Four covert operations by Z Special Unit in Borneo during WWII

Patricia Hului

For those who survived, they kept their silence for 30 years. Nobody knew what they did during World War II (WWII).

For those who died during their missions, nobody, not even their families knew about their sacrifices or the nature of their deaths for those 30 years.

They were part of Z Special Unit, a joint Allied Special forces unit formed to operate behind Japanese lines in Southeast Asia.

The operatives were mostly from Australia while others were British, Dutch, New Zealand, Timorese and Indonesian.

After the war ended, the special military unit operatives were sworn to secrecy and not allowed to tell anyone of their experiences until 1980.

While their best known missions were Operation Jaywick and Operation Rimau (both of which involved raids on Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour), these operatives also carried out covert operations in Borneo.

Here are at least four covert operations run by Z Special united in Borneo during WWII:
Members of Z Special Unit at their base at East Arm, near Darwin. Credits: Australian War Memorial.
1.Operation Python

As all Z Special Unit’s operations were covert and secretive, not much has been revealed to the public even almost 80 years since the war has ended.

This included Operation Python which took place from 1943 to 1944. The mission’s objective was to set up a wireless station near Labian Point in Sabah and undertake covert operations reporting on the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Sibutu Passage and the Balabac Strait of the Sulu Sea.

The overall operation was divided into Python I and Python II. During Operation Python I, the Z Special Unit operatives landed along Labian Point in early October 1943. Besides setting up a wireless station there, they also supported and provided equipment for Filipino guerrillas.

In January 1944, Operation Python II took place with the objective of organising the native population for guerrilla warfare.

Unfortunately, these early operations did not yield significant results.

2.Operation Agas

A total of 44 Z Special Unit operatives took part in Operation Agas in carrying out guerrilla warfare against Japanese in North Borneo (present day Sabah) with the support of locals.

Operation Agas was split into five operations, starting in March 1945, continuing up to September and October 1945.

While the operations were able to supply reliable information to Australian forces, they did little rescue mission-wise.

For example, Agas 1 operatives provided information about the Sandakan Death March but there were no rescue missions for the prisoners of war (POWs). The death march subsequently resulted in the deaths of 2,434 POWs.

Nonetheless, the intelligence gathered during Operation Agas helped the Allied forces during the Battle of North Borneo which was fought between June 10 to Aug 15, 1945.

3.Operation Semut

While Operation Agas was executed in North Borneo, a similar covert mission was undertaken in Sarawak called Operation Semut.

There was four operations undertaken under Operation Semut. Overall, the operation reportedly caused the deaths of 1,500 to 1,700 Japanese from March to October 1945.

Under this operation, the Z Special Unit members trained and supplied the locals with weapons to help conduct surveillance and sabotage behind enemy lines.

Unlike Operation Agas, the intelligence gathered during Operation Semut was not entirely helpful as the locals could not differentiate between facts and rumours.

4.Operation Platypus

Just like any other operations undertaken by Z Special Unit, Operation Platypus aimed to gather intelligence and train local peoples as resistance fighters against the Japanese.

The operatives were inserted in small groups into the Balikpapan area of Dutch Borneo (present day Kalimantan).

There were 11 operations altogether in Operations Platypus with the first part of the operations carried out on Mar 20, 1945.

The last operation took place on July 22, 1945 where the operatives used folboats to reconnoitre and pinpoint prospective target areas.