Lt. Col. W.W. Leggatt DSO MC
Courage Under Fire
One of the defining images of Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt’s legacy is his
sun-bleached officer’s shirt on the battlefield. Some thought he was mad for
wearing such a high visibility, almost white shirt. His conspicuous bravery,
however, was visible to all of his men as he led the charge up Usua Ridge in what
would become the last full battalion bayonet charge in military history.
Replacing Youl only weeks prior, Leggatt had only been on Timor for a short
time. Whilst the initial Timor strategy was to repel an invasion and defend the
airfield, once the aircraft and reinforcements returned to Darwin, another strategy
His strategy was to retreat the whole of Sparrow Force to the jungle east of
Champlong in order to wage a guerrilla campaign. The plan would have been to
hide in the jungle, regroup, reorganize the force, and then initiate a guerrilla
campaign. Later, once Darwin was operational again after the February 19 raids,
would surplus personnel be evacuated.
Leggatt’s greatest problem was the hostile environment of West Timor. Japanese
had spies on the ground weeks ahead of the invasion and natives in the West were
generally hostile to Europeans. If Sparrow Force did reach the high country to the
east, surviving off the land would be difficult.
As the 2/2 Independent Company in Portuguese East Timor later discovered,
feeding and maintaining a large force was difficult. Alexander Spence and Bernard
Callinan organized their men according to self-sufficiency. Sections were spread
out to cover main transport routes, with large areas between to provide cover and
to provide food.
Maintaining a large fighting force for a guerrilla campaign posed its problems.
After the 2/4 Independent Company reinforcements arrived in September 1942, it
proved difficult to hide so many men.
Ironically, Veale’s decision to destroy the radios and order ‘every man for
himself’ provided all the evidence that supports the viability of Leggatt’s plan. Due
to the radios being destroyed, Sparrow Force was isolated for months. Those who
stayed in a group of 152 in the border area sustained themselves effectively. They
did manage to conceal their location for some months while they trained to form
Platoon D of the 2/2 Independent Company. Many fought and returned to Australia
later. Of those who didn’t join the main group of 152 either died in the jungle or
were captured by the Japanese.
So, why did Leggatt’s plan not go accordingly? According to Sir John Carrick,
the clearing of Babau and Usua Ridge (on the second attempts) were ‘textbook’
offensives. Leggatt’s problem was the speed at which he could get his force to
The first sign of any problem with Leggatt’s plan was the capture of a map at the
Yokozuka Special Landing Force headquarters in Babau. When Captain Roff
presented the map to Leggatt, Leggatt was concerned by a circle drawn on the map
around Champlong. As communication was cut off with Champlong, he thought
that Champlong was already captured. This made him extra cautious of an escape
route for the main force.
Many of those interviewed were concerned by the delays after the assault on Usua
Ridge. Clyde McKay, one of the 15 Platoon troops sent by Leggatt to see if the road
to Champlong was clear, said it took too long for the order to be given. Clyde said
that a Don-R (a motorcycle despatcher) could have done the job in less than an
Essentially, the delay after the Usua Ridge attack was the crucial factor.
The survival of Sparrow Force was also unclear when the Japanese tanks met the
rear of the Sparrow Force column at Airkom. By that time, word had not spread of
the fate of Singapore or Ambon captives. It was not known whether Japanese took
Leggatt did secure treatment for the injured as a condition of the surrender. What
Leggatt or the Japanese would have done if the Japanese did not accept those terms
Besides the bravery of the men of Sparrow Force, the way the medical orderlies
conducted themselves shortly after surrender assisted greatly in the way the men
were perceived by their captors. Here is how Clyde McKay described his captors:
“I do think what influenced the treatment our boys got in Penfui [on Dutch
Timor] was when the battalion had to surrender there were truckloads of
Nips among [us] and then came over the Nip bombers and they came in on
a bombing raid and our boys took to the [bush] quick smart you see. The
Nips looked up and said, “Ha ha ha! Nippon Squawkee!”
“There was a direct hit on two truckloads of Nips and a lot of them were
killed. Then when the bombers came back on a return run the [Nips] got
down on the side [of the road] with our blokes and there weren’t so many
“After the [raid] was over, our doctors and medicos treated the wounded
soldiers, the Nips the same as our boys because that was the period of time.
They weren’t enemies, they were wounded soldiers. And I do think that
influenced the treatment of us when we were in prison camp. I played
basketball with them and some of the blokes would wrestle with them.
“The day we left Timor that bloke, the Nip, drew a badge on my arm and
said “Very bad men, be very careful!” We wondered what it was all about.
He drew the Korean badge on our arm and they were worse than any Nip.
They were sadistic brutes. They were terrible fellas.”1
Before the war, the Japanese thought the Australians were racist. The treatment
of Japanese injured at Airkom, along with the bravery of Sparrow Force,
demonstrated the mutual respect of both sides of the conflict. This contributed
greatly towards the standard of treatment Sparrow Force received as prisoners of
war on Timor.
Before capitulation, the injured did not slow the Sparrow Force column. The
injured, however, would be a problem if the force dispersed into the jungle.
What is almost certain is that if Leggatt refused to surrender, there would have
been a Mexican Standoff. Japanese troops had already surrounded Sparrow Force.
It would have been a bloodbath.
Therefore, the decision to surrender certainly saved more than the number that
would eventually die in captivity.
In the context of history, some could discount Sparrow Force’s effectiveness in
West Timor as a dismal failure. Conversely, if one took into account the cards that
Sparrow Force were dealt compared to other forces, what Sparrow Force achieved
Sparrow Force were alone. They had no reinforcements. They had no air cover.
They had no escape. They faced Japan’s most experienced elite forces. They
decimated the Yokozuka Special Landing Force paratroopers who fought in China,
Hong Kong, and Ambon. They achieved this with First World War bayonets.
Nazi Germany had its Blitzkrieg, Japan had its Special Landing Forces. Sparrow
Force decimated Japan’s main strike force. Babau and Usua Ridge were the first
defeats of the Japanese. In many respects, Timor was a turning point for Japan in
terms of strategy.
Sparrow Force weren’t meant to defeat the Japanese. They, like Lark Force in
Rabaul and Gull Force on Ambon, were meant to be in Japan’s way. They weren’t
called Eagle, Falcon, or Hawk Force, were they?
Certainly, Sparrow Force can claim to have more than wasted Japanese bullets.
Lark Force only killed 16 Japanese in action, Gull Force only inflicted 55 kills and
135 wounded. Sparrow Force was half the size of Lark and slightly larger than Gull
yet killed more than 4000 Japanese.
Gull Force lost 15 in action. Over 300 captured Gull Force were massacred at
Laha. More than 130 captured Lark Force were massacred.
The bravery of Sparrow Force certainly left an impression on the Japanese. It is
unknown whether their bravery saved their lives. Leslie Poidevin suggested it did.
The Kanose POW Camp Commander, who fought on Rabaul, recounted Sparrow
Interview with Ivan Clyde McKay. Launceston, Tasmania, Australia, 20 February 2004.
Peter Henning’s biography of the 2/40 Infantry Battalion is titled ‘Doomed
Battalion.’ In my opinion, Sparrow Force’s bravery and resilience defies the
defeatist ‘doomed’ tag.
Sparrow Force could have been sent to a number of postings. The 79th Light AntiAircraft Battery were meant to invade North Africa as part of what would
eventually be known as Operation Torch. The Australian Sparrow Force troops
expected to be sent to North Africa. Sparrow Force’s stubbornness rivaled the Rats
The isolation of Sparrow Force did have an effect on the decision to surrender. If
Leggatt knew that reinforcements were on the way, that there was air support, or
more modern communications equipment were available, the speed of his retreat
east would have been more decisive. The availability of these three elements –
along with the escape route to Port Moresby – were the crucial factors for the 39th
Infantry Battalion on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea.
By the end of the war, the men of Sparrow Force who escaped to the east can
claim to have spent more time in combat with the Japanese than any other troops.
Overall, Sparrow Force were dealt a bad hand. Leggatt and his men achieved more
than was expected of them. This reflects in the number of medals awarded and the
respect they earned from both sides.
A map of the Japanese invasion of Dutch Timor. (English labels have been added.)
(Courtesy of Akira Takizawa)