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Edward Willis

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GPS: 8° 46’ 23.922” S 125° 23’ 26.802” E


Map showing the location of Vila Maria [1]

Vila Maria was an important site in the early stages of the Commando Campaign where the No.2 Australian Independent Company (2AIC) rested and re-grouped and in the weeks following the Japanese landing enjoying the hospitality of the Portuguese landowner Senhor Aphonse Pereira.  Company headquarters was located here between the 25 March and 2 March when it moved further west to Cailaco.

It was used as a base from which some successful raids and ambushes were completed by the unit against Japanese columns probing out from Dili through Ermera towards Hatu-Lia along the road leading towards Dutch Timor.  Signals Lieutenant John Rose gained notoriety for his naïve and brash daring do in these escapades while Private Mervyn ‘Doc’ Wheatley established his reputation as a grimly efficient ambush sniper.

Attractive, young Vila Maria resident Brandolina da Silva bravely resisted the depredations of the occupying Japanese troops and gained the respect and admiration of the Australians.

From mid-year 1942 Vila Maria was permanently garrisoned by the Japanese who pressed the local Timorese to excavate caves in the surrounding hillsides for use as air raid shelters and to store ammunition and other supplies.  A large concrete water storage tank was also constructed in the area.


The house at Vila Maria viewed from the roadside


Vila Maria lies approximately 70 kilometres southwest of Dili by road – way points are Tibar, Railaco, Gleno and Ermera.  Dependent upon whether there has been wet weather and flooding, the road between Dili and Ermera is generally in good condition.  South of Ermera the road forks and the road heading west towards Hatu-Lia should be taken.  The road between Ermera and Hatolia passing through Vila Maria is being upgraded and its condition has improved significantly in recent times.

The description given in the 1943 Area Study of Portuguese Timor, however, is still valid:

HATU-LIA TO JUNCTION FATU-BESSI ROAD (ERMERA ROAD), approximately 20 miles (32 km.):

Road suitable for M.T. in dry weather.  Traffic delayed by floods and bogs after heavy rain.  Road is metalled and wide enough for M.T. to pass, except across the frequent short bridges.  Some, including a 30 ft. (9 m.) concrete bridge 1 1/2 miles (2 1/2 km.) west of Vila Maria were demolished.  Vila Maria is a small hamlet of six houses 3 miles (5 km.) east of Ermera. [2]

The GPS coordinates (8° 46’ 23.922” S 125° 23’ 26.802” E) accurately allow the site to be located approximately midway between Ermera and Hatolia.  The large post WWII residence at the site is situated on the hillside on the right-hand side of the road heading towards Hatu-Lia and can be accessed by a rough track.

A little further down the road is a large modern house and a gated Catholic grotto.


‘The No. 2 Australian Independent Company was now on its own’

Upon Lieutenant John Burridge's arrival at Three Spurs with news of the Japanese landings, word was immediately sent to Company Headquarters and to Captain Laidlaw of B Platoon.  The enemy's next step had to be anticipated.  If their normal tactics were followed, after a brief period of consolidation, the Japanese would thrust inland, in which event C Platoon and the company stores at Three Spurs would be in a perilous situation.

Captains Laidlaw and Baldwin met during the early afternoon of 20 February and decided to make a hurried trip to Major Spence at Railaco to discuss future moves.  Transport was acquired in the form of an ancient truck driven by an even more ancient Chinese man.  Despite its antiquity, the truck carried Laidlaw and Baldwin to Railaco and back, and later did sterling work in transporting stores.  Captain Callinan arrived at Railaco in time for the conference and was able to give a first-hand account of the Japanese landing.  It appeared clear to the officers at the conference that the 2AIC was now on its own. [3]

Pigi Vila Maria’

Bernard Callinan made an early reference to Vila Maria in ‘Independent Company’:

I moved down that night and stayed with the sappers at the bridge until it was blown, and then moved up to what was known as the Eleven Mile.  This was just a clearing on the side of the road and was as far as a native with a load could reasonably be forced to go twice in a day.  Here Lieutenant Garnet was in charge.  By the judicious distribution of a small amount of money, by the liberal use of promises and by sheer will power, he was getting the stores on to Vila Maria, which was the home of a very good friend of ours, Senor Pereira.  Any native coming within Garnet's orbit was quickly given a load and ordered to ‘pigi [going] Vila Maria’.  All arguments were settled by a more insistent ‘pigi Vila Maria’, and many a poor native, coming back to complain that he had not been paid, found himself with another load and the injunction ‘pigi Vila Maria’ ringing in his ears.  Even the natives saw the funny side of it eventually, and for days after they could be heard shouting out derisively to one another ‘pigi Vila Maria?’ [4]

At this stage Van Straaten and the remainder of the Dutch force were assumed to be withdrawing towards Dutch Timor, but the Australians had been given information that he and his staff had been captured and killed on the road to Aileu.  As this information accorded with the Australians' knowledge of Van Straaten's intended movements it was accepted as being accurate.  The company's senior officers were concerned that a Japanese advance from Dili combined with a pincer movement along the road from Aileu to Taco-Lulic would trap the small force and, as there were reports of a Japanese move on Aileu, it was decided to withdraw Company Headquarters from Railaco to Vila Maria and to pull Baldwin's platoon back from Three Spurs.

Faced with Japanese invasion the 2AIC began to move to the new positions in accordance with pre-arranged plans.  The plan to move back to Dutch Timor had been frustrated by the Japanese invasion so the alternative scheme to destroy the airfield and to fall back to protect the rear (it was hoped) of the main force was put into effect.  After the destruction of the airfield, the forward platoons, chiefly those led by Baldwin and Laidlaw, were to send out patrols, contact the enemy and learn his lines of movement.  (As the Japanese were moving out from Dili it was not difficult to make contact).  The forward platoons were to delay the enemy as much as possible to give Company Headquarters and its engineer, signals and medical sections time to-move stores back along the company's planned withdrawal route. [5]

At this time the main body of C Platoon started its move to join A Platoon Headquarters at Railaco.  The men, laden like pack-horses and assisted by a few Timorese, set out on their march over the mountainous interior of Portuguese Timor.  On arriving at the A Platoon positions at Railaco the tired men of C Platoon learned that Company Headquarters had moved to Vila Maria, and they were to follow.  The march was resumed and the men, many of whom were weakened by malaria, struggled on under their heavy loads. They crossed the Glano River and when the bridge had been blown, they stopped in their tracks, lay down and slept the sleep of the dead.

The next morning the march recommenced.  Morale was at a low ebb and the fears for the safety of the men who had left for Dili combined with exhaustion from the previous day's march took its toll.  The trip to Vila Maria was nightmarish.  The heavily burdened troops marched through the still, airless heat of the morning along a seemingly endless track.  Distant features seemed to get no closer as the tired men marched on heads down, not daring to look at the climb ahead.

The little town of Ermera was reached in the early afternoon during a tropical downpour which turned previously dry tracks to muddy creek beds in minutes.  A friendly inhabitant provided the troops with shelter and food.  For many of the troops it was the first decent meal in days.  The final stage of the trip lay along what the Timorese claimed was a short cut.  Leaving the well-made track running from Ermera to Vila Maria the troops were led to another which appeared to lead straight up a mountain.  After a long and exhausting climb through the tropical rain the weary men finally arrived at Vila Maria on the evening of 25 February, where they were able to get some rest.  While many stores had been destroyed in the withdrawal much was saved, and after the hard work of the Australians and Timorese helpers, ammunition, medical equipment and weapons were removed to the new camp areas.

Fortunately the Japanese did not press on -after their initial drives, giving the commandos time to move their ammunition and stores to safety.  By the end of February Company Headquarters was established at Vila Maria.  Owned by a Portuguese, Senhor Aphonse Pereira, who was to be of great assistance to the Australians over the coming months, Vila Maria was located between Ermera and Hatu-Lia.  A long, low structure built on a levelled area cut into a mountainside, the house looked out over terraced rose gardens to the mountains. [6]

Callinan described his first meeting with Senhor Pereira:

Just out from Ermera we met Senhor Pereira, the owner of the Vila Maria coffee plantation, and with him was Father Carlos.  It was the first time that I had met Pereira, but Turton knew him quite well.  He was a most entertaining person to talk to; he had a wealth of descriptive gestures with his hands and arms, and his facial expressions were a language of their own.  He did a great deal for the Australians.  His house was always at our disposal, and because of this he was eventually a refugee in the hills with his wife and ten children. [7]

Harry Wray Sights Vila Maria

Signaller Corporal Harry Wray recalled his first sight of Vila Maria:

At last, we reached the top of a ridge and could see a large Porto house below us.  We were given to understand that this was close to our destination and with the clearing off of the rain our dropping spirits revived somewhat.  The sides of the track were scored with deep narrow waterways along which the red coloured water from the rain rushed in torrents.  I slipped off the track into one of these miniature mill races and found it hard to regain my feet and scramble out, covered in clay, and dripping in muddy water.  I was so wet from the rain that it did not matter much, but I was very annoyed about it at the time.

We slithered and slipped down the hillside to Vila Maria and were halted at the gates.  This house was a long low structure, built in stone and roofed with iron.  The gardens were spacious and well laid out.  I can remember admiring the wonderful display of roses in this garden. [8]

Callinan Visits Vila Maria

Callinan described his first visit to Vila Maria:

Later in the morning Baldwin and I set off to return by a different route to his area, and we slept that night with Dexter's section, and the following day Cornelius and I set off for company headquarters at Vila Maria.  This took us down into the Glano Valley, and then a climb up to a coffee plantation at Ai-Fu.  We progressed very slowly, and I had to leave Cornelius half-way up the hill and send a native with a horse back for him.  These people at Ai-Fu were very good, and I filled in the time waiting for Cornelius by having a bath.  When he arrived, they gave us a meal which was much appreciated as we had not eaten since early that morning, and it was now well on towards evening.

We pushed on the mile or so into Ermera, where it was arranged that Cornelius would sleep for the night whilst I went on to Vila Maria.  The owner of Ai-Fu lent me a horse and saddle for the trip.  It was my first experience of riding a Timor pony.  It was not a very long trip, fortunately.  I had difficulty in staying in the saddle as the pony jumped from rock to rock; at least, that is how it appeared to me at the time.  It was about eight o'clock when I arrived at Vila Maria, and there met a Portuguese girl who was to give us a lot of assistance and, because of it, to be placed on the list for an unpleasant death if the Japanese caught her.  She was Brandolina da Silva.  She directed me on to the actual headquarters, which was about half a mile further on.

Vila Maria was a high house placed on a platform cut into the side of the hill.  The roof was thatched, and the walls were of the typical sawn timber framework, filled in with palm stems placed vertically; there were wooden shutters over the windows which lit the few large rooms of the house, and the whole was very attractive.  The kitchen was a separate building.  The soil cut away from the hillside had been spread out in front of the house to give a terraced garden which was laid out in regular little garden plots filled with roses, and in the centre was a fishpond with water lilies.  Later it was to achieve fleeting world notice when the B.B.C. announced that Allied planes had attacked an enemy post at Vila Maria in Portuguese Timor.

The next day was spent in passing on my information to Major Spence, and in learning all the dispositions he had made to protect this area against a Japanese attack.  The ammunition was being hidden in small dumps, most of them within a small area, because transport was unprocurable; but wherever possible the dispersal was being increased.  Our role at this stage was to protect the rear of the main force.  Everything there was organized, so it was decided that I should set off to go overland down to Koepang to contact the main force, and to give them a report of our positions, also to ask them for food, money, tommy gun magazines, and quinine. [9]

‘Our fine leader became deeply infatuated …’

Reinforcement detachment member Private Des Lilya recalled his arrival in Timor and progressive movement to Vila Maria where his sub-section officer Lieutenant John Laffy succumbed to the charms of Brandolina da Silva:

On January 16th, 1942, I sailed from Darwin as a reinforcement to the 2/2 Independent Company which was stationed somewhere in the NEI [Netherlands East Indies].  After three days at sea, we arrived at Koepang, the capital of Dutch Timor.  Our party for the 2/2 AIC [Australian Independent Company] consisted of 50 ORs [Other Ranks] and 3 officers.  We were immediately transferred to a Dutch gunboat, and after half a day wandering through the dusty, yet somehow picturesque street of the small capital, we sailed for Dili the capital of Portuguese Timor.

On arriving the following day, we moved straight out to the Dili drome, and I was taken on by truck to Three Spurs camp.  There we were made into D platoon, and after about a week we moved on to occupy Railaco.  Here we stayed about three weeks digging AA [Anti-Aircraft] defences and building Water Pipe Camp.  Then a subsection of us with Mr [Lieutenant] Laffy in charge, moved on to make the first staging camp at Vila Maria.

Here, our fine leader became deeply infatuated with a Portuguese by the name of Brandolina de Silva.  But on the night of February 19-20th, news came through that the Japs had landed at Dili in force, and our movements were much faster from then on.  Major Spence came through and detailed us all our jobs and patrols. [10]

Laffy along with Lilya, Arnold Webb, Bob Larney and ‘Curly’ Freeman shortly afterwards defected from their assigned patrol and decided to attempt to make their way independently back to Australia by boat. [11] Love (or lust) prevailed and Laffy left his three compatriots when they reached Suai on the south coast and rejoined the unit making his way to Hatu Builico where he was temporarily reunited with Brandolina.  Ray Aitken observed their relationship with interest:

At this time, Brandolina had a 'thing' about one of our reinforcement officers known as Tenente Jack [Lieutenant John (Jack) Laffy].  The Tenente was a plausible rogue of considerable presence and carriage.  Brandolina's image of him was that he was the individual hero of the Company and that while he stayed on the island the Japs were in imminent danger of defeat.  This was not at all our opinion of the Tenente, but emotional interest is notoriously blind. [12]


Brandolina da Silva (left rear) with her family in Portugal, June 1945 [13]

Battery Charger Retrieved

There is a report that a battery charger was retrieved from Vila Maria while it was occupied by the Japanese and used in the construction of ‘Winnie the War Winner’:

Loveless got to work on a second transmitter twice as big as that first attempted, which proved unsuccessful, and built it into a four-gallon kerosene tin.  A battery charger was recovered from enemy-held territory.  To get it 14 Commandos went through the Japanese lines to the old Australian headquarters at Vila Maria.  There, within 100 yards of Japanese sentries, protected only by the dark, they dug up the charger which had been buried when the headquarters were evacuated. [14]

Anzac Day Ambush

Anzac Day 1942 (25 April) brought considerable Japanese movement from Lete-Foho and Hatu-Lia to Ermera and Dili.  Lieutenant Rose and a party of four men ambushed a truck filled with Japanese troops near Vila Maria.  The Australians fired into the truck from their ambush positions and the panic-stricken survivors attempted to clamber up an almost vertical bank beside the road, less than 50 metres from the Australian positions.  The approach of a large convoy forced the Australians to break off and withdraw into the bush before they could complete their work.  Behind them they left between 12 and 15 Japanese dead.  One of the commandos, Private M.L. 'Doc' Wheatley, a professional kangaroo shooter in civilian life and regarded as one of the best marksmen in the company, accounted for eight of the enemy. [15]

The Australians were now falling into instinctive jungle fighting.  They were adopting the policy of hitting hard, quickly and often, then getting out.  As they knew the country well that they had selected to work in and knowing that the Japanese would not leave the road in pursuit, their getaways were usually fast and safe.

To the Australians this was a particularly adaptable policy and proved most effective.  The rugged conditions and lack of manpower made it almost impossible to transport casualties and it was far better to kill a small number of Japanese in a short, hard hitting action with no casualties to the Australians than to engage in longer battle which would almost certainly produce wounded.

This policy was to prove very effective and fitted admirably to the peculiar situation.  It had a great moral effect on the Japanese, who after every ambush sent out large parties of troops, at times as many as 200 strong to attempt to ferret out the Australians.  This usually amounted to nothing more than additional casualties to the Japanese and the Australians, using the jungle where the enemy used the roads would then proceed to pull off a series of ambushes until the Japanese tired of the fruitless pursuit and retired to their bases.

These continuous hard hitting actions also built up 'face’ with the Timorese who soon were talking of the white men's bravery and skill.  The troops were getting very sure of themselves, knew that they were more than a match for the Japanese, even at the great odds which they allowed the enemy.

The Atura Raid

By early May the Japanese were occupying the Villa Maria down to Ermera area and from reports received from native sources it appeared that they were going to consolidate probably for a push south.  Plans had already been made by the company to move east if the Japanese forced them from their central and southern coastal positions, but at the same time it was considered that a little diversion behind their own back, a strike at their rear may take their minds off their direct front.

The Japanese had established a base at Ermera, and the commandos soon found the convoys moving along the road from Dili to be a tempting target.  After several ambushes had taken their toll the Japanese set up strong posts along the road from which they sent out patrols to prevent further raids.  This was just what the Australians wanted.  The Japanese troops were dispersed and tied down in fixed locations where they could be observed by the Australians and attacked at leisure.  One such raid took place on 9 May when Lieutenant John Rose and a soldier, who had been on a two-week reconnaissance in the Vila Maria area, attacked an enemy outpost at Atura, a small village on the main road to Lete-Foho.  After blacking themselves with dirt and grease from the native cooking pots, Rose and the soldier together with a party of Timorese entered the village at night and attacked two huts occupied by Japanese soldiers with tommy-gun fire and grenades.  The outpost was wiped out, some 20 Japanese soldiers being killed or wounded. [16]

Vila Maria Under the Japanese

By the beginning of June, reports showed clearly that there were about 1200 Japanese troops occupying Ermera, so Sparrow Force headquarters asked for a bombing raid on the town.  They also asked that Vila Maria, Taco-Lulic and Tai-Bessi be bombed at the same time.  This was done on 6 June and details of the strike were immediately radioed back to Australia.

From late 1942 Vila Maria was permanently garrisoned by the Japanese who pressed the local Timorese to excavate caves in the surrounding hillsides for use as air raid shelters and to store ammunition and other supplies.  A large concrete water storage tank was also constructed in the area.  Reputedly, after August 1942 most of the local leaders switched their support to the Japanese.

What Happened to the Pereira and da Silva Families?

All members of the Pereira and da Silva families were evacuated from Portuguese Timor to Australia and survived WWII.  Whilst resident in Armidale, NSW Brandolina studied for and gained bookkeeping qualifications.  She corresponded with Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Spence and in a letter to him she referred to a visit from some of her Australian ‘soldier friends’:

Now a few items of news from Armidale: Captain Dexter, Bill Tomasetti and Captain Neave [17] … came to this town to meet their Portuguese friends, and of course we were thrilled at having had the chance of seeing our soldier friends again, and of speaking about past times and adventures in Timor.  Captain Neave whom I met only once over there, brought his wife to meet us and I think she liked the Portuguese people fairly well.  Captain Dexter looked very happy and different from when I met him in Vila Maria …. [18]

The da Silva family, including Brandolina moved to Portugal at the war’s end.  The Pereira family returned to Portuguese Timor. [19]

John Burridge met up again with Aphonse Pereira on a visit to Timor in 1966:

I had little more than one day left and was quite busy.  The first call was to Aphonse Pereira, who many will remember at Vila Maria.  He is starting to look a little old now but really has changed very little in 24 years and still has the same ‘explosive’ personality. [20]

Visiting Vila Maria Today

A substantial post WWII residence now stands on the site of what was the simpler structure described above.  The existing house unfortunately has been abandoned and neglected and is falling into ruin.  Overgrown agricultural or garden terracing and two roofless subsidiary buildings can be seen to the left-hand side of the house as you face it.  Local residents can point out and lead more agile visitors to the caves reputedly built during the Japanese occupation further up the steep hillside behind the house.  A Japanese built concrete water tank is situated further down the road towards Hatolia on the right-hand side – again, local residents can guide visitors to its location. [21]


Overgrown agricultural or garden terracing and two roofless subsidiary buildings on the left-hand side of the house at Vila Maria


[1] Area study of Portuguese Timor / Allied Geographical Section, South West Pacific Area. - [Brisbane]: The Section, 1943: Map 1 – Portuguese Timor [163] https://repository.monash.edu/items/show/26455#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0

[2] Area study of Portuguese Timor: 36.

[3] Christopher C. H. Wray - Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese. - Hawthorn, Vic.: Hutchinson Australia, 1987: 71.

[4] Bernard Callinan - Independent Company: the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43. - Richmond, Vic.: Heinemann, 1984: 50-51.

[5] Wray, Timor 1942: 71-72.

[6] Wray, Timor 1942: 72-74.

[7] Callinan, Independent Company: 72-73.

[8] Harry Wray Timor memoir.  Manuscript copy in 2/2 Commando Association of Australia archives: 65.

[9] Callinan, Independent Company: 54-55.

[10] ‘Des Lilya's Story via Dave Dexter’ 2/2 Commando Courier April 1991: 7.

[11] Ed Willis ‘Escape from Timor – how four men made it back to Darwin after the Japanese invasion of Portuguese Timor – Arnold Webb's and Des Lilya's Stories’ https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/218-escape-from-timor-–-how-four-men-made-it-back-to-darwin-after-the-japanese-invasion-of-portuguese-timor-–-arnold-webbs-and-des-lilyas-stories/#comment-399

[12] Ray Aiken - Tales of the Second Second: 60-61.  Manuscript copy held in 2/2 Commando Association of Australia archives.

[13] Photo in 2/2 Commando Association of Australia archives provided by Genevieve Isbell from the Alexander Spence collection.

[14] ‘Let us remember these men, too - Rabaul, Ambon, and Timor’ The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic.: 1864 - 1946) Sat 28 Oct 1944: 9. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/142419751/12685836

[15] Wray, Timor 1942: 95.

[16] Wray, Timor 1942: 100.

[17] Lieutenant (later Captain) David St Alban Dexter, VX38890, 1 Section, A Platoon 2AIC; Staff Sergeant William (Bill) Ernest Tomasetti, VX28767, Headquarters Section, 2AIC and Captain Reginald (Reg) Claydon Neave, NX70843, Sparrow Force Headquarters.

[18] Letter from Brandolina da Silva to Alexander Spence from Armidale, NSW, dated 19 September 1944. Copy in 2/2 Commando Association of Australia archives provided by Genevieve Isbell from the Alexander Spence collection.

[19] Yvonne Fraser - Bob's Farm cadre camp: refugees from Timor in Port Stephens during World War II. - Tanilba Bay, NSW: Port Stephens Family History Society Inc., 2014: 58-59.

[20] John Burridge ‘A report on a trip to Portuguese Timor: June 15 to June 22, 1966’ 2/2 Commando Courier July 1966: 10-11.

[21] Notes by Ed Willis made during visit to Vila Maria on 11 May 2019.  Thank you to John Cramb for providing me with his notes on the site prepared during a visit to the site in 2013.  See also ‘Australian link with East Timor’ Wyvern Magazine Issue 23, 2014: 12.  Copy attached to this post.


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