Debt of Honour: Australia’s first commandos and East Timor
Exhibition at the Western Australian Museum
Until May 20.
When the Japanese entered World War II after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbour, they swept through south-east Asia and the Pacific.
Japanese forces overran Allied forces in Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia — and bombed Darwin on February 19, 1942. During that time, the only Allied forces not to surrender were the Australian 2/2nd Independent Company, who were able to tie down Japanese forces in the hills of western and central East Timor.
They fought a 10-month guerrilla campaign against forces that would number 20,000. This would not have been possible without the assistance of the local population — especially the young men and boys known as the Criados, who acted as guides for the Australians.
Through various artefacts and documents, Debt of Honour explores the 1942 campaign, the relationship between the Timorese and the Australian soldiers and the subsequent betrayals of the East Timorese after 1942 by successive Australian governments.
At the time, East Timor was a Portuguese colony. Despite Portugal being a fascist dictatorship, it pledged to remain neutral in the war. However, after Pearl Harbour a combined Australian and Dutch Force invaded East Timor.
Despite protests from the Portuguese authorities, they met no resistance. However, this intervention drew the Japanese into Timor. A day after the Darwin bombing, on February 20, 1942, the Japanese invaded Dutch-occupied East Timor.
Despite the Japanese forces taking control of most of Dutch-run West Timor, and the area around Dili, the Australian soldiers were able to retreat to the hills and begin their guerrilla campaign.
They were isolated from the Australian mainland and would not make contact until April. In September 1942, the 2/4th Independent company was sent in to reinforce them.
During their 10-month campaign, the 2/2nd and 2/4th were able to tie down significant numbers of Japanese troops needed for campaigns in New Guinea and the Pacific, thus greatly assisting the Allied cause. About 1500 Japanese soldiers were killed for the loss of 40 Australians.
A relationship developed between the Australians and the Criados — often young Timorese boys with an average age of 13 and some as young as nine. The Criados stayed with the soldiers, assisting them in gathering food and vital intelligence, often putting themselves and their families at risk from Japanese reprisals.
Strong bonds were formed between the Australian soldiers and the Criados. Many other Timorese people also provided great support for the Australians. For the men of 2/2nd, this would be a “debt of honour” they would spend a lifetime trying to repay.
In late 1942, the Japanese enlisted the support of people from West Timor and East Timorese tribespeople. Using threats, bribery and the promise of independence, the Japanese were able to form a pro-Japanese force known as the Black Columns. This led to conflicts between pro- and anti-Japanese Timorese, with the Black Columns destroying villages and spreading terror.
This helped dry up support for the Australian soldiers, making it harder for them to continue their operations. By December 1942, the 2/2nd was withdrawn to Australia and the 2/4th left in January 1943.
The Criados — along with rest of the East Timorese population — were left to their fate.
This greatly distressed the men of the 2/2nd, especially considering the bonds they had formed with the Criados. In a December 1942 journal entry, Lt Archie Campbell wrote: “It tore your innards out to know that the lads who had been your existence were going to be dropped like hot cakes with no security of tenure whatsoever.”
Before the withdrawal of Australian forces, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) dropped leaflets telling the local population the Australians would not forget their friends.
The Japanese occupation of East Timor was brutal. Those who supported the Australians suffered greatly. By the end of the war in 1945, it was estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 East Timorese had been killed by the Japanese or died from starvation, disease or malnutrition.
Promises by the Australian government to support East Timorese independence after the war were quickly forgotten as the Portuguese resumed control. When Portuguese rule crumbled in 1975, the Indonesian military invaded to prevent the pro-independence Fretilin party from taking power.
This invasion and the later brutal military occupation was supported by successive Australian governments, ALP and Coalition. This lasted until the 1999 vote by East Timorese for independence — after which large protests pushed the Australian government to send troops to end an Indonesian-backed campaign of slaughter against Timorese civilians.
These cynical betrayals by Australian governments stand in contrast to the deep bonds of friendship between the Australians of 2/2nd and surviving Criados.
The sense of shame that many Australians felt at the betrayals of the East Timorese by their government led them to play a strong role in supporting the East Timorese struggle for independence.
After the Australian government tried to rob the newly independent East Timor of its oil reserves under the Timor Sea Gap Treaty, former members of the 2/2nd, such as Paddy Kenneally, campaigned for the East Timorese to get a fairer deal.
In 2006, the Australian government was forced to agree to give the East Timorese 60% of royalties from their oil reserves — less than the Timorese have a right to under international law, but higher than Australia wanted to grant the impoverished nation.
I left the Debt of Honour exhibition with mixed feelings. I felt anger and sadness at Australian governments' betrayals of the East Timorese, who sacrificed so much to oppose Japanese occupation.
But I also felt admiration for the Criados and other East Timorese for their actions, as well as the efforts of the men of 2/2nd and 2/4th to repay their debt of honour.