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Edward Willis

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It is the 79th anniversary of the Japanese assault on Dili (February 19-20 1942) that began the almost year long Australian commando campaign against the occupying enemy in, then, Portuguese Timor.

The earliest account of the history of the campaign was written by Bernard Callinan and titled Independent Company and published in October 1953.  The book was reprinted in 1984 and is widely regarded as one of the best of the personal WWII campaign histories genre.

Back in 1966 he gave an insightful address to engineering undergraduates at the University of Melbourne (his alma mater) in which he explained how the book came to be written.  Callinan developed several ‘threads’ in his explanation with the primary one being ‘therapy’ in reaction to ‘the strain of waging a war against an always greatly superior enemy, and of being dependent for our existence upon a large all-pervading population’.  He states that ‘We learnt to live with the strain, but there was a pronounced reaction when we were brought back to Australia’.

He goes on to say: ‘Another strand for the thread lies in our success.  We had been successful.  MacArthur and others had told us so, but much more we knew it; and we knew we had been successful where others had failed - in fact where all others had failed.  No other allied troops between the Philippines, Burma, Malaya and Java had met the enemy and survived.  We had killed some fifteen hundred enemy for our own loss of less than fifty but, very much more importantly, throughout it all we had remained a cohesive, aggressive fighting force’.

‘Another strand was the desire to get accuracy to the story.  I think I am not unusual because I find the part truth difficult to deal with and trying to the patience.  This story was front page news when it was released from censorship, many versions sprang up and the emphases were sometimes on the wrong aspects.  I wanted to record my version of the true story’.

And finally this tribute: ‘After the Japanese landed there were a few weeks of doubt, but from then on, the Timorese became our supporters and loyal friends.  They looked after our wounded, they buried our dead, they fed and housed us’.  Over the months I moved, often unaccompanied, along our 60 mile front and I never hesitated to walk into a strange village, ask them to feed me and then lie down and sleep amongst them in a hut.  They could have cut my throat without hindrance if they had wished’.

Bernard Callinan was a Captain and second in command of the No. 2 Independent Company on their arrival in Timor and subsequently took over as Officer Commanding in May 1942 with the rank of Major.  In November 1942 he was given command of Sparrow Force at the time it was renamed Lancer Force after being reinforced by the No. 4 Independent Company.

Callinan was a peripatetic commander and travelled frequently and extensively visiting the dispersed locations occupied by the Australians.  The book reveals that he was an acute observer of the people, terrain and localities over which the campaign was conducted and recorded what he saw with considerable insight and self-deprecating humour.  Given Timor’s underdevelopment, especially away from Dili, many of the scenes he describes in his book are still recognisable today.


Talk To Fourth Year Electrical And Chemical Engineering Under-Graduates


Bernard Callinan


Introduced by professor C.E. Moorhouse, D.Eng. and E.D. Howells, M.E.E.


Dust jacket of the 1st edition of 'Independent Company' [Thank you to Craig Westerndorf for sending this to me - EW]

As I grew up, I heard many ‘old sayings’ from the only one of my grandparents to survive my birth.  A very strong charactered old lady who had been widowed early in life, but not lost either her spirit or kindly nature; she had many such sayings which were produced just as often to protect me from just punishments as to point a lesson to me.

The saying that comes to mind is ‘A task begun if half done’; it is particularly applicable when the task is a difficult one.  I have such a task today and I had one in the writing of Independent Company as you will learn.  But now I have to talk to you on a subject in which you probably have little interest and, more probably, will never know much about.

Professor Moorhouse has been mentioning such a talk to me for years; for so long that I was afraid it might lead us to having to avoid each other to reduce embarrassment to reasonable proportions.

There was a time when he said he would prescribe it to be read.  I agreed with this proposal ostensibly because of the suggestion that it would be good for the readers, but actually because it might encourage the publishers to bring out another edition, which would enable me to direct potential borrowers away from my bookshelves to the book stores.

Professor Moorhouse has said that a primary reason in asking me to give this talk was to get, from someone who happened to have passed through this school, an answer to the recurring question ‘why do people write books?’.

I think also he may have had in mind showing you someone who once flogged his way through the school and to encourage you with the thought that ‘if he could do it anyone of you can’.

He may be more kind in his phraseology, but whether this be Professor Moorhouse's reason or not I shall be happier about the strain he has put upon me.  If just one of you does get the little extra encouragement needed to produce a book - and I specifically exclude text books from my hope.  Text books are only an occupational hazard these days.

Whatever may have been his reason, time has gone by until the original and sundry other publishers have all said the matter is dead; and all I have is the self-flattery which comes from buying second-hand, at more than the original price, whatever copies I can get hold of to replace the copies borrowed, always of course with the most earnest promises to return.

Recently one second-hand book seller telephone to say that he has a rather battered copy which would cost me thirty shillings, about fifty per centum more than the original price.  When I expostulated at such extortion, he said he was sorry, but he had had to pay a lot for it because it was autographed by the author.

Time having removed all taint of sordid finance from anything I may say to you I can address myself objectively to the subject given me, ‘Why I Wrote Independent Company’? - as bald and brash a title for a talk as ever there was.

Even the title of the book Independent Company does not help me; it was not a good one at the time and now with ‘take overs’ and company conspiracies many would expect a financial treatise.  I selected it as a second choice, the first having appeared on another book a month or two earlier: there is some consolation in the realisation that the first choice would have been worse.

Independent Company was selected because when we went to Timor, we were Number Two Independent Company, but when it came back the unit became the 2/2 Australian Commando Squadron.  We thought that the word ‘commando’ had a boastful ring about it, and we preferred the subtle anonymity of ‘Independent Company’ and, in its original conception, the title had been intended to be anonymous.

The first two ‘Independent Companies’ were formed and trained in great secrecy under 104 British Military Mission on Wilson's Promontory, which was given the title of Number 7 Australian Infantry Training Centre.  When questioned on the selection of this title for such a Special training project, one of the leaders of the mission replied that he understood there were at the time, only five infantry training centres in Australia so he thought that the enemy would spend so much time looking for Number Six that they might never find Number Seven.

It is interesting that, a little later, Radio Berlin did make an announcement about the special troops Australia was training on Wilson's Promontory, and went on to comment upon how ineffective they were likely to be if they ever did see any action.

The Companies were formed and trained to be independent, they had their own medical officer and section, their own signals and engineer sections, and a much higher than normal proportion of officers and non-commissioned officers.  The total strength of a company was something less than three hundred.  Every man was expected to be thoroughly trained in his own arm of the service and to be a volunteer for special service before entering on the special training.  It was expected that the companies would have to act without the close support of normal army services and were organised, trained and equipped accordingly.  As it turned out, we had thrust upon us an independence beyond anything envisaged.

So, having been trained for independence and having fought quite independently of Australia and of the rest of the allies for some months, we had a fondness for the word ‘independent’.  But I was wrong to select ‘Independent Company’ for the title, I presumed too much, I should have based the title on ‘Timor’ not on ‘Independent’.

As I attempt to deal with the subject given me, I shall have to gather strands together and if you are patient - and understanding - there may be a thread to be recognised at the end.

I do not think I can avoid spending a lot of time in the first person singular in this talk, and all I can do is to repeat another old saying ‘it hurts me more than it hurts you’; but you may accord this the same doubt as I used to.

I recall a remark of another Bernard with the surname Shaw, who replied when the actress Ellen Terry asked if he would agree to the publication of their exchange of love letters, ‘if you don't mind undressing in public, I do’.  I had this awful feeling of revealing myself for all to see just as Independent Company appeared in the book stores, and I have a similar feeling today.  However, having braved the earlier exposure I shall have to hope for similar good treatment this time.

I wrote the story of the Australians in Portuguese Timor as I interpreted it because I had to.  It was only recently when 20th Century Fox were wondering whether they could do something with the story that a word was applied to its writing which surprised me, but I think it was apt, the word was ‘therapy’.  If one word could describe the main reason for its writing this would be it.

In 1943 I came back from twelve months of continuous warfare with its quiet times and its times of intense excitement; but there had been no boredom, because there had always been the strain of waging a war against an always greatly superior enemy, and of being dependent for our existence upon a large all-pervading population.

I have said ‘waging a war against’ because this had been a dominant characteristic of the whole campaign, a small inadequate force protecting itself by attacking the much stronger enemy.

The strain of such a campaign was with us continually; even in what might be called rear areas there was little real relaxation.  I might give you an idea of how life passed for us if I tell you that I put nights into three classes:

The usual ones - when you slept fully clothed with your weapon right alongside you.

The good ones - when you took your boots of.

The heavenly ones - when you took off everything with a reasonable hope that there would be no disturbance.

For months on end we all ‘stood-to’ for an hour before dawn.  As the bush or tree that you had seen moving and signalling to the unseen enemy became immobilised by the early shafts of light, and the jagged silhouette on the skyline turned into mountains again, you got that reaction which just sapped a little more of your reserves.

We learnt to live with the strain, but there was a pronounced reaction when we were brought back to Australia.  One very fine young officer who had done magnificent work there went completely off his head and was taken south in a straight-jacket. [?] My trouble was to get clear of the continuous circus of events which kept running around my mind.  I shall come back to this strand again a little later.

[?] Lieutenant John Rose, Signals Section

Other strands are to be found in the factors which dominated the campaign, and I shall endeavour to put these succinctly to you.

This island stretching east and west for about three hundred miles has a north-south width of only about thirty or forty miles and yet it rises to ten thousand feet in a confused tangle of spurs and ridges.  The near presence of the large Australian land mass effects the climate so there is little jungle, but there were areas of friendly eucalyptus to help us in our struggle.

The eastern half of the island - as well as a small enclave in the west - has been Portuguese for more than 400 years.  We passed through and occupied small towns which have known Europeans for more than twice as long as this city.

There is a heavy population of about half a million Timorese in the Portuguese part, a bright happy mixed Melanesian-Polynesian race of medium height who, in their agricultural pursuits, had cleared large parts of the mountains; so we could stand on a ridge and see friends or foes across the valley and yet know that there was a separation of ten or more hours of intense physical effort.

After the Japanese landed there were a few weeks of doubt, but from then on, the Timorese became our supporters and loyal friends.  They looked after our wounded, they buried our dead, they fed and housed us.

Over the months I moved, often unaccompanied, along our 60 mile front and I never hesitated to walk into a strange village, ask them to feed me and then lie down and sleep amongst them in a hut.  They could have cut my throat without hindrance if they had wished.


Bernard Callinan on Timor - photograph by Damien Parer

They fed us with whatever they had to spare from their own food, maize, rice, bananas, pigs, goats and occasionally water buffalo.  After our stomachs had shrunk to match the quantity we could get, we did not feel that we were faring badly for food.  But in fact, we were not far above subsistence level, and certainly not at what would normally be considered adequate or balanced enough for continuous fighting.  We learnt to drive ourselves continually to meet the physical demands; I considered myself fit and well at eight stone.

The young Timorese lads vied amongst themselves to become criados to the Australians; that was to go wherever his soldier friend went, accept whatever the war might send, to carry the personal belongings leaving the soldier free to concentrate upon the use of his weapons.  As soon as the action started the criado disappeared to re-appear almost mysteriously alongside his soldier as soon as the engagement was over.

Between the Timorese and us grew up a respect and liking that has become deeper with us as the years go by and, I am told, has become legendary with them.  Portugal did not enter into World War II, so we and the Japanese fought in what was ‘neutral territory’.

We exchanged notes with the enemy through the Portuguese administration; the Japanese Commander sent his compliments at the same time as he sent an invitation to a rather unequal contest.  We exchanged courtesies with the Portuguese, and we learnt to respect and to admire them; not one of us has anything but undiluted gratitude to them and respect for their high standards of honour.  Most of the Portuguese were government officials and had onerous responsibilities under these conditions to their post and to their fellow country people; they carried these responsibilities nobly and we would not have survived if they had not helped us.  Many of the Portuguese risked death and some died horribly for us.

Here is not the place to elaborate on what I am sure is surprising to you about the Portuguese as it was surprising to us when we met and had dealings with them.  I shall say only that, of all those who have carried European civilisation to the east, the Portuguese have by far the most successful record.  The Portuguese and Timorese strands in the thread are attractive and strong.

Then there was the steady courage of the Australians - mainly from Western Australia - which changed our role from one of survival to that of the hunter.  Our patrols were always probing the enemy and attacking whenever possible.  We had a rough rule, if the enemy is only three times your strength attack immediately, if he is stronger attack if you possibly can.

There was one over-riding consideration in our tactical decisions too many wounded men would render us immobile - we could have only the fighting and the dead.  The Japanese had this problem to, and they dealt with it logically - they shot their own wounded.  We had three badly wounded men whom we guarded and carried over the mountains for three months before we could evacuate them to Australia.

We had sufficient ammunition because we had gone well supplied, and we had supplemented our own with some that we removed from the dump of the surrendered force in Dutch Timor before the enemy could get to it.

When we did establish communications with Australia, we asked for some supplies to be dropped to us from the air; and what we asked for was significant - boots to permit us to remain mobile over those rocky mountains; quinine to alleviate the chronic malaria that afflicted us; and money to pay our Timorese friends for all that they had given us and for what we would need to maintain the fight.

Another strand for the thread lies in our success.  We had been successful.  MacArthur and others had told us so, but much more we knew it; and we knew we had been successful where others had failed - in fact where all others had failed.  No other allied troops between the Philippines, Burma, Malaya and Java had met the enemy and survived.  We had killed some fifteen hundred enemy for our own loss of less than fifty but, very much more importantly, throughout it all we had remained a cohesive, aggressive fighting force.

Not even then did we think that we would have done better than those who fought in those other areas, and I do not suggest it now.  But we were proud of the Japanese statement in one of their demands for our surrender ‘you alone do not surrender’; and when I returned to Australia I was told by responsible men that the knowledge, in a time of surrender after surrender, that there was a small force still fighting in Timor had given national morale in Australia a significant uplift.  Leaving this as a simple statement without the many qualifications it would require it did strengthen my desire to set the story down.

It is easier to tell of success particularly if you are part of it; but this aspect also increased the risks which could come from exposing oneself to the public.

Another strand was the desire to get accuracy to the story.  I think I am not unusual because I find the part truth difficult to deal with and trying to the patience.  This story was front page news when it was released from censorship, many versions sprang up and the emphases were sometimes on the wrong aspects.  I wanted to record my version of the true story.

I should confess also that there was some personal interest in the pursuit of accuracy.  I had been in positions which called for decisions, I had helped with some and made others.  Some - not all had been good; some, I still think, were original in their concept and I wanted to record the decisions and the circumstances in which they were made. As in many other parts of life - the initial piece of insight is often forgotten in talking of the acts which flow from it.  You can place your own evaluation on this strand.

I would add that following some visits in recent years to Vietnam I have taken, after twenty years, a renewed interest in guerrilla warfare.  I have read Mau Tse Tung, Che Guevarra of Cuba and Giap of North Vietnam.  Each has assembled thoughts on guerrilla warfare in a more orderly fashion than we ever did.  Except for their overriding aim of eventual political action they have nothing we did not know and practice; and looking back, if we had not been withdrawn, we would probably have had to depart from our pure militarist approach; the Japanese had already done so.  There was one significant difference between us, and the guerrilla forces these masters write about; they rely greatly upon the guerrilla being personally indistinguishable from the surrounding population; we were always distinguishable and proudly so.

I have given you the main strands which went to form the thread, but there are a few more and these will be revealed if I tell you how the story became a book.

Towards the end of 1943 I was commanding an infantry battalion in what was then Dutch New Guinea and is now West Irian.  We were at Merauke on the south coast in what is one of the largest swamps in the world, rivalling that of the Amazon.  There was some fighting, but it was mainly in the air or between patrols which bumped into each other as they struggled through hundreds of miles of swamp.

Apart from occasional visits of inspection to out-lying posts, my tasks were mainly administrative, and so the story of Timor could still go round and round in my mind like circus ponies.  Then I started to write the story in pencil on sheets supplied for letter writing purposes.  These I sent to my wife for typing - the task had been begun.

It has always seemed significant to me that I did not start to write at the beginning of the story; I started in the middle because this was the part which was always foremost in my mind.  If I had not started there, I would never have written the story at all - once I had this out of my mind the other parts grew around it and I gradually wrote both ways from this central part - the beginning had indeed been half the task.

What was it I wrote about first - and why?  It was the ‘August Show’.  In August 1942 the Japanese determined to remove this enemy which had annoyed them for six months, killed about a thousand and had rallied behind them the population both Portuguese and natives.  They collected the necessary forces and drove at us with five lines of attack, two from the north, two from the west and one landed from the sea, came from the south behind us and overall was their air force.  This we held off - but only just - we survived and followed the Japanese back to their bases.

There was much courage and fateful decisions were made in those ten days and it would take too long to deal with them now, but those days were coursing through my mind then and for years after: they are often not far below the surface even now.  This, first of all, I must get off my mind.

Over the months the story grew into a typescript and I gave it the title ‘False Crests’ because as we crossed and re-crossed the tangled mountains which reach ten thousand feet, we were led on to heartbreak by the ‘false crests’.  With near exhaustion as a constant companion it was a test of mind and character to struggle on time after time reaching what ‘must be the top’.  This crossing and re-crossing of tangled mountain spurs was a physical strain, but an even greater mental strain.

The typescript was read by Major Stuart Love about whom I must tell you a little.  A one time under-graduate of this University he went to England about the turn of the century to study mining engineering.  In addition to following his profession in sundry parts of the world, he had led an expedition through Arnhem Land in 1910, served with the Royal Engineers in France in World War 1 and had been decorated with the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, Croix de Guerre avec palme, and was three times mentioned in despatches.  He had also Studied Renaissance art in Florence and could lecture interestingly and informatively on it; he was a recognised Chaucer authority and had written poetry in English, French and Spanish.

Stuart Love had helped to train us at Wilson’s Promontory and, strange as it may seem, his contribution had been not so much towards toughening us mentally or physically as in showing us a fine understanding approach to men and particularly to natives.  His contribution to our training played quite a significant part in building up and maintaining the loyalty of the Timorese to us - without this we would have perished.

Stuart Love had followed the Timor story with deep insight and interest; he saw applied successfully the principles inculcated whilst we were training under him.  He wanted to know the story as fully as it could be told, and my version was the only one there was.

Now, we move on almost ten years to 1952, and in those intervening years, Stuart Love had pressed me from time to time to ‘do something about that story’, but the pressures of re-establishing a professional practice, of coping with an increasing family and, what I did not realise at the time, of recovering from six years of war, did not give me many opportunities.

Then one day Stuart told me that he had arranged through a friend to get a copy of the typescript for himself if I would agree to it being re-typed.  I agreed without hesitation; possibly with the hope that the requests ‘to do something’ would now cease.  I did not take note of who the friend was; I was told, but it did not register with me.

Later that year Stuart told me that his friend had returned from his long trip back to England, but the re-typing had not been completed as they had hoped; however, his friend had read parts of it that were lying about, and he thought that it should be published.

I then realised that the friend was Nevil Norway, an aeronautical engineer, who has left a partial autobiography with the title Slide rule.  Norway wrote books under his two first names of Nevil Shute, of these you have probably heard.  The rest of my path to publication could be described briefly by saying that Nevil Norway was at that time Heinemann's best selling author, and Heinemann's published Independent Company with an introductory chapter by Nevil Shute.

Before Heinemann's made their decision to publish, the typescript had to be recommended by their ‘reader in Australia’ - the author Paul McGuire - and subsequently be further assessed in England.  The arrangements for these were made in Australia by an old English gentleman named Bartholomew, who had spent a lifetime with Oxford University Press; and I think, beneath his inexhaustible courtesy, he hid a difficulty he had in not viewing is out here as brash colonials.

Bartholomew telephoned me to say that Mr. McGuire had approved of False Crests for publication and that the typescript would now be sent to England for a final decision.  By then I was becoming alarmed at the additional work that might be thrust upon me, so I asked how long this would take - the longer the better for me.  Bartholomew explained with every courtesy, that if it had been Mr. Norway's manuscript, it would go as quickly as possible by air mail; but, of course, mine would go sea mail.  I think he was surprised when I laughed; however, he telephoned a few days later to say that although the cost had been enormous, they had sent the typescript by air mail; and he did not quite hide his disappointment when I was not elated.

In England the decision to publish was made promptly and so I took Stuart Love and Nevil Norway to lunch to talk over what would happen from then on.  I can still remember vividly sitting on a club sofa between these two charmingly pleasant, but very literary persons, while they discussed the need to polish up the English in the typescript.

I had written as the need drove me and as opportunity permitted without any thought of literary polish; and I had drifted into this matter of publication with a vague belief that publishers and some sort of fairy amanuensis who turned rough typescript into smooth flowing impeccable English.  As Nevil talked my belief was shattered and Stuart confirmed that the English was undeniably rough.

I saw myself being drawn into a complete re-editing and I sank into silent despair until, almost doubting my ears, I heard from Nevil the comment that after all it had a certain ‘freshness’ and possibly it would be better to leave it as it was - and that is how it is.

It had been agreed that the story needed to be set into its place in the World War II panorama and Nevil Norway agreed to do this.  He wrote a long introductory chapter and he took considerable care to be accurate.  He circulated drafts to people such as the official war historian, Gavin Long, our initial commander in Timor, now Sir William Leggatt, Stuart Love and myself; by the time I had received his fourth draft I was thoroughly depressed by the knowledge of my own single draft - comparably I should have been into double figures.

This introductory chapter of Nevil's raised for him possible difficult problems of publishing rights, fees and copyright; so he placed the whole matter before his agents in London and when he had their reply, he sent me a copy.  The crucial part of the agent's letter was the opinion that, as Colonel Callinan could not possibly afford to pay for the chapter at Norway's usual per line rate he, Norway, might as well donate the whole thing; which was what he had intended.

One or two more strands are worth gathering.  I kept no dairy in Timor.  Conditions were not conducive and the possibility of the enemy getting it by capture or death made it foolish to have tried.  But in 1943-44 my memory for places and dates was clear; however, I became filled with fear as the publication date came nearer.  I was greatly relieved by the comments from my comrades in arms which had the theme ‘how did you manage to keep all the records you must have had to write that?’  There was none at all, and this is not a facility that I have had at other times in my life.  You may see some significance in this.

I purposely avoided comments on personalities in what I wrote, and the absence of this enlivening strand is a serious omission from any book.  I would think the chief characters go through the pages like disembodied spirits with labels upon them.  Where did they come from, where did they go, what were their personalities?  I doubt whether I had the high literary ability necessary to give them the bodies and the personalities they carried so clearly for all to see in Timor; and I still do not think that, even if I had been so endowed, it would have been right for me to have attempted it.  They were my comrades, some my very close friends; we were all, and as the years go by become more so, bound together by a common unforgettable experience.  It would have been misleading to have given only strong points and would have been wrong for me to have attempted to portray a times of weakness and of indecision; it was sufficient to say, ‘they were there’.

Timor was a time of trial for all of us and the intensity of the trial built up in each of us a clarity of thought and perception; we all knew our own weaknesses and we had no desire to parade any strengths if we had any.  I had been one of those there and I wrote as such.

The thread made from these strands appears to me to be more utilitarian than decorative as might be expected from an engineer.  There are not many bright colours; mainly browns for the khaki we wore; greens for the courage of soldiers, Portuguese and natives; some red for the he of sacrifice again of soldiers, Portuguese and natives, and one bright steel strand for the shining loyalty of all.  The national colours of Portugal are green and red, and they are well represented amongst my strands.

What happened to this book?  The first printing of 6,000 - four for Australia and two for England - appeared in October 1953 and was substantially sold out before Christmas.  A further printing of 2,000 was released in February 1954 and sold fairly promptly; the next printing came out four months later to end the effort.  It was widely reviewed and very few adverse criticisms were made; the best review was a long one on the editorial page of what was then one of the best London dailies.  It formed the basis for the official war history of the Timor campaign being quoted at length by Wigmore and McCarthy in two volumes of the history.  I have wondered sometimes this reliance upon it was too great and whether other views might not have been canvassed more thoroughly.  It has been translated into Portuguese and is compulsory reading for the Portuguese army.

I would like in later life to attempt another book.  I have no idea of the subject - but if this does not eventuate, as is probable, I shall remain forever grateful and humble because I was given a part in the story, the opportunity to write about it, and the good fortune to have friends who took it to publication.

It is not a great book; others might have made it one - I could not, but it is ‘mine own’.  When I exposed myself to the public my friends clothed me with their charity.

Posted by Ed Willis

20 February 2021

Edited by Edward Willis
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