I’ve been researching Australia’s North West Mobile Force for my next novel. The deeper I look, the more interesting it gets. Better known as NORFORCE they’re a regiment of tough Aussie soldiers, mostly born in the Top End, largely indigenous. Designed primarily as a surveillance unit, as well as a stay-behind force if we’re ever invaded, they are trained to survive indefinitely, live off the bush and pass on intelligence to the ADF command.
I was interested to find out, however, that NORFORCE dates back to World War Two. Its original incarnation was called the North Australian Observation Unit, better known as the Nackeroos, formed when the Japanese invasion of Australia was a real possibility. Most members of the unit were practised horsemen and bushmen. They used horses, small boats, vehicles and even donkeys for transport. A large proportion were, and remain, indigenous.
Most historians now believe that by 1943 the Japanese had rejected the idea of invading Australia, but air attacks on Darwin, Katherine and Broome made it seem imminent at the time. There were other worrying signs – a network of Japanese spies in Northern Australia, and a cache of Japanese oil drums found near the mouth of the Roper River.
So how did the Nackeroos scare the Japanese away in World War Two?
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Stanner, commander of the Nackeroos, came up with a unique plan. Two-man units were dispersed across remote parts of the Top End with hundreds of powerful radio sets. By broadcasting daily reports that greatly exaggerated their numbers, they were credited with making the enemy believe that they faced a large number of troops, when in fact they numbered just a few hundred.
There is evidence that four Japanese officers on a spy boat landed on the remote Kimberley coast in 1944 to investigate reports of huge naval bases being established in the area, all fuelled by reports from the Nackeroos’ radio networks.
We now know that Japanese estimates of how many soldiers would be required to invade Australia rose from three divisions to ten divisions (150 000 troops and 2 million tonnes of shipping to transport them). What made them change their calculations so dramatically?
It’s possible that the Nackeroos were behind this vast increase in estimates of required force, thus making the invasion unviable. Either way, the NAOU plan to outfox the Japanese was an interesting and little known aspect of the Pacific War, and we may still be reaping the benefits of it today.