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Edward Willis

Commando Campaign Sites – East Timor - Dili - Heliport

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COMMANDO CAMPAIGN SITES – EAST TIMOR

DILI

DILI HELIPORT – JAPANESE BUILT WWII AIRFIELD EXTENSION

 

LOCATION

Coordinates: 8°33'22"S 125°33'45"E

The Dili Heliport occupies the site of an airfield built by the Japanese occupation force between March-July 1942.  It lies just south of the Av. Pres. Nicolau Lobato, Dili, bounded on the eastern side by the Presidential Palace and on the western side by the Ministry of Defence.  The Australian Embassy and Sparrow Force House reside on the opposite side of the Av. Pres. Nicolau Lobato to the north.

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Map showing the location of the Dili Heliport

Though never carried forward, at various times during late 1942 and early 1943 consideration was given to re-taking Timor.  Horner states that ‘In December [1942] the Advisory War Council had instructed the Chiefs of Staff to prepare to capture the island.  The Chiefs had refrained, claiming that they had insufficient information’. [1]

This was the context in which the 'Area Study of Portuguese Timor' [ASPT] was prepared by former No. 2 Independent Company Section Commander, Captain David Dexter.  The ‘Terrain study’, as it is subtitled, was released on 27 February 1943 and provides the following detailed description of the airfield in Dili that was such a critical focus of the Commando Campaign.  It will be noticed in the text that particular attention is given to landing places and how to approach it in order to mount an effective attack. [2]

3. Airdromes:

This airdrome is located on a level stretch of land on the north coast of Portuguese Timor, 11/2 miles (2 km.) west of the town of Dilli, and now consists of two prepared strips, one N/S [North/South], 1,290 yards (1,180 m.) and the other E/W [East/West], 1,250 yards (1,140 m.).  This latter runway and the southern portion of the former are situated on ground to the south of the main coast road which formed the south boundary of the old Portuguese airdrome area and constitute an extension by the enemy.  Further extension of the N/S runway to the South appears possible.

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Dili ‘aerodrome’ plan (1943) from ASPT map of Dili, Portuguese Timor [3]

It may also be possible to extend the E/W runway to the East by removing trees and houses.  Extension to the West appears impracticable, as this would run out into the paddy fields, which are periodically flooded by the Comoro River.  Coral and limestone surfacing material are available and have been used for repairing the runways.

The airdrome is between one and two miles (11/2 km. and 3 km.) to the north of the foothills of a mountain range which rises to 6,000 feet (1,840 m.) approx. 5 miles (8 km.) from the site.  There is open sea to the North and northeast.  On all other sides the only obstructions are trees and native houses near the boundaries of the landing area.  The topography of the foothills is such that a rather sharp turn is necessary in approaching from the southeast.

In the wet season, December to March, clouds with a base of 1,000 feet are common on the foothills of the mountain range.

Dispersal facilities are limited.  The enemy appears to make use of a clump of trees along the eastern edge of the N/S runway and just south of the E/W runway and in the coconut plantations to the west of the old airdrome area.  This latter area was used to disperse fighter aircraft seen on the field in March and April, 1942.

The prevailing wind in the dry season (April to November) is from the northeast, and in the wet season (December to March) is from the northwest.

Communication with Dilli town is by the main coast highway and by the old Dilli-Aileu road, each of which, in this area, is a good M.T. road.

Beach landings can be made about 3/4 mile (1 km.) to the west of the airdrome, which is then approached through coconut and banana plantations between the coast and the main road.  A.F.V.'s [Armoured Fighting Vehicles] may approach through this area with fair cover.

Both Australian and Japanese troops have already landed on the beach and made the above approach to the airdrome.  In view of this, there might be certain advantages in landing further to the West between the Comoro River and Tibar.  The approach from here by A.F.V.'s must be made along the coast road until the Comoro River is reached or tropical undergrowth and cactus make the area most difficult for A.F.V.’s.  This area is enclosed by the mountains to the South and spurs running to the coast at Tibar and to the west of the Comoro River.

The Dilli coastal area from Hera to the west of the Comoro River is also enclosed by a ridge of mountains running parallel to the coast south of Dilli, with spurs running to the coast at Cape Fatu Cama and to the west of Comoro River.  A good foot and pony track runs along the top of the range from Remexio to Lau-Lora and overlooks the whole of the Dilli area.  Spurs of the range run as close as 1,000 yards to the airdrome, O.P.'s were established by Australian troops in these spurs.  Lau-Lora is reached by a good track leading up the mountain from the Comoro Valley just south of Comoro village. [4]

SIGNIFICANCE

Control of the Dili airfield by the Allies and the denial of its use by the Japanese was the main justification for the landing of the No. 2 Independent Company and Dutch troops in Dili on 17-20 December 1941 without the approval of the neutral Portuguese colonial administration.  The airfield was in flying range of north-western Australia and enemy aircraft based there would also threaten vital shipping routes serving that region. [5]

If deterrence by the Australian-Dutch presence did not dissuade the Japanese from attacking the airfield, then it was decided to defend it for as long as was practicable against what were anticipated to be overwhelming odds and then blow up the runways with pre-laid demolition charges.  This was what actually happened when the Japanese landed in Dili on 20-21 February 1942. [6]

The destruction of the runways was a temporary inconvenience for the Japanese who through pre-invasion reconnaissance and intelligence reports we well aware of the airfield’s deficiencies – it was a low-lying, boggy and subject to flooding.  Soon after taking control of Dili they put into effect plans to extend the airfield on dryer land further to the south on the other side of the Dili-Tibar road as described in the ASPT. [7]

For the remainder of the Timor campaign Japanese activity and operations at the airfield were recorded and reported on by No. 2 and No. 4 Independent Company soldiers from observation posts located on the eastern and western outskirts of Dili.  These reports often resulted in Australian or American bombing raids on the airfield.

CALLINAN AND TURTON’S AIRFIELD RECONNAISSANCE – MARCH 1942

When Mr David Ross, the Australian Consul at Dili who had been held captive there by the Japanese, was sent to seek out the guerrillas with demands for their surrender, he was amazed to find them in good heart.  The senior officers of the Company had gathered at Hatu-Lia to meet him on 16th March.  He gave to each of them a note saying that any orders for food or other commodities signed by that officer would later be honoured by the British and Australian Governments.  He also gave them detailed information regarding the defences of Dili and the near-by aerodrome to aid them in raids they were planning.  He took back with him to Dili their scornful refusal to surrender.

After Ross set off on his return to Dili, having given the Independent Company officers details of the Japanese defences at the aerodrome and around Dili, Captain Callinan's thoughts turned to a raid on the Japanese positions around the aerodrome.  Callinan, who was a bold leader as well as an excellent tactician, decided the best way to concoct a plan was by personally going to Dili to carry out observations of the Japanese positions and movements.  Accompanied by the company's engineer officer, Lieutenant D.K. Turton, Callinan set off from Hatu-Lia a few days after Ross.  After stopping overnight at Railaco, where they salvaged some explosives left behind in the company withdrawal, they arrived late the next day at a small village [Beduku] on a ridge above the Comoro River, a short distance from the aerodrome.

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Looking towards the hill village of Beduku from the heliport – May 5 2019

Moving the following day to a nearby village Callinan and Turton were fed and assisted by friendly Timorese who were caring for a Dutch native soldier who had escaped from Dili.  This soldier and a friendly Chinese trader were questioned at length by Callinan.  Neither was able to speak English, but with his slight knowledge of Malay and frequent recourse to an English-Malay dictionary, Callinan was able to obtain, by painstaking questioning and use of a sketch map, detailed information of the Japanese dispositions around Dili and at the aerodrome.

Callinan and Turton then moved to a carefully selected observation post from which they could watch the aerodrome.  For several days they noted the Japanese defences and made plans for a raid on the airfield, awaiting the arrival of Lieutenant Dexter whose section was to carry out the attack which had been fixed for the last night of March.  After Dexter's arrival Turton returned to Railaco to collect his sappers in order to rehearse the attack.  However, before the arrangements could be completed orders arrived from Company Headquarters that the raid had been called off.  Callinan's disappointment was intense.  At first he contemplated turning a Nelsonian blind eye to the orders and carrying out a small raid at once, but then decided that it would be better to pull out as ordered and to return later to carry out a properly planned, large-scale raid.  However, the opportunity was lost, and no raid on the aerodrome ever eventuated. [8]

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Airfield plan prepared for Callinan and Turton’s report on their reconnaissance

POST WWII

Post WWII the airfield continued in use by the Portuguese administration until it was replaced by the new airfield, now named after President Nicolau Lobato, a little further west and closer to the sea front at Comoro.

The old airfield was not suitable to receive international flights that instead landed at the longer airfield at Baucau.  Incoming passengers were then transhipped to Dili on smaller aircraft.  This was the route followed by the 2/2 contingent that attended the opening of the Dare Memorial Pool and Resting Place in September 1969. [9]

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1960s view of the airfield hangar and control tower

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Heliport - hangar and control tower – 5 May 2019

After the opening of the Nicolau Lobato airfield during the Indonesian era, the section of the old airfield closest to the terminal and control tower were utilised as a military heliport.

The Australian connection with site was re-established at the beginning of the INTERFET peacekeeping operation:

On 21 September [1999] HMAS Jervis Bay delivered the Third Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) to Dili port and HMAS Tobruk landed twenty-two ASLAV 8 x 8 armoured vehicles of C Squadron 2nd Cavalry Regiment (C Sqn 2 Cav).  On the same day twelve Black Hawk helicopters self-deployed into Dili heliport to provide tactical mobility, and A Company Second Battalion, Royal Gurkha Regiment, secured the UNAMET compound.  The atmosphere of that early deployment can only be described as tense.  Coalition troops fanned out to secure positions in the smoky haze that covered the city and were shocked by the devastation that they encountered. [10]

During this period the Response Force was established at the Dili heliport with 5th Aviation Regiment elements and primarily conducted reconnaissance missions, not in the classical long-term surveillance/reconnaissance mission sense, but more overt, vehicle-mounted operations.

Once forces were lodged and established, the command element of the Response Force was co-located and established with Major General Cosgrove's headquarters in the Dili Public Library.  The main tasking undertaken by the Response Force throughout the INTERFET operation was as follows.

Special Forces provided the INTERFET Ready Reaction Force (RRF) with 5th Aviation Regiment helicopters and crew based at the heliport at Dili on thirty minutes notice to move.  This tasking was maintained throughout the duration of the INTERFET campaign and fortunately was required to be deployed on only a handful of occasions. [11]

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Heliport entrance control post – 5 May 2019

REFERENCES

[1] David Horner. – Blamey: The Commander in Chief. – Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1998: 386-387.

[2] Allied Forces. South West Pacific Area. Allied Geographical Section.  Area study of Portuguese Timor / Allied Geographical Section, South West Pacific Area: The Section [Brisbane], 1943. https://repository.monash.edu/items/show/26455#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0

[3] http://arrow.monash.edu.au/hdl/1959.1/1202293.  Note, as portrayed in the previous map, the current Dili Heliport occupies the same area and has the same alignment as the Japanese built extension to the old Portuguese airfield portrayed here.

[4] ASPT: 1-2.

[5] ‘75 years on: The Australian and Dutch Landings at Dili 17-20 December 1941’ https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/89-75-years-on-the-australian-and-dutch-landings-at-dili-17-20-december-1941/

[6] ‘Enemy occupation Of Dili: report on events 20-21 Feb. by Lt. McKenzie’ 2nd Independent Company AWM52 25/3/2/5 - Reports, statements and maps - [August to November] 1942 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1026118/

[7] The Australians were also aware of the airfield’s deficiencies but a different solution to them was recommended in a report by Johnston, Bradfield and Ross who stated ‘The aerodrome is quite satisfactory for use in dry weather for Lockheed 10 or D.H. 86 aircraft, though certain improvements at relatively small cost should be made.  It is too small for Lockheed 14 aircraft.  During the wet season, December to March, however, the ground would be soft and boggy, and to make it available for wet weather use an expenditure of £7,000 on the provision of a gravel runway would be necessary’. ‘Report on a visit to Portuguese Timor by Captain Johnston, Dr. Bradfield and Mr. Ross’ NAA: A816, 19/301/778 https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/ItemDetail.aspx?Barcode=170182&isAv=N

[8] Christopher C.H. Wray. - Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese. – Hawthorn, Vic.: Hutchison Australia, 1987: 90-91.  Fuller accounts of Callinan and Turton’s airfield reconnaissance can be found in:

Bernard Callinan. - Independent Company: the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43. – Melbourne: Heinemann, 1953 (repr. 1994): 74-83.

Cyril Ayris. - All the Bull's men: no. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron). – Perth: 2/2nd Commando Association, c2006: 203-208.

C.D. Doig.  The history of the Second Independent Company.  C. Doig [Perth, W.A.]  1986: 76-83.

[9] See https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/114-opening-of-the-dare-memorial-pool-and-resting-place-13-april-1969/?tab=comments#comment-180.

[10] Alan Ryan - ‘Primary responsibilities and primary risks’: Australian Defence Force Participation in the International Force East Timor. - Land Warfare Studies Centre - Study Paper No. 304: 84.

[11] East Timor intervention: a retrospective on INTERFET / edited by John Blaxland. – Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2015: 116.

 

PREPARED BY: Ed Willis

29 November 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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