Thursday 11 April 2019

My father's war: "They alone did not surrender."

“Little known but great in spirit are the men of Timor,” said Winston Churchill. “They alone did not surrender.”

My mother became a war widow in 1963 when Dad succumbed to a massive heart attack at the age of 42. His death was related to his experiences during the war, as certified by Dad's former commanding officer, Major Spence, and army medical officer, Dr Dunkley. They helped my mother to navigate the red tape and receive the war-widow's pension, which meant free medical and dental care for our family and free education for myself and my brothers. But we grew up without a father. And sometimes it was tough because of that.

My father died when I was four years old. I have few memories of him, but one that stands out is when he gave me a silver bangle in the shape of a snake. It must have been just before he died. The bangle was obviously hand-crafted and was a little big for me, which is probably why I lost it when I was playing one day at primary school when I was seven. My mother was distraught, and we asked the school to search for it, but it was never found.

I had been told that that the bangle had been given to my father by a Timorese native when Dad was "trapped on Timor in the war". It was a family story, but it didn't mean much to me at age seven. It was later that I realised the extent of my loss: the bangle had been such a tangible connection between me and my father when he was young and fit and fighting for Australia in a war that would eventually kill him, many years later.

I grew up hearing stories about my father's war experiences from my mother, who was enormously proud of him. 

My father was one of the 2nd Independent Company (later the 2/2 Commando Squadron), which was itself part of a small, hastily assembled force that Australia had rushed to defend Timor late in 1941. Although trapped and massively outnumbered when the Japanese invaded in February 1942, the men of the 2nd Independent Company continued to fight a guerrilla war, even when wholly cut off from supplies and support from Australia. It is an amazing story, and it was only when I began to write that I realised how influential my mother's stories and my own sense of loss at his early death had been on my writing. All my novels - six, with two more on the way - have been set in the Second World War.

The story of the 2/2nd begins in 1941 when about 270 officers and men, including my father, were trained at a secret army base at Wilsons Promontory, Victoria. It was intended that they would be sent on secret missions into enemy-occupied territory in Europe. Japan’s entry into the war in December 1941 changed all that.

Dad had had an interesting childhood, born in New South Wales on 1 September 1921, the third child (second son) in a family of eight children. His father was the sort of dreamer who embarked on get-rich quick schemes such as gold mines, hotels, gambling. My uncle tells me that one year they’d be in a fancy house with a governess, the next in a tent by the river bed. It taught the children to be tough and resilient and to depend on each other.

He joined the Army on 21 May 1941, when he was nineteen. He’d been working with his father and brothers on a gold mine out of Kalgoorlie, but was getting sick of the work. So he took off on his motorbike and headed to Perth, where he put up his age and enlisted.

In July 1941, when he was still in army training camp he was intrigued by a call for soldiers to join a secret group. He wrote in his diary:
It was voluntary to join and its secretness aroused my curiosity and I joined. We were not told anything other than we were to receive special training.
The selectors wanted men who were fit, tough and adaptable, who were used to living in hard terrain. Men with mining experience, like my father, were sought after, because they knew about explosives. The selectors didn’t mind a rebellious streak, but they preferred single men. My father fit all the criteria and was chosen.

The men were trained at the Guerrilla Warfare Camp in Victoria by a special mission of British officers who came from the newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE). They included the legendary adventurer and mountaineer, Freddie Spencer Chapman (whose son, Nick, is now - coincidentally - a friend of mine). His photograph is below.
Freddy Spencer Chapman
Exercises were undertaken in full battle dress with full packs, using live ammunition and simulating war conditions. Soldiers were taught to blow up buildings, bridges and communications facilities and army vehicles as well as use field radios and coordinate activities with air drops of food and ammunition. Camouflage, ambush, commando techniques and infiltration techniques were taught.

The training was in very isolated rugged conditions, often on deliberately low rations. Those who were not tough enough were gradually weeded out.

After a long hard exercise when they struck the road about five or six miles from the camp, trucks would be waiting there. The men would be told, ‘If any fellow is a bit knocked up, hop on the truck, and we’ll take you back to camp.’ Any of those who hopped on the truck just stopped long enough at camp to pick up their pack, and were sent back for reposting.

The Prom was "ideally suited for training troops who might fight anywhere from the Libyan deserts to the jungles of New Guinea, the only drawback being that in winter … the climate was often more polar than tropical," as Spencer Chapman wrote later. Dad had come from the hot Western Australian desert; in his diary he wrote:
We were well clothed, but it was bitterly cold at that time of the year and try as one would you could not get warm.
Dad later told my mother about the forced marches, wading through swift rivers with full packs held above their heads, mountain climbing and training in unarmed combat, sharp-shooting and living off the land. All these skills later allowed him and his mates to survive against the odds.

When they marched out of “The Prom”, wearing their distinctive double-red diamond patch, they were known as the 2nd Independent Company. Later in the war they became the 2/2 Commando Squadron, but they were more often known as “the 2/2nd” or the "double-reds".

After training the company was transported north to Katherine, Northern Territory, where they were stationed until Japan entered the war following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Malaya.

The following day, 7 December 1941, at camp in Katherine, they were got up at 0300 hours.
There was a mad rush for the parade ground. We were fallen in and given over to the major Albright. He said “You have been growling about inactivity! Right you will get action and get it now. Be ready to march of at 0800 hours”. As the major finished there was much cheering. The boys had got what they wanted, so we started off for parts unknown once again, at 0800 hours.
Timor lies only around 400 nautical miles from the Australian coast and was of great strategic importance to Australia. Amid fears of a Japanese advance towards mainland Australia, the 2/2nd was sent to Timor, as part of "Sparrow Force". My father's company were ordered to protect Dili airfield in east Timor (now Timor-Leste).

The 2/2nd commandos spent their time traversing the country with map and compass, recording every detail and reporting to HQ, working around the clock, sleeping out and getting local knowledge. But they had been so badly equipped that, after a short time, nine out of 10 came down with malaria.

By 23 December, Dad was becoming ill with the disease that would plague him until his death in 1963. 
On Christmas Day he still had aches and pains in every joint: "It certainly knocks you." On 30 December he wrote:
I have again had a touch of Malaria. One’s head seems that it will fall off any moment. By Lord, it hurts.
By the New Year almost the whole unit was struck down. As Dad wrote on 3 January 1942:
At present most of C Platoon is down with Malaria, but what could one expect from camping in a swamp.
There were some moments of pleasure however, such as bargaining in the Dilli markets and one night, on 3 February, he saw "a most beautiful sight":
The sight was probably something like this.
There were 3 trees and they were almost alive with fireflies and the light which was given off was green in colour. It looked first like a gigantic jewel, with a light played upon it. It was most beautiful. I am feeling ok again. Malaria has left me.
When the 2/2nd heard of the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942, they grimly prepared for Japanese invasion. Stores of ammunition and other equipment were buried at secret dumps in the hills. The men walked barefoot to toughen their feet against the day their boots gave out.

They didn't wait long. The Japanese began their attack with the bombing of Darwin on the morning of 19 February 1942, killing an estimated 250 people. That evening, about 6,000 Japanese troops landed on east and west Timor.
Japanese paratroopers landing in Timor

On 20 February, Dad wrote:
This morning looking out to sea, we behold 4 ships. So far their identity is unknown.
Later there is the bald statement:
They were Japanese ships. 2 Destroyers and 2 transports.
At 1400 hours he wrote:
The Japs have taken Dilli. There are 5,000 Japs in Dilli, as the report states. Our section was the first to investigate this. This morning ... 14 men of 7 section and two others, went into Dilli in the utility truck. The worst is feared for these men, also Pinocchio, the motor bike mechanic [who] passed us bound for Dilli. He is gone I think. We are back in the mountains. We have learnt that Koepang is also occupied by the Japanese. The 2/40th is in the hills somewhere. We may meet up with them some time, I’m hoping. ... A Platoon is, or was, down on the aerodrome. I wonder what has become of them? There are some Japs in the hills looking for us. They will have a job getting us.
That last sentence was quite the understatement.

The Australians in A Platoon who were guarding the airfield engaged in heroic action to hold off the Japanese advance. Pte Poynton won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Dutch Bronze Cross. In 1943 his actions were portrayed in a comic strip:

Later, Dad described what he was told about the battle for the aerodrome:
There were 20 Australians on the drome, when the Japs landed They blew the drome with success, and so far there has been 11 men returned. The stories they tell are “we never knew anything till the ship search light lit up the drome bright as day and then they started shelling us. Then we started fighting the Japs. They came down the road through the bush in droves. They say that they would estimate the Jap losses at 200 or over. It was a great piece of work. 20 men against 2,000 Japs, fighting, they held them off for over an hour and then had to run for it. Out of the 11 men there wasn’t one wounded. Very good.
He was right to fear for the men on the utility truck, and Pinocchio was never seen again. Dad wrote some days later:
The 16 men who went into Dilli by truck were tied up and machine gunned. 2 escaped. One is nearly dead and the other wounded but OK.
The one who was 'nearly dead' was Private Keith Hayes, who had just turned 21. He survived the massacre because the Japanese assumed he was dead; he had suffered a bullet wound to one side of his neck and a bayonet wound to the other. Badly wounded, he was found by two Timorese native boys. At great risk to themselves, they carried him to their village where their mother, Berta Martins, cleaned his wounds and dressed them with paste of local herbs wrapped in banana leaves. Not one of his wounds became infected. Later, again at great risk to the villagers, he was reunited with his comrades. When the 2/2nd's doctor saw the way Berta had treated Haye's wounds, he said he could not have done a better job.

One other soldier, Peter Alexander, was taken to Dilli as a prisoner for interrogation. He survived both Changi Prison and the Burma Railway .

The massacre of the men on the utility truck was one reason why the 2/2nd never considered surrender. (At subsequent war crime trials two Japanese were sentenced to death for their part in the massacre. Two received life imprisonment and another was given fifteen years imprisonment.)
In Dutch West Timor, the 2/40th Battalion had fought bravely, but was running low on ammunition, exhausted, and carrying many men with serious wounds. 

Their commanding officer accepted a Japanese invitation to surrender at Usua. The Battalion had suffered 84 killed and 132 wounded in the fighting; more than twice that number would die as prisoners during the next two-and-a-half years.

My father Jefferson (Rocky) Williams is on guard at the far left.
The 2/2nd met up with some of the 2/40th who had not surrendered, which meant that around 300 Australians on Portuguese Timor faced a force of 6,000 Japanese. Morale was high and because of the policy of carefully distributing ammunition to hiding places, they had a large reserve of ammunition. 

But in order to survive they had to hold territory, and that meant aggressively patrolling and attacking, whatever the odds. Two or three raids against the Japanese were launched every week, often small in themselves but with a huge cumulative effect.

On 13 March David Ross, the British Consul General came to the commandos with a Japanese surrender demand. It said that if the remainder of Sparrow Force did not surrender they would be treated as brigands and executed. Their commanding officer, Major Spence responded: "Surrender? Surrender be f****d!" Ross was told to tell the Japanese:
We were still a unit. We were Australians. Australia was still fighting and so would we.
Their guerrilla campaign was amazingly successful in tying up Japanese men and resources. The Japanese sent seven battalions, together with tanks, artillery and search units, to deal with 300 (later 700 when reinforcements came in) Australian commandos. There were around 10,000 Japanese troops on Timor in 1942 and by the end of the war Japanese officers put their numbers on Timor at 20,000. These were men and resources that would otherwise have been available for the Japanese invasion of New Guinea, or to fight the Americans at Guadalcanal, America's first victory in the Pacific.

Australian commandos in Timor 1942

For almost three months Australia believed that the 2/2nd had been captured along with the 2/40th Battalion. The unit was officially listed as missing by the Australian Army when no word came from the Company.
On patrol. My father is the last on the left, bringing up the rear.

The problem was that the 2/2nd had no working wireless with which to contact Australia. But these men were ingenious. They cobbled together a wireless transmitter nicknamed Winnie the War Winner on the back of a four-gallon kerosene tin, using parts from several failed radio sets. Some parts were obtained via night raids into occupied enemy territory.
Winnie the War Winner
Using Winnie to radio Australia

On 19 April 1942 they managed to radio Darwin. The first communication between Sparrow Force and Northern Force Headquarters in Darwin was:
  • Sparrow Force: "Sparrow Force Timor calling Northern Force Headquarters Darwin. Anyone there, over?"
  • Northern Force Headquarters: "Who are you?"
  • Sparrow Force: "Jack Sargeant."
  • Northern Force Headquarters: "Do you know George Parker?"
  • Sparrow Force: "Yes, he is with us."
  • Northern Force Headquarters: "What is his rank? Answer immediately."
  • Sparrow Force: "Captain."
  • Northern Force Headquarters: "Is he there? Bring him to the transmitter.
  • (Pause.) What is the street number of your house?"
  • Sparrow Force: "94."
  • Northern Force Headquarters: "What is your wife’s name, Jack?
  • Sparrow Force: "Kathleen."
  • Northern Force Headquarters: "This is Northern Force Headquarters.Sparrow Force, what is your situation?"
  • Sparrow Force: "Force intact. Still fighting. Badly need boots, quinine, money, and Tommy-gun ammunition."
    The news that the 2/2 was still waging guerrilla warfare against the Japanese was stunning for Australia. It arrived at the country’s darkest hour, after the capture of more than 22,000 men in Asia from Japanese victories in Malaya, the Philippines, Rabaul and the Dutch East Indies. The news that one band of men was still fighting proved to be tremendously valuable both in strategic terms and in terms of morale.

    Damian Parrer, the Oscar-winning Australian filmmaker, spent time with the 2/2nd in November 1942 and said:
    Damien Parer
    These men of Timor are unique in that they remained an organised fighting body all through the lightning Jap successes. … These lads are fighting an epic of guerrilla warfare.
    Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, wrote:
    PM John Curtin
    Our guerrilla forces in Timor have been doing bold and courageous work. Though the spotlight has been more on New Guinea because of the larger forces engaged, the people of Australia should not overlook the importance of Timor as a base for operations against the north-west of Australia.
    For this reason, MacArthur refused to allow the ill and war-weary men to be withdrawn, but ordered them to continue the campaign of ‘harassment and sabotage’ against the Japanese.

    The commandos became legendary in Australia, and even comic strip characters reinforced their toughness.

    But food was no laughing matter on Timor. The men had starved for months and in addition to battle-wounds, they suffered malaria, beri beri, dystentery and all the other tropical ailments.

    Things improved when supplies were air-dropped and later brought in by sea and Dad wrote in his diary for 11 May 1942:
    Today we were issued with the first lot of comforts which are very few, but very nice. I received 1 tooth brush, cake soap, handkerchief, 1 ounce tobacco, 1 pkt papers, and some shaving soap. As we were out of everything I also received a pair of boots. All these things were dropped by parachute.
    The first Navy men to make contact with them did not recognise the gaunt, haggard, bearded men dressed in rags as Australian soldiers and assumed them to be local mountain tribesmen. Most of the men grew beards because of the lack of shaving gear and also as a means of camouflage in the jungle.
    The Japanese on Timor were becoming desperate. From the end of April scattered and largely unorganised patrols of commandos began hitting the enemy every two or three days. Most attacks were carried out by only a few men. They’d hit hard and then pulled out before the enemy could bring superior forces and firepower to bear. It was effective and the Japanese morale was suffering. 

    In May they began striking the Japanese in the camps and outposts, taking advantage of poor security at the perimeters. C Platoon (Dad's platoon) was attacking them in the hills to the south-west of Dilli:
    The natives around Dilli say we are Lubic (Gods) and we come up out of the ground, kill Japs and then disappear back into the ground. It must seem like that, as in the last 6 raids, not one Jap has seen an Australian. The natives say that the Japs are pretty scared of the Australians.
    The skill and calibre of the men in the second-second was obvious, but it was the support of the Timorese that enabled this small force to be so successful, and lose only ten men in combat.

    Because the commandos lacked supplies and local knowledge they relied heavily on support from the ‘Criados’ - young East Timor men and boys who volunteered to help at great peril to themselves and their villages.

    Mostly aged between nine and 15, the Criados carried packs, shared food and shelter, educated the Australians about the landscape and acted as their eyes and ears, reporting on the Japanese movements and attacks. But the Timorese paid a heavy price for their loyalty. The Japanese carried out a series of reprisals against the civilian population of east Timor in order to reduce their support for the Australians, and things became worse after the Australians left. Between 40,000 and 60,000 Timorese perished during the Japanese occupation.

    On 5 June 1942 Dad wrote:
    We now have prices on our heads. A private is worth $50, 2IC $500 , Major Spence and the Colonel $5,000. $1.00 is worth 1/8, so we are pretty valuable. The Japanese are offering this to the Timor natives for each Australian they capture, dead or alive.
    During August, the Japanese launched a major offensive against the guerrillas and carried out a series of reprisals against the civilian population of east Timor in order to reduce their support for the Australians. By late-November 1942, it was clear that the Australians could not sustain their campaign because of the extreme ill-health amongst all the men, the ever-increasing number of Japanese reinforcements and reduced food supplies. At last the 2/2nd could come home,

    At the end of the war, the 2/2nd  Commando Squadron had been in contact with the enemy longer than any other unit in the Australian Army.

    The second-second became famous again when the renowned documentary film maker, Damian Parer filmed “Men of Timor”in November1942. In Parer’s filming notes he reported being told by my father, whose nickname was "Rocky":
    There’s no doubt we’ve got the pick of Australia in this bunch. It’s not just because I’m one of them myself.
    When I showed that to my mother, she replied dryly:
    That’s just the sort of thing your father would have said.
    Mum and Dad, engaged, in 1948


    abigail brieson said...

    So much for you to be proud of. I had no idea of this campaign or these brave men.

    Clare Weiner said...

    Amazing. What a dad to have. And what suffering they endured and overcame, somehow, to keep going.

    Kaite Fink said...

    Thank you, so much, for sharing this. Amazing and fascinating!