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Edward Willis

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Alas (09° 01′ 19.39′′ S, 125° 47′ 07.89′′ E)

Alas is 26 miles (42 km.) southeast of Aileu at a bearing of 141°.  Situated on the southern foothills, it has a good outlook towards the coast.  It is a market town and controlled by the Commandant of Same.  There is also a mission station, church, schools and priest's residence constructed of stone with galvanized iron roofs.  An old posto built of stone with galvanized iron roof about one mile west was damaged by Japanese aircraft in August 1942.  No persons reside there at present.  There are some coconut plantations along the Seissara Creek which flows midway between the posto and mission station in the northeast. [1]


Alas – travel directions

Alas can be reached by travelling north for 15.6 km from an intersection on the south coast road (Estrada Betano Umaboco) on the western side of Wedauberek.  The minor road of variable quality ascends gradually towards the township.  Typically, the old Portuguese posto that was used as HQ by both Sparrow and Lancer Force is situated on higher ground some distance from the town and is difficult to locate; consult the district administrator for directions or employ a local guide to find your way.

It is an impressive site – the Portuguese posto building incorporates Indonesian era military structures with brightly painted unit insignias on the walls.  There is a separate hospital, a substantial gateway, steps and walls.  All these structures were totally overgrown until the vegetation was cleared recently by labourers employed under a Timor-Leste government programme. [2]

Lieutenant Colonel Spence moved Sparrow Force HQ to Alas on 24 August 1942. [3]

After the push had finished, on August 19, Major Chisholm and Captain Webster from Force Headquarters and Captain Wylie and Captain Broadhurst  from Z Force were evacuated from the island.  The following day Major Cape, Captains Francis and Parker and Lieuts Atkins and Dowman from Force Headquarters followed them.  The same day that the first party left for Australia the Force HQ shifted down to Alas.  The hospital moved at the same time, the sick men being forced to carry all their equipment, marching all night and resting the following morning, then continuing on the track to arrive at Alas about midday the following day.  They established themselves in the Posto there but the following day moved into the priest's house at the mission.  Most of the inhabitants had gone from the town after the Japanese commenced their concentrated bombing and  the place was consequently almost deserted.

….. the hospital had also moved from Alas after that town was severely bombed in the end of September. These air attacks were not actually against the hospital as Force Headquarters was at this time in the same area.  During the bombing and strafing, the patients from hospital had to be taken from their beds and hidden in bushes surrounding the wards.  This type of treatment had to be avoided at all costs, particularly with bad malaria cases. [4]


Portuguese posto, Alas - 18 August 2022

Ken Piesse (4AIC) recollections:

He describes their [4AIC Advance Party] climb, accompanied by a long pack train of Timor ponies (cudas) carrying stores, for two hours up the steep, rough, rocky dalan to the village of Fatu Cuac.  ‘A picturesque place high up overlooking the Timor Sea’, where they enjoyed a good feed of rice and pork and paw-paws before moving on for Alas, the HQ of Sparrow Force with Lieut.-Col. A. Spence in command: ‘Tired as we were when we reached the old school building now used as a hospital, we could not help but admire the 'township', nestling as it does amongst the emerald hills.  The little white church, damaged by Jap bombs, was beautifully set against the hill just across the coconut tree and plantation filled valley.  Other Portuguese buildings, conspicuous as they are all over the island for their whiteness and Spanish design had suffered bomb damage, but as dusk fell, life at Alas seemed pleasant and restful.  Since leaving Betano, Pat Haigh had to be carried on a pony because of severe tinea between his toes and he was destined to remain at Alas in Capt. Dunkley's Hospital until he was later returned to Darwin’.


Major Mac Walker (4AIC) and Captain Geoff Laidlaw (2AIC) at Force Headquarters, Alas, with Timorese supporters [5]

The Advance Party left Lieut. Nicolay at Force HQ.  It then moved from Alas on 18 September, along the westward track under the guidance of Capt. Laidlaw, renowned for his beard and his exploits, including the downfall of the infamous and boastful ‘Singapore Tiger’ at Aileu.  Passing the: ‘pretty little village of Darramata’, they reached the wide Sue River, fairly deep even then in the dry season’. [6]

The 2AIC men took Walker’s party to Sparrow Force HQ at Alas, a tiny settlement in the hills above Betano Bay, where Walker and his senior officers were briefed on the Timor operation.  At the meeting, the 2AIC officers outlined a policy of joining the platoons of the 4AIC Company with those of the 2AIC so that the new arrivals could quickly learn the ropes.  For example, the three sections in Dexter’s A Platoon would each be joined by the three sections of the 4AIC’s A Platoon, with the same principle applied for its B and C platoons (the 4AIC Company did not have an improvised D Platoon like the 2AIC).  The policy sounded fine in theory but it might not work on the ground.  With food supplies still acute in the wake of the August push, it would be impossible to find sufficient local food for groups of 40 men in any one area. [7]


‘Alas’ – watercolour painted by Corporal Francis John ‘Curly’ Papworth, VX66806, Engineers, 4AIC [8]

After the departure of the 2/2nd Independent Company the wide sweeps of the Japanese caused Callinan and Walker to reconsider their position.  Soon after the affray at Same Japanese attacks forced some of Murphy's troops out of their positions on the Maubisse-Same road and the invaders' movements seemed likely to cut Thompson's platoon off from the main force .  About the same time attacks were jeopardising O'Connor's positions farther to the north.  Walker then defined a basic area which he considered it necessary for his men to hold if they were to survive and continue fighting as a force, though, if this were lost, he thought they might continue the fight as small groups and individuals farther to the east.  This area was generally that within an arc sweeping northwards from Alas, through Fai Nia, to Laclubar and thence east to Lacluta.  Accordingly Thompson's platoon (less the Ainaro detachment which was completely pocketed by Japanese and hostile natives) was based on Alas; Murphy's was based on Fai Nia; O'Connor's men were based on Fatu Maquerec (with one section still manning the observation post which looked into Dili from a point north-east of Remexio). [9]

Gordon Hart (4AIC) recollected his return to Timor in 1973:

All four Groups took the opportunity to dash south from Same to Betano beach to pay their respects to the rusting remains of HMAS Voyager.  B Group returned to Alas, but by-passed Fatu Cuac, as the road was in bad shape.  …. ‘I was not aware that Steve was giving Fatu Cuac a miss so I was completely lost for about an hour.  Then lo and behold, there was a banana plantation.  Now I've never associated Alas with a banana plantation, but out of the blue came a flash of the past and I knew I was in Alas.  At the far end of the town I could remember a sharp climb, with a plateau on top of the hill, where Major Spence had his Force Headquarters.

Wal Staples and I decided to climb the track and ascertain if this was really the spot where Force HQ had been.  The track had been widened for vehicular use, but it was still mighty steep.  For about 10 minutes we trudged, with hands pushing on knees, then Wal enquired - in between puffs – ‘How much bloody further is it?'  Things had changed a bit with the grading, but on turning the next corner I was able to tell him: 'Just around the next bend we will find a dead flat plateau’.  Sure enough there it was - just as I had seen it 31 years before. [10]


[1] ASPT: 28

[2] The town was visited by 2/2 Commando Association Committee members Ed Willis and Murray Thornton on 18 August 2022

[3] Sparrow Force war diary entry, 24 August 1942

[4] Robinson - [Timor (1941-1942) - Sparrow Force and Lancer Force - Operations]: 100, 119

[5] Lambert - Commando: from Tidal River to Tarakan: 93

[6] Lambert - Commando: from Tidal River to Tarakan: 91

[7] Cleary – The men who came out of the ground: 207

[8] https://www.gibsonsauctions.com.au/auction-lot/francis-john-papworth-b.-1915-ailalec-muckul_C03441F935

[9] McCarthy - Appendix 2 ‘Timor’ in South-west Pacific area - first year: Kokoda to Wau: 618-619

[10] Lambert - Commando: from Tidal River to Tarakan: 432


Edited by Edward Willis
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