Edward Willis

75 YEARS ON - THE TIMOR FERRY SERVICE

75 YEARS ON

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The current 2/2 Commando Association of Australia inherited an archive of papers from the original Association.  Amongst these papers are photocopies of newspaper and magazine articles about the 2nd Independent Company’s campaign on Portuguese Timor during 1942.  One article I noticed in this archive was titled ‘The Timor ferry service’ and was written by journalist and author, John Leggoe (1909-2003). [1]

After Sparrow Force made contact with Australia using the improvised radio named ‘Winnie the war winner’ (see previous post [2]) Army General Headquarters agreed that the campaign should be supported and, after initial air drops of food and supplies, the RAN was tasked with providing 40 tonnes of supplies per month across the beaches on the south coast of East (Portuguese) Timor and with being prepared to evacuate the entire force at one week’s notice.  Kuru initiated the resupply service in May and was joined by Vigilant in July.  The corvette Kalgoorlie joined the program in September.  All these voyages escaped Japanese interception.  Leggoe’s article told the story of this hazardous operation.

John Leggoe authored a fuller account of the Timor Ferry Service in his book ‘Trying to be sailors’ an extract from which is included in this post.  It is a fast-paced eyewitness account of the Timor Ferry Service that begins with Kuru’s initial re-supply voyage that departed from Darwin harbour on the 25th May 1942. [3] [4]

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Front cover of 'Trying to be sailors'

Additional information about another vessel involved in the Timor Ferry Service, Vigilant is also provided.

The master of the Kuru and later the Vigilant was Captain Alan Bennett and when he died in July 1987 his Vale in the 2/2 Commando Courier paid him fulsome praise and opened with the statement ‘He was one of us’. [5]

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EXTRACT FROM JOHN LEGGOE, 'TRYING TO BE SAILORS' ON THE 'TIMOR FERRY SERVICE'

 

Origins of the Timor Ferry Service

From time to time as Vigilant, Kuru and the corvettes secured alongside Platypus between operations the buzz spread through the ship about what was going on over on the Timor coast.  Their officers, sworn to secrecy, were tight-lipped when they visited our wardroom, but we all had a pretty good idea what was going on.  This was Darwin's own amphibious war - the supplying and subsequent evacuation of the gallant little Sparrow Force of Australian commandos on Timor.

The Timor Ferry Service, as it came to be known, began late in May 1942.  This was well into the dry season - weather which, with maximum visibility, was ideal for the Japanese reccos flying their daily routine over the Timor Sea.  It was a will-o'-the-wisp campaign which went on under the very noses of the Japanese.  The strength of the forces available to NOICD (Naval Officer-In-Charge Darwin) could only be described as puny and the success of the operations so far had been due largely to the audacity with which they had been carried out.  All three services were involved and most of the participants were Australian.

Now the campaign was entering its final phase, to be played out over the 400 miles of the Timor Sea between Darwin and Timor.  It was to cost the navy two ships, the original HMAS Voyager, a destroyer which had earlier won fame in the Mediterranean as a unit of the Scrap Iron Flotilla, and the corvette Armidale, in which there was heavy loss of life.  It was a period that produced bravery, ingenuity and endurance and one of the greatest survival epics in the history of the war at sea. [6]

Radio Contact Established with Sparrow Force

When the Japanese invaded Timor on 20 February 1942 a curtain of silence descended on the pitifully inadequate Australian Sparrow Force, which had gone to Koepang in the old transport Zealandia in early December.  Under the command of Colonel W. Leggatt DSO, the force consisted of the 2/40th Battalion AIF and a commando unit, the 2/2nd Independent Company.  The commandos subsequently went on to Dilli in Portuguese Timor. [7]

The Navy's part in the campaign began on 20 April 1942, when a bored watch-keeping telegraphist in Darwin was startled by a faint signal: 'Force intact; still fighting ... '.

This signal purported to come from the missing Australians.  At first the operations officers in Darwin suspected a Japanese trap, but the message was authenticated by personal details supplied by the men in Timor.  They asked for ammunition, equipment and medical supplies. [8]

The Challenge of Supporting Sparrow Force

First attempts to supply the commandos were made by dropping from Darwin-based RAAF Hudsons from 2 and 13 Squadrons, but with the Japanese in control of the skies over Timor, this proved too hazardous.  Late in May an attempt was made to make contact with the force using a Catalina flying boat and, although the operation was successful in taking off sick and wounded and two high-ranking officers, the flight proved too hair-raising to repeat and the navy was asked to take over.

At this stage, General MacArthur's headquarters took a hand and ordered that instead of being evacuated the small Australian force should remain on Timor to harass the Japanese, provide intelligence and cover possible airfield sites which could be used in any future forward move by Allied forces.  NOICD was told, therefore, that the Darwin Naval forces would have to provide a sea link between Australia and Timor, to make regular supply runs, obtain information about landing sites along the enemy coast and be prepared to land or evacuate AIF forces at short notice.

The catch was that NOICD had no suitable ships.

Obviously, therefore, it was not possible to undertake the landing or evacuation of any sizable force, but it was possible with the limited Darwin resources to make contact, obtain intelligence, deliver medicines and other urgent supplies and bring off sick and wounded.

Kuru and Vigilant Selected to Provide the Ferry Service

Only two units of the Royal Darwin Navy - Kuru and Vigilant - had the speed to get in to a Timor landing in darkness with reasonable safety and be far enough away on the return journey before daylight to have a sporting chance of escaping detection by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft.

The three or four corvettes in the area were fully occupied escorting supply ships between Darwin and Thursday Island.  They had to be retained on convoy escort as they were the only ships equipped with Asdic.  Fairmiles, the fast wooden reconnaissance boats then being built in Australia would have been ideal for the job, but the few that had been commissioned were still in southern ports.

Commodore Pope, with years of service in big ships of the RN and RAN, looked out over his nondescript little fleet of cockleshells with a wry smile.  It would have to be either Kuru or Vigilant and as Kuru with Lieut. J. Joel in command, was the senior ship, he decided on her.  When told of the mission he was to undertake Joel was wise enough and honest enough to realise that his lack of navigation experience could jeopardise the whole operation.  He asked therefore, to be supplied with a competent navigator and nominated Alan Bennett as navigator and First Lieutenant.  To this Pope readily agreed - perhaps with some relief.

The Mission Defined

Joel and Bennett were left in no doubt as to the hazardous nature of the operation to which they had been assigned.  Called to Naval Headquarters, they sat down to a conference with Pope, his Chief Staff Officer and key members of the operation staff.

'Because you will be hopelessly outclassed by any enemy force you might encounter,' Pope began, 'this operation depends for its success entirely on secrecy and stealth, accuracy of navigation and perfect timing.  You will be on your own from the time you pass the boom until you return.  There will be no air cover because the risk of giving away your position is considered greater than the risk of attack on you.  You understand, of course, that It is even more important that the enemy should get no inkling of what is going on.

'For some time now,' Pope went on, ‘we have been in radio contact with Australian commandos in Timor and it is now proposed to make contact with them by sea to supply them with stores, ammunition and medicines and bring off sick and wounded.

Betano Set as the Landing Location

'They will be waiting for you at a place called Betano, about midway along the south-east coast of Timor.  You will take on ammunition, stores and Army personnel at the Boom Wharf on 25 May and be ready to sail at dusk.  To avoid detection, you will have to make the greatest use of the hours of darkness and it is planned for you to arrive off Betano at dusk on the 27th, get in and unload as rapidly as possible and then sail so as to be as far as possible out into the Timor Sea by daylight.

Pope turned to a chart of the Timor Sea which the CSO had spread out on the table and stabbed his finger on a shallow bay about half way along the south-east coast of Timor.

'This is Betano,' he said.  'There is deep water close in to the beach but there is not a great deal of shelter, particularly from the south-east.  The land is thickly wooded with dense jungle backed by a range of mountains.  Recognition signals will be flashed to seaward during the hours of darkness and once recognition has been established three fires will be lit along the beach.'

Aerial Reconnaissance of Betano

Bennett said, 'It would help, sir, if we could get some idea of the coastline in the vicinity of Betano - any prominent peaks or other features that could be recognised from seaward.  As Betano is merely a name on the chart and not a port there are no sketches on the chart and no Admiralty sailing directions to give us any guidance.  Even if our navigation is spot on and we hit it on the nose, one part of the coastline is going to look much the same as another.'

'We thought of that,' the CSO said, 'and have arranged to fly Joel and Bennett over the landing beach tomorrow to fix in their minds the salient features of the coastline'.

Next day Joel and Bennett were airborne in a Hudson heading out over the Timor Sea on a north-westerly course.  They had already discussed with the pilot and navigator the purpose of the flight while revealing as little as possible of the forthcoming operation.  Bennett had asked that the coast be approached at zero altitude so that he could get a silhouette of the coastline as he would see it when approaching in Kuru.  After about an hour's flying the pale blue peaks of Timor showed up on the horizon and the pilot began to descend.  Twenty miles off the coast the Hudson was down to 200 feet and as it swept in towards Betano Bennett, sitting in the co-pilot's seat with a chart spread out on his knees, hastily sketched the silhouette of the coastline and any navigational features which would assist him in guiding Kuru in.

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AWM item no. 300927 - Kuru careened in Francis Bay, Darwin, for maintenance and hull cleaning

The First Mission Gets Underway – 25 May 1942

Kuru, a former Northern Territory patrol craft, was seventy-six feet long and displacing fifty-five tons.  Her diesel engines gave her a speed of nine knots and her armament consisted of an Oerlikon gun on the forecastle, twin point-five machine-gun amidships and two .303 machine guns and depth charges aft.  She carried a complement of two officers and twelve ratings. [9]

Kuru left Darwin at sundown on 25 May and two days later after an uneventful crossing of the Timor Sea, she was approaching the Timor coast a black saw-toothed frieze against the setting sun.  During the crossing, conditions for sun and star sights had been good, and, with his sketches of the land to aid him, Bennett was pretty sure that they were on target.  During the afternoon Joel had slowed Kuru so as to leave as little wake as possible and now with darkness falling, he ordered an increase in speed.  The night was calm with a low swell.

The Landing at Betano

Not long after dark there came a call from the lookout on top of the wheelhouse: ‘Flashing light ahead sir, making letter B’.

Joel, turning to the signalman, ordered: ‘Hop up there with your Aldis and reply with five K’s’.

As soon as the recognition signals had been exchanged three fires blazed along the beach against the velvet blackness of the jungle and speed was reduced as Kuru felt her way cautiously towards the beach.  So far everything had gone according to plan but all were edgy until there floated out on the still night air two unmistakable Australian voices.

‘Is it them?’

‘Buggered if I know.’

Joel called a greeting and the tension was broken.

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Betano – surf landing, September-October 1942 [10]

The men in Kuru made out the shape of a raft being paddled out by half a dozen bearded completely naked men.  The raft bumped alongside and five months’ tension of jungle fighting was forgotten for a moment as eager greetings and handshakes were exchanged.

Hastily Kuru’s dinghy was launched and with urgent efficiency the work of discharging began.

Cookie Bray Shows the Way

As Bennett was supervising the launching of the dinghy Cook Bray appeared beside him and said, ‘I’ll take her in if you like’.

Bennett looked at him curiously.  Though a cook, Bray, a powerfully built man, had already shown himself to be a competent seaman and several times on the way over had taken a trick at the wheel.

‘Well, O.K., Cookie, if you think you can manage her.’

‘I’m used to boats, sir,’ said Bray quietly.

That proved a monumental understatement.  As soon as he took over the oars it was evident Bray was a superb boatman.  Driven by the rippling muscles of his back and arms, the dinghy flew across the water, made a perfect landing on the beach and was soon back alongside for another load.  For hours Bray manned the oars without relief throughout the whole operation, landing passengers and supplies and bringing off from the beach sick and wounded commandos, several high-ranking Dutch and Portuguese officials and Army mails and dispatches.

The Navy had brought the commandos their first letters from home for six months as well as copies of the Darwin Army News and old copies of other Australian periodicals.  They were eagerly seized by men starving for news of their homeland and the outside world.

Mission Completed

By midnight the work of unloading and loading had been completed and Kuru was at full speed on her way back to Darwin.  When dawn broke she was out of sight of the Timor peaks.

With the coming of daylight speed was reduced to eliminate the tell-tale wake which was such a give-away to enemy reccos and as Kuru wallowed along in steadily rising heat Bray wandered into the wheelhouse where Bennett had the watch.

‘Great job you did last night, Cookie', said Bennett.

'Well, sir, I was just as anxious as you were to get away from that place.'

Asked where he had learnt to handle a boat like that, Bray told how he had been brought up in and spent his life in wheat schooners, trading in and out of the gulf ports in South Australia.

Kuru arrived back m Darwin without incident on 29 May.  Soon after returning from Timor Joel received a draft south and Bennett took command of Kuru on her continuing Timor sorties.

Suai as an Alternative Landing Location

Not altogether happy with Betano as a landing beach, the army decided to try Suai, forty-five miles south-west, and it was to Suai that Kuru was directed on her next trip.  Her sailing orders opened with the customary preface: 'Being in all respects ready for sea and to engage the enemy … '  The thought of Kuru, or for that matter any unit of the Royal Darwin Navy, getting stuck into an enemy destroyer was always good for a laugh.

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Map of south coast of Portuguese showing landing locations used by the Timor Ferry Service

Again, the mission was accomplished without detection and by the beginning of September Kuru had made six successful trips to Timor.  She carried some strange passengers and stranger cargoes.

Land Mines and Silver as Cargo

On several occasions, she took across land mines.  The commandos used them to booby trap jungle trails which they knew the Japanese would be using.  The detonators for the mines held an unstable explosive which had to be treated with the greatest respect.  They were carefully packed in a small wooden box which Bennett would stow under his bunk during the crossing.  So it would not receive a sudden jolt in being landed by boat, the box was always wrapped in waterproof sheeting and swam ashore by the commandos.

Often large quantities of silver were taken across to pay the Portuguese and the natives for goods and services.  It was carried in heavy heavy linen bags and Bennett insisted on delivering it ashore himself.  One night when going ashore with two heavy bags of silver Bennett was tipped out of the boat in the surf and went straight to the bottom.  He walked along the bottom up the steeply sloping beach and emerged like a dripping Neptune still clutching a bag of silver in each hand.

Vigilant Joins the Ferry Service

Bennett was now given command of Vigilant, a larger and faster vessel than Kuru and she went on to the Darwin-Timor run.  Lieut. J.A. Grant took command of Kuru.  Sub-Lieut. R.B. Helliar, a young West Australian yacht master officer, joined Vigilant as First Lieutenant and a tall bearded young RANR(S) Sub-Lieutenant named Coupe sailed as First Lieutenant with Grant.  As promotion to Lieutenant was automatic after three months with yacht master officers it was not long before Helliar was promoted and became senior to his Commanding Officer.  However, they were firm friends and Helliar had a great respect for his young captain's ability, courage and mature judgment, so the question of rank never arose.

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HMAS Vigilant ship plan [11]

Bennett's youth and junior rank were a perpetual source of embarrassment to the top brass in Darwin as invariably it was found that he was taking command over or offering advice to officers’ senior to him.  Ultimately the Navy Board overcame it by giving him accelerated promotion to Lieutenant and finally to Lieut.-Commander.

His association with Vigilant was a love affair for Bennett which had dated back to pre-war days.  As a young apprentice, he had stood on the wharf at Cairns and drunk in the beauty of her lines, gleaming white and newly commissioned in the Customs service.  He dreamed the impossible dream that one day he would command this miniature destroyer.  Now, years later, the dream had miraculously come true - but in very different circumstances.

Vigilant’s Armament Upgraded

Bennett was not happy with Vigilant's armament.  So far, his luck had held on his numerous trips to Timor, but he knew that if and when he did strike trouble it would be from the air.  Vigilant's antiquated anti-aircraft armament offered little protection.  The Navy in Darwin was hopelessly short of offensive ironmongery so Bennett went to the Americans and found a U.S. Army Air Force unit only too willing to help.

He was given a magnificent set of twin point-five Browning machine guns with ammunition and mountings.  The Americans took them to Vigilant, mounted them and drilled a crew in use maintenance.  Still not satisfied, Bennett pleaded with the Naval ordnance people for an Oerlikon to replace the ancient twelve pounder mounted forward.  Finally, they consented and at last Vigilant was in a position to give·a good account of herself against aircraft.

Close Call for Vigilant

Both Vigilant and Kuru continued regular runs to Timor and still their luck held.  On one occasion, however, Vigilant came close to disaster.  A Japanese landing force, consisting of three troop transports and a cruiser, steamed into the bay at Suai only twelve hours after Vigilant had left to return to Darwin.

As the Japanese came in on the same bearing as that on which Vigilant had departed, Sparrow Force observers could not see how she would have escaped and signalled Darwin that Vigilant had probably been destroyed.  Immediately Pope sent an aircraft to investigate and Vigilant was found unharmed steaming unconcernedly for Darwin.

An RAAF strike force was sent from Darwin and inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese force, which obviously had landed to attack the Australian commandos in the rear.  Two weeks later when Vigilant returned again to Suai the beach was littered with the bodies of Japanese soldiers and there was evidence that the remnants of the landing force were only a few miles down the beach.  Helliar had been detailed to go ashore and he entered the boat with a service revolver in a holster strapped around his waist.

'Number One, you look like the Lone Star Ranger,’ said Bennett.

'It's all very well for you,' said Helliar, you’ve got a charmed life on this coast, but I’m not taking any chances’.

Getting ashore, Helliar was dumped in the surf as the boat was cart-wheeled by a roller.  He returned aboard dripping, much to the merriment of Bennett, who said, 'Now you’d better turn to and get that gun thoroughly cleaned and oiled’.

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Kuru’s 150 HP starboard engine on display in the Darwin Military Museum 

Kuru’s Fate

On 27 January 1943 Kuru proceeded to the Wessel Islands to pick up the survivors of HMAS Patricia Cam.  The remainder of her service was on patrol and boom defence work in and around Darwin.


Kuru paid off on 22 October 1943 when she sank alongside the floating dock during a heavy storm.  She was recovered the same day but was so badly damaged that she never recommissioned.  During 1945 she was blown ashore during another heavy storm and became the home of a hermit.


REFERENCES

[1] The photocopy of the article is of poor quality and I haven’t been able to determine where it was originally published.
[2] https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/106-75-years-on-winnie-the-war-winner-–-mape-portuguese-timor-april-20-1942/
[3] John Leggoe, Trying to be sailors. – Perth: St. George’s Books, 1983, especially Chapter 4 ‘The Timor Ferry Service’, pp.35-44.
[4] The following biographical details about John Leggoe are derived from the end paper of his book: Born in 1909 at the historic farming town of York, Western Australia, John Leggoe grew up as a typical farmer’s son.  Most of his boyhood was spent in the Great Southern district, where his father was developing a large tract of land.
He was educated at country State schools, through correspondence classes, and finally at Hale School in Perth.  He left school to join his father in farming – a plan rudely shattered by the Great Depression of the thirties.  Wool prices collapsed, and John Leggoe quit the land penniless.
Undaunted, he frequented newspaper offices in the city, and eked out a living as a casual reporter.  He was then appointed to the staff of ‘The West Australian’.
During the World War, he entered the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, this period provides material for this book.  After the war came another stint of journalism, before he resumed sheep farming.  Now retired, he lives in the Perth suburb of Cottesloe within sight of the sea.
[5] ‘Vale – Alan Bennett’ 2/2 Commando Courier June 1987, p.8 https://doublereds.org.au/couriers/1987/Courier June 1987.pdf.
Lt-Cdr H.A. (Alan) Bennett; RANR.  Command HMAS's Kuru and Vigilant 1942-43; HMAS Swan1944; command HMAS Warrnambool 1945-46.  Of Claremont, WA; b. Claremont, 3 May 1919.
[6] Later posts will be devoted to the stories of the Voyager and the Armidale.
[7] See the earlier post in this series https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/86-75-years-on-sparrow-force-departs-from-darwin-for-koepang-dutch-timor-–-10-december-1941/
[8] See the previous post in this series https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/106-75-years-on-winnie-the-war-winner-–-mape-portuguese-timor-april-20-1942/
[9] For more information about Kuru, see ‘HMAS Kuru’ http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-kuru
[10] Area study of Portuguese Timor / Allied Geographical Section, South West Pacific Area. [Brisbane]: The Section, 1943, photo 20.
[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMAS_Vigilant

 

ADDITIONAL READING

Ian Pfennigwerth ‘The Territory Remembers - The Little Ships’ www.territoryremembers.nt.gov.au
Colin Jones ‘The night bird’ Wartime Magazine (Australian War Memorial) Issue 39, July 2007, pp.40-41.

 

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