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Commando Campaign Sites – East Timor - Ermera District - Ermera

Edward Willis

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GPS: 8°45′8″S 125°23′49″E

“Ermera (Vila de Ermera—see Map No. 16) is 12 miles (19 km.) from Aileu at a bearing of 260°. One of the larger towns in the province. It is a posto and market town situated about 2,000 feet (600 m.) above sea level.  The district is very rich in coffee, maize, rice and rubber.  The natural vegetation is fairly heavy on the southwest and northern sides, and the mountains, which are very steep, help to give good air protection.  The posto commands a good view of the Glano Flats and also the main road which crosses the flat and winds its way round the mountain sides to the posto.

There are about 40 stone buildings, the most important ones being the posto, church, school and Chinese trading shops.  A good M.T. [Motor Transport] road passes through the town to Fatu-Bessi.

Australian troops occupied the town in March and April; Japanese in May and June, Australians July and August, 1942.  It is believed to be once again held by Japanese forces [1943].  There is a reticulated water system with supply tank behind the church.” [1]


Ermera’s location from map in Area Study of Portuguese Timor (1943) [2]

Signaller Corporal Harry Wray described his first visit to Ermera in April 1942 as follows:

"We stayed some hours at this house before pushing on to Ermera that we entered from the rear of the town and made our way past a quite important looking building complete with rather fine gardens, and fountain in the front paved courtyard. The Porto’s were all keen on fountains and paved yards in front of their houses.  We discovered that the building was the home of the local Comandante.

From the Commandante’s yard we emerged into a large town square, well paved and surrounded by large trees, along the sides of the spacious square were the usual Chinese shops.  After crossing the square we set off down a well-made road and had not gone far when a coloured gentleman in a motor car appeared, he pulled up and gave us much cheering war news, all wrong and very much exaggerated I fear, but it sounded good to us.  At the time we were willing to believe anything in the way of good news’. [3]


Map of Ermera (1943) [4]


Ermera became known to Callinan early in the campaign:

“The following week [after Christmas 1941] Major Spence authorised Callinan to make a reconnaissance of the road that ran from Dili through the middle of the colony, to the Dutch border.  It was important to know as much as possible of this road, and of the country it traversed, as it would doubtless be the route along which the 2/2nd would withdraw, should the Japanese land in Dili in force.

The following day they tried again, this time reaching the town of Ermera, less than fifty kilometres to the south.  There, they were met by Portuguese Government officials who were polite though unwelcoming.  Once again Callinan turned back in the interests of diplomatic harmony. But the ‘recce’ had been valuable – it had enabled the four officers to map the road, get the lie of the land and make the acquaintance of many local people”. [5]

Ermera was again in mind when the camp at Three Spurs was established:

“It was decided in mid-January to move C Platoon from its terrible positions round the aerodrome to a new campsite about ten kilometres inland, to the south.  Named Three Spurs (there were three spurs in the immediate area) it was strategically placed on the main road to the town of Ermera – the only road to the border with Dutch Timor”. [6]

The Japanese used Ermera as their base when they first sortied in force from Dili after their invasion:

“The Bazar-Tete ambush was a precursor to a determined drive by the Japanese into the hills south-west of Dili, where the Australians were now based.  On 4 March, two days after the ambush, the Japanese moved about 500 troops and artillery into the town of Ermera, a key trading post in the mountains above Dili, and in mid-March they began shelling Australian positions in the Gleno Valley around Ermera.  From Ermera the Japanese pushed out further south to the villages of Lete-Foho and Hato-Lia.  The men from C Platoon who patrolled this area watched from the hills above as the Japanese moved brazenly into their territory unchallenged”. [7]

Discussing the situation in early April, Robinson recorded that:

The enemy had meanwhile moved strong forces into Ermera, the main town out on the hills from Dilli which boasted quite a thriving marketplace.  It was 2000 feet up in the hills and the surrounding area was very rich in coffee, rice, and maize.  It was a good strategical position for the Japanese to occupy as it commanded the approaches to the Glano Valley and two or three good roads. Reports showed that the Japanese were consolidating here, their closest base to the Australians.  In this same area “C” platoon were most active. [8]

Soon afterwards by mid-late April:

“For their part, the Japanese had established a base at Ermera about thirty kilometres south of Dili – a modest advance, given their strength and the length of time they had been in Timor.  (Their comrades had swept through Malaya in less than half the time).  They believed that from Ermera they would be well positioned to control any 2/2nd activities, however they did not take into account their need for a supply line along a twenty- kilometre stretch of road, which the Australians now knew by heart.  Indeed, there was not a bend or an ambush point with which they were not familiar.

The enemy reacted to the ambushes by setting up ‘strong posts’ along the road to protect their convoys.  They were also to be used as bases from where their troops would flush out the Australians. It was precisely what the 2/2nd had hoped for: the Japanese were now fragmenting their force and exhausting their troops with twenty-four hour guards over every position they occupied. [9]


Map showing Ermera’s significance in the first half of the Timor campaign [10]

 “The Ermera ground defences were particularly interesting: the schoolhouse was said to have been surrounded with weapon trenches which covered all approaches to the town, while another line of trenches had been dug on a hill overlooking the town”. [11]

 “Incredible as it may seem, the David and Goliath struggle on Timor had, by the end of July 1942, reached something of a stalemate.

The 2/2nd had the Japanese ‘surrounded’ in Dili (the enemy had withdrawn from Ermera, allowing the Australians to reclaim it) and the Australians were feeling remarkably confident – not only of holding their positions, but of keeping the enemy bottled up in the capital.  Indeed, it seemed that only a concerted mass attack could succeed in dislodging the 2/2nd from its mountain strongholds.  The possibility of such an attack was always on the Australians’ minds and everything possible had been done to make sure they were forewarned so that they could disrupt any motorised advance.

When the enemy withdrew from Ermera the dust from their trucks had barely settled before the Australians moved back in and resumed their patrols as far as the coast.  They even took to erecting checkpoints on roads leading from the capital to make sure no food was taken in”. [12]


Recent aerial view of Ermera [13]


Ermera can be visited as part of a day trip from Dili or as a stopping point on a trip to other locations further south as Lete Foho, Atsabe or Maliana.

“The inland route runs from Dili to Ermera, then to Maliana and Balibo through the mountains, before finally reaching the coast at Batugade, just before the West Timor border.  Today the sealed coast road is in much better shape, although from Dili the inland road is OK as far as Ermera”. [14]


Road route between Dili - Ermera

“West of Dili keep going south at the Tibar T-junction.  The road (very good) winds through tranquil valleys and over heavily-forested mountains.  After 35 min, it reaches the wide valley where Gleno, the district capital, is located.  After Gleno, the road quickly gets worse as it winds into the mountains, often flanked by coffee trees and with views of Ramelau on the left.  After about 1.5 more hours, you will have passed the turnoff to Ermera …” [15]

As in many parts of Timor-Leste the road is being progressively upgraded and roadworks will frequently be encountered along the way.

“Ermera stands in the heart of coffee country.  Dominated by a church overlooking a single commercial centre and marketplace.  Ermera formerly hosted a small community of Chinese merchants and coffee buyers. Traces of its former prosperity have undoubtedly faded, however.  During the Indonesian occupation the marketplace came to be dominated by Muslim immigrants as the original Chinese merchants had fled.  Today the economic outlook in Ermera is bleak just as poverty is apparent to the user”. [16]

“The area around Ermera, 62km southwest of Dili, was once the main coffee plantation of Portuguese Timor.  It is still a major coffee-producing area but things have changed.  Coffee brought wealth to the town, and good examples of Portuguese architecture can be seen, including a beautiful church.  The old part of town is interesting to wander around, although Emera’s best days are in the past.  It has been a regular location of political upheavals since 2002.

During the independence struggle, Nino Konis (or Conis) Sanatana, who succeeded Xanana Gusmão after his capture, was based for a time in Ermera.  Unfortunately Sanatana died in an accident in early 1998, just over a year before the independence referendum”. [17]

Comparing the 1943 map of Ermera with the recent aerial view from Google Maps shows the street layout hasn’t changed.  The town’s growth was stunted during the Indonesian era by their establishment of the new town of Gleno in the valley lower down; this trend has been continued in the independence era.

The town was heavily bombed by the Japanese and the allies during WWII and not many of the Portuguese buildings that existed at that time have not survived. The church at the western end of the main street, for example, was photographed in ruins in late 1945 but rebuilt in the same place sometime afterward, apparently in the image of the old. The elegant steps at the front survived the war and provide an inviting approach to the building itself.  Blue azulejo tilework features on the first landing of the steps and the stations of the cross inside the church.

“The unique Timorese cult of the Virgin manifests itself once a century in a special procession, when a statue of NossaSenhora Peregrina kept in the church in Ermera is carried to all 13 of the province's districts.    But annual processions, albeit on a smaller scale, take place for the Virgin Mary on May 13 and October 13, and there is a three-day carnival before Lent begins”. [18]

The Portuguese era posto at the eastern was built in 1957 as a replacement for the old. [18]


[1] ASPT: 28.

[2] ASPT Timor road and tracks map.

[3] Wray recollections: 64.

[4] ASPT: Map 16.

[5] Ayris: 74.

[6] Ayris: 78.

[7] Cleary: 120.

[8] Robinson: 44.

[9] Ayris: 246.

[10] An Atlas of Australia’s wars: Map 82.

[11] Ayris: 271.

[12] Ayris: 307.

[13] Google Maps.

[14] Lonely Planet Timor: 67.

[15] https://en.wikivoyage.org/wiki/Ermera.

[16] Gunn, Historical dictionary of East Timor, 84.

[17] Lonely Planet Timor: 67.

[18] Kal Muller. – East of Bali from Lombok to Timor. – Lincolnwood, Ill.: Passport Books, ??: 267.

[19] Date inscription on front foundation.


Prepared by Ed Willis

Revised: 8 September 2019






Portuguese era posto building (built 1958), now sub-district administration office - May 2019




Main Street of Ermera looking from the administration office down towards the church - May 2019




Church at Ermera with the school in the background - April 2014




Blue azulejo tile work features on the first landing of the steps leading up to the church - May 2019





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