The cap badges and unit patches of Sparrow Force.
here is nothing new about the Big Army’s hostility to Special Forces. It has been a feature of the relationship since the first ‘irregulars’ set foot on the battlefield either as enemies or allies. To the military establishment they have been upstarts with scant regard for the chain of command; insubordinate bounders who refuse to follow the rules of the game. In Ancient Rome, the greatest military force the world had known fell prey to the insurgent German tribes who declined to engage them in the set battles over which the centurions exercised such mastery.
In the modern era, the first appearance of the guerrilla was in Napoleon’s Spanish campaign in 1808 where the people used hit-and-run tactics against the invader. They were highly effective and not only harassed the French soldiers but also recaptured towns and territory that had earlier fallen to Napoleon’s armies. The British commanders of the Peninsular Wars were happy to accept their battlefield successes but looked askance at their methods, which were ‘not the done thing’. They were even more aroused at the other end of the nineteenth century when a new irregular term entered the military lexicon with the appearance of the ‘commando’. A Dutch derivative, it was used in the South African War of 1899–1902 to describe the small Boer units – usually mounted on horseback – who harried their rival British colonialists.
Since that time they have reappeared in a myriad of nationalist, ideological and religious guises in conflicts around the globe. According to David Kilcullen, a highly respected Australian military theorist, ‘Though military establishments persist in regarding it as “irregular” or “unconventional”, guerrilla war has been the commonest of conflicts throughout history.’2 Recent experience suggests that it will remain so.
Undoubtedly Winston Churchill’s stint as a correspondent for the Morning Post in the Boer War sparked his enthusiasm for the first British commando operations in World War II. At his initiative, a force of 2,000 ‘special service’ soldiers were assembled by June 1940 to carry out tactical raids on the German occupying forces in Europe.
They were trained at Lochailort on Scotland’s rugged west coast by a talented band of instructors. They were led by a young Scottish aristocrat, Major Bill Stirling, his cousin Lord Lovat (also a major) and Captain Freddie Spencer Chapman, who before the war had been an Arctic explorer and mountaineer as well as a teacher at Gordonstoun School, the alma mater of Prince Philip and later Prince Charles. The training was intense, and when the units were let loose on the Continent they scored some minor successes. But when the main body of commandos under Captain Robert Laycock – known as Layforce – was sent to the Middle East for action in the eastern Mediterranean, the military establishment offered scant cooperation. The result was a series of costly failures, and by July 1941 Layforce was in tatters. It disintegrated during the Battle of Crete and many of its number became POWs. British High Command decided (with barely disguised satisfaction) to disband the unit.
Many of the men returned to their previous regiments, while others chose to remain in the Middle East. Among them was the devil-may-care Lieutenant David Stirling, the younger brother of Major Bill, who had abandoned plans to climb Mount Everest to join Layforce. He engaged the support of a family friend, the deputy commander Middle East, General Sir Neil Methuen Ritchie, for a smaller and more mobile unit that would operate behind enemy lines. Ritchie took the proposal to his commander-in-chief, Claude Auchinleck who, in deference to Churchill, signed off on it. Stirling immediately gathered a team of about 60 volunteers and after a short training regime set out to parachute into German-held North Africa and blow up enemy aircraft on the ground.
It was a disaster. In the face of an approaching storm, Stirling insisted on proceeding with the mission. When they jumped, the team were blown wildly off course. Many were dragged to their death on landing. Stirling himself seriously injured his back. Forty-two of his 61 officers and men were killed, wounded or captured. The survivors were rounded up by a New Zealand unit, the Long Range Desert Group, who were already operating behind the lines, but in more conventional mode. Stirling avoided censure by going to ground and then pulling strings to attach the remnant of his unit to a friendly command. Taking a leaf from the New Zealanders, he abandoned parachuting for vehicle insertion and in a series of raids on German-held ports rehabilitated his unit’s reputation.
To disguise its real modus vivendi the force had initially been designated the Special Air Service Brigade. After some discussion with his men, Stirling decided to retain most of the nomenclature, which was soon abbreviated to the SAS. And though Stirling was captured by the Germans in January 1943, the unit would distinguish itself in his absence and subsequently set the tactical framework and the esprit de corps that would characterise Special Forces units thereafter. From this unlikely beginning, the British 22 SAS Regiment became and remains a leader in the field.
The link to Australia’s Special Forces occurred at their birth when in October 1940, five instructors, including Freddie Spencer Chapman in charge of field-craft, arrived to train Australian and New Zealand companies at a newly developed facility at Tidal River on Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory. The Australians felt ‘commando’ was altogether too flashy and settled upon ‘independent companies’ to describe both their role and their relationship to the Big Army.
Unlike David Stirling, the man given charge of the first company raised, Major Alex Spence – a 35-year-old journalist from Bundaberg, Queensland – had no family ties to smooth the way. Nevertheless, he quickly earned the respect of his men and worked well with his immediate superiors. By August 1941, their training in the rugged mountains, dense bush, swamps and beaches of Wilsons Promontory was completed. The men were ready for action.
But it soon became clear that the High Command was divided on how best they could be used. Spencer Chapman saw their role as ‘stay-behind’ guerrillas, who in the event of a Japanese invasion of the mainland ‘would be a thorn in the flesh of an occupying enemy, emerging in true guerrilla style to attack vital points and then disappear into the jungle’.3 But informal instructions from the hierarchy alerted the officers and men of 2/2 Independent Company to prepare for shipment to the Middle East, where their compatriots in the 9th Division were besieged at Tobruk.
Fate had a very different theatre in store. By early September 1941, the Australian War Council had become deeply concerned about Japanese involvement in Portuguese Timor, where the colonial power was negotiating with Tokyo for a civil air service and the stationing of a Japanese consul in Dili. The following month, the newly installed Curtin Labor Government countered by appointing its own consul, David Ross, and declaring that, ‘It is essential in the event of Japanese attack on this territory [that] Britain should declare war … Portuguese Timor is the entrance door to Australia.’
While a British declaration was desirable, Curtin was well aware that Britain had its hands full defending its own turf and that Australia would have to take the military initiative. High Command chose the 2/40 Battalion and Spence’s 2/2 Independent Company to defend Timor under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt, a 47-year-old Melbourne lawyer. Together they would be codenamed Sparrow Force, a gently understated sobriquet for Australia’s first entry to Special Forces combat. In fact, they were embarking on a classic guerrilla action to divert a vastly superior force from their drive towards the Australian mainland and with every intention of inflicting fierce casualties on the aggressors.
Five days after the 7 December attack on Pearl Harbor, Sparrow Force was ready to deploy. The plan was to land at Kupang on the Dutch side of the island, where they would link up with the Royal Netherlands East Indies contingent led by Lieutenant Colonel Nico Van Straaten, newly arrived from Java. By now the Japanese were carrying all before them in a headlong dash down the Malayan Peninsula. To counter their inevitable attack the Allies would reinforce the Dutch territory, while Spence’s 2/2 Independent Company would occupy East Timor with the support of an additional 260 Netherlands East Indies troops.
By 13 December, they were established in Kupang and three days later they boarded the ancient Dutch training cruiser Surabaya for the overnight journey to Dili. With Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Hudson bombers in overwatch, the main force made their way stealthily along the coastline, with spotters alerted for Japanese submarines. Intelligence reported a substantial Portuguese force in the capital. Diplomatic negotiations with the colonial power had been inconclusive as Portugal asserted its neutrality and no one knew how the landing would be received. As the troopship approached its destination, Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt and his Dutch counterparts flew from Kupang to Dili and informed the governor, Manuel de Carvalho, that the Allied force intended to land.