They call it the Anzac brotherhood. Yet for almost three decades, New Zealand and Australia hadn't occupied the same battlefield. When they did it was in East Timor in 1999 - and our NZ Special Air Service was left shocked by the way Australia's special forces behaved. They were so stunned, they gave testimony to an official inquiry.
'Cowboys' and Kiwis
"Cowboys" - that was the blunt assessment of an Australian special forces regiment by a senior NZ Special Air Service commander after an ugly incident in East Timor.
That incident led to a criminal inquiry and a willingness on the part of our NZSAS to testify against allegedly unlawful behaviour by an Australian soldier.
The events played out in the early days of East Timor's bid for freedom from Indonesia. A massacre of more than 200 people in a church spurred the United Nations to approve an international peacekeeping mission.
It was led by Australia with New Zealand as close support. The peacekeeping mission was both countries' first significant military engagement for 30 years.
Rather than a union that harked back to the mateship of Gallipoli, it was one in which our NZSAS took a stand against behaviour said to have been carried out by Australia's Special Air Service Regiment and particularly one soldier known as "Operator K".
Statements gathered during an Australian Defence Force inquiry, recently obtained by the Herald, show our NZSAS commander in Timor telling investigators the SASR were approaching Timor as "a shooting war, like Vietnam, and not a peacekeeping mission".
"I would describe their attitude as being 'cowboys'," said the commander, who was described as Soldier X. "As a result of this I told my soldiers to be careful, to act professionally at all times and to remember that this was a Peacekeeping Mission and not a war."
The NZSAS left for Timor on September 20 1999, flying out from a Royal Australian Air Force base about 350km south of the northern coast. It was a time of extreme tension across the region. The same airbase from which the NZSAS had left - AAFB Tindall - had bombers on standby should tension with Indonesia escalate.
For the NZSAS, it was a deployment unlike any it had experienced for decades. The same could be said of the Australian Special Air Service troopers - like their Kiwi comrades, they had last seen active service at this level in Vietnam.
The third special forces group was a British regiment - the Special Boat Service, the marine equivalent of its SAS which was more regularly tested in dangerous environments.
The three groups of highly trained soldiers were melded together. While Soldier X retained command of the NZSAS troops, the Australian commander had overall control of the Response Force, or "Respfor" as it was shortened.
As the one month anniversary of the September 6 Suai church massacre approached, work was underway to clear anti-independence militia from towns and villages near the Indonesian border.
When October 6 dawned, an NZSAS patrol watched a "cordon, seek and detain operation" unfolded below - one Respfor group set up as a blocking force and another pushing into Suai, clearing out militia as they went.
The force pushing through was led by NZSAS trooper Soldier B but made up of the three nations' special forces. It included two Australian LAVs (light armoured vehicles), one to carry troops and the other with a 25mm cannon, a couple of Land Rovers, a truck and motorcycles.
It wasn't a benign environment. At one point, they arrested a crowd with machetes and spears. At another, the LAVs were fired on by two militia on a motorcycle.
The special forces units came together at a hill-top school in Suai. Defensive positions were set up by some while others went into the town to "round up suspected militia". NZSAS trooper Soldier T later described how Timorese resistance force members then sorted from the growing group of detainees those they believed were "hardcore militia".
Those were taken to Dili. Others would be transported to the border. One estimate reckoned there were about 100 people detained.
Soldier T saw "a large number of the detained persons" loaded into vehicles, including a bus. "Also on these vehicles was a large amount of furniture and other items which had been looted from the town."
As Soldier T watched, the vehicles were escorted out of Suai by members of Australia's SASR. "When we saw this we were shocked that they were allowed to leave with the looted property."
By the reckoning of Soldier L, the convoy left just before 5.20pm. He and the others in his patrol had watched Australian soldiers getting ready. "I and other members of my (patrol) joked with them about not going out on the road without helmets and body armour. The Australians seemed to laugh this off."
Soldier B - who had led the push into Suai - also saw the convoy off, asking the Australian officer in charge if he needed support. It was an offer declined and the convoy headed towards the border.
Soldier T was tucking into a meal 15 minutes later when the radio came to life with reports of an ambush. The Australian convoy had dropped off the suspected militia but was then ambushed on its return. Two Australian soldiers had been wounded - the first serious combat casualties suffered by Australian forces since the Vietnam War.
The same Australian officer who had declined support was now seeking "urgent" backup, sending LAVs with NZSAS troops inside and SASR troops atop towards the ambush site, along with SBS troops in a Unimog.
Soldier T was unable to see out of the LAV but "could hear a lot of gunfire". The LAV stopped and dropped its ramp, NZSAS soldiers running out to take up positions.
It was open with light scrub all around as the special forces soldiers sought cover. In the troop carrying LAV, Kiwi medic Soldier P received the first, then the other, Australian casualty. The LAV withdrew as the other with its 25mm cannon moved up. Soldier B ordered the NZSAS to move with it.
'Just shooting bodies'
"At this time the fire fight was full on," said NZSAS trooper Soldier M. He described the Kiwis moving down the right of the road, the SBS and Australian troops on the left-hand side, both heading into hostile fire.
"Soon after this the firing ceased," said Soldier T. "We pushed forward for about 200m to the crest of some high ground." The NZSAS soldiers were joined at the crest by the SBS and SASR troops.
Soldier B heard shots from the direction of the Australian soldiers then the shout: "They're our shots - just shooting the bodies."
The call to withdraw came. As they did, Soldier U "heard a number of shots". "Each time I heard one I went to ground. This happened two or three times." Later, Soldier U was told "this was when (the Australian soldiers) were shooting the bodies".
Soldier T also heard shots fired. "I turned to the left and faced where the shots came from when we were informed that it was someone shooting the bodies." He told investigators the shots came from the Australian side of the road.
One of the NZSAS troopers - Soldier S - later recounted a conversation with an SASR soldier. In that account, one of the militia was "not dead" and "started to run away" when Operator K "arced him up".
Soldier U recalled talking to an SBS soldiers on the way back and was asked "if this was the way that we cleared the area". "I believe that he was referring to the shooting of the bodies. I replied 'no' and that it was new to me."
As they returned to the vehicles, there were again shots. This time Soldier M saw bullets strike the ground just metres away: "We then went into a counter ambush drill and returned fire."
As the last of the light left the day, the special forces solders formed up at the vehicles and climbed aboard to return to Suai. "I can recall that as we moved back I saw two bodies being dragged towards the vehicle," said Soldier T. The bodies were hoisted onto the LAV above the vehicle's rear door for the journey back to Suai.
When they arrived, the events alleged to have unfolded were repeated by a number of NZSAS troopers present.
'F***, he's lost it'
Soldier T said he witnessed Operator K standing on top of the LAV with the bodies. "I heard him scream, 'that's for hurting my lads', or words to that effect. I can also recall him kicking the bodies as he said this."
"He then kicked one of the bodies off of the LAV and I assisted in lifting the other one down," Soldier T recalled, saying "I was shocked by what I had just witnessed". Soldier M also witnessed Operator K's foot connect with a corpse although referred to it as a "push".
Soldier U saw similar scenes, hearing Operator K "scream 'how dare you shoot my boys', or words to that effect". "He was also kicking and punching the bodies as he said this ... I thought to myself 'f***', he's lost it'."
Soldier B told military investigators he watched Operator K "kick the two bodies off of the (LAV) onto the ground". Then, he said, Operator K claimed "he had shot the two himself" before agreeing to a request from the LAV commander to "take photographs of the two dead bodies as they were the first kills involving (the cavalry regiment) since the Vietnam War". Operator K asked for copies, Soldier B testified.
Soldier B left the area so did not see if photographs were taken. Soldier P, though, saw the flashing of cameras from the area where the bodies were dropped. He heard Operator K saying: "Got you, ya f*****s". A few minutes later he watched as the one of the troopers "kicked (a body) one or two times", although could not see who had done so.
A number of NZSAS soldiers checked the wounds on the bodies, noting clusters. Soldier T's statement said "both bodies had been shot through the throat". "The wounds to the throat concerned me as it was near impossible to have two separate wounds on each body, to the throat, in similar positions."
Concerns were later raised over the nature of the wounds with burned flesh at the entry points suggesting a firearm discharged at close range.
As the helicopters approached, a large number of soldiers crowded around the wounded troopers to offer best wishes. Operator K cleared the area, aside from a SBS medic, Soldier L and a soldier on security. At that point, Soldier L heard him tell the wounded men: "Don't worry, I got the guys who did this to you."
The behaviour of Operator K deeply disturbed the New Zealand troops. The commander, Soldier X, later told military investigators Soldier B and the SBS soldiers told him Operator K "had kicked and put a few extra rounds into the bodies that were already dead".
"It seemed to fit the personality of (Operator K) as we had come to know him. I would describe (Operator K) as a loose cannon and often unprofessional in the way he was conducting himself whilst on operations."
Soldier X went as far as visiting commanders of the SBS and SASR, and other senior officers, to speak of the NZSAS concerns and ask Operator K be given a headquarters role. Concerns were also raised over the NZSAS being excluded from the ambush debrief - and that the report from that didn't match their recollections.
The statements collected by Australian military police investigators came to light two decades later through an investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Four Corners programme.
Former military police investigator Karl Fehlauer told ABC's Four Corners of the NZSAS troopers interviewed for the inquiry. "Some of these guys were not happy with what happened at the scene. I believe what they were telling us was the truth. It was a serious matter and some of the stuff we were bringing up you could see physically upset them."
Australian Federal Police advice to the Defence Force showed how serious it was. A confidential review from 2001 obtained by Four Corners showed "concerns the killings may have constituted an offence of murder".
At the other end of the spectrum was the possibility the bodies were kicked or shot - both unlawful actions which did result in a charge being laid against Operator K.
A conviction relied on evidence from the NZSAS - and that's where it came unstuck. NZ Defence Force sought to have the NZSAS troopers identities protected as what it calls standard identity protection.
It would mean a soldier was called "Trooper B", for example, with "their actual names ... provided to the court and defence on paper". Four Corners reported that the Australian military magistrate wanted the soldiers' full names revealed in court.
It was too much for NZDF. Without protection for NZSAS identities, there would be no testimony.
That wasn't the end for Operator K. He faced an administrative charge from the ADF and was acquitted. An internal review of the ADF investigation was critical of those who carried it out and the quality of the statements they collected. Operator K received a formal apology.
Fehlauer, though, told Four Corners there was a line to be drawn between events in Timor and the war crimes allegations the SASR faced from operations in Afghanistan. A formal inquiry said there were 39 murders carried out by members of the elite unit.
Without protection of New Zealanders identities, Fehlauer said the collapse of the case "gave the wrong message". And that message was, he said, that "they could do what they want and get away with it".