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Edward Willis

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8 – 15 December 1941


With the passage of 2021 and the transition to 2022 we move through the 80th anniversary years of significant events in the history of the Doublereds.

December 10 2021 marks the 80th anniversary of the embarkation of the unit for Timor.  Over the course of the new year we will post other stories marking significant events that occurred during 1942 during the 2nd Independent Company’s campaign on Timor.

The following post utilises content from Cyril Ayris’s official history of the No. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron) All the Bull’s men. [1]


When the 260-strong No. 2 Australian Independent Company (No. 2 AIC) arrived by train in Darwin at midday on Monday 8 December 1941, orders came through to board ship, their destination, as always, a mystery.


Zealandia at sea [2]

Their ‘troopship’ was the battered old coal steamer S.S. Zealandia, which, it could be conservatively stated, had seen better days.  She had been around during World War I and had spent her last 25 years as a tramp steamer on the Australian coast.  Other units to board the Zealandia were the 2/40th Battalion, the 2/1st Heavy Battery, 2/1st Searchlights, an L.A.D., a company of 2/11th Engineers and 2/1st Fortress Signals, all under the command of Colonel W.W. Leggatt, Commanding Officer of the 2/40th Battalion.

The 2/40th was in an unhappy frame of mind.  The men had been pushed from pillar to post in the Territory, while their numbers were continually depleted, supplying reinforcements to units already fighting overseas.  To make matters worse they had been promised leave in the south and were waiting to board the Zealandia, which had been sent to Darwin to collect them.  They had been looking forward to a leisurely cruise down the coast, followed by some leave in their home states when the order came to board ship – for somewhere overseas.


Sergeant Bill Tomasetti said: ‘The embarkation was marked by some shameless pillaging of our stores by wharf labourers.  It was brief because some No. 2 AIC personnel with a sense of justice, jumped down to the wharf and violently stopped it.  We later heard that there had been a formal complaint over our intervention, however, there was no apparent follow-up’.


Sergeant Bill Tomasetti [3]


It was about midnight, 10 December 1941, when the Zealandia finally slipped her moorings and turned her bows towards Beagle Gulf and the open sea.  Most of the men lined the rails to watch the last Australian lights slide silently past until eventually there was nothing but the darkness, the ship’s creamy wake and the seagulls, wheeling and diving.  It was a moment for reflection and perhaps a private prayer.

Two escort ships took up positions on either side of the Zealandia – the Ballarat a corvette, and the Westralia a merchant cruiser which had been armed for her new role.  Sunrise saw the little convoy clear the heads.  At the same time a couple of Hudson aircraft appeared overhead to keep a watch out for enemy warships.

It is a measure of the secrecy surrounding the formation of the independent companies that the commanding officer, Colonel Leggatt, had to ask Major Spence, on the Zealandia, precisely what the No. 2 AIC had been trained to do.  He did not know its strength, what weapons the men carried or even what the company’s role was likely to be in the event of hostilities.

It was after the No. 2 AIC’s special training had been explained, that the Colonel revealed they were going to Dutch Timor.  He said their probable role would be to guard the aerodrome at Atamboea in the middle of the island.  He explained that although the airfield had been rendered unsafe it could soon be repaired if captured by the enemy.  The No. 2 AIC, with their expertise in stealth, booby traps and surprise raids, could keep the airfield unusable, unless the enemy committed a large force to its protection.

The assembled officers were told that the group had been named Sparrow Force.  They were given maps of Timor and reports on local conditions to study so that they could relay the information to their men.  The reports revealed that rainfall on the island was best measured in metres rather than millimetres (it ranged from 490mm to 2950mm, depending on the location).  The interior, it was noted, was populated by headhunters.

The No. 2 AIC’s 60 Thompson sub-machine guns meanwhile had aroused so much interest, Lieutenant Tom Nisbet gave a talk on the weapon to the other officers.

The men received the news that they were bound for Timor with mainly blank looks – only a handful knew where it was.  The announcement that the Dutch would not allow the troops to bring Australian currency into the colony was also of academic interest as most were still broke.  However, anybody who had any money had to hand it in for crediting in his pay book.

The tropical heat turned the Zealandia into a floating furnace.  The sun and the coal-fired boilers combined to create near-impossible conditions in the cabins and holds.  Metal was too hot to touch and scarcely a breath of air reached below deck.  A beer ration was announced but the grog was so warm it was almost undrinkable.

More speed was required – the old ship could raise only seven knots.  Volunteers were called to help the stokers shovel more coal into the boilers and, for once, there was a mini rush for the job.  The reward was a beer which, the men were assured, would be cold.

The three ships glided smoothly through the coppery sea, sending flying fish darting in silver flashes from the bows.  The only sound was the steady thumping of the ship’s engines and the low chatter of the soldiers and crews.

Signaller George ‘Happy’ Greenhalgh was one of the men who enjoyed standing near the bow.  He recalled 60 years later: ‘We had never seen flying fish before.  It was all so new to us, a great adventure.  I remember the sea – it was like a millpond.  You could stand on the bows and spit into the sea and you could see your spit land in the water’.

Ray Parry: ‘We could see the seabed and odd patches of seaweed.  The extreme heat and high humidity made conditions close to unbearable’.  It was difficult to imagine amid such serenity that in other parts of the world nations were tearing themselves apart in mortal combat.  It was even more difficult to imagine the tumult overflowing into these quiet waters.


On the afternoon of the second day, 12 December 1941, a faint smudge appeared on the horizon which slowly materialised into the island of Timor.

As the Zealandia approached Koepang, a Dutch destroyer swept up alongside and took over escort duties from the Ballarat.  (The Westralia had sailed ahead and was already in Koepang with a battery of 2/1st Australian Heavy Regiment).  The Sparrow Force that landed in Koepang comprised 70 officers and 1330 men.  The resident Netherlands East Indies garrison was about 500-strong.

The Zealandia and her new escort slid through the channel between the small island of Roti and Timor, before turning north towards Koepang Bay.  The men stared in dismay at the height and ruggedness of Timor’s mountains; those of Wilsons Promontory seemed tame by comparison.

Koepang was like many north Australian harbours – shallow with big tidal variations.  The Zealandia dropped anchor in the bay, leaving about 150 metres of mud between the ship and a causeway protruding across ugly brown coral.  The shore was flat and palm fringed, but beyond the palms were low-lying hills which gave way to the distant mountains etched in rugged silhouette against a blue sky.  From the sea there was nothing attractive about the place – and the brief glimpse of Koepang’s scattering of off-white buildings did nothing to improve first impressions.  The unmistakably tropical smell of decay and cloying humidity, combined with the grotesque, betel nut grins of the ship’s new lumpers, left nobody in doubt that they had entered a new world; a world foreign to their own, a mere 600 kilometres over the horizon.


Panorama of Koepang waterfront at low tide, taken from end of pier [4]

Lighters pulled alongside swarming with Celebes boys who were much favoured by shipping companies because of their almost superhuman strength.  They were a happy, laughing people, varying in colour from brown to black.  Their short, slightly built stature belied their physical strength.  The men climbed down the ship’s side on ropes and waded ashore through the shallows.

Any hopes of a cold beer and some relaxation in Koepang were dashed when they were formed into ranks to march to their camp on an airfield at Penfoei.  The situation on the waterfront was chaotic – there was no transport and no facilities for handling the big volume of stores and supplies that had to be transferred to the aerodrome.

Callinan was given a lift to the airfield to inspect the camp site.  At first glance he was agreeably surprised – it had been established on a hill of coral rock and was enclosed by a three-metre, barbed wire fence.  It was a busy scene, home to a thousand men.  Teams of 10 or 20 women, working under the direction of generally less energetic men, were hurrying everywhere with building materials in four-gallon petrol tins, suspended from bamboo poles across their shoulders.  Their loads were in excess of 35 kilograms, yet they flitted barefoot over the rocky ground like swarming ants.

Huts with cement floors and palm stem walls supporting thatched roofs had already been built for men and stores.  There were even iron bedsteads, one for every man.  And there were showers ...... and toilets.  The drainage for these last two luxuries was not yet complete but work was progressing.

Callinan’s spirits lifted at the sight of all this activity – then a Dutch adjutant broke the news that as the Australians were expected to go to Atamboea almost immediately, and as the camp was still under construction, they had been allocated an area outside the eastern fence.  Tents would be supplied.  The area proved to be a stretch of broken ground that had recently been excavated for its gravel.  It was littered with refuse and in the middle was the locals’ latrine.

It was mid-afternoon when the troops shouldered their weapons and struck off along the causeway through the coastal fringe of palms and scrub to their new home.

Describing the campsite, Harry Sproxton said: ‘It looked like a limestone quarry.  The ground was so hard we couldn’t get a tent peg in’.  By nightfall tents were erected and water was boiling on a campfire.  …..

The 2/2nd’s camp guard during that first night in Timor was extremely efficient, which was not well received by several officers and NCOs from other units who were challenged and made to say the password.  A number of officers took offence at this perceived impertinence, but the guards stood their ground.


The No. 2 AIC suffered its first casualty on 15 December 1941, soon after its arrival at Koepang, when Lieutenant Doig accidentally shot and killed Private R.R. Swift, a driver.  Doig was immediately suspended from duty and his commission was held in abeyance pending a court of inquiry.  The court was never convened – the company was overtaken by events and the inquiry was put on hold, eventually to be forgotten.  Company records … note: ‘December 15 1715 hours.  Driver Swift VX33731 was accidentally shot with a .45 pistol and died approximately 15 minutes later on way to hospital.  Swift was given a military funeral with B Platoon forming the guard of honour’.


Driver Ronald R. Swift memorial plaque, Lovekin Drive, Kings Park

Colonel Leggatt quickly realised that he had nothing like the strength needed to defend an island the size of Timor from enemy attack.  He twice requested that an officer be dispatched to the island to make an independent inspection.  Both requests were ignored.

There had also arrived in Koepang about a 100 Dutch troops from Java under the command of Colonel van Straaten.

On the evening of 15 December 1941, the day van Straaten arrived, a meeting was convened between the Dutch Resident at Koepang, Mr Niebouer; the former Department of Civil Aviation officer, now British Consul in Dili, Portuguese Timor, David Ross; Colonel Leggatt; Colonel van Straaten; the Dutch Territorial Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Detiger; the senior RAAF officer, Wing Commander Headlam; Major Spence and a number of other officers.  The meeting was called to discuss the Japanese advance and the danger of neutral Portuguese Timor falling into their hands.

Van Straaten said he had been instructed by his (Dutch) government to inform them that, if the Japanese arrived off Portuguese Timor, the Governor of Portuguese Timor, Manuel d’Abreu Ferreira de Carvelho, would ask for their help.  He said that the British, Dutch, Australian and Portuguese governments had agreed that, in such an eventuality, Australian and Netherlands East Indies troops would be dispatched to resist any Japanese invasion.

He then dropped his bombshell.

Japanese ships had been seen in the area, he said, and it was urgent that troops be immediately dispatched to Dili.  The instructions were that Colonels Leggatt and Detiger were to leave the following day, on the steam yacht Canopus, and inform the governor, at 8 a.m. on 17 December, that an allied occupying force was on its way to take over the task of protecting the colony.  David Ross was instructed to fly to Dili ahead of them and arrange the meeting.  The Netherlands troops and the majority of the No. 2 AIC were to sail at 8 a.m. on 16 December.  The rest would follow on the Canopus when she returned from Dili.

The ramifications of these orders were explosive, both politically and militarily.  In essence, Australian troops would be landing in neutral Portuguese territory, hoping to be welcomed by the incumbent Portuguese, who had a garrison of about 500 mainly Timorese troops, with Portuguese officers and non-commissioned officers.  These occupying forces were armed only with six Vickers machine guns … and some early-model Winchester rifles.  The bottom line was that if the Portuguese resisted, the Australians would have to take Dili … by force.  Australia, it was argued, could hardly stand idly by while the Japanese occupied half an island that was within bombing range of Darwin.

…… the die was about to be cast.


[1] Ayris, Cyril. - All the Bull's men: No. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron). - [Perth, W.A.]: 2/2nd Commando Association, 2006: Chapter 3 ‘Invasion’ pp.50-55.

[2] Starboard side view of the merchant vessel SS Zealandia.  Zealandia was sunk on 1942-02-19 during a Japanese air raid on the Darwin area.  (Also, formerly P0444/214/214 and P00444.214)

[3] Australian guerrillas in Timor.  Sgt. W. Tomasetti (Melbourne) and Sgt. J. Garland (N.S.W. (negative by Parer). https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C33194

[4] Area study of Dutch Timor, Netherlands East Indies / Allied Geographical Section, South West Pacific Area. - [Brisbane]: The Section, 1943. – (Terrain study; no. 70) https://repository.monash.edu/items/show/26287#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0

Edited by Edward Willis
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