A  SHORT  HISTORY                          

H.N.M.S. 'Surabaya'

S.S. 'Canopus'

Major Spence (centre), Dili

Ornamental cannon in Dili

At a native village

'Winnie the War Winner'

Patrol in East Timor 1942

2nd Ind. Coy. officers

A few days after landing on Dutch West Timor at Usapa Besar, 2nd Independent Company (Commando) platoons under Major Spence embarked on the old Dutch gunboat 'Surabaya' for Dili, on the north coast at the other end of the island. This group was accompanied by 260 Netherlands East Indies soldiers under Colonel van Straaten. Because of the size of the vessel, not all the 2nd Ind. Coy. could embark, so the remaining commandos left for Dili on the 'Canopus' a few days later.


Upon their arrival in Dili, the Australian and Dutch troops were under no misapprehension that they had not been invited by the Portuguese officials; Portugal had declared itself neutral from the beginning of World War 2. However their landing was not opposed by the Portuguese colonial troops and force officers met with government officials to advise that the colony was in imminent danger of invasion by Japanese forces. High level exchanges involving a flurry of messages to and from Lisbon, London and Canberra followed. These discussions were also attended by David Ross, the ad hoc Australian consul and Qantas agent in East Timor.


The parleys resulted in Portugal maintaining its neutrality and apparently disregarding the presence of any foreign troops on East Timor. Their main concern was about the Dutch presence as the two powers were long-term rivals on the island. It was agreed that the Dutch and Australian troops would return to West Timor after the arrival of Portuguese reinforcements from Mozambique.


Sparrow Force deployed around Dili, at the airport and at bases outside the town. Relations with local Timorese were very friendly, moreso than in Dutch West Timor, because the colonial Portuguese were more benevolent to the inhabitants, maintained better services, imposing lower taxes and they had a low-key military presence. This co-operation increased after the Japanese invasion in February and continued throughout 1942 until Sparrow Force was withdrawn in December 1942.


As in West Timor, the men were ill-prepared for the tropical climate, insects and disease. In the rainy season, much of Dili was swampy and swarms of mosquitoes soon resulted in a high incidence of malaria. At some stages, most of the unit was unfit due to malarial fever, headaches and vomiting. Headquarters were established on higher ground about twenty miles south-west of Dili, in the hills. The absence of mosquitoes and swampy terrain made it a more healthy environment from which to operate.


After midnight on the evening of 19th February 1942, co-ordinated with the attack on West Timor, Japanese forces landed at Dili. At first it was thought that the troopships and convoy were Portuguese reinforcements arriving from Mozambique. Some Dutch artillery fired on the Japanese vessels and they replied in kind. When shells exploded around the Dutch headquarters in Dili, Col. van Straaten advised the Australians that is was only a Japanese submarine in the harbour.


 However, a full-scale invasion was unfolding in the darkness, the Japanese 228th Regiment was landing, fresh from successes in China and Ambon. On this same day, Japanese aircraft attacked Darwin, to prevent any air or sea support arriving for the defence of West and East Timor.


The first objective of the Japanese was the airfield, lightly defended by a section of A platoon. Explosive charges had been set to blow up the small airstrip and facilities. Initial Japanese forces were mistaken as Dutch because of the similarities in their uniforms however sporadic fighting around the airfield continued all night with only a small number of A platoon holding the Japanese advance at bay.


As dawn broke, they detonated charges at the strip and withdrew quickly to the south and west. Initially, HQ in the hills was not aware of the Japanese arrival so action as they left the airfield and Dili was not coordinated. Two men died at the airfield and one section of fifteen men surrendered after they blundered into a roadblock the following day. They were massacred by 3rd Yokosuka S.N.L.F. Japanese paratroops, the same unit that was decimated at Babao and Usau Ridge by the 2/40th a few days later.


Initially withdrawing to Aileu and Railaco, scattered groups made contact again and Captain Callinan reorganized the unit. He established a new headquarters base at Cailaco near the Dutch border and engaged in hide-out and hit and run tactics that formulated their campaign. New headquarters were set up at Atsabe and morale improved; there was vengeance and motivation after they learned of the executions at Dili on the 20th February.


Local native and Portuguese inhabitants' support improved and the platoons dispersed supplies and ammunition to strategic locations. The men adopted natives as guides, scouts and personal servants called 'criados'. Operations were stepped up with smaller groups, to 'hide, hit, run and hide'. Most heavy portage was done using Timor ponies.


Direct communication with Australia was recommenced in April when three signallers fabricated a radio from assorted radio, electrical and auto parts. Nicknamed 'Winnie the War Winner' after Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. Upon establishing their identity and advising Darwin that they were still operating against the enemy, they requested boots, quinine, money and Tommy gun ammo. From this point on, regular air and sea rendezvous maintained their supplies. War documentary maker Damien Parer even visited Timor and recorded their operation for a film 'Men of Timor'.


Resupply missions using Hudson bombers were not suitable as stores were damaged and lost. A wood-hull patrol vessel carried the first 6-ton loads to the 2nd Ind. Coy. Betano Bay on the south coast was the favoured rendezvous point. Sick and wounded were ferried back to Australia and medical supplies became available again. In August the Japanese mounted a concentrated offensive against the commandos using natives as human shields in frontal attacks. Friendly villages were bombed and many thousands of Portuguese Timorese killed. The tide was turning against Sparrow Force whose range and operations became limited. Dutch (Black Column) Timorese who were pro-Japanese were brought to East Timor and waged war against their fellow countrymen. Given the change in conditions, Sparrow Force was withdrawn in December.


During the confusion of the Japanese invasion, seventeen men were lost, most being executed after surrender. In the next ten months of operation, only six members of the 2nd Ind. Coy. were killed. Japanese casualty estimates were more then 1,500 front-line soldiers and Sparrow Force tied up more than 20,000 men who otherwise would have been in New Guinea and islands campaigns. Actions of the 2nd Ind. Coy. on East Timor are recognized as classic commando operation.

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