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‘What the bloody hell is happening in Portuguese Timor’ -- INVESTIGATION MISSION TO DILI -- 8 January 1942

Edward Willis

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‘What the bloody hell is happening in Portuguese Timor’


8 January 1942


(Edwin) Harry Medlin (1920–2013) was Deputy Chancellor of the University of Adelaide from 1978 to 1997. [1] As a young man he was commissioned in 1939 and was serving as a Lieutenant in the 2/1st Fortress Company Engineers at the time Sparrow Force took up defensive positions around Koepang in Dutch West Timor in mid-December 1941.  He was captured by the Japanese and held as a prisoner of war in Timor from 23 February 1942 and transferred to Batavia in Java in September 1942 until he was freed on 23 September 1945.

Medlin wrote in detail about events in Timor, especially in relation to the action, but also before action and afterwards, including his life as a POW in Timor and Java; his objective was to 'set the record straight' about what he believed to be serious errors of omission and fact in all accounts of the history of Sparrow force in Dutch Timor, and his first-hand account provided valuable insights. [2]

In early January 1942, prior to the Japanese assault on Timor, Medlin was a member of a small Allied (Australian/Dutch) mission that travelled from Koepang to Dili in Portuguese East Timor to investigate a report that the ‘… Portuguese Governor has complained that Allied Commanders, particularly the Dutch, are behaving in a very high-handed manner and are requisitioning extensively, impressing foreign residents etc. [and] that fresh troops are being disembarked and that Governor is in state of high indignation’.


Medlin’s recollections of the mission follow [3]:

Wigmore [4] reports on a conference in Koepang on the evening of 15 December 1941 between Mr. Niebouer (Dutch Resident at Koepang) [5], Ross [6], van Straaten [7], Leggatt [8], Detiger [9], Commander of the Soerabaja (5644 tons), Wing Commander F. Headlam (C.O. RAAF squadron) [10], Major A. Spence (OC 2/2 Indep. Coy.) [11] and staff officers.  The decision was taken to occupy Dili because Japanese ships were said to be in the vicinity.

Wigmore then describes negotiations with the Governor of Portuguese Timor (Manuel de Ferreira de Carvalho) and the subsequent occupation by Australian and Dutch troops.  There is no record anywhere that I can find of the next development which, it was said, arose out of a curt telegram from the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

Portugal (like Sweden and Switzerland) was neutral during WW2, and it suited the (Northern Hemisphere) antagonists’ purposes to preserve that neutrality.  Portuguese troopships were said to have been coming from Lorenzo Marques in East Africa.  The hearsay catalyst is said to have been the cable ‘Highest British Political Authority demands to know what the bloody hell is happening in Portuguese Timor’.

Athol Wilson [12], a Melbourne lawyer, led the Inquiry in Dili.  I was chosen as Staff Officer to Major Wilson.  I assume that Wilson was chosen because Leggatt, although also a lawyer, had been involved in that initial decision to occupy Portuguese Timor.

Although I do not recall the date, I believe it to have been about 10 January 1942, but it might well have been later because photographs show me with a ‘tin hat’ and air raids did not start until 26 January 1942.


Fokker aircraft of the type used to fly the investigation team from Koepang to Dili

We flew in a 3-engine Fokker with ‘pusher’ engines; we were camouflaged from above and flew extremely low to evade possible Japanese fighters.  There were two pilots and three passengers namely Wilson, Headlam and Medlin.  I have photographs of Wilson, Ross, van Straaten and Spence in conference and with (Capt.) Callinan [13], Medlin and (? Mr.) Whittaker [14] in attendance.  I have other photographs taken that day including one of a small Japanese ship tied up at a jetty in Dili Bay.

I think that I know that the recommendations were that our occupation was justified, and that the Dutch presence was no long-term threat to Portugal.

In the final event the Japanese invaded the whole island and demonstrated a complete contempt for Portuguese neutrality.  There is no reference by Churchill even in his history, The Second World War, nor of any concern for Timor except to comment [15] (v.4 The hinge of fate, p.128) upon its loss to the Japanese.  I repeat that I find it, at best, strange and possibly somewhat sinister that there is no record either of Wilson’s inquiry or of his report.  The Inquiry was conducted -- I was there - and I knew Athol Wilson well enough to know that there was a Report.  WHERE IS IT?

Medlin recorded another recollection of this event: [16]

Senior officers always have to have junior officers around, looking after their needs and what not, so I went.  We met with Major Spence who was the commanding officer of 2/2nd Independent Company, and the governor of Portuguese Timor, and as I say I have taken photographs in the plane and we flew very low because we were camouflaged from above, not below and there was a risk of being shot down by Japanese fighters.

And I believe that the conclusion of Athol Wilson and of the governor, and of the Dutch was, that although Dili had been occupied there was no long-term risk of the sovereignty of Portugal over Portuguese Timor.

Now I have tried myself to find a copy of that report, I knew Athol Wilson well enough to know that there would have been a report, but it could find nothing.  But you have triggered me into remembering this, I will look again, there will be a report somewhere, and I know enough about the army to know that they never destroy anything, not openly anyway.  So that was that.  Well, I think I said before, when the Japanese landed, they took no account of Portuguese neutrality, and the Independent Company just withdrew and harassed them from the hills.


Harry Medlin notes that a camera was in his possession during the mission and he took photos at various times featuring the participants and street scenes and aerial views of Dili.  As Medlin himself appears in some of the photos, Athol Wilson probably took some of them.  These images provide a unique and valuable record of the occasion; the personal photos are remarkably candid and evocative. [17]


1. Major Athol Wilson (rear), unidentified soldier (front)


2. Frank Whittaker (Australian Naval intelligence officer) (left), Dutch officer Lieutenant Jan Zijlstra (right)


3. Frank Whittaker (Australian Naval intelligence officer)


4. Wing Commander Frank Headlam (left), Lieutenant Harry Medlin (right)


5. Lieutenant Harry Medlin (left), Wing Commander F. Headlam (RAAF) (right)


6. David Ross (Left), Lieutenant Colonel Van Straten (right)


7. Left to right – Lieutenant Colonel Van Straten, Major Athol Wilson, David Ross, F.J. Niebouer (Dutch Resident Koepang)


8. Major Alexander Spence (left), Lieutenant Harry Medlin (right)


9. Portuguese artillery piece


10. Portuguese artillery piece close up


11. Dili street scene


12. Dili street scene


13. Dutch soldiers


14. Dutch soldier


15. Japanese spy ship Nanyei Maru


16. Dili harbour


17. Residence British Consul, David Ross


18. Dili street scene


19. Aerial view Dili


20. Portuguese military barracks, Dili (Dutch HQ)


21. Dili street scene


22. Rua de?, Dili


23. Aerial view Dili (Taibessi?)


24. Aerial view Dili Harbour


25. Aerial view Dili


26. Sunset, Port of Dili


Medlin is correct in asserting that ‘… there would have been a report’ submitted on the mission but the documentary record is patchy and difficult to locate.

The earliest relevant document located thus far originated on 26th December 1941:



2648, sent 26th December 1941


C.G.S. has been informed by Sparrow force through Army channels as follows:

‘Dilli position most unsatisfactory.  Governor organising troops who may harass our troops and will certainly assist any Japanese landing.  Van Straaten awaiting instructions Dutch headquarters.  Essential to take military control and disarm Portuguese.  Delay through political negotiations becoming dangerous.  Urgent.’

Inform Commander of Australian forces that on other hand Portuguese Governor has complained that Allied Commanders, particularly the Dutch, are behaving in a very high-handed manner and are requisitioning extensively, impressing foreign residents etc. that fresh troops are being disembarked and that Governor is in state of high indignation.

You will observe that this is [a] complaint which reaches us from U.K. via Portugal.  I am greatly surprised that you have not sent regular reports as I have asked.  We desire urgently your comments and suggestions on above. In particular what restrictions or censorship are being imposed upon Portuguese authorities.


On the next day, the following signal was received by Sparrow Force; note the reference to ‘highest political minister’ that connects with Medlin’s recollection of the stimulus for the mission:

To Sparrow Force

From Army Melbourne MC4088          27/12  Immediate

For OC SPARROW stop  Your message 27/12 through DARWIN regarding situation DILLI stop  Whole message now being considered main body highest political minister officially informed essential SPENCE OC no contact ROSS and last named forward his views immediately. [19]

No documents have so far been located that specifically refer to the establishment and conduct of the mission though Medlin’s recollections and subsequent reports confirm that it actually took place; for e.g., the No. 2 Independent Company War Diary entry for 8 January 1942 recorded:

… Visit to Dili by NEI resident from KOEPANG.  PORTUGUESE GOVERNOR has reported adversely on behaviour of NEI and Australian commanders in requisitioning Portuguese property and impressing foreign nationals, particularly NEI commander.  This report which has just reached Dili has surprised all – at the same time as he sent report off – told Colonel VAN STRAATEN that the behaviour of the occupying force had been good.  The opinion of interested persons have that Colonel VAN STRAATEN, who has CO of Force, carried out all negotiations with governor, has been most restrained, in spite of lack of cooperation from Governor.  15 natives arrived at company HQ for work on shelters. [20]

Prime Minister John Curtin communicated the findings of the investigative mission to the British government on 10 January 1942:



0.985 0.986 0.987

DATE SENT: 10 January 1942

No. 38. Repeated to Governor of the Straits Settlement for Commander in Chief, Far East, No, 3, and Prime Minister of New Zealand No. 18.



Your telegram 25th December No. 895 paragraph 1.

Ross reports that allegations against occupying force attributed to Governor entirely without real foundation and that no serious complaint had been made by any inhabitants including foreign nationals now under restraint.  No Portuguese property other than open land has been requested.

Ross adds that complaints to Lisbon referred to are even contrary to the views expressed personally by the Governor to the Dutch Commander.  In his opinion complaints are nothing more than an attempt to stir up trouble and influence political negotiations.

No restrictions of any sort have been placed on Portuguese authorities who are at liberty to send and receive any radio messages on Government business.  Whole attitude of Dutch Commander has been one of extreme courtesy and consideration oven when latitude allowed has been abused and petty obstructive tactics employed against him.


Copy sent to Dr. Evatt, Mr. Forde, Col. Hodgson, Mr. Shedden

13.1.42 [21]

The British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs responded to Curtin’s message two days later (12 January 1942): ‘Ross’s reports as to allegations against the Allied Force noted’. [22]


[1]     https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Medlin

[2]     Peter Henning. - Doomed Battalion: mateship and leadership in war and captivity - the Australian 2/40 Battalion 1940-45. – 2nd ed. - [Exeter, Tasmania]: Peter Henning, c2014: 7.

[3]     Dr. Harry Medlin ‘Timor and Java’ https://studylib.net/doc/9066385/timor-and-java---the-recollections-of-lt-harry-medlin: 11.

[4]     Lionel Wigmore. - The Japanese thrust. - Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957.  (Australia in the war of 1939-1945. Series 1, Army; v. 4) - Ch. 21 ‘Resistance in Timor’: 469.

[5]     Mr. F.J. Nieboer, Dutch Resident (Governor), Koepang 1941-42.

[6]     Mr. (later Group Captain) David Ross, British Consul, Dili, Portuguese Timor, 1941-42.

[7]     Lieutenant Colonel N.L.W. van Straten, Commanding Officer, Dutch contingent, Portuguese Timor 1941-1942.

[8]     Lieutenant Colonel W.W. (Bill) Leggatt, Commanding Officer, 2/40 Battalion, also original Commanding Officer Sparrow Force, 1941-42.

[9]     Lieutenant-Colonel W.E.C. Detiger, Commanding Officer, Dutch Timor and Dependencies Territorial Command, 1941-42.

[10]   Wing Commander Frank Headlam, Commander, No. 2 Squadron, Penfoei, Dutch Timor 1941-42.

[11]   Major Alexander Spence, Commanding Officer, No. 2 Independent Company, Portuguese Timor, 1941-42.

[12]   Major Athol Wilson, Commanding Officer, 2/1 Heavy Battery, Koepang, Dutch Timor, 1941-42.  He died of wounds 20 February 1942 at Klapalima, Dutch Timor.

[13]   Captain Bernard Callinan, 2nd In Command, No.2 Independent Company, Portuguese Timor, 1941-42. Callinan was in fact not present at the meeting.

[14]   Mr. F.J.A. (John) Whittaker, Civil Aviation clerical officer, British Consular Office, Dili, Portuguese Timor, 1941-42.  In mid-April 1941, the Director of Naval Intelligence proposed appointing an officer to Dili ostensibly in the role of a Civil Aviation clerical officer – citing an Australian War Cabinet agendum (No.109/1941 – February 1941) that directed their military intelligence services should arrange ‘for special watch to be kept by them on the peaceful penetration by Japanese into Portuguese Timor … ‘.  The Australian Naval Board concurred and coordinated with DCA for a naval intelligence officer – Paymaster Lieutenant F.J.A. Whittaker, to operate ‘nominally as a clerk to assist Mr David Ross’ and ‘who would, in the guise of a civilian, be able to discharge the Naval Intelligence duties required of him’.  See Navy Office, Memorandum 018820 - 43/85, Melbourne, 28 April 1941 (NAA: 981 TIM P 6, p.57; NAA: B6121, 114G).

[15]   Winston Churchill. – The hinge of fate. – London: Cassell & Co., 1950: 126.

[16]   ‘Edwin Medlin (Harry) - Transcript of interview Date of interview: 8th March 2004’ Australians at War Film Archive http://australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/1503

[17]   These photos were in the personal papers of Sir Bernard J. Callinan and were kindly made available to the 2/2 Commando Association of Australia archives by his son Nicholas.

[18]   26/12 War Cabinet Agendum - No 270/1941 and supplements 1-3 - Occupation of Portuguese Timor - NAA_ItemNumber11294556 2.pdf – NAA, A2671, 270.

[19]   Sparrow Force war diary, message received 27 December 1941 – Australian War Memorial RCDIG 1024692.

[20]   No. 2 Independent Company War Diary 8 December 1941 - 16 December 1942.  An entry in Colonel Van Straten’s dairy covering this period also provides confirmation:

Furthermore, the ashes in Lisbon are burning quite violently, which even resulted in an official complaint via London, whereupon the GG (Governor-General Sjarda van Strakenborgh Stachouwer) sent the resident of Koepang (Niebouer) for an investigation, which, however, was entirely in my favour.

Source: E-mail from: Gerard van Haren to author sent Thursday, December 23, 2021 10:13 PM.

[21]   War Cabinet Agendum - No 270-1941 and supplements 1-3 - Occupation of Portuguese Timor - NAA_ItemNumber11294556.pdf – NAA A2671, 270/1941.

[22]   Occupation of Portuguese Timor - (File 1) to 30-1-1942 - NAA_ItemNumber170185-2.pdf. – NAA A816, 19/30.

Prepared by Ed Willis

Revised 9 January 2022

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