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The “Nackeroos”- North Australia Observer Unit

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As a strategic air and naval base, Darwin was well fortified at the start of World War II. But the vast expanse of land from the Kimberleys to the Gulf of Carpentaria were left undefended.

Clearly, a conventional military solution was out of the question to protect such a large area of largely uninhabited land. The answer came from a most unlikely source in the form of civilian anthropologist Dr Bill Stanner. Before the war, Dr Stanner had worked in both northern Australia and east Africa. He had studied various military campaigns in Africa, particularly that of the German General von Lettow-Vorbeck who in WWI had tied down a huge British army with just a handful of Europeans leading a few thousand native troops.

Dr Stanner appreciated similar tactics could be used in northern Australia to thwart any potential invader. It would involve lightly equipped troops who could be self-sufficient for long periods. They would remain in place to observe and report any enemy presence.

By maintaining close contact with the local indigenous population, more eyes and ears would be gained as well as important terrain knowledge.

With no conventional "Lines of Communication", and tactics that involved observation rather than confrontation, such a force would be almost impossible to neutralise.

Dr Stanner was on the staff of the Minister for the Army and following the devastating bombing of Darwin in February 1942 he began to circulate his idea to raise a so-called "bush commando" force. General Herring, commanding the forces in Darwin, quickly grasped the concept and authority was given to raise the 2/1st North Australia Observer Unit (NAOU) – better known colloquially as The Nackeroos.

Given the temporary rank of Major, Dr Stanner was given just weeks to organise the force. The unit had an establishment of 450 men and was first raised in NSW, drawing on men from existing army units. Recruits needed to be fit, between 20-40 years old and with skills in horse riding and bushcraft, as well as independence of character.

The concept captured the imagination of many existing soldiers, and there was no shortage of volunteers. Many were from militia Light Horse units which were in the process of being mechanised.

By living for long periods off the land and forming close links with the indigenous population, the Nackeroos would provide the eyes and ears that would detect any enemy forces approaching Darwin. Their weapon of choice was a radio rather than a rifle.

Few of the Nackeroos were Territorians, although some 15 NT policemen were attached to the unit as guides and for liaison with the indigenous population. Another 40-50 Aborigines worked directly with them in various roles including labourers, guides, horse handlers and crewmen.

Katherine River, NT. October 1943. Troopers of the North Australian Observer Unit on horseback, marching off the morning parade. (Australian Army).