- Letter Writer
- WWII operations, Letter to the Editor
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1990 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
I was most interested to read in the latest issue of the ‘Naval Historical Bulletin’ that at the March meeting of the Society there is to be a talk by Lieutenant-Commander Marsden C. Hordern on naval operations in support of the Australian commandos fighting in Timor in 1942-43. Lieutenant-Commander Hordern would probably be unaware that Lieutenant-Commander Alan Bennett, who, as a young sub-lieutenant, was the hero of the Timor Ferry Service, died in Perth last year. Bennett’s first lieutenant, Lieutenant Roy Helliar, is still living in Perth.
At the beginning of 1942 Japan held a vast area that stretched from Burma in a huge arc around through Sumatra, Java, Timor, Ambon and New Guinea to Bouganville. Thus the Allied front line, manned in the main by skeleton Australian forces, extended from Exmouth Gulf right around the north of the continent to Thursday Island. Australians as a whole are virtually ignorant of the operations that took place in this area, the Timor and Arafura Seas, in 1942-43.
Central to the Timor operations were the audacious crossings of the Timor Sea week after week by Bennett in HMAS Vigilant and Lieutenant J.A. Grant in HMAS Kuru. It was an operation which lasted over six months and cost the RAN two ships, the old ‘Scrap Iron Flotilla’ destroyer HMAS Voyager and the corvette, HMAS Armidale. The amazing fortitude and resource of the Armidale survivors I regard was one of the great survival epics of the war at sea. Incidentally Voyager’s navigating officer, Lieutenant S.M. Rothery, is living at Dunsborough in Western Australia.
The Australian commandos on Timor, the 2/2nd, and 2/4th Independent Companies, after fighting a will-o’-the wisp war against the Japanese for six months, were evacuated at the end of 1942 by the Dutch destroyer Tjerk Hiddes and HMAS Arunta.
The story of the naval operations to Timor was first told in a book entitled ‘Darwin Drama’ by Owen Griffiths, who was a Paymaster Lieutenant in HMAS Platypus in Darwin Harbour at the time of The Blitz. Published in 1943, it is long since out of print. More recently the story was re-told in my book, ‘Trying to be Sailors’, published in Perth by St. George Books in 1983. Two other valuable books on the Timor campaign are ‘Independent Company’ by Sir Bernard Callinan, who was the commanding officer of the Australian troops, and ‘Timor 1942’ by Christopher C.H. Wray, published in 1987.
Another wonderful story about which not one in a hundred Australians would have any knowledge, was the strike on Surabaya mounted from Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia by a major British Eastern Fleet and United States task force in May 1944. It was by far the biggest task force ever to mount an attack from an Australian base, consisting of three battleships, one battle cruiser, two aircraft carriers, six cruisers, 14 destroyers, six tankers and one distilling ship. Even G. Herman Gill in his naval history gives it only a brief mention.
Another article in the ‘Bulletin’ of interest to me was the story about U862, the last German U-boat to operate on the Australian coast. At the time I was gunnery officer of HMAS Bathurst and we were on passage from Port Adelaide to Sydney after a refit when U862 sank the US liberty ship Robert J. Walker off Gabo Island early on Christmas morning 1945. In the ensuing flap we became mixed up with the fourth RN destroyer flotilla and a brace of Australian corvettes. However, our search for U862 was fruitless and she was next heard of when she sank another American liberty ship, the Peter Sylvester, 800 miles west of Fremantle on February 6, 1945.