A Matter of Trust: Dayaks & Z Special Unit Operatives in Borneo 1945

  • Exhibition time
  • Exhibition location
    Located on the Upper Level

Anzac Hall, Mezzanine Level

Open 10 am – 5 pm daily

Before the Second World War, many Australians had never heard of Borneo. But in 1945 the large south-east Asian island, with its remote jungles inhabited by indigenous Dayak groups, became a key Australian battleground.

The Japanese invaded Borneo in 1941 and proved to be brutal occupiers. Despite the risks involved, local populations began supporting the Allies. 

Covert Allied operations were organised to insert trained operatives behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and train and arm local peoples, many of whom had already been conducting guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. The highly trained operatives, most of whom were Australians serving in Z Special Unit, lived and worked in difficult jungle terrain at constant risk of discovery by the Japanese, and depended heavily on support and assistance from the Dayaks.

This exhibition explores the work of Z Special Unit operatives in Borneo and the relationships they developed with the indigenous populations. In the face of discovery and Japanese reprisals, Dayaks and operatives discovered surprising affinities and formed remarkable alliances.

The exhibition has been developed in partnership with the Australian National University with the support of the Australian Research Council. 

Exhibition Co-Curated by Professor Christine Helliwell of the Australian National University and Robyn van Dyk Head of the Research Centre Australian War Memorial.

Free curator-led talks

The Australian Imperial Force was tasked with retaking Borneo from the Japanese during the Second World War. Members of Z Special Unit were inserted behind enemy lines to gather intelligence, survey the terrain, and organise local resistance ahead of the invasion. Mutual respect and the forging of solid relationships between Allied troops and the local peoples were crucial to the operation’s success.  Join curators Robyn van Dyk and Christine Helliwell for a tour of the exhibition and hear stories of Z Special Unit and the Dayaks they served alongside. 

11.30am, Mezzanine, Anzac Hall, 4 September

World War Two - Special Operations Australia (SOA) - Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) - Operations - Agas - Training guerrillas

With the Dayaks in Borneo

The mission was classifed Top Secret: to penetrate deep behind enemy lines, gather intelligence on Japanese locations and movements, and to organise, train and arm local people into resistance groups to wage guerrilla warfare.

Map of borneo

Borneo: Secret Histories

The work of members of Z Special Unit in Borneo was to remain hidden under secrecy legislation for 30 years after the war; the men did not march on Anzac Day and rarely spoke of the events or met with members of their unit. 

Iban with weapon

Eyewitness accounts of top secret missions

The operatives were trained in unarmed combat and how to survive in the jungle. They were briefed not to keep cameras, diaries or notes. The records if captured could endanger the mission and reveal vital intelligence. Despite this, some of the operatives brought cameras with them and others kept records.

Map of Borneo

Operation Semut, Borneo 1945: Behind Enemy Lines

Robyn van Dyk, Head of the Research Centre, and Associate Professor Christine Helliwell, Australian National University, discuss Operation Semut, a Z Special Unit secret operation in Borneo in 1945. Members of the Unit operated behind enemy lines, collecting and reporting intelligence and organising, training and arming the local indigenous Dayaks to wage guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. Rare collections of papers related to Australians who served in Z Special Unit – Operation Semut – have now been published by the Memorial online, over 10,000 items including the papers of Tom Harrisson, rare maps donated by Jack Tredrea and a detailed account by Keith Barrie.

Jack Tredrea

"You were never told what you were going to do"

Jack Tredrea was just 24 years old when he parachuted into Borneo in March 1945, armed with only a few maps, some guns and grenades, and a cyanide pill to swallow in case he was captured.

Allan Russell

"You’d go a long way to find someone who was more courageous"

Allan Russell doesn’t like to talk about his role as a Z Special operative during the Second World War. He’d much prefer to talk about the courage and bravery of the indigenous Dayak people who risked everything to help him gather intelligence as he trekked for four months through the jungles of Japanese-occupied British North Borneo, home to the appalling prisoner of war camps at Sandakan and Ranau.

Cresswell Chalmers

Mission: disruption and sabotage

On the evening of Anzac Day, 1986 Rowan Waddy visited Cresswell Chalmers and his family. The two veterans of Z Special Unit had served on clandestine operations involving reconnaissance and sabotage behind enemy lines in the jungles of Borneo. Ten years after the lifting of the official secrecy regarding their work, they had marched under the banner of Z Special Unit and were able to talk about their experiences – although 30 years of enforced secrecy had built a habit of not talking about the war.

Barney Schinckel

"We were told ... that it could be risky business"

As a radio operator with the secretive Z Special Unit, Schinckel took part in Operation Agas 4, transmitting and receiving messages from behind Japanese lines in British North Borneo and Sarawak. But, for decades, Barney Schinckel wasn’t allowed to talk about what he did during the Second World War. Now, his story is one of the many told as part of a temporary exhibition, A matter of trust: Dayaks & Z Special Unit operatives in Borneo 1945.

Records relating to the service of Major Tom H. Harrisson, DSO Reconnaissance Corps, British Army.

ARC research project

This exhibition forms part of the Australian War Memorial’s ARC research partnership with the Australian National University (ANU).

Z special unit veterans at the launch

Exhibition launch

On Thursday 12 April, the Memorial launched the exhibition. View the photos on our Flickr page.

Christine Helliwell presenting the opening speech

'A Matter of Trust' exhibition opening speech

At the official launch of the exhibition, co-curator Professor Christine Helliwell from the Australian National University delivered a speech outlining the relationship between the Z Special Unit and the Dayaks in 1945.