Remembering 1942: The Battles on Timor Brad Manera

Originally presented by Brad Manera, Military Historian, Australian War Memorial, on Saturday 23 February 2002 beside the Roll of Honour at the Memorial, as part of the Roll of Honour Talks series.

Download the talk - 9:23 min (2.2Mb Mp3)


The island of Timor 60 years ago today: it was well known to another generation of Australians and another war.

The start of the Pacific War

In the opening months of 1942 island after island fell to the Japanese. As well as the Singapore garrison Australian soldiers were lost on New Britain, Ambon and Java.

Sparrow Force to Timor

On Timor the garrison was given the code-name Sparrow Force. Sparrow Force was to defend the island and protect the airfield at Penfui. The Force was confronted by a particularly complex problem as it did not have the resources to deploy to all of the possible sites at which an invader might land. Its task was further complicated by the political division of the island. The western half of the island was part of the Netherlands East Indies, an ally of Australia, but the eastern half and an enclave at Ocussi on the north coast were territories of neutral Portugal. Portugal was opposed to the stationing of Dutch or Australian troops as it felt that this was unnecessarily provocative toward the Japanese.

Sparrow Force divided itself between west (Dutch) and east (Portuguese) Timor. On 12 December 1941 the bulk of Sparrow Force arrived and began to take up defensive positions around Koepang, the capital of west Timor, and the aerodrome at Penfui. This component of the Force comprised the Tasmanian 2/40th Battalion AIF supported by artillery, signals, medical and headquarters troops. Sparrow Force's anti aircraft capability was provided by a British unit, 79th Anti Aircraft Battery RA, veterans of the Battle of Britain. They were joined by one of Australia's new Independent Companies, the largely Western Australian, No.2 or the 2/2nd Independent Company. The Australian elements of Sparrow Force totaled 70 officers and 1330 men. The existing NEI garrison numbered about 500. At Penfui RAAF Hudson medium bombers from 2 Squadron flew anti shipping sorties.

On 17 December elements of the 2/2nd Independent Company AIF and NEI troops landed near Dili. The Portuguese garrison was not strong enough to resist and the local population did not object. By 22 December the rest of the Independent Company redeployed to Portuguese Timor.

In the new year Allied command realised Sparrow Force would not be strong enough to hold the island and plans were initiated to supplement the garrison. The reinforcements were turned back by the risk of air attack on 18 February.

Japanese air attacks on Sparrow Force at Koepang had begun on Australia Day 1942.

The Japanese invasion of Portuguese Timor

Just before midnight on the night of 19/20 February elements of the Japanese 228th Regiment landed in Dili. The units from Sparrow Force had been expecting to be relieved by Portuguese colonial troops from Africa and assumed the troops landing were their replacements arriving unannounced. They received a very rude shock.

The troops in Dili were Dutch. A single section, No 2, from 2/2 Independent Company held Dili airfield. The rest of the independent company was deployed, in sections, in the hills south and west of the town. When the error was discovered the Dutch offered some resistance then began an orderly, but unchecked, retreat to the south.

At the airfield Lieutenant McKenzie and the 18 men of No2 Section were unsure of the large number of unidentified soldiers moving casually toward them in the dark. They were almost upon the Australians when Pte Mervyn Ryan decided they were Japanese and opened up with his Bren gun. He and his number two, Pte Fred Smith, inflicted many casualties until the Japanese were able to lob grenades into the weapon pit. 20 year old Private Smith became the first Australian soldier to die on Timor. The Japanese launched repeated attacks on No. 2 Section's position all night with little success. Between attacks they attempted to entice Ryan to stop firing calling out in English "throw out your coat and surrender". Ryan refused treatment for his wounds and replied to the enemy with "if you want my coat come and get it" punctuated with bursts from his Bren. As dawn broke McKenzie ordered his section to retire before the Japanese realised how few they were. They damaged the airfield with demolition charges and headed for the hills. Ryan was too badly injured to move and was captured at first light. Signaller 'Porky' Gannon had been injured trying to signal other units of the Japanese landing. He also refused assistance claiming he would slow the others. He is believed to have been killed. His body has never been found.

During his retreat McKenzie paused to position an ambush and four of his men inflicted dozens more casualties on the following Japanese.

Some time later Portuguese sources claim 200 Japanese were killed at the airstrip.

While No. 2 Section was fighting for their lives unsuspecting No. 7 Section, camped in the hills, was climbing onto the ration truck for a days leave in Dili. They drove into a Japanese roadblock and were taken prisoner. Shortly after they were led away and executed in small groups or pairs. Of the 16 on the truck one was taken for interrogation, another, Keith Hayes, survived despite bullet and bayonet wounds to the neck. He crawled into the jungle and was rescued by local Timorese.

By the end of February the company headquarters moved to the mountains and despite being outnumbered by at least five to one they began offensive operations against the Japanese that lasted until they are withdrawn at the end of the year.

The defence of east Timor

If the Japanese landing in Portuguese Timor had been a costly but inevitable and rapidly achieved success the invasion of Dutch Timor was the opposite. It developed into a bitterly fought three day battle with the 2/40th Battalion group facing constant air attack, infantry assaults lead by light tanks and Japanese paratroops cutting their lines of communication and supply.

Early in the morning while the 2/40th suffered air attacks the bulk of the Japanese 228th Regimental Group landed at the undefended mouth of the Paha River on the south of the island. Their advance, supported by light tanks, took the garrison in the rear.

Lt Colonel Leggatt responded by demolishing the airfield, 2 Squadron had been evacuated the day before, and attempting to redeploy his available troops. Japanese air attacks prevented the Australians from maneuvering. Sparrow Force headquarters moved east to their supply base at Champlong.

As there was no longer any reason to defend Penfui and Japanese air attacks made the defence of Koepang impossible Lt Colonel Leggatt and his 2/40th Battalion group attempted to retreat towards Sparrow Force headquarters and their supplies. Their path was blocked by a battalion of Japanese paratroops from the 3rd the Yokosuka Special Naval Landing Party. Later in the day Sparrow Force headquarters lost radio contact with the 2/40th.

The next day Headquarters moved further inland but the 2/40th continued to fight their way toward Champlong. The Japanese defence was tenacious and the fighting bloody.

By the morning of the 23rd only a handful of paratroops were still alive and fighting but as Leggatt prepared to breakthrough the bulk of the Japanese force, including their tanks, enveloped him from the rear. He was offered the chance to surrender his force and after reviewing his depleted ammunition supply, the exhaustion of his men and the growing number of badly wounded that his force was carrying he decided to accept the inevitable. At 9 am on 23 February Lt Col Leggatt surrendered. In three days of fighting they had suffered 84 dead and 132 badly wounded were still with the force. They had exacted a heavy toll on the invaders.

Tragically more than twice the number of those killed in battle died in cruel captivity.

Today on Timor our peacekeepers are becoming aware of the courage of the men of Sparrow Force.