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Following the fall of Singapore and the first Japanese bombing raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942, most Australians, including the Military Command, soon realised that a Japanese invasion of northern Australia was a distinct possibility.

A joint meeting of Australian Navy/Army/Air Force, US Army and the Flying Doctor Service on 7 March 1942 recommended the formation of a North Australia Observer Unit. Lieutenant Colonel Wake, the Deputy Director of Military Intelligence toured northern Australia and identified a number of security concerns. He believed that there were many Japanese Agents operating in the Darwin area and that Japanese Agents were being dropped in by parachute by Japanese aircraft flying in from the Gulf of Carpentaria. There was also evidence of significant pre-war espionage by the Japanese. There was also evidence that caches of fuel, munitons, etc being secreted along isolated sections of Australia's coastline leading up to the outbreak of war. At the same time Major-General E. Herring recommended the carrying out of some staged air raids to flush out the many Fifth Columnists who would flash mirrors, shine torches or light fires just before Japanese air raids.

Major-General Herring was appointed as the Commanding Officer of the Northern Territory Force (formerly 7 Military District) on 28 March 1943. He had 19,000 troops under his command to defend the Darwin area. He positioned his own observers in the area to be on the lookout for possible Japanese invasions.

In April 1942, E.J. Connellan, the founder of Connellan Airways, recommended the establishment of special Army listening posts to monitor messages from the hundreds of pedal radio stations across the north to provide an excellent communications infrastructure in the event of a possible Japanese invasion. He also recommended the establishment of a large guerrilla outfit comprising bushmen and cattlemen.

Major-General Vasey, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff then requested Major William Edward Hanley Stanner to carry out an assessment of the requirements for an Observer Unit for northern Australia. Major Stanner flew to Darwin on 27 April 1942 to discuss his assessment with Major-General Herring and Brigadier Sutherland. Stanner was one of three personal assistants to Frank Forde, the Minister for the Army. In late 1941, Stanner's task was to research and report to Forde on the effectiveness of the defences of Eastern Command.

During Stanner's meetings with Major-General Herring he was asked by Herring to establish and take command of the proposed Observer Unit. Stanner eventually accepted and returned to Melbourne. By 9 May 1942 Stanner had finalised his plans for Major-General Vasey. It eventually took him 12 weeks to get NAOU operational.

The North Australia Observer Unit (NAOU) was implemented to establish observer units in remote parts of northern Australia to observe and report by Wireless Telephony (W/T) to its headquarters in Katherine of any possible Japanese Invasion Force. These reports were then forwarded on to the Northern Territory Force, also known as NT Force or Norforce. NAOU was considered to be the early warning system for NT Force. They patrolled the vast areas of northern Australia stretching from "The Kimberley" to the Gulf of Carpentaria. They used horses, donkeys, mules, motor vehicles and small ships to carry out their important role.

Some of their other roles were to:-

- patrol the northern areas of Australia on the lookout for possible Japanese Invasions

- operate from secret hideouts behind enemy lines in the event of a Japanese invasion

- identify possible emergency airfields

- map topographical areas of interest

Elizabeth Mountford told me that the Nackeroos lived off the land, and relied on aboriginal knowledge of the area. They broke their own horses, hunted bush tucker, and for the most part lived in humpies in some of the most inhospitable and isolated parts of Australia.

Brian Greenaway told me that one of the Nackeroos patrols that operated out of Roper River during 1942/43 with their aboriginal guides and helpers found some Japanese oil drums near Blue Mud Bay. Brian Greenaway indicated that several Nackeroos are still alive and often visit Headquarters of Norforce, Darwin.

Gillian Appleton told me that she visited the memorial for the Nackeroos at Timber Creek in the Northern Territory and noticed that one of the panels quoted Alan Ashbolt as a member of the Nackeroos. Ashbolt was a distinguished writer and broadcaster at the ABC for many years. 


Were you a member of NAOU?

I'd like to hear from you if you were.



I'd like to thank Elizabeth Mountford, Gillian Appleton and Brian Greenaway for their assistance with this home page.



Walker, Richard and Helen, "Curtin's Cowboys - Australia's Secret Bush Commandos", St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1986.


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This page first produced 2 May 2001

This page last updated 24 January 2020