After the Japanese commenced bombing the North of Australia on the 19th February 1942, it suddenly dawned on the Australian Government that there was no early warning system to alert them of the impending arrival of enemy forces into our country, particularly through the very sparsely populated Northern coastline.

Major William (Bill) Stanner. Australian War Memorial

Establishing the Nackeroos

Fortunately, at the time, William Edward Hanley (Bill) Stanner, an esteemed anthropologist, was employed on the personal staff of the Minister for the Army, Frank Forde. As an anthropologist, he had spent many years prior to WWII researching, and making friends with, the Aboriginal people in the Top End of the Northern Territory.

With Japanese forces moving swiftly southward toward Australia, Stanner wrote a report proposing the establishment of “a bush commando unit” to covertly patrol the northern shores of Australia. With his experience and knowledge of the Top End, the Army accepted his recommendation and instructed him to form the new unit.

The 2/1 North Australia Observer Unit (NAOU) officially came into existence on the 11th May 1942 (secret report from Major-General Vasey which also included Stanner’s promotion to Major) and that the Regiment was placed onto the Australian Army Order of Battle (ORBAT) 12 days later (23 May 1942). 

They were known for a time informally as “Stanner’s Bush Commandos”.  Colloquially, the unit later adopted the nicknameNackeroos’.  This was a humorous combination of the terms ‘Jackeroo’ and ‘Knackery’ (to do with horses) and was coined by Lt Travers of B Company.  In later years, the title “Curtin’s Cowboys” (after Prime Minister John Curtin) was also used.

NAOU breaking in horses. Australian War Memorial.

Stanner retained this position until October 1943, when he was transferred to the Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs in Melbourne. A move which did not please him.

Nackeroo Operations

With its headquarters in Katherine, the NAOU was tasked with patrolling Australia’s coastline from Yampie Sound (see note 1) in Western Australia to Normanton in Queensland, including some islands, a distance of approx. 6,000kms, with approx. 550 men.

Stanner preferred soldiers with a bush or outback upbringing, who could live outdoors for many months, had good initiative, and who were psychologically stable. A knowledge of firearms, horses, and medicine were a distinct advantage.

Stanner set up five lines of observation, any of which the enemy had to pass through. Firstly, eight “fishing boats”, of 15m maximum length, from which the first sight of the enemy could be reported by radio. Secondly, several semi-permanent coastal observation posts from where any enemy military movements could be observed. Thirdly, highly mobile horse-mounted patrols that could travel quickly to reported areas of Japanese activity. Fourthly, were the state-based company headquarters; Queensland, Northern Territory, and Western Australia. Lastly, were the (non-military) cattle stations with their pedal-radios.

The Unit was divided into three companies:

“A” Company was based in the Roper Bar, Limmen River area of the Northern Territory.

“B” Company was based in the Victoria and Ord Rivers area of Western Australia.

“C” Company was based in the Borroloola, Northern Territory – Normanton, Queensland area; and a platoon sized detachment in observation posts around the greater Darwin area. All of the sub-units were in position by September 1942, just in time for the wet season!

The locations and areas of responsibility of the three Companies of the NAOU. The arrows indicate possible landing places and troop movements by the Japanese. The Northern Territory Police Museum and Historical Society Inc. *

* It will be noted in the map above that most of Arnhem Land is not patrolled by the Nackeroos. This is because a separate Army unit, Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit (NTSRU) patrolled that area. This Unit was raised in February 1942, and consisted of approx. 50 Yolngu men. Similar units were raised on Bathurst Island, Melville Island, Cox Peninsula and Groote Eylandt. The Unit was disbanded in 1943. (see FF 18.2.22)

In addition to the regular Army soldiers, 12 members of the Northern Territory Police, with their Aboriginal trackers, were seconded to the Unit. They were valuable recruits due of their knowledge of the bush and their past experience from living in isolated parts of the Territory.

The Dangers

There were many dangers of being stationed in the tropical North. These included; flies, disease carrying mosquitos, and crocodiles, not to mention; the isolation, hunger, thirst, the weather, and the constant threat of being attacked by the Japanese. There were several reports of horses, and dogs, being taken by crocodiles when camped by the coast, or near the numerous creeks and rivers in the area. However, there were no reports of humans being taken.

As the exact locations of the Nackeroos were not always known to the Army hierarchy, they could not always receive regular supplies or medical aid. If these activities were carried-out, it may have given their position away to the enemy. Consequently, they lived off the land, and treated their own wounds and ailments. In addition to standard military weapons, they were provided with .22 rifles and double-barrel shotguns, with which to bag their evening meal. However, some members preferred to use their own personal weapons. Another item of essential equipment were their modern radios. These were used by the “fishing boats”, the mobile patrols and the semi-permanent observation posts.

A portable wireless set used by the North Australian Observer Unit. Australian War Memorial

Once in their assigned locations, the Nackeroos very rarely encountered other members of the Unit. On their patrols, or at their semi-permanent locations, they were generally semi-autonomous; they knew their duty, they knew how to do it, and they didn’t require orders or advice from their Unit headquarters. Generally the men operated in sections of about five or six men, including one Aborigine, when on patrol. On no occasion was the whole Unit assembled in the same place at the same time.

Nackeroo camp at Pioneer Beach, Northern Territory. A rough shelter on the left, is constructed of rough-hewn logs for poles and seats, and sheets of bark for the roof. A larger tent, on the right,  with logs as poles and a tarpaulin over the roof. Australian War Memorial

Keys to success

The major key to the success of the Unit was the inclusion of three or four Aboriginals to approx. 20 men. They were employed to guide and advise the Nackeroos on safe areas in which to travel, all aspects of survival in the dangerous environment, and which native plants and animals could be eaten. This meant sometimes eating; goannas, snakes, kangaroos, buffalo, witchetty grubs, turtle eggs, flying fox, geese, ducks, fish, sharks, stingrays, crocodiles and dugong. Native plants included; various grasses, wombat berries, common pigweed, green plums, red bush apple, long yam, and many others.

All the men in the section lived together and ate together. When it was available, they all ate supplied rations which were largely supplements by bush tucker, caught or collected by the Aboriginals and the Nackeroos themselves. They were masters at locating food and water at times of the greatest need. There is a report of a section who were desperately short of water, when the attached Aborigine unearthed some frogs that were bloated with water in a dry creek bed. He demonstrated their use by squeezing the frogs’ belly until it bulged, he then bit a hole in it and drank the contents. The soldiers declined to partake, preferring to die! Fortunately, later that day they found a pool of drinkable water.

Unfortunately, it was more than 50 years after the war before the work of the Aborigines was recognised. On 29 May 1995 that Governor-General, Bill Hayden, signed a proclamation awarding the “Civilian Service Medal 1939-1945” to the “…civilian guides who served with the North Australia Observer Unit”. Those “civilian guides” also included all 12 members of the Northern Territory Police, and their Aboriginal trackers.

The medal is made of bronze with a ribbon of three vertical bands, the outer two being white, with the centre being ochre. It portrays the southern cross, surrounded by golden wattle.

Civilian Service Medal 1939 – 1945. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Nackeroos on patrol, shirtless, shoeless and in one case, short-less. Australian War Memorial

The purpose of each mounted section was to patrol an assigned area of coastline or river system, make contact with the coastal observation posts, and of course, be on the lookout for enemy activity, on land, at sea, and in the air. Some of the patrol routes were extremely dangerous, not only from crocodiles, and the Japanese, but also from the largely un-explored terrain and the weather. Despite being in the tropics, it was possible for patrols, which sometimes could cover 800kms and take several months to complete, to run short of water. There were occasions when horses died of thirst, or had to be euthanised when they collapsed due to exhaustion.

Trooper of the NAOU on their morning parade on horseback. Australia War Memorial

The patrols were also to rescue the crew of downed allied aircraft. One extreme rescue involved the rescue of two Americans who had evaded the Japanese by commandeering a small motor-boat. Using coconut oil as fuel, they had travelled 2,500kms from the Philippines, taking 5½ months for the journey.

During their years of active duty, the only occasion on which there was any evidence of Japanese activity, was a few Japanese oil drums washed ashore at Blue Mud Bay, on the east coast of Arnhem Land. Despite increased observation by the Nackeroos, no further Japanese activity was detected in the area.

By July 1943 the threat of invasion by the Japanese had decreased and the patrols were consequently reduced. The Unit was finally disbanded in March 1945. The Nackeroos are considered the forerunners of today’s Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSU’s); North West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), The Pilbara Regiment and the 51st Battalion Far North Queensland Regiment (FNQR).

Original 2/1 NAOU members holding the Unit Banner 1990

May 11th this year marks the 80th Anniversary of the formation of the 2/1 NAOU. 

Nackeroo and Norforce association march in Darwin, ANZAC Day 2021

Several memorials have been erected throughout the Northern Territory recognizing the service of the Nackeroos. And remembering their contribution to the defence of Australia in time of war.

Monument to the Nackeroos – Timber Creek. Monument Australia
The monument also includes a memorial to the Aboriginal trackers. Monument Australia
Monument to 1 Platoon, A Company, Hodgson Downs Station. Stephen Martin
Monument at Bradshaw Training Area – ‘Nackaroo’ Airfield. John Pini
2/1 NAOU Monument, Ryan Park, Katherine (Unit Headquarters)

NOTE:

  1. Almost all references on the history of the NAOU give a different location for the western end of the patrol. The area around Yampie Sound/Derby is the most common.
  2. It is interesting to note that there was once a property named “Nackeroo”, of 1744 acres, near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales. It was owned by W. Kelmpsch in 1888. There is also a “Nackeroo Airfield” within the Bradshaw Field Training Area, near Timber Creek, Northern Territory.