Edward Willis

75 YEARS ON - THE THREE SPURS CAMP AND THE AMMUNITION DUMP EXPLOSION - FEBRUARY 25, 1942

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75 YEARS ON

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THE THREE SPURS CAMP AND THE AMMUNITION DUMP EXPLOSION

FEBRUARY 25, 1942

One of the great experiences when travelling to Timor-Leste is to locate and visit sites directly connected with the 2nd Independent Company’s (2nd IC) campaign in 1942 especially when there are older local people who remember the Australian soldiers and there is tangible evidence of their presence.


During my last visit, there in April 2014 as part of a tour group lead by Paul Cleary, author of ‘The men who came out of the ground’.  Paul has lived and worked in Timor-Leste for several years and is fluent in Tetum, the local vernacular language.  In researching the book and by undertaking on-the-ground reconnaissance in preparation for the tour, Paul had located several key sites where the 2nd IC based themselves or where significant events occurred.
On 24 April 2014, we headed west from Dili into the hills above Tibar to the old 2nd IC camp at Three Spurs; there a very old lady told us about the Australians she knew as a young child, even giving some specific names.  One of her younger relatives then told us the location of the nearby unit ammunition dump that was blown up in the face of the approaching Japanese.  The water-filled holes certainly indicated strong evidence of massive explosions.


THREE SPURS CAMP
 

Harry Wray provides the best description of the location of the Three Spurs and the reason for establishing a camp there:


One day the C.O. [Major Spence] suddenly appeared on the scene with some stores for us, and after asking what we thought of the location, he said that he had decided to make the H.Q. at a spot later to be known as Three Spurs.  This spot was about half way up the road leading to Masuto [Nasuto].  The C.O. said that he thought it would be free from malaria, and was a good central position.  He said that he proposed using it at first as a convalescent camp for the worst of the malaria cases, and said that out of the three hundred men in the Company he only had about sixty who were all enough to do anything.

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Map from the Area Study of Portuguese Timor (1943) showing the location of Three Spurs and Nasuta

Wray also says ‘... the camp at Three Spurs was only about 12 miles from Dili, and alongside a good motor road …’ and that ‘… a large palm thatch shed was built as a hospital and first aid post, and alongside the road that was down a steep slope below the camp, a large mess hut was built’. [1] Bernard Callinan ‘… found Three Spurs a very pleasant spot.  The tents were pitched on top of the spurs amidst eucalypts; the earth was of shale, so the trees were open, allowing in plenty of light, and the cool breezes kept everything clean and wholesome.  It was a joy to go down and stand under a spout of cool clean water just below the camp and have a shower.  The presence of the eucalypts was most pleasing; I did not think the familiar gums meant so much to me until I saw them on our first expedition in the truck out from Dili.  Immediately I felt at home, and months later it seemed that their friendly presence was in our favour against the Japanese'. [2]

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‘… a large palm thatch shed’ – Three Spurs, April 2014

THE AMMUNITION DUMP

Paul Cleary in ‘The men who came out of the ground’ gives the background to the ammunition dump that was located near Three Spurs, 105-106:

In the days after the Japanese landing, the 2/2 Company faced an immediate threat to its existence.  More than 150,000 rounds of ammunition and tonnes of explosives were sitting at the camps at Three Spurs and Railaco, less than a half-hour's drive from the Japanese headquarters in Dili.  A truckload of Japanese soldiers could have captured the essential supplies and knocked the Australians out of action in a single blow.

In the ration truck massacre on 20 February, the unit had lost its logistical brain, Staff Sergeant Walker, and its last remaining vehicle, thereby making the movement of those supplies a formidable challenge to the unit.  The only vehicle at the disposal of the company was a decrepit Chevrolet table top truck owned by an Indian trader whom the men called Indian Joe.  As the men from C Platoon were moving ammunition from the Three Spurs camp up the mountain to the posto of Hato [Hatu]-Lia, the fuel pump in the old truck gave way.  Private Ron Teague, 21, improvised by removing the petrol tank from the vehicle and then asking soldiers to sit on the bonnet and hold the tank, which in turn had a hose connected directly to the carburettor.  This innovation worked for only a short time.  C Platoon could move its most valuable stores, mainly ammunition, while leaving behind at Three Spurs a mountain of explosives.  Some porters, ponies, and a buffalo cart were also used for the initial move.

About 25 tonnes of explosives were left behind at Three Spurs, including all the gadgetry that the engineers were itching to use on the enemy.  There were sticky tank mines for throwing onto tanks and limpet mines for sticking onto the sides of ships, among other things.  The 2/2's senior officers did not want these explosives to fall into the enemy's hands.  When they realised that they could not be moved, the officers ordered that they be destroyed.  On 25 February, five days after the landing, the explosives at Three Spurs went up in an enormous blast, while some other stores were destroyed at Railaco.  The engineers in the company were furious at this waste of the tools of their trade.  They believed that the senior officers panicked. [3]

Christopher Wray described the ammunition dump explosion as follows:

At Three Spurs a large dump of explosives, including gelignite, signal grenades, smoke bombs and time incendiary devices, had to be blown up.  Time detonators were set and the camp was abandoned.  Perversely, Percy the magpie, which had been brought to Timor with the troops as a mascot, refused to go with the men as they left Three Spurs and was last seen perched nonchalantly atop the dump of explosives.

Shortly after Baldwin's platoon reached the Nasuta Saddle the explosives dump at Three Spurs went up.  The force of the explosion could be felt by the troops and as they watched a great mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke and fumes formed.  Smoke grenades blown to a great height before falling back to earth left trails marking their passage through the still, tropical air.  The Australians were not the only ones interested in the explosion. It was heard by the Japanese in Dili and soon enemy aircraft could be seen buzzing curiously around Three Spurs. [4]

Spr Williamson, who had arrived in Three Spurs earlier after his flight from the aerodrome, helped with laying the charges.  ‘I used a time pencil to set off the explosion’, he said. [5]

 

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Spr Robert McKillop (Bob) Williamson - SX 12657

 

Locating the Ammunition Dump Site

Paul’s facility with Tetum came into its own when he gleaned the location of the ammunition dump and the name and address of a man who lived nearby who could guide us to it.  This proved to be an accurate lead and the man was soon found and obligingly conducted us to the site.  This involved retracing our route back down to flat land at the base of the Three Spurs hill (400 metres down to 30 metres above sea level) for 2.5 kilometres and then branching off to the right for about 200 metres past the fenced compound of a convent.  Three large water-filled depressions clustered within a grove of large date palms provided convincing evidence for the large-scale explosions that took place there 75 years ago.  Our guide told Paul the occurrence was still redolent in the local communal memory.

 

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Ammunition Dump site, April 2014    

 

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Map showing the location of Three Spurs and the ammunition dump

 

GPS Data for the sites of the Three Spurs Camp and the Ammunition Dump

Location

Three Spurs

Ammunition Dump

Latitude

8° 36' 24.81" S

8° 34' 59.154" S

Longitude

125° 29' 11.646" E

125° 29' 26.118" E

 

REFERENCES

[1]

Corporal Arthur Henry Kilfield ‘Harry’ Wray (WX11485), Recollections of the 2nd Independent Company Campaign on Timor, 1941-42, manuscript in 2/2 Commando Association archives.

[2]

Bernard Callinan. - Independent Company: the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43. – Melbourne: Heinemann, 1953 (repr. 1994): 27-28.

[3]

Paul Cleary. - The men who came out of the ground: a gripping account of Australia's first commando campaign: Timor 1942. – Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2010: 105-106.

[4]

Christopher C.H. Wray. - Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese. – Hawthorn, Vic.: Hutchison Australia, 1987: 72.

[5]

Cyril Ayris. - All the Bull's men: no. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron). – Perth: 2/2nd Commando Association, c2006: 138.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Edward Willis
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