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Japan-The Reluctant Invaders

Tetun: Japaun- Relatante Invasores
While Pt Phillip resident David Scott was undertaking research for his book: The ‘Last Flight out of Dili‘ he decided to follow a hunch. In Lionel Wigmore’s ‘Australia in the War of 1939-45’, which is Australia’s official war history, Wigmore asserts that it would ‘have taken an extravagantly optimistic’ view to believe the Japanese would have respected Portuguese Timor’s neutrality, since as the Prime Minister of the time said, it was the “entrance door to Australia”.

Australia was an ally of Britain in the War in Europe and Japan an ally of Germany. Portugal and its colonies were neutral, but it had a treaty with Britain for Britain to use its Azores Islands for bases. One of Portugal’s colonies was Macau on the South coast of China, an area long occupied by the Japanese.

David asked himself why Japan continued to respect the neutrality of Portuguese Macau, despite the fact it had occupied territory all around it. Through his connections he gained the help of a Swiss Historian, Henry Frei, who researched the “Secret Japanese War Cabinet Diaries” for him in Tokyo. They discovered that indeed there was clear evidence why Japan might want to respect Portugal’s neutrality. It wanted Portugal to remain neutral as a channel for possible negotiation with the Allies. The Japanese Consul in Dili had told the Portuguese Governor this, but Australia ignored his clear statement. Australia thought Japan might occupy Portuguese Timor as it had taken all of Dutch East Indies, but it ignored the significance of Macau’s neutrality and the statement of the Japanese Consul in Dili. Nobody “considered why Japan had not occupied Macau.”

David tells an interesting tale following the ins and outs of the decision-making, cables and meetings between the major players, which reveal the tension being felt at the time. They reveal unwise haste and lack of Intelligence with regard to Japanese motivations and strategy, and British needs for caution in Europe.

Britain was anxious not to provoke the Portuguese into closing off access to their bases in the Azores, or provoking Germany in to invading Portugal for the same reason. David says Australian negotiators seem oblivious to the consequences in Europe of breaching Portuguese neutrality, and pressed the British to negotiate with the Portuguese for Australia to move in to Portuguese Timor.

After much to-ing and fro-ing between the Australian PM and Lord Cranborne, ” the UK Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs” said in early December 1941, the British did gain agreement that ” in the event of aggression against Portuguese Timor, the Portuguese Governor “would ask for help, and Australian and Netherlands East Indies troops would be sent”. It was also agreed, ” if the Governor-General of Netherlands East Indies, considered …an attack on Dili was imminent, the Portuguese Governor would be informed and would ask for these troops to be sent”.

“On the 12th December 1941,” Prime Minister Curtin of Australia, “advised Cranborne, that an Independent Company would accompany the 2/40th Battalion to Kupang in Dutch Timor and be deployed in Portuguese Timor. Four days later Curtin told Cranborne ‘Japanese aggression seemed only a matter of hours away’. In fact Japan had not contemplated any aggression. The occupation of Portuguese Timor was not in the Japanese War Plan”.

Three days later, at a meeting of the representatives of Nederlands East Indies (Indonesia) and Australia, Colonel van Straaten of NEI, “said he was instructed by the Netherlands Governor-General to say that Japanese ships were now in the vicinity of Portuguese Timor and it was urgent that troops be sent to Dili”. David’s research shows that the Portuguese Governor was clear about his orders from Lisbon “his orders were to ask for help only after Portuguese Timor was attacked…. any disembarkation of forces will be considered as a breach of neutrality of our territory.”

I want to divert for a moment and refer to another personal history book, that of Australian digger, Archie Campbell. Archie was a member of the 2/2nd Independent Company referred to above who were part of the battalion sent in to Portuguese Timor, to provide a digger’s point of view of what was happening at this time, before returning to David’s book and Frei’s research of the Japanese point of view.

Guardian Angels
In Australia, in early 1941, the men who are to become the 2/2nd Independent Company that invade Portuguese Timor, in December 1941, are already training. One of them is Archie Campbell (interactive link to come) who draws directly from his experience to express the human spirit which is required for war and which is all to often absent in war histories.

In his book, The Double Reds of Timor*, Archie tells how fit, strong and enthusiastic his friends are, and how they loved to sing. He describes the Timorese they met during duty as their “guardian angels”. Between 40,000 & 60,000 Timorese died. Archie hasn’t forgotten them, because it was his life and the lives of his mates who were saved by the Timorese. In the introduction to his book he pays tribute to the Timorese:

“One cannot owe more than life itself, and nothing can repay for the sacrifices they made, those ebony skinned, wonderful people. They were our eyes, our ears, our lifeline. By throwing in their lot with us they lost whole villages, families split asunder, women raped and enslaved. They suffered horrendously….”

Henry Frei’s research of the “Secret Japanese War Diaries” , reveals a Japan very reluctant to invade Portuguese Timor, even after the Australians go in which they do, on 17th December 1941. Even the way David’s research reveals the story, it’s ambiguous whether the 2/2nd Independent Company landed with the expectation of resistance from the Portuguese, but Archie’s story, from first hand leaves no doubt.

Archie recalls landing near Kupang, in West Timor, five days earlier, on the 12th December, 1941, along with the 2/40th Tasmanian Battalion under Lt. Colonel Leggatt, David’s father-in-law. At this stage all they know is that in conjunction with the Dutch they are to defend Timor. Archie describes the few days of hard work which is the foundation of all well organised military camps, digging latrines and drainage systems, unloading equipment and so on. To the men it appears there is a stand-off, but nobody really knows. He poses the question they ask themselves “what about the Japanese: What are we here for?” “Then we find out: we are going to invade Portuguese Timor – a neutral territory!”

They are shocked to discover their task is to take Dili, and as they listen to the ship’s bugle signalling action stations, five days later, he describes the

“full realization..: we are at war. In a few moments we will be going over the side to deadly battle, human against human”

he is confused, because it is not against their real enemy … Japan, though

“it is expected that the Portuguese will oppose this impertinent landing on their colonial soil.”

Archie describes the pressure they feel as they put the lives and their families’ futures on the line for British and Australian leaders. He tells how his section positions themselves to jump off, he records 3.15 p.m. as the time they advance on the aerodrome.

“Our weapons are loaded and ready. After all the long hard weeks of training and make-believe, we are about to undergo our baptism of fire. We must not disgrace the spirit of Anzac. “

But then, as they approach, guns to the ready, in one of the maddest and anti climatic moments of war I have ever read a Portuguese civilian steps out from the building, and, greeting them with a polite lift of his hat says: “Good Afternoon” and Archie and his mates fall about laughing in relief, their visions of conflict blood and mayhem dissolving like a puff of smoke, into a mysteriously familiar polite gesture of greeting from a Portuguese gentleman.

The day after landing, according to David’s book, the Portuguese Governor protested to Prime Minister Curtin against Australia’s aggression by Dutch and Australian forces. Curtin’s reply is peremptory and contradictory: “in order to defend against Japanese aggression, it has been found necessary to prevent Japanese breach of neutrality in East Timor”. The Portuguese could be forgiven for feeling indignant.

But what of the Japanese, what is happening from their point of view? According to David’s book, the Japanese General Staff were worried that occupying Portuguese Timor would drive Portugal into the hands of the Allies. As long as Portuguese Timor remained neutral, like Macau, it posed no military threat. “On the day the Australian and Dutch force landed in Portuguese Timor, 17 December 1941, the Japanese Navy was still assuring the German Navy that Portuguese Timor was excluded from the South Seas operation.”

According to David, this issue of neutrality was significant for the war in Europe, as breaching it would give Germany a justification for occupying the Azores Island or even Portugal.

Even on the 29th December, 12 days after the Australians had landed, “the territory was still excluded from the orders for three battalions of Japan’s 38th Division to invade Dutch Ambon and Dutch Timor in February 1942.

“Frei describes three phases in Japan’s response to the Allied violation of Portuguese neutrality:

– 8 December 1941 to 4 January 1942 – strict observance of Portuguese neutrality;
– 5 January to 23 January 1942 – building a consensus among Japan’s leaders’ to eliminate the Australian Dutch presence
– 24 January to 2 February – reaching a compromise on whether Japanese troops should remain in Portuguese Timor after the expulsion of Allied troops.

It was not until 5 January 1942, almost three weeks after the Australians and Dutch had landed at Dili that the Japanese Army Chief of Staff, General Sugiyama Gen, discussed with the Emperor a report from Japanese Southern Forces headquarters that Australian and Dutch troops had landed at Dili. ”

Under international law it was clearly now acceptable for the Japanese to invade Portuguese Timor, but still the Japanese wanted to “retain neutral Portugal as a channel for possible negotiation” . After much debate in the Japanese War Cabinet, and between the Army and the Navy, on the 2nd February 1942, the decisions and plans that would lead to Japan’s invasion of Portuguese Timor were made at an “Imperial Headquarters Liaison Conference.”

David’s book takes it further to tell us that “the Germany Navy then tried to dissuade Tokyo” but “in the end “Hitler had the last word and decided in favour of supporting the Japanese Navy plan, which was to expel the Australians and Dutch and retain the colony unless its neutrality could be guaranteed. “On the 14 February, Hitler ordered his navy not to oppose Japanese navy plans for as long as the Australians are sitting on Timor”

“On 19 February 1942, 200 Japanese aircraft bombed Darwin. In the evening of the same day Callinan went to Dili to discuss details of the proposed Allied evacuation of Portuguese Timor”. It was too late, the Japanese began shelling Timor that night. This was tragic for the Timorese and for the men of 2/2nd Company because plans had been made for the Allied troops to leave Portuguese Timor when Portuguese troops arrived, and they were expected within two or three days of this date. “The Japanese attack on 19 February stopped these plans.”

“Frei thinks the Japanese were unlikely to have been able to abort their reluctant landing operation at such short notice.”
..Japan had no reason to occupy Portuguese Timor if it was free of Allied troops. It could attack Northern Australia from Dutch Timor or, as it planned, from Port Moresby. Prime Minister Tojo and the emperor still wanted a neutral Portuguese Timor as a channel for negotiations with the Allies.

David’s book goes on to detail much more a story that doesn’t reflect well on the Australian leadership in terms of Timor’s tragedy in that chapter of the war caused by us. The documentation shows an extremely reluctant and diplomatic Japan, anxious to maintain good relations with the Portuguese and to respect their neutrality, not out of altruism, but for strategic reasons. To Australia’s shame, the Timorese deaths due to our mistakes have not been properly recognised either in appropriate remembrance monuments or ceremonies, and Australian historians have ignored the issue of Japanese intentions and the Allied violation of Portugal’s neutrality.

David’s book is a fitting final chapter in a personal history of loyalty and service to the Timorese people. It exposes for Australians their true history and the debt of gratitude Australian people owe to the East Timorese people that should be reflected in any negotiations which take place between the two countries, and in international diplomacy.

* The Double Reds is out of print.

Related: All They Got Was Misery