2/1st North Australia Observer Unit

Influenced by the tactics of the Boer War commandos, an anthropologist, W.E. Stanner, visualized a highly mobile Unit (horsed rather than wheeled), with good radio links, light weapons and made up of men with a bush background and adventurous spirit who could live outdoors for months at a time, operating in small groups, on their own initiative. Needless to say, many volunteers were ex-Lighthorse men. Like the Boer War commandos, they would operate without medical assistance or hope of casualty evacuation. Equipment, in addition to conventional military weapons, included .22 calibre rifles and shotguns to provide themselves with tucker. A sort of BYO arrangement.

From an address by Lt Col Des Harrison ED who served for two years as a Corporal with the 2/1 North Australia Observer Unit on the surveillance of North Australia during World War II.

Up until 1942, it was considered that Darwin would never be any more than a secondary base for allied Air and Naval operations.
But with the rapid fall of allied bases to the north, suddenly, shockingly, Darwin was the front line.
In one day, two savage Japanese bomber and fighter attacks by 188 aircraft, including carrier-borne aircraft which had blasted Pearl Harbour, just about wiped Darwin out. There were 700 casualties – 243 killed. Twelve days later, Broome was attacked. Seventy people were killed and 25 aircraft destroyed. Tens of thousands of troops were rushed north and Darwin became a fortress.
However, most of the Units had very limited mobility. There were thousands of kilometers of uninhabited, undefended northern coastline. Anywhere they chose, the Japanese could invade, outflank and completely surround the main concentration of troops in the Darwin/Adelaide River/Katherine area, at no point wider than 30 miles.
Realizing their predicament of having no early warning system on either flank, the Commander of Northern Territory Force, Major General Herring, after urgent conferences with the Navy, Air Force and the United States Army, recommended to Army HQ in Melbourne that a Northern Australia Observer organization be formed. They would operate north of a line running from Normanton (Queensland) in the Gulf, sweeping down to Alice Springs then across to Yampie Sound in Western Australia . . . almost 4 million square kilometers with a seaboard of about five and a half thousand kilometers.
The formation of this Unit was to be urgent but, above all, secret. But how to go about it? Strangely, an anthropologist’s concept was adopted. W. E. Stanner, personal assistant to the Minister for the Army had only minimal military experience but he had travelled widely over Northern Australia, working for five years as an anthropologist among the Aborigines. However, he was staggered by General Herring’s direction to him to raise and command the special mounted Unit he had proposed. And so, the 2/1 North Australia Observer Unit was about to be born.
Influenced by the tactics of the Boer War commandos, Stanner visualized a highly mobile Unit (horsed rather than wheeled), with good radio links, light weapons and made up of men with a bush background and adventurous spirit who could live outdoors for months at a time, operating in small groups, on their own initiative. Needless to say, many volunteers were ex-Lighthorse men. However, like the Boer commandos, operate without medical assistance or hope of casualty evacuation.
Equipment, in addition to conventional military weapons, included .22 calibre rifles and shot guns to provide ourselves with tucker. You know, sort of BYO arrangement.
Stanners plan was to set up five screens through which the enemy would have to pass unseen if they were to surprise the Northern Territory forces:
Firstly, the N.A.O.U.’s small fleet of off-shore boats, then the coastal observation posts.
After that, the mounted patrols covering the coastal areas, then the 3-field company headquarters in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia and – finally, the pedal wireless people of the cattle stations.
The whole show was linked by an extensive radio net to Unit headquarters in Katherine which, in turn, had direct links to the other bases, Army HQ in Darwin and the RAAF bases in Darwin, Cairns and Townsville, all of which had to be warned of enemy aircraft and troop landings.
By the way, the 600 men of the Unit were nicknamed “Nackeroos”, probably because NAOUS was not a catchy word.
The Unit was equipped with over 1,000 horses, donkeys and mules, some of which were rounded up in the wilds and broken in.
The Unit had to overland hundreds of horses, many unbroken, from the North Australian cattle stations to sub-Unit destinations. One remarkable example was the droving of horses by five Nackeroos from near Darwin to a Unit outpost in Western Australia in the wet season. In crossing one of the three major rivers en route, four horses were washed downstream and caught up in branches where they were swiftly seized by crocodiles. At the end of the 700km journey, they nevertheless delivered 73 of the 80 horses – a mighty achievement.
And, talking about crocodiles, perhaps I should mention that on another occasion, a horse taken by a crocodile was later washed onto a rocky outcrop. I counted at least 20 crocodiles swarming around the carcass. Also, as a patrol of men in the Gulf country were swimming their horses across a flooded creek, the Sergeant, who was last in line, felt something strike his horse. The horse screamed and struggled then disappeared from beside him into the blood-stained water. A terrible experience for the Sergeant who escaped unharmed.
Another little encounter with a crocodile happened to a North Coast Nackeroo – Charlie Mackney of Casino. Charley and his mate – who, incidentally, had served as a Mercenary in the Spanish Civil War – were camped about 40km out from Darwin. Their role was to pack – horse supplies to the coast-watching posts near Darwin and to search for downed pilots and their planes. One day, when resting on their bunks, their little dog was, as usual, barking and teasing the crocs down at the river. They heard the terrified yelping of their dog approaching at great speed. It shot through the tent – not much in front of a powerful pursuing crocodile. Charlie says that he was very glad that the little bugger didn’t, on this occasion, dive under his bunk.
I would like to comment briefly on the important support role of the Aborigines in the NAOU. Three or four Aborigines were allocated to each platoon of about twenty men. When we had white fella tucker, we shared it with them and when there was only black fella tucker, they shared with us. One of our Aboriginal men, Sam, old, white-haired and still bare-footed when I last saw him, appears occasionally throughout the “Bush Tuckerman” TV series and he is pictured on the video cover with “Bush Tuckerman”. He was teaching us bush tucker craft long before “Bush Tuckerman” met him. And we are proud too, that Sam is the hero. I suppose you would recall it in Denis Lockwood’s book “I the Aboriginal”.
Joshua was another fine Aborigine who served us faithfully – so faithfully that, after his death a few years ago, a small group of Nackaroos went back to the Northern Territory to mark his grave with a plaque. He died from leprosy. And it was Joshua who, on a patrol with Nackeroos, was approaching a cattle station when he astounded them by saying that his daughter had been there. He pointed out her tracks and the station manager subsequently confirmed that Joshua’s daughter had been there the day before.
On a patrol north of the Roper River, into Arnhem Land, we spotted the “Rose River tribe”, renowned for their fierceness. You will understand our apprehension because, not long before the war, this same tribe had slaughtered the Japanese crew of five off a pearling lugger because they had stolen some of their Aborigine women. Sometime later, the lugger returned and a small group of Aborigines ambushed and killed them all. They were sentenced to twenty years jail and, after the first attack on Darwin, the Authorities released them when they had served only part of the time, telling them to go and kill more Japanese! They must have found it hard to understand white man’s logic. Incidentally, when the pearling crew of Japanese were slaughtered, the Northern Territory police troopers ventured through the almost unknown wilds of Arnhem Land to try to identify and capture those responsible, one trooper was speared to death and another’s head was grazed by a spear.
Luckily Denis, who was with us, had been born into this tribe, and could communicate with them. After he had done so, he came back to us where we were waiting (at a safe distance!) and reported we would be alright and could stay with them that night. It was getting late so we accepted the invitation but, at no stage did we leave our weapons out of our hands. We were even allowed to watch their “corrobories”, some of which were quite fearsome and we couldn’t help harbouring a mild suspicion that they might have been getting psyched up for something not in our best interests.
However, we soon began to appreciate what wonderful people the bush Aborigines were. They were incredible trackers, stalkers and food finders and, having once passed through strange bush country, they would never get lost in it.
There were, alas, many patrol instances when the food situation became desperate and no doubt some of us would have perished but for the Aborigine’s ability to locate food and water.
I was with Sam once, when the thirst situation, although not quite crucial, was desperate. We came across two Aborigines in a dried out creek unearthing water-bloated frogs. They would squeeze the frog until its belly bulged – bit a hole in it – you know, Cheers! then drink the contents. Grinning wickedly, they tied to persuade me to imbibe but I decided I would rather die, and I declined the refreshment. However, just on dusk, we found water.
I was more than pleased to read in The Daily Telegraph in April that Aborigines involved with a unique WW2 Commando group, the North Australia Observer Unit, were to receive the Civilian Service Medal. They certainly deserved it.
Mounted Patrols:
Mounted patrols could carry out in all seasons and over all sorts of terrain by day and night, the longest of long range patrols. The longest patrol carried out by the N.A.O.U. was 800km and took two months. However, the country was much better going than that experienced by the two following patrols. The patrols left their respective bases at Roper Bar and Borroloola and were to rendezvous at the Limmen Bight River. The Roper Bar patrol of five men nearly perished because of lack of water and, on rendezvous, one man had been hallucinating and twelve of the twenty horses had to be destroyed. The Boorooloola patrol had good going on the way out but returned much closer to the sea and ran into terrible country which was, for the most part, waterless. The patrol of six Nackeroos and two Aborigines were lucky to survive. Two of their twenty horses had to be shot due to exhaustion and eleven others progressively released due to weakness. After 18 hideous days, they arrived at Base.
Another role of the Unit was search and rescue of downed planes and their crews, etc. One of the Unit’s boats off the North West Coast of WA found and rescued two Americans in a very small boat. They had evaded capture in the Philippines and sailed their tiny boat, fueled with coconut oil, for five and half months. An epic trip of 2,500 km.
One of the most dramatic rescues was the evacuation of an 85 kg Aborigine with a badly broken leg from St Vidgeons cattle station 50 km south of the Roper River. When the station manager contacted a near NAOU outpost, an improvised stretcher was made to carry the patient over the rocky, hilly terrain known as Jump-up country. The signaler called Roper Bar to send a boat to another NAOU outpost on the river from where the Aborigine could be transported to Roper Bar and then, hopefully, by light aircraft to Katherine Hospital. The signaler also notified this outpost of the situation.
There were seven men on the St Vidgeons outpost. The signaler had to stay with the set to keep wireless watch, four men were to carry the stretcher, one the water bottles and tucker. That left one for relief. In the 3am darkness, after giving the very distressed patient a shot of morphine, they set out for the Roper. By midday, the men were exhausted and the patient screaming in pain. After a short rest, a bit to eat and another injection for the patient, they resumed. Struggling on again in the darkness after 15 hours (an estimated 34km) and again on the point of exhaustion, they were amazed to hear a “cooee”, to which they responded. A party of four Nackeroos had responded to the signaled message and had set out to relieve them. At 3am, they rendezvoused with the boat.
I still marvel at the fortitude and determination of these men and the accuracy of the navigation of both parties. Even the remainder of the evacuation – another ten days – was filled with drama but, suffice it to say, he was finally delivered to Katherine Hospital – and his leg was saved.