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75 YEARS ON - THE AUSTRALIAN AND DUTCH LANDINGS AT DILI, 17-20 DECEMBER 1941

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75 YEARS ON

THE AUSTRALIAN AND DUTCH LANDINGS AT DILI
17-20 DECEMBER 1941

 

INTRODUCTION

75 years ago, on December 17, 1941, the 2nd Independent Company began its campaign in Portuguese Timor when a contingent of 150 men landed on a beach outside Dili along with 260 Dutch indigenous troops.  The remaining men of the Company arrived three days later and disembarked in Dili harbour close to the town centre.

This initial experience and the year-long campaign that followed left a lasting impression on the Australians, who benefited greatly from the support given to them by the Timorese people during their conflict with the Japanese.  More broadly, this event was the foundation of the close relationship between Australia and what is now the young developing nation of Timor Leste.

This is the second in a series of stories marking significant events that occurred in 1941-1942 during the 2nd Independent Company’s campaign on Timor.

THE FIRST LANDING

The following narrative of the first landing was prepared by Corporal S.A. Robinson of No. 5 Military History Field Team using information gained from interviews with men of the 2nd Independent Company who were involved.  Robinson conducted the interviews with the men in New Britain, where the unit was then serving, in July 1945. [1]

Image 1: Captain Archie Campbell being interviewed by Corporal S.A. Robinson (Military History Section) about an incident during the Timor campaign [2]

As the sun climbed into the midday sky of December 17th 1941 the old Dutch training cruiser Soerabaja swung about and came to anchor on a strip of sandy beach about 21/4 miles west of Dili the capital of Portuguese Timor.

Over her side and into launches went Australian troops clad for battle the launches chugged through the blue water and the troops shouldered their arms and stood huddled closely, waiting.

They landed on the strip of white beach and the launches returned for more troops.  The colourful campaign of Portuguese Timor had begun.

The men who were landing were troops from the number 2nd Australian Independent Company, men of C Platoon.  With the remainder of the Company they had arrived on the Island of Timor, at Koepang in the Dutch Sector on December 12th, only five days before and from there had been allotted the task of garrisoning and if need be defending, the Portuguese part of the Island.

Image 2: Dutch training cruiser Soerabaja

The Company Split

The training cruiser could not accommodate the whole of the No 2 company in one trip, so only A and C Platoons and Company HQ's could make the initial landing.  B Platoon had remained at Koepang, and was to follow with the unit transport.  It had not been decided whether they should go overland or by boat.  Captain Laidlaw, O.C. of B Platoon and Lieutenant Turton had left Koepang to recce the area through to the Portuguese border to ascertain if an overland trip was practical.  While they were on this recce B Platoon, the company Signallers and Engineers moved up to Dili, arriving three days after the main body.

Dutch troops, 260 in all, accompanied the Australians on the initial landing, these being under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel van Straaten, who was in effect in command of the whole force and the defence of Portuguese Timor.

Negotiations with the Portuguese Governor

It was not known at the time of landing just what reception the Australians would receive.  Portugal had applied herself to strict neutrality but a delegation consisting of Lieutenant-Colonel Leggatt, CO of the 2/40 Infantry Battalion and Dutch Lieutenant-Colonel Detiger commander of the Dutch forces at Koepang had sought interview that morning with the Portuguese Governor at Dili.

Dressed in precise civilian clothes they were introduced to the Governor by Mr David Ross, British Consul in Dili.  They advised the Governor that Lieutenant-Colonel van Straaten had bought information from Java that in the event of attack the Portuguese Government were desirous that Dutch and Australian troops should constitute the protection of their territory.

The Governor stated that these facts were known to him but claimed that his instructions were definite, only to ask for help after Portuguese Timor had been attacked.

By this time Soerabaja had arrived escorted by R.A.A.F planes and was standing off about 10 miles out of Dili harbour.  Lieutenant-Colonel Leggatt advised the Governor of this fact only to be told that the Portuguese army must resist any landing of troops which would constitute a breach of neutrality.

Lieutenant-Colonel Leggatt pointed out that the Australian and Dutch forces did not desire that there should be fighting but made it quite clear to the Governor that he did not have adequate means of resistance and that such a step would be useless sacrifice.  The Australian officer then contacted the Soerabaja and informed that the landing should be made west of Dili.

At this stage, it seemed very likely, per Dutch intelligence information that the Japanese forces would soon attempt to overrun Timor in their southward drive.  It was considered that Portuguese Timor must necessarily be occupied by Dutch or Australian troops to prevent any possible landing which would give the Japanese bases from which to attack Dutch Timor and Koepang.

Even though this action constituted a breach of neutrality it was a practical step which the Allies could not avoid.

Image 3: Soerabaja with landing boats

Not Known Whether the Landing Would Be Opposed

Under these circumstances the Dutch and Australian forces did not know whether their landing would be opposed.  When Lieutenant-Colonel Leggatt returned to the Soerabaja he advised the Australian and Dutch commanders of the Australian and Dutch landing force that it was not known just what attitude would be taken by the Portuguese.  Intelligence information had been very scarce and had not been able to supply the strength of the Portuguese army nor its disposition.  Before the troops left the ship Major Spence, commanding officer of No 2 Company told his troops that they may have to fight as soon as they landed on the beach.

First Troops Ashore

Image 4: The section of beach depicted by war artist Charles Bush is probably where the men came ashore [3]

First troops ashore were C Platoon men, followed half an hour later by A Platoon.  These troops waited on the beach until Company HQ's landed then they formed up and moved into adjacent rice fields where they prepared for a move into Dili proper.

Before the main body was ready, a small party of signalmen, Lance Corporal G.A. Stanley, Signallers R. McMahon, K. Waddington, D. Murray and J. Servante under the command of Signals officer, Lieutenant J. Rose left for the township with the intention of taking over the radio station there and contacting Sparrow Force down in Koepang.

Again, this party had no idea what reception would be theirs, but was most agreeably surprised when they arrived in the township to find that the local inhabitants were welcoming them quite warmly and were not at all against handing over the radio station.

After the party of signalmen left, the main body moved forward to take over their positions.  It had been decided that the Dutch troops were to occupy the town and the Australians the serviceable air strip which was probably the main strategical position of Portuguese Timor.  It was a two-runway strip, both for fighter and bomber use, about a mile and a half west of the town right on the coast.

Occupying the Air Strip

The Australians believed the Portuguese army though not defending the town, may decide to defend the strip so A Platoon formed an extended attack line about 600 yards from the air strip and right along the North side while C Platoon were disposed around towards the entrance to the air strip and the hangars.  They did not advance, but in these positions awaited developments.

Image 5: Drain eastern side of the airfield [5]

Major Spence went forward to the air strip to meet the Dutch Consul from Dili, the Portuguese Governor and the Australian Consul, Mr David Ross.  It was late in the afternoon when Major Spence returned from this conference to inform his troops that they had won a bloodless victory.  It had been agreed that the Portuguese hand over the strip, Major Spence Informed his officers however that he had not received a great deal of co-operation from the Portuguese Governor and had still not been able to ascertain where the Portuguese army was situated or in what strength It was evident.

All troops then moved up to the air strip, arriving about dusk and digging in around the strip entrance and the hangars.  All night they stood to and the following day commenced to build a semi-permanent camp.

Settling In

Information was received on the 18th that an attack on these positions was possible by the Portuguese army under the command of Capt D'Acosta.  It was known now that the force totalled about 200 troops it was poorly trained and equipped and did not constitute a dangerous factor.

When the Governor was approached on this subject he assured Lieutenant-Colonel van Straaten that there could be no possibility of the Portuguese army creating trouble, then later, that the forces under Capt D'Acosta were moving out of Dili the following morning to barracks at Alieu about 12 miles away.  Nevertheless, the Australian troops stood to all that night.

The following day, the 19th, Company HQ’s was properly set up in the hangar at the end of the strip while the two platoons protected it in two detachments.  They still were taking no risk of attack from the Portuguese and maintained strict precautionary measures until they received definite information that the Portuguese army was at Aileu and that in any case their attitude was not openly hostile.  This information was received the following day the 20th.  The day on which B Platoon, the remaining platoon of the company arrived in Dili. [6]

THE SECOND LANDING

This small force, B Platoon the Company Sigs, Engineers arrived on board the Canopus without Captain Laidlaw, OC of the Platoon and Lieutenant Turton, Sapper Officer who had not returned from the border reconnaissance in time to accompany their commands.  These two officers arrived the following day by ship which also brought two one ton trucks and three motor cycles, the only transport available to the company.

B Platoon sections went straight to the strip on landing, this move concentrating the whole of No 2 company in the one area.  The three platoons and company HQ's were occupying positions around the whole of the hangars and the road entrance areas.  The sections were engaged in digging defensive positions, mapping and recceing.

Image 6: The Canopus

Corporal Harry Wray of the Signals Section arrived with the second contingent and recalled the journey from Koepang in his memoir [6]:

Departing Koepang on the Canopus

On the 17th December, after our very short stay in Koepang, we were taken into Koepang just after sundown.  After the usual wait on the jetty for an hour or two, for what reason we are never likely to know, we embarked in ships boats and were towed out to a ship, which we eventually discovered was the

One could not help but admire the marvellous phosphorescence of these waters, which was visible at night, the small bow wave from the boat caused the water to appear as if it were on fire, showing a beautiful deep flame colour.  Although I have seen all the colours imaginable in these waters at night, the phosphorescent display off Koepang was the finest I have seen.

The Canopus was Dutch government steamer, a neat little ship, beautifully fitted up for about half a dozen passengers.  Her usual work was to run around the islands taking government officials to their posts, and bringing them away for their leave, and all that sort of thing.

Cramped Conditions

By the time we were all on board it was difficult to find a place to sit or lie on.  Two men discovered the engineers’ bathroom and locked themselves in.  The night was a little hot they told me, but apart from that they had a comfortable sleep, one in the bath, and the other on the floor alongside the bath.  The engineers were furious at not being able to get into their bathroom, and despite all their hammering and shouting, the occupants would not open the door until it suited them in the morning.

Once on board we were given a mug of coffee each, and then settled down to another long wait while a party of our men unloaded a barge full of stores and stowed them on board the Canopus.

We sailed in the early hours of the morning and at daybreak we could see that we were sailing along the coast of Timor.

Image 7: Vessel in Dili harbour pre-war, with the Cathedral towers behind

Sailing Along the Coast

As we sailed along the coast we could see grim rugged mountains rising almost from the sea and towering into the clouds, barren desolate peaks they looked from the sea.  Now and again we could we could see a small town on the shore, one largish settlement had a large white church, which stood out very prominently against the mountains in the background.  I little thought as I gazed at the jagged line of mountains that I would spend many months climbing about their slopes.

The scenery was much the same all day, the only excitement was when a few Indonesian soldiers lounging in the stern of the ship raced to the boat deck and manned a couple of antique looking Lewis guns in a remarkably efficient and speedy manner.  A flying boat had been spotted heading towards us.  Just as the Indonesian soldiers were going to open fire they spotted the orange coloured triangle on the aircraft.

Then suddenly, a Hudson seemed to appear from nowhere and was right on the tail of the flying boat.  However, the Hudson’s crew recognised the Dutchman before any harm was done.  The Hudson had been keeping an eye on our progress, and was invisible against the sun when the flying boat appeared on the scene.  This accounted for the Hudson’s smart appearance on the tail of the rather lumbering flying boat.

Arrival at Dili

At daybreak, next morning we were off Dili, and could see a semi-circular reef exposed by the low tide with a narrow opening in it.  This reef acted as a breakwater for the collection of launches and fishing boats lying off Dili.  The shore was lined with trees and behind them houses could be seen.  The whitewashed cathedral stood towering above everything.  The twin towers of the cathedral could be seen for miles out to sea.

….

We left our heavy kit on the beach to come later by truck, and marched off down the road to the aerodrome about a mile distant.  On arrival at the aerodrome we managed to get something to eat.

When we arrived in Dili there was no certainty as to what was going to happen.  No hostilities had broken out, but it was an uneasy truce at the time.  The [Portuguese] Governor was furious about the landing, and was burning up the cables with messages to Lisbon.

 SOME CONTEMPORARY BACKGROUND

Dili in 1941 Described by Hudson Fysh [7]

Image 8: Typical Dili street scene, 1941

Dilli, which is also spelt Dili and Dilly, is one of the prettiest sites imaginable from the air as the white buildings and well-laid-out streets, set in great trees, appear below.  A curved fringe of sandy foreshore marks one arc of a tropical lagoon, the other being fashioned by a coral reef with an entrance from the air handy enough for use by visiting steamers.  It is the best harbour in Timor.

Closer inspection immediately stamps as a pretty and fascinating place – a mixture of the Old World and the new, and, though obviously having seen better days, still cleanly, as the gang of natives cleaning up the beaches bears witness.

The main buildings are the Cathedral, which dominates the town, the Town Hall, not yet fully recovered from an earthquake, the spacious columned Post Office, and the Governor’s offices.  The main buildings are brick plastered over and pained white, with balustrades and walls in the same style imparting an Old-World atmosphere.  On the outskirts, the dwellings taper off to picturesque native huts thatched with palm leaves, and fences made from palm fronds stripped of their leaves.  Bamboo is also used extensively used by the natives in building.

The trees of Dilli are a glory, and their growth is so dense and towering that a jungle-like atmosphere surrounds the town.  Coco-nuts grow in their thousands; great pagoda trees dominate the foreshore and parts of the town.  Colour is lent by poinsettias with their massive crowns of flaming red.  Such a tree is in its full glory grows near the Port Captain’s office, where it spreads above a picturesque native hut, from the chimneyless top of which rises a thin trickle of grey smoke.  On one side are the tall trees of Dilli and on the other the lagoon.  The massed red of this tree stands out as a brilliantly dash of colour and the ground is strewn with fallen blooms like a red and golden carpet.

Immediately behind the town, in fact rising from its outskirts, are the mountains, shooting up for several thousand feet, covered by forest growth.  In the morning, the range stands out clear, but each afternoon cloud masses form and gradually creep down the slopes until a great vaporous wall is formed, ever darkening and creeping over the town.  This usually ends in a thunderstorm, with heavy rain on the hills, reaching sometimes to the town, and, after its rainy violence, leaving all still and clear.

VISITING THE LANDING SITES TODAY

Dili was devastated by allied bombing attacks during the war and there has been further destruction in subsequent conflicts.  The city has also grown and been redeveloped considerably since 1941.  There is no physical evidence of the Australian landings, but the locations have been identified and can be visited when in Dili.

The First Landing Site

Image 9: Map of the first landing site

Paul Cleary wrote:

At 12.15 p.m., the contingent of 155 Australians and 260 Dutch indigenous troops … began disembarking on the beach about 4 km west of the town centre, close to the airfield and the town’s small mosque. [8]

Cleary has identified this location on the Ave. de Portugal near where it intersects with the Rua Governador Jose Celestino da Silva.  The small mosque, or its successor, sits on the corner of the intersection.  The Australian Embassy and Sparrow Force House lie approximately a kilometre south on the Rua Mártires da Pátria.  The intervening area between the landing site and the embassy was occupied by the old air field that was the objective of the Australians.  This is now a residential and small business suburb.  A drain running north-south that bisected the eastern half of the air field still exists and a portion of it can be seen in the street alongside the wall of the Australian Embassy.

Image 10: The first landing site today – this view has changed little from that depicted by Charles Bush in 1945

The Second Landing Site

Image 10: Map of the second landing site

Wray described the second landing site as follows:

Dili had a customs house on the foreshore, and almost in front of it a small jetty, at which was tied up a Jap ship of about 100 tons.

in boats, …CanopusWe were taken ashore from the

We were landed on the beach near the jetty, and there met some of the men who had been in the first party to leave Koepang. [9]

Image 11: The jetty at Dili with the Customs House behind [11]

It is possible to identify the location of the jetty and thereby the landing site from a map of Dili prepared in 1943 by the Allied Geographical Section because it is clearly marked along with the Customs House and cathedral.  Wartime aerial and ground photographs of Dili in the Australian War Memorial image collection also assist in confirming the location.  The structures referred to no longer exist but the location can be placed on a modern map of Dili on the shoreline in front of the Palácio do Governo on Ave. de Portugal.

Image 12: The second landing site today

REFERENCES

 

[1] S.A. Robinson, [Timor (1941-1942) - Sparrow Force and Lancer Force - Operations]: The Campaign in Portuguese Timor, A narrative of No 2 Independent Company.  Story prepared by Corporal S.A. Robinson, No. 5 Military History Field Team. – Australian War Memorial file AWM54 571/4/53.

[2] Australian War Memorial Photograph Collection item no. 09247.

[3] Australian War Memorial Art Collection item no. ART26321.

[4] Photo from Report on a visit to Portuguese Timor by Captain Johnston, Dr. Bradford and Mr. Ross, 29th December – 1st January 1941 National Archives of Australia file A816 19/301/778.

[5] See also the War Diary entries of the for the 2nd Independent Company and Sparrow Force for 17-20 December 1941:
2nd Independent Company: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1022619/
Sparrow Force: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1024692/
The Sparrow Force War Diary includes a detailed report on the Dili landings by Lieutenant-Colonel William Leggatt.

[6] Corporal Arthur Henry Kilfield ‘Harry’ Wray (WX11485), Recollections of the 2nd Independent Company Campaign on Timor, 1941-42, manuscript in 2/2 Commando Association archives.

[7] Hudson Fysh ‘Australia’s unknown neighbour – Portuguese Timor’ Walkabout, vol. 7, no.7, May 1st 1941: 7-15.

[8] 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, p.34.

[9] Corporal Arthur Henry Kilfield ‘Harry’ Wray (WX11485), Recollections of the 2nd Independent Company Campaign on Timor, 1941-42, manuscript in 2/2 Commando Association archives.

[10] Report on a visit to Portuguese Timor by Captain Johnston, Dr. Bradford and Mr. Ross, 29th December – 1st January 1941 National Archives of Australia file A816 19/301/778.

ADDITIONAL READING

Cyril Ayris, All the Bull's men: no. 2 Australian Independent Company (2/2nd Commando Squadron). – Perth: 2/2nd Commando Association, c2006, Chapter 3 ‘Invasion’, pp.58-65.

Bernard Callinan, Independent Company: the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43. – Melbourne: Heinemann, 1953 (repr. 1994), Chapter 2 ‘Unwanted protectors’, pp.16-21.

Archie Campbell, The Double Reds of Timor. – Swanbourne, W.A.: John Burridge Military Antiques, c1995, Chapter 5 ‘The landings’, pp.20-23.

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, Chapter 3 ‘”Sitting Duck” Force’, pp.32-34.

C.D. Doig, The history of the Second Independent Company. – Perth: C.D. Doig, 1986, Chapter 5 ‘Bound for Timor’, pp.30-31.

Lionel Wigmore, The Japanese thrust. – Canberra.: Australian War Memorial, 1957, Chapter 21, ‘Resistance in Timor’, pp.469-471.

Christopher C.H. Wray, Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese. – Hawthorn, Vic.: Hutchison Australia, 1987, [Chapter 3] ‘A breach of neutrality’, pp.25-30.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robinson with Campbell.jpg

Soerabaia_port.jpg

Soerabaia_divisie.jpg

Beach at Dili, PT, 1945 - Charles Bush.jpg

 

Vessel in Dili Harbour.jpg

Canopus-16axw.jpg

Typical scene in a Dili street - Walkabout.jpeg

First landing site - Google Map.jpeg

Beach at Dili, PT, April 2014.jpg

Second landing site.jpeg

Jetty at Dili.jpeg

Dili foreshore 2010.jpg

koepang - dili map.jpeg

 

The_Australian_and_Dutch_landings_at_Dili_-_first_version_revised.pdf

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