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Edward Willis

75 Years On - 2/40 - the 'Doomed Battalion' - Men from the 2/40 who fought on with the Doublereds in Portuguese Timor

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75 YEARS ON

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2/40 – THE ‘DOOMED BATTALION’ – MEN FROM THE 2/40 WHO FOUGHT ON WITH THE DOUBLEREDS IN PORTUGUESE TIMOR

As recounted in an earlier post ‘SPARROW FORCE DEPARTS FROM DARWIN FOR KOEPANG, DUTCH TIMOR – 10 DECEMBER 1941’, the No. 2 Independent Company accompanied the 2/40 Battalion on this voyage.

2/40 Battalion colour patch

2/40 Battalion colour patch

The two units parted company in mid-December 1941 when the No. 2 Independent Company was despatched to occupy Dili in Portuguese Timor (see post ‘THE AUSTRALIAN AND DUTCH LANDINGS AT DILI - 17-20 DECEMBER 1941’).

Fate of the 2/40 Battalion

The men of the No. 2 Independent Company were re-united with some of their 2/40 compatriots and men from other Sparrow Force units a few months later when they made their way from Dutch Timor to Portuguese Timor following the surrender of the rest of the Battalion contingent to the Japanese on 23 February 1942 after a heroic defensive battle against the invaders.

Japanese assault on Dutch Timor, February 1942

With an authorised strength of around 900 personnel, mostly drawn from the state of Tasmania.  The men who were taken as prisoners in Dutch Timor spent the rest of the war in captivity in camps throughout Southeast Asia including Java, Burma, Thailand, Japan, Singapore and Sumatra and did not return to Australia until September 1945.  The battalion had 271 men killed in action or died while prisoners of war, while a further 79 were wounded.

Peter Henning, the historian of the 2/40, coined the term ‘doomed battalion’ to encapsulate the overwhelming difficulties the unit faced in attempting to effectively defend Dutch Timor and the trials and tribulations of those men who became prisoners of war. [1]

Escape to Portuguese Timor

About 200 Sparrow Force men escaped to Portuguese Timor.  Most of these men were trades and specialist staff such as cooks and clerks and unsuited for a combat role and were later evacuated to Australia; a few 2/40 men, however, were taken on as No. 2 Independent Company members, retrained and formed into a new platoon (D Platoon) under the command of Lt Don Turton, and served with distinction throughout the remainder of the Timor campaign before being evacuated back to Australia in December 1942.  These personnel were then dispersed to other units, with some being transferred eventually to the 2/12th Battalion; the 2/40th Battalion was never reformed. [2]

Battle honours

The battalion was awarded two battle honours for its service: "South-West Pacific 1942" and "Koepang".  Koepang is unique to the 2/40th, with no other unit in the Australian Army holding this battle honour.  In 1961–62, these honours were entrusted to the Royal Tasmania Regiment, and they are maintained by the 12th/40th Battalion, Royal Tasmania Regiment that is based at Derwent Barracks, Kissing Point near Hobart. [3]

Reminiscences of 2/40 Battalion Men Who Joined the No.2 Independent Company

The Doublereds archives includes the reminiscences of three men from the 2/40 Battalion who escaped from Dutch Timor and became members of No. 2 Independent Company; these are TX4174 Sergeant Berwin Francis (Denny) Dennis (1918-1997), TX2781 Private Herbert William (Bert) Price (1920-2010) and NX41795 Corporal Reginald Clarence (Reg) Griffiths (1907-2000).  Reading their stories reveals that they were no ‘shrinking violets’ and were well and truly integrated with the Independent Company men and participated in patrols, the manning of observation posts and ambushes.

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Denny Dennis

Denny was a Payroll Sergeant with the 2/40 Battalion and because of his background assumed a Quarter Mastering role at Beco and Mape once in Portuguese Timor.  This anecdote is included in his recollections:

‘On 24 May 42 it was organised for a Catalina to take our wounded back to Australia.  I guess you could say they stayed at Denny's Guest House at Beco for a night, quite a party.  CAPT Dunkley looking after the wounded Gerry Maley, Alan Hollow, PTE Craghill, old Jack Sansom.  I think Alan Luby was part of the party, and of course stretcher bearers.  I was part of the organising party, organising rations - rice, pumpkins, coffee.  I recall that a river to be crossed was in flood and impassable for some hours.  I was on the Betano side of the river, I think Fred Bryant was with me.  We had clay pots with rice, pumpkins and coffee ready when Dr Dunkley and party were able to cross.  I thought the Doctor was going to kiss me for the provisions supplied. … BRIG Veale and a Dutch officer also took off on this Catalina’.

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Bert Price

Bert was a Private with 11 Platoon of the 2/40 Battalion.  Following the Japanese assault on Osepa Bazar, he recalled: ‘Off to East Timor - Portuguese Timor and caught up with some 2/2nd I.C.  I think at Tilomar and then went on to Mape or Memo - where we were assessed by 2/2 officers’.

Bert also remembered:

‘We were soon sent out to Platoons - think I was awhile at Maliana with Col Doig.  But then went to Atsabe under Don Turton and sent to a place think Roti between Atsabe and Lete Foho - under Jerry Green - and at one stage was with a small sub section under Alby Martin at a small village with a name that sounded like Nun Berry Nun - we did extensive patrolling from this area and at night one of our Sigs would report to Atsabe from Roti by Adis lamp don't know his name but he was a great bloke and sig - a good signaler.  On one patrol, myself with Roy Hefferman to Lete Foho we arrived soon after the Hudson Bombers had been over and bombed the town and almost sealed the Chefe De Posto in his air raid shelter, he was amazed that the bombers were after him - we were always on the go.  Don Turton was not one to sit idle - he wanted action.  One vivid memory is being able to write home on 12th June to my parents and small notes to my mates who were prisoners of war to their parents - these notes are still in existence and one was recently printed in our local paper …’.

Reg Griffiths

Reg enlisted in the Army in 1941 as a baker with the Australian Army Service Corps (AASC) and was assigned to Sparrow Force and went with it to Koepang.  He recalled ‘When the Japanese landed, the bakery was closed and I baked no more bread from then on’.

He was not captured following the Japanese attack and made his way with other AASC members to Portuguese Timor and joined the No. 2 Independent Company.

Though a baker, he was soon recognised as having fighting capabilities:

‘I had grown up in the bush, had used guns and rifles for many years, and knew how to survive in primitive conditions.  On one occasion, I was asked when I was with my section in D Platoon where I had learned jungle fighting. My response

"Going around my rabbit traps, Mate, I think it was very good training!"’

After his commando training he became a member of Lt Cam Rodd’s Section and served with him for the remainder of the campaign.

Memorials

Tasmanians are justifiably proud of the achievements of their ‘doomed battalion’ that is commemorated in a number of dedicated memorials around the state, including Hobart, Launceston and Green’s Beach.

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2/40 Battalion Memorial, Green's Beach, Tasmania

Hobart Safari 2000

The men of No.2 Independent Company’s long-standing camaraderie with the Tasmanian 2/40th men who served with them was demonstrated during the 2/2 Commando Association of Australia Hobart Safari of 2000.  Bert Price was an active participant in the organised activities of this Safari. [4]

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Bert Price (centre) at Commemorative Service, Koepang Wall, Derwent Barracks, Hobart, 10 March 2000

REFERENCES

[1] Peter Henning. - Doomed battalion: mateship and leadership in war and captivity: the Australian 2/40 Battalion 1940-45. - Revised and enlarged edition. - [Exeter, Tasmania] Peter Henning, 2014.

[2] A list of ‘2/2nd men who joined from Dutch Timor’ can be found in Cyril Ayris. – All the Bull’s men: no. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron). - [Perth, W.A.] : 2/2nd Commando Association, c2006: 498-500.  Copies of this book can be purchased from the Doublereds Store.

[3] https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/U56077

[4] ‘Tasmanian Safari March 2000’ 2/2 Commando Courier No. 134, June 2000: 6-10.  https://doublereds.org.au/couriers/2000/Courier June 2000.pdf

 

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