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  • Maria Ogborn

‘Sparrow Force’ and the Battle of Timor- 1941-1943


'Sparrow Force' -Timor,1942 (Image: AWM)

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and Japan’s subsequent entry into the Second World, the Dutch requested that Australian troops were deployed to defend their island territories in the Far East. ‘’Lark Force’’ were deployed to Rabaul, New Britain in Papua New Guinea, ‘‘Gull Force’’ was deployed to the island of Ambon and ‘‘Sparrow Force’’ was deployed to Timor. The island of Timor was divided with Dutch held territory, with its capital Koepang, in the West and Portuguese territory in the east the capital of which was Dili. The force was to defend the aerodrome and airfield in the west, which provided a link in the ‘Malay Barrier’, and protect the island from invasion. Allied commanders did not expect the Japanese to launch a large-scale attack anywhere other than Koepang. The agreement was for the force to occupy the west of the island and respect the neutrality of the Portuguese in the East. The population in the east, felt that Allied presence on the island would draw the Japanese forces rather than repel them.


Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt, the force comprised of the 2/40th Battalion AIF, most of which had come from Tasmania supported by artillery, signals, medical and headquarters troops. Alongside them were one of Australia's new Independent Companies, the 2/2nd Independent Company, known as Sparrow Force, a commando group which had mostly been recruited from Western Australia. The Australian elements of Sparrow Force totalled 70 officers and 1330 men. The Dutch troops on the island numbered about 500. At the aerodrome at Penfui, RAAF Hudson medium bombers from 2 Squadron flew anti shipping sorties. Sparrow Force's anti-aircraft support was provided by 190 British anti-aircraft gunners of the 79th A.A. Battery RA, of which many were veterans of the Battle of Britain.


Deployment to the island began in early December 1941 and shortly after the force was divide. The 2/40th Battalion remained in the Dutch territory and around Koepang while, elements of the 2/2nd Independent Company landed near Dili in Portuguese Timor. There was no objection of resistance to their presence in the East and by 22 December the rest of the Independent Company redeployed to Dili.


'Sparrow Force' - Timor 1942, (Image: NAA)

On the 23rd January, the Japanese captured Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, and captured most of the men of ‘Lark Force’. While being transported to the Japanese island of Hainan, the ship they were carried on was torpedoed. There were no survivors from the ‘Lark Force’, except officers, who had been taken to Japan.


On Timor, Japanese air raids began on the airstrip on 26th January 1942 (Australia Day), forcing the Allies to prepare reinforcements to be sent to the island. They failed to arrive due to being sent back after another convoy that had been heading to Koepang, which included the destroyers HMA Ships Swan and Warrego, was attacked by Japanese bombers and forced to return to Darwin without making a landing.

Map of Timor- 1942 (Image www.navyhistory.org.au)

On the 3rd February, ‘Gull Force’ was captured, after Ambon fell to the Japanese.

On 12th February, additional headquarters staff for Sparrow Force under Brigadier William Veale landed in Koepang. On February 19th, the aircraft of 2 Squadron RAAF, was dispatched to Darwin and six of the Squadrons Hudson bombers were destroyed in a Japanese bombing raid on Darwin. By this time, it was too late to evacuated the force from Timor and they were left to defend the island with limited resources and support.

At midnight on 19/20 February, the Japanese 228th Regiment landed on Timor. A Japanese battalion landed west of Dili and headed for the airfield where 22 men from No 2 Section were defending the airfield. The force was expecting Portuguese reinforcements, but they never arrived. After a six-hour battle, Leggott ordered that the section blow up the airfield and withdraw. During the fight two Australians were killed and one was captured. The Dutch force retreated inland.


Troops of Sparrow Force helped by Timorese (AWM)

At the same time, Japanese battalions of 228th Regiment attacked Koepang in the Dutch west. Soon after, 300 Japanese paratroopers were dropped to the east, cutting off the Allied troops from their HQ, lines of communication and supply. The 1,100 men of Sparrow Force near Koepang, put up a hard fight, killing all of the Japanese paratroopers. However, after the destruction of the airfield at Penfui and the withdrawal inland, the lack of ammunition, supplies and the number of wounded, they were quickly over-run by the Japanese force which included armoured and air support. After four days of heavy and brave fighting, Leggatt and 1123 men of 2/40th Battalion surrendered to the Japanese. These men became Japanese POWs.


Due to being cut off from the main force at Koepang, 163 men were able to withdraw east and re-join the 2/2nd Independent Company, lead by Lt Col Spence, in East Timor where they began a guerrilla campaign against Japanese forces. They withdrew into the hills and mountains of Timor and begin to map the ground and terrain, and using their commando training, recorded sources of food sources, ambush sites, and established observation posts overlooking the airfield and the harbour at Dili.

East Timorese constructing a hut (Image: AWM)

In blowing up the airstrip at Koepang, they had also destroyed the only radio link to Australia, leaving the men of Sparrow Force completely on their own on the island. They survived and continued the campaign and defence of the island by the help and kindness of the people of East Timor including Portuguese locals. The East Timorese provided them with knowledge of the terrain, food, shelter and any other support that was needed. In turn, the Australian troops treated the population with respect but they did punish those who attempted to give them up to the Japanese.


Akiu was a criado. (dressed as an Australian soldier)

Many of the men of Sparrow Force were aided by a Criados or Servant. These were often boys between the ages of 9 and 13 who brought them food, supplies, water, cooked for them and washed their clothes. They also provided knowledge of the land and provided intelligence. After the war, many of the men of the force felt that they owed a great debt of honour to these young men, without whom, they may not have survived.


With communication to Australia cut off, Allied commanders believed that the force on the island had been lost. It was essential that the force gained contact. Joe Loveless, a signaller, began building a radio out of salvage parts. The radio was given the name ‘Winnie the War Winner’ and its first message to the outside world was, ‘force intact and still fighting’.

Soon after radio contact was made, supplied were delivered to the force, initially by air drop, and then by the HMAS Kuru and HMAS Vigilant of the Australian Navy. There ships also picked up any wounded troops. The Timorese aided troops in carrying supplies inland.

The force began to use a ‘hit and run’ tactic against Japanese, in which they would attack as hard as they could and withdraw before the enemy had time to respond. Often men were wounded but a large number were suffering from tropical diseases such as malaria and dysentery. Sparrow Force medical officer Captain Roger Dunkley, however, never lost a man in his care on the island of Timor.


Winnie the War Winner (AWM)

In August 1942, Sparrow Force were still on their own in the Timor hills. In an attempt to drive out the remainder of the Australian force, the Japanese implemented their ‘scorched earth’ policy on the island. They set the land, plantations and villages ablaze. Over 2000 Japanese troops pushed towards the Timor interior, in an attempt to attack the force. The units of Sparrow Force spread out in the hills in an attempt to ambush enemy forces, but they were vastly outnumbered. By 19th August, the plan was to make a final attempt at attacking Japanese forces but on the day, the Japanese were nowhere to be seen. They would learn later that they were being withdrawn to face American forces on Guadalcanal.

The run-aground HMAS Voyager (AWM)

After over ten months on the island and many months of fighting alone, Sparrow Force was finally reinforced on 16th September 1942, by the arrival of an advanced group of 2/4th Independent Company, who arrived on board the HMAS KALGOORLIE. The remaining men of the 2/4th IC were due to arrive on the 23rd but their ship, HMAS VOYAGER, ran aground. The ships' anti-aircraft gunners manged to shoot down a Japanese bomber before being scuttled. Two days later, the HMAS KALGOORLIE returned along with HMAS WARRNAMBOOL to evacuate the wounded and the crew of VOYAGER.


Following the destruction of the Japanese bomber, the Japanese sent 2000 troops toward Dili Harbour. They burnt villages as they went. Sparrow Force succeeded in causing a great number of casualties but the fight continued into November. They used west Timorese to

Burnt village, East Timor (Image AWM)

burn villages and encouraged east Timorese to attack the Portuguese population. Many of these men would soon request the use of Australian arms.


Finally, a plan was put in place to withdraw Sparrow Force and Portuguese and Dutch civilians. Evacuation began on 1st December and the last of the men left the island on the 15th. A ship, HMAS ARMIDALE, sank in mid-December, losing 98 of the 150 on board. The 2/4th IC remained on the island, covered the evacuation process and continued fighting on the island until they were evacuated on 9th January,1943. 10 men of the 2/4th remained on the island as observers for a further month. Five men of this company died on Timor.


Troops with East Timorese men (AWM)

An estimated 40,000 east Timorese died during the fighting on the island. Many died from famine, many were burned in their villages and some died of disease. Many of the men of Sparrow force regretted having to leave their 'Criado' and the islanders behind, a felt that they owed than a debt of honour, for keeping them alive and providing them with support. After the Japanese occupation of the island, many of those who had helped the Allied troops, were tortured and killed. Many other were enslaved by the Japanese forces.


Sparrow Force returned to Australia and spent two weeks leave in Perth. In June 1943, after retraining, they were sent to New Guinea. They returned to Australia in September 1944 before being redeployed to New Britain. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, they remained in New Britain until December 1945. They returned to Australia shortly after and were disbanded in February 1946. Over the course of the war, Sparrow Force lost a total 51 men.

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