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Edward Willis

Commando Campaign Sites – East Timor -Ermera District - The Unit Strikes Back - The 'Battle' of Grade Lau

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LOCATION

Coordinates: 8°39'24.9"S 125°24'31.9"E

INTRODUCTION

The ‘Battle’ of Grade Lau was a signature ambush conducted by A Platoon of the No. 2 Independent Company on 3 March 1942 in the early part of the Timor campaign.  It’s recollection has perhaps been overshadowed by the Japanese attack at Bazar-Tete that took place a couple of days before when two B Platoon men were killed in action and three were wounded. [1]

The Japanese were aware other elements of No. 2 Independent Company were in close proximity further south and pressed on aggressively with columns advancing from Bazar Tete and Railaco towards the A Platoon positions at Grade Lau.

Cyril Ayris in Chapter 14 of ‘All the Bull’s men’ titled ‘The unit strikes back’ gives an account of this action conducted under the astute leadership of Captain Rolf Baldwin of A Platoon who had anticipated the direction of the Japanese advance, set his Sections well in prepared positions, timed the ambush in order to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy and planned an organised withdrawal that enabled all the men under his command to escape unharmed.  An estimated 30 or more Japanese soldiers were killed in the ambush.

Fortunately, detailed first hand accounts of the ambush were recorded by Rolf Baldwin, 2 Section soldier Jack Hartley and some other participants.  The information they provided enables the site to be fairly accurately located, which is often not the case with other actions during the campaign.

THE OFFICIAL RECORD

Unit War Diary Entry

The unit war diary recorded the action as follows:

3 Mar

At approx. 1000 hours approx. 150 Japanese moved to A Platoon position to attack it.  They were ambushed by No. 2 Section (now rested after the aerodrome action) under Lieutenant MCKENZIE and a few of Platoon HQ, the whole operation directed by Captain BALDWIN.  The Japanese lost two officers and 30 ORs but there were no casualties to our troops.  The enemy withdrew after that action and A Platoon commenced to move to HATOLIA. [2]

Rolf Baldwin’s Report

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Lieutenants Rolf Baldwin and Bernard Callinan, Wilsons Promontory, early 1941 [3]

A few months later Rolf Baldwin submitted his report on the action to Bernard Callinan:

MAPE

1 AUG 42

Dear Bern,

Below are my reminiscences of the great battle of GRADE LAU, which I think is the name given to the locality by the natives.  You can modify its sensational tone if desired.

For some days before the night of 3/4 MAR 42 A Pl[atoon] was dispersed in section positions over approximately 1 ½ miles of the big ridge SOUTH of RAILACO.  On the morning of 3 MAR it was reported to Capt BALDWIN that a large party of Japs was at BOIBAO.  Cpl PALMER was despatched with a party of 5 men to O.P. this body of the enemy.  Soon after the departure of Cpl PALMER it was reported. that the Japs attacked Lieut NISBET'S section on KOOT LAU, near BAZAR TETE.  Almost at the same time Japs were reported in RAILACO.

In the early evening of 3 MAR a conference of section leaders was held in which L/Sgt DENMAN took the place of Lieut DEXTER who was absent on recce duty behind DILLI.  The following dispositions were then made: 2 section, under Lieut McKENZIE, to guard the approach from KOOT LAU at the WEST end of the ridge; 3 section, under Lieut TURNER to guard the approach from RAILACO at the EAST end of the ridge; 1 section under L/Sgt DENMAN and Pl H.Q., under Capt BALDWIN in the centre to be in reserve.

Soon after daylight on 4 MAR Aft many heavy explosions were heard from the general direction of TOCOLULLI.  Then followed reports from 1 section that enemy could be seen advancing up [the] ridge from RAILACO, and from 2 section that approx. 60 enemy were advancing from the WEST end of the ridges.  Orders were sent to 3 section warning them of the approach of the RAILACO party and to 1 section to be ready to move to support 3 section if necessary.  After the despatch of these orders Capt BALDWIN moved Pl H.Q. to the support of 2 section.

When he arrived at 3 section's area Japs could be plainly seen advancing along a track about 800 yards away.  Our troops were rapidly put into positions on the hilltop above the track along which the Japs were moving, with 2 section flanking and PI H.Q. enfilading at a range of 150 - 200 yards.  Almost as soon as these dispositions were complete, came the first burst of concentrated fire against the Japs.  As far as our troops could see half a dozen Japs were killed immediately, and a similar number in the half hour sniping duel which followed.  Native reports however put the enemy's casualties as 31.  Our own were nil.

No contact being possible between 2 section and H.Q. during the firing, the skirmish was broken off at discretion some half hour after the commencement.  2 section then retreated to the EAST along the ridge, H.Q. to the NORTH, into places of concealment.  During the day of 4 MAR there was much movement of Japs on the ridge and our own men lay in successful hiding, save for a few chance meetings between individuals and the enemy.  From these encounters our men all escaped.

During the night of 4 MAR the movement of our sections to the SOUTH began, independently, according to prearranged plan.  No casualties were incurred.

R.R. Baldwin, Capt [4]

JACK HARTLEY’S STORY

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Jack Hartley, 11 December 1941, just before he joined the No. 2 Independent Company in Dili

John Frederick (Jack) Hartley (NX78025) was a member of the First Reinforcements for the No. 2 Independent Company that arrived in Dili aboard M.V. Koolama on 22 Jan 1942. [5]

Jack recorded a very full and informative memoir of his Timor campaign experiences that was heavily relied upon by Cyril Ayris in Chapter 14 of ‘All the Bull’s men’ that begins with an account of the ‘battle’. [6] Relevant extracts from Jack’s memoir follow here:

To Railaco

[After arriving in Dili] We had a meal at the drome, after which we were given a lecture by Captain Bernard Callinan, the 2 I/C of the Company.  Then humping our gear again we set out on a twelve mile trek up into the hills.  The first stop was at Three Spurs camp where we had lunch and then pushed on up to Railaco. The camp at Railaco was only in its infancy and very little had been done to make it comfortable, so we had to pitch in next morning to get things shipshape.  One long grass hut was sufficient to quarter most of us, plus the "Q" store and kitchen.

New huts had to be built for Headquarters, the hospital, sigs wireless hut and the ammunition dump.  Slit trenches had to be dug for defences and protection from air raids.  Latrines ten feet deep were one of the more urgent tasks.  Water was pretty scarce and we were obliged to carry it in buckets and bamboos from a small spring a couple of hundred yards down the slope from the camp.  There was a large pineapple plantation nearby which was given quite a caning by the troops, with obvious results.  Too much tropical fruit is not to be recommended as a suitable diet when one is not used to it.

The days passed quickly enough and after the work was done and the camp completed we settled down to serious training in weaponry.

…..

Sent to No.2 Section

Meanwhile the men at Railaco had been allotted to go to different Sections and I was fortunate enough to be sent to No.2 Section, the first Section to go into action.  The camp was broken up and everyone left there carrying as much food and ammunition as he was capable of humping.

I personally had a change of clothing, a blanket and battle jacket, some tins of food and a Thompson submachine gun with about six hundred rounds of ammunition and three hand grenades.  The weight of the ammunition was terrific, but I had no idea when we would be able to replenish our supply and I had no intention of running out, so I chose to carry as much as I possibly could pack.  I later acquired a drum magazine which added to the load.

Water Pipe Camp

Tom Mildren, Keith Brown, Harry Cole and George Miller had been drafted to No.2 Section with Lt. Gerry McKenzie and only had to move a couple of miles to join them.  Most of "A" Platoon were at Water Pipe Camp and it was to here that the men from the drome made their way.  The camp derived its name from the bamboo pipe line built to carry water from a small spring about half a mile from the camp around the side of a mountain.  In charge of the camp was Captain Rolf Baldwin as O/C "A" Platoon.  Lieutenant David Dexter was in charge of No. 1 Section, and Lieutenant Clarrie Turner was in charge of No. 3 Section.

Among the first of 2 Section to come in were Joe Poynton and Neil Hooper.  The others straggled in over the next couple of days until all were present with the exception of the 3 men who were lost on the drome.  Lt. McKenzie took charge of his Section again and with the five reinforcements to bring it up to full strength, the Section was soon ready for action again.

By this time the Company C.O. Major Spence had moved with his headquarters to Hatolia and for the present there was no definite plan of action.

"B" Platoon under Captain Geoff Laidlaw had its headquarters at Liquiça on the north coast and would stay there until it was pushed out.  "A" Platoon were about ten miles inland from "B" Platoon, and "c" Platoon were at Hatolia.

‘… moved a couple of miles north’

As soon as "A" Platoon were properly organised, we left Water Pipe camp and moved a couple of miles north along the range we were on and set up three sectional camps at the most strategic points we could find.  The ridge ran roughly north and south and on either side of it was a deep river gorge.  A fairly good track ran along the top of the ridge and it was the most logical place for the Japs to come from the north coast when they wanted to move inland.

Most of us had by now learned a smattering of Tetum, the native language, and we were able to buy fruit and eggs, vegetables and rice to supplement our own meagre rations.  Also we had acquired some young criados who were willing to stick with us and carry our packs.  For a couple of days things were quiet enough, but this happy state of affairs was not to last long.

Contacting "B" Platoon

One evening Cyril Doyle, Bruce Smith and I were assigned the task of contacting "B" Platoon with the idea of finding out what their positions were and what plans of action they had.  We had to go down into a valley and then up a steep range to reach Liquiça where we expected to find their headquarters.  We reached the top of the range and were only a short distance from their headquarters when we met Cpl Norm Thornton and from him we heard some bad news. "B" Platoon had been attacked the night before by a strong party of Japs and had been forced to withdraw into the hills.  The problem was at this period we had no radio contact between platoons and runners were the only means of communication.  Norm had been given the job of getting clear with a load of ammunition and had no idea of how the rest of the platoon were faring.

…..

‘… moved back up onto the top of the ridge’

As soon as it was light to see we moved back up onto the top of the ridge and took up a position covering the main track.  We had a scratch breakfast of fruit and then sent our native boys off with our packs containing the odds and ends of gear we didn't need.  That was the last we saw of those boys and our packs for as soon as the shooting started they just went bush.

About nine o'clock the Japs made an appearance at a village about a mile away and we took up our positions.  There were twenty of us lined up along the ridge running parallel with and above the track about fifty yards away.  About a hundred yards away further up the track headquarters took up a position in an old stone fort to fire down the track.

1 Section and 3 Section were too far away to get to the scene in time to join in the fun.  Being a tommy gunner I thought I could do more damage by being a bit forward of the Section, so I moved about another ten yards down the slope and took cover behind a tree.  There was a small side track only a few yards below me and I thought if they came along this I could play merry hell with them.

The Japanese Ambushed

However, the Japs came along the lower track with an officer leading them on horseback and the rest in close single file.  There were about fifty in the first group and we allowed the leaders to get slightly past us before we opened fire.  The officer on the horse and a lot more went down under the first burst of fire, but the others dived for cover and in what seemed only a few seconds were firing back with machine guns and mortars.  One mortar bomb exploded in the trees above me and another landed in the stone fort, but no one was hurt.  Most of the mortars went over the ridge and exploded behind us.  One Jap ran straight towards us and dropped behind a log about twenty yards below me.  I put a few rounds into the log to keep him down and then Tom Mildren who was firing over my head with a snipers rifle got him through the thigh and put him out of action.

Withdrawal

The warning came from our rear scout that another big party of Japs were coming around the hill behind us so Gerry McKenzie gave the order to withdraw.  I was too occupied and didn't hear the order and carried on firing.  Tom Mildren looked around when the Section had gone about fifty yards and saw I wasn't coming, so he stopped and yelled out to me. By the time I'd scrambled back up the ridge the others were out of sight.  Just then the first of the second bunch of Japs put in an appearance about thirty yards away so I took off down the hill after the Section.  I could hear a submachine gun blazing away behind me and expected to cop it any second, but the Jap must have been a poor shot and I managed to outrun him.

About a quarter of a mile down the hill I caught up with Pte Lou Marchant who was on the point of exhaustion from malaria.  I urged him on and we finally caught up with the others who were waiting for us.  We moved on immediately as the Japs had seen us and were firing down the hill with what sounded like Bren guns.  They were getting too close for comfort, so we kept on going around the mountain and finally ended up down in the river gorge on the wrong side to where we wanted to be.  The Japs kept firing for a couple of hours after we were out of sight, but we didn't see any more of them.

ESCAPE

Corporal Kevin Curran later recalled how some of the men escaped from the ambush site:

After the mortaring the Australians fell back to a position, but it was found here that they had been outflanked by a second Japanese party.  In the movement which followed, Two Section and Pl HQ became separated, the section going to one side of the track and the troops to the other.

They were forced then to take cover in the bushes, lying low all day.  Cpl Curran and fourteen privates on one side of the track stayed in hiding until four thirty, watching the Japanese walking about, at times so close that they could have reached out and touched them.  When the night fog came down the whole of the forces left their hiding places and trekked onto the main Dilli to Ermera Road.  The Section men were the first to leave and they, shortly followed by Platoon HQ set off for Hatu-Lia, the pre-arranged rendezvous. [7]

LOCATING THE BATTLEFIELD TODAY

Railaco can be reached comfortably by vehicle from Dili – the 30 kilometre drive will take approximately 50 minutes.  A walk into the nearby hills will then be required to reach the ‘Battle’ of Grade Lau site.

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Drive route from Dili to the ‘Battle’ of Grade Lau site

The site of the ‘Battle of Grade Lau’ can be approximated using relevant location information derived from the available first-hand accounts in the unit war diary, Baldwin’s report and Jack Hartley’s reminiscences.  The following map based on a current Google Maps satellite view of the area attempts to illustrate where the A Platoon sections were situated, the directions from which the Japanese approached.  The map also indicates the direction in which the A Platoon men left after the battle.  I emphasise that if the indicated location is correct, the landscape would have to have been more heavily vegetated and less closely settled in March 1942 than it is now, otherwise they would not have been able to conceal themselves as effectively as they did prior to the ambush and afterwards when making their escape.

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‘Battle’ of Grade Lau site

 

The efficacy of nominating this location for the battlefield can be best tested by visiting Railaco, assessing the terrain and speaking to local residents who could be asked questions such as:

·      Are you aware of a battle nearby during WWII where the Australians fought the Japanese?

·      Is there a place nearby called Grade Lau?

·      Is there a track that runs from Bazar-Tete to Railaco?

·      Is there an old stone fort on the high ground nearby?

·      Do you know where the Australians camped in Railaco and nearby

The answers given to these questions should determine whether the nominated battlefield site is correct or the ambush occurred in another place that can then be visited, surveyed and documented.  It is hoped that visiting and surveying this location and other commando campaign sites can be accomplished as soon as practicable after the current health crisis is over and travel restrictions are lifted.  This post will be updated once more definitive information is available.

Those visiting the location beforehand may wish to ask the aforementioned questions of local residents before attempting the walk – employing a guide before proceeding is also recommended.

REFERENCES

[1] https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/214-commando-campaign-sites-–-east-timor-liquica-district-bazar-tete/

[2] No. 2 Independent Company war diary, Item number 25/3/2/5 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1367000.

[3] https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136262775/view

[4] Baldwin’s report is included in No. 2 Independent Company war diary, Item number 25/3/2/5 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1367000.

[5] https://doublereds.org.au/history/men-of-the-22/nx/john-frederick-hartley-r181/

[6] Jack Hartley ‘… glossary of personal experiences during the time I spent with the 2/2 Commando Squadron in Timor’, copy of printed notes held in 2/2 Commando Association of Australia archives.

[7] S.A. Robinson, [Timor (1941-1942) - Sparrow Force and Lancer Force - Operations]: The Campaign in Portuguese Timor, A narrative of No 2 Independent Company.  Story prepared by Corporal S.A. Robinson, No. 5 Military History Field Team: 30-32. – Australian War Memorial file AWM54 571/4/53.

ADDITIONAL READING

Ayris, Cyril. - All the Bull's men : No. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron) / Cyril Ayris. - [Perth, W.A.] : 2/2nd Commando Association, 2006: Ch. 14 ‘The unit strikes back’, esp. 162-166.

Cleary, Paul. - The men who came out of the ground : a gripping account of Australia's first commando campaign : Timor 1942. - Sydney : Hachette Australia, 2010: 109-110.

Wigmore, Lionel. - The Japanese thrust. - Canberra : Australian War Memorial, 1957.  Ch. 21 ‘Resistance in Timor’: 466-495 (Australia in the war of 1939-1945. Series 1, Army ; v. 4): 481.

Wray, Christopher C. H. - Timor 1942 : Australian commandos at war with the Japanese. - Hawthorn, Vic. : Hutchinson Australia, 1987: 76.

 

Prepared by Ed Willis

Revised: 13 April 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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