Birth of Australia’s Special Forces WWII

The men of Sparrow Force with a local catch.

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’. 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.

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 …’


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