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Edward Willis

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‘Geographical intelligence has played, and will always play, an important role in determining success in battle.  Accounts of military commanders using it to their advantage, or ignoring it to their peril abound and predate even the earliest recorded campaigns in history’. [1]

One of the key factors in the success of the 2nd Independent Company’s campaign against the Japanese in Portuguese Timor was their deep knowledge of the terrain over which they were fighting.  Their training on Wilson’s Promontory imbued them with the importance of gaining this knowledge and the expertise to put it into effect.  The effectiveness of their efforts in this regard is demonstrated in such things as the sound selection of ambush sites, escape routes, observation posts, headquarters locations and bivouacs.

Much of this geographical intelligence was gathered in the peaceful interval between the Company’s landing in Dili on 17 December 1941 and the Japanese attack two months later, on 19 February 1942.  Tangible evidence of their efforts is available in the War Diary and associated records that include hand drawn maps and panorama sketches and hand-written and typed reports and few photos that can be partially sourced on the Australian War Memorial website.  Material from these sources was incorporated in a Terrain Study issued by the Allied Geographical Section in February 1943 titled ‘Area study of Portuguese Timor’; Captain David Dexter of the 2nd Independent Company prepared this study. [2]

This post includes an example of this exploratory work related to the area between Dili and Tibar that includes the Cactus Flats camp at what is known locally as Tasi Tolu.  The post concludes with a description of the area as it is today for the benefit of visitors to the site.


Paul Cleary describes this aspect of training the 2nd Independent Company:

'When the men weren’t on exercises, they retreated to ‘the Chalet’ near Darby River, formerly a guest house for visitors to the national park, for detailed lectures by the specialists.  They learned not only how to work with maps and compasses but also how to draw panoramas and their own rough maps.  They were acquiring skills for creating images of the landscape around them which would be valuable in a real guerrilla campaign.  [Freddy Spencer] Chapman extolled the primacy of good field-craft, his pet subject.  This was nothing new to the bushmen in the unit, who could read the sun and the stars at night and always knew where they were going, which greatly impressed the recruits from the city.  Chapman taught the men ‘a new conception of fitness’, how to track and memorise routes, and how to escape if captured.  During one lecture, Dexter wrote in a small pocket book a prescient note on what lay ahead.  Under the underlined heading ‘Warfare’ he jotted down with a pencil: ‘Not new type but oldest known to man.’ '[3]

One of Spencer Chapman’s biographer’s Ralph Barker found that:

'Freddy's teaching methods were not always orthodox.  ‘He gave biscuits as a prize for drawing maps-not simply biscuits to be eaten later but biscuits to be eaten in the classroom where the lesson was being held’, writes a former pupil, James Scarlett.  ‘At the time it seemed highly unusual, and a great advance in teaching methods.  Anyhow all the geography I know I learnt from him, and learnt it largely from drawing maps with rewards in prospect.  I think Freddy had a clear picture of what interested us, and certainly his teaching of geography was effective’.  This is confirmed by Erica Thompson, widow of H.L.T. ‘Tommy’ Thompson, then the junior partner at Aysgarth.  ‘Geography, which had always been considered dull and dreary, became the subject, and boys spent their free time drawing maps and planning expeditions to the moors, while other lessons took a back seat’.' [4]

The syllabus in the War Diary shows that each platoon undertook full day training exercises covering:

·      Elementary explanation of bearings – grids – map reading – map references, relief & conventional signs

·      The preparation of recce plans & reports

·      Sectional topographical recce

·      Making of maps to illustrate points

·      Panorama sketches

·      Map reading

The tools of trade for these exercises comprised ‘compasses, paper, pencils, rubbers, rulers [and] protractors’. [5]

Further Mapping training Foster syllabus 1.jpeg

Training programme Tuesday 5 August 1941 showing map reading and panorama sketching

The training programme in the Unit War Diary lists the manual for the course as ‘Map reading and field sketching: the use of protractor and field compass and reconnaissance for battalion in intelligence’. [6]

Map reading & field sketching manual - title page.jpeg

Manual used in training


Paul Cleary resumes his narrative:

'Within a week of the landing in Dili the 2/2 Company had begun pushing out beyond the township of Dili, despite agreeing earlier with the Portuguese governor to remain at the airfield.  The first reconnaissance patrols surveyed the coast west of the town from where they believed that a Japanese attack was likely.  Callinan, the energetic and inquisitive engineer, led these first forays into the ‘tangled mass’ of mountains of Portuguese Timor.  Some of the men put pencil to paper and began producing detailed maps and panoramic drawings of this exotic territory.  A handful of men proved to be very talented at drawing: Lance Corporal William Vernede, 25, of Beverly, the wheat-belt town east of Perth, and Private Tom Foster, 23, a farm manager from Geraldton, WA.  These maps were to be vitally important because, incredibly, the Australians had arrived in Portuguese Timor without accurate maps of the territory'. [7]

PT tracks map.jpeg

Road and track map of Portuguese Timor prepared for the Area Study and based on this early and later surveying activity

Stan Aitken described how the mapping work was done:

'We removed ourselves now to the country.  ‘A’ Platoon went to the hills along the Dili – Aileu Road at a place called by the Australians Three Spurs.  ‘C’ Platoon were at Tibar, a cactus walled village near the junction of that road and the coast highway.  ‘B’ Platoon drew Cactus Flat, a hot salt encrusted area on the coast road, but to the west.

When it was realised that despite triangulation and despite the cost of their production, the maps of Porto National Geographic Society were hopelessly inaccurate, particularly as to distance, an attempt was made to right the matter.  A series of compass traverses were put into hand and it was discovered that one ‘Dusty’ had a skill in cartography.

The Timorese themselves are distinctly conditioned by their mountains.  They describe heavy-going simply as ‘Sai Tune’, which means only ‘up down’.  On the other hand, their concept of ‘flat’ is a strange one.  Ask a Timorese to describe a piece of land which only requires, say, a thousand climbs and descents each of say, four or five hundred feet per day’s march and he will invariably say, ‘raitecic’ which means level ground.  We found this clash of training and concepts vastly nerve-wracking.

The compass traverses gave one sub-section of the unit a solid lesson in the dangers inherent in unfamiliarity with terrain.  The traverse was being made up a river which on the coast was a broad dry stream with a single viable creek amongst the sand.  As the Section climbed, the stream became a fast running half-leg deep affair between rocky walls.  The traverse was made in a practical if primitive manner.  A single soldier with a bayoneted rifle slung across his shoulder would march ahead until an obvious turn in the stream would mean that further progress would render him invisible to his fellows.  The soldier with the compass would take a reading on the bayonet and one of his fellows would ‘book’ it.  The members of the Section would then pace the leg silently and on reaching the first soldier would compare notes.  One of their numbers would remain at the beginning of the leg.  This provided a sight for sight for ‘back bearing’.  It may sound a very rough measure but these soldiers were highly skilled in ‘yard stepping’ and variations were slight and differences of opinion rare.  A continuous bearing taking on all recognizable features right and left of the legs from both its extremities permitted a triangulation insurance policy against major error'. [8]


Wray described the location of the Cactus Flats Camp and the disposition of the Platoons:

'By mid-January all platoons were established in their locations.  Two sections of Baldwin's platoon were situated near the Comoro River at an area called Cactus Camp about 5 kilometres from Dili, and at a point half-way between Dili and Tibar from which patrols could range effectively in either direction.  The other section, commanded by Lieutenant David St A. Dexter, was posted as guard at the airfield.  Boyland's platoon and the Company Headquarters were established at Three Spurs from which patrols were sent back towards Dili.  Laidlaw's platoon was occupying positions on coastal flats near Liquissa.  The troops were all engaged in patrolling and mapping the tracks, streams and rivers in their areas, gaining a great deal of local information which would later be of enormous value'. [9]

Callinan adds:

'Drinking water was difficult to get on the coastal plain, and Baldwin had to cart all the water from his platoon a distance of two and half miles, using a hand cart pulled by two soldiers.  On one occasion, one fit and two sick men did the journey twice in the one day, and Baldwin himself was one of the three men out of his whole platoon capable of doing guard duty'. [10]

Carting water 1942.jpg

Going to Tibar to collect water by cart for the Cactus Flats camp – ‘near the headland east of Tibar’

Rolf Baldwin recalled his Platoon’s move to Cactus Flats in the following interview:

'So, we decided and we'd had, there were no precautions.  We had no Quinine of our own and preventive creams or anything like that you know.  They weren't thought of at that stage, so then I think that lasted for about a fortnight and we had several men mostly from 1st Platoon for some reason and another in hospital in Dili just being looked after there and then Spence told us, ‘Well, we we'll disperse’, and I was told to go down to a place called Tibar, a bit out in one direction.  Well, I (UNCLEAR) forty men just fell over on the way to this place.  It was a couple of miles I suppose and they trickled into camp afterwards but they had proper malaria you know, and they were shivering like that all the time.

Question: Did you have [malaria]?

A fair number didn't, how we didn't, I didn't catch it.  My sergeant didn't catch it and a fair number of men didn't have malaria and I don't know why the mosquitoes didn't, oh this was a Cactus Flat we called it because it had prickly pears growing all over it.  Well we cleared a bit and we had tents, so we still had tents on our establishment and they were trucked out from Dili straight away and I just had all the men working on clearing away enough of the cactus to pitch tents.

Question: Put your tents down, yeah.

And at one stage we were down to just five of us.  Eric Smyth and myself didn't, we hadn't had malaria and a few men didn't and so we just did as best we could.  There was water at a little place called Tibar, a bit further down, so we had a couple of men, well we just used to take it in turns to?

Question: Collect it, yeah.

Go down there and bring water, carry water back, you see and that way and then I soon, I had them all swimming if they felt up to it.  We were right on the water's edge and that seemed to work you know, a lot, most of them, a few had to be sent back into the Dili hospital, I think but most of them got on all right there'. [11]

Ray Parry wasn’t fond of Cactus Flats either:

'Question: What were the medical supplies like?

… And long before the Japanese landed what was a healthy, physically tough body of men of the 2nd Independent Company had been decimated with fever just through the food.  They had bags of rice. I didn't see them until we went down to Cactus Flats?  They were terrible things the cactus.

Question: What cactus?

Cactus, they have good needle-sharp prongs on them and you can bend it and think it's going to break, but it doesn't.  It's like a spring of steel and back it comes.  It's like 4 inches long, that's 10 centimetres long at least.  And on the tip, that is green in colour, the cactus itself the leaves are pale green, but the spike goes into a medium-toned green and on the tip for bout probably half a centimetre at least there is a brown tip and that's where the barbs are.  So, if it goes down which it did in many cases you daren't pull it out.  You've got to push it right through.  And in some cases, of course you can't, you've got to pull it out and then it becomes infected.  I had one down there in my foot and you used the Sig [Signals] pliers.  You pushed it through and then grabbed it with the Sig pliers and pulled it right through the toe.  Very rarely was I ever barefooted because of hookworm and all that sort of thing.

Question: How densely were the flats covered in the cactus?

There was a ridge that ran almost parallel to the shore line and in some cases, it was several hundred yards, two hundred and fifty, three hundred yards from the shore to the feature.  But then there were spurs that ran off it down into the cacti and near the road.  And it sort of meandered its way down the coast, this ridge, for many miles.  And even between the sea and the road was this cactus.  And then between the road and the base of the feature it was just a mass of cacti.

And we were in amongst that stuff.  And George Marriott, he was a member of 5 Section D Troop, and we had to dig a firing pit and we dug the thing and George said, ‘Well they won't get us here?  I said, ‘Tell me, how do we get out?’  He had a look around and he said, ‘That's a good question’.  I said, ‘Yes, we've got no chance.  That's where we should be, up on the top of the ridge’.  We had sixteen or seventeen or eighteen-year-old boys that we were well trained asking that question.  Why in the name of all reason did they put us here?  And you've got responsible people that are running the Company that ordered us to this spot-on Cactus Flats.  Further down there was 2 Section from A Company, but they weren't there very long.  We were there for quite a while'. [12]


On 12 June 1942 Brigadier Veale (CO Sparrow Force) submitted a reconnaissance report on ‘… the coastal topography of the Dilli [sic] area.’ to his superiors in Darwin.  The report was ‘Compiled conjointly by Capt. R.R. Baldwin and Lieut. D. Dexter.  Original sketch drawings by Pte. C.W. Vernede …’.  The report included this description of the coastal section incorporating the Cactus Flats Camp:


About 8 miles (13 km.).  This portion of the road is trafficable for M.T. at all seasons of the year.  It will carry two streams of traffic.  In places, it is right at the water's edge, the sides being revetted to avoid encroachment.

At Tibar Headland the road is subject to interruption by landslides.  About 6 miles (10 km.) from Tibar there is a crossing of the Comoro River, which is about 400 yards (360 m.) wide.  When the river is in flood, this crossing cannot be used.  It rarely remains in flood longer than two or three days, after which time motor traffic can affect a crossing.  The river is constantly changing its course and depth and can flood the enlarged Dilli Airdrome.  There is a narrow cutting 20 feet (6 m.) deep and 80 yards (75 m.) long about 11/2 miles (2.5 km.) west of the river.  This cutting is said to be not detourable and a suitable demolition point.

On the south side of the road, halfway between Tibar and the Comoro River, is the area known as Cactus Camp.  This area is about It miles 11/2 miles (2.5 km.) long by 3/4 mile (1 km.) wide and besides much cactus encloses three bitter salt lakes.  A.F.V.'s and M.T. using the coast road could use this area for concealment.


(a)  EAST OF TIBAR the coast runs right out to form a rocky headland, approx. 400 feet at its highest point.  Beyond this to the EAST is a plain which extends as far as another spur of the main range, which ends in a bold peak approx. 500 feet in height and approx. half a mile from the shore.  EAST of this another plain stretches to the COMORO.

(b)  The first plain ‘a’ above is covered with clumps of prickly pears, interspersed with grassy spaces, and carries some timber.  There is little cover from the air.  Close under the range lie three salt lagoons.

Sketch maps and photos were included in the report. [13]

3 Lagoons sketch map 1.jpeg

3 Lagoons sketch map 2.jpeg

Sketch maps from the Baldwin-Dexter reconnaissance report


The area the men of the 2nd Independent Company called Cactus Flats or Cactus Camp is still recognisable today, though the cacti is not so evident.

Approaching Tasi Tolu by road from the east, the terrain opens into a vast natural amphitheatre with the surrounding hills on three sides dominating an expansive open space containing three salt lakes of varying size with the sea shoreline near to the north.  Geoffrey Hull provides an explanation for the name of this place:

Tasi Tolu, the name of the three lagoons situated west of Dili curiously meaning ‘three seas’, makes better sense when one recalls that tasik in Malay means not ‘sea’ (like its Tetum cognate tasi) but ‘lake’, this hydronym thus being an adaptation of an earlier Malay Tiga Tasik. [14]

Map Tibar - Taso Tulu - Dili - current.jpeg


Current map showing the Cactus Flats Camp location

A publication issued by Birdlife International provides the following useful description of this site.  It states Tasi Tolu is a:

[a] small catchment near Dili with a variety of habitats including beach, grassland, mangrove, permanent saline lakes, and Eucalyptus alba savanna woodland along an altitudinal gradient.  Tropical dry forest is developing in topographically protected gullies and on headwater ridges but is not extensive.

… The area is of national cultural, social and historical significance being an important symbol of the East Timorese struggle for independence.  Pope John Paul II held mass at the site in 1989 and it was the location for the restoration of independence celebrations on 20 May 2002.

… it was announced by the Timor-Leste government as a Peace Park on Restoration of Independence Day (20 May 2002) because of its historical and social importance.

[Tasi Tolu] is very close to the capital city of Dili and under threat from intensive human use.  The known threats to the site include timber collection (of mangrove and Eucalyptus), rubbish dumping, extraction of rock and sand, annual horse racing events and learner drivers using the seasonally dry saltpans.  It is currently [2006] being used as a base by the International Military Peace Keeping Forces [as a firing range]. [15]


Photo 3 from the Baldwin-Dexter reconnaissance report – Looking towards the 3 lagoons area and the headland EAST of TIBAR from the spur EAST of the 3 lagoons area

Tasi Tolu loking west with JP II statue in background.jpg

A view looking in the same direction today from a slightly different angle

There are no houses or shacks here and the only evidence of human structural impact on the isolation is a building Julio popularly known as ‘the Pope’s altar’.  Another recent visitor has provided a discerning description of the scene:

'It’s hazy out on this flat wetland wedged between sea and the guardian hills. Cynics and old hands call Dili a swamp.  Here, 8km to the west, on the road to Kupang, the merging of sea and shore has a benign logic.  Birds flock here, some flying from as far away as Russia.  The tang in the air is salt, not from frying palm oil or open city drains.  The hope is that this place of salt lakes and swaying grasses will become a peace park and conservation area.

In 1989, ten years before the independence referendum that bought (dearly) East Timor’s freedom, Pope John Paul II came here.  Where the morning winds now blow, thousands upon thousands of people once gathered.  The Pope said Mass from the traditional house, or Uma, built for the occasion.  The palm roof thatch is now home to opportunistic ferns (in East Timor even stones nurture orchids).  The pink and white wash on the walls (a breath of Portugal) brushes off on our fingers as we try to decipher the graffiti that now marks the steps leading up to the Pope’s balcony.  FATIN NE SANTO RESPEITO NIA TEMPAT (This is a holy place, respect it).  The balcony is modest but elevated.  A breath of the Vatican.  But from here you can see clear across deserted lakes and plains to the mountains which were the only refuge in 1999, when the pro-Indonesia militias and military went on their murderous rampage …'


Photo 2 from the Baldwin-Dexter reconnaissance report – Looking from the range above the TIBAR POST and towards the spur running to the sea EAST of the 3 lagoons area


The same view as the previous photo, taken 2008

At Tasi Tolu, a plain cross stands hammered into the crumbling cement forecourt of the Pope’s open house, its white wood reflecting light like bone or washed coral. In the cool under the house the goats wander.  One milks.  Others spring nimbly up the steps to the balcony.  We are the only creatures here.  Four humans and a few dozen bibi—the Tetun seems the gentler language for these delicate deft creatures which have the freedom of the island'. [16]


Nearby is another recent addition to Timorese national iconography, the Pope John Paul II Monument that stands at the head of the western enclosing hill overlooking the lakes and the sea.  The best road in Timor [2008] accesses the monument; it is perfectly smooth and engineered to the highest standards and wends its way in carefully graded curves until it reaches a car park at the top.  The journey of a couple of kilometres or so presents a challenge to the local young fitness fanatics who come out in force, singly or in small groups, jogging their way up.


The Pope's altar

The following news item explains the origins of the monument:

'The government of Timor Leste (East Timor) has erected a statue of Pope John Paul II to honour the late pontiff's moral support for the country's self-determination.

The six-meter-tall concrete statue was inaugurated on June 14 [2008] in Tasi Tolu, on the western outskirts of Dili, the same place where Pope John Paul celebrated Mass on October 12, 1989, during the Indonesian occupation.

Tasi Tolu was notorious as a site where Indonesian soldiers allegedly dumped the bodies of many young people during the independence struggle.  Catholics form an estimated 96 percent of Timor Leste's 1 million people.

The statue, which overlooks the capital's western fringe and faces the sea, stands next to a chapel for Sunday Mass, also built in the late pope's honour.

President Jose Ramos-Horta of Timor Leste inaugurated the statue in the presence of Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the Jakarta-based apostolic nuncio to Timor Leste.

‘Pope John Paul was a figure who inspired peace and justice in the world. He also fought for the right of Timorese people to be recognized by the world and in its fight toward self-determination’, Ramos-Horta said in his address'. [17]


Pope John Paul II monument


[1] Allied Geographical Section, South West Pacific Area. - Area study of Portuguese Timor. - [Brisbane] : The Section, 1943.
[2] Reuben Bowd ‘The Allied Geographical Section, 1942–46: forgotten by history’ Australian Defence Force Journal Issue No. 165, 2004: 36.
[3] 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: 11-12.
[4] Ralph Barker. – One man’s jungle: a biography of F. Spencer Chapman, DSO. – London: Chatto & Windus, 1975: 108.
[5] 2nd Independent Company war diary, July and August 1941
[6] A.S. Keighley. – Map reading and field sketching: the use of the protractor and field compass and reconnaissance for battalion intelligence. – Wollongong: Illawarra Newspapers, 1942.
[7] Paul Cleary. - The men who came out of the ground … : 33.
[8] Extract from Ray Aitken ‘Tales of the 2/2’ – manuscript in 2/2 Commando Association Archives.
[9] Christopher C.H. Wray. – Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese. – Melbourne: Hutchinson Australia, 1987: 32.
[10] Bernard Callinan. - Independent Company: the Australian Army in Portuguese Timor 1941-43. – Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1953 (repr. 1989): 22.
[11] Australians at War Film Archive, Transcript of Interview, Rolf Baldwin, Archive number:364, date interviewed: 30 May, 2003.
[12] Australians at War Film Archive Transcript of Interview, Ray Parry, Archive number:1736, date interviewed: 14 April, 2004
[13] Reconnaissance report contained in Australian War Memorial file PR00249.
[14] Geoffrey Hull ‘The place names of East Timor’ Placenames Australia: newsletter of the Australian Placenames Survey (ANPS) June 2006, 6-7 http://anps.org.au/documents/June_2006.pdf.
[15] Important bird areas in Timor-Leste: key sites for conservation / edited by Michael J. Crosby. - Cambridge, U.K.: BirdLife International, 2007: 70. http://www.birdlife.org/downloads/iba/IBAs in Timor-Leste low res.pdf.
[16] Morag Fraser ‘Morning in East Timor’ Eureka Street April 27, 2006 http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=443.
[17] Pat Walsh ‘Dili’s new Pope John Paul II Memorial’ http://www.etan.org/et2008/6june/08/02johnpaul.htm.


Aerial view of the area discussed in this post - looking east from Tibar headland towards Dili - Tasi Tolu lakes (3 Lagoons) and the Cactus Flats camp site in the 3/4 mid background


This post was originally prepared for the 75th Anniversary Commemoration in January 2017

Revised and updated by Ed Willis

14 January 2022


Edited by Edward Willis
Revise and update for 80th Anniversary
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