World War II

Australia and Portuguese Timor

The Australian invasion

Australia invaded Portuguese Timor on 17 December 1941 in response to fears that the Japanese planned to incorporate it into its expansionary plans during World War II.

As a result, Australia sent a few hundred commandos of the 2/2nd Independent Company part of ‘Sparrow Force’, to Dili, the capital of Portuguese Timor in December 1941, followed later by part of the 2/4th Independent Company.[1] This incursion took place against the express wishes of the Portuguese administration, and hence breached Portuguese neutrality.[2] Emboldened by the Australian move, the Japanese also invaded East Timor on 19 February 1942.

The Australians, assisted by many Timorese, conducted a guerrilla campaign over the next fourteen months against Japanese troops. The highly successful Australian commandos and the intrepid Timorese harassed the Japanese even though they were far outnumbered for the whole operation. Towards the end of 1942 thousands more Japanese troops were inserted in response to the Australians’ success and the general unwillingness of the Timorese to capitulate.

Australian fear of invasion

Australia’s traditional reliance on Britain eroded swiftly in the face of the political and military disaster that was the fall of Singapore in 1942.[3] With Japan’s southward advance, the Australian military was convinced of invasion and advised the government that such was likely by April 1942, with a landing in the east coast in May.[4]

The fear of Australians in 1942 is understandable.  They were embroiled in a world war and their traditional support by Britain was weakened. They inhabited a vast and undefended landmass and believed it would be engulfed by Japan’s southward march. Australians feared for their nation and their lives

Japanese intentions

However, Japan did not intend to invade Australia. The primary reason for Japan’s expansionist push southwards was to establish the ‘Great Southeast Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’.[5] This scheme was proposed as a Japanese economic, industrial and political empire stretching from Manchuria to the Dutch East Indies and through to New Guinea and the Pacific. Retaining this 4,000-mile sphere of influence was believed by the Japanese to guarantee a flow of oil from the Dutch East Indies and be a bulwark against invasion of Japan herself.

While Japan’s designs on Australia and the region have been matters of some dispute, there is now consensus among reputable historians that the Japanese did not intend to invade Australia.[6]

Nevertheless, while an invasion was not planned, there were attacks against the Australian mainland. These were designed to isolate the nation from its Allies and to prevent the use of Darwin’s strategic position by the United States. The first bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942 killed over 240 people (88 of them Americans) and wounded up to 400, with most civil and military facilities destroyed.[7] Sixty-four more attacks on Darwin happened in the following weeks, besides air attacks on inland towns in the Northern Territory through to November 1943.[8]

The destruction of Darwin was a preliminary strike ‘to disable its potential as a threat’ to the invasion of the Dutch half of Timor, which the Japanese already controlled.[9]  Occupation of the islands to Australia’s north-east would cut links to United States, Commonwealth and Dutch interests, thus neutralising threats to Japanese plans.[10] The Japanese generals were confident that Australia could be bullied into submission through such isolation, and by associated psychological pressure. [11]

Contributing to heightened fears of a Japanese invasion of Australia was the New Guinea Campaign, particularly the Battle of Kokoda fought between Japanese and Australian forces from July to November 1942.

The Kokoda Track and the exploits of the Australian soldiers subsequently filled Australian imaginations as proof of imminent peril to the mainland.[12] In the years following, stories have abounded that the invasion plan was thwarted by the Australians at Kokoda.[13] However, the moral triumph of the Australians at Kokoda was neither the sole reason for victory in the south-west Pacific nor can it be seen in isolation, as the American victories in the Solomon Islands were crucial and far more costly than the New Guinea campaign.[14]

The Australians who bravely and skillfully fought against the Japanese in New Guinea did so against an enemy who was attempting to cripple Australia, not invade it.[15]

The consensus among prominent historians remains that there was not, at any time, a threat of Japanese invasion of Australia, though there was a real threat of aerial attack and isolation. Nevertheless, the situation was perceived as desperate and threatening by the small and fearful Australian population.

The subsequent tragedy, however, was not primarily felt by Australians in their own country, but by the Timorese in theirs.   

The Japanese invasion

Emboldened by the Australian invasion of neutral Portuguese territory, the Japanese also invaded. On the same day that Darwin was bombed – 19 February 1942 – Dili in Portuguese Timor was also bombed, and the Japanese began inserting thousands of troops. There was a terrible loss of Timorese lives during World War 11. Tens of thousands died as a direct result of helping our Australian soldiers.

Timorese people at war

The few hundred Australians who had moved into Portuguese Timor in December 1941 initially had no contact with the outside world. They lacked their own radio equipment until they constructed a wireless and made contact with Australia on 19 April 1942.[16] They were then supplied by air drops which augmented their living off the land and their dependence on the Timorese people.

Establishment of communication with Australia meant provision of valuable intelligence on ship and troop movements and identification of targets which were then attacked by the RAAF.[17]

The Australian troops who conducted the Timor campaign credited the general support of the East Timorese people as the main reason for their success. Without the benefit of shared language or knowledge of their customs, a remarkable relationship was formed, a motley but highly successful band, unique in Australian history.

Young Timorese men and their families provided the Australians with shelter, shared their food, nursed them during their bouts of malaria and tropical diseases, relayed information on Japanese troop movements, pointed out the best observation and ambush positions, and protected and carried the commandos’ equipment while they were engaging the Japanese.

Such assistance was essential to the success of the Australian mission in fighting the increasing numbers of Japanese. Up to forty men of the Independent Companies died in Portuguese Timor, but only ten of these in combat.[18] The deaths of Japanese are calculated as many hundreds.[19]

The sustained and ferocious Japanese retaliation against the Timorese because of their support of the Australians caused a grievous toll. But shockingly, many Timorese deaths were also the result of Australian success, as bombing of Japanese positions wiped out villages and crops, causing death, injury, and starvation.

After the war, the Australian men related the levels of loyalty they found among the Portuguese Timorese. For example, describing a youth who undertook to pretend to sell produce to a Japanese troop section as a way of spying on them for the Australians, Archie Campbell of the 2/2nd Independent Company wrote:

It is almost incredible that he is willing to risk torture and death for the Australians who are indirectly responsible for all the misery the Japs have heaped upon the Timorese: the burning villages, the killings, the terrified women carried into slavery and defilement. Yet there he goes – no fanfare, no drama –  just a casual wave and a smile, and he is gone.[20]

Lance Bomford, of the 2/40th Battalion which joined up with 2/2nd in September 1942 wrote:

Each of us had his native, called a criado. They carried our packs so we were free with our guns, and without them we just couldn’t have fought like we did. The natives would spot when the Japs were making a move and relay the message to us so we could set up ambushes. Even at the end when it was tough we were dependent on them to keep one jump ahead of the Japs. It wasn’t just the criados, there were lots who helped us. Early in December we got orders to move to the coast. It was a great feeling to be going home but it was a sad parting from the Timorese boys who’d done so much for us. Quite a few of us had tears in our eyes. I’d have loved to have taken my little fella back with me. He cried when the time came to leave. I gave him a note [praising him], what a good lad he was, gave him a few odds and ends. What happened to him Lord knows.[21]              

Exhausted, the 2/2nd was evacuated to Australia in December 1942 with some Portuguese civilians, while the 2/4th was withdrawn in early 1943.

Their Timorese companions, however, were left to return to their homes. They found that their support of the Australians was to be brutally repaid by the Japanese who remained in their thousands in Portuguese Timor until the end of the war.

The effects of World War II on the Timorese people is extraordinary in comparison to the Australian and world-wide death count. A comparison between the census of 1947 and that of 1930 suggests that the population of the territory had declined from 472,221 to 433,412. That means the real number of Timorese war-time deaths was higher than the 40,000 indicated if even a minimum natural growth rate is considered.[22]

Between 40,000 and 60,000 Timorese died during the war, all civilians. That is, between 8 percent and 14 percent of Portuguese Timor’s 1939 population died between 1941 and 1945, despite its status as the colony of a neutral power.

This figure is startling when compared with the numbers of deaths in the populations of those nations officially at war. The enormous losses of Russia, Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia and Greece – all combatant nations – match those of Portuguese Timor in percentage terms. The number of British military and civilians who died is calculated at 0.8 percent of the pre-war population, and that of United States deaths at 0.3 percent of their population.[23] Australian deaths are calculated at 0.4 percent of its 1939 population.[24]

The need to tell the truth

The paradoxes are vast. Australia, the larger, richer nation which feared invasion remained secure, while Portuguese Timor, the smaller, weaker territory became the victim, suffering an invasion and a four-year occupation by the Japanese.

Nevertheless, available material currently stocked by libraries, accessible on the internet, and mandated for use in schools, continues to present a narrative almost entirely from the Australian viewpoint. Traditional images abound of courageous Australians victorious in the face of defeat: the victim under threat and the hero battling to the end.

This Australian self-focus distorts the facts, belittling the enormity of the suffering of the Timorese people and ignoring their courage and service in Australia’s regard.

© Susan Connelly 2023


[1] These Companies formed part of “Sparrow Force” a detachment drawn from the 2/40th Australian Infantry Battalion.

[2] Paul Cleary, The men who came out of the ground: a gripping account of Australia’s first commando campaign Timor 1942 (Hachette Australia: Sydney, 2010), 31-32.

[3]Bob Wurth, 1942: Australia’s greatest peril, 2nd ed. (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2010), xi.

[4] Peter Stanley, Invading Australia: Japan and the battle for Australia 1942 (Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin Group, 2008), 1.

[5] John Costello, The Pacific War 1941-1945 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1981), 472; Steven Bullard, “Japanese strategy and intentions towards Australia”, in Australia 1942: In the Shadow of War, ed. Peter J. Dean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 124-139.

[6] Ian McPhedran, “Historians Professor David Horner and Ashley Ekins question World War II Kokoda campaign’s iconic status”,, September 6, 2012, accessed May 10, 2020,; Frank Jacobs, “Is This Map Australia’s Clumsy Attempt at Fabricating a Japanese Invasion During WWII?” Big Think, accessed May 10, 2020,

[7] Wurth, 1942, 136.

[8] National Archives of Australia, “The Bombing of Darwin”, accessed May 10, 2020,

[9] Stanley, Invading Australia, 108.

[10] David Horner, “Australia in 1942: A pivotal year”, in Australia 1942: In the Shadow of War, ed. Peter J. Dean, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 20.

[11] Henry P. Frei, Japan’s Southward Advance and Australia. From the Sixteenth Century to World War II (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1991), 172.

[12] Stanley, Invading Australia, 186.

[13] Ibid., 1.

[14] Ibid., 188 and 191.

[15] Horner, “Australia in 1942”, 20.

[16] Christopher C.H. Wray, Timor 1942: Australian commandos at war with the Japanese (Port Melbourne: Mandarin, 1990), 98.

[17] Cleary, The men who came out of the ground, 323.

[18] Ibid., 277, 353.

[19] Ibid., xi.

[20] Archie Campbell, Double Reds of Timor (Swanbourne WA: John Burridge Military Antiques, 1995), 82.

[21] Michele Turner, Telling: East Timor, Personal Testimonies 1942-1992 (Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press, 1992), 11-12.

[22] Dunn, East Timor, 322.

[23] Top Foreign, Chart: World War II Casualties as a Percentage of Each Country’s Population, accessed May 10, 2020,

[24] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 100 Years of Australian Lives, Second World War 1939-1945, accessed May 10, 2020,[email protected]/Lookup/2071.0main+features952012-2013

Photograph at the top shows Rufino Alves Correia, a “criado” talking with Paddy Kenneally from the 2/2nd Commandos in 2006.