Sig. Keith Richards, Cpl. John Donovan, and Sgt. Frank Press using a radio on a
mountain top in Japanese-occupied Portuguese Timor, about November 1942.
(Photograph by Damien Parer.)
Australia's first commandoes
“You alone do not surrender to us.”
– Lieutenant General
When Leggatt led the retreat east to fight a guerrilla campaign, he looked to
Australia’s first commandoes in Portuguese Timor as his secret weapon. Only 152
of the Dutch Timor branch of Sparrow Force formed up with the 2/2 Independent
Company, but over the following months the remnants of Sparrow Force would
achieve legendary status.
The Independent Company format was an unproven concept. The concept was an
Australian Army response to a British Government request in late 1940 to form
special forces, utilizing the hunting and tracking skills Australians were renowned.
A British military mission headed by Lieutenant Colonel J.C. Mawhood arrived
in Australia to investigate the possibility of establishing a number of special units
within the Australian Army.2 The British, including Mike Calvert3 and F. Spencer
Chapman,4 proposed the establishment of independent companies that would
receive special training in order to take part in combined operations and various
Horner, David. SAS: Phantoms of the Jungle — A History of the Australian Special Air Service.
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989. p.21.
Brigadier James Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert, DSO and Bar (6 March 1913 – 26 November
1998.) Later commander of the Chindits, alongside Orde Wingate.
Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Spencer Chapman, DSO & Bar, ED (10 May 1907 – 8 August
1971.) A famous mountain climber and arctic explorer, he was most famous for his exploits
behind enemy lines in Japanese occupied Malaya. His medals include: The Arctic Medal, Gill
Memorial Medal, Mungo Park Medal, and the Lawrence of Arabia Memorial Medal.
other tasks, including “raids,
demolitions, sabotage, subversion,
and organizing civil resistance.”5
Although there was confusion
over the broad role that the
independent companies would
play, the Australian Army began
raising and training in March 1941
at the 7th Infantry Training
Centre, Guerrilla Warfare School,
at Wilson’s Promontory, Victoria.
By mid-1941, the first three
companies – 2/1, 2/2 and 2/36 –
were trained. The 2/4 – which
would later be deployed to
reinforce Timor – had commenced
Initially raised to serve alongside
the Second Australian Imperial
Force in the Middle East, the Photo 5: The 2/2 Independent Company’s hit
threat from Japan required
and run ambushes proved
outposts on islands to the north of
Australia to warn of Japan’s approach and to remain behind to harass the Japanese
Independent Companies were formed as ‘mini-battalions’; each platoon acted like
an infantry company, and each section acted like an infantry platoon. Heavily
armed with Thompson machine guns and Bren guns, they could pack the punch of
a battalion but manoeuvre in the field with more agility and flexibility.
The 2/2 Independent Company had the chance to prove the concept. The 2/1 and
2/3 Independent Companies in Rabaul and Ambon were swiftly out outmanoeuvred
and overwhelmed. The 2/2 beat a retreat, reformed, and encircled the transport
routes out of Dili.
The 2/2, and those who escaped from Dutch Timor, were the last remaining
fighting force of the Second Australian Imperial Force’s Eighth Division. The rest
of the division was captured on Singapore, Malaya, and Ambon. A small group of
450 troops and civilians, who had managed to evade the Japanese in Rabaul, were
evacuated by sea. Of a force of over 30,000, only 434 were left fighting on Timor.
Horner, op cit., n.2.
The titles were originally No. 1, 2, and 3 Independent Companies as Independent Companies did
not exist during the First Australian Imperial Force during the First World War. The adoption of
the “2/” was to maintain consistency with other unit titles in the Second Australian Imperial Force
of the Second World War.
Horner, op cit., p.23.
A patrol of 2/2 Independent Company commandoes, escorted by native criado.
On 18 April 1942, General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Supreme
Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA.) When Winnie
the War Winner transmitted the first message to Australia the following day,
Sparrow Force was the only unit under his command still fighting the Japanese.
Bataan fell on 9 April, the Japanese landed on the mainland of New Guinea on 8
March 1942 at Lae and Salamaua unopposed. When Corregidor fell on the 6 May,
Sparrow Force was the only land force fighting the Japanese anywhere.
At the lowest point in the war, Winnie the War Winner’s transmission was the first
good news of the war for the Allies in the Pacific. Within a year, the stories of
Winnie the War Winner, the ‘Singapore Tiger’, and the guerrilla campaign would
spread to the other side of the world. In late 1942, Army public relations sent the
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Damien Parer and war correspondent Bill
Marien to Timor to record the efforts of the Australian commandos. Australian
audiences greeted his film, The Men of Timor, with enthusiasm.
Sparrow Force fought the Japanese for 60 days cut off from Australia. The 2/2
proved that the Independent Company concept could work.
Back in Melbourne, leading brass didn’t know what to make of Sparrow Force.
MacArthur was pragmatic. If they were still engaging the enemy, the least his
available forces could do was to supply them.
The first attempts to supply Sparrow Force were pathetic. Aircraft from Darwin
literally threw ammunition boxes out of their aircraft without parachutes attached.
Once the commandoes found what was left of the shattered ammunition boxes, they
had to collect the rounds of ammunition amongst the dense foliage.
The Independent Company revelled in their independence from Australia.
Japanese thought that they were up against a force of brigade strength. The hit-andrun ambushes meant few Japanese saw who they were fighting. It relayed back to
Sparrow Force that the Japanese thought the commandoes were ghosts who came
out of the ground.
Essential to achieving mystical status amongst their enemy were the criado who
not only sought and carried supplies but were also Sparrow Force’s eyes and ears
in Japanese-controlled territory. Most importantly, they carried away the dead and
wounded commandoes undetected.
The Independent Company not only honed their skills, they also passed them on.
Turton and Doig trained the escapees from Dutch Timor into a fourth platoon,
called D Platoon. During the August offensive, they held their own.
The Japanese saw Sparrow Force as a serious threat. In August, the Japanese 48th
Division arrived from the Philippines in an attempt to flush out the menacing
Sparrow Force into a corner on the south coast of the island.8 While three Japanese
columns moved south from Dili and Manatuto, another moved eastward from
Dutch Timor to attack Dutch positions in the central south of the island. The
offensive ended on 19 August when the main Japanese force was withdrawn and
deployed to Rabaul. Sparrow Force held out, only losing one commando whilst
inflicting many casualties.
Back in Melbourne, Supreme Commander MacArthur initially had few troops
under his command. What he did have were mostly Australian. When Brigadier
Veale arrived in Melbourne, Veale conjured up a plan to retake Timor.
It is difficult to imagine what Brigadier Bill Veale was thinking as he flew back
to Australia on May 24 from Timor. He was meant to command a brigade-strength
Sparrow Force of over 5000. Instead, his only orders were:
To hand over command to Leggatt;
To destroy the remaining Sparrow Force radios;
To declare ‘every man for himself’ to those left of the Dutch Timor
To appoint Alexander Spence a Lieutenant Colonel and commander of
Sparrow Force; and
Leave Timor on a Catalina.
It is understandable if Veale felt obliged to the men he left on Timor – at least
salvage his reputation. Veale prepared a 19-page report prescribing his
recommendations to retake Timor. The plan included:
Landing commandoes to reconnoiter landing locations and liaise with
prisoners held at Usapa Besar;
Bomb strategic airfields and coastal defences;
Land a brigade-strength force; and
Eliminate the Japanese force, which Veale believed to be 6,000.9
White, Ken. Criado: A story of East Timor. Briar Hill: Indra Publishing, 2002. p.92.
Veale’s plan, op cit.
In June, General Douglas MacArthur was
advised by General Thomas Blamey —
Allied land force commander — that a fullscale Allied offensive in Timor would require
a major amphibious assault, including at least
one infantry division of at least 10,000
personnel. MacArthur was preoccupied with
the overall Allied strategy of recapturing
areas to the east — in New Guinea and the
Solomon Islands. Blamey recommended that
the campaign in Timor should be sustained
for as long as possible but not expanded.10
Blamey did, however, expand the Timor
operation. Up until September, Sparrow
Force soaked up so much attention from the
Japanese that Japan kept sending more troops
that would have otherwise been sent to other Photo 7: Brigadier W.C.D. Veale
fronts, such as New Guinea.
The problem for Veale was that, due to the success of Sparrow Force’s guerrilla
campaign, the numbers of enemy troops on Timor doubled. Eventually, the
Australian chiefs of staff estimated that it would take at least three Allied divisions,
with strong air and naval support, to recapture the island.
It was noticed at MacArthur’s Headquarters, which were now located in Brisbane,
that the Japanese were diverting troops to Timor instead of other fronts.
The Japanese feared invasion. On 23 September, the last of the Sparrow Force
prisoners of war held at Usapa Besar left Timor on the hellship Dai Nichi Maru.
On the same day, the 450-strong 2/4 Independent Company, given the more
intimidating name of Lancer Force, arrived on the south coast to reinforce Sparrow
The destroyer HMAS Voyager ran aground at the southern port of Betano while
landing the 2/4 and had to be abandoned after it came under air attack. The ship’s
crew was safely evacuated by HMAS Kalgoorlie and Warrnambool on 25
September 1942 and the Voyager was destroyed by demolition charges.
When the Japanese heard that three enemy warships had docked on the south
coast, they must have feared the worst. How many troops could have crammed into
three warships? On 27 September, the Japanese mounted a thrust from Dili towards
the wreck of Voyager but without any significant success.
What the Allied commanders and many historians have not grasped is the role
Sparrow Force had in the overall scheme of the war. Whether the Allied Command
realized it or not, Sparrow Force was an important pawn in the island-hopping
The United States Navy had secretly devised the island-hopping strategy as early
as 1897 in response to fears of Japanese military expansion affecting American
MacArthur to Blamey, op cit.
After World War I, the Versailles Treaty gave Japan a mandate over former
German colonies in the western Pacific, specifically, the Mariana, Marshall, and
Caroline Islands. If these islands were fortified, Japan could in principle deny the
U.S. access to its interests in the western Pacific.
Between the First and Second World Wars, the strategy was updated to include
modern weapons, such as submarines and aircraft. It was called War Plan Orange.
Shortly afterwards, a British-American naval correspondent for the London Daily
Telegraph, Hector C. Bywater, publicized the prospect of a Japanese-American war
in his books Seapower in the Pacific (1923) and The Great Pacific War (1925).
Amongst the predictions in The Great Pacific War were:
The war would begin with a Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Formosa,
Japan would then stage a surprise attack to greatly diminish U.S. Naval
power in the Pacific (Bywater predicted blowing up a freighter in the
A large role in the conflict for aircraft carrier-based aircraft;
Suicidal tactics by Japanese aviators; and
A detailed island-hopping strategy as the U.S. retook the Pacific.
The books were read not only by Americans but also by senior officers of the
Japanese Imperial Navy,11 including Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto,12 who
meticulously studied the strategy of island-hopping in great detail.
Japan implemented their own island-hopping strategy during their advance
through South East Asia in early 1942. The troops that fought on Timor hopped
from Hong Kong to Ambon to Timor, capturing strategic airfields and ports in each
To the Japanese, they tried to show up the Americans. Why wouldn’t the
Americans try to retake each island the Japanese captured, especially Timor and
Rabaul? What they didn’t take into account was what was missing from Bywater’s
War Plan Orange, as originally conceived, had the following stages:
Withholding of supplies from the Philippines and other U.S. outposts in
the Western Pacific (they were expected to hold out on their own);
In the meantime, the Pacific Fleet would marshal its strength at bases in
California, and guarded against attacks on the Panama Canal;
After mobilization (the ships maintained only half of their crews in
peacetime), the Fleet would sail to the Western Pacific to relieve American
forces in Guam and the Philippines; and
Afterwards, the fleet would sail due north for a decisive battle against the
Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet, and then blockade the
Japanese home islands.
Honan, W. H. Visions of Infamy: The untold story of how journalist Hector C. Bywater devised
the plans that led to Pearl Harbor. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Toland, John Willard. Infamy: Pearl Harbor And Its Aftermath. Berkley, 1991.
On Timor, the Japanese reinforced their defences with troops from the
Philippines. Some of those troops would reinforce Rabaul.
MacArthur devised Operation Cartwheel to bypass and starve Rabaul, which had
been defended by Lark Force. To some extent, if it weren’t for Lark Force
defending that port, the Japanese would not have tried to capture it. The Japanese
sent thousands of troops to fortify the port and airbase. When all those troops were
isolated, they were useless to the Japanese war effort and were left to “wither on
Leapfrogging had a number of advantages. It would allow the United States forces
to reach Japan more quickly and not expend the time, manpower, and supplies to
capture every Japanese-held island on the way. It would give the Allies the
advantage of surprise and keep the Japanese off balance.13
Some have suggested that, by the end of 1942, the chances of the Allies re-taking
Timor were remote.14 In reality, there was never any intention to retake Timor. The
more the Japanese thought that Timor would be the first step in the Allied leapfrogging campaign to take back the Dutch East Indies, the less likely that the Allies
should want to retake Timor. If the Allies could coax as many Japanese to defend
the island from invasion, the Allies could bypass Timor and block its supply routes.
Instead of this mindset, the Allied Commanders were concerned with the
Australian Army fighting a number of costly battles against the Japanese
beachheads around Buna in New Guinea. They thought that there were insufficient
resources to continue operations in Timor.15 On 11–12 and 15-16 December, the
Dutch destroyer HNLMS Tjerk Hiddes evacuated the remainder of the original
Sparrow Force — except for a few officers — with several Portuguese civilians.16
By the time that Sparrow Force left Timor, there were plans to maintain a presence
on the island. Some of the commandoes would stay on the island as part of a
reconnaissance Special Z Unit, reporting back to Australia Japanese troop, air, and
The greatest problem that Sparrow Force faced on Timor was the Japanese
scorched earth tactic used to flush out the guerrillas. The Japanese targeted the
native population, killing as many as 70,000, to deprive the commandoes of
anywhere to hide and sustain itself. By the end of 1942, the Japanese had built a
native spy network to report the commandoes’ movements. While the massacre of
natives continued after Sparrow Force left the island, the Japanese were paranoid
of the commandoes’ presence.
Sparrow Force performed with considerable success, conducting a guerrilla style
campaign and occupying the attention of an entire Imperial Japanese Army division
for almost twelve months.17 For the rest of the war the Japanese were suspicious of
Roehrs, Mark D., and William A. Renzi. World War II in the Pacific. 2nd ed. London: M.E.
Sharpe Inc., 2004. p.119.
Klemen. L. Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. 2000.
Dennis, Peter et al. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. Melbourne: Oxford
University Press, 1995. p.530.
Wheeler, Tony. East Timor. Lonely Planet Publications, 2004. p.152.
Dennis, op cit., p.308.
the presence of commandoes on the island and they maintained a large garrison on
the island, which eventually made them ineffective to the Japanese war effort.
More importantly, at the lowest point in the war, Sparrow Force proved that in
certain circumstances unconventional operations could be both versatile and more
economic than conventional operations at a time when resources were not available
to the Allies.18
The ‘Singapore Tiger.’ The Glasgow Herald, Saturday January 2, 1943.
Dennis, op cit., pp.529–530.