Heroes of the Timor hills
A gripping account details the exploits of a small force of Australian commandos in World War II.
Review of Paul Cleary, THE MEN WHO CAME OUT OF THE GROUND Hachette Australia, 382pp, $35
This account of the guerilla war waged in Portuguese Timor in 1942 by
the 2/2 Australian Independent Company, widely known as Sparrow Force, is
breathtaking in its scope and riveting in its research.
In this intensely readable history, Paul Cleary documents how 400
Australian commandos – who trained in 1941 at the rugged and windswept
Wilsons Promontory in Victoria – the next year kept 20,000 Japanese at
bay for more than 10 months. This was at a time when the enemy could
have been deployed fighting our troops on the Kokoda Track in New
Before the publication of this fine book, relatively few people were
aware that Australian troops fought in Portuguese Timor, let alone that
about 50,000 Timorese died as a result of this conflict. Is it any
wonder that the men who fought in this protracted guerilla campaign,
which succeeded only because of the direct support of local people, felt
(and still feel) that the Labor government of Gough Whitlam – who, in
1975, supported the Indonesian invasion of East Timor – betrayed the
population of East Timor and sold them down the river? To a lesser
extent, this also applied to John Howard’s coalition governments, which
attempted to take control of the vast oil reserves in the Timor Sea and
rob the locals of their bounty.
As Cleary points out, recruiters for the perilous Sparrow Force wanted
only single men. Indeed, the ingenious medical officer, Captain Charles
Rodger Dunkley, who never lost a sick or wounded patient in Timor in
1942, was the only married man in the company. These Australian
commandos preferably hailed from the bush and/or were talented and
super-fit sportsmen. The latter ranged from Gordon Hart, who had played
first-grade rugby league with St George, including the 1941 grand final,
to Kevin Curran, a labourer from Traralgon who enlisted in the army only
months after attaining his lifelong dream of playing Aussie rules
football for Hawthorn. Amazingly given his near-death experiences, after
the war Curran won his team’s best and fairest award in 1948 and
captained Hawthorn in 1950.
Through a protracted campaign of sabotage, attack and harassment – which
involved the widespread use of the hardy Timor ponies – this rag-tag,
truly independent company of professionals and volunteers killed
hundreds of enemy soldiers in dozens of close-quarters actions and yet,
at the same time, suffered a remarkably small number of casualties – a
mere eight men in combat.
By the time their 10-month sojourn in the mountains was up, more than 90
per cent of the Australian commandos had malaria and 95 per cent had
chronic diarrhoea. To deal with the latter, Corporal Curran (whose
brother, Private Gordon Curran, had died in a spirited assault on two
Japanese machine-gun posts) cut back a corncob and inserted it up his
anus to prevent a repulsive white liquid running down his legs.
Dark-skinned, long-haired, bearded and gaunt, covered in fleas and lice
and beleaguered in the mountains of Portuguese Timor, the soldiers from
Sparrow Force, according to one European observer, looked like the
proverbial “wild men from Borneo”. At first, because some spoke the
local language, Tetum, they were mistaken for the indigenous people on
The Japanese troops preferred to march together down the “road”. The key
chapter, which gives the book its name, reveals they were bewildered by
the Australian commandos who, in groups of six or seven, appeared to
“come out of the ground”, quickly strike and then vanish again into the
In large part, the 2/2 Australian Independent Company knew exactly where
to attack because of local intelligence and surveillance from the air.
According to the legendary filmmaker Damien Parer, the most important
single happening in the life of this fighting force was the building of
a radio out of “odds and ends” by the remarkable “Joe” Loveless. Without
the company’s capacity to contact Australia, continued resistance would
have been impossible for any length of time. This tremendous ingenuity
was necessary after a previous radio transmitter had been smashed to
smithereens on the direct order of the extremely stupid Brigadier William Veale.
Soon after his creation had begun to operate, Loveless had a nervous
breakdown and later died an early, untimely death. In contrast, after
the war Veale seemed to continue to advance and prosper. Such is life –
and death – in Australia and the mountains of East Timor.
The Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, Books,30-31 October 2010