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The Battle of Liltai and the Death of Bob Ewan

Edward Willis

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Studio portrait of some members of the 2nd Independent Company.  Second row sixth from left is WX10167 Lance Corporal Robert Ewen Oliver (alias Robert Ewan) of Cue, WA, who was killed in action in Timor on 14 August 1942

Lance Corporal Oliver Robert ‘Bob’ Ewan (WX10167), served with the No.2 Independent Company in Portuguese Timor and was killed in action on the 14th August 1942 in the ‘Battle of Liltai’.  He was one of several men in the unit who, for various reasons, enlisted under a false name – his real name was Robert Ewan Oliver.  Born in Durham, England in 1912 he emigrated with his family to the Lake Macquarie area in NSW in 1925.  With the onset of the Depression and estranged from his father, the teenager made his own way in life as a farm labourer in Queensland and South Australia before stowing away on a cargo ship bound from Port Adelaide to Fremantle.  He worked in various jobs in the north west of WA and was a tool sharpener at the Big Bell Mine in 1941 at the time of his enlistment.  He, along with several other men from the WA Goldfields, volunteered for ‘special service’, was trained on Wilsons Promontory and became one of the No. 2 Independent Company ‘originals’ as a member of 4 Section, B Platoon.

Bob Ewan was no saint – his service record shows he was disciplined and fined for having a venereal disease infection, being absent without leave and disobeying a lawful command given by his superior officer.  Despite these indiscretions, Ewan was recognised for his leadership qualities and was a Lance Corporal at the time he was killed.  The following story written by his compatriot Paddy Kenneally demonstrates Ewan was a brave and compassionate soldier who participated with distinction in several significant actions.  His service was recognised with a posthumous Mention in Despatches cited for:

Exceptional services in the field in the South West Pacific Area during the period 7th December 1941 to 30th September 1943.

Kenneally gives a well-informed account of the critical defensive action against the Japanese at Liltai and writes movingly of his involvement with the party that found and buried Bob Ewan’s body.

Members of the Timor 1942 Commando Campaign group will visit Liltai during their forthcoming tour of Timor in April-May this year.


Photos of Bob Ewan from his enlistment record

The following story written by Paddy Kenneally was originally published in the 2/2 Commando Courier of March 2006, pp.16, 18-20.

L/Cpl. Robert Ewan WX 10167 K.I.A. Liltai, East Timor 14/8/1942

In May 2005, Monica O'Brien, the producer of "A Debt of Honour" sent me a letter from a woman who had seen the program, inquiring if I knew her brother giving his name as Robert Oliver.  I contacted her and told her that I was sure there was no man with that name with the 2/2nd in Timor - then she dropped a bombshell!  She still had the report of his death in 1942 as follows: WX 10167 L/Cpl. Robert Oliver (alias Ewan) killed in action 14/8/1942.  As soon as she said Ewan I knew right away.  He was Bob Ewan 4 Section, 2/2nd Independent Company.  She also gave me some details, here they are - Robert Ewan Oliver was born in Winslot Gateshead, Durham, England in 1912, father James Luke Oliver, mother Margaret Oliver (nee Morrison).  The mother died, the father married again and arrived in Australia in 1925 and settled in Kahibah, in the Lake Macquarie area new Newcastle, N.S.W.

Early Years

Bob and his father did not get on well.  Bob left home about 1928 and wandered up into Queensland.  The depression came.  He worked at whatever he could find, mostly on outback sheep and cattle stations.  He had also changed his name to the Ewan part of his Christian name.  He wandered down through far Western Queensland into South Australia.  His intention was to get to Western Australia.  He knew such a trip by rattler (goods trains) which was the usual mode of transport by men on the track during the thirties, would be impossible.  He and his mate went to the Outer Harbour in Port Adelaide where the overseas ships docked.  There was one of the Bay Line ships either the Hudson, the Esperance, the Jervis Bay loading.  Bob couldn't remember which.

Stowaway to Fremantle

He approached a wharfie, asked a few questions, the wharfie asked a few in return and one was right to the point - "What do you really want to know mate?"  Bob told him, "Stowaway to Fremantle".  "You and your mate go aboard, come back to the hatchman, that's the bloke directing the winch drivers on deck.  By that time, I'll have given him your message."

They did as [they were] told.  The hatchman told them "Hop down into the hold where they are working.  We'll be finished loading pretty soon and she'll sail as soon as we finish.  The blokes down below will look after you and tell you what to do.

They did.  We're finishing now; we'll be putting the hatches on.  You'll feel and hear the engines when she pulls out.  Give her about four hours and starting pounding on the deck hatch.  With a piece of dunnage someone will hear you.  They'll open up, but they won't turn back.  You and your mate are on your way to Fremantle and we'll leave a billy full of water with you.  "Good Luck!"


That’s how it happened and that's how Bob and his mate arrived in Fremantle, arrested as stowaways.  They got two weeks in Fremantle gaol.  When freed they parted company.  He had a few bob as the ship's crew had taken up a collection for them.  Bob headed for the North West, picking up work on sheep and cattle stations.  He drove a truck out of Carnarvon at one period.  It was an 1100 mile round trip to outback stations.  He was postman, delivery man and passenger transporter.  He had some great stories of characters he had met.

When war broke out he was working as a tool sharpener at the "Big Bell Goldmine".  I also believe somewhere in his travels or jobs he ran into Peter Campbell (later 2 Section 2/2nd).

No. 2 Independent Company Original

Bob joined the AIF then volunteered for the Independent Companies, went to Foster down on Wilson's Promontory for training with the draft from W.A.  By the end of August 1941 their training was finished.  They were now No. 2 Australian Independent Company and the Double Red Diamond was their colour patch.  The Unit was given final leave.  Bob opted to go to Newcastle to his family.  His stepmother and new sisters who had never seen him loved him.  His father hadn't changed.

Little Ann just starting school walked proudly to school every morning holding hands with her big soldier brother.

Leave finished, and No. 2 Independent Company reassembled in Adelaide.  Six weeks of easy living then north to Katherine, no sooner was it finished when No. 2 Independent Company boarded cattle trucks once more for Darwin, boarding the ‘Zealandia’ on December 8th and sailed from there for Koepang Dutch Timor on December 10th as part of Sparrow Force.

In Action - Portuguese Timor

On 17th December 1941 'A' and 'C' Platoon and Coy. H.Q. landed in Dili.  Bob as a member of 'B' Platoon arrived a week or so later on the 'Canopus'.  By this time 86% were down with malaria.  The powers that be decided that the flats around Dili were unhealthy, so the Unit was dispersed to the mountains, 'C' Platoon at Three Spurs on the Ermera road, 'B' Platoon at Malho with No.4 Section at Bazaar-Tete overlooking the North Coast road going west to Dutch Timor.

The Japs landed on the night 19/20th February [and] by 10. a.m. they had captured Dili and Coy. HQ didn't know.

Alan Hollow

On the night of February 28th 4 Section and "B' Platoon HQ ambushed Jap trucks returning from Liquiça, unfortunately by then they had transported about 120 Japs to Liquiça.  On March 2nd those Japs were ambushed by No.4 Section near Bazaar-Tete.  The Japs suffered heavily, and No. 4 Section did not come off unscathed.  Two men were killed and three wounded.  Bob Ewan went to where Alan Hollow was lying, put a field dressing as best he could around Alan's shattered jaw and said, "Come on, we're getting out of here."  If it hadn't been for Bob, Alan would have been left to the mercy of the Japs.

Paddy Meets Bob

What was left of 4 Section finished up at Hatu-Udo near the South Coast and that was where I first met Bob 'Ewan'.  I wasn't in 4 Section at Bazaar-Tete, Arthur 'Slim' Holden and I joined the Section in Hatu-Udo about the end of March 1942.  I was a very, very green untrained Reo.  Bob Ewan taught me how to use and strip a Tommy gun and a Bren gun.

[At the] end of April 4 Section headed for Aileu and Remexio.  We raided Dili on the night of the 16th May 1942. We lost no men in the raid.  Don't think the Japs lost many either and a week later six men of 4 Section ambushed a big party of Japs on the Remexio track.  It was far more successful, and we lost no men.  The rest of the section under Captain Laidlaw and Lieutenant Nisbet were only departing Kikrassi when the ambush started so they had no part in it.

Bob with the rest of 4 Section operated out of Remexio from May until the August Offensive in 1942.

The Battle of Liltai

"B" Platoon was driven back to Liltai.  The Japs stopped on high ground between Remexio [and] Liltai and planned.

Capt. Laidlaw disposed his platoon around Liltai, 5 Section at the track junction, 4 Section on high ground on a track east of 5 Section, 6 Section on the high knoll adjacent to and length of Liltai.  [On] the night of 14th August the Japs made their move, there was a loud boom then silence followed by a lone Jap voice chanting something which in turn was followed by a massive shout from hundreds of voices.  The Japs had arrived.

Lieut. Nisbet sent Bill Holly and Neil Scott down to Liltai to Capt. Laidlaw seeking instructions.  The Japs practically standing on our toes and obviously no plan of action had been agreed on.  Worse was to come.

Capt. Laidlaw told Bill Holly 4 Section was to withdraw to Liltai and he was also to inform 5 Section to withdraw from the track junction.  Bill said to 'the Bull', "5 Section won't withdraw until 4 Section has passed through them."  Laidlaw's answer, "5 Section will withdraw as soon as they receive the order."

Bill Holly gave 5 Section their orders and then came on to Lieut. Nisbet and gave him the order to withdraw.  Mick Morgan led his subsection down the track.  Ray Aitkin's subsection was about to follow when there was a shot.  Mick Morgan and some of his men jumped the track and went bush.  Bob Ewan and three men came back to where we were.  Lieut. Nisbet said, "What's wrong?"  "The Japs are up the track well past the junction" said Bob.  Tom didn't think so; Bob and his men were ordered back down the track.  Bob quietly said to the men with him, "Come on chaps," and led the way.  Shortly another shot and then the hill erupted.  Bullets were coming from everywhere, whistling past our ears, ploughing into the ground near our feet.  The Japs didn't know where we were, but their guessing was good.  We pulled out back up the hill, up there more shooting.  Tom Nisbet, Neil Scott and I sprang to the left. Ray Aitken and the others jumped right.  No. 4 Section was scattered round the mountain and no one knew who was where.  We finally met up.  Next morning over the river and high up on the Remexio-Turuscai track a huge earth tremor nearly shook us off the mountain.  'B' Platoon went east to Fato-Maquerec.


Map showing the Liltai, located south of Remexio from the 'Area study of Portuguese Timor' (1943)

Finding Bob Ewan’s Body

Tex Richards, Noel Buckman and Alfredo da Santos had come in very late on the previous afternoon.  Charlie King and I were guarding the track.  I asked Tex what the score was.  He said, "We were cut off and hid up all day under a well concealed rock."

"What about Bob?" I asked.  "Can’t say for certain but I think he's been killed, we walked straight into the Japs when we were ordered back down the track."  Bill Holly, Alfredo da Santos and I went back from Fato-Maquerec to Liltai.  We thought if Bob was wounded he would hide up somewhere on the mountain between Turuscai and Liltai.  We only saw three Timorese.  They didn't want to come with us, it was Alfredo who persuaded them to come.  If we found Bob wounded, we would need help.  We found Bob, he had been killed instantly.  The bullet hit him at the bottom of the left pectoral muscle.  There was not one empty 45 shell in the vicinity, (Bob had a Tommy Gun.)

You know what the sounds are near a Timor Village, women chattering as they husk corn or rice, kids yelling and shouting as they play and pigs grunting as they forage for food.  There was not a sound anywhere; we were in an empty silent land.  The only noise was made by us as we scraped and gauged with our bayonets in the rock hard ground to dig a grave for our mate's body.  The mournful sound of the wind in the trees the only other sound as if in mourning for the man we were burying.

We buried Bob alongside the track in the mountains far from the outback he knew so well.  I still remember his quiet voice as he said, "Come on chaps," as he walked down the track to the death he knew was inevitable.  All I could do was kneel and say a 'Hail Mary' for one of the finest men it was my good fortune to call friend.

Paddy Kenneally

Final Resting Place

NB: Robert now rests peacefully in the Ambon War Cemetery which is beautifully kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  His grave reference is 19C 16.

The Ambon War Cemetery (known locally as the Australian Cemetery) is 5 kilometres North East of Ambon on the main road to Galala.








Ewan memorial plaque - Kings Park.jpg

Edited by Edward Willis
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