A  SHORT  HISTORY                          

S.S. 'Zealandia'

Koepang, West Timor

Moving a 6-inch gun

Landing at Usapa Besar

Rangefinder at Klapalima

On leave in Koepang

Hudson bombers at Penfui

Proofing 6-in.gun, Klapalima

Japanese SNLF paratroops

With news of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour, Sparrow Force was mobilised and the 2/40th along with its ancillary units moved to the Darwin wharves to embark on the 'S.S. Zealandia' and 'H.M.A.S. Westralia' for Timor. A go-slow campaign by unionist wharf workers and their refusal to load munitions saw delays in the ships' departures. Boxes of medical supplies and radios were dropped heavily into the holds and damaged while other cases were broken open and pilfered. 2nd Ind. Coy. commandos went onto the wharf and offered to resolve any problems physically. The ships eventually got under way in the early hours of the 10th December.


On Friday morning, 12th December1941, the ships entered Koepang Bay and passed Koepang to unload at Usapa Besar, a few miles east of the town. Here was a shallow beach with one coral wharf, totally inadequate for offloading all the men and equipment. Native labourers assisted in ferrying men and equjpment ashore but with the haste caused by a reported Japanese submarine in the bay, more critical equipment was damaged. At low tide it was a 300 yard puddle through mud to reach the shoreline. 


Two 6-inch coastal guns had already been installed by the Dutch at Klapalima under the supervision of Major A.J.McL. Wilson of the 2/1st Heavy Battery. These were retired guns from the H.M.S. 'Hibernia' with pedestal mounts from the H.M.A.S. Sydney (1), emplaced so as to deny Japanese naval bombardment of the airstrip at Penfui. This served as a refuelling and re-arming point for aircraft on the Darwin to Singapore route. Penfui became headquarters base for supplies and operations management after coming ashore, so most of the unloaded stores were conveyed to Penfui which effectively became the centre for Sparrow Force operations on Dutch West Timor.  


The Dutch had undertaken to provide quarters, water and ablution blocks at the base however facilities were far from finished and not satisfactory. Even the mounting of the big guns at Klapalima was faulty and they were moved farther up the hill and re-mounted. Field company engineers constructed a more adequate water supply, improved roads and bridges between Koepang and Sparrow Force bases and built alternative landing grounds for the aircraft.


The 2/40th companies constructed defences at the beach and in front of the 2/1st Heavy Guns and Fortress Engineers positions at Klapalima while a mobile reserve was established further to the rear at Babao, with D Company of the 2/40th, vehicle park and drivers, first-aid post and kitchen facilities.


Arriving during the wet season and with poor sanitation, flies, mosquitoes and a tropical environment, the men were affected by malaria, dysentery, cholera, typhoid, dengue fever, tinea and tropical ulcers. Inadequate clothing, outdated equipment and poor planning added to the untenable situation that was to plague Sparrow Force along with the other ill-fated 'bird' Gull and Lark Forces.


Japanese air reconnaissance commenced on 25th January and the first attack by fighters occurred the following day. From this point on there were almost daily attacks by fighters, bombers and seaplanes on Sparrow Force positions, the Dutch harbours and shipping. Poor communications with the loss of radio sets at Darwin and Usapa Besar hampered the defence and was more critical after the Japanese landings.


Reinforcement and expansion of Sparrow Force was proposed and a new commanding officer, Brigadier Veale arrived on 12th February. The 79th British anti-aircraft troops arrived on the 16th February and more Australian infantry with U.S. artillery were due to arrive in mid-February however the convoy was bombed en route and returned to Darwin. With the fall of Rabaul, Ambon, Singapore and increasing Japanese air and naval presence along with the loss of prime allied warships and reduced air support, the men of Sparrow Force knew that they were 'on their own'.


The Japanese invaded Timor after midnight on 19/20th February 1942. Their three-pronged landing at the mouth of the Paha River was unopposed and the big guns at Klapalima and infantry beach defences never fired a shot in anger. On the 20th February after it was known that a large Japanese force had landed behind them, along with the S.N.L.F. paratroops drop east of Babao, the big guns were rendered and 2/1st gunners, engineers and signals left their position to move north-east and join up with the infantry companies. A and B companies of the 2/40th were defending beach positions at Usapa Besar. They withdrew to rear depots and joined up with C and D companies to break through the paratroops at their rear. Sparrow Force headquarters, hospital and supplies were at Champlong, about twenty miles distant in the hills.


On 21st February, Babao was cleared of Japs and Sparrow Force advanced on Usau. With S.N.L.F. paratroops and marines blocking the road at Usau Ridge and many thousands of Japanese troops moving up from the coast, Sparrow Force took the ridge at dusk on 22nd February. The last battalion bayonet charge in history saw only 78 Japs survive, of the thousand-odd paratroops and marines at Usau.


With ammunition, food and water running low and surrounded on three sides by Japanese during the night, Col. Leggatt surrendered his force at Airkom (Irekum) at around 9 o'clock on the morning of 23rd February. Japanese aircraft were scheduled to bomb the column at 10am if they did not surrender, but could not be contacted. So two flights bombed Japanese and Australians alike at 10am and again 10 minutes later before the Japanese air force realised their error.


The men were marched back to the coast to the former A Company beach position at Usapa Besar, which became their prisoner of war camp until September 1942. At the capitulation, men were given the option not to surrender, but to 'go bush'. Many did although most ended up in the Usapa Besar p-o-w camp over the next few months as few made it back to Australia. Some men at Champlong avoided capture and made their way east, to join up with the 2nd Independent Company commandos on East Timor.


At the Usapa Besar p-o-w camp, men went out on work details to Kupang, loading ships and stores. Other parties cultivated vegetables at gardens in the country. Security was not strict and returnees cite this as the most comfortable camp during their p-o-w years, especially with the beach and sea water available to bathe wounds and ulcers.


In September 1942, the men of Sparrow Force were moved to Cycle Camp in Djakarta. From here, most went to Changi and a good proportion were sent with Dunlop Force to the Burma-Thailand railway or to the Pakan Baru railway in Sumatra. Coal mines and smelting furnaces were later destinations in Japan for many who survived the railways. An even larger number of men were drowned on 'hell ships' torpedoed by U.S. or British submarines crossing the China Sea. The numbers drowned were even more than those killed in action, died of wounds, or who perished working on the railways or in Japan.  

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Ian D. Skennerton

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