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Edward Willis

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December 16-20, 1941

Paul Hasluck prepared a succinct and authoritative summary of the events leading up to the joint decision made by the Australian, British and Dutch governments to proceed with the occupation of Dili in neutral Portuguese Timor in mid-December 1941. [1-2]

Hasluck’s summary of the Allied decision-making process and concomitant diplomatic negotiations with Portugal regarding this initiative is complemented by Lionel Wigmore’s brief narrative of the actual events.

Both Hasluck’s and Wigmore’s contributions were prepared for the official history ‘Australia in the War of 1939-1945’.

This post supplements an earlier contribution commemorating the 75th anniversary of this event from a more personal viewpoint; see:


Hasluck’s summation follows:


Australia itself, adding to the measures previously taken for collaboration with the Netherlands East Indies and for the security of New Caledonia, had given further attention to the position of Portuguese Timor.  Early in 1941 the Australian Government had become concerned at reports of Japanese activities in Portuguese Timor and particularly the way in which Japan was gaining support from the local population by arranging to purchase the exportable surplus of their coffee crop.  As in the case of New Caledonia the first move by Australia was in the direction of giving commercial support to the Portuguese dependency.

At the same time arrangements had been made to use Dili as an alternative stopping place on the Australia-Singapore civil air route and advantage was taken of this arrangement to appoint the Chief Flying Inspector of the Department of Civil Aviation, Mr David Ross, [3] as Australian Civil Aviation representative there.  From the outset, however, it was indicated that Ross, who was furnished with light aircraft for his use, should also report to the Australian Government on the general situation in Portuguese Timor, both keeping an eye on what the Japanese were doing and also advising the Government on any opportunities which Australia could take to improve its position.

The measures for the defence of Timor in the case of Japanese action against the Portuguese were also discussed in the course of conversations with the Dutch and the British in February 1941, and it had been agreed to have certain Australian troops available with Dutch troops at Koepang in Dutch Timor.


Later in the year the possibility of a German move through Spain and Portugal caused the Department of External Affairs to draw attention to the possibility that, if control of the colony from Portugal were broken, Japan would probably seize the opportunity to take Timor under protective custody.  The Government therefore approached the United Kingdom Government with a view to reaching an understanding between the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia regarding the occupation of Portuguese Timor, either jointly or by the separate forces of one of the three nations in the event of either German occupation of Portugal, a Japanese landing in Timor without the outbreak of war between Japan and the Allies, or, in the final extremity, in the case of war with Japan. [4]

The United Kingdom agreed with the sense of the Australian proposals and also proposed discussions with Portugal.  For the purpose of these discussions the United Kingdom asked Australia whether, if Portugal agreed to accept reinforcements, Australia would be willing to accept commitments in respect of Portuguese Timor in addition to the commitments already accepted in respect of Ambon and Koepang.  By a War Cabinet decision of 15th October Australia agreed that Portugal should be asked whether she was ready to accept outside help if help should be found necessary by the military authorities on the spot, and that both the Netherlands and Portuguese Governments should be asked to agree to local discussions between Australian, Dutch and Portuguese military authorities regarding the necessary preventive measures.  The War Cabinet also decided that, in view of the threat to Australia which would arise from a Japanese occupation of Timor, Australia should cooperate to the fullest practical extent in measures for the defence of the colony.  To that end the Australian air forces to be provided for reinforcement of Ambon and Koepang should also be available for operations in Portuguese Timor and an additional battalion of supporting troops should be made available to reinforce Portuguese Timor if the Portuguese agreed to accept reinforcements. [5] At the suggestion of the United Kingdom, Ross was given rank as Australian Consul at Dili in order to facilitate his work.  Negotiations with the Portuguese Government had not been concluded when war came.


As mentioned earlier, some 1,600 Australian troops had been sent to Dutch Timor from Darwin on 12th December.  That day the Portuguese Government agreed to a proposal made by the British Government, with Australian and Dutch approval, that the Governor of Portuguese Timor should acquiesce in the arrival of Australian and Dutch forces in Portuguese Timor if it was attacked.

The colony of Portuguese Timor, consisting mainly of the eastern half of Timor Island, only 400 miles from Darwin, had a population of 450,000 including only about 300 Europeans and being half a world away from a metropolitan state of limited economic and military resources was itself backward in development and practically undefended.  Defensively it was the weakest point in the Indonesian chain and the point nearest to the Australian mainland.  There had been signs of increasing Japanese interest in the colony for some years.

The diplomatic weakness of the Portuguese arose both from the position of Portugal as a small Continental European state conscious of the dominating power of Nazi Germany on the Continent and from the fact that the most important of its Asiatic colonies, Macao, was under immediate threat from the Japanese army in South China.  The Portuguese Government, under Dr Salazar, though holding to the current alliance with Great Britain, was susceptible to Axis pressure both in Europe and Asia.  They had no love for the Japanese but were not strong enough to risk offence.


On 16th December the British Government informed the Portuguese Government that a Japanese attack on Timor seemed imminent and it had arranged with the Australian Government that Dutch and Australian officers should see the Governor of Portuguese Timor and, in anticipation of an invitation to lend help, some 350 Dutch and Australia n troops would arrive two hours after the interview. [6]

On the 17th the Australian Lieut-Colonel Leggatt [7] and the Dutch Lieut-Colonel Detiger, both in civilian clothes, arrived at Dili, the capital of the Portuguese colony, and were introduced to the Governor by Mr David Ross, the Australian Consul there.  The Governor said that his instructions were to ask for help only after being attacked.  He was told that troops were on their way.  (Netherlands Indies troops numbering 260 and 155 Australians had embarked for Dili in a Dutch warship on the 16th).

Meanwhile in Lisbon:

Dr Salazar's reaction was sharp and violent.  He refused to allow the Governor to agree to assistance except in the event of an attack.  He argued that an earlier admission of Allied troops would mean the abandonment of Portuguese neutrality and would be followed by the Japanese seizure of Macao. [8]

At Dili at 9.45 a.m. on the 17th the Governor told the Australian and Dutch envoys that he had received a message from Lisbon and wanted an hour to decode it.  This was agreed to.  The Dutch warship carrying the troops had already arrived.  At 10.50 the Governor said that the message instructed him not to allow troops to land unless Portuguese Timor was attacked, and therefore his forces must resist.  Leggatt and Detiger replied that they hoped there would be no fighting and pointed out that the defending force was too small to succeed.  The Governor said that he would see the commander of his troops and, in the words of Leggatt's report, ‘ascertain what arrangements could be made’.  That afternoon the troops landed unopposed.  The inhabitants seemed friendly.

The British Government, anxious to avoid a break with Portugal, proposed that the Allied forces should be withdrawn on the arrival of Portuguese reinforcements, and this was agreed to.

On 31st December the Australian Advisory War Council was informed of a proposal to replace Dutch forces in Portuguese Timor with an equivalent number of Australian troops from those already in Dutch Timor.  They were also informed of Japanese pressure on Portugal to secure withdrawal of Allied forces, under threat of Japanese action, and advised of the proposal that Australian and Dutch forces be withdrawn from Portuguese Timor on the arrival of 700 Portuguese troops. [9]

The Australian Chiefs of Staff, however, in a report dated 4th January, expressed the view that 700 Portuguese would not constitute an adequate protection. It was decided to place this view before the British Government.

By 22nd December the Australian force around Dili had been increased until it comprised a complete Independent Company.  Soon it was learnt that the Portuguese reinforcements were not expected before the second week in March.  On 20th February, however, Japanese forces landed in Dutch and Portuguese Timor. [10] By the 23rd the main Allied force in Dutch Timor had been overcome but the Independent Company fought on in the mountains where it was joined by a considerable number of men from Dutch Timor. [11]


Lionel Wigmore continues the story of the occupation in a more narrative fashion: [12]


Preceded by about 100 additional troops from Java, Colonel van Straaten arrived at Koepang by air on 15th December to command the Dutch forces on the island.  He was to be under Leggatt's command.  A conference held that evening was attended by the Dutch Resident at Koepang (Mr Niebouer); the Australian Consul at Dili, Mr Ross; van Straaten; Leggatt; Detiger; the Commander of the old 16-knot Dutch training cruiser Soerabaja (5,644 tons); the Officer Commanding the Australian air force squadron, Wing Commander Headlam; [13] the Commander of No.2 Australian Independent Company, Major Spence; [14] and staff officers.  Van Straaten said he had been informed by the Governor-General of the Netherlands East Indies, Jonkheer Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, that as a result of negotiations between the United Kingdom, Dutch, Australian and Portuguese Governments it had been agreed that in case of aggression against Portuguese Timor by Japan, the Governor of Portuguese Timor would ask for help, and Australian and Netherlands East Indies troops would be sent there; further, that if the Government of the Netherlands Indies considered the matter urgent, and an attack on Dili was imminent, the Portuguese Governor would be informed and would ask for these troops to be sent.  The colonel added that he was instructed by the Governor-General to say that Japanese ships were now in the vicinity of Portuguese Timor, and it was urgent that troops be sent to Dili.  It was agreed that Leggatt and Detiger leave for Dili next day by the Canopus, [15] and convey this information to the Governor at 8 a.m. on 17th December.  Ross flew back to Dili to arrange the interview.


Netherlands Indies troops numbering 260, and 155 of the Independent Company embarked on the Soerabaja at 8 a.m. on 16th December, leaving the remainder of the Independent Company to follow aboard the Canopus on its return to Koepang.  Wearing civilian clothes, Leggatt and Detiger were introduced by Ross to the Governor on the 17th, and Leggatt conveyed to him the message he had received through van Straaten.  The Governor said that his instructions were definitely to ask for help only after Portuguese Timor was attacked.  He was told that this would be too late; the troops were on their way and must land.  He then asked that the matter be put in writing, and when this had been done, asked for half an hour to discuss the matter with his Ministers.  At 9.45 a.m. he said a message had been received from Lisbon, and he wanted an hour to decode it.  This was agreed to, but meanwhile the Soerabaja had arrived off Dili, escorted by Australian aircraft.  At 10.50 a.m. the Governor announced that the message was to the effect that he definitely must not allow troops to land unless Portuguese Timor was attacked, and that therefore his forces must resist such a landing.



Obviously, the Governor was seeking to follow a diplomatically ‘correct’ procedure which would avoid prejudice to Portugal's neutrality.  The delegation, however, expressed the hope that there would be no fighting, pointing out that the Portuguese force was too small to succeed.  The Governor said that when the landing occurred, he would see the commander of his troops, and ‘ascertain what arrangements could be made’. [16] Leggatt and Detiger then boarded the Soerabaja and reported the interview to van Straaten.


That afternoon the troops landed.  Spence told his men that they might have to fight as soon as they stepped ashore; but they and 50 Dutch troops landed unopposed, on a sandy beach about two miles and a quarter west of Dili, in the early afternoon.  A small party of signallers went into the town under Lieutenant Rose, [17] to take over the radio station and signal Sparrow Force at Koepang.  They were agreeably surprised to find the inhabitants apparently friendly towards them, and to experience no difficulty in taking over the radio station.

The Dutch were to occupy the town, and the Australians the airfield about a mile and a half west of it on the coast.  As a precaution, the Australians took up positions near their objective, while Spence advanced with his No. 1 Section to the airfield and met the Governor, the Dutch Consul at Dili, and Ross.  Australian occupation was agreed to by the Governor, though apparently with reluctance.  Spence was unable to discover the whereabouts of the Portuguese troops, or their strength.  The Australians then moved in, and at dusk were digging in around the two runways, and the hangars.

The attitude of the Portuguese authorities continued to cause concern.  Leggatt and Detiger returned to Koepang on 17th December, but Leggatt was back in Dili for a few hours on the 19th.  He found that at van Straaten's request the Governor had sent most of the Portuguese force out of Dili, but that the Portuguese Council was meeting that day to discuss the situation brought about by the landing.  Subsequent indications were interpreted as meaning that the Governor was definitely against the occupation, was obstructing by all means in his power, and probably would assist any Japanese attack.  Leggatt reported to Australian headquarters that the pro-British Portuguese in Dili could form a government, with the support of the Allied force, and that Ross recommended that that support be given if the Governor persisted in his attitude.


On 31st December a message was received by Sparrow Force to be passed to Ross that, owing to a severe Portuguese reaction and threats to break off diplomatic relations, British proposals had been submitted to Portugal with Australia's approval.  These were that the Dutch force withdraw to Dutch Timor and be replaced by more Australians from Koepang.  The message added that this might relieve the situation, as the Portuguese were highly antagonistic to the Dutch, and had presented a note amounting to an ultimatum. [18] Sparrow Force replied to the message from Australia that the arrangement whereby forces had to be maintained at Koepang and Dili meant that they were weak at both points.  If the proposals were carried into effect Koepang would be further weakened.


By 22nd December the remainder of the Independent Company, comprising a third platoon (Captain Laidlaw [19]) with signallers and engineers had reached Dili, and the company had received its only transport vehicles - two one-ton utilities and three motor-cycles.  The Australians quickly set about obtaining a thorough knowledge of the country in which they might have to fight. [20] They formed friendships with the people of Dili so quickly that a picquet with transport had to be sent to the town to bring men back to their lines after the hospitality they enjoyed on Christmas Day.


[1] Paul Hasluck. -  The government and the people 1939-1941. – Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952. (Australia in the War of 1939-1945, series 4 (Civil), v.1).  See esp. Ch. 13 ‘Danger from Japan, July-December 1941’: 538-539.  https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417319/538-539/

[2] Paul Hasluck. -  The government and the people 1942-1945. – Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1970. (Australia in the War of 1939-1945, series 4 (Civil), v.2).  See esp. Ch. 2 ‘The enemy at the gate, February-March 1942’: 100-102.  https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417320

[3] Gp Capt D. Ross, RAAF.  Aust Consul in Timor 1941-42; escaped from Japanese; joined guerrilla forces; Dir of Transportation and Movements RAAF to 1946.  Of East Malvern, Vic; b. 15 Mar 1902-1984.

[4] War Cabinet Minutes 1313, 13 Aug and 1333, 3 Sep 1941.

[5] War Cabinet Minute 1410, 15 Oct 1941.  War Cabinet Agendum 270/1941.

[6] L. Woodward, British Foreign Policy in the Second World War (1962), p. 376, a volume in the official series, History of the Second World War.

[7] Lt-Col Hon Sir William Leggatt, DSO, MC, ED. (1st AIF: Lt 60 Bn.) 2/22 Bn; CO 2/40 Bn 1941-42. MLA, Vic 1947-56.  Barrister; of Mornington, Vic; b. Malekula Is, New Hebrides, 23 Dec 1894-1968.

[8] Woodward, p. 376.

[9] Advisory War Council Minute 639, 31 Dec 1941.

[10] The Portuguese troops had left Lourenco Marques in a slow troopship on 28th January and were still on passage.  They returned to East Africa.

[11] Hasluck’s contribution, though written between 1952-1970 is still relevant and prescient.  For a comprehensive up-to-date account and interpretation of these events, see, Bernard Collaery. - Oil under troubled water: Australia's Timor Sea intrigue. – Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2020.  See esp. Ch. 2 ‘The Allies, Australia and Portuguese Timor’: 36-62.

[12] Lionel Wigmore. - The Japanese thrust. - Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957.  (Australia in the war of 1939-1945, series 1 (Army), v.4).  See esp. Ch. 21 ‘Resistance in Timor’: 466-495.  https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417309

[13] Air Cdre F. Headlam, OBE. Comd No. 2 Sqn 1941-42; Comd various training schools 1942-44; Staff Officer Administrative HQ North-West Area 1945.  Regular airman; of Hobart; b. Launceston, Tas, 15 Jul 1914-1976.

[14] Lt-Col A. Spence, DSO, QX6455. OC 2/2 Indep Coy 1941-42; Comd Sparrow Force 1942; CO 2/9 Cav Cdo Regt 1944-45.  Journalist; of Longreach, Qld; b. Bundaberg, Qld, 5 Feb 1906- 10 July 1983.

[15] A steam yacht of 773 tons displacement, normally part of a civil force used in peacetime by the NEI government for customs and police duties, but in time of war attached to the navy.

[16] Report by Lieut-Colonel Leggatt.

[17] Capt J.A. Rose, NX65630.  2/2 Indep Coy; "Z" Special Unit. Salesman; of Manly, NSW; b. Wagga Wagga, NSW, 8 Jul 1920-1972.

[18] Throughout the colonial history of Timor the Portuguese had mistrusted the Dutch, fearing that they would seek to annex their part of the island.  Now they suspected that the Dutch would use the war as an excuse for doing so.

[19] Maj G.G. Laidlaw, DSO, NX70537.  2/2 Indep Coy; 2/2 Cdo Sqn. Salesman; of Maryville, NSW; b. Gosford, NSW, 12 Dec 1910-1978.

[20] The company's mapping work was so extensive that it enabled the Allied Geographical Section of South-West Pacific Area Headquarters, established later, to produce early in 1943 the most detailed map of Portuguese Timor that had been made.  See ‘75 years on - exploring around Dili, December 1941-February 1942’ https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/91-75-years-on-exploring-around-dili-december-1941-february-1942/#comment-138


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