by GENEVEIVE ISBELL
My father and mother, Alan and Dorothy Spence, bought The Fassifern Guardian in the mid 1960’s and sold it to Murray and Frances Creighton in 1973. My husband, Graham and I, still live in the district and my sister, Trish, and her husband, David Parr, have a property at Aratula and we have one at Coulson.
The enforced isolation and confinement we are experiencing now only highIights the sacrifices made by our men in 1942 who lived behind enemy lines and risked their lives every day for the entire year.
My father was the Commander of the 2/2nd Commando Squadron, which was one of 12 Independent Companies raised by the Australian Army during World War II.
The ‘Double Reds’ as they were known, landed in East Timor on December 17, 1941. The Japanese landed in the East Timor capital of Dili on the night of February 19, 1942 and by then the Australians were in the surrounding hills.
When Allied Forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on February 15, 1942, the 2/2 Squadron was the only unit in the South-West Pacific still fighting.
Winston Churchill said of those men: “Little known, but of great significance, are the men of the 2/2 Independent Company in Timor, they alone of all the troops did not surrender.”
They were a remarkable unit who fought for a year in the wild mountains of East Timor. They spent longer in contact with the enemy in the Pacific than any other unit in the Australian Army and were the only troops in the South-West Pacific to escape capture.
Throughout 1942 they waged a successful guerrilla campaign engaging thousands of Japanese who called them the “devils who jumped out of the ground.”
With Timor-Leste (formally known as East-Timor) in a period of peace, it was at last possible to walk in the steps of that brave band of Australian commandos.
My sister and I, and our husbands went on an organised tour of Timor-Leste with eight other descendants of the men of 2/2nd in April-May 2018.
We left Darwin and after flying for an hour we reached the rugged island of Timor. This was our first insight into how difficult it must have been to fight in such a hostile environment. We landed in the pretty seaside capital Dili on the north coast and were welcomed by young Timorese girls dancing and singing.
We attended the Dawn Service in Dili. Trish and I laid a wreath in memory of the men of the 2/2nd from the Commando Association of Australia. This was a very moving experience for us.
Our tour included a trip around Dili and it was interesting to note the Portuguese colonial architecture. We had morning tea at the Australian Embassy and met the Australian Ambassador.
Later we stopped at a site where the Japanese had massacred Australian troops. The Australians were unaware that the Japanese had landed and the next day sent a regular ration truck to Dili. The truck was ambushed and 16 men were killed. One crawled away and was later rescued and nursed back to health by a Timorese woman.
Our tour continued south into the mountains, which rise up almost 3000m, to explore some of the sites where the unit retreated. We were in four wheel drives on extremely rough roads but in 1942 the troops would have been on foot or perhaps Timor ponies.
The 2/2nd success was only made possible by the support of the Timorese people who helped the Australians with everything they could. They provided food and helped as guides and porters, and were called ‘creados’. The Portuguese locals also helped the Australians by allowing them to use their phone line and by providing food, support and information on Japanese movements.
We were lucky to meet some of the descendants of the creados and the Portuguese. We also visited the grave of one of the most well known creados, Rofino Alves, and later met his daughter and her family. We felt close to these people and very indebted to them. Without their help, the Australians would have been captured, and most likely imprisoned or killed. We also met descendants of the Portuguese families who had supported the Australians and they entertained us in their homes.
The 2/2nd had been out of contact with Australia since the Japanese arrival, and the Australian Army headquarters assumed they had been captured or killed. Meanwhile, three radio engineers were working on building a radio and making contact with Australia.
They collected bits and pieces from other sets and stole some from the Japanese. Finally on April 20, 1942, weak signals were heard in Darwin:
“Force intact. Still fighting. Badly need boots, quinine, money and Tommy-gun ammunition”.
It was a wonderful morale booster and the best news in four months for Australians at home.
The 2/2nd Unit called their radio ‘Winnie the War Winner’ after Winston Churchill and it is now housed in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
We could not approach the site where the radio was constructed in Mape due to the bad roads.
We visited an ambush site near Remexio, where a Japanese Major called the ‘Singapore Tiger’ and many of his men were killed.
The Japanese Major was renowned for his skill in jungle fighting and ruthlessness. He was very theatrical and always had his sword in hand. He was the first to die under machine-gun fire from the Australians and Portuguese. Today the site is tranquil and a lovely place for a picnic.
Our tour took us to Balibo where five Australian journalists, now known as the ‘Balibo 5’, were killed by Indonesian soldiers when Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste in 1975. They were portrayed in the film ‘Balibo’. It is now a peaceful village and we were accommodated at the Balibo Fort and enjoyed dinner in the garden under a full moon.
We also visited Bobanaro which was 2/2nd Company Headquarters for a time in June 1942.
Dad developed a lifelong friendship with Antonio Sousa Santos, who was the administrator of the province and helpful to the Australians. Trish and I were photographed in front of the posto building where Dad would have visited Sousa Santos.
By May 24, 1942, the number of Commandos had increased to more than 700 men, and Dad was appointed Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of the entire company, which was known as ‘Sparrow Force’.
In the three months of active service in Timor-Leste, the Australians had demonstrated that Japanese soldiers were not the invincible soldiers that the world had come to believe.
In June that year, the Japanese were desperate and they put rewards out for the leaders of the unit. The Japanese commander was so frustrated with their lack of success in defeating the Australians, that he sent an emissary demanding the Australian surrender. Once again the response was “we will never surrender”.
On July 4, word came through to Dad that I had been born on May 19 and he celebrated with his officers.
We visited Saui on the south coast, which was where the small fleet of patrol boats, which became known as the ‘Timor ferry service’, brought in supplies across the Timor Sea for the 2/2nd.
We then continued to Betano further to the east, which was the major place for the ferry service to bring in men and supplies and take away any wounded. Here we saw the remains of the destroyer ‘HMAS Voyager’, which had run aground while disembarking 350 men of the 2/4 Company in September 1942.
It was during that September, the Japanese brought in reinforcements of 15,000 men of the 48th division. It was from here on November 16 that Dad returned to Australia on the patrol boat ‘HMAS Kuru’ with other sick and exhausted men.
Our tour ended with a lovely night at a restaurant on the beachfront at Dili apparently quite close to where the Japanese landed on that fateful night on February 19, 1942.
• Lt Col Spence was later re-united with the 2/2nd Independent Company, and remained with them until later in the war when he became the commanding officer of the 2/12th Commando Squadron and then later the 2/9th Cavalry Commando Regiment in 1944 - 45. He was discharged from the army on February 28, 1945. In June 1943, he was awarded the DSO for courage and distinguished service in Timor.