.
In Australia, the soldiers were for some months referred to as ‘Special Assault Troops’, and on the 30th of September, the new Australian Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Vernon Sturdee, issued a minute, asking for the Army Minister’s “consideration and direction” of the proposal, with the initial strength set at 1,000 officers and men, divided into four companies. Two days later, the Minister communicated his approval, and the wheels of bureaucracy began moving surprisingly fast for such an innovative concept.
The necessity of keeping both the existence, the training, and the role of the independent companies secret, was emphasised, and on the 6th of January, 1941, the Acting Chief of the General Staff, Maj. Gen. Northcott, requested that “the Centre be organized with as little information as possible being passed to other Departments.”
When Prime Minister Menzies approved of the establishment of the companies and 7 I.T.C. on the 21st of Jan., he notated that “Knowledge of this matter to be confined ministerially to Treasurer, Minister for the Army & Myself.”
At some point it was decided to offer fellow British dominion and close neighbour New Zealand, the opportunity to benefit from the visiting Military Mission, and so two New Zealand companies were also to be trained at the new Australian training centre. This cut the number of Australian companies from four, down to two.
The location of Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria, had been selected during, or sometime prior, to the first week of January, 1941, and by the end of that week, the preparations had been declared sufficiently advanced to enable recruitment and training of the first cadres to begin on an unstated date in February. Resumption of the Chalet at Darby and the two company campsites at Tidal River from the State of Victoria was to take place on the 1st of February. The School was then known as No.7 Infantry Training Centre.
The initial estimate of the cost of training the first two New Zealand companies at The Prom was £11,000, of which railway fares from Sydney [their port of disembarkation] to Foster, Victoria, and presumably return, amounted to an estimated £4,200. The remainder, £6,800, encompassed the coast of accommodation – based on the “proposed rates to be charged by the U.K. Government for the A.I.F. abroad in training” – camp expenses, and training stores.
We might assume then, that without the accommodation expenses, the first two Australian companies may have cost roughly £5,400 to train. This amount did not include pay and allowances for the trainees and training staff.
Added to this, however, was the cost of 104 Military Mission itself, that is, the pay and upkeep of the five members of the mission, which the governments of Australia and New Zealand agreed to share equally. Lt. Col. Mawhood visited New Zealand on a number of occasions and consulted with them in a similar role as he did in Australia, though this is beyond the scope of our present article.
The New Zealand Government tentatively floated the idea of training their second company at home, presumably making use of the mission members once they had been released from their duties in Australia.
The area where the companies were to carry our training was to be declared ‘prohibited’ for entry by the general public, however “Local residents already within this area will be issued with special passes to permit them to carry on their normal occupations.”
The Depot staff at Foster were initially to number 87, including 6 officers, and the School at the Darby Chalet to be 14 Officers and 84 Other Ranks. The estimated cost of establishing the facilities and maintaining two Australian independent companies (this is one of the earliest documents I have seen where the units are so named) up to the 30th of June, 1941, was £610,000. This total included projected ‘war wastage’ of the two companies for a period of 12 months after training, based on the assumption they would be committed to service abroad after completing their training.
In addition to the New Zealand Government planning to send independent companies to the Centre for training, the Government of Malaya expressed interest in sending an unspecified number of instructional staff and interpreters. It is believed that this early proposal did not eventuate.
References are available upon request.
# This article still requires some fine-tuning. Thank you for your patience.