Allies in adversity, Australia and the Dutch in the Pacific War: Resistance on Timor


Resistance on Timor

The large island of Timor lies less than 500 kilometres north-west of the Australian coast, placing it within easy striking distance of targets in northern Australia. Timor was divided into two roughly equal parts, the west being governed by the Netherlands, and the east by Portugal, a neutral country. Under a complicated agreement, the Portuguese were to request assistance from the Australians and Dutch only if attacked by the Japanese.

As at Ambon, an AIF infantry battalion (the 2/40th), with supporting units including the 2/2nd Independent Company and the Lockheed Hudson bombers of No. 2 Squadron, RAAF, codenamed “Sparrow Force”, was sent to Timor to bolster the Dutch forces there. The defence was based around the administrative centre of Koepang, and the nearby airfield at Penfui, while an unofficial arrangement with the Portuguese allowed most of the independent company to be stationed near their capital, Dili.

As at Ambon, intensive air attacks had led to the evacuation of the Hudsons based at Penfui before the Japanese began their invasion of Timor on 19–20 February 1942 with landings on the northern coast of Portuguese Timor and the southern coast of Dutch Timor. Sparrow Force defended Koepang stoutly, taking a particularly heavy toll of the attempted landing there by Japanese paratroops. Nevertheless, cut off from supplies and ammunition, and with a large number of wounded, the bulk of the troops was forced to surrender on 23 February.

In Portuguese Timor, however, the remainder of Sparrow Force (primarily the 2/2nd Independent Company, along with some Dutch soldiers and survivors from the 2/40th Battalion) had withdrawn into the rugged highlands, from where they commenced a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese. Although cut off from supplies or support in Australia, the independent company had been trained for just this style of operation, and was strongly supported by the local Timorese population. Using local intelligence, it was able to tie down large numbers of Japanese troops, and to cause damage disproportionate to its small size and limited resources. After re-establishing contact with Australia, it became possible to obtain supplies, evacuate the sick and wounded, and coordinate the unit’s activities with the aims of the Allied high command. It was during one of these re-supply missions that HMAS Armidale was lost. The 2/4th Independent Company was later sent to the island as reinforcements.

Eventually, the Japanese embarked on a systematic effort to separate the Allied guerrilla force on Timor from its native supporters. In August 1942 they launched a massive offensive against the force. With reduced access to native intelligence and little prospect of useful operations, Sparrow Force – it was renamed “Lancer Force” in November – was finally evacuated in December.

Australian troops in a village

Australian troops relaxing in a Timorese village. Sparrow Force could not have survived, or carried out its dangerous campaign of guerrilla warfare, without the support of the Timorese population, whose friendship, courage and loyalty made a lasting impression on the Australians. 013790

4 soldiers

Some officers of the 2/2nd Independent Company on Timor in late 1942. Left to right: Lieutenant Colonel Alex Spence (commanding officer), Lieutenant Eric Smyth, Major Bernard Callinan and Captain George Boyland. Callinan was later to gain fame as the author of Independent Company (1953) an account of the unit’s service in Timor which has become an Australian classic. 013762

Soldiers moving through a forest

A small patrol of Sparrow Force troops moving through typically rugged and heavily wooded Timorese terrain. 013772