Timor-Leste – Second World War

In 1942 Timor was divided between two colonial powers, the Dutch in the west and the Portuguese in the east. Just five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the bulk of ‘Sparrow Force’ landed on Timor and divided itself between West and East Timor. Sparrow Force was part of a strategy of seeking to defend forward airfields on the islands to Australia’s north and also involved ‘Lark Force’ at Rabaul and ‘Gull Force’ on Ambon.

The Japanese invaded Dutch West Timor on 20 February 1942, the day after the Bombing of Darwin. In West Timor, the Australian 2/40th Battalion and some 1,000 Dutch troops resisted the invasion for a number of days but surrendered to the Japanese on 23 February 1942. The 2/2nd Independent Company made their way into the nearby mountains when the Japanese invaded the Dili area.

In April 1942, members of the 2/2 Independent Company made contact with Australia using a makeshift radio, proving that Australian forces had escaped the Japanese and were carrying on the fight. They advised Australia that they were waging a guerrilla campaign and were later reinforced by 2/4 Commando Company. Remnants of the 2/40 Battalion who had escaped capture by the Japanese in West Timor had also joined the guerrillas who were supported by the Royal Australian Navy.

The  success of guerrilla operations was made possible only with the help of the Timorese people, who provided food and shelter, ponies for carrying heavy equipment, acted as porters and guides, and helped set up ambushes. Some Timorese took up arms themselves and fought alongside the Australians but tragically many were executed by the Japanese for providing assistance to the guerrillas.

By mid-February 1943, the Australian troops had been withdrawn, although Australian commandoes from ‘Z’ Special Unit later landed on Timor. Their operations were compromised when the Japanese captured the first party and recovered its code books.

Of the more than 1,400 Australians who served on Timor, some 100 died, and more than 130 were wounded or seriously ill, and tragically, more than twice the number of those killed in battle later died in captivity.

Post East Timor’s vote for independence in August 1999 and the subsequent violence perpetrated by pro-Indonesian militias and security forces, Australia organised and led the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) from September 1999. Australia contributed more than 5,500 personnel to INTERFET under the command of then Major General Peter Cosgrove.

The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) was established for the administration of East Timor during its transition to independence. The hand-over of command of military operations from INTERFET to UNTAET was completed in February 2000 with Australia supporting the UN peacekeeping operation until East Timor achieved independence as the new nation of Timor-Leste.

Australian and New Zealand military personnel have operated in East Timor (now renamed Timor-Leste) since 2006 as part of an International Stabilisation Force (ISF).


Australians who served

  • More than 1,400 Australians served in the Timor campaign

Major units

  • 2/2nd Independent Company
  • 2/40th Australian Infantry Battalion
  • 2/4th Independent Company
  • No. 2 Squadron RAAF


  • Some 100  Australians were killed.
  • More than 130 Australians were wounded
  • More than 280 Australians later died in captivity

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