The Darwin site of a WWII camp for a commando unit seen as the forerunner to the modern day SAS is in imminent danger of being demolished to make way for industry.
The camp site of Z Special Unit — an elite special operations commando unit — is under threat because of the $110 million Marine Supply Base which opened on August 19 and is set for further expansion in the East Arm land area of Darwin Harbour.
A bid to have the site protected by heritage listing could come too late, with a large swathe cut through the site for a drain and plans to develop the entire area.
A heritage application to protect a nearby WWII RAAF base was refused — and that will soon be demolished.
Formed in 1942, Z Special Unit was a commando squad trained in covert skills such as silent killing, poisons, swimming undetected, plastic explosives and sabotage.
Consisting mainly of Australian, British, Dutch and New Zealand members, but also — notable in a time ruled by the White Australia policy — it recruited fighters of Timorese and Indonesian heritage.
It is credited by the Australian Army as the basis for the modern Special Air Services Regiment (SAS).A plaque or statue is enough: Planning Minister
Of the original Z Special Unit camp which ranged over several kilometres of coastal mangrove forest about 17 kilometres by road or 4km as the crow flies from Darwin city, only concrete slabs, hut bases, a slip-way, a well, rusted metal objects and corrugated iron remain.
"A track has been pushed through to the mangrove line, across concrete slabs at the (Z Special Unit) base" said maritime archaeologist Dr Silvano Jung, who wrote to the NT Government to complain about the work at the camp site last week.
He said the Z Special Unit camp was nominated for heritage listing in the 1980s — and an interim order protecting it should have been issued then.
The area is earmarked as part of Darwin Port Corporation's 'Masterplan 2030' — a "blueprint for the East Arm Wharf and adjacent strategic land and sea areas for the next 20 years".
In a statement, Peter Chandler, the Minister for Lands, Planning and Environment, said "some limited clearing has taken place on site to allow for an open stormwater drain ... to deliver stormwater from a cleared area behind the Z Special Unit base, to the harbour".
He said the Government was working with the Heritage Branch to minimise impact on the remains of the Z Special Unit camp, but said "it's important to remember historical sites and events, but it needs to be balanced with the environment".
He said he would "shortly be signing an instrument provisionally declaring the base as a heritage place".
"The Heritage Council then needs to consider all comments made, and make a recommendation as to whether the site is permanently declared as a heritage place."
Mr Chandler said he would receive the council's recommendation "early next year".
"This wouldn't stop a developer, or anyone for that matter, to go there tonight and flatten the whole site," Dr Jung said.
"This would make the Minister's tardy October heritage decision irrelevant and farcical. There should have been an interim order on the site as soon as it was nominated."
Mr Chandler would not rule out the site being cleared.
"If development goes ahead on these sites I would like to see, as part of the development, that a plaque or statue is used to recognise the history of the site.
"Even our very own Parliament House was constructed on a significant bomb site and it is well recognised with a marker and plaque."
Dr Jung said a shell midden — a mound of shells collected by Aboriginal people — next to the Z Special Unit base was also in danger.
An environmental impact survey commissioned by the NT Government in 2011 conducted radiocarbon analysis on selected middens in the East Arm area and found all "belong to the pre-European period".Catalinas no match for commerce
Not far from Z Special Unit's camp is what little remains of the WWII 20 Squadron RAAF Catalina Flying Boat base which will be destroyed by the Marine Supply Base and adjacent developments after an application for heritage listing was turned down.
Mr Chandler said the Catalina base was on land "intended to be significantly developed for marine industry purposes, including the possible development of a Marine Industry Park".
"Paspaley Pearls Properties Pty Ltd holds the land on which the remains of the Flying Boat Base is situated under the terms of a Crown lease that requires development of the land for marine industry purposes," he said.
"The land on which the remains of the Flying Boat Base are situated cannot be developed as intended for marine industry purposes if the remains of the flying Boat Base are declared a heritage place."
An NT Government commissioned report into the heritage value of the Catalina Flying Boat base at East Arm said what remained of the base was "highly valued by veterans who served there and by veterans and their families who have a special appreciation for RAAF operations".'Too late to save' Z Special camp: RSL
Don Milford, president of the Darwin Sub Branch of the RSL said he was in awe of Z Special Unit's exploits against the enemy in the Pacific but the days were numbered for the camp at East Arm.
"It's probably all too late to save it," he said.
Mr Milford said at the very least "a commemorative plaque should be erected to let people know of the history".
"The significance of the site should not be lost."
But Dr Jung said the Z Special Unit Darwin camp deserved better than a plaque or sign.
"You would have thought that with such public interest in Z Special, that their bases would be preserved and conserved in their honour," he said.
"Financial considerations are more significant than heritage sites in the Northern Territory, it would seem."