Secret and Special, by Will Davies

The untold story of Z Special Unit in the Second World War.

Publisher:[North Sydney, New South Wales] : Vintage, an imprint of Penguin Random House Australia, 2021.
Characteristics:xiii, 378 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps, portraits ; 24 cm.
Source:Robert T. (and YPRL)

For those interested in Australian World War II history this book is something a bit different from the ordinary, Secret and Special covers the covert operations of Z Force.

Each chapter covers an operation and the author goes into much detail for each mission. Many missions weren’t’ successful due to bad planning and bad luck. Often bad weather would wreck the fragile “folboats”, the foldable kayaks used to reach the beach from the ship. On the way back if soldiers missed their rendezvous they would have to fend for themselves in enemy territory.

Much work had to be done to get support from the local tribes. Sometimes they would favour the Japanese due to bribes, but as the war wore on the Japanese abused their hosts making them more likely to help the Australian forces.

Motorised submersible canoe.

Reading the book gives you much respect for the soldiers, and helps you understand what they went through, from their war service to fitting back into society when they return home. One soldier, Roland Griffiths-Marsh, is and excellent example. He estimates that of the 2098 days he served in the AIF, he spent just 91 days in a “bed,” and as he had been just 16 when he enlisted, on his return from the war he had little education, no professional training, and no useful or influential contacts back in ‘Civvy Street’. His hardships didn’t end there.

As he recalled:

For five years and seven months I had been a frontline soldier. I had fought in four campaigns around the world, consisting of seven major battles, several operations, one major rear-guard action, innumerable patrols, ambushes and firefights. I had been sunk at sea, strafed and bombed from the air. I had been wounded, injured many times and had malaria, dengue, sand-fly fever, amoebic dysentery and God knows what else.

After the war I suffered from amoebic dysentery and my bowel extruded and I was dying. I had operations as a result. It took me about five years to return to civilian life. I was unemployable, I was completely shattered, my nerves had gone, I’d knock a person down for the slightest provocation. But I was very lucky. I met a marvellous lady and slowly my sanity came back.

Roland Griffiths-Marsh, author and AIF soldier.

The author summarises what Z went through, and their contribution to the war victory that should not be forgotten.

There were many men like him, dedicated volunteers into the AIF who found themselves, through bad luck or bad management, in a unit like Z. Special. While it was ‘Boys Own’ stuff, it was deadly serious, unbelievably frightening and fraught with danger and the possibility of an agonising death.

Yet these men had volunteered, trained and stepped out of an aircraft into the cold jet stream of a lumbering Liberator over a green carpet of hostile jungle or paddled their frail, canvas folboats into a darkened shore, not knowing what awaited them.

While some question the military value of SRD’s operational successes, the men involved in its operations were truly brave men and their exploits were accomplishments.

Today, so many seem to forget what so few men did to help win the war.


  1. Return to War
  2. Now Set Europe Ablaze
  3. A Fourth Fighting Force
  4. We’re Going to Singapore
  5. The Early Days – Operations in Timor
  6. The Great Tragedy of Lagarto
  7. The Insect and Fish Operations – Papua New Guinea
  8. Increasing the Pressure and Pushing West
  9. The Ill-Fated Operation Copper
  10. The Bite of the Sand-fly- the Agas Operations
  11. The Bite of the Ant – the Semut Operations
  12. The Secret War in the Spice Islands
  13. In Support of Oboe II – Balikpapan
  14. The Rescue of the Sultan
  15. The Audacious Disaster of Rimau
  16. The Last Raids
  17. War’s End


The book talks of many organisations and groups, each with their own acronym. Here’s a list to make it easier.

AIFAustralian Imperial Force
AIBAllied Intelligence Bureau
BEFBritish Expeditionary Force
CIDCommittee of Imperial Defence (Britain)
CMFCitizen Military Force (Australia)
DGSDirectorate of General Staff
FANYFirst Aid Nursing Yeomanry
FELOFar Eastern Liaison Office
GHQGeneral Head Quarters (Melbourne, Australia)
IRAIrish Republic Army
ISDInter-Allied Services Department
MSCMotorised Submersible Canoes
NEFISDutch intelligence organisation.
OSSOffice of Strategic Services (US)
PRSAmerican Philippine Regional Section
RAAFRoyal Australian Air Force
RAFRoyal Air Force
SISSecret Intelligence Service
SOASecret Operations (Australia)
SOESpecial Operations Executive (Britain)
SWPASouth West Pacific Area
WAAFWomen’s Auxiliary Air Force
ZESZ Experimental Station (Australia)

Further Reading

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