The East Timorese village of Mindelo (Turiscai) is burnt to the ground by Australian guerillas to prevent its use as a Japanese base, 12 December 1942.
The colonial administrator prevaricated. Leggatt joined Spence on board the Surabaya and gave the order to proceed. As the men of Sparrow Force climbed into the long boats for the journey to shore, visions of Anzac intruded. One soldier fingered his rifle and asked, ‘Will I ram one up the spout?’ Spence replied, ‘No, but look as if you’re prepared to meet a challenge.’
When they reached the sandy beach, they were met only by the local bird life and the troops headed in combat formation for the airport about three kilometres from the capital. Once again there was no sign of resistance and they were soon digging defensive trenches around the airfield. Rumours spread that the Portuguese contingent under one Captain Da Costa was in the hills with a native force preparing to attack; but as time passed it became clear that Da Costa had abandoned the high ground (and the natives) for the creature comforts of Dili.
The Australians quickly realised why he had done so. They were poorly outfitted for the tropics and hordes of malarial mosquitoes attacked their bare arms and legs day and night. While the troops were ordered to dose themselves with quinine twice daily, the medicine came only in a powdered form that was thoroughly unpalatable. Many declined to take it and soon more than half of the 115-strong company were hospitalised with malaria.
Major Spence ordered a survey of the nearby hinterland, seeking a healthier campsite, and soon moved the field hospital to Three Spurs, well above the swampy lowlands. He also encouraged his men to make friends with the locals and, where possible, to learn the native Tetum language. It was becoming ever more likely that Spencer Chapman’s vision of the independent company as a ‘stay-behind’ unit acting as a ‘thorn in the flesh’ of the invader would be realised, albeit in a different location from the North Queensland jungles he had expected.
Through Christmas, the tension rose and on 27 December Prime Minister John Curtin made his historic appeal to America for the defence of the homeland. Then, on 25 January, the Timorese defenders caught their first glimpse of the enemy when a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew over Kupang. The following day at 9 am seven Japanese fighters attacked the nearby Penfui airfield.
By now the Japanese Imperial Army was threatening Singapore and on 31 January the last Allied forces left Malaya and blew up the causeway to the island. Japanese infiltrators – often disguised as Singaporean civilians – crossed the Straits of Johor in their wake. Already their air force had sunk the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales. The ‘impregnable fortress’ would fall within 15 days.
The Australian command decided to reinforce the Timorese defenders and sent additional infantry and a light aircraft battery under Brigadier William Veale (a civil engineer in private life) to take command of the operation. The constant air attacks that followed blew the island’s air defences away but troop casualties were light and morale remained relatively high. During one raid a soldier had the Australia badge shot off his epaulette, while a second round cut through his shirt under the armpit. His response: ‘As well as khaki shorts and khaki shirt, I’ve now got khaki underpants!’
However, the situation became deadly serious when on 19 February more than 240 Japanese aircraft from the same carriers used in the Pearl Harbor strike force bombed Darwin, with special attention to the harbour and the two airfields. The men on Timor knew nothing of this and at midnight a small fleet carrying 1,500 Japanese troops arrived at Dili. At first the ships were thought to be the expected Portuguese reinforcements from Mozambique. In fact, they had been intercepted by the Japanese and were now on their way to Goa, the tiny Portuguese colony in India. But once the Australians realised the invaders’ identity they opened up with devastating crossfire, killing some 200 Japanese in five hours of battle. All the defenders then made an orderly withdrawal to the hills but for one unit – 7 Section – who drove into a Japanese roadblock. They surrendered and all but one were executed.
Later the same night the Japanese arrived in overwhelming force in Dutch Timor. A massive aerial bombardment spearheaded the landing of 4,000 men and five ‘tankettes’ on the south-west of the island and a paratroop attack on the Penfui airfield. Leggatt moved his Sparrow Force HQ to the east and at the same time engaged the 500 paratroopers. This culminated in a bayonet charge that killed all but 78 of the airborne invaders. However, the effort exhausted both the defenders and their ammunition and Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt had no choice but to surrender. Though he was not to know it then, he was sentencing his troops to a terrible fate as prisoners of war. Over the next two and a half years nearly 200 of them would perish through a combination of brutality and starvation.
The Japanese soon controlled most of Dutch Timor, while Spence and his commandos (who would eventually wear the name with pride) were consolidating their positions in the hills of East Timor. In the west, Brigadier Veale had withdrawn in haste after ordering ‘Every man for himself’. The commandos were unimpressed. Veale escaped with 12 of his headquarters staff and struck out overland, eventually reaching Lebos, 80 kilometres south-west of Dili. In fact, they retreated so quickly that they left behind most of their small arms.
There was a further blow when on 9 March the Netherlands East Indies surrendered to the Japanese. This meant that the remaining 300 Australians on Timor were facing a force of 6,000 battle-hardened Japanese who would not only fight to the death but whose methods were unencumbered by any of the restraints codified in the Geneva convention.
Soon afterwards the invaders passed a message through Consul David Ross under house arrest that the 2/2 should follow Leggatt’s lead and surrender. But when Spence put it to his men the response was immediate and unmistakably Australian: ‘Surrender? Surrender be fucked!’
Spence’s counsel to make friends with the Timorese was literally bearing fruit. The Australians’ informal demeanour and sense of humour struck a chord with the natives after their overbearing Portuguese colonial masters and they were happy to supply them with home-grown fruits and vegetables. The Australians paid with what little money they had and when that ran out they substituted a ‘surat’ system of IOUs that would be redeemed, they said, when they were able to make contact with their headquarters in Australia.
Having established their own modus operandi, the commandos didn’t take kindly to Brigadier Veale’s admonition to shave off their beards. The 2/2’s Lieutenant David Dexter cracked, ‘We lost our razors, not our rifles.’ The brigadier’s response is not recorded. The incident was one more illustration that an officer at general rank had become superfluous to requirements.
By the end of March, the commandos had consolidated their position. They were well established in the hills surrounding Dili. At platoon level they were setting ambushes along the rough roads and jungle tracks the Japanese travelled in their campaign to rid themselves of the Australian ‘thorn in the flesh’. However, they were without any means to contact their compatriots in Darwin, since Veale’s headquarters staff had been unable to salvage a radio during their wild retreat. This became their first priority and responsibility fell on 2/2 company’s signaller, Max Loveless.
Wracked with malaria, Loveless led a small team of signallers in an attempt to cobble together a workable transmitter with parts from an American commercial medium-wave receiver, a damaged army 109 set, the power pack from a Dutch transmitter, aerial wire and a receiving set. Using the most primitive tools – pliers, a screwdriver and a tomahawk – Loveless worked around the clock but to no avail. Then word arrived from a Portuguese ally that there was a radio in the Qantas Airways office in Dili.
They mounted a raiding party and in the dead of night broke into the Qantas premises. The radio seemed perfectly intact and as a bonus there were half a dozen rifles with ammunition to match. Timorese bearers helped to carry their prize across the mountain spine to Veale’s HQ in Mape. However, their joy was short-lived. The radio would not operate without powerful batteries, and those few they had were patently insufficient. Loveless was devastated and retired to his bunk. It took all the psychological subtlety of his section head, Captain George Parker, to revive his spirits; but when he returned to the workroom it was with a brilliant solution. He would hook up the powerful uncalibrated Qantas set to the weak set they had salvaged with a range of only 50 kilometres. The combination should do the trick. All they needed were four more batteries.
Parker organised a foraging party, which ‘liberated’ batteries from Dili plus enough petrol to run a charger. The extraordinary Heath Robinson contraption now occupied a room nearly three-metres square, with equipment on benches around the perimeter attached by various wires to a generator taken from an old car. A further attachment included a metre-diameter wheel with fixed handles to be turned by four native Timorese working in shifts.
On the night of 18 April, Loveless gave the order; the wheel began to turn and suddenly in Darwin the signallers heard a Morse code message from men they assumed had been either killed or captured by the Japanese. But before they could confirm their situation the batteries ran out. Loveless spent the next day refining his contraption, and that night Darwin was waiting. They were also highly suspicious of the contact as a Japanese ploy and when the first message arrived they demanded proof of identity.
‘Do you know George Parker?’
‘Yes, he is with us.’
‘What is his rank? Answer immediately.’
‘Bring him to the transmitter. What is your wife’s name, George?’
‘What is the street number of your house?’
It was enough. Darwin was satisfied. In Timor they were ecstatic. They christened their contraption ‘Winnie the War Winner’. Then they tapped out the message that would send a bolt of pleasure through an Australian command under imminent threat of invasion: ‘The Timor force is intact and still fighting. Badly needs boots, quinine, money and tommy-gun ammunition. Over …’