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Lt Eric William Smyth, WX12124 - Address by Ms Erica Smyth AC to 73rd Annual Commemoration Ceremony, Sunday 20 November 2022

Edward Willis

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73rd Annual Commemoration Ceremony

Sunday 20 November 2022

Address by Ms Erica Smyth AC

Lt Eric William Smyth WX12124

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.  I am delighted to be here today and I too recognise we are on the lands of the Wadjuk people of the Noongar Nation and acknowledge their elders - past and present.

I also acknowledge our personal elders past – the men of the 2nd/2nd Commando unit – our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, in-laws, other relatives, friends; who were, 80 years ago, being evacuated from the southern shore of East Timor.

My Dad - Eric William Smyth - was not one to talk a lot about his war experiences but I have selected 4 of the stories he related to us - his 3 children – and have thrown in a couple of other tales.


Members of the headquarters staff of 2/2nd Independent Company, discuss their tactics with their officer before setting out on a mission. Identified left to right: QX6455 Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Alexander Spence; WX12124 Lieutenant (Lt) Eric William Smyth; 382001 Major (Maj) Bernard James Callinan; Captain (Capt) Boyland, believed to be WX6490 Capt George Boyland, of Northcote, Vic.

His First

“In April 1942 we had radios but they were not powerful enough to make contact with Australia. One of our signallers, Joe Loveless, managed to build a radio set to contact Australia. He made the chassis from a kerosene tin.  He had the real technical knowledge, but no instruments. No gear, nothing. He was working blind, but they gathered old bits of the Portuguese radios from here and there, parts of our own and built this set to get in touch with Darwin. We had been out of contact since the 19th February.

The signal went out and was received south of Darwin. They listened the following night and got us again and then they became suspicious as to who was trying to contact Australia. Joe had some friends and mates in Darwin and we had two or three signallers who had come up to Timor from there.  So, one of the Darwin signallers, who was a friend of Joe’s, and another, who lived next door to him, started asking: “What's your wife's name? Where do you live?” They asked personal questions that only Joe or the others could answer and finally they accepted the fact that it was us.

So, we then asked for supplies like - quinine, Tommy gun ammunition and boots plus we asked for silver money. The Timorese liked to make silver jewellery - - bracelets and broaches - that sort of thing. Our Australian threepenny and sixpenny, high silver content, money was very prized and we had many IOUs to pay.  This radio of course was Winnie the War Winner!”

And this has a link to one of my own stories ….

Twenty years ago - in May 2002 - I was asked to lead the Woodside delegation to the Timor Leste Independence Day celebrations.

I was also delighted to undertake a second task on behalf of Woodside. I went to meet a fisherman (Antonio Soares) who had found one of Woodside’s current-tracking buoys that had been released into the waters off Exmouth. Antonio had seen it on a reef and although he was afraid it might have been a bomb he went out to look. He saw it had English writing on a plaque and he took it to his brother, Santiago, to translate it. Santiago was an interpreter for the UN and he saw it was from Woodside and that there was a reward for the buoy’s recovery. He made contact and I was asked to pay the reward.

At the time I was wearing a double red diamond tie pin on my shirt and Santiago recognised it and we excitedly chatted. He told me his father (Jacinto) helped provide food to the Australian soldiers in 1942 by killing a buffalo each month. They paid him before they left with 4 boxes of silver coins. Jacinto then buried the boxes in the hills hoping to recover them after the Japanese left. But the boxes have never been found and Santiago and his family still dream of the boxes of treasure lost in the hills.

When I came back to Perth I told Jack Carey of this 2nd/2nd Association the story and he laughed and said it was a common tale and many Timorese had stories of a family treasure of silver coins buried somewhere up in the hills.

Now to Dad’s second story

“After contact was made in April 1942 the Australian Command in Darwin evacuated the Brigadier and our Commanding Officer, Major Spence, was promoted to Lt Col and he took leadership of Sparrow Force.

Like most members of the 2nd/2nd I had little knowledge of what went on at force headquarters.  So it was with some trepidation that I learnt that I had been promoted from Sgt of “A Troop” to Lieutenant and seconded to the Sparrow Force Headquarters as an intelligence officer. I had no wish to leave A Troop, I had no expertise or training in intelligence work. I had no idea how I would fare working with Lt Col Spence – but I had no say in the matter - just told to do it.

While at Sparrow Force Headquarters I did the coding and decoding of messages. I was meeting the boats that were coming in and taking mail down to them and bringing the other important mail back. I was also helping with the organisation of supplies and things like that.

One night I was down on the beach to meet the supply corvette. The first and second tender boats got swamped in the surf. They were not going to bring in a third. We got those two out again by helping the sailors, but all our supplies were floating around in the water. I had the mail to go, so I said to the second boat that went off," Tell the third boat to wait outside and I will swim it out".

I only had one spare set of clothes, so I was not going to swim in the salt water in any of them. So I took everything off. I was starkers and I swam out to the tender. Then they took me out to the corvette. Of course, the corvette is blacked out and completely dark. I got on to the bridge and just said I had the mail and if they would waterproof anything that had to go back I would swim it back. They said, "wait a while" and we will put it into your package and sew it up.

The Captain then asked, "Is there anything you would like while you are here?" I said, "Well, I would like something to eat". He said, "Well, what would you like?" I said, " Oh, anything. I don't mind. What about a nice piece of bread and jam?" 

The Captain of the ship said to one of the sailors, "Take this bloke down to the mess and give him a piece of bread and jam.” So down I went to the Sailors’ Mess. They told the mess bloke that I wanted some bread and jam so he got out a loaf of bread, 1 lb of butter and tin of jam and said “here you go.” I was as happy as Larry because we were getting rice and a certain amount of meat, but we had nothing like jam or anything like that. They offered me anything I wanted to take back, but how was I going to take it in?

When I returned to the Captain for the return message he was a bit embarrassed as by then he realized I was a Lieutenant and he had sent me down to the crew’s mess. I did not care!

When I did get back to shore there were all these stores floating around in the water. A bloke by the name of Don Murray and I decided that we would swim out and rescue what we could because the natives would not go in above their waist. They reckoned there were too many crocodiles around here. We swam what we could in close enough to where they would take it off us and carry it ashore.

As we swam around, the stores were drifting down the coast and we ended half a mile or so down the beach and were physically tired. So I walked back up the beach and lay down and went to sleep. The next morning I was covered in sand fly bites. They had eaten me alive, but I had been so tired I had just laid down on the beach and slept.”

Let’s move to Dad’s third story

“At about the time of the August push Lt Col Spence was evacuated to Australia and my secondment to Force HQ ended.  I went to 2nd/2nd HQ where Major Laidlaw had taken over and I helped organize the evacuation of the remaining Portuguese; firstly the women and children and shortly after that the men.

This was done on a very strict timetable. The ship’s captain would arrive offshore after dark and would leave again in the dark so he could be well away from Timor before daybreak and nothing would be allowed to hold him up.

Finally, the order came to evacuate the women and children. The sea was rough and they had to be transported to the ship in the small tender craft. The women and children had difficulty wading out to the boats and getting in so we just picked them up and dumped them into the boats. There was no time to waste as the ship would have sailed away without them if they weren’t there in time.

Among the women was a group of nuns with nothing but the habits they were wearing. They were hampered by these cumbersome garments and because it was so difficult to get to the boats the men, including me, just picked them up and dumped them in.”

30 years later there is a follow-up story as told by my Mum

“In the early 1970s Eric and I, with 2 of our friends from Geraldton, flew to East Timor.

While in Baucau I decided to go walking on my own ahead of the others. In the distance I saw a nun who looked about my own age. She had that serene look and a gliding walk even-though it was hot and dusty. As she approached, we passed greetings and she asked me “where are you from?” and “Who are you with?”

When she heard we were Australians and that my husband had been in Timor during the war she said “where is he?” I pointed to the others and suddenly there was a transformation. Her face became animated and she almost skipped her way to him. Calling out “you are the one who put me in the boat like a sack of potatoes” and then there was a lot of chatter between them.  It was a very moving experience.

The nun I had met was Italian and after her evacuation from Timor she was sent to Sydney for a few years but returned to continue her work in Timor again. A few years after our visit was the invasion by Indonesia and I often wonder what became of her.”

Dad’s last story is of his, and the whole unit’s, departure

“We were evacuated in early December ’42 which was nearly 12 months from the time we left Darwin. To take us off they sent in another corvette. This was attacked by aircraft and badly damaged and it turned back so they called on a pretty new, nearby, British made, Dutch destroyer. We were all gathered, waiting, on the south coast.

They picked us up about midnight. We had to swim to get out through the surf so we had very little gear with us, and were all very tired so, when we got on board, we all just lay down and went to sleep. It was very rough. 

We woke up in the morning, the whole ship was dancing and you could not imagine how we had been able to sleep. I looked out the back and there was a huge wall of water. We were going straight through the slot. So we asked, "What speed are we doing " and one officer said, "Something about 40 knots or a bit more, and we are doing every revolution that we can do, she is flat out. We have no air cover until 11 o 'clock”. I never knew that a boat like that could go so fast. It was an amazing experience. After we met up with our air-support we cut back the revs and, because of submarine scares, we put into Darwin.

In Closing

I hope these personal snap shots, in my father’s own words, help you to appreciate that the 2nd/2nd Commando Unit was made up of ordinary men who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances and that they bravely faced all the challenges thrown at them.


Erica Smyth AC



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