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Timor Diggers' guerilla war

As we are on the brink of the federal election I feel compelled to somehow give this presentation some political context. You might think that is drawing a long bow, but that isn't necessarily so. 

On Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's very last day as prime minister, 23 June, he hosted a lunch in Parliament House Canberra with East Timor's President Jose Ramos Horta, and at about 2pm he met with Nora Kenneally, who I think became the very last ordinary Australian citizen to meet with him as PM.

Nora is the widow of Paddy Kenneally, one of the most outstanding veterans from Australia's Timor campaign during the Second World War. From the end of the war until his death at the age of 93, Kenneally made it his business to remind people of the simple fact Australians owed the Timorese people a great deal — that he and his mates owed their lives to them.

Prior to the lunch Rudd held a press conference with President Ramos Horta, who was visiting Australia for his first state visit as president. At the press conference Rudd announced a total of five 'dedicated' scholarships for East Timorese students in recognition of the Timorese who 'showed solidarity' with Australia's Sparrow Force during the Second World War.

'Showed solidarity' was Rudd-speak for the hundreds of Timorese and Portuguese men and boys who had served side by side with Australia's guerilla fighters, enabling them to stage an amazing hit-and-run, behind-enemy-lines commando campaign throughout 1942. The campaign, involving the first Australians trained as special forces commandos, tied up several thousand Japanese troops while the battle for New Guinea was underway.

Rudd was responding to a grassroots campaign led by a Catholic nun and a retired army brigadier, among many others, who have been calling for formal recognition and compensation for this legendary war-time assistance. But the announcement seemed a token gesture — it was simply an allocation from the existing Australia Awards scholarship program. And it all seemed very rushed and last minute; the scholarships weren't even given a name, and Rudd didn't even make a speech during the official lunch at Parliament House.

On his last day as Prime Minister, Rudd became Australia's first PM to officially acknowledge our debt to the Timorese, even though the announcement was more about delivering a quick fix for the visit of the President and the local political pressure.

Rudd's failure to embrace the Timor legend with more imagination and substance was a missed opportunity to connect with Labor's Second World War legacy. Wartime Prime Minister John Curtin saw the guerilla war in Timor as a unique and significant part of turning back the Japanese tide.

Curtin told Parliament in late 1942 that the 'bold and courageous' work of Australia's guerilla forces had stemmed Japanese control in the region. And when the medium-size corvette HMAS Armidale was sunk in December that year during a high-risk mission to relieve these forces, with the loss of 100 lives, Curtin had wanted the navy to include a special reference in its public state to the corvette being sunk while supporting the Timor campaign. The navy denied the PM his wish.

Had Rudd known some of this history, he might have thought about a more substantial gesture, but he has never shown much sympathy towards the Timorese, having tried to undermine Labor's pivotal decision to support an act of self determination at its 1998 national conference. All of this has been substantially documented by Mark Latham.

While Labor's decision triggered a chain reaction that led to Timorese independence, the Coalition can now claim that John Howard's accidental support for the ballot on self-determination, and the subsequent Interfet intervention, was in part recognition of Australia's wartime debt to the Timorese.

In February 1999, when Howard was wavering on whether to proceed with a ballot, I asked him at a press conference if Australia owed the Timorese for their assistance to our troops.

Howard gave a surprisingly candid answer. He said he had met personally with some Timor veterans who had spoken of the unstinting support of the Timorese. 'I think Australians do owe a debt to the people of East Timor,' said Howard.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has moved quickly to claim the Timor legend. In a speech on foreign policy in April, Abbott characterised Australia's push for a ballot in Timor and subsequent intervention as 'the repayment of a historic debt to those who had rescued and harboured Australians during World War Two'.

It should be noted, however, that had Foreign Minister Alexander Downer insisted on international security for the ballot, as the US government at the time had wanted, the intervention would not have been necessary and 1500 Timorese would not died at the hands of the Indonesian-backed militias.

My book, The Men Who Came out of the Ground, is really aimed at shedding light on what took place in the rugged mountains of Portuguese Timor during 1942. It was overshadowed by the momentous battle for New Guinea and most of the events were covered in an appendix to the official history of the Second World War. Yet this campaign is still the cause of agitation in the community almost 70 years after the event.

Consider these facts. Of the 23,000-plus Australian troops deployed to the Asia-Pacific region in late 1941 as part of a disastrous forward defence strategy to protect key islands, nearly all of these poorly-equipped men were captured and many were killed. All, except for one unit of 270 officers and men known as the 2/2nd Australian Independent Company stationed in Portuguese Timor, which was serving as part of the 1400-strong Sparrow Force based in Dutch Timor. A third of those captured later died in POW camps.

The 2/2nd Australian Independent Company became the only unit within the entire 8th Division to face the Japanese in early 1942 and remain an integrated fighting force. Filmmaker Damien Parer said after spending 16 days with these forces at the end of their year-long campaign: 'These men of Timor are unique in that they remained an organised fighting body all through the lightning Jap successes ... These lads are writing an epic of guerrilla warfare.'

Months before the Australians met the Japanese on the Kokoda track, these bearded commandos were carrying out deadly ambushes on Japanese convoys and strongholds across the territory. The seasoned Japanese troops from the 228th regiment, which had conquered China, Hong Kong and the Dutch East Indies, became utterly fearful of these commandos, describing them as men who 'come out of the ground', attack, and then disappear back into the ground.

When the Japanese were able to catch a glimpse of these men they would have indeed seen a terrifying sight. As the commandos had had no contact with Australia for two months, they had no razors, and so these men in tattered clothing grew long beards; they looked and operated like bushrangers from Australia's wild colonial past. And even when supplies came through, the men kept their beards. This was a very irregular company fighting a very different kind of warfare.

When a brigadier who had fled the Japanese in Dutch Timor finally linked up with the guerrillas he was taken aback by the ragged appearance of the men. He asked a section commander Lt David Dexter why his men were unshaven and looked so dishevelled. Dexter hit back by telling the brigadier that while the men had no razors, 'they've still got their guns'. This was a reference to fact that some of the Brigadier's men in Dutch Timor had thrown away their weapons after he gave the order to disband.

The 2/2nd Company was formed in early 1941 when Australia agreed to a UK government proposal to create what they called 'special operations'. Initially, the British had wanted to send these units into Nazi-occupied Europe, but Japan's entry into the war changed this. These independent companies, later called commando squadrons, were the forerunner of the modern-day Special Air Service (SAS).

The men in the 2/2nd Independent Company were drawn mainly from the bush as the British instructors who trained them wanted 'very rugged types' who were self-reliant and could survive in unpredictable circumstances. The 2/2nd Company was dominated by wheat farmers and station hands from back blocks of Western Australia. Some also came from the city-a surprising number had grown up in orphanages. One of the key officers who formed this unit, Freddie Spencer Chapman, a legendary adventurer and mountaineer, had lost both his parents at a very young age. They wanted young men who had grown up the hard way.

A total of 12 such independent companies were formed during the war, four of them before Japan's entry with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The company known as the 'second-second' proved to be the luckiest and most successful of all these companies. The men of the first company went down on the Montevideo and the third company was overrun and captured in Ambon. Some of the latter companies formed in the war were deployed more like conventional forces and suffered horrendous casualties.

The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbour the 2/2 Company was shipped to Dutch Timor as part of Sparrow Force, with the objective of securing the airfield in Kupang. Shortly after Australian, British and Dutch governments agreed that they needed to secure Portuguese Timor, even though it was neutral. The joint Australian and Dutch forces landed against the wishes of the local governor, and the Portuguese Government, on 17 December 1941, effectively invading the territory.

Japan then decided to invade because our forces were there. This wasn't part of their original plan. Note that Japan's invasion took place on 19 February 1942, the same day as it bombed Darwin, which I argue in this book is no coincidence. The Japanese struck Darwin at 10am in the morning and that evening landed 5000 troops in east and west Timor. I reveal in this book that the bombing of Darwin was all about Timor. Japanese records uncovered by a researcher I engaged for this book, Haruki Yoshida, show that the Japanese wanted to hit Allied air power in Darwin because they feared it might be used against their forces in Timor.

When the Japanese landed in Dili the 2/2 Company wasn't actually following its orders to the letter because 90 per cent of its men had come down with malaria. They were so badly equipped that the men had little to protect them from the mozzies. Dr Charles Dunkley had recommended that the company be moved to the mountains to escape the mosquitos, leaving just 20 men to protect the airfield. This was unlike other forces elsewhere in Asia, where the Australians were bunched up in once place for easy capture by the heavily-armed Japanese.

The section of 20 men at the airfield engaged hundreds of Japanese during the night of 19-20 February and 17 escaped the enemy clutches. A DCM was awarded to Private Joe Poynton for his heroics that night and the next morning.

The main units in Sparrow Force over in Dutch Timor fought bravely for three days to extricate themselves from an enveloping enemy, but like our conventional forces all over Asia they were quickly overwhelmed. All but 130 men from Dutch Timor-most of them supply and support men-escaped the Japanese and linked up with the 2/2 Company.

Individual acts of bravery by the men went some way to making this an extraordinary unit. But two other elements were proved decisive-the leadership of senior officers, and the support of the local people. The 2/2nd Company had a few lousy officers, but it has some very good ones as well. I say in this book that if it wasn't for the second in command, Captain Bernard Callinan, the company which had no radio communication to Australia and within Timor would have disintegrated into unruly bands of men roaming the hungry hills of the colony. It was Callinan who set off on foot to rally the platoons and sections that were manning a front spanning more than 100km. He did this several times during 1942.

Immediately after the Japanese invasion the local Timorese came to the aid of the Australians, who were stranded on the island without radio contact back to Darwin. Timorese men and young boys, typically about the age of 12, served side by side the Australians, hauling supplies, securing food in an increasingly hungry and hostile territory, and making the company a more mobile and effective fighting force. The Timorese were known as criados, the Portuguese word for servant. The criados provided intelligence on the Japanese, often yodelling to each other from the mountain tops.

Small units of Australians were hosted by villagers across the colony. I argue that this support was the result of the good conduct of the Australians towards the locals before the invasion. After having been badly treated by colonial armies for centuries, the Timorese were won over by the friendly and respectful conduct of the Australians, especially towards the local women.

Popular support gave the Australians what I call an invisible shield, which enabled them to overcome a very significant handicap-that they looked nothing like the locals. The Australians in Timor were unable to follow Chairman Mao's rule that 'a guerrilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea'. Popular support enabled the 2/2nd Company men to operate observation posts on the edge of the capital, Dili.

Many veterans have testified to the support of the Timorese as absolutely pivotal in this campaign. Jack Carey, one of the 2/2nd Company's Tommy gunners, now the president of the company's association, said:

'But for the Timorese we would not have last a month. It was a big advantage to know where the Japanese were, where they were coming from. The Timorese would relay information from hill to hill. You could get quite close to the Japs and be reasonably safe because you knew you would not be betrayed.'

For the first 10 weeks after the invasion the 2/2 Company was still stranded in the mountains and would have been finished without resupply from Australia. No-one in Australia bothered to send a plane over Timor to determine their whereabouts.

For ten agonising weeks, a team of signallers built a radio out of bits and pieces salvaged from other radios. This was a mammoth effort. The men worked day and night, burning pig fat to provide light. While this vital operation was under the supervision of a captain, full credit for pulling off this feat was given to a private in the signals section, Max Loveless, a radio technician who had worked for the ABC in Hobart as a technician before signing up. The huge effort took its toll on Loveless who was shipped back home a few months later and discharged from the army because he suffered from 'anxiety neurosis'.

Radio contact meant re-supply, and this enabled the 2/2 Company to escalate its epic guerrilla campaign. The first signal back said: 'Force intact still fighting. Badly need boots, quinine, money and Tommy gun ammunition.'

When the supreme commander in the Southwest Pacific theatre, General Douglas McArthur, heard that these men were holding out and hitting the enemy hard he over-ruled General Blamey and insisted that the troops be left there to continue their 'harassing' role. Later in the year when the Australians were being vigorously challenged by the massive reinforcements of Japanese troops, McArthur committed US air power to support the troops on the ground.

Radio contact also meant the Australians were able to send back vital information on Japanese operations from their observation posts on the edge of Dili. This was used to direct bombing missions from Darwin that reached climax at the end of 1942. The Timor operation became part of the coast watchers network.

For a perspective on how the Timor campaign compares with better-known theatres like New Guinea, an important perspective is provided by David Dexter, who became a platoon commander in the company and later went on to write Volume VI of Australia's official history of WWII, said the campaign was unparalleled in Australian military history. Despite having led offensive action in New Guinea to recapture the island, leading to his book The New Guinea Offensives, Dexter said: ‘They were a remarkable unit, like no other in Australian military history.' Dexter likened this ragged army of professionals and volunteers as a 'tattered cavalry of Australians and Timorese' fighting in the 'real wild hills' of the colony.

Dexter and many men from the 2/2 Company argue that the support they got from the Timorese far transcended the better-known 'Fuzzy Wuzzies' of New Guinea, who largely operated as porters and stretcher carriers in a conventional war. The Timorese criados served side by side the Australians throughout the year, and often went into actions with them. Some carried arms, as did an 'International Brigade' of Portuguese partisans.

The support of the Timorese, combined with the skill and calibre of the 2/2 Company men, explain how this small force was able to kill as many as 1500 enemy soldiers and West Timorese militia in actions over a period of 10 months, and suffer an incredibly small number of casualties-just eight men killed in combat. There were some incredible actions led by outstanding individuals. Many of these men, most notably the ‘roo shooter Private Merv Wheatley, were not decorated at all at the end of the war.

Success eventually came at a price. The Japanese responded by terrorising the population, destroying crops and livestock so they could starve the Australians. They created militias in Dutch Timor and sent them across the border to create mayhem. These terror tactics were remarkably similar to those used half a century later when Indonesia occupied East Timor.

The Japanese deployed in Timor an intelligence unit called the Phoenix Organisation, which used tactics made infamous by the CIA with its Phoenix Program in South Vietnam 20 years later. The Japanese systematically eliminated civilians who were known to be supporting the Australians, or those they simply suspected. The campaign was aimed at destroying the Portuguese administrative network which had supported the Australians. Officials is key centres around the colony were herded into concentration camps far away from the fighting. Many of those who remained at their posts were killed.

After months of frenzied fighting and tropical illness, the 2/2nd Company men were physically wrecked, and so they were withdrawn in December 1942, after having been in action for ten continuous months-a length of service without R &R probably unrivalled for any Australian company during the Second World War. Two months later, with Japan pushing the Australians further south the 2/4th Company that had been sent as reinforcements was also withdrawn.

The men in both companies bade tearful farewell to their Timorese mates on the south coast beaches, and left them under strict orders to fend for themselves. Contrary to a recent television report, the criados were not slaughtered en masse on the beach shortly after the Australians left.

While the men were withdrawn, the Allies secured a tactical victory. The fighting on the ground, combined with an all-out bombing campaign in late 1942, prompted the Japanese to massively reinforce its troop numbers in the colony. Believing that the Allies were poised to recapture the territory, the Japanese deployed as many as 10,000 troops to Timor from late 1942 onwards. By the end of the war there were reports that numbers had risen to as many as 20,000 in both east and west Timor.

These reinforcements in a territory that in strategic terms had become a backwater were a huge vindication of the effectiveness of this new type of warfare, which has the aim of harassing the enemy and tying up its troops.

The cost for the Timorese would be enormous. Many thousands died from the terror tactics and scorched earth warfare used to drive the Australians out. A Portuguese administrator Antonio Sousa Santos reported late in the year that the population was living off the seed for planting next year's crops, the precursor to a collapse in food production that took place the following year in this colony of subsistence farmers. An estimated 50,000 Timorese perished during 3 1/2 years of Japanese occupation and brutality. These estimates are based on census figures obtained before and after the war, and they are corroborated by anecdotal evidence I obtained during my research.

Together with the huge death toll came the devastation of the physical infrastructure, again not dissimilar to 1999. By the end of the war few buildings were left standing in Dili and other centres around the country. An army historical unit sent there in 1946 took photos of bombed out buildings everywhere they went. An enormous cathedral in the centre of Dili was destroyed by US bombers following an intelligence report from the 2/4th Company.

After the war, Portuguese Timor never received compensation from Australia or from the Marshall Plan. Officially, as a neutral territory it wasn't part of the Second World War, and it remained thus. This is partly why formal and substantial recognition by Australia remains an issue.

After the war, none of the Timorese service to the 2/2 Company was ever officially recognised with war medals or any form of compensation. One Timorese commando, Celestino dos Anjos, who served later in the war with Z Special Unit, was given a medal for 'loyal service'. Dos Anjos was one of about 45 Timorese taken back to Australia for training in covert operations, which proved to be disastrous. Six of the Timorese sent on these missions were killed or died in captivity.

Over the past three years retired brigadier Ernie Chamberlain, who worked in Timor after independence in 2002 as a defence adviser, has lobbied federal ministers and departments on behalf of the dos Anjos's widow Madalena, and a second widow, Laurentina da Silva. Chamberlain argues that because these men were trained in Australia, wore our uniforms, and were paid, there is a clear-cut case for compensation. He has received no response for a pension or 'act of grace' payment. Their cases are still pending.

Chamberlain had also raised the issue with the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal in the Department of Defence, only to be told that, regrettably, the issue of the Timorese was not currently on their Government-approved consideration list. Belatedly, the Tribunal decided in late 2009 to look at this issue and appointed an historian, Peter Williams, to write a briefing paper. But the criteria set out by the Tribunal seemed to make the effort meaningless. Williams told me in an email he wanted evidence such as a 'serviceman's paybook' to prove that the Timorese had in fact served in Australian forces and therefore qualified for medals.

All of this was too late for the last-surviving Timorese who served with the 2/2nd Company, Rufino Alves Correia, who died earlier this year. Correia served with the 2/2nd Company throughout 1942 and had wounds in his neck to prove it. After the 1999 ballot, Correia was wheeled out at every Anzac Day service in Dili even though he was never officially recognised or paid for his service.

Activist nun Sister Susan Connelly has gathered 24,000 petitions in support of an honorary AC for the people of Timor. The initiative was rejected by the Rudd; Tony Abbott says should he win office he will revisit this proposal and consider any other worthwhile initiative.

I'd argue that any official gesture on Australia's part should include Portugal, given that many officials from that administration played a pivotal role in rallying the locals to support the Australians. Towards the end of 1942 Australia armed hundreds of the Portuguese and Timorese partisans. Many more Portuguese men, often those with an army background, took up arms and went into actions with the Australians.

Joao Vieira, a Portuguese policeman, was I believe one of the bravest men in this entire campaign. He went into numerous actions, secured valuable intelligence by spying on the Japanese and was later killed as part of a Z special unit. Jose Alexandrino, an administrator, led a small army with Australian-supplied weapons that included a prize Bren gun, and continued fighting after the Australians left. He and his men were eventually captured and later died after the Japanese launched an all-out offensive on his stronghold.

While Australia has made a significant contribution to the country over the past decade, particularly with two military interventions, more could be done in a targeted way to show that Australia is true to the words contained in a leaflet dropped over Timor during the war: 'Your Friends Do Not Forget You.'

Australians clearly forgot this promise in 1975, when the Whitlam government sanctioned an Indonesian takeover. While those events were complex, we've had opportunity to deliver on this promise from 1999 onwards, but we seem to be missing the mark.

After the independence ballot, Australia missed an opportunity to fully engage in the reconstruction effort. The country really needed a substantial reconstruction effort after 1999 given that most of its infrastructure was destroyed and it had to rebuild an entire government system from scratch. The Howard government responded a bit like Kevin Rudd, just because the Timorese leadership was standing up for their rights in the Timor Sea oil and gas negotiations.

After the $2 billion military intervention was wound down after Australia's aid program was reduced to a rather stingy $40 million. It has now been increased to around $100 million, although we know that a lot of our aid boomerangs its way back home. While I am looking at this issue as a journalist, and not an activist, I think we have missed an opportunity to properly engage and support a near neighbour that had helped us during our darkest hours.

After independence there were literally a handful of doctors in the country. To rebuild their health system the Timorese had to go all the way to Cuba for training their medical students and for getting stop-gap doctors and nurses into the country. Australia's short-sighted approach to the rebuilding of Timor has enabled China to get a big foot in the door, emerging as an influential player with close ties to the country's elite. China recently sold patrol boats to the country and has been busy building grand edifices that the political elite seem to want.

It is true that East Timor now has substantial oil revenue; but the problem is that money is not reaching into these poor places. Part of the problem is lack of capacity to deliver services on the ground; another element is explained by corruption. The country now has a substantial budget of about $1 billion, but it was evident to me during a recent visit that this level of expenditure is just not hitting the ground.

This is why I think a range of community based aid projects can make a difference in this very poor country. Poverty in East Timor is great. The country is in fragile position, notwithstanding substantial investment and growth in the capital, Dili. But in the country remains on par with the most miserable parts of Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

There are numerous dirt-poor villages that protected the Australians who manned observation posts on the edge of Dili. Here are a few:

Remexio and Darlau south of Dili were based for the Australians throughout 1942, allowing them to spy on the Japanese and send back intelligence information that informed scores of air strikes from Darwin. Further south is the village of Fatu Maqueric which provided a safe base for the Australians right up until the withdrawal of troops in early 1943.

On the west side of Dili, the tiny hamlets of Beduku and Kudlutan to the allowed the 2/2nd men to man posts while they were protected and fed by the Timorese. In one famous instance a Chinese women sent hot meals of stewed chicken and rice in stacks of blue and white china bowls. The men on this post overlooked the airfield and were able to report in intricate details on the comings and goings of the Japanese. The villagers hosted the Australians even though they were terrified, and later in the year they were razed by the Japanese.

To the east of Dili there is the villages of Cacussa, about three kilometres east of the town near the Cristu Rei headland, which provided a base for the Australians to mount a daring raid on the Japanese barracks in Dili in May 1942. Even close to Dili is the village of village of Cameia, just one kilometre from the eastern edge of the town, where the men gathered before deciding to launch the raid. After the raid Cacussa was mortared by the Japanese.

This is just to name a few of key bases used by the Australians to stage their successful guerrilla war. All of them are like the rest of Timor, with very little or nothing in the way of water and sanitation; they are wretchedly poor places, and they are deserving of our support.

I think it is in Australia's own interest to make restitution for the wartime support of the Timorese and Portuguese people. I think we could certainly do something that is more imaginative, and more substantial, than award five scholarships which would have been awarded anyway.

Paul Cleary is a senior writer with The Australian newspaper. This text is from his address to the Sydney Institute, 17 August 2010. 

Topic tags: Jose Ramos Horta, Paddy Keneally, East Timor, John Curtin, The Men Who Came Out Of The Ground



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Existing comments

I would like to highlight the service of Capt. Rodger Dunkley, MO for the 2/2 Independent Company in our Association Magazine CallSign Vampire (1st Australian Field Hospital - Vietnam 1968 -71) Could you possibly assist me with this?

Tich Tyson
Vietnam 1971 -72

Paul (Tich) Tyson | 04 November 2010  

Great to see article on 2/2 Independant Company. I worked with Brig Tom Nesbit in the 1950s. I would like to get some information on Captain (Doctor) CR Dunkley. I will soon have an article about Private
Peter Alexander WX12344 on my website www.pows-of-japan.net

Peter Winstanley | 25 September 2011  

Thank you for this article and for reminding us of the great debt we owe to the Timorese people. My father fought with the 2/2 Independent Company and although a tough man, always became tearful when remembering leaving behind his criado in Timor Leste.

Jody Ellis | 05 August 2016  

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