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Who really invaded East Timor in World War II?

Clinton Fernandes - February 19, 2012

Australia's invasion of East Timor (yes, really) [1] in December 1941, is widely assumed to have been made in order to expel Japanese forces from the territory. In fact Japan had no forces in Portuguese Timor, as Australian policymakers knew at the time. What is more, Japan had no intention of deploying forces to Portuguese Timor, which was a colony of Portugal a neutral power during World War II. In its march through Asia, Japan had refrained from violating this neutrality in the other Portuguese colony of Macau.

It was only after Australian, Dutch and British troops had deployed to Portuguese Timor and violated Portuguese neutrality that Japan decided to send its own forces there [2].

Portugal and Britain had perhaps the oldest continuing alliance in the modern world the ancient Anglo-Portuguese treaty of 16 June 1373, reaffirmed on 9 May 1386 as the Treaty of Windsor. Although it had enjoyed the status of a formal and permanent alliance when signed in the fourteenth century, the treaty had fallen into a state of neglect until Britain invoked it during World War II to obtain the use of Portugal's bases in the Azores (an archipelago of nine widely-separated islands in the mid-Atlantic). Portugal consented but remained neutral during the war.

Australia had not shown any serious interest in Portuguese Timor before World War II. Very few successful Australian businesses had been established there, and trade links were almost non-existent. There had been a suggestion during World War I that Australia should take possession of Portuguese Timor as a summer holiday location for northern Australians. Prime Minister Andrew Fisher had expressed an interest in the idea but it was soon rejected because, as the Secretary of Australia's Department of External Affairs Atlee Hunt said, "if the residents of the North can afford to go away to escape the summer it is far more likely they will come south... where they can have the advantage of the society of their friends and relatives than go to such a place as Timor."[3]

Portuguese Timor did not feature much in the consciousness of Australian policymakers except on those occasions when rumours circulated that one foreign power or another was contemplating buying it from the Portuguese. For example, a Dutch newspaper reported in 1932 that Japan intended to purchase Timor from the Portuguese[4]. The Portuguese Government immediately contacted Australian officials and assured them "that there was not the slightest foundation for the report in question"[5]. There continued to be rumours from time to time, and these continued to be denied by Portugal.

After the outbreak of World War II, Australian authorities were concerned that some Japanese businesses had been established in Portuguese Timor. They began to fear foreign military intervention in the territory. However, although Japan had framed its rhetoric in anti-colonial terms, it had no intention of deploying forces to Portuguese Timor. Even during its march through Asia it never included Portuguese Timor or Portugal's other colony of Macao on its list of war objectives.

The Australian government established an air link between Darwin and Dili (the capital of Portuguese Timor) as a regular stopping place on the Darwin to Singapore route, and set up a rudimentary intelligence collection program in the territory. It posted Mr. David Ross as the Civil Aviation Department's representative to Dili in February 1941 in order to administer Qantas Empire Airways (his official reason) and to report on Japanese activities (his unofficial reason). Ross' position made him "very diffident about discussing political questions with the Governor [of Portuguese Timor]" as he had "no status for so doing." Ross reported, "I have far overstepped my functions so far as the Portuguese authorities are concerned..."[6]

The facts of Australia's intervention into Portuguese Timor in 1941 are as follows: After the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the British Government requested the Australian Government to send troops to Portuguese Timor, saying that Portugal had agreed to the plan. The Australian Government had very limited resources at the time but agreed to Britain's request. It emphasized to Britain the importance of the Portuguese Government publicly approving the mission. Once assured by Britain that all arrangements were in place, Australia ordered its forces to land in Portuguese Timor although the Portuguese authorities had not given their approval. While Australian forces were in the process of doing so, the Portuguese Government expressed its public hostility to the operation. Worried, the British Government requested the Australians to not mention that Britain was in any way associated with the operation even though the plan was primarily a British one. Although annoyed at being placed in this difficult position, the Australians agreed. The British Government then proceeded to express its regret to Portugal about the action of "Allied military authorities on the spot", implying that it was not involved and that the entire operation was the result of decisions made by lower-level tactical commanders from Australia and the Netherlands. These are facts of history. What follows is the evidence on which the above claim is made.

On 12 December 1941, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin received a cable from Lord Cranbourne, Britain's Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs[7]. Cranbourne advised Curtin that the Dutch had agreed to participate in an attack on Japanese forces in Portuguese Timor.[8] He stated that the Governor of Portuguese Timor was being advised by his government in Portugal to "facilitate the task of the Dutch and Australian forces" that would be landing in Portuguese Timor. Accordingly, he urged Curtin to send "even a very small token force of Australians" to supplement the Dutch troops. The Australian contribution, Cranbourne stated, was of "considerable importance". He requested a favorable response "at the earliest possible moment" [9].

Curtin cabled back on the same day, saying that the Australian Government had agreed and was authorizing Lieutenant Colonel Bill Leggatt, the Australian commander in West Timor "to send a detachment to act in conjunction with the Dutch" in order "to liquidate the Japanese". Curtin advised that the move "should be made without delay" [10].

The next day, Cranbourne informed Curtin that the Portuguese Government had agreed to accept assistance "in the event of a Japanese attack" against Portuguese Timor. The Portuguese Government had instructed its Governor, M. de A. Ferreira de Carvalho, to get in contact with his counterpart in West Timor, Dutch Resident F.J. Nieboer in order to discuss "matters of common interest which are of immediate application". Cranbourne advised that the British had informed the Portuguese that Allied forces in the region "should be given wide latitude" because "the Japanese might act at any moment" [11].

The obvious problem, of course, was that there had not been any Japanese attack against Portuguese Timor (or against the other Portuguese colony of Macau), nor was there any evidence of Japan's intention to attack Portuguese Timor. It was hardly likely that the Governor of Portuguese Timor would be agreeable to the intrusion of Allied troops when the Japanese had been so scrupulous in respecting Portuguese neutrality. Despite this fact, the Australian Government advised Cranbourne that there was to be a "consultation" with the Governor of Portuguese Timor at 0700h on 17th December, following which "a combined force of Dutch and Australians" travelling by sea would land in Dili at 0900h that morning[12]. Indeed, the consultation was merely to provide the facade of having obtained Portuguese consent.

Conscious that this would be seen as no more than a perfunctory consultation, Cranbourne replied that "if possible a rather longer interval should be allowed to elapse between the time when the Conference at Dili[13] begins and the time when the combined force arrives".[14] The Australian Government agreed and informed the Consul in Dili (David Ross) accordingly. Ross in turn advised Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt and the commanding officer of the Dutch forces in Timor, Lieutenant Colonel W. Detiger. Immediately after, however, Cranbourne informed Curtin that the reaction of Portugal's Secretary-General Dr L. Teixeira de Sampaio to the operation had been "violently unfavourable" [15]. Cranbourne urgently requested Curtin to ensure that Australian forces made every effort to reach agreement with the Governor of Portuguese Timor before any landing was attempted. When Lieutenant Colonels Leggatt and Detiger met Mr M. de A. Ferreira de Carvalho, the Governor of Portuguese Timor, he advised them in writing of his opposition to foreign troops:

In reply to the communique which you gentlemen handed me at 9.20 am today, requesting me to accept the help of the Australian and Dutch forces, which will be directed immediately to the territory of this colony, I have the honour to inform you that, in accordance with the instructions from my Government in Portugal, I cannot accept this help, because the position with regard to the conflict is one of strict neutrality, and because no aggression of any sort has taken place in our territory, the last-mentioned being the sole condition under which the Government of Portugal could accept the help of Australian and Dutch forces for the Defence of the Colony.... Under these circumstances every disembarkation of forces will be considered as a breach of the neutrality of our territory[16].
Ferreira de Carvalho also cabled Australian Prime Minister Curtin in similarly unambiguous terms:
The Governor of the colony of Portuguese Timor protests vigorously against the aggression, absolutely contrary to the principles of law, being carried out against this part of Portuguese territory, by Dutch and Australian forces, who claim to be acting in accordance with the instructions received from the Government of the Netherlands Indies in agreement with the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia.[17]
The Australian Government tried to portray its intervention as being necessary to defend Portuguese Timor against "Japanese aggression" something that had not occurred in the territory. It asked David Ross to convey the following message to the Governor of Portuguese Timor:
In reply to your communication Commonwealth Government regrets that in order to defend against Japanese aggression it has been found necessary to prevent Japanese breach neutrality in Timor. We assure you Portuguese sovereignty will not be impaired and in fact it is to defend that sovereignty as well as to prevent Japanese aggression that our forces have cooperated with Netherlands Government in taking this action. Commonwealth Government desire to assist in every way possible regarding administration and economic life of colony.[18]
An embarrassed Cranbourne then informed Curtin that the Portuguese Government "would in no circumstance consent to Allied troops entering the territory unless and until the enemy attack had actually been made"[19]. He tried to minimize his own part in the affair by telling the Portuguese Government that "Japanese submarine activity off Portuguese Timor" had created "an unavoidable necessity". He apologized to the Portuguese for the Allies' actions, implying that lower-level tactical commanders from Australia and the Netherlands had acted hastily. The Dutch too provided Portugal with an official regret, stating that the landings were necessary "in view of the Japanese submarine activity off Portuguese Timor"[20].

An angry John Curtin agreed to maintain Australia's silence as far as the Portuguese were concerned but laid out the entire sequence of events in a detailed cable to Lord Cranbourne in order to ensure that the historical record was preserved[21]. On 11 December 1941, he reminded Cranbourne, you "indicated the UK's desire" for Australia to provide "a very small token force" with the main Dutch force in order to ensure "the defence of Portuguese Timor against Japanese aggression or infiltration". Two days later, he said, "you told us that Portugal had agreed to this plan". Therefore, "despite our very limited resources", Curtin continued, "we agreed to your request" because we had impressed upon you "the desirability of having the Portuguese Government give public support to the operation". It was at Cranbourne's request, Curtin continued, that "we changed the timing so that the landings would occur more than two hours after the Portuguese Governor had been formally consulted". But it was "only after the expedition had set out that we heard from you that the Portuguese government had suddenly become hostile and lost its nerve". Curtin reminded Cranbourne that he did not want Australia to mention Britain's association with the operation "although the plan was primarily yours". Accordingly, when the Governor of Portuguese Timor protested to Curtin directly, he "made no public statement whatever". Furthermore, "in difficult circumstances and solely in order to meet your position" he made "no reference whatsoever to your part in the enterprise". However, although Cranbourne had implied that he was "not a party to the plan", Curtin stated that he had informed the New Zealand government "how it was we came to take part in the expedition".

A combined force of 155 Australian and 260 Dutch troops had landed near Dili but, as Curtin informed Cranbourne, "the position is most unsatisfactory" because the Governor of Portuguese Timor, far from going along with the charade, was "organizing troops to harass our troops and will certainly assist in any Japanese landing". To add to the tense situation, the Dutch Commander Lieutenant Colonel N.L.W. van Straaten was "awaiting instructions from Dutch headquarters authorizing him to take full military control and disarm the Portuguese". Curtin rejected Cranbourne's suggestion that all Dutch forces in Portuguese Timor be replaced by Australian forces because, he said, "our limited forces and our wide commitments" made it impracticable. Curtin said that in Australia's view "Portugal should have been frankly informed at the beginning that in your opinion the occupation was based upon military necessity and that Japanese infiltration or invasion could not otherwise be prevented".[22]

The facts of history are therefore abundantly clear, even though the myth persists that Australia sent troops to Portuguese Timor in order to expel Japanese forces. The persistence of this myth may be attributed to a combination of ignorance, innocence, a benevolent national self-image and subsequent portrayals of Australian troops fighting heroically alongside the people of East Timor. For the people of East Timor, the costs of this conflict were severe, with 40,000 to 60,000 people dying as a result[23]. No international investigation was ever conducted into war crimes committed by Australian or Japanese forces. The people of East Timor never received war reparations for their suffering in this conflict.


[1] If you can get past innocence, a benevolent national self-image and subsequent portrayals...

[2] Henry Frei, Japan's reluctant decision to occupy Portuguese Timor, 1 January 1942 20 February 1942, Australian Historical Studies, Volume 27, Issue 107 October 1996, pp 281-302.

[3] Atlee Hunt, Memorandum to the Minister of External Affairs, 25 May 1915. NAA: A3, 15/2373.

[4] Batavisch Nieuwablad, 11 October 1932. NAA: A981, W12423/11068/36.

[5] Letter from C. Howard Smith to V.C. Duffy, 19 October 1932. NAA: A981, W.11243/11068/36.

[6] Letter, David Ross to Lieutenant Colonel W.R. Hodgson (Secretary of the Department of External Affairs), 30 September 1941. Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, Vol V (henceforth DAFP), Document 74.

[7] Cable, Cranbourne to Curtin, dated 11 December 1941, received 12 December 1941. DAFP Document 186. [8] Cranbourne was citing the authority of the Governor General of the Netherlands East Indies, Jonkheer Dr A.W.L. Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer.

[9] Cable, Cranbourne to Curtin, dated 11 December 1941, received 12 December 1941. DAFP Document 186.

[10] Cable, Curtin to Cranbourne, 12 December 1941. DAFP Document 187.

[11] Cable, Cranbourne to Curtin, sent 13 December 1941, received 14 December 1941. DAFP Document 191.

[12] Cable, Curtin to Cranbourne, 16 December 1941, DAFP Cablegram 833.

[13] Dili is spelt variously as "Dilly" or "Dilli" in the documents of that period.

[14] Cable, Cranbourne to Curtin, 16 December 1941. DAFP Cablegram 833.

[15] Cable, Cranbourne to Curtin, 17 December 1941, received 18 December 1941. DAFP Document 202.

[16] Translated letter from Mr M. de A. Ferreira de Carvalho to LtCol W.W. Leggatt and LtCol W. Detiger dated 17 December 1941. NAA: A81, 19/301/820A.

[17] Translated Cablegram, Ferreira de Carvalho to Curtin, 18 December 1941. DAFP Document 200.

[18] Radio Message, Commonwealth Government to David Ross, 18 December 1941. DAFP Document 201.

[19]Cable, Cranbourne to Curtin, 27 December 1941. DAFP Document 233.

[20] Cable, Cranbourne to Curtin, 17 December 1941, received 18 December 1941. DAFP Document 202.

[21] Cable, Curtin to Cranbourne, 26 December 1941. DAFP Document 225.

[22] Ibid.

[23] East Timor's Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation, Final Report Volume III The History of the Conflict, Dili, 2005, p 10.

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