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ROLF REDMOND BALDWIN, VX50054 - (1909 – 2006) - Platoon commander and staff officer on Timor

Edward Willis

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Portraits of Rolf Baldwin and Bernard Callinan, lieutenants in the 2nd AIF, at Darby River, Victoria, early 1941. [1]

Rolf Baldwin played a key leadership role during the 2nd Independent Company’s successful guerrilla campaign against the Japanese on Portuguese Timor during 1942.

Baldwin, commander of A Platoon, was a 33-year-old school teacher from Melbourne.  An erudite man with a wide and deep knowledge of Australia, especially its bush and old gold-field areas, he was never lost for a yarn.  As an officer and man he was known to be wise and fair, and was respected by the troops under his command.  Later in the campaign he was to be a hard-working and loyal second-in-command of the unit. [2]

In the cadre of potential officers brought together on Wilson’s Promontory when the No. 2 Independent Company was being formed, Bernard Callinan, 28, an engineer was joined by Rolf Baldwin, 32, a teacher at Melbourne Grammar School.

An ‘eccentric’ schoolmaster with a pencil moustache, Baldwin was not the typical rugged type found in the unit.  He freely admitted that he didn’t like sport, but he was chosen because his knowledge of astronomy had impressed Spencer Chapman when he met him on his recruitment drive.  Baldwin had grown up at the Melbourne Observatory where his father had worked as the government astronomer.  And his work as a schoolmaster at Melbourne Grammar made him the well-organised, efficient type that was needed at the top.

Baldwin and Callinan had both read and discussed Reitz’s book, which described how a small force of well-organised Boer guerrillas could tie up a conventional army many times their number. [3] The salutary lesson of the book for Callinan and Dexter was why the Boers eventually failed: through exhaustion, lack of food, and because the friendly population had been driven away from them.

When formed, the company was led by Major Alexander Spence, 35, a journalist from Proserpine, Queensland, with Captain Callinan as his second-in-command.  The formation of this elite unit had been rather hasty, and it was about 50 men short of its full complement of 270 officers and men.  But all the officers needed to run the company were there, 17 in total.  While most of the company’s ordinary ranks came from Western Australia, only four officers were drawn from that state.  Captain Baldwin, the Melbourne Grammar master, commanded A Platoon. Captain Geoff Laidlaw, 31, a salesman and surf champion from Newcastle, NSW, led B Platoon.  Laidlaw, with a huge bear-like frame, was known in the company as ‘the Bull’. George Boyland, 30, a Western Australian, led C Platoon. [4]



Baldwin provided his own self-deprecating account of his contribution to the Timor campaign to the ‘Courier’ in March 2000:

TIMOR MEMORIES SERIES 7. ‘Recollections’ by Rolph [Rolf] Baldwin [6]

In the early part of the war a Lieutenant on the reserve of officers, aged 30 and in a reserved occupation to boot was a drug on the market.  It was J.R.D. [7] who solved that one for me by introducing me to Freddy Spencer-Chapman. [8]

Formation of No. 2 Independent Company

The result was that I called up as a Fieldcraft Instructor under Freddy.  There were two of us, the other being David Dexter (Old Geelong Grammar) who came to the position by quite a different channel.  In that position we stayed together during the training of the officers and NCOs of the first and second Independent Companies, later Commando Squadrons, and were posted together to the 2/2 Aust Independent Company quite an adventure for two Victorians to serve in a unit that was overwhelmingly Western Australian.  Together we shared the long, rigorous winters training on Wilson Prom, which was odd training for the tropics but nevertheless, served its purpose well, for the real hardships of that apprenticeship formed a very cohesive unit.  Dexter and I were together all through Timor. [9]

‘Shipped across to Timor’

It was as well for us that it was formed as soon as the war with Japan broke out we were shipped across to Timor, first for only a few days to the western part and then to the eastern end which was then Portuguese.  In some ways we were on easy street for we never suffered serious bombing nor shelling and casualties were comparatively light.  On the other hand, we shared a small territory with vastly superior numbers of the enemy, we had to live mostly off the land under the same conditions as the natives did, our line of communication with Australia was non-existent for 6 weeks at the beginning of 1942 and was never better than tenuous and these conditions had to be endured for nearly a year without any leave or rest, with rations becoming poorer all the time and the health of us all deteriorating.  The story is told in 'Independent Company' by Bernard Callinan [10] which appeared in 1953 and in ‘Timor 1942’ by Wray [11] which was published in 1992 so I shall not attempt to summarise but merely mention a few incidents in which I was personally concerned.

‘When the Japanese first arrived’

When the Japanese first arrived in Dili the Independent Co. was dispersed in the hills surrounding the town except for one section (an officer and 20 men) which manned the airfield.  This section fought fiercely from midnight until the early hours of the morning then blew the numerous demolition charges which had already been set and in the resulting confusion, vanished into the hills behind the town.  After taking a while to consolidate their position in Dili the Japanese came out into the hills to search for their elusive enemy.  There, of course, they were met by the 'ambush and vanish' tactics in which the Independents had been trained, and suffered heavy casualties from an enemy they did not see. [12]

After their first burst of activity, the company broke contact, except for maintaining a few observation groups and made clear away, over the central range of rugged mountains to previously selected places in the southern part of the island where we could re- group and prepare ourselves for the next phase.  This was a jump into the unknown for the selection of bases had been made off the map without any chance of reconnaissance.

Bobonaro and Senor Souza

Bobonaro was the place that fell to my lot and there I presented myself after a couple of days spent in moving under cover of darkness and lying up near native villages during daylight, living the while on such provisions as we could buy from the Timorese.  By this time these people had accepted us as friendly, but we still did not know how we should be received by the Portuguese.  So, it was with some inward trepidation and very conscious of our bush ranger appearance that I marched into the square of the first Portuguese posto that I had seen, with the platoon sergeant and a couple of men for escort.  All doubts were groundless, however.

Senor Souza [13] was provincial governor of a province of perhaps 300,000 people, very pro-British in his outlook and most cordial in his reception of people who were technically invaders.  My escort was handed over to the hospitality of the local military detachment and I was taken into his own household for lunch.  To one who had been living hard for some weeks and absolutely native for the last few days it was indeed a shock to see neatly uniformed servants, crisp white napery to sit in a capacious leather easy chair and be offered his choice of Fosters or Johnnie Walker with an accompanying tray of delicious sandwiches.  Such luxury could not last and we were soon back to the bush, but the impression is still strong.

‘I had gravitated to the position at Company HQ …’

At this time Koepang had already fallen and with that had gone our only link with Australia so that we were lost to the people at home and they were similarly denied any means of telling us of their situation.  All we knew of the war situation was what we could hear from our Portuguese friends.  During the six weeks of this silence I had gravitated to the position at Company HQ and so was privy to a wildly exciting moment when 'Winnie the War Winner' by a near miracle managed to establish contact with Darwin.

Even more memorable was quite a while after when RAAF Hudsons came over and dropped some of the supplies we so urgently needed, boots, medical supplies and best of all, silver money with which to buy food from the natives.

The August Push

For a while after this our fortunes brightened.  The platoon 'were all situated in tactically useful positions where the food supply was adequate and could carry out vigorously their roles of observation and harassment.  This they did to such effect that in August the Japanese set out on a full scale, well-coordinated effort to round up their tormentors.  With probably 2500 first rate troops in five columns converging on a centre from as many points of the compass they gradually forced the Australians inwards.  Finally, they were in the position where they were denied the possibility of hit and run and would have to engage their enemy in pitched battle which could only end in surrender or annihilation.  On what seemed the vital night at about midnight I was standing chatting with the CO 'It looks now like the last man and the last cartridge' said he and almost as he spoke a big green rocket went up.

Mentally finger on trigger we waited for what seemed the inevitable, but nothing happened.  Then at first light our patrols went out and gradually it was confirmed that the unbelievable had happened - the enemy had simply vanished.  Nor was this only temporary, over days it became clear that they had actually gone back to Dili and we could carry on our little war under something like the old terms.

Arrival of No. 4 Independent Company

This we did for another month or so when we faced our next great excitement, that the 2/4 Independent Company, a unit identical with our own in numbers and organisation had arrived on the island.  Their arrival provided me with another set of vivid memories for it fell to my lot to be the OC beach during their landing.  This was a complicated task.  For one thing the troops coming ashore would have no transport to convey their stores and for another they would have no idea of how to find their way to the positions they were to occupy.  To cope with this each section of the 2/2 Company had to provide two guides and such and such number of ponies and have them at the designed beach at an appointed time.  There were many difficulties involved for it was a matter of moving a total of 400 ponies from several directions to the one point without arousing the suspicion of the enemy and then, when they had arrived at the beach, keeping them hidden and fed and watered until they were needed.  As this had to be managed on a large tract of flat ground about two thirds of which supported a scrub not unlike a big tea tree or old man Mallee, providing good cover from the air whilst the remainder was scattered patches of kunai grass.

The landing and dispersal

The fixed point in regard to movement was that a Japanese reconnaissance plane came along regularly every morning soon after sun rise.  The troop ship was to be the destroyer HMAS ‘Voyager’ and of course she would have to come in after dark and be away before first light.

By the night ‘Voyager’ was due, all was ready when we struck our first difficulty in the shape of a signal which said that her departure was to be delayed by 24 hours, but the hiding, feeding and watering of the ponies for the extra day was managed.  Then came the actual night.  ‘Voyager’ arrived punctually and the disembarkation went on smoothly from my point of view.

As each 2/4 section came ashore it was met by the 2/2 representative concerned, carried its stores to the waiting ponies and went on its way.  Keeping an eye on this kept me pretty well occupied but towards the end it seemed to me that the ship was coming pretty close inshore.  Then, as the last troops were on the beach I went along to the Commander of the ship for a few words.  From him I had the devastating news that the ship was aground and unable to move herself.

The fate of the ‘Voyager’

On our feet we concocted the plan that enough men would be left aboard to fight the ack-ack guns against the certain air attack next daylight and that the rest of the sailors, unarmed, for the ship carried only a few rifles, would occupy the hiding places of the horses.  We hoped against hope that there would be no land attack and, in fact, none did come while the sailors were ashore.  By the time all the sailors were in their new quarters it was full light and soon after the 'chaffcutter' as we called the plane, came over and went back to Dili.  Later came the bombers.  A stranded ship would be an easy target, but they scored only a couple of hits and one bomber was smoking so heavily that we felt the natives were right when they reported it destroyed.  In the afternoon the Commander of the ‘Voyager’ had her engines destroyed and the poor old ship was fired.  Red hot rivets flying from her plates were a sight to remember.  During the night two corvettes took off the sailors.  Next day another soldier and I had the eerie task of going back to the ship to look for a signals book that it was thought might have been left behind. [14]

End of the Timor Campaign

The Timor part of my recollections ends with the beach on the south coast of the island as we waited for the destroyer HMAS ‘Arunta’ to take us off.  The 2/2 Company had already gone in December 1942 but my great friend Bernard Callinan who was originally 2/IC of the 2/2 had become Commanding Officer of the combined 2/2 and 2/4 Companies and stayed on with me as Adjutant till the 2/4 came off in January 1943. [15] We were separated on the beach and I was on my own as, in nothing more than filthy old shirt and a pair of old ragged drill trousers, I went up the scramble nets and fell asleep on the first flat piece of deck I could find.  None of us wore badges of rank then so it was some time before I was found and taken along to the ward room where I met a similarly bedraggled Bernard.  What would you like to drink?  Would you have a Pym’s No. 1? and of course, the Navy had.

Final war years

That concludes these recollections for I spent 1943-45 as a staff officer in Melbourne, New Guinea, the Tableland and then New Guinea again.  Finally, by an odd quirk of fortune I fetched up after the Japanese surrender in Rabaul where I met old comrades in what had become the 2/2 Aust Commando Squadron and was shipped home with them in December 1945.

Captain R.R. Baldwin VX50054

NB: Baldy, as he is affectionately known, turned 90 on 16 December 1999.


[1]     National Library of Australia digitised item, http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-136262775

[2]     Christopher C.H. Wray. – Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese. – Melbourne: Hutchinson Australia, 1987: 31.

[3]     Deneys Reitz. - Commando : a Boer journal of the Boer war / introduction by Leo Cooper ; preface by General the Right Honourable J.C. Smuts. - London : Folio Society, 1982.

[4]     Paul Cleary. – The men who came out of the ground: a gripping account of Australia’s first commando campaign, Timor 1942. – Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2010: esp. Ch. 1 ‘The Pick of Australia’, 1-17.

[5]     https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/awm-media/collection/RCDIG1068966/large/5387433.JPG

[6]     Rolph [Rolf] Baldwin ‘Timor memories series 7.  “Recollections”’ 2/2 Commando Courier March 2000: 11-14. https://doublereds.org.au/couriers/2000/Courier%20March%202000.pdf , published online 2016, accessed online 12 June 2024.

[7]     Sir James Ralph Darling (1899–1995), Headmaster of Geelong Grammar School (1930-1961).  See Peter Gronn, 'Darling, Sir James Ralph (1899–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/darling-sir-james-ralph-21871/text31931 , published online 2019, accessed online 12 June 2024.

[8]     Edward Willis ‘Lieutenant Colonel Freddie Spencer-Chapman, 1907-1971 – master of guerrilla jungle warfare’ https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/144-lieutenant-colonel-freddie-spencer-chapman-1907-1971-–-master-of-guerrilla-jungle-warfare/ , published online 2018, accessed online 12 June 2024.

[9]     Michael McKernan, 'Dexter, David St Alban (1917–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dexter-david-st-alban-307/text29034 , published online 2016, accessed online 12 June 2024.

[10]   Bernard Callinan. - Independent Company: the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43. – Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1953 (repr. 1989).

[11]   Wray. – Timor 1942.

[12]   Edward Willis ‘Commando Campaign Sites – East Timor -Ermera District - the unit strikes back - the “Battle” of Grade Lau’ https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/250-commando-campaign-sites-–-east-timor-ermera-district-the-unit-strikes-back-the-battle-of-grade-lau/ , published online 2020, accessed online 12 June 2024.

[13]   Senhor António Policarpe de Sousa Santos, Administrator of Fronteira Province; see also Callinan, Independent Company: 68, 83, 115.

[14]   See also Edward Willis ‘75 Years On - the arrival of the No. 4 Independent Company and the wreck of the Voyager - 23 September 1942’ https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/116-75-years-on-the-arrival-of-the-no-4-independent-company-and-the-wreck-of-the-voyager-23-september-1942/ , published online 2017, accessed online 12 June 2024.

[15]   Edward Willis ‘Quicras - Manufahi District - WWII In East Timor an Australian Army site and travel guide’ https://doublereds.org.au/forums/topic/346-quicras-manufahi-district-wwii-in-east-timor-an-australian-army-site-and-travel-guide/ , published online 2022, accessed online 12 June 2024.


‘Rolf Redmond BALDWIN - Regimental Number: VX50054’ Men of the 2/2 – VX.  https://doublereds.org.au/history/men-of-the-22/vx/rolf-redmond-baldwin-r101/ , published online 2017, accessed online 12 June 2024.

NAA: B883, VX50054 - BALDWIN ROLF REDMOND : Service Number - VX50054 : Date of birth - 16 Dec 1909 : Place of birth - SOUTH YARRA VIC : Place of enlistment - ROYAL PARK VIC : Next of Kin - BALDWIN JOSEPH. https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/DetailsReports/ItemDetail.aspx?Barcode=6131176&isAv=N , published online 2003, accessed online 12 June 2024.

Command and leadership 2/2nd Independent Company Timor, 1942: an interview with Captain Rolf Baldwin.(In retrospect).  83 min 20 sec. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C299666, published online 1992, accessed online 12 June 2024.

Lana Capon ‘Rolf's war service’ Investigator: Geelong Historical Society No. 201, December 2015: 157-162.

Michael Collins Persse ‘Rolf Redmond Baldwin (1909- 2006)’ Investigator: Geelong Historical Society No. 201, December 2015: 163-165.

Rolf Baldwin (Baldy) interviewed on 30th May 2003.  98 min.  Australians at War Film Archive.  https://australiansatwarfilmarchive.unsw.edu.au/archive/364 , published online 2003, accessed online 12 June 2024.

‘Sparrow’ spread his seeds of knowledge far: Rolf Redmond Baldwin, teacher and soldier 16-12-1909 - 8-7- 2006’ The Age Tuesday, October 3, 2006: 10.  http://libraryedition.com.au/library_edition/Print.Article.aspx?mode=image&href=AGE%2F2006%2F10%2F03&id=Ar01003 , published online 2006, accessed online 12 June 2024.


Edited by Edward Willis
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