Australians quick to forget terrible wartime price paid by Timorese savioursFeb 19, 2022
The current government has shed every vestige of honour to conceal the truth about the espionage against the Timorese, venting its guilty fury on the spy with a conscience, Witness K, and his lawyer Bernard Collaery.
Why do some people still believe that Australia was under threat of invasion by Japan in World War II? One reason is that many Australians have strong personal links with people who lived during the War and who understandably believed that Japan would invade. But what was believed eighty years ago does not necessarily hold true today.
Reputable historians, including Peter Stanley, Antony Beevor and David Horner, have shown that Japan did not intend to invade Australia and lacked the resources for doing so. The army would have needed at least ten divisions, and so despite the encouragement of some in the Japanese navy, the idea was rejected by the army, the Imperial General Headquarters and the Emperor. The attacks on Darwin, Katherine and elsewhere in the Northern Territory from 19th February 1942, the submarine attack in Sydney Harbour and the push south from New Guinea were designed to cripple Australia, not invade it. Darwin was bombed as its infrastructure could have been used by the United States to threaten the Japanese effort to establish its planned “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. Significantly, by May at the latest, the Australian government knew from diplomatic sources and the spy network that no invasion was planned. It was decided to conceal the information from the population so that the war effort would not slacken. The conclusion of historical research, including from the Official War Histories of Australia, is that Japan did not intend to invade.
However, fear of invasion had been nurtured in the Australian population for decades. People had devoured invasion fiction with its formulaic plots emphasising the brave Aussie battler beating off depredations from the north-west throughout the 19th century and beyond. There was an ‘invasion fiction’ genre depicting invaders as predominantly Asian, great in number and described with negative character stereotypes. The presence of Chinese people from the gold rushes of the 1850s and Japan’s later growing industrial power and military strength fed both the Australian distrust of foreigners and sense of threat. An 1895 book had thousands of Mongols led by Russians invading with civilian volunteers fighting them in outback Queensland, Australia having been betrayed by Britain. Even as late as 1971 we hear of 20,000 Japanese moving into Sydney from Armidale, with fighting in the suburbs and a suicide dash across the Harbour Bridge.
The current worldwide surge of pandemic conspiracy theories illustrates a variety of human responses to crisis including fear, distress, gullibility and distrust of authorities. Serious misinformation can occur when hearsay and imagination combine and purport to be factual. For example, there is a story which claimed that during the Second World War 400 Japanese landed south of Geraldton and engaged with Australians in combat. There were no casualties on either side, there was no date given, and there is no record of such an event in war histories of the unit which was said to have been involved. Another author claimed that a Volunteer Defence Corps Party massacred 160 Japanese marines and that the Minister for the Army of the time was collaborating with the Vatican to invite the Japanese to seize northern Queensland.
What actually did happen in 1942 was that the island of Timor was invaded within hours of the bombing of Darwin, and then occupied until the end of the War. The wartime friendship between the Timorese people and the few hundred Australians who had arrived on 17 December 1941 is legendary. There is no need for fiction in recounting the experiences of the Timorese. Returned Australians soldiers told of the courage and loyalty of the local people without which our men would not have survived. Most soldiers were assisted by a Timorese, usually a youth whose family was also supportive, supplying food and shelter. They carried the men’s packs, assisted with ambushes, and acted as spies. The men told of their sadness in leaving when they got orders to move to the south coast and thence to Australia, acknowledging that without the Timorese support they would not have survived. With tears in their eyes they gave them a few odds and ends, then wondering what happened to them.
What happened to them is now clear. The departure of the bulk of the Australians in early 1943 meant that the Timorese were at the mercy of the Japanese. By war’s end the Japanese numbered between 18,000 and 20,000, nearly the strength of a division. Japanese reprisals killed many and then the bombing of Japanese positions by the Australians and Americans caused widespread destruction and death.
Astoundingly, between 40,000 and 60,000 Timorese died as a direct result of assisting Australian troops, that is, between 8 and 14 percent of the population. The enormous loss of life in Portuguese Timor matches that of the combatant nations of Russia, Poland and Germany 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. Australian deaths are calculated at 0.5 percent of its 1939 population.
Commemorations of the bombing of Darwin would do well to pay careful attention to facts. Any threat felt in Australia all those years ago needs to be discussed with a clear view of what actually happened. Australia was not invaded by the Japanese, but Portuguese Timor was.
The wartime contribution of the Timorese people has been dismissed as a footnote in the fiction-as-history genre that constantly casts Australians as the major heroes. Is it any wonder that Australia managed to sit on the fence during the Indonesian occupation between 1975 and 1999? Is it any wonder that politicians sought to swindle the Timorese in 2004? Is it any wonder that the current government has shed every vestige of honour to conceal the truth about the espionage against the Timorese, venting its guilty fury on the spy with a conscience, Witness K, and his lawyer Bernard Collaery?