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Edward Willis

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Betano (9° 09' 48" S, 125° 42' 48" E)

Betano (Nutur - see Photos Nos. 18-20) is 33 miles (53 km.) southwest of Aileu at a bearing of 161°.  This is a small village but important on account of a fair anchorage.  The only buildings were the customs house and native huts, some being used for cotton storage.  During the latter end of July 1942, Japanese shelled Betano from the sea and only skeleton buildings remain.  Australian Forces used the anchorage at Betano for several weeks and found it very satisfactory. [1]

4. Betano—Nutur (125° 44'E.) - see photos nos. 18, 19, 20.

Two and a half miles (4 km.) northeast of Cape Lalete.  Cape Lalete is low and marshy.

The bay is 21/2 miles (4 km.) across the eastern half being full of reefs, some nearly exposed at high tide.  The western half is clear but exposed to the southeast.  As a result the anchorage was not often used in the southeast season.

The anchorage is in 11 fathoms (20m.) about 300 yards (275 m) southeast of the wreck, but in order to avoid the fate of the wreck, it is recommended to let go anchor when 16 fathoms (30 m) is reached.  This wreck is a good identification mark, but not a prominent landmark; 4 to 5 miles (61/2  to 8 km.) is the limit for visibility from seaward.  Other identification marks were the customs house and a post on a concrete stand.  Approaching this post on a bearing of 315° would miss the end of the reefs. [2]


Betano - satellite view [3]

The road from Same to Betano turns east along the coast with the ocean intermittently in view through fringing scrubland and palm trees.  After a kilometre or two turn onto a track that leads to a roofless Portuguese era building that is the former the Customs House referred to in the ASPT.  The building overlooks the wide expanse of Betano Bay, standing about 70 metres from the waterline.


Indonesian era monument in front of the Customs House - 28 April 2014

An Indonesian era monument is positioned in front of the Customs House has steps leading up to what must have been a flagpole.  This monument may have been adapted from the ‘post on a concrete stand’ mentioned in the ASPT.  Painted on one side is the faded figure of an armed and running marine soldier and the insignia and motto of his unit.  On the seaward side the insignia is repeated and the date ‘27.1.1976’ is inscribed.  This commemorates the date the Indonesians invaded this sector of the island from the sea prior to their unilateral annexation of all of the former Portuguese colony a few months later.  After landing, they advanced towards Same to take control of its airstrip.


Portuguese customs house, Betano – April 30, 2018

In December 1945 official war artist Charles Bush found himself sketching in the crashing surf of Betano Bay, Timor, recording the rusting hulk of HMAS Voyager.  More than three years previously this bay had been the site of dramatic events that ultimately ended with the scuttling of the ship.  Charles Bush was following in the traditions of the Official War Art Scheme established during WW1 to record and reconstruct paintings of historic military events.  A series of works of HMAS Voyager that followed illustrates the artistic working process of Charles Bush, reconstructing events that he had not witnessed.


Sept. 24, 1942 - HMAS Voyager aground in Betano Bay, Timor [4]

When the Japanese invasion force swept across Timor in February 1942 the defenders of the island outpost were quickly overwhelmed by the rapid Japanese attack.  However, the men of the 2AIC melted into the mountains to wage an effective guerrilla war against the occupying Japanese.

The isolated Australians were able to re-establish contact with Darwin on 20 April 1942 by constructing a radio dubbed ‘Winnie the War Winner’.  Back in Australia the decision was made to maintain the harassing guerrilla force on Timor, and a regular program to resupply the troops was established.  It was recognised that fresh troops were required to continue the fight and HMAS Voyager was tasked with inserting 600 members of the 4AIC and supplies into Timor while evacuating 400 men of the original force.

HMAS Voyager arrived in Betano Bay and anchored half an hour before sunset on 23 September 1942.  To make the most of the fading light, the troops were ordered to disembark immediately.  This would prove to be a fatal mistake for the Voyager; within minutes it was realised that a strong tidal current was pushing the ship parallel to the shore.  The collapsible boats, made from canvas and plywood, were rapidly filling with troops directly above the portside propeller.  Captain Robison urgently needed to manoeuvre the ship into deeper water using the port engine, but he waited 17 minutes for the troops to get clear, as he feared if the port engine were to start it would suck the men into the propeller.  Once the engines were started Voyager had nowhere to move, and within a minute was stuck fast on the beach.  From anchoring to the eventual grounding of HMAS Voyager, only 23 minutes had elapsed.

The rest of the night and the following morning were taken up with frantic attempts to dislodge the ship, but to no avail.  The decision was taken at noon to abandon all attempts to free the ship, as by this time sand had surrounded the propeller and ship’s hull.

The efforts of the independent companies and Voyager’s crew were now diverted to emptying the ship of all supplies and anything else that could prove useful.  This operation was hampered by a number of Japanese air raids.  Voyager was stripped of all supplies by 8 pm on 24 September and demolition charges were laid in the engine room, blowing holes in each side of the hull.


Charles Bush - HMAS Voyager wrecked and burning at Betano Bay [5]

Early the next morning Captain Robison and a member of the crew set fire to the ship, burning its remains.  It was this dramatic act that artist Charles Bush would ultimately record for posterity through his work.  Voyagerburned throughout the day, with the ship’s magazines intermittently exploding.  That evening HMAS Warrnambool and HMAS Kalgoorlie evacuated the stranded Voyager crew along with a number of the wounded from the independent companies.

More than three years after the burning of HMAS Voyager Charles Bush made a pilgrimage to where it had foundered.  Like First World War official artist George Lambert’s expedition to Gallipoli in 1919 to produce sketches of the battlefield and later reconstruct paintings of the campaign, Bush was set a similar task.  He was sent with an Australian army Military History Section team to collect material and record the significant battle sites in Timor.  Up until Bush’s deployment there was no official artistic record of Australians fighting in Timor, and there was little opportunity to visually document the chaotic HMAS Voyager resupply operation.  Only a handful of photographs from this operation are known to have survived.

The Military History Section field team arrived in Timor just after the Japanese surrender in 1945.  The team included Bush, photographer Keith Davis, and veterans of the 1942–43 Timor campaign to act as guides.  The team’s movements around Timor were hampered by climatic conditions, but this did little to dampen Bush’s enthusiasm to record the landscape of Timor:

‘…. rain pinned us down here [Dilli] for a while but as these conditions coincided with those of 1942, my colours as well as subjects will be of value in bringing these places back to the memory of those who were there’.

Bush also described the heavy going on the expedition to get to the site of HMAS Voyager’s demise:

‘…. heavy rain and the jungle having swallowed the tracks, made these places inaccessible, as it was we had to substantially repair 2 bridges to get to Betano, painted the rusty hulk of the Voyager, also a pen sketch of a detail, as we did not want to be cut off here, will rely on the photographs taken for any reconstructions necessary’.

Bush’s visit to the wreck was brief, and he completed only two works.  Keith Davis photographed the wreck as Bush was completing the ink and oil sketches.


Engine block from the Voyager, Betano – May 2, 2019

Bush was mindful of the difficult task of accurately reconstructing events in Timor.  While there he wrote to Lieutenant Colonel John Treloar, Officer Commanding the Military History Section and later Director of the Australian War Memorial, stating he wanted to contact as many of the Timor campaign veterans as possible, to gather their recollections to make his paintings as accurate as possible.  Upon his return to Australia, Bush met with Major Baldwin from the 2AIC, and ‘received a good account of the burning (deliberate) HMAS Voyager at Betano’.  This meeting gave Bush the final piece of the puzzle required to begin working on the accurate reconstruction of the scuttling of HMAS Voyager. [6]

The dwindling remains of the wreck of the HMAS Voyager are still visible on the beach at Betano about 800 metres west of the customs house.  RAN clearance divers were at Betano in March 2000 when HMAS Betano, a 'landing ship- heavy' (LHS), visited the place after which she was named.  The divers surveyed the wreck and disposed of some of the hazardous material there - a torpedo, depth charges, fuses and shell.  They located an anchor, three four-inch guns and the ship's two propellers. [7]


[1] ASPT: 29-30

[2] ASPT: 13

[3] Apple Maps - 30 March 2023

[4] Dymond - The history of HMAS Voyager 1: 187

[5] https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C174992

[6] The preceding text about the wreck of the Voyager and Charles Bush was adapted from: Alex Torrens ‘HMAS Voyager wrecked and burning at Betano Bay’ https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/hmas-voyager-wrecked-and-burning-betano-bay

[7] ‘The deep end - Navy divers in Dili’. – Sydney: XYZ Networks Pty Ltd, 2000, DVD video, 50 mins.: sd. col. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fm0WPValKKs











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