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75 Years On - The Arrival of the No. 4 Independent Company and the Wreck of the Voyager - 23 September 1942

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75 YEARS ON

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THE ARRIVAL OF THE NO. 4 INDEPENDENT COMPANY AND THE WRECK OF THE VOYAGER

23 September 1942

In early September 1942, it had been decided in Australia to reinforce the 2nd Independent Company with the No. 4 Independent Company, a new unit which had also trained at Wilsons Promontory and in the Northern Territory.  The decision would trigger some of the most dramatic episodes in the Timor campaign.

This account of what happened is provided by Cyril Ayris in All the Bull’s men with additional photos and images from other sources. [1]

CHAOS ON THE BEACH

It had been decided in Australia to reinforce the 2nd Independent Company with the No. 4 Independent Company, a new unit which had also trained at Wilsons Promontory and in the Northern Territory.  The decision would trigger some of the most dramatic episodes in the Timor campaign.

No. 4 Independent Company Advance Party

A No. 4 Independent Company advance party had arrived in Timor on HMAS Kalgoorlie on 16 September 1942 under the command of Major Walker and accompanied by the commander, one other officer and some NCOs from each of the company’s platoons. [2] It was planned to merge the companies platoon by platoon according to their letters so that A Platoon of the 2nd would be joined by A Platoon of No. 4 and so on.

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Major Mac Walker and Captain Geoff Laidlaw (2nd Ind Coy) at Force Headquarters, with Timorese supporters [3]

The men of the 2nd Independent Company presented a strange sight to the new arrivals. Cpl Ken Piesse, who was among them, wrote in Commando – From Tidal River to Tarakan:

'As we hit the beach we were soon surrounded by gaunt, bearded Australians from the 2nd Company and literally hundreds of natives who seemed very excited about the new arrivals.  The 2nd Company lads were eager for news – and the bread and butter we had brought with us off the Kalgoorlie.  It was strange to see how they ate the bread.  How they wolfed it!' [4]

The newly-arrived officers were guided to their respective platoon areas to familiarise themselves with the terrain and its problems.  Extra food supplies were collected in each area with more being brought in by the advance parties.

Baldwin Organises the Logistics of the Landing

Baldwin was given the vital, near-impossible job of rounding up hundreds of carriers and ponies from the platoon areas, and leading them to the beachhead in time for the main 4th landing at Betano, without being seen by the enemy. [5] He would then be responsible for loading the stores and supplies onto the backs of the carriers and ponies and getting them away from the beach to the respective platoon areas.  While all this was happening, the 250 men of the No. 4 Independent Company would disembark and melt away into the Timorese interior.  It was, by any stretch of the imagination, an extraordinarily difficult and dangerous operation, particularly as it had been decided to risk using the destroyer HMAS Voyager to bring in the reinforcements. [6]

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Nautical chart showing Timor Sea between Darwin and Betano [7]

The time for the landing was set for late afternoon on 22 September 1942.  It was imperative that the troops, supplies and equipment were unloaded in time for Voyager to be well clear of Betano and on her way back to Darwin before the enemy’s first aerial patrol flew over at dawn.

Incredibly, in plenty of time, the hundreds of carriers and ponies were safely hidden along the Betano beach to await Voyager’s arrival.  Unbelievably, the Voyager was delayed – she would be arriving the following day, the 2nd Independent Company was told.

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No. 4 Independent Company in transit from Darwin [8]

The Voyager Arrives at Betano Bay

The destroyer finally left Darwin in the early hours of 22 September 1942 under the command of Lt Commander R. C. Robison.  She was carrying fifteen tonnes of stores, eight barges, a five-metre motorboat, £3500 ($7000) in silver coins and two hundred and fifty men.  She arrived off Betano late in the afternoon of 23 September.

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Timor bound – HMAS Voyager, September 1942 [9]

Betano Bay is wide, open and shallow and offers little or no protection for ships at anchor.  The only possible anchorage is in a channel between two reefs in the middle of the bay.  There were no reliable charts of the area – Robison had only a rough sketch and the advice of his pilot Sub- Lt Bennett, who had previously commanded Kuru and Vigilant. [10]

The ship entered the bay on an ebb tide giving the new troops their first sight of Timor.

Robison approached cautiously only too well aware of the danger of running aground.  The anchor was lowering when the vessel was no more than three hundred metres off the shore, her port side parallel to the beach.

Voyager Runs Aground

Soldiers jumped into landing craft at the ship’s stern, close to the port propeller.  At the same time Voyager began drifting towards the shore.

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Diagrammatic representation of the grounding of the Voyager [11]

The ship was still afloat and could have been saved if the Captain had ordered 'astern' on the port propeller and 'ahead' on the starboard one, with the wheel hard-a-port.  The stern would then have swung away from the beach and the ship could have been moved stern-first into deep water.

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Betano Anchorage, Timor [12]

But if he had done that, the landing craft would have been sucked into the propeller and up to fifty soldiers would almost certainly have been killed.

Robison’s second, less attractive option, was to go astern on the starboard engine, drawing the stern in towards the beach.  Once the bow was clear of the reefs he might be able to steer into deep water.  This would save the lives of the men in the landing craft, but there would be much greater risk of running aground.

Robison had just seconds to make up his mind.  Would he risk losing his ship or would he play safe and suck fifty soldiers into the destroyer’s screws?  He barely hesitated.  He ordered astern on the starboard engine – and watched helplessly from the bridge as Voyager ran aground.

It is difficult to imagine a more chaotic situation.  The beachhead was crammed with soldiers, Timorese, packing cases and ponies.  More troops and supplies were pouring ashore, ponies were being loaded, it was getting dark, the Voyager was stuck fast – and the first enemy air patrol was due overhead in twelve hours.

Voyager to be Scuttled

Every effort was made to free the ship.  Torpedoes were fired and depth charges and anything heavy was jettisoned.  Attempts were made to pull the ship free, using ropes around an anchor.  But everything conspired against them.  The tide ebbed, the ship’s propellers became embedded in the sand.  When a south-east wind sprang up forcing her further towards the beach, Voyager’s fate was sealed.

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Sept. 24, 1942 HMAS Voyager - dawn reveals a sad scene in Betano Bay, Timor [13]

The reinforcement of Sparrow Force now took a new turn.  Voyager would certainly be found by the Japanese in the morning which meant that the ship’s gunners had to be ready to greet them with anti-aircraft fire.  All other personnel on board had to be taken ashore to wait for another ship to take them back to Darwin.  Voyager had to be scuttled and anything of value to the enemy, destroyed.  Unloading had to continue and all the soldiers, carriers, ponies, stores and ammunition had to be carried away from the fateful beach before strong Japanese patrols arrived overland.  Metal cans brimming with two shilling pieces were loaded onto horses [Timor ponies] which almost collapsed under the weight.

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Timor ponies – their ancestors provided the transport for the Australians from the Betano beachhead

Robison offered Callinan anything on the ship he wanted, including an anti-aircraft gun.  The offer was declined – the piece weighed two tonnes.  However, he did accept some Vickers heavy machine guns.

The Beachhead

Work on the beach continued at a frantic pace.  Alan Downer, who was one of the new No. 4 Independent Company arrivals and who would later become a journalist, wrote:

'Major Walker was a very concerned man and urged everyone to clear the beach as quickly as possible, return to the scrub and wait the order to move.  When we set out at 0200 hours all men were carrying haversacks, weapons, 150 rounds of .303 or 200 of .45 ammunition, two grenades and rations.  Others of us carried in addition, binoculars, pistols, and map satchels.  We had not progressed far before realising that we were overburdened in such mountainous country'.

Those ponies and Timorese who had not got away during the night were hidden under trees where, with luck, they would not be seen from the air.  A skeleton force of 2nd Independent Company men was left to guard the beach, while the stranded sailors were allocated positions from where they would be able to give a good account of themselves, should they come under attack from Japanese soldiers.

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Sept. 24, 1942 - HMAS Voyager aground in Betano Bay, Timor [14]

Dawn Attack

Seldom has the arrival of dawn been so poorly appreciated as on Betano beach on 24 September 1942.  Amazingly most of the men and Baldwin’s caravans of Timorese ponies had reached the interior, the ponies and carriers to distribute the tonnes of stores, the soldiers to meet the enemy who would surely come swarming from the north when they heard about the stranded Voyager.

The new day dawned pink over the mountains, throwing the peaks in sharp, purple silhouette.  The birds had barely begun to chatter when there was the familiar drone of approaching aircraft.

A Zero over-flew the beach; some of the Australians reckoned they could see the pilot’s double-take when he spotted the grounded ship.  The aeroplane banked away and headed towards Dili.  The cat was out of the bag.

In the next few hours the Japanese launched successive bombing attacks on the stricken ship, dropping high explosive, incendiary and anti-personnel bombs.  Voyager’s gunners shot down one aircraft with Ack-Ack.  Ironically, Robison also set about destroying Voyager – charges were exploded in the engine room, breaking the ship’s back and blowing holes in her hull.

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Sept. 24, 1942 - Removing stores from the grounded HMAS VOYAGER , Betano Bay, Timor [15]

And so, Voyager, a veteran of two years’ service in the Mediterranean and eleven runs into Tobruk, met her Waterloo on a little-known beach in Portuguese Timor.  Her hulk is there to this day. [16]

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Recent photo of the remaining Voyager wreckage

Warrnambool and Kalgoorlie to the Rescue

When news of the disaster reached Darwin two corvettes, HMAS Warrnambool and Kalgoorlie, were ordered to Betano to take off the officers and crew of Voyager and the 2nd Independent Company sick and wounded, including Wadey, the airman who had been rescued earlier.  The two ships arrived about midnight on 25 September 1942, anchoring well out in the bay in seventeen fathoms of water.  Their motorboats slipped ashore to meet the Voyager’s barges filled with seamen and soldiers, and towed them back to the ships.  In little more than an hour the transfers were complete and the two corvettes were heading back to Darwin.

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Betano, Portuguese Timor. 1942-09. The wreck of HMAS Voyager [17]

The Timorese Retell the Story

The Australians on Timor were concerned that the Betano debacle would be interpreted by the many Timorese who were there as a major defeat for the Australians.  Scores of carriers from all over Portuguese Timor had been involved, ensuring that news of the disaster would spread throughout the colony in next to no time.  But they had underestimated the loyalty of the Timorese who, having seen the soldiers and sailors hold steady, assumed that everything had gone to plan.  The way they saw it, Voyager had been deliberately grounded – the ship had done its job and it had been abandoned on the beach.  This casual disregard for a vessel of such undoubted value was told and re-told in oomahs everywhere.

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Captain Rolf Baldwin (left), Lieut. E. Hayward and Major Bernie Callinan Dec. 1942 [18]

Inevitably, some of the lines of ponies heading towards the interior were seen from the air and came under strafing and bombing attack.  Each time the Timorese carriers and two Australian escorts urged the animals off the tracks into whatever cover was available.  A few ponies were killed yet, astonishingly, every line of carriers and animals reached its destination.

Baldwin’s Memories of the Beachhead Operation

Baldwin’s memories of the beachhead operation he organised are worth recording.  He wrote:

'My job of commanding the beach landing operations was extremely complicated.  The troops coming ashore would have no transport for their stores and they would have no idea how to find their way to the positions they were to occupy.

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Recent aerial view of Betano Bay showing the location of the Voyager wreck

I therefore arranged for every section of the 2nd Independent Company to provide two guides and a number of ponies which were to be on the beach at a designated time.  This was not easy as it involved moving something like four hundred ponies from several directions, without arousing the enemy’s suspicions. When they arrived at the beach, the animals had to be fed and watered.

The beach assembly area was a large tract of flat ground about two-thirds of which supported scrub, not unlike tea-tree, which provided good cover from the air.  The rest of the area was scattered with kunai grass.

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Voyager crew members await rescue in the jungle, keeping hidden from the Japanese [19]

The all-important factor was that a Japanese reconnaissance plane came along regularly every morning soon after sunrise.  The Voyager would arrive in the evening and be away before first light.

When the ship was delayed twenty-four hours we had to find feed and water for the ponies, which wasn’t easy but we managed.

Voyager arrived punctually the next day and the disembarkation went smoothly from my point of view.  As each 4th section came ashore it was met by 2nd Independent Company representatives.  The two groups carried their stores to their respective ponies and went on their way.

I was well occupied keeping my eye on all this activity but I noticed that the ship was coming pretty close inshore.  Then, when the last of the troops were ashore, I went aboard to speak to the commander.  That was when I received the devastating news that the ship was aground and unable to be moved.

On our feet, we concocted the plan to leave enough men on board to man the Ack-Ack guns against the certain air attack in the morning.  The rest of the sailors, who were unarmed, would occupy the hiding places that had been used by the horses.  We hoped against hope that there would be no land attack.

I think it was daylight by the time the sailors were hidden.  Not long afterwards the 'chaffcutter' as we used to call the plane, flew over and headed straight back to Dili.

The stranded ship was an easy target for the bombers which arrived later, yet they scored only a couple of direct hits.  In the afternoon, the ship’s commander had the vessel’s engines destroyed and the poor old ship was fired.  The red-hot rivets flying from her plates were a sight to remember.

When the sailors left on the corvettes a couple of days later I had the eerie task of returning to the ship to look for a signals book which it was thought might have been left behind'.

Conclusion

And so, the transfer was completed.  It must rate as one of the most remarkable of the war.  An entire company of men had been landed on an enemy-occupied island, under the very noses of the Japanese, and spirited away with tonnes of ammunition and supplies without losing a man.

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Voyager insignia, Scrap Iron Flotilla Memorial, H.M.A.S. Shropshire Memorial Park, Ulverstone, Tasmania

REFERENCES

[1]

Cyril Ayris. – All the Bull’s men: no. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron). - [Perth, W.A.] : 2/2nd Commando Association, c2006: 336-341.  Copies of this book can be purchased from the Doublereds Store - see link at the bottom of the post.

[2]

Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) Edward McDonald ‘Mac’ Walker VX53941; see Commando – from Tidal River to Tarakan: the story of No. 4 Independent Company, AIF … / compiled by G.E. Lambert. - Melbourne: 2nd/4th Commando Association, 1994, p. xxiv.

[3]

Commando – from Tidal River to Tarakan: the story of No. 4 Independent Company, AIF … , p.93.

[4]

Commando – from Tidal River to Tarakan: the story of No. 4 Independent Company, AIF … , p.90-91.

[5]

Captain (later Major) Rolf Redmond Baldwin VX50054; see Lana Capon ‘Rolf’s war service’ Investigator (Geelong Historical Society) No. 201, December 2015: 163-165.

[6]

See ‘HMAS Voyager (I)’ http://www.navy.gov.au/HMAS_Voyager_(I).

[7]

Henry Burrell ‘The loss of the first Voyager’ Journal of the Australian Naval Institute Vol. 7, No. 2 May 1981, p.10.

[8]

Ralph Dymond. - The History of H.M.A.S. Voyager 1. - Lucaston, Tas.: Southern Holdings, 1992, p.181.

[9]

Commando – from Tidal River to Tarakan: the story of No. 4 Independent Company, AIF … , p.94.

[10]

See previous post ‘The Timor ferry service’  https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/109-75-years-on-the-timor-ferry-service/

[11]

Henry Burrell ‘The loss of the first Voyager’ … , p.11.

[12]

Commando – from Tidal River to Tarakan: the story of No. 4 Independent Company, AIF … , p.86.

[13]

Ralph Dymond. - The History of H.M.A.S. Voyager 1 … , p.185.

[14]

Ralph Dymond. - The History of H.M.A.S. Voyager 1 …, p.187.

[15]

Ralph Dymond. - The History of H.M.A.S. Voyager 1 … p.187.

[16]

J. W. Ellis ‘Betano Bay today’ United Service Vol. 65 No. 1 March 2014: 26-27.  A team of Australian Navy divers cleared the last live ammunition from the wreck in 2000; see ‘The deep end – Navy divers in Dili’.  Sydney: XYZ Networks, 2000.  Video, 50 mins.

[17]

Australian War Memorial collection, ID number 157242.

[18]

Commando – from Tidal River to Tarakan: the story of No. 4 Independent Company, AIF … , p.172.

[19]

Ralph Dymond. - The History of H.M.A.S. Voyager 1 … , p.187.

 

 

Edited by Edward Willis
Correct formatting

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