"Z" SPECIAL UNIT COMMANDOS INVADE TOWNSVILLE
OPERATION "SCORPION"

 

In 1943 some ambitious officers of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) wanted to strike the Japanese in their secure strongholds. 28 year old Captain Ivan Lyon of the Gordon Highlanders teamed up with 61 year old Australian Bill Reynolds and hatched a plan to attack the Japanese in Singapore harbour where they would launch collapsible canoes carrying commandos who would attach limpet mines to the Japanese shipping. The Plan was approved by General Wavell.

It was considered too difficult to sneak into Singapore Harbour from the west, hence SOE decided to send Lyon to Australia to develop a plan to come from the south east. 

Bill Reynolds owned a battered Japanese coastal vessel (21.3 m x 3.3 m) called the Kofuku Maru, in which he used to take scores of refugees out of Sumatra. It had previously been used as a fish carrier. The Krait was shipped to Australia as deck cargo from India. Reynolds later renamed the vessel the Krait

Lyon's idea to attack Singapore was eventually taken up and it was decided by Lieutenant Colonel G.S. Mott, Chief of the Reconnaissance Department, to test the effectiveness of the plan by raiding a tightly guarded allied port.  He mentioned the idea to Lieutenant Sam Carey, of the AIF, who chose Townsville for the attack.  

The attack on Townsville was actually part of the training for Operation Scorpion, a proposed attack on shipping in Rabaul Harbour, New Britain. The following is a transcript from "The Official History of the Operations and Administration of Special Operations Australia (SOA), ... Volume 2 - Operations":-

SCORPION

Prior to leaving New Guinea on 18 Dec 42, Capt. S.W. Carey had discussed with the C-in-C AMF a projected raid on Rabaul Harbour, New Britain, where it was proposed to sink fifteen vessels. At that time the Harbour was accommodating up to ninety large vessels. The C-in-C had approved the project and Capt Carey was given instructions to proceed with planning and preliminary training. Personnel for the project were gathered without delay.

The code name allotted to the project was Scorpion. Members of the party were:

Capt S.W. Carey (Leader)
Capt A.L. Gluth
Capt R.D.C. Cardew
Capt D.M. McNamara
Lt. R.C. Page
Lt. W. Ferguson
Lt. J. Grimson
Lt. J.A. Downie
WO II Barnes T.J.
Cpl Mackenzie G.K.
Cpl Ford R.B.

After consideration by the ISD planning staff, in collaboration with naval experts, it became obvious that the only suitable method of introducing the party was by submarine. This meant that transport from US sources would be required, and it was obvious that difficulties would be encountered, as US submarines were few in the SWPA at that time.

During Mar and Apr 43 the party trained intensely at Z Experimental Station, Cairns. During the training period a successful training attack was carried out on Townsville Harbour, 15 vessels being technically sunk.

Scorpion, however, was cancelled by GHQ in May 43 because of the lack of submarine transport.

 

The Krait was apparently hidden in the mangroves in Smith's Creek while it was based in Townsville. (Where is Smith's Creek?)

 


 

Details of this little known attack, part of "Operation Scorpion" is detailed in the book "Special and Secret" as follows:-

 

SPECIAL AND SECRET
by John Laffin
Pages 124-126

While Lyon fretted to get at the Japanese, a group of disciplined daredevils had come together as Z Special Unit at Z Experimental Station, Cairns in Queensland. Major A.E.B. Trappes-Lomax, one of the unit's founders, was in command. Among his officers was Lieutenant Sam Carey of the AIF, another advocate of raiding the Japanese in the places where they felt most secure.

Carey was peddling the idea of an attack on enemy shipping in Rabaul Harbour as the beginning of a series of operations. As liaison officer between Z Special, which came under the control of the Commander-in-Chief of the New Guinea Force, Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring, and the Commander-in-Chief, Land Forces, General Sir Thomas Blamey, Carey was in a good position to put his scheme before the top decision-makers.

In January 1943 he proposed a plan, Operation "Scorpion, " to Blamey. It would involve one submarine and a small group of highly trained operatives. The sub would drop them 16 kilometres off Rabaul and they would paddle their canoes into the harbour. After attaching limpet mines to enemy ships, the Australians would hide on Vulcan Island, which Carey knew well, until the Japanese uproar had subsided. Then the Australians would rendezvous with the submarine. Blamey forecast that the party would be caught and shot but gave the project his backing in a letter giving Carey carte-blanche authority to do whatever he considered necessary during his planning.

By the end of March Carey had assembled, at Z Experimental Station, nine AIF men, Captains R.H.C. Cardew, A.L. Gluth, D. Macnamara, Lieutenants R. Page, J. Grimson and R. Downey, Company Sergeant Major G. Barnes, Sergeant H. Ford and Corporal G. Mackenzie. After nearly three months of rigorous training, Operation Scorpion was ready for action.

Meanwhile, Ivan Lyon had discussed with Colonel Mott his plan for an attack on Singapore. It was Mott's idea to test the effectiveness of well-trained commandos by mounting an attack, using sterile limpet mines, on some tightly guarded Allied port. He was careful to commit nothing to paper, but he mentioned his idea to Sam Carey.

Carey chose Townsville, a major garrison town with a busy harbour full of troop transports, merchantmen and naval escort vessels. The place was vulnerable to Japanese air and submarine attack, so security was tight. The narrow entrance and approaches were mined and a mine control-point was located at the extreme end of a long breakwater. If the observers stationed there saw Carey's canoes they would assume them to be enemy intruders and electrically detonate the mines.

In five canoes, each crewed by two men, the Scorpion raiders left their base on Magnetic Island and paddled slowly into the target harbour at midnight on June 20, 1943. Carey and Mackenzie attached limpets to two American Liberty ships and a Dutch ship while Cardew and Barnes fixed their mines to two destroyers and another ship. Gluth and Page went for a ship named Akaba but as it had a barge moored alongside they were forced to fix their mines above the waterline. Downey and Grimson limpeted two ships and were in the process of treating a third when a sailor, smoking as he leaned over the side, asked, mildly, "What are you doing there?"

''Just paddling around," Grimson said casually.

The sailor casually flicked his cigarette butt into the water. "Good night, mate," he said and disappeared.

Their limpeting complete, Carey's men met at Ross Creek, dismantled and hid their boats, had breakfast and headed for Townsville to sleep.

The first alarm came at 10 am, when the skipper of the Akaba reported "something strange" under the ship. Other ships notified local HQ of "suspicious objects," which were soon identified as limpet mines. Top-secret priority messages were flashed to Canberra and Melbourne, including one to Colonel Mott's office. Mott was diplomatically unavailable. MacArthur's Intelligence Chief, Colonel Alison Ind, knew where the blame lay: "Find Lieutenant Sam Carey," he said.

Awakened from sleep at 3pm, Carey was placed under arrest and escorted before senior naval officers. The AIF officer explained his mission but even when he produced General Blarney's "letter of authority" the Navy was not mollified. Carey offered to remove the mines but the angry captains of the ships affected would not contemplate the idea. They did not believe that these mines were inert and feared that Carey might accidentally set them off.

Finally run to ground, Colonel Mott was curiously vague about authorisation for the exercise but forthright and emphatic about the efficiency of Carey's team. The Navy released the army lieutenant, but only on AIB's assurance that he would be transferred to New Guinea. Thus, Carey was deprived of an opportunity to lead a similar raid in deadly earnest against the enemy.

GHQ commented that the Carey exercise had been irregular but the senior planning officers were by then convinced that a raid against genuine enemy targets was worth attempting. Ivan Lyon and his team had been in training for some time and made use of all the lessons learned from Carey's ''destruction of Townsville harbour."

 

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Captain Carey, then Professor Carey, visited Townsville in September 1977 and recalled:-

"Had we been spotted, we would have been blown out of the water. But it was necessary to do what we did. We limpeted every ship in port, including those lying outside. Instead of high explosives the mines contained sand. The mining was discovered when one ship, rising higher in the water as unloading progressed, revealed a line across her stern linking limpets to port and starboard. All hell broke loose."

The day after the "attack", Captain Carey was invited to the board room of HMAS Arunta. It was one of two warships in port at the time. Arunta's Captain was amazed that Carey's team had "mined" every merchant ship in the harbour, right under their noses. He was even more amazed when Carey asked to borrow a boat so that he could delouse HMAS Arunta. While showing Arunta's Captain, the mines on his ship, he was even further embarrassed when Carey pointed out that the second destroyer, HMAS Parramatta was also "mined".

The "Z" Special Unit commandos were later based in Cairns at the "House on the Hill". One night they penetrated the defences of Cairns airfield.  One RAAF person who was on night assignment woke up in the duty hut the next morning and found a tag tied to his big toe, which said "You have been killed, take this tag to your Commanding Officer". Everything on the airfield including trucks, tractors and aircraft had a tag attached stating that it had been destroyed. No one saw them come or go. They must have come in from the sea and access the airfield via the mangrove swamps.

"Z" Special Unit commandos eventually carried out their raid on Singapore harbour during Operation Jaywick.  In September 1943, the Krait, made a long voyage to the Singapore area where a team of commandoes in canoes entered Singapore harbour and destroyed much Japanese shipping by attaching limpet mines to the the hulls of the Japanese ships. They returned to Australia in the Krait through enemy waters without any loss of life.

 

Ernest Gregg (NX7435, AK157) - "Z" Special Unit Commando

 

"Miegunyah" - Safe House for "Z" Special Unit Commandos

 

The Defence of Townsville Harbour

 

REFERENCE BOOK

"I Didn't Know That"
"Cairns and Districts, Tully to Cape York, 1939-1946,
Service Personnel and Civilians"
By Vera Bradley (1943 AAMWS)

"The History of Townsville Harbour 1864 - 1979"
By H.J. Taylor

 

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This page first produced 30 June 2001

This page last updated 02 August 2016