The 2/40th Infantry Battalion was the only battalion in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) recruited almost entirely from Tasmania. Initially it was planned that it would consist of three rifle companies from Victoria and one rifle company and one headquarters company from Tasmania. However, public and political pressure lead by the Tasmanian premier resulted in the battalion being formed from the island state. The 2/40th assembled at Brighton Camp in July 1940, where it spent the rest of the year training. On 7 January 1941 it went to Bonegilla Camp, near Wodonga on the Victoria-New South Wales border, to join its parent brigade - the 23rd, part of the 8th Division.
In February 1941 the 2/40th was earmarked for deployment to Dutch West Timor to protect the airfields in the event of a Japanese attack. However, it was thought premature deployment might provoke Japanese action and the battalion was held back in the Northern Territory until Japan’s intentions were clear. It left Bonegilla at the end of March and began arriving in Katherine on 16 April. The next move, to Noonamah, just south of Darwin, occurred during June and July.
Once Japan made its intentions obvious with simultaneous attacks throughout the Asia-Pacific region on 7 to 8 December 1941, the 2/40th was rushed to Timor. It departed Darwin on 10 December, arriving at Koepang two days later. The 2/40th formed the bulk of “Sparrow Force”, which defended the airfield at Penfui, the operational base for the Hudson bombers of 2 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Like the other “bird forces” deployed across the islands to Australia’s north, Sparrow Force was ill-equipped and likely to be overwhelmed by enemy attack. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt, made repeated requests for greater reinforcement, artillery, and supplies, which were never met.
Japanese air attacks on Timor began in late-January and increased in intensity over the next month. 2 Squadron withdrew to Australia on 19 February, leaving doubts about the role of Sparrow Force. The Japanese attack on Dutch Timor began on the morning of 20 February, with an amphibious landing south of Koepang and a parachute landing to the east. Faced with a strong advance from the south and paratroopers ensconsed on the only road running inland to the Allied supply dump at Champlong, Sparrow Force destroyed the airfield and began to move inland. In ensuing days the small force battled its way along the road towards Champlong overcoming several Japanese positions, including an entrenched position at Usau. By the morning of 23 February, however, the odds against Sparrow Force were mounting: food, water, and ammunition were running out; casualties were mounting; and the large Japanese force was closing on its rear.
The Japanese delivered Legatt an ultimatum to either surrender or be bombed. Consequently, the bulk of 2/40th became prisoners of war. Some members of the battalion, manning its rear echelon at Champlong, escaped inland. Others were later captured. Some joined the 2/2nd Independent Company in the hills and were subsequently evacuated in December 1942.
The 2/40th prisoners spent the first seven months of their captivity interned in a camp at Usapa Besar. Lax security allowed parties to slip out of camps to forage and gather intelligence. A small party of senior officers was shipped to Java on 26 July and the rest of the prisoners on Timor followed in September. From Java the 2/40th prisoners were dispersed throughout Japan’s conquered territory. They were liberated in late-August and early September 1945 and repatriated to Australia almost immediately.
- 271 died
- 79 wounded
- 1 DSO
- 1 MM
- 7 MID
For more information please see Honours and Awards database
Search for related collection items
- AWM52/8/3/34: 2/40 Infantry Battalion unit diary
- Henning, Peter, Doomed battalion : mateship and leadership in war and captivity : the Australian 2/40 Battalion 1940-45, (St Leonards, N.S.W : Allen & Unwin, 1995)