"Diggers" on East Timor Island, March 1942 to December 1942

Prime Student 6-month Trial
Of the three land campaigns fought against the Japanese in the south west Pacific during the first year of the Pacific war, the one fought on Timor is the least well known. The reason for this is mainly due to the non-continuation of the campaign after the island was isolated and by-passed when action in the theatre moved further north. The Allied campaign on Timor took up, in the end, the attention of some 32,000 Japanese soldiers. It was for this reason alone that MacArthur continued the campaign, as the impact these Japanese troops could have had if they were free to be committed in New Guinea or on Guadalcanal may have been decisive. While the Allied commitment of force to the campaign could be considered trivial; this triviality is in the formal sense false. During a war even the most trivial skirmish is not trivial to those who die in it, and should not be considered trivial in any ultimate sense by others who benefit from their sacrifice. This is the story of Timor.

On the night of April 19th 1942 all radios in the northern Australian port of Darwin were silent, the reason for this was that on the previous night, a weak signal, using a three month old coastwatcher code, from a coastwatcher who had not been heard from for some time, had been picked up at the radio listening station at HQ Northern Territory Force in Darwin. All commercial and military radios had been told to stay off the air. About one month had passed since the last of the Allied Pacific bases had fallen and at the time the Japanese were believed have uncontested control of their new empire, apart from some guerilla resistance in the Philippines. That night the signal was received again. This time more clearly but the listeners in Darwin were sceptical, suspecting a Japanese ruse. They demanded proof of identity from the signallers, a transcript of the message follows.

Darwin: "Do you know George Parker (the coastwatcher)?"
Signaller: "Yes, he is with us."
Darwin: "What rank is he?"
Signaller: "Captain."
Darwin: "Is he there? Bring him to the transmitter. What is your wife's name, George?"
Parker: "Joan."
Darwin: "What is the street number of your house?"
Parker: "94."

A coastwatcher officer in Darwin, knew from set procedures that this was Parker and that he was not a prisoner. Darwin HQ was satisfied and asked for a report. The response was completely unexpected and secured a place in Australian military history.

"The Timor force is intact and still fighting. Badly need boots, quinine, money and ammunition."

Members of "Sparrow Force" the 2/2 Independent Company AIF, and survivors from the 2/40th Battalion, 22nd Brigade, 8th Division AIF along with local East Timorese guerillas had taken to the mountains of East Timor and were holding a salient about 100km long, anchored on the sea at each end with the town of Dilli opposite the centre. After 61 days of isolation, during which they had followed orders and continued to fight; contact with the outside world had finally been re-established. The message set in motion an effort to support and supply the men.

During their time in isolation the Australians had been constantly annoyed by the Japanese trying to coerce them into surrendering. The last attempt, before contact with the outside world was re-established, had been in the form of the British Consul General from Dutch West Timor Mr. David Ross, at that time a prisoner of the Japanese. In a meeting with the commanders of Sparrow Force organised by the Japanese, Ross informed the Australians that the Japanese believed that because the Island administration had surrendered then the Australians were also bound to surrender by the laws of war. Major Spence, Commander-in-Chief of Sparrow Force, informed him that Sparrow Force was under the direct command of the Australian Army HQ in Melbourne, and that to the best of his knowledge Army HQ had not surrendered so they were therefore not bound to surrender. He further informed the Englishman that if they were going to be shot then they would prefer to do so while fighting rather than be murdered as prisoners. Ross then said: "So your not going to surrender?" to which he received the reply: "Surrender! Surrender be fucked!" With this formality out of the way Mr. Ross then gave each officer a letter of credit, underwritten by the British government, for purchase of goods from the natives. These items were to become invaluable latter in the campaign. He also gave detailed information on the Japanese troop and air force dispositions on Timor, before returning into captivity.

RAAF Hudsons went in first to drop supplies on the 18th of April. It was realised after only one out of three drops were successful in the rugged terrain that this method was impractical, but the operations continued until the middle of May, as no other means were available. At 5.15pm on May 24th a USAF Catalina arrived from Darwin bringing stores and equipment, and more importantly to the men mail. The plane took out seven wounded men, one of whom, Private Hallow, had had his jaw shot off over a month earlier. Also on board was a list of promotions. Spence was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. A nominal roll sheet for the force was also sent out, and this date is the one given in official records as the date that the force once more rejoined the Army establishment.

When it was discovered that planes were of minimal use in supplying the force it was decided that the Navy would be made responsible for suppling the campaign with an estimated requirement of 40 tons of supplies per month. The first ship, the patrol vessel HMAS Kuru (55 tons) arrived at a beach in Betano Bay on the south coast of East Timor on May 27th 1942, with ten tons of ammunition, medical supplies, food and clothing that was unloaded by midnight. On her trip out Kuru took off some wounded men as well as David Ross who had escaped in late May. By the beginning of September Kuru had made six successful trips to Timor. In July another patrol vessel HMAS Vigilant (106 tons) joined the Darwin-Timor run, and made three trips by September. The Bathurst class corvette HMAS Kalgoolie made one trip to Timor on September 12th with 14 soldiers and 15 tons of supplies. During this trip Kalgoolie's captain made the observation that he had never before seen troops who looked so hungry, and that no sooner had the unloading begun when the soldiers broke open boxes of food and opened cans with bayonets and knifes and ate the contents there and then.

When supplies began to arrive the morale and spirit of the troops became very high. The Japanese were forced back into their strongholds at Dilli and the other main towns, leaving the rest of Portuguese Timor to the Australians. One good example of the difference between the tactics and training employed on Timor and Malaya can be found in an ambush which occurred on May 22nd. The Japanese, fed up with the lack of progress, had brought in an Army Major known as the "Singapore Tiger" a legend among his troops. He was soon in pursuit of a group of Australians who had raided Dilli. The Australians took their time setting up a good ambush next to a noisy waterfall along a narrow track. The Japanese Major almost caused the ambush to fail, but not however due to any of his renowned tactical skill. As Corporal Aitken of the 2/2nd describes the ambush--

"The (Japanese) formation was four forward scouts, a gap of 20 yards, four more, another gap and then the main body led by a nuggety lad with crossed straps and a sword. Naturally enough when fire opened the scouts and the boy with the sword copped most of the attention. Those uninjured in the van flopped to the track, disconcerted by the noise of the waterfall and evidently thinking the fire was coming from up the track rather than from above.....
Five or six Japanese soldiers took cover under a flame tree in a rock hole on the uphill side of the track. They would have been perfectly safe had not Norm Thorton been expecting this and was sitting on top of the hole, and he proceeded to kill them with systematic machine gun fire. The main body did the only possible thing, which was to run like hell back down the track."

During June it was decided that Sparrow Force should be reinforced. The 2/4th Independent Company (then in the Darwin area) was placed on standby to leave immediately. They left Darwin aboard the destroyer HMAS Voyager on September 22nd with 15 tons of supplies, including $7,000 dollars worth of silver coins, and 450 troops embarked. They arrived at Betano Bay the next day at 5.45 pm. Captain Robinson ordered his ship to within 500 yards of the beach, and after anchoring ordered the eight army barges hoisted away. The whaler was also lowered and soundings taken around the ship as no chart existed for these waters. The ship was soon in trouble and in risk of going aground, the captain knew of this possibility and had planned for it but he had to go astern on the port engine and there were at that moment two army barges directly over that propeller, the ship soon went aground aft. For the next two days her crew tried to get the ship afloat, but with no success. On the 24th a Japanese Zero fighter on reconnaissance appeared over the stuck ship, her gunners shot the plane down but the sighting had been reported and before to long the ship was a blazing wreak, from Japanese air attack and her own crews scuttling attempts. HMAS Warrnambool and Kalgoolie were sent from Darwin on the 27th to pick up Voyagers crew, all of whom survived with seven minor casualties from the air raids. One crewman who was reunited with his brother, a member of the 2/2nd Independent Company, asked for and received permission to stay with Sparrow Force. On July 17th HMAS Kuru landed the first of many "Z Special Force" parties from AIB-The Allied Intelligence Bureau. These teams, normally of 3 or 4 men with guerrilla and local language and customs skills were tasked with raising local troops. The troops would be sent back to Australia for specialist training then reinserted to cause the enemy as much mayhem as possible. These operations continued in Timor up until the Japanese surrender. The USN submarines based in Fremantle played a large part in these operations, USS Gudgeon was the sub detailed to the early operations on Timor. Later it was found necessary not to detail the same sub to the same Z Special team, as it was found that the bond built up between the sub commander and the team could cause the captain to risk his ship. One sub is known to have been lost in this manner. The Z Special and Sparrow force roles overlapped to a large extent, and for the Sparrow Force men the Z Specials were gods when it came to "pull". If an air strike was needed Sparrow force commanders didn't bother with official channels they'd just ask Z Force and the bombers would be there, on time and on target.

During August the Japanese made a concerted effort to drive the Australians from their areas of control. By this stage the work of "Sparrow Force" was receiving increasing support and recognition from high command, and as a result air support for the troops on Timor was a given a high priority. Support came from the RAAF and USAAF squadrons based in Darwin. On 3rd November a raid on Dili was carried out by a squadron of USAAF Marauder bombers, which had been moved to Darwin two days before. This raid was watched by most of the Australians. At "Sparrow Force" HQ a signaller discovered that one of the radio sets netted into the same frequency as the bomber. Men clustered around the the set listening to the flight leader giving instructions and the replies from his pilots; as the last plane came in for it's bomb run the listeners heard the pilot say: "Bombs away" followed by: "Port engine hit by flack". The damaged plane fell out and the flight leader urged: "Come on Hitchcock, make formation". As his plane limped along Hitchcock was heard to call: "Zeros on my tail, Zeros on my tail". The Australians watched as the dogfight took the planes south back towards Darwin, and eventually out of their sight. The next morning the same planes flew over and the signaller, Laidlaw, broke into their net and asked: "Did Hitchcock make it?" The bomber crews were to busy to answer but later that night a message was received from the United States Air force Command in Darwin: "Thanks Diggers. Hitchcock made it. Crash landed on Bathurst Island." The effect of this action on the troops on Timor was immeasurable in lifting their morale, for the first time in months they felt they were not alone in the fight against the Japanese, Hitchcock and his plight was discussed up and down the lines for the next few days.

During October and November Kuru, Vigilant and Kalgoolie made repeated trips to Timor in support of Sparrow Force and Z Special. On November 11th Colonel Spence signaled Darwin that the 2/2nd Independent Company was in urgent need of relief, after fighting a guerilla war for the last 10 months. Darwin agreed and a flotilla of two Bathurst HMAS corvettes Castlemaine and Armidale along with HMAS Kuru were earmarked to take them out. The 2/2 Independent Company with 363 all ranks plus 150 Portuguese troops and 190 Dutch troops from a Dutch "Stay behind" unit were to be lifted over the nights of the 30th November to the 5th of December. 61 Dutch native troops with two Dutch Officers and 3 AIF men who were to be landed during the same operation were embarked aboard the HMAS Armidale. The three ships left Darwin on the night of November 29th.

At about 9am on the following morning when about 120 miles from their objective the ships were attacked by a single Japanese bomber, more were soon to follow. Captain Sullivan of the Castlemaine signaled Darwin for some fighter cover and this was promised. The fighters did arrive and managed to drive off most of the Japanese attackers, however the corvettes could not make Timor that night for the planned pick up. HMAS Kuru had become detached during the night but arrived at Bentano Bay safely some hours ahead of time and embarked 77 Portuguese and one AIF stretcher case. With no sign of the corvettes he sailed at 1am on December 1st. Commodore Pope, the Naval Commander-in-Chief in Darwin did not understand what had happened to the other ships and ordered HMAS Kalgoolie to sail out in support of her two sister ships. Kuru found the other two ships on the morning of the 1st and transferred her passengers to Castlemaine. Castlemain was then ordered to a position some 120 miles south of Betarno to look for two RAAF Beaufighter aircrew who were in the water after crash landing. Kuru and Armidale set course for Bentarno Bay. At around midday both ships reported air attack and requested fighter cover. At this stage the ships were not in company and had lost sight of each other. Over the next 6 hours Kuru reported attacks by up to 44 enemy aircraft, and that she was the target of up to 200 bombs. She suffered some engine damage and reported to Pope her intention to return to Darwin. Pope insisted that the operation go ahead. At around 8pm however he received reports of two Japanese cruisers in the area and ordered abandonment of the operation. At 8.30 these ships were attacked by Hudson aircraft of the RAAF. But by this time Armidale presented no target for anyone. She had been lying on the bed of the Timor Sea for five hours. She did not however die without a fight.

Lieutenant Commander Richards commander of HMAS Armidale, knew he was in trouble, alone and less than 30 minutes from a major enemy air base with 10 hours of daylight left. He sent a signal to Pope at around 3pm: "Enemy bombing. No fighters arrived", then followed up with another signal: "Nine bombers, four fighters. Absolutely no fighter support". Pope sent back the signal: "Air attack is to be accepted as ordinary, routine secondary warfare". This signal so puzzled his superiors, when the loss of the ship was latter investigated, that is was classified and not shown to the board of inquiry or the prime-minister. In fact the whole matter was covered up which is a shame because it prevented a brave man from receiving the Victoria Cross he deserved.

HMAS Armidale had been hit by two air launched torpedoes and was listing heavily and sinking. The captain had given the order to abandon ship. Ordinary Seaman Teddy Sheean, from Latrobe, Tasmania, a youngster still 27 day short of his 19th birthday had abandoned his action station as a loader number on the after Oerlikon and was helping to get the ship's motor-boat into the water when Japanese planes streaked in at sea level, machine-gunning the ship and the survivors in the water. He was himself unwounded and could have taken cover, or gone over the side in an attempt to save himself. He did none of these things instead he scrambled back to the Oerlikon gun abaft the funnel and strapped himself in. The ship was sinking fast by this stage. He poured a stream of 20mm into the enemy plane and sent one cartwheeling into the sea. A Zero targeted him with machine-gun fire and tore his chest and back wide open, still he continued to fire sending another Zero off trailing smoke, and forcing the others away from his shipmates in the water. As the water rose up around him. The men in the water saw the desperate youngster wheel his gun from target to target. Then the ship plunged down and the sea rose up past his shattered chest but still he kept firing, then he disappeared from sight but the barrel of the gun remained firing before it too disappeared. For a moment the sea was silent then as a Japanese plane dove in, incredibly tracer fire from Sheean's gun arced up at it from beneath the sea to meet the incoming plane.

Two officers and 38 ratings were lost or missing along with the two Dutch officers and 59 troops. Some survivors were not picked up until eight days later. On December 2nd, USN Vice-Admiral Carpenter sent the Dutch destroyer Tjerk Hiddes from Fremantle to Darwin then to Timor to take off the men. Between 10th and 19th December in three trips she transported 950 personnel off the island. In January 1943, after the Japanese had moved the 48th Division in to reinforce Timor, bringing the total number of Japanese Divisions to two, General MacArthur told the Australians to abandon the island or risk losing the men needlessly. On January 10th the new destroyer HMAS Arunta crossed the Timor Sea and lifted off the last 282 Australians, along with twenty Portuguese and 11 women and children.

Portuguese colonies during World War II 1941-1945 . The fighting on Portuguese East Timor Island
Bibliography . Article List
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942
Copyright Klemen. L. 1999-2000