Australia conducted two military interventions in East Timor during the 20th century and both have been falsely reconstructed into myths that vary sharply from the historical record. Our intervention in September 1999 against a rampaging Indonesian military has since been painted as a remarkable example of the Australian government exercising its so-called "responsibility to protect" the people of East Timor. In truth, the Howard government worked assiduously to prevent international intervention in East Timor until the bitter end.
But an earlier intervention by Australian forces has also gone down in history as a gallant effort when in fact it was anything but. When Australian forces landed in what was then known as Portuguese Timor in December 1941 it is widely assumed to have been in order to expel Japanese forces from the territory. In fact, Japan had no forces in Portuguese Timor, as Australian policy-makers 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.
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 the colony as a summer holiday location for northern Australians but in the decades that followed, Portuguese Timor did not feature much in the consciousness of Australian policy-makers — except on those occasions when rumours circulated that one foreign power or another was contemplating buying it from the Portuguese.
After the outbreak of World War II, Australian authorities became concerned that some Japanese businesses had been established in Portuguese Timor, which might well be used as a pretext for military intervention in the territory. However, although Japan had framed its rhetoric in anti-colonial terms, it had no intention of deploying forces to the territory.
The Australian Government, on the other hand, was interested in establishing a presence there.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, British authorities requested that Australia send troops to Portuguese Timor, claiming that Portugal had agreed to the plan.
The Australian government had very limited resources at the time but nonetheless agreed to Britain’s request, while emphasising the importance of the Portuguese government publicly approving the mission. Once assured by Britain that all arrangements were in place, Australia ordered forces to land in Portuguese Timor, despite the fact that the Portuguese authorities had not given their approval.
While Australian forces were in the process of deploying, the Portuguese government expressed its public hostility to the operation. Suddenly concerned about the diplomatic blowback of the mission, British officials requested that the Australians 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 complied.
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.
On 12 December 1941, the Australian prime minister, John Curtin, received a cable from Lord Cranborne, Britain’s secretary of state for dominion affairs.
Cranborne advised Curtin that the Dutch had agreed to participate in an attack on Japanese forces in Portuguese Timor. He stated that the governor of the territory 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.
The next day, Cranborne informed Curtin that the Portuguese government had agreed to accept assistance "in the event of a Japanese attack" against Portuguese Timor. He 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".
The obvious problem, of course, was that there had not been any Japanese attack against Portuguese Timor, nor was there any evidence of Japan’s intention to mount any such attack. It was hardly likely that the governor of Portuguese Timor, M. de A. Ferreira de Carvalho, would be agreeable to the intrusion of Allied troops when the Japanese had thus far been so scrupulous in respecting Portuguese neutrality.
Despite this, the Australian government advised Cranborne that there was to be a "consultation" with Ferreira de Carvalho at 7.00am on 17 December, two hours after which "a combined force of Dutch and Australians" travelling by sea would land in Dili.
This "consultation" was, of course, merely to provide the façade of having obtained Portuguese consent.
Conscious that such a meeting would no doubt be recognised as no more than a perfunctory gesture, Cranborne replied that "if possible a rather longer interval should be allowed to elapse between the time when the Conference at Dili begins and the time when the combined force arrives". The Australian government agreed and informed the relevant parties.
Immediately after, however, Cranborne informed Curtin that the reaction of Portugal’s secretary-general to the operation had been "violently unfavourable". Cranborne urgently requested Curtin to ensure that Australian forces made every effort to reach agreement with Portuguese Timor before any landing was attempted. However, when the Dutch and Australian commanders met the governor of Portuguese Timor, he advised them in writing of his opposition to any landing of foreign troops:
"In reply to the communiqué 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."
The landing, however, went ahead. Ferreira de Carvalho cabled 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."
The Australian government attempted to portray its intervention as being necessary to defend Portuguese Timor against "Japanese aggression" and to convince the governor that Australia was only trying to help. But an embarrassed Cranborne had to inform 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". Cranborne apologised to the Portuguese for the Allies’ actions, implying that commanders from Australia and the Netherlands had acted hastily. The Dutch too provided Portugal with an official statement of regret, arguing that the landings were necessary "in view of the Japanese submarine activity off Portuguese Timor".
An angry John Curtin agreed with the standing British request to maintain silence as far as British involvement in the affair was concerned, but laid out the entire sequence of events in a detailed cable to Lord Cranborne in order to ensure that the historical record was preserved.
On the ground, a combined force of 155 Australian and 260 Dutch troops had landed near Dili on 17 December 1941 but, as Curtin informed Cranborne, "the position is most unsatisfactory" because the Governor of Portuguese Timor, far from going along with the charade, was in fact "organising troops to harass our troops and will certainly assist in any Japanese landing".
Australia’s view, as expressed by Curtin, was that "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".
The facts of history are 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 against the Japanese when they did, in fact, eventually land on 19 February 1942. For the people of East Timor, the costs of this ensuing conflict were severe, with 40,000 to 60,000 people dying as a result.
The people of East Timor never received war reparations for their suffering in this conflict from either Japan, whose forces caused such devastation, or from the Allies, whose actions drew the Japanese to Timor in the first place.
This is an edited extract from Zombie Myths of Australian Military History: 10 Myths That Will Not Die, edited by Craig Stockings (New South Books: 2010)