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Commando Campaign Sites - Baucau Municipality

Edward Willis

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WWII in East Timor – A Site and Travel Guide



Situated 129 kilometres East of Dili, the Baucau Municipality covers 1,600 square kilometres and serves as a gateway for the neighbouring municipalities of Lautem, Viqueque and Manatuto.  The municipality is divided into six sub-districts: Baucau, Laga, and Vemasse on the northern coastal plain, while Venilale, Quelicai, and Baguia are located inland.

Baucau is the second largest municipality in East Timor with a population of 123,203 inhabitants recorded in the 2015 census. [1]


During the WWII period under the Portuguese colonial administration, the area now known as the Baucau Municipality is made up several northern districts of the civil circunscriçõe of Sao Domingos that extended from the north to the south coast.

Map 1 shows the area and highlights the sites (numbered) where significant events occurred during WWII.



During the WWII period under the Portuguese colonial administration, the area now known as the Baucau Municipality made up several northern districts of the civil circunscriçõe of Sao Domingos that extended from the north to the south coast.

As a precaution against Japanese retaliation for their guerrilla activities, Sparrow Force created a small reconnaissance unit, codenamed H Force, to operate in the eastern end of the island.  This detachment of ten men was commanded by Lieutenant Col Doig who led H Force to Viqueque.  From Viqueque, members of H force explored the villages, roads and paths of the eastern provinces.  They also gathered foodstuffs paid for with promissory notes to supplement the dwindling supplies held by Sparrow Force.  An urgent call from Darwin led to them recruiting 1,000 locals to gather sisal to make rope, and shortly afterwards 100 pony loads of rope were despatched to headquarters, and thence to Australia. [3]

One of H Force’s most famous exploits was the rescue of a downed and badly burned RAAF pilot, Flying Officer George Wadey, who had parachuted from his damaged Hudson bomber into an area between the Australians and Japanese.  The Timorese had taken him to Baguia for treatment by the medic at the Portuguese infirmaria located there.  In order to collect Wadey, Doig and a couple of his team undertook an epic journey, along near impassable tracks, battling uncooperative Portuguese administrators and disaffected Dutch troops.  They survived an equally hazardous return trip; Wadey survived and was later evacuated to Australia. [4]

The Japanese utilised tunnel warfare effectively during WWII.  In the island battles of the Western Pacific, they maximised their capabilities by establishing strong point defences with this tactic.  The same defensive approach was put into effect in New Guinea, New Britain, Bougainville and the islands in the Indonesian archipelago including Timor.

In September 1943, Timor was included in what has been informally called the Absolute National Defence Zone ‘as the zone in the Pacific Ocean that absolutely had to be held to ensure Japan's survival’. [5]  Consequently, Timor was strongly garrisoned by the Japanese until near the end of the war in anticipation of any allied attempt to retake it and tunnel construction was an aspect of their defensive posture.  Their Venilale tunnel complex (locally known as Gua Tuju) is the most accessible in the Baucau Municipality but reputedly they also used Timorese forced labour to build “a vast system of caves and tunnels in the [Matebian Mountains] area for their camps and arsenals and killed many people”. [6]

As the Japanese concentrated their defensive preparations at the eastern end of the island between 1943 and 1945, the region was under constant aerial attack particularly by RAAF Mitchell, Hudson, Liberator and Beaufighter squadrons.  A focus of these attacks in the Baucau municipality were the Portuguese posto towns: Vemasse, Baucau, Laga, Baguia, Calicai and Venilale – that had been garrisoned by the Japanese.  The coastal postos of Baucau and Laga that provided anchorages for transport barges and small ships were frequently bombed.  Japanese vehicles on the roads and tracks in the area were subject to strafing and rocket attacks by the ‘whispering death’ Beaufighters of No. 31 Squadron. [7]

The Japanese concentration of activity in the area also became of intelligence interest to Australian military planners.  To this end, from July 1942 until the end of the war, clandestine operations in the eastern end of the island were conducted by the Inter-Allied Services Department (ISD) and the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) using Australian, Portuguese and Timorese personnel.  These operations continued to be mounted despite the limited ‘safe space’ in the area being infiltrated, the hostile local population, and most importantly, their radio communications being compromised.  Many of the ISD and SRD operatives were killed in action, taken prisoner by the Japanese and tortured and some were executed.  SRD Operations PORTO LIZARD, PIGEON/SUNCOB, LAGARTO and COBRA all proceeded within what is now the Baucau Municipality. [8]




8° 31' 14” S., 126° 13' E

Driving eastwards from Dili after transiting through Manatuto:

“From Laleia it's 9 km to Vemasse, where the flat countryside is devoted to rice paddies.  Another long Indonesian bridge, this one with a plaque noting that it was built in 1992, leads into the town.  Vemasse has a quaint-looking church, in reds, blues and greens, close to the road.  On the hillside overlooking the village are the imposing walls of a fortress-like Portuguese construction”. [9]

Vemasse (see Map No. 26) is 20 miles (32 km.) at a bearing of 256° from Baucau.  It is on the coastal plains about 2 miles (3 km.) from the sea and on the east bank of the Vemasse River.  This locality is part of the dry region.  The north coastal motor road fords the river and runs east through the town.

Vemasse is a posto town.  The posto is 200 yards (180 m.) east of the river and south of the coastal motor road.  The houses of the town are along both sides of the coastal motor road in a row; this row begins north of the posto and runs for about 400 yards (350 m.) east, when it changes to the north side of the road and continues for another 400 yards (350 m.). [10]

Eduardo da Costa Gamboa, the Portuguese administrative aspirante in Portuguese Timor from 1935 and Chefe de Posto at Vemasse was a ‘friend of the Australians’ and after evacuation to Australia, returned and was active with SRD Operation PORTO LIZARD that established contact in Vemasse and Laleia areas in May 1943. [11]

To counter the influence of Gamboa [da Costa] and to undermine SRD operations in the area, the Japanese, using a typical tactic, attempted to switch the sympathies of the local population:

“… on 24 March 1944, SRD was informed by 'Lagarto' that 'many chiefs and natives of [VEMASSE] and neighbouring villages held a fiesta in [VEMASSE].  Two truckloads Jap officers and soldiers attended and distributed sugar, cigarettes, sarongs, etc.  They announced that they would soon attack Australia.  Utter rot”. [12]

Subsequently, Vemasse was targeted by the RAAF in late September 1944:

“Australian Mitchell medium bombers bombed and strafed a small vessel off Manatuto and left it listing and smoking.  They also scored direct hits on buildings at Vemasse.  One aircraft crashed into the sea during a strafing run”. [13]


Ruins of the Portuguese posto, Vemasse, 16 June 2010


Vemasse and vicinity [14]


Satellite view of Vemasse, February 2020 [15]

The coastline between Vemasse and Baucau was described by the Area study of Portuguese Timor as follows:

Vemasse to Baucau:

Eastwards from Vemasse for about 5 miles (8 km.) the coast is sandy with reefs inshore and coral outcrops on the sand.  Landings could be affected through the whole length of this area in calm weather.  The main north coastal road lies about 1 1/2 to 2 miles (2 1/2 to 3 km.) inland, and the vegetation is scattered clumps of casuarina along the creek beds, with low scrub and cactus interspersed with grassland.  This patch of coast is also in the dry belt and water is scarce. [16]

The road between Vemasse and Baucau was described by the Area study of Portuguese Timor as follows:

Vemasse to Baucau:

For the first 6 miles (9 1/2 km.) this road is flat and then climbs 4 miles (6 1/2 km.).  The end of this stretch continues along a flat plateau for about another 10 miles (16 km.); throughout its length it is wide and capable of taking heavy traffic (A1).  There is only one river crossing, about 4 miles (6 1/2 km.) east of Vemasse which might present difficulties.  There is fair air cover along this road, particularly towards Baucau.  Throughout its length the road is only from 1 to 5 miles (1 1/2 to 8 km.) inland from the coast.  There is no water over considerable stretches of this section. [17]

“Nine kilometres further there's a string of roadside refreshment stands where passing buses often stop to give passengers a break.  The road from here to Baucau climbs inland from the coast, running through mostly flat, dry and lightly populated countryside as it gently circles up to the forested Baucau plateau.  Here you'll find roadside fruit vendors selling carambola (star fruit)”. [18]



On 18 September 1943, the SRD LAGARTO party was located near the sea between Laleia and the Vemasse River.  The party was under constant threat from the Japanese.  On 25 September, it was certain that the Japanese knew LAGARTO's approximate whereabouts.  Sergeant Jim Ellwood signalled SRD that  the 'natives are too afraid [to] feed or hide us' and that they now had no place to go.  The Japanese drive was a 'grimly earnest business of torture and killing' and within the previous fortnight chiefs in a number of districts that 'Lagarto' had passed through had been killed.  Ellwood considered the only way LAGARTO could be saved from a 'sticky end' was by evacuation the following evening.  GHQ, SWPA, however, would not provide aircraft for such a large party.

On 29 September, near Uai Cuac, LAGARTO was surrounded by a superior force.  LAGARTO surrendered but Patricio da Luz evaded capture. [19]

The Japanese searched the Cape Bigono area and found Ellwood's diary, ciphers and signal plan.  Ellwood was charged with espionage and his interrogation began on 2 October 1943. [20]


Artist’s impression of a Japanese soldier finding Sergeant Ellwood's diary, ciphers and signal plan [21]



Salazar Plateau

This plateau is located in limestone country with, many limestone outcrops.

There is some light scrub and no grass.  [Airfield] Sites can be obtained here, but a considerable amount of work would be involved in removing the limestone outcrops.

A site which it is considered can be easily and quickly established exists 4 1/2 miles (7 km.) off the main road between Vemasse and Baucau and 10 1/2 miles (17 km.) from Baucau.  Some outcrops of limestone would have to be removed.

Dispersal can be found in adjacent jungle patches. [22]

“On 22 November, while carrying out a recce preparatory to a road blow between Manatuto and Baucau, a sub-section of No.5 Section surprised a party of Japanese officers breezing along towards Manatuto in their utility.  ‘Kit’ Carson sets the stage and Rob Whelan provides the details:

Kit: ‘The Air Force boys had requested that we have a look at the Manatuto- Baucau road for a suitable spot for them to blow it - a bridge, cutting or whatever - with the idea of steadying traffic to and from Baucau and thus delaying construction of the aerodrome the Nips were building on the Salazar Plateau”. [23]

“As you approach Baucau from Dili the big airport is 7 km before the town.  Past the airport a statue marks where the road forks: turning left takes you directly to the colonial-era Old Town, while turning right will take you first to the New Town before dropping down to the Old Town.  Down at the sea, you'll find the very attractive beach village of Osolata”. [24]

Baucau's airport is a curious anomaly.  It's much larger than the airport at Dili and capable of taking large jet aircraft.  The Portuguese built it to be Portuguese Timor's international gateway, and at that time there were regular flights from Darwin, although never with large aircraft.  During the Indonesian era it was used only for military flights, and it was used and fortified by the UN after 1999 during their peacekeeping operations.



8° 56' S., 125° 22' 48" E.

Baucau was the second town in East Timor to be settled by the Portuguese and gradually developed as an administrative centre and trade port.  Like most Portuguese settlements, it was sited with defence in mind, sitting above the sea to repel a water attack, and backed by steep cliffs as a natural barrier to incursions from the interior.  The Portuguese constructed many of the buildings in old town Baucau, of which the distinctive Mercado [market place] (1938) is the most notable.


Baucau, Portuguese Timor. 1946-01-05. The Municipal Market Built In 1938. (Photographer Sgt K. B. Davis)


Restored Baucau Mercado municipal (municipal market), 20 February 2014


“Baucau is a charming colonial town located 123km east of Dili.  The Old Town boasts a Portuguese-era mercado municipal (municipal market) and a roadside town market where pyramid-shaped piles of potatoes, neat bunches of greens and mounds of maize form a colourful patchwork on the pavement.  Head down through the market and take a left to spot the pink pousada.  A clear natural spring runs from Old Town to the swimming pool … and down through the lush ravine to the delightful palm-fringed Osolata beach.  The bland, Indonesian-built New Town (Kota Baru) is 2km from Old Town”. [25]

Though written in 1977, the following summation of the reasons for Baucau’s importance are still relevant:

“Baucau is undoubtedly the most important market place east of Dili. Its strategic position at the cross-roads of the entire transport system east of Dili is responsible for this.  Included in this area are Lautem, Los Palos (centre of livestock keeping) , Tutuala, Baguia, Quelicai, Laga, Iliomar , Lore; as well as the important market centres of the south­east coast: Uato Carbau, Uato Lari, Viqueque , and the central upland, Ossu and Venilale.  Because of this position it has become the second largest centre of settlement in Portuguese Timor after Dili, with roughly 5000 inhabitants”. [26]

Baucau [Anchorage] (Vila Salazar) (8° 28' S., 126° 28' E.) - See Map No. 23:

A place of some importance carrying on a brisk trade with the adjacent islands, is situated a short distance from the coast at a height of about 1,047 feet (320 m.).  It is the residence of a Government official.

The anchorage is in 22 fathoms (40 m.), coral.  K.P.M. ships lie off about 500 yards (450 m.).  Anchorage for boats of approximately 600 tons, about 200 yards (175 m.) offshore.

Vessels lie well here in the west monsoon.  In the east monsoon, with rough weather in the months of May and June, landings should be done in the morning.

Anchorage is with the light structure on the coast bearing 212°.  Easy to approach.

Exports were principally rice, maize, horns and sandalwood.  The shore, very steep, has no beach and a small coast reef; is suitable for landings. [27]

Baucau (see Maps Nos. 22 and 23) is 60 miles (96 km.) at a bearing of 85° E from Dilli.  It is the capital of Sao Domingos Province and about 1 mile (1 1/2 km.) inland from the north coast.  It is an important area on the north coast because it is situated at the junction of the north coastal motor road and the motor road which crosses the island and leads to Beasso on the south coast.  The town is in a narrow belt of low hills which border the northeast corner of Salazar Plain.  It is a posto town of about 13 stone houses and many native huts.  There are patches of good air cover in the vicinity of the town.  As the town is in a limestone area there are many caves which can be used as air raid shelters. [28]

RAAF Bombing of Baucau

“The RAAF made several more attacks on Maubisse that month, but it also hit targets in the eastern centres of the island, where the Japanese had been extending their reach since early October.  Baucau, the second largest centre on the island, came in for special treatment, as did Manatuto, the coastal centre between Dili and Baucau. ……

Historic Baucau, which featured many impressive stone buildings dating back to the earliest settlement by the Portuguese, came in for special treatment in the November bombing.  In one raid, the RAAF strafed the residence of the Portuguese governor, prompting an official complaint that made it all the way back to Australia.  Major-General Stevens wrote a cable stating that the Portuguese governor was now living in a large residence in the eastern side of the town, and the doctor was at the hospital with a large red cross on the roof.  These buildings were off limits, though ‘the remainder of the town was considered to be an open target’.  Aside from these two buildings, Baucau was virtually flattened by the RAAF’s bombing and strafing to the point where only four colonial buildings were left standing by the end of the war”. [29]


Baucau and anchorage [30]



8°29'7.79" S, 126°33'10.79" E

The following narrative of the misfortunes of the SRD SUNCOB operation exemplifies the difficulties the organisation had in conducting any mission effectively in what was a very hostile environment.  The two men involved did their best to avoid capture by the Japanese and in doing so covered a considerable amount of ground in the central and southern sectors of what is now the Baucau Municipality.


The SUNCOB project was designed for the relief of COBRA personnel who had been in the field since January, 1944.  The final composition of SUNCOB was Captain P.W. Wynne (leader and signaller), and Corporal J.B. Lawrence. [31]

Selecting the Seical River Drop Zone

A number of reconnaissance flights were made over the area and many photographs were taken of the valleys of the Seical, Vei Aca and Mau Vui rivers.  The results of some of the early aerial reconnaissance were relayed to COBRA in order to confirm the suitability of certain prospective alighting areas.  Although COBRA was not specifically informed of the intention to insert SUNCOB, sufficient warning of the general intention had been given.  When this news was passed to COBRA the party had already been Japanese hands for some months, but although this position was suspected, it had not been confirmed.


View over rice fields from Baucau towards Seical, with Mt Matebian in background, April 2013 [32]


A sparsely populated area on the Seical River, about eight miles south of Bacau, was selected as the most suitable DZ [Drop Zone].  This area consisted of an old paddy field of boomerang shape, each arm of which was about half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide.  The plan provided for SUNCOB to enter the area 'blind' without the knowledge of COBRA, and to reconnoitre COBRA's HQ in the Guruda area.  If COBRA were found to be free, SUNCOB was to join forces, otherwise it was to more away and act independently, if necessary being evacuated to Australia.

The Drop

The party parachuted from a Liberator of 200 flight over the assigned DZ at last light on 2 July 1945.  The descent was made from about 1500 feet above terrain and as the light had not entirely failed, Wynne is certain that the descent was seen by many natives.  This, however, was almost unavoidable due to the difficulties of piloting large aircraft over mountainous terrain at the comparatively low speed necessary for personnel dropping.

Lawrence Captured

Lawrence landed in a tree and hung in his rigging lines 25 to 30 feet above the ground, but released himself without great difficulty.  For some time he searched unsuccessfully for Wynne, spending the rest of the night in the hut of a friendly native.  On the following morning he located the storepedo containing the party's stores and, after impressing four native carriers, set out for a pre-arranged rendezvous near Guruda mountain, where he expected to meet Wynne.  Travelling by day he reached the RV [Rendezvous] at about 3.40 pm on July 3rd and waited there overnight.  As Wynne had not arrived, Lawrence set off for a second pre-arranged contact point at 7am on July 4th.  Two hours later Lawrence ran into a Japanese patrol of about eight men.  A skirmish resulted and Lawrence was captured.

Wynne On The Loose

Wynne had landed about 400 yards from the DZ, breaking through a tree and severely bruising his left leg.  Due to the rough nature of the terrain he could not see Lawrence, and the noise of the wind in the trees prevented contact being made by calling to him.  Wynne estimated, after a subsequent visit to the area, that he landed 800 yards from Lawrence.  From some time after landing, Wynne heard much excited shouting, which he attributed to natives who had witnessed the descent.  After an unsuccessful search for Lawrence, Wynne moved towards the rendezvous at Guruda travelling slowly on account of his bruised leg.  On the following day, natives posing as friends led him to a Japanese camp which was fortunately deserted.  Despite attempts by some 200 natives to detain him, Wynne made his escape, but lost all his gear except his clothing, arms, equipment, ciphers and W/T crystals.  After hiding for four hours in a water channel, he moved away to the south.

On July 4th, fearing that the Guruda area would be dangerous, he moved to the Fatu Macu area on the Baucau (Salazar) Plateau where he remained for two days.  Avoiding Japanese patrols he moved by stages through Guruda, Ue Babo, Builo and the Be Vuji valley to Hill 565, eight miles south of Guruda, arriving there at dawn on July 15th.  The natives he met en route were generally friendly and gave him food and shelter.  They had heard a rumour that an Australian had been captured in the area.

Wynne Captured

Hill 565 was a pre-arranged contact point for air searches and Wynne laid out a ground signal made of sheets of paper and strips of maps, requesting extraction.  Early on the morning of July ·15th, an aircraft crossed the area, but failed to see the signal.  He remained at this point all day and the following night.  At dawn the next morning, July 16th, he was awakened by a considerable volume of small-arms fire directed at his sleeping-place from a short range.  Barefooted, he attempted to run through the encircling force of Japanese but was brought to the ground by a large stone thrown by one of the natives accompanying the patrol - so much for Japanese marksmanship!

Lawrence Tortured And Interrogated

Lawrence, after his capture, was taken to Baucau and Lautem, where he was interrogated with torture for 16 days.  According to Wynne, the Japanese sergeant interpreter said later that he was full of admiration for Lawrence's fortitude under torture and what he called his 'strength of mind'.  After interrogation, Lawrence was moved to Dili and placed in solitary confinement until released on 1 September, 1945.

Wynne Tortured And Interrogated

Meanwhile, Wynne was taken to Baucau where he was interrogated under torture, including the application of a plaited cane horse whip across the face and bare legs and kneeling on a narrow log, a simple but very painful torture.  His interrogators seemed to have little knowledge of other SRD operations outside Timor but showed considerable curiosity concerning the base in Western Australia.  This presumably stemmed from the capture in early 1945, of two members of RIMAU party on Romang Island, after an epic voyage of escape from the Singapore area in a native sailing canoe.  They had been trained in Western Australia and had embarked in a British submarine at Fremantle.  Wynne was able to conceal his authenticator and identity checks and readily agreed to operate his W/T set if required, being confident that Darwin would thus detect the fact that he was under Japanese control.

Wynne was then taken to the DZ in the Seical Valley and was told that he was to lead a Japanese patrol over the route he had followed, for the purpose of identifying natives who had befriended him.  The Japanese were very concerned that one white man could live for so long in an area they closely controlled.  On August 6th he was taken to Dili and lodged in solitary confinement until 1st September, when he and Lawrence were released and met the other SRD prisoners.

Wynne’s Survival Techniques

It is of interest that Wynne was able to avoid capture for two weeks after his insertion by parachute, making good use of his previous experience in Timor with the No. 4 Independent Company in 1942 and 1943.  He had learned some of the native language and was able to grasp the meaning of the messages which the Timorese would yodel from hill to hill, their usual method of inter-village communication.  He would approach a village at dusk, accept food, but however friendly they were he would movie away alone into the bush, travelling by night as the natives would not leave their fires after dark and could thus be avoided.  Dogs, however, were the greatest danger. [33]


8°33'06.0"S, 126°36'06.0"E

3a. Road Baucau to Laga Turnoff to Calicai (Boa Vista):

Approximately 11 miles (18 km.) from Baucau a branch off from the main road runs south for approximately 8 miles (13 km.) to the Posto of Calicai.  The road runs up the fertile rice valley of the Mau-Fui River to the foothills at Calicai Palms and lightly grassed areas give little cover from the air. [34]

Calicai is 12 miles (19 km.) at a bearing of 124° from Baucau.  It is at the end of a spur road which branches south, from the north coast motor road.  It looks west over the valley of the Mau-Fui River.

It is a small posto town with a few stone houses and many small native villages.  The district is fairly fertile; there is much grassland and forest. [35]

To protect him from capture by the searching Japanese, Flying Officer George Wadey, the downed and badly burned Australian pilot, was moved by Lt. Pires, the supportive  Portuguese District Administrator at Bacau, from Manatuto through Baucau to Calicai where he arrived in late September 1942.  After a few days he was then moved further east by car to a safer location at Baguia. [36]

Calicai, like all the other posto towns in the region was subsequently garrisoned by the Japanese and subjected to occasional bombing and strafing raids by the RAAF.


8° 29' S., 126° 36' E

Laga is 11 miles (18 1/2 km.) at a bearing of 94° from Baucau.  It is on the right bank of the Laga River and near the river mouth.  There is an important anchorage here.  The fact that the north coastal motor road goes through the town, and that it is the junction of the inland road to Baguia, increases its military importance.

Laga is a posto town and has two posto buildings; the new one is on the east of the old one which is used for a Government office.  There are several Chinese houses, some in the main group of houses north of the posto, and some in a group on the East.  The narrow coastal strip north of the town and the strip of western river flats comprise extensive paddy fields.  There are three native villages across the Laga River west of the town. [37]


Map of Laga [38]


“On the coast highway, 19 km east of Baucau, is Laga, a peaceful little town with a small market from which a road leads down to a pleasant pebbly beach about 1km away.  The land here is largely flat with virescent rice fields stretching to the horizon.

The town’s crumbling old Portuguese fort tops a low hill just south of the main road.  The square fort has round towers at two of its corners, and there are fine views from the battlements north over the town and church towards the coast, and south across the river and rice paddies to the central mountains.  Salt is gathered from lakes near the town.

The town’s pale blue church is fronted by a big ceramic panel illustrating smiling Timorese getting their introduction to Christianity from a Portuguese friar.  Across the road there’s an interesting collection of bas-reliefs and brightly coloured statues with more religious messages.  Look for a large orphanage run by the Silesian Sisters just east of town.  The turn-off to Baguia is just past the church”. [39]

Laga’s importance as an anchorage meant that from time-to-time it was attacked by the RAAF:

“Buildings were demolished and large fires started when RAAF Hudsons and Beaufighters made a heavy attack on Laga village on the north-east coast of Japanese-occupied Timor on Saturday morning.  ….

It was the first time that Laga had been raided.  [The] only enemy activity was light machine-gun fire from the ground.

… the Hudsons attacked first.  They were followed by a formation of Beaufighters, which strafed the target area, and pilots reported that the earlier attack had been successful.

Another Beaufighter formation followed later.  It attacked and riddled barges, stores and equipment near the shore.

During the whole operation few enemy personnel were seen”. [40]

“Our medium units [Mitchell or Hudson bombers] bombed and machine-gunned enemy positions at Laga". [41]


8°37'40"S, 126°39'41"E

Road Laga to Baguia:

This is a second class road in fair condition and capable, with a little improving, of carrying M.T. in all weather.  The distance is about 25 miles (40 km.) across very rugged country.  There are three bridges, but they would not make an effective roadblock as they are very small.  For the first 15 miles (24 km.) the road follows the valley of the Laga River.  The country here is heavily timbered and the undergrowth fairly dense, but the remainder of the road over smaller hills is surrounded with sparsely timbered country.  There is much rice grown along the route, particularly at the big village of Camalete, 8 miles (13 km.) from Baguia. [42]

The Lonely Planet Guide provides an updated version of the same journey:

“An interesting side trip can be made south of Laga to the small town of Baguia, 38 km up into the hills. Obscure and unique languages are spoken in this area, and can vary from one slope of a mountain to another.  Indonesian and Tetum are widely spoken, but very little English is.  At first the sealed road is in OK condition as it climbs steadily away from the coast.  But as the road climbs and dips, the remaining 26 km are in the typically rural condition that history buffs will compare to 1916 Verdun.

The dry northern hills are scattered with the occasional traditional village, and small cemeteries with white crosses dot the hills – not an uncommon sight in East Timor.  About halfway along, the road crosses the northern mountain range and the countryside becomes much greener and lusher as you approach Mt Matebian, which towers over the area.

Two kilometres before Baguia are the ruins of the Escola do Reino de Haudere.  Only the walls remain of this impressive Portuguese school, which fell into disrepair and disuse after WWII”. [43]


Escola do Reino de Haudere, December 19, 2006 [44]


Baguia is 17 1/2 miles (28 km.) at a bearing of 129° from Baucau.  It is situated on a hilltop on the east flank of the Mata-Bia Range (over 7,000 feet: 2,100 m.), which runs north/south across the back of Timor in the east part of Sao Domingos Province.  Baguia, at an elevation of 1,400 feet (425 m.) overlooks the upper valleys of the Seli-Bere River.

It is a posto and market town.  The high posto wall includes the secretary's office and barracks.  North of the posto there is a new Roman Catholic church (partly constructed) near the old one and a rest house nearby.  South of the posto are market shed, stable, coolie barracks, hospital, storehouse and school.  The posto is surrounded by a garden; there are coconut plantations to the North and South. [45]


The Commander’s house, Baguia, 1935 [46]


The Lonely Planet Guide provides an updated description of the town:

“Baguia itself is a diminutive, relaxed hill town with a small Portuguese fort built in 1915.  The walls are reasonably intact and inside is an old villa, occupied by the UN police force.  You can walk along the walls and climb the corner turret that was once used as a prison.

At the top end of town the baby-blue church features a Christ-and-child statue perched atop the church tower.  The name Baguia is derived from the Portuguese for ‘under the cave’, and the large rock outcrop overlooking the town is said to contain caves.  Other than checking out the sites, there’s little to keep you here”. [47]

The Japanese established a comfort women station in Baguia and this is a good  indication that a substantial number of its troops were stationed in the area. [48]

“In Baguia in 2014, senior men recalled the harshness of Japanese occupation and working in construction gangs.  They built roads from Baguia Villa to Hae Coni, Osso Huna and Afaloicai village, and Uatolari and Uatocarbau villages in neighbouring Viqueque District.

During this time ... we did not use tractors and cars but only crowbar and machetes to make the roads.  The width of the road we built was determined by the width of the car ...  In the Japanese period, when people did not do the work they were ordered to do, the Japanese would hit them with a wooden stick until the Timorese people almost died ...  During the Japanese period, Timorese people were still continuing with their culture as usual ... we as men were wearing a loincloth, as there were no shirts and pants to wear, we just used a loin-cloth and a piece of handwoven cloth ...  Also women used female and man’s cloth as clothing until they rotted.  The cotton used to make these tais was grown before the Japanese came.

In addition to memories of hardship and scarcity under Japanese occupation, recollections of the introduction of weapons, predominantly machetes, remain in Baguia.  One style of sword known as the samurai was, in 2014, a reminder of the Japanese occupation.  The introduction of metal drinking flasks and aluminium cooking posts was also associated with this period. [49]

The Portuguese infirmaria [hospital] at Baguia was the final eastern refuge of the downed Australian pilot Flying Officer S.G. Wadey.  He was retrieved by car from there by a small party led by Lt. Col Doig and returned in a perilous road journey to Ossu and subsequently evacuated to Australia. [50]


8°35′S, 126°22′E


Venilale looking northwest (17/11/42) [51]


Road 5 - Baucau to Venilale:

Distance 16 miles (26 km.).  Suitable for M.T. in all weather.  This constructed road is B1 (two streams, occasional passing, heavy traffic).  Mainly flat, no steep grades.  There is poor air cover in places; the surrounding country is open forest and cultivation and grassland.  Approaching Venilale the air cover is better.  The road itself traverses the eastern end of the Salazar Plateau. [52]

Metzner describes the terrain conditions and the circumstances under which the road was built by the Portuguese in the 1920s and its similar strategic importance to the Japanese during the occupation period:

“The wildness of the terrain and the high degree of erodibility of the soil which has been aggravated by human action, have rendered highway construction on Timor extremely difficult.  This is particularly so in our area owing to the high percentage of heavy clay soil derived from Bobonaro Scaly Clay, which is very liable to slumping.

It is therefore all the more astonishing that one of the few roads linking the north coast with the south coast was laid through the Area in the 1920s ...  This road was built primarily for military purposes (with statute labour by local population) enabling the colonial administration to transfer troops quickly to the newly pacified interior when necessary.  It links Baucau with Venilale , Ossu, Viqueque and Be Aco [Beaco]; the road was later extended to Uato Lari.  Today it is still the main link between Baucau and the south coast.  Small extensions were built under Japanese occupation, 1942-45; e.g. between Ossu and Uato Lari via the suco of Ossoroa.  These roads were built under forced labour conditions by the Timorese.  Their purpose was to enable the Japanese to gain better access to the south coast, from which they expected an invasion of the Allied Forces”. [53]

The road today is in poor condition but is due to be upgraded during the period 2020-2022. [54]

Venilale (see Photo No. 84 and Map No. 26) is 18 miles (29 km.) at a bearing of 205° from Baucau.  It looks west over the valley of the River Vemasse, and the north/south motor road from Baucau passes through it.

It is a small posto town with the usual administrative buildings and barracks standing back from the road.  There are about 12 stone houses and many small native villages.  A fair quantity of maize is grown in the area.  The vegetation is often forest and grass.  The surrounding country is very mountainous. [55]


Venilale township map [56]



S 08°37', E 126°23'

An important WWII site just north of the Venilale township are the Japanese Caves, locally known as Gua Tuju near Uma-Ana-Ulu village.

Locating a key defensive and storage base at Venilale, roughly mid-way on the strategically important island straddling road between Baucau and Viqueque makes sense.  Personnel and stores were secure from aerial bombing until any threat was evident and then they could have been diverted in the required direction – north, south or further east.  The tunnels would have become a strong defence point in the event the battle became localised.

The tunnels extend 20 metres into the hill side and are all interconnected with cross tunnels, five meters in from the entrances.  The cross tunnels may well have been for direct access to other entrances, but they also provided shelter from aerial attack.

“[The caves were] used as storage space for various military equipment such as bombs, hand guns and pistols.  [They were] carved and dug in 1942 and was used for the next 3 years (until the end of WWII) … through forced labour under the order of the Japanese military”. [57]


Entrance to one of the Japanese caves, 16 June 2010

A darker extension to this narrative of how the tunnels were built has been provided by Adriano de Almeida Gominho, “ex-administrador de Aileu-Timor” in his historical novel O tesouro de Yamashita [The treasure of Yamashita].  This factually-based novel describes the construction of the tunnels as being largely completed during November 1942 using three different teams of 20-30 Timorese labourers recruited from Ossu and Ossualata under the false promise of being paid for their work.  A Japanese Army engineer was in charge of the works and the labourers worked under the supervision of a Timorese foreman.  The officer in charge was under heavy pressure to complete the project in a timely fashion.  When the labourers became exhausted by the heavy work they were taken by truck to Taci-Tolu near Dili, summarily shot and their bodies buried there.  A replacement team with a new foreman was then recruited. [58]

The tunnels were not cleared of their deadly contents at the end of the war: 

“On 10 March 1954, the Australian Consul had visited Japanese war-time storage caves south of Venilale containing small arms ammunition and mortar bombs and reported that the Portuguese authorities were ‘indifferent to these stocks of ammunition’ that were being traded by ‘Arabs in Dili’ to visiting Indonesian copra boats”. [59]

NOTE: This post is a draft chapter of a proposed publication: ‘WWII in East Timor – an Australian Army site and travel guide’ that is the subject of a current application for an Army History Research Grant.


[1] Wall Chart : 2015 Timor-Leste Population and Housing Census – Data Sheet http://www.statistics.gov.tl/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Wall-Chart-Poster-Landscape-Final-English-rev.pdf.

[2] Map derived from Area study of Portuguese Timor / Allied Geographical Section, South West Pacific Area. - [Brisbane] : The Section, 1943. – (Terrain study (Allied Forces. South West Pacific Area. Allied Geographical Section) ; no. 50.) : Map 33.

[3] Brad Manera ‘"H" detachment Sparrow Force at Viqueque, 1942’ Wartime 17, Summer 2002: 56.

[4] Ed Willis ‘The Sid Wadey Story – Rescued on Timor’ - https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/207-the-sid-wadey-story-–-rescued-on-timor/

[5] Hiroyuki Shindo ‘The Japanese Army's search for a new South Pacific strategy, 1943’ in Australia 1943: the liberation of New Guinea / edited by Peter J. Dean. – Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2014: 82.

[6] https://visiteasttimor.com/matebian/; the Matebian Mountains area will be investigated and documented in a forthcoming site survey.  Note that the SRD was also alert to potential military use of caves on Timor ‘The extensive limestone caves throughout islands of the Lesser Sundas were proposed as hideouts and storage sites – see NAA: A3269, R20 for maps of limestone caves in Timor.  In Portuguese Timor, the principal area of caves was in the far southeast of the island – in the Mount Paixão region of Lautem.  The map data also indicates limestone caves at Ossu, Quelicai, Matebian, Uatolari, from Baucau south to Venilale, around Viqueque town, and a few areas in Cova Lima and Bobonaro’.  (Ernest Chamberlain. - Forgotten men: Timorese in Special Operations during World War II. – Port Lonsdale, Vic.: The Author, 2010: 14).

[7] Mark Johnston. - Whispering death: Australian airmen in the Pacific war. – Crow’s Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2011.

[8] On SRD operations in Portuguese Timor, see for e.g. Chamberlain. - Forgotten men.

[9] Timor-Leste (East Timor) / [written and researched by Rodney Cocks]. – 3rd ed. - Footscray, Vic. : Lonely Planet Publications, 2011: 60-61.

[10] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 32.

[11] Chamberlain. - Forgotten men: Annex A, 29.

[12] Quoted in Lithgow, Shirley. - Special operations : the organisations of the Special Operations Executive in Australia and their operations against the Japanese during the Second World War. – Canberra : University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, History, 1992.  Master’s Thesis: 158; on Japanese counterinsurgency tactics, see Vivian Blaxell ‘Seized Hearts: “Soft” Japanese counterinsurgency before 1945 and its persistent legacies in Postwar Malaya, South Vietnam and beyond’ The Asia-Pacific Journal|Japan Focus 18 (6, 2) March 06, 2020: 1-19.

[13] ‘Nothing left of town now’ Border Morning Mail (Albury, NSW: 1938 - 1946), Tuesday 26 September 1944: 6.  Note, the Mitchell bomber crashed off Manatuto not Vemasse.

[14] Area study of Portuguese Timor: Map 25.

[15] https://satellites.pro/Vemasse_map.East_Timor

[16] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 33.

[17] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 38.

[18] Lonely Planet Timor-Leste (East Timor): 61.

[19] Pat J. da Luz ‘Letter’ Courier October 1981: 3.

[20] Lithgow Special operations: 135-136.

[21] John Laffin. – Special and secret. – Sydney: Time-Life Books Australia, 1990: 93-94.

[22] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 2.

[23] G.E. Lambert - Commando, from Tidal River to Tarakan : the story of the No. 4 Australian Independent Company AIF later known as 2/4th Australian Commando Squadron AIF, 1941-45. - Loftus, N.S.W. : Australian Military History Publications, 1997: 156.  Note, this airfield was never completed by the Japanese, but the location was later used by the Portuguese for this purpose – see entry 11 following.

[24] Lonely Planet Timor-Leste (East Timor): 61.

[25] Lonely Planet Timor-Leste (East Timor): 62.

[26] Joachim K. Metzner. - Man and environment in Eastern Timor: a geoecological analysis of the Baucau-Viqueque Area as a possible basis for regional planning. – Canberra: Australian National University, 1977. - (Australian National University. Development Studies Centre. Monograph Series; no. 8): 213.

[27] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 11-12.

[28] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 30-31.

[29] Paul Cleary. - The men who came out of the ground : a gripping account of Australia's first commando campaign : Timor 1942. - Sydney : Hachette Australia, 2010: 248-249.

[30] Area study of Portuguese Timor: maps 22 and 23.

[31] Captain P.W. Wynne was a former member of the No. 4 Independent Company while Corporal J.B. (Barry, Blossom or Bloss) Lawrence was a former member of No. 2 Independent Company.

[32] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:View_over_ricefields_towards_Seical,_with_Mt_Matebian_in_background_13_Apr_2013.jpg

[33] This section has been adapted from: Jack Hartley ‘SUNCOB’ Courier October 1994: 13-15 https://doublereds.org.au/couriers/1994/Courier%20October%201994.pdf.

[34] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 39.

[35] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 31.

[36] Ed Willis ‘The Sid Wadey Story – Rescued on Timor’ - https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/207-the-sid-wadey-story-–-rescued-on-timor/

[37] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 31.

[38] Area study of Portuguese Timor: maps 24.

[39] Lonely Planet Timor-Leste (East Timor): 66.

[40] ‘New target in NE Timor’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld.: 1933 - 1954), Tuesday 29 December 1942: 3.

[41] ‘Widespread air attacks by Allies’ Mercury (Hobart, Tas.: 1860 - 1954), Saturday 16 January 1943: 2.

[42] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 39.

[43] Joanna Barrkman. - Return to Baguia: an ethnographic museum collection on the edge of living memory. - A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The Australian National University, September 2017: 57.

[44] Lonely Planet Timor-Leste (East Timor): 66-67.

[45] https://www.flickr.com/photos/pepitosousa/327073557

[46] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 31.

[47] Barrkman. - Return to Baguia: 57.

[47] Lonely Planet Timor-Leste (East Timor): 67.

[48] Vera Mackie ‘Gender, geopolitics and gaps in the records: women glimpsed in the military archives’ in Sources and methods in histories of colonialism : approaching the imperial archive / edited by Kirsty Reid and Fiona Paisley. - London: Routledge, 2017: 135-159.

[49] Barrkman. - Return to Baguia: 62.

[50] Willis ‘The Sid Wadey Story – Rescued On Timor’

[51] Area study of Portuguese Timor: Photograph 84.

[52] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 40.

[53] Metzner, Man and environment in Eastern Timor: 38.

[54] Timor-Leste: Baucau to Viqueque Highway Project https://www.adb.org/projects/51115-001/main

[55] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 31.

[56] Area study of Portuguese Timor: Map 26.

[57] See http://fatinhistorico.org/?p=86 and https://vimeo.com/27761677.

[58] Adriano de Almeida Gominho. - O tesouro de Yamashita. – Lisbon: Neolivros, 2006: 31-32.

[59] Report quoted in Chamberlain, Ernest. - Faltering steps : independence movements in East Timor - 1940s to the early 1970s. - Point Lonsdale, Vic. : Ernest Chamberlain, 2007: 29.


Prepared by Ed Willis

Revised 4 July 2020

















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