History of New Zealand's Special Operations Forces

The Forest Rangers

New Zealand’s history of Special Operations dates back to the nineteenth century. One of the first identifiable Special Operations Forces units in New Zealand was the Forest Rangers, an elite corps of scouts created by the New Zealand Government in 1863 to aid in conflicts against hostile Māori forces by using specialist bush-fighting skills. The Forest Rangers were designed to be self-sufficient in the field. Both the unit as a whole and individual members were encouraged to show individuality. They were accustomed to long periods of hardship in the bush, cut off from society and many times separated from other units, operating independently in Māori-held territory. The Forest Rangers were officially disbanded on 30 October 1867 once hostilities concluded.

The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), largely made up of New Zealanders, conducted long range reconnaissance and raiding missions during World Word II
The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), largely made up of New Zealanders, conducted long range reconnaissance and raiding missions during World Word II

The Long Range Patrol and the Long Range Desert Group

During World War II New Zealanders were again employed as Special Operations Forces. The Long Range Patrol (LRP), conceived and commanded by the British, was almost entirely made up of New Zealanders. Later, with Rhodesian and further British reinforcements, it became the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The LRP and the LRDG conducted long-range reconnaissance and raiding missions. As experts in desert navigation and survival, they often guided others, including the British Special Air Service (founded by David Stirling), Popski’s Private Army and the Free French, to their objectives. In addition they inserted, supplied and collected British and Arab undercover agents, rescued allied prisoners of war, and recovered downed airmen.

Special Operations Executive and Special Operations Australia

New Zealanders also served in World War II in the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Europe, and in Special Operations Australia (‘M’ and ‘Z’ Special Force) in South East Asia. They focused on behind-the-lines subversion and sabotage. Both organisations used an eclectic range of methods and participants. New Zealand participants included escaped prisoners of war, a Rhodes Scholar, Air Force personnel in the Royal Air Force Special Duties Squadrons, and Army personnel from a variety of military trades. Many New Zealanders were highly decorated, including Nancy Wake – the most decorated woman in World War II – for her service with the SOE.

New Zealand Special Air Service

NZSAS Squadron was formed in June 1955The 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Regiment (1 NZSAS Regt) began its life in 1955, formed at the request of the British Prime Minister as the New Zealand Special Air Service Squadron (NZSAS Sqn). The unit was raised by Major Frank Rennie on 7 June 1955 for service in Malaya with the British Special Air Service Regiment (22 SAS (UK)). Of the 800 applicants, many of whom were civilians, 138 were accepted for service. Attached to 22 SAS (UK), the New Zealanders conducted deep jungle patrols against communist terrorists in Malaya. On average patrols were three months in duration. It is from this point that the unit draws its heraldry, with the New Zealand Squadron adopting the dress embellishments of 22 SAS (UK). On return from Malaya the Squadron was disestablished. In December 1959 Chief of General Staff Major General Sir Stephen Weir, KBE, CB, DSO and Bar, reactivated the Squadron after a submission by the now Lieutenant Colonel Frank Rennie, MC.

As of 1 September 1963, the Squadron was renamed the 1st Ranger Squadron, New Zealand Special Air Service, in recognition of its historical links with the Forest Rangers.

After the 1978 Sydney Hilton Hotel bombing, domestic counter-terrorism was added to the NZSAS roles. On 1 April 1978 the unit was renamed the 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Squadron (1 NZSAS Sqn). Due to restructuring, the unit became the 1st New Zealand Special Air Service Group (1 NZSAS Gp) on 1 January 1985. The designation of ‘Group’ was given because some did not want another regiment on the Army’s Order of Battle. Once the alternative term ‘Group’ was suggested, permission was granted to increase the NZSAS to unit size.

The Unit was afforded Regimental status on 16 September 2011 by the Chief of Army, Major General Tim Keating, MNZM. The official name change occurred at a change of command parade on 2 December 2011.

Over the years, the NZSAS has gone by different names which have either been shorthand descriptions or have served to mask the identity of the Unit to the uninitiated. Shorthand descriptions have included ‘the Squadron’, ‘the Unit’, ‘the Group’, and ‘the Regiment’. For a long time 1 NZSAS Regt was known as Army 6. When Papakura Camp was the home of 1 Brigade, Army 6 was the mail box number in the Camp Post Office that was allocated to the NZSAS. In 2006, Army 6 was contemporised to Task Group 6 by the Commanding Officer.

The home of the NZSAS is Rennie Lines, named after the founder Colonel Frank Rennie. Permission for the name to be used was sought from the Rennie family, and on 14 December 2002 Rennie Lines was opened by the Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright PCNZM, DBE, QSO.

Members of the NZSAS have conducted operations in a diverse range of places, including Malaya, Borneo, Thailand, Vietnam, Bougainville, Kuwait, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan.

D Squadron (Commando) was raised on 5 December 2005D Squadron (Commando) was raised on 5 December 2005 under the name Counter Terrorist Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG). They were selected and trained by the Operational Support Squadron1  and B Squadron NZSAS. By 2009, the CTTAG had matured to the point that it had grown its own Officer Commanding and NCOs. In recognition of this, on 5 December 2009, the CTTAG was renamed ‘Commandos’ and became D Squadron (Commando), a separate sub-unit on the 1 NZSAS Regt Order of Battle.

E Squadron (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) was raised as an independent force troops squadron on 15 August 2005 by Cabinet, with the original name 1st New Zealand Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron. It was given responsibility for rendering safe all explosive ordnance found in New Zealand above the waterline. On 15 July 2009, the Squadron was placed within 1 NZSAS Regt as a special operations capability and is now known as E Squadron (EOD). E Sqn reached full operational capability on 1 July 2010.



1 Selection and training is now managed by the Special Operations Training Centre
This page was last reviewed on 2 October 2014.