During World War II, a little-known company of bush commandos was set up as the first responders to feared invaders of our Top End.

Story Kerry Sharp  Photo Australian War Memorial

Most travellers who stop to read the inscriptions on a remote highway monument honouring the Nackeroos, near Timber Creek in the Victoria River District, NT, have probably never heard of this little-known troop of World War II ‘bush commandos’, once described as “the most notoriously undisciplined unit in the Australian Army”.  

Australia’s so-called secret bush commandos were officially named the 2/1st North Australia Observer Unit (NAOU) when urgently assembled in 1942 to guard the nation against a feared enemy invasion, after the deadly February 19, 1942, bombing of Darwin and March attacks on Broome. 

The unit also earned the nickname ‘Curtin’s Cowboys’ in light of Prime Minister John Curtin’s decision to raise a mobile reconnaissance effort to help protect the nation. In a Department of Information-issued message to the nation, Curtin urged Australians to rally against a looming threat: “It’s fight, work or perish! There is no time. The danger is too great. You must make a complete sacrifice for Australia or become a complete sacrifice to the enemy.”

Records held by the Australian War Memorial, oral history repositories and military historians reveal that before the war, anthropologist William ‘Bill’ Stanner learnt much about the remote north Australian bush while researching the Aboriginal people of Daly River and Port Keats. “After Darwin was bombed, killing 236 people and maiming up to 400, Bill Stanner, now in his capacity as a personal assistant to the Minister for the Army, flagged the concept of a special observation and ‘report-back’ unit as opposed to an infantry force equipped to fight the Imperial Japanese Army,” Canberra-based military historian, author, and retired naval officer Dr Tom Lewis says. “In April 1942, Major Stanner was called upon to urgently create the 2/1st North Australian Observation Unit and become its commander. 

“The call went out for recruits who were 20-40 years old, of strong and independent character and with horseriding and bushcraft skills. Stanner quickly mustered a start-up unit of 450 recruits (the contingent later grew to 550), mostly from the ranks of existing NSW-based soldiers keen to join Australia’s war effort. By May, the new recruits were heading north to begin their mission to patrol, keep watch and report back to headquarters on any enemy landings or sightings along the coast.” 

This story excerpt is from Issue #148

Outback Magazine: April/May 2023