The Japanese Invasion of Dutch West Timor Island, February 1942

The area of Dutch West Timor was 5,500 square miles, Koepang being the capital and principal port, 517 miles from Darwin and 670 miles to Java. The main airfield at Penfui was six miles south east of the town. Nearby were four seaplane anchorages, the principal base at Tenau. Koepang bay and adjacent Semua strait provided good shipping shelter. The population was at least 400,000 West Timorese and about four to five thousand others including Dutch, Chinese and Arabs. On the eastern half of the island named Timor, and a small enclave at Ocussi on the northwest coast, was under neutral Portuguese rule and a population of 500,000 East Timorese, 2,000 Chinese, about 300 Portuguese and a few Japanese and Arabs. The threat to Australia from Japanese occupied Timor prompted the Australian cabinet that Portuguese Timor must be prepared to cooperate to the fullest possible extent to defend the island. It would be an extremely optimistic view to imagine the Japanese respecting the territory of a neutral power, or that East Timor's small force would be capable of defending an invasion. Dili, the capital of the Portuguese half, is 450 miles from Darwin, had an airfield a mile west of town and ship and seaplane anchorages. The residence of the Portuguese Governor, Manuel de Abreu Ferreira de Carvalho, and the principal European community was situated at Dili with the colony divided into provinces, each with a administrator, then each province was divided into "postos" under a junior officer named Chefe de Posto.

An Australian officer described northeast Timor as "one lunatic, contorted, tangled mass of mountains" in which "the mountains run in all directions and fold upon one another in crazy fashion" Timorese ponies, an estimated 100,000 of them, were the basic transport on the island, or by walking. The Dutch territorial commander of Timor and dependencies in December 1941, KNIL Lieutenant Colonel W.E.C. Detiger, had a force of about 500 troops. There was a similar force under Portuguese command, having some 150 troops deployed at Dili and considered insufficient to defeat even a small scale Japanese assault.

On the 12 December 1941 the AIF 2/40 Battalion and 2/2 Independent Company arrived at Koepang. The commander Lt-Col Leggatt, aged 47 and a Melbourne lawyer that had served in France during the Great War plus with the militia afterwards and had replaced the previous battalion commander just a month before.

In the transport ships Westralia and Zealandia, included in Sparrow Force, contained 70 officers and 1,330 men of a coastal artillery battery. The airforce had an under strength No.2 RAAF squadron flying Hudson bombers. The main task of his force was to defend the Bay of Koepang and the Penfui airfield with the Dutch taking up positions to defend the southern area. A rear HQ was established at Tarus, a supply base at Champlong, plus fixed defences were concentrated at Klapalima and a battery position on the coast 3.5 miles northeast of Koepang.

Most of the Australians were afflicted by dysentery and malaria. On the 15 December Dutch KNIL Colonel N.L.W. van Straten arrived by air at Koepang from Java with an additional 100 troops to take command of the Dutch forces on the island under Leggatt. That evening a conference was held and attended by the Dutch Resident at Koepang – Mr. Niebouer, the Australian Consul at Dili – Mr. Ross, the military commanders mentioned earlier including the Officer Commanding the Australian airforce squadron – Wing Commander Headlam, Commander of 2/2 Independent Company – Major Spence and staff officers of course plus the captain of the old 16 knot fast Dutch training cruiser Soerabaja (5,644tons). The newcomer Colonel van Straten said that the Governor-General of the Netherlands East Indies, Jonkheer Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer, was informed that as a result of negotiations between the United Kingdom, Dutch, Australian and Portuguese governments it had been agreed that the Governor of Portuguese East Timor would ask for assistance in case of Japanese aggression against Portuguese territory and that Netherlands East Indies troops would be sent. Further that if an attack were imminent the government of Netherlands East Indies would request that the Portuguese Governor ask for the troops to be sent. The Colonel added that Japanese ships were now in the vicinity of Portuguese Timor. It was agreed that Leggatt and Detiger go to Dili next day in the Canopus, a custom and police steam yacht of 773 tons attached to the navy in time of war, and convey this information to the Portuguese governor in an interview to be arranged by Ross who was to fly back to Dili. On 16 December 155 troops of the Independent Company and 260 KNIL troops embarked on the Soerabaja, leaving the remainder of 2/2 to follow in the Canopus upon its return to Koepang. At Dili on the 17 December Leggatt and Detiger wearing civilian clothes were introduced by Ross to the Portuguese governor and told of his message received through Dutch Colonel N.L.W van Straten.

The Governor avoiding prejudice to Portugal's neutrality was seeking to follow the diplomatically correct response but expressed the hope that there'd be no blood shed especially for the too small Portuguese number of soldiers. That afternoon at 1pm the Australian and fifty Dutch troops landed, unopposed on a sandy beach about 2.5 miles west of Dili. Then a small party of signallers went to town under Lieutenant Rose and experienced no trouble in taking over the radio station. The Portuguese governor replied his instructions were to definitely ask for help only after being attacked. He was told this would be too late. He then asked for it to be put in writing and to consult the matter with his ministers. At 9.45am he said that a message had been received from Lisbon and needed an hour to decode it. In the meantime the Soerabaja arrived off Dili escorted by Australian aircraft. The Portuguese governor came back at 10.50am announcing the message was that he definitely must not allow troops to land unless under attack, and therefore must resist such a landing. The Dutch occupied the town and as Spence with his a section took up positions near their objective, the airfield, he met the Governor, the Dutch consul at Dili and Ross. The occupation was agreed to by the Governor, though with reluctance, even after Japanese aircraft had strafed Allied movements and known positions damaging Portuguese property. Spence was unable to sight any Portuguese troops, or discover their strength. At the request of Dutch Colonel van Straten, the Governor had sent the Portuguese troops out of Dili. The Portuguese Council had a meeting on 19 December and subsequent indications were interpreted as that the Governor was against the occupation. Leggatt reported to Australian HQ that the pro-British Portuguese in Dili could form a government with the support of Allied forces, and Ross recommended if the Governor persisted in his attitude support should be given to such proposals.

On 31 December a message was received by Sparrow Force, owing to a severe Portuguese backlash with threats of breaking diplomatic relations, British proposals having been submitted to Lisbon with Australia's approval. These were that the Dutch withdraw to West Timor and be replaced by more Australians. The Portuguese were highly suspicious and antagonistic towards the Dutch, and presented a diplomatic note amounting to a military ultimatum, this new solution might relieve the situation.

By 22 December the remainder of the Independent Company comprising a third Platoon with signallers and engineers had reached Dili and the company transport vehicles, two one-ton utilities and three motorcycles. The Australians quickly obtained thorough knowledge of the countryside by extensive mapping and found friendships with the people of Dili enjoying the hospitality of Christmas Day. By early January the Platoons were deployed to various tactical positions where malaria cases grew alarmingly that the Company practically had no fighting strength. By early February the Company HQ and hospital were at Railaco. Two sections of Captain Baldwin's platoon were dispersed over a series of heavily wooded spurs nearby. A detached section was guarding the airfield and Captain Laidlaw's platoon was in Bazar-Tete area to control the coast road from Dili and overlooking the airfield.

On 22 January fifty-five reinforcements arrived and were put with Captain Bryland's platoon on a position called "Three Spurs" between Railaco and Dili. The Dutch were still in town, showing little interest to the activities of the Australians and all-round disapproving of their friendly going attitude with the local population on the whole island. Of the 371 Dutch troops under command of Sparrow Force in Dutch Timor, 188 men were in Koepang area mainly responsible for the stretch of beach from Koepang to Tenau. The Australian 2/40 Battalion, 'A Company – Captain Johnston and 'B Company – Captain Roff were assigned the beach defence between Koepang and Usapa-Beser, 'C Company – captain Burr at Penfui and 'D Company – Captain Trevalla was mobile reserve. One platoon of HQ Company would act as covering force at Kapalima with an ad hoc company protecting the headquarters. The Combined Defence Headquarters was located at Penfui in the RAAF control room, advanced HQ also at Penfui, a supply base at Champalong 29 miles from Koepang and overlooking the bay on the road through the centre of Dutch Timor into Portuguese Timor.

KNIL Lieutenant Colonel N.L.W. van Straten

KNIL Lieutenant Colonel N.L.W. van Straten
(click on photo for better view)

In anticipation to the Australian Governments decision Brigadier Veale arrived on Timor 12 February, to await the extra battalion and take command. Also destined for Timor were the 49th American Artillery Battalion allotted to Sparrow Force, the 79th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, less one troop that arrived at Koepang from Surabaya on 16 February. Wavell decided that after the Japanese attack on the convoy bringing these reinforcements for Timor was attacked an enemy invasion of the island was imminent and ordered the ships back to Darwin. Australian and American pilots that had crashed in Dutch Timor area were flown out of Penfui airfield on 19 February.

Sparrow Force was informed that Penfui would become a refuelling port only, afterwards the news that Den Pasar airfield at Bali, another staging point for aircraft flying further onto Java, had been heavily bombed and continually under aerial raids.

A strong Portuguese garrison force (about 800 men) was on its way from East Africa to take over the defence of east Timor. With the Dutch troops at Dili withdrawing the re-deployment of the Independent Company was also considered. The Portuguese force was due at Dili, when on the night 19-20 February, Private Hasson at Dili airfield, reported noises of a landing. Following Callinan's communication with Colonel van Straten eight rounds of shell fire hit the Dutch HQ, but left the next door Japanese consulate building untouched. Dutch returned fire at a supposed submarine.

   The map of Timor Island, 1942

Copyright © 1999-2000 by Graham Donaldson

McKenzie sent a patrol, and a Bren gun team, to cover the entrance to the airfield from Dili. The patrol returned with a negative report, so he rang Callinan and the conversation was cut short by a burst of Bren gun fire. Another group of Japanese also came into machine-gun fire at the back of a hanger. McKenzie tried to ring HQ again but the line was cut.

At dawn the situation revealed that the section at the airfield held out to overwhelming odds, the expected reinforcements sent to the airfield had not arrived, the Japanese were being strengthened and McKenzie without orders from higher command arranged for a counterattack to cover a withdraw which was carried out with determination and vigour.

Meanwhile Callinan having accompanied the Dutch force some distance from Dili, and as Colonel van Straten intended to leave Portuguese Timor, he and Doyle pushed onto Aileu.

The Australian rearguard force had kept up gunfire until dusk, the withdraw along the road to Atambua taken by KNIL Colonel van Straten and 150 Dutch troops leading the retreat. On the morning of 20 February Laidlaw in the Bazar Tete area gave reports from the observation posts to Company HQ of a warship shelling the town and Japanese troops still landing.

In one incident four Australian prisoners had been forced to march some distance with their hands tied behind their backs, pushed into a drainage ditch beside the road the fired on them killing three. The survivors upon moving were bayoneted by the Japanese and Private Hayes was wounded again in the neck, regaining consciousness his hands free and wristwatch gone, he crawled away then was found by local natives and returned to Laidlaw's position on a pony. The Independent Company continued to move further back into the hills in anticipation to a Japanese push and by the end of February the Company HQ was at Villa Maria, a house twenty miles from Dili. Laidlaw continued to patrol the Bazar Tete area and had their first encounter with the enemy by ambushing a transport convoy. The Australians began laying mines, although this was delayed by brewing tea, the Japanese trucks returned and no vehicle struck the explosives, they kept rolling past the twelve ambushers when Lieutenant Nisbet stepped out aimed his Tommy-gun at the lead driver and it jammed ! The enemy convoy pressed on through rifle fire and grenade bursts and only one truck was wrecked, the rest dashed off.

The Japanese were shown that the Australians weren't waiting for them to seek out the enemy so they pushed forces into the Bazar Tete area in the characteristic encircling movement. Laidlaw's platoon after gruelling experiences steep jungle country, arduous actions up and down hills and ridges against the Japanese and leaving heavy enemy casualties in their rearguard ambushes had reached Hatu Lia by 7 March. The Independent Company was together for the first time since the Japanese invasion and from Portuguese reports some 4,000 Japanese had landed, and 200 were killed in the actions around the airfield. Messages from the Japanese urged surrender, yet morale was high for the Australians coming through the first shock of an assault, undaunted and stills a compact fighting force.

However there were anxious thoughts of the fate to Darwin, last news heard was the port was attacked and also what of the main body of Sparrow Force in Dutch West Timor. Early morning on 20 February reports arrived at Penfui HQ of a Japanese landing at the mouth of the Paha River. This enemy landing was a serious threat to the rear of the forces at Koepang. The order was given to blow prepared demolitions on the Penfui airfield as authorised by Brigadier Veale, the reserve company, Captain Trevena, was sent to prepared positions at Upura astride the road to Koepang and being machine-gunned from enemy aircraft while doing so. Veale and his HQ moved to Champalong as arranged, where the limited reserve supplies were based and if the Independent Company arrived from Portuguese Timor it could be used as a reserve where required.

Veale decided that Champalong could not be held long, whereas Su would be a better battalion defence position, he ordered all stores and his staff to go there. Leggatt the 2/40 Battalion commander had been instructed to withdraw his force to Su when he could no longer hold the airfield. The Japanese acted swiftly, bombers attacked fort Klapalima, the combined airforce report centre transferred to Champalong from Penfui and had received a call that at 9.30am hundreds of Japanese paratroops were coming down five miles north-east of Babau. The only troops in this area were cooks and 'B Echelon personnel, headquarters company, a few patients and medical orderlies in a small dressing station. Trevena's company was ordered to Babau to deal with this cut in the only road into the centre of the island and cutting the battalion from its ammunition and supply dumps. An advanced party of paratroopers entered Babau at 10.50am forcing the improvised Australian force, armed with rifles, after stiff resistance withdrew to Tarus.

Japanese paratroopers landing at Usua, Dutch West Timor, 1942

Japanese paratroopers are landing near the town of Usua, Dutch West Timor, February 1942. *

Trevena's company counterattacked at 4.30pm, the left platoon forced its way into the eastern part of the village, the other platoons under mortar and machine gun fire advanced to the market place. Many enemy paratroopers were killed and useful automatic weapons captured but Japanese machine-guns in concealed positions amongst a maize field made occupation of the village untenable. So that night, as it seemed hundreds of Japanese were infiltrating into the village, Trevena withdrew to a good defence position at Ubelo. That same night Leggatt decided to use his force, withdrawing from the airfield, to clear his line of communications at Babau, and supposedly enemy held Champalong, collect and distribute the supplies and wage a guerilla war against the Imperial Japanese occupation forces. He withdrew over the Manikin River, sappers of 2/11 Field Company blew the bridge. Trevena's Company were, again, given the task to attack Babau at 5.30am, 21 February, from the Ubelo start line accompanied with a section of carriers, an armoured car and mortar detachment in support, but the advance was slow and laborious having been strafed and dive bombed all morning. The 79th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery gunners, veteran unit from the Battle of Britain, shot down and damaged several aircraft. It was reported later that morning that a further 300 or more Japanese paratroopers had landed in the area the previous day.

In the assault on Babau the Japanese were cleared from the maize field and after the enemy headquarter and commander eliminated in a building only isolated pockets of resistance remained around the village. Leggatt moved his troops in and by 5.30am on 22 February the Australians were deployed in the surrounding region forming a perimeter around the vehicles. At Babau the savagery of the Japanese military mentality again reared its ugly head when it was found that several wounded Australians, including a medical orderly, had their throats cut while tied to trees and another man was forced to carry a wireless set only to be bayoneted upon collapsing with exhaustion.

   The map of Koepang, 1942

Copyright © 1999-2000 by Graham Donaldson

With some 300 to 500 Japanese paratroopers causing trouble between Babau and Champalong, and a Japanese force coming up from Koepang, Leggatt decided to move through to his supply base beginning at 8am, 22 February, with Roff's company leading, followed by Johnston's then Trevena's and Burr's protecting the rear plus the carriers and mortars were under forward units and anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns were distributed along the column. About a mile along the road from Babau a roadblock at the bridge over the Amaabi River with Japanese digging in and a mountain gun were encountered. After two failed attacks over open ground by midday and an unassailable flank on the enemy position, the Australians fell back to prepare for an all out three company assault set for 5.00pm. But twenty five minutes before the final attack heavy firing was heard from the rear units still near Babau.

A 400 strong Japanese force moving up the road were dispersed but fighting continued into the evening. Meanwhile the Australian assault began, the engineers cleared the roadblock and the three companies each cleared the high ground dominating the objective. On one hill strewn with Japanese dead the surviving enemy were killed to the last man being captured. This prisoner jumped into a trench and opened up with a machine-gun and again another charge was needed to take out this annoyance. And after an all day battle at 6.50pm the column began moving towards Usau. In the rear strong enemy forces had knocked out trucks, including two armoured vehicles and towed anti-tank guns.

Leggatt stopped the column a mile beyond Usua that night, picquets were posted and patrols sent out and a reconnaissance of the road ahead pushed on. The troops were becoming exhausted, Leggatt ordered the withdraw to continue the next morning as the main Japanese force was now behind him. At 7.50am an enemy force of light tanks towing field guns moved up to the tail of the column, the Japanese commander called upon the Australians to surrender. He added that he had a total force of 23,000, behind him and on both flanks of the Australians with a brigade in the rear then the ultimatum to capitulate by 10am or the convoy will be bombed continuously and fighting will resume. Leggatt called the officers together to obtain the feelings of the troops.

The considered it unanimous that further resistance was useless and all the men indicated they would continue to fight if so ordered but this might mean annihilation. The decision to surrender was made at 9am 23 February with arrangements made for the wounded. At 10am a wave of Japanese bombers appeared hitting both the Australians and Japanese convoys killing and causing casualties against both adversaries and destroying four tanks. The Japanese aircraft again came over at 10.10am and done similar but when a third wave approached overhead the Japanese soldiers had placed many rising sun flags visibly around the area negating further aerial bombing attacks.

The Australian battalion had fought and moved for four days having 84 officers and men killed. The Japanese stated there were only seventy-eight survivors from the paradrops and that the Japanese company which moved overland from the south coast, joining the paratroopers, had been destroyed. The Japanese paratroopers were armed with .258 carbines, a high number of .258 light machine-guns, mortars perhaps 2inch and hand grenades, and each paratrooper carried cooked rice wrapped in oil skin plus a tube filter which water could be siphoned like a drinking-straw into the mouth.

On 23 February Veale learnt Leggatt had surrendered, he also had no news of Portuguese Timor. He had some 250 Australians available, mostly Ordnance, Army Service and Army Medical Corps, armed with rifles and a few sub-machineguns and about 40 Dutch and Timorese soldiers. Dutch women and kinder were in a camp 10 miles north of Su and another Dutch force of about 100 soldiers were at Atambua. Veale decided to move his force there taking the Dutch residence's wireless set with him and sent a party to try and contact the Independent Company in Portuguese Timor.

An enemy convoy approached the bridge over the Mina River and was fired upon but withdrew, the bridge was blown and the Australians began retreating to Atambua. Also an outpost was put on the Benain River crossing and destroyed that bridge when an enemy force approached on 25 February. Two days later a fatigued Colonel van Straten arrived from Dili with his tired troops and the Japanese in the meantime crossed the Benain River mounted on ponies advancing on Kefannanu. Veale decided to split the remnants of Sparrow Force into small parties, some going north into Portuguese territory, others heading for the coast and hopefully Australia.

On the night 5 March Veale's small reconnaissance party moving southwest Portuguese Timor met Lieutenant Laffy of the 2/2 making a reconnaissance patrol south of Cailaco and was in touch with the Australian Independent Company HQ at Bobobaro and also Senhor de Sousa Santos, the Portuguese administrator of Fronteria Province. Major Spence met Brigadier Veale at Lolotoio on 8 March.

Order of battle for Dutch, Australian and Japanese Army

Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger (KNIL Army)

- Territorial Command "Timor Island and Dependencies", commander was KNIL Lieutenant Colonel W.E.C. Detiger, replaced later by KNIL Colonel N.L.W. van Straten, with a headquarter in Koepang.
The Dutch KNIL garrison numbered approximately 600 KNIL soldiers and officers.
• Timor and Dependencies KNIL Garrison Battalion with several armored cars (number?)
• 3rd Company/ VIII. KNIL Infantry Battalion
• RK Infantry Company (strength unknown)
• Machine-Gun Platoon/ XIII. KNIL Infantry Battalion
• Artillery Battery (4 x 75mm guns)
• Engineer Platoon
• Engineer Platoon
• Mobile Auxiliary First Aid Platoon

Imperial Australian Army
Australian forces numbered approximately 1,400 men. The Australian Commander on the island was Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt.
Sparrow Force (arrived on 12 December 1941)
• 2/40 AIF Battalion
• 79th (British) Light AA Battery
• 2/2 Australian Independent Company
• section of 2/11 Field Company (Engineers)
• 2/1 Heavy Artillery Battery
• 2/1 Fortress Company (Engineers)
• section of 2/12 Medical Detachment
• 'B Troop 18th Anti-Tank Battery
• No.2 RAAF Squadron with 12 light bombers Lockheed Hudson II

Militaire Luchtvaart, KNIL (Air Force) and RAAF
There are no reports about Dutch planes on Timor Island. At Koepang (Penfui) airfield was stationed just Australian No.2 RAAF Squadron with several light bombers Lockheed Hudson II.

Zeemacht Nederlands-Indiλ (Royal Dutch Navy)
In Koepang harbor was anchored old Dutch coastal training cruiser Soerabaja (Cdr. J.C. Cornelis). Except this ship there were no other navy vessels on Timor Island.

Imperial Japanese Army (Nippon Riku Kaigen) & Imperial Japanese Special Naval Landing Force
• Japanese 228th Infantry Regiment of the Japanese 38th Infantry Division
• Yokosuka 3rd Special Naval Landing Force, a naval parachute unit, commanded by Lt.Cdr. Koichi Fukumi

Imperial Japanese Navy (Teikoku Kaigun)
Convoy for Timor Island numbered 9 transport ships carrying the Japanese 228th Infantry Regiment. Unknown number of transport planes did carry the Yokosuka 3rd Special Naval Landing Force. Convoy escort was under command of Rear-Admiral Raizo Tanaka in the light cruiser Jintsu (flagship) and the invasion convoy was escorted by
2nd Destroyer Flotilla
• 7th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Ushio, Sazanami
• 15th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Natsushio, Kuroshio, Oyashio, Hayashio
• 16th Destroyer Division
destroyers- Hatsukaze, Yukikaze, Amatsukaze, Tokitsukaze
• 21th Minesweeper Division
minesweepers- W ?, W ?, W ?
Air Group
seaplane tender Mizuho
patrol boat ?
Covering Force was under command of Rear-Admiral Takeo Takagi.
• 5th Cruiser Squadron
heavy cruisers- Nachi, Haguro
destroyers- Kawakaze, Yamakaze, Inazuma, Akebono

Note The armored cars are open-topped motor cars fitted with armored plates ("Overvalwagens").

Note You will probably notice this photo in some books with a remark, indicating that it shows the parachute drop at Palembang, Sumatra Island. However, some other books says that it shows the landing of Japanese paratroopers at Koepang, West Timor Island.

Copyright © 1999-2000