Donald Barnby's story

Donald 'Don' Barnby joined the Australian Army in 1967 when he was 17. In 1970, he went through a rigorous entry selection for the Special Air Services Regiment (SASR). Out of 75 participants, Don was one of the 4 who passed.

Don was sent to Vietnam in 1971 and served in 2nd Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment [Australian War Memorial] (SASR). Based at the 1st Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat, the squadron's 's role was to gather intelligence on the enemy, locate their camps and bunkers, and pinpoint any tracks being used by the Viet Cong.

When Don celebrated his 21st birthday in Vietnam, it was particularly special. Thinking no one knew, he was surprised by the thoughtful gifts and good wishes from his comrades. Even a fruit cake from his mum was sent, although it arrived mouldy and 4 months late.

Like many service personnel, Don found the rapid transition from the battlefield back to Australia a difficult adjustment. With no formal debriefs, life was expected to go back to normal.

After leaving the Army in 1973, Don joined the Australian Capital Territory Police Force, now known as the Australian Federal Police (AFP). He undertook several roles, including community policing, special operations, witness protection, police rescue, Interpol, as well as personal protection for Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Governor-General Bill Hayden.

During his service with the AFP, Don served as an unarmed peacekeeper. He deployed overseas with the United Nations in Cyprus, Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, and East Timor.

After a lifetime of service, Don took on volunteering with the Photographs, Film and Sound team at the Australian War Memorial, conducting oral history interviews with veterans.

Donald Barnby (Australian Army), Special Air Service Regiment


The Special Air Service Regiment - the SAS, was an elite unit of the Australian Task Force.

"The main purpose of SAS was to conduct deep reconnaissance of enemy areas. To either pin point or locate areas of enemy concentration, or enemy camps, bunkers, tracks that are being used; gather intelligence…"

They patrolled in small groups, moving far slower than conventional infantry.

"Our speed of patrolling, depending on the terrain, used to vary from, I think the slowest day we ever did was about three hundred and fifty metres in a day, up to about two kilometres, but it was very, very slow. So you'd take one step, you'd look around, watch all your arcs up in the trees, down the ground, looking for possible booby traps and turn around to the guy behind you and you'd wait till he looked at you and you'd just go like that, and then you'd do your arc on the other side and then take another step, and then you'd do it all again, and that's how slow it was…

Every step was like literally going into the unknown, you didn't know what was around the next tree or around the next branch that you opened up; it was just the palpable tension – you didn't know what the hell was going to happen."

The SAS had the highest ‘kill ratio' of any unit in the force, but that meant little when Don Barnby came home.

"One day I was on patrol, the next day I was on a PAN AM fight to Australia, the next day I was back in Sydney, you know with flush toilets and hot showers and people saying: ‘What was it like son? What was it like?' Couldn't get my mind around it.

I feel proud of my service with SAS, I feel proud of my service in the army, I feel no shame at what I've done but I feel sorrow at what I've seen.

I've certainly been exposed to things that some people shouldn't have seen, you know, in your life time. It's certainly aged me."

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Donald Barnby's story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 13 June 2024,
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