“We shall not be content with a defensive war,” stated British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during his speech to the House of Commons immediately after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces from Dunkirk on June 4, 1940. That same afternoon, he wrote to General Sir Hastings Ismay, his right- hand man in the War Cabinet Secretariat, “We should immediately set to work to organize self contained, thoroughly equipped raiding units. Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coasts leaving a trail of German corpses behind them.” With pressure from Churchill, the famous British Commando units were born.
Commandos in the Pacific
Negotiations began secretly between Australia and Britain to establish special units similar to the British Commando model. A British military mission arrived in Australia in November 1940 to set up a training scheme in secret. The training was to be conducted by Australian and New Zealand officers specially detailed for the task. Each soldier had to be a volunteer, be physically fit, possess individual initiative, and be of above average intelligence. They were trained to accept responsibility far in excess of their rank and to be able to fend for themselves under the most severe conditions. British Commandos were trained to carry out sudden sneak attacks and then withdraw back to their bases, whereas the Australians were taught to stay behind, live off the land, and carry out guerrilla warfare against an attacking enemy. They were called Independent Companies and were not officially known as Commandos until 1943.
Twenty-year-old Ralph Coyne was training in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) to be a signaler during March 1941 and was expecting to be posted to the Middle East. “One day on parade, a Major asked for volunteers to serve in a small group to operate in enemy territory,” he remembered. “Of the 500 on parade, 12 of us stepped forward. We were immediately put on a truck and taken to a secret training area at Wilsons Promontory in Victoria. The next morning we were told we were going to receive very tough training and at the end of a month, those who are not suitable or didn’t wish to stay could return to their original units without shame. At the month’s end, one third had returned to their units and those of us who completed the course were issued British uniforms. And, as I was in the 2/4 Independent Company, I proudly attached the dark blue double blue diamond colour shoulder patch to my new uniform. We had three infantry platoons, each of 67 men, a signals section of 36, 20 engineers, 11 medical and a company HQ of 12. We were transferred to the top part of Western Australia and split up into platoons so we could patrol the major rivers of the Northern Territory stretching from the Western Australian border to the Gulf of Carpentaria.”
The Japanese Invasion of Timor
Before the war, the island of Timor, about 300 miles from the northwest corner of Australia, had been politically divided by two colonial powers. The western half of Timor was part of the Dutch East Indies with Koepang the capital. The eastern half, with Dili as its capital, was a Portuguese colony. The island was of strategic interest to the Japanese.
Pearl Harbor was only the beginning of Japanese military expansion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The Japanese Army invaded Hong Kong and the Philippines and landed troops on the northeast coast of Malaya on December 8, 1941, sweeping all before them and capturing Singapore, the last bastion of British rule and prestige in Asia.
Fearing possible Japanese activity in the region, Australia sent to Timor on December 12, 1941, the 2/40 Battalion AIF with supporting units of the newly trained 2/2 Independent Company and Lockheed Hudson bombers from No. 2 Squadron RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) to bolster the Dutch forces around Koepang. An arrangement was made with the neutral Portuguese to unofficially allow most of the 2/2 to be stationed near Dili. Code-named Sparrow Force, the troops were soon to see action.
Japanese forces continued their seemingly unstoppable advance and on January 23, 1942, overwhelmed the small Australian garrison at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, which was the capital of the Australian-controlled territory of New Guinea. In early February 1942, Australian and Dutch forces surrendered the island of Ambon, another Dutch East Indies possession. Control of the nearby island of Timor by the Japanese would bring them within easy striking distance of Australia.
From Admiral Chuichi Nagumos’s aircraft carriers in the Timor Sea and from the 21st Air Flotilla base at Kendari in the Celebes, 188 Japanese aircraft struck a crippling blow against the major northern Australian port of Darwin in early February. Shortly afterward, the Japanese began their invasion of Timor on February 19-20, with landings on the northern coast of Portuguese territory and the southern coast of Dutch territory. Sparrow Force defended Koepang as best it could but was soon out of supplies and ammunition. With many wounded, most of the troops were forced to surrender on February 23.
Most of those who survived the battles and surrendered died from brutal treatment in Japanese POW camps. In Dili, the 2/2 and some Dutch troops along with remnants of the 2/4 were given the equally impossible task of overcoming a large, well-equipped Japanese force. The outcome was inevitable, forcing the survivors to retreat into the mountains with approximately 8,000 Japanese searching for them. The survivors of Sparrow Force were limited to carrying out hit-and-run ambushes, and as time passed their health suffered through lack of decent food, exhaustion, and sickness. They had to rely on whatever food they could get from the natives. During the fighting, they lost their only radio. Unable to communicate with Australia, they were presumed captured or dead.
“One night in mid-April 1942, two months after the rumored loss of Sparrow Force on Timor, our signalers were told to listen for radio calls claiming to be Australian coming from Timor,” remembered Coyne. “Although weak, we were able to pick up their signal, and after they answered a lot of personal questions we were able to identify them as the remnants of the 2/2 Independent Company in Timor. Their signal was being transmitted by a radio pieced together from scrap material and powered by an old car battery. The battery was being charged by a generator driven by a rope connected to a wheel turned by a native. The radio became known as ‘Winnie the War Winner’ after the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. HQ realized it was most imperative a reliable transmitter/receiver be sent to them as soon as possible.”
Landing on Timor
The Royal Australian Navy landed a party at night at a prearranged rendezvous, and several small vessels followed, landing ammunition, weapons, medical supplies, food, clothing, and radio equipment. They also evacuated the sick and wounded.
With the Japanese capture of New Britain, it was now even more vital that Allied HQ in Australia be informed of the enemy movements in Timor, and urgent arrangements were made for the 2/4 Independent Company to be withdrawn from its existing patrol areas. They were re-equipped with rifles, submachine guns, grenades, ammunition, sleeping bags, new uniforms, and other assorted stores that were being sent to reinforce the 2/2 Company on Timor. Late on the afternoon of September 22, 1942, Corporal Coyne and the men of the dark blue double diamond 2/4 Company boarded the World War I-vintage destroyer HMAS Voyager for the 30-hour trip to Timor. She was a small ship, and with approximately 14 tons of stores on her deck there was barely enough room for the 250 soldiers. They made themselves as comfortable as possible. It was a dark, moonless tropical night and most tried to sleep, as soldiers throughout the centuries have done when given the opportunity.
“At some point during the night,” said Coyne, “everyone on board became aware the engines had stopped and the main gun was being trained. The ship’s forward movement also stopped, and she began to roll listlessly with the waves. The dreaded word ‘submarine’ was quietly whispered amongst sailors and soldiers alike. The silence was eerie as the ship drifted in the darkness for about 20 minutes before the throb of the engines resumed and Voyager was underway again.
“We reached the south coast of East Timor at a beach called Betano in late evening on 23 September,” he continued, “and the Voyager’s captain, knowing the men had to scramble down nets slung over the side heavily loaded with equipment, tried to get as close to shore as possible. Each soldier carried a pack weighing approximately 80 pounds plus his rifle or machine gun, belts or magazines of ammunition, grenades, and a water bottle. Clambering down nets on the side of a swaying ship and stepping into a canvas boat in heaving surf was no easy task. Boxes of ammunition, grenades, heavy long-range radio sets, car batteries (to power the sets), battery chargers the size of a small car engine, gasoline, medical supplies, demolition charges, and Australian silver currency to pay the natives who were able to sell food.