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SE Asia Under Japanese Occupation

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Timor Gunners from the 79th Battery 21 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment.

by COFEPOW member, Professor G T Reader and Research Assistant C A Reader, University of Windsor, Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Background

The 79th Anti-Aircraft (Ack-Ack) battery was established as an independent unit of the British Territorial Army (TA), ‘the weekend warriors’ , in the winter of 1939 and they were based initially at Walton-on-Thames a small town on the south-west outskirts of the capital, London. The battery became a full-time unit at the start of September 1939 when war with Germany became inescapable, and, as with all Territorial Army units, was absorbed into the regular army by the end of that month. Together with three other similar batteries they became part of the 36th Light Ack-Ack regiment. During the first two years of the war the unit was employed on anti-aircraft protection duties in the Luftwaffe’s Blitzes of London (‘The Battle of Britain’) and then Bristol. Later they were used in the protection of airfields and key installations in Cornwall and the Sicily Isles.

The regiment embarked on the troopships Warwick Castle and Empress of Australia in early December 1941 along with the 77th (Welsh) Heavy Ack-Ack regiment – another former TA regiment – and over 1,100 Royal Air Force personnel. The RAF contingent, almost all ground crew, would provide support to three double-squadrons of fighter aircraft to be flown in from Gibraltar and Malta, once the airfields had been secured. Two small teams from the 79th were detached to the SS Malancha and SS Troilus two of the three support ships, the other being the SS City of Pretoria, who were to accompany the main troopships and their naval escorts. In the event the Malancha sailed independently. It took several days to load the ships and they eventually sailed from the Clyde and Liverpool on the same day as the Japanese launched their attacks on Malaya and Pearl Harbour.

Whilst at sea, the planners at the War Office decided to reschedule the operation which had been one of Winston Churchill’s pet projects, but without letting him know. The Operation would eventually take place a year later as “Operation Torch”. The small convoy which had been embedded in a much larger troop convoy WS(14) for their voyage to Gibraltar – which was to be the staging post for the invasion of Algiers – did not detach on December 11th as planned but stayed with main convoy enroute to South Africa. The ‘Force’ received no instructions about what would be their new destination and mission. Indeed it was 2 months and over 9,000 miles later that the force discovered their final destination was Java, only learning this when the ships pulled into the harbour at Tanjong Priok on February 3rd, 1942 and were boarded by two British Officers who informed Col Saunders that his regiment was to disembark. Well almost. The 21st were instructed to send one of their Batteries (less one of their 3 gun troops) to Dutch East Timor to protect the vital airfield being operated by the Royal A ustralian Air Force (RAAF) at Penfui. The Timor group were to be ready to re-embark within 24 hours after the regiment completed their unloading in Java. Col Saunders selected the 79th battery for the task with A troop, C troop and the battery headquarters to go to Timor and B troop remaining in Java.

The gunners arrived in Koepang Bay at the tip of the Dutch East Indies on February 16th where they were met by their Battery Commander, Major Dempsey, who had flown ahead. They discovered there were no docks or unloading facilities and had to move up the coast to Tenau. A day after landing, by which time they managed by any and all means possible to unload their equipment, they were informed that the RAAF were pulling out and returning to the Australian mainland. A Timor reinforcement convoy from Darwin, which lay some 500 miles from Koepang, escorted by the USS Houston, USS Peary, HMAS Warrego, and HMAS Swan had sailed on the 15th February 1942, carrying Australian Infantry and US Artillery units but after beating off a Japanese air attack were recalled just as the 79th was arriving. The convoy was informed that Timor had already fallen. On arrival in Timor the 79th became part of the Australian ‘Sparrow’ force and now with no airfields to protect would serve in an artillery support role. Apart from the thousand or so Australians there was also a Dutch Colonial Force contingent on the island but they would take no part in the coming defence of their island, going ‘bush’ when the Japanese invasion force arrived.

During 5 days of intense fighting the ‘Sparrows’ inflicted heavy casualties on the Japanese invaders especially their seasoned and crack paratroop regiments and beat the Japanese in the Battle of Usua Ridge. However, the Japanese invasion force was growing in size and the operational commander of the ‘Sparrows’, Lt Col Leggett, faced with an opposing force some 10-20 times greater than his own, total Japanese air superiority, increasing casualties, and low supplies decided to surrender. He had been unable to communicate with the HQ of Force’s overall commander Brigadier Veale or the Army Headquarters in Darwin. In the latter case it appears his signals were received but no reply was forthcoming or at least none was received. The decision to surrender remained a contentious issue among Sparrow Force veterans long after the war.

Thus, on the 23 February 1942, 183 of the 184 Timor gunners (one was killed in action) along with the bulk of their Australian comrades went into captivity. Some of the Australian units refused to accept the surrender and made their way into the Timor hills where they linked up with Sparrow Force’s independent commando group who had been fighting in Portuguese East Timor. Together, with the help of friendly locals, they carried on a guerilla war until 1943 when they were evacuated to the mainland. News of the fall of Dutch West Timor did not appear in Australian newspapers until over a week later. Indeed two years after their capture the British War Office were still denying to relatives that any British soldiers had served in Timor and even after the war some War Office Departments were evasive about the fate of the members of the 79th. The Royal Artillery memorial in London, England does not list Timor, which is perhaps not too surprizing as only two-thirds of a single battery was involved. However, the 79th became known as the 79th (Timor) Anti-Aircraft Battery to recognize their involvement although ironically B troop had fought in Java.

Many allied records were lost during the war in the Far East and the Japanese destroyed many of their records dealing with prisoners-of-war matters. However, great efforts were made by the Allied prisoner repatriation agencies especially the US liberation forces, after the Japanese surrender, to compile lists and records of those who had been taken prisoner and what had happened to them. The British Agencies worked well into the late 1940s to put together definitive lists and rosters. Unfortunately this information was highly classified and indeed the Japanese Imperial Army’s index cards of prisoners were not supposed to be released until 2021. The rosters made of the released prisoners were similarly classified. However, if a serviceman or women died in action or as a prisoner that information was made available through such databases as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) for British and Commonwealth personnel. In recent years all Western governments have started to release records far earlier than originally intended.

Many of these records have now been digitized by government agencies or voluntary organizations such as:
The exceptional Center for Research-Allied POWS of the Japanese (www.mansell.com)
Children (& Families) of the Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW)(www.cofepow.org.uk/)
The FEPOW Community (www.fepow-community.org.uk)
The POW Research Network (www.powresearch.jp/en)

Using information from all these websites, especially the quite incredible Centre for Research website now run by Wes Injerd, following the passing of Roger Mansell,it has been possible to identify primary source documents in the UK National Archives which have enabled a roster of the ‘Timor Gunners’ to be compiled. For an Australian perspective especially with regard to the ‘Sparrows’ the Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-1945 website is a mine of information (www.pows-of-japan), as is the book by Peter Henning, “The Doomed Battalion”1.

Unit Roster

The roster provided here has been compiled from various official UK sources (e.g., series WO 344, 345, 392, 361) and in all cases at least two and usually more sources have been used in cross-checking the information. The roster which has been reconstituted has 184 individuals. In Tony Paley’s seminal book2 on the 79th Light Ack-Ack “the Sparrows”, a Sgt ‘Bob’ Jones, who survived the war and was of Welsh origin, is mentioned several times. A search of many databases, official files, and other literature has not revealed a ‘Bob’ Jones or a Robert Jones who was a Sergeant in the Royal Artillery and who was captured on Timor. However, there is a Lance Sergeant Alfred Aubrey Derrel Jones who did survive the war, was of Welsh origin, was a member of the 79th and was captured on Timor. It has almost certain that ‘Bob’ Jones is actually Alfred Jones.


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1 Peter Henning, The Doomed Battalion, Allen & Urwin, 1995, NSW, Australia, ISBN 1863737621.
2 Tony Paley, The Sparrows, The Self-publishing Association Ltd, Hanley Swan, Worcs, UK, 1992, ISBN 1854211455



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In a report written by the 79th’s Battery Commander, Major ‘Jack’ Dempsey, he mentions a Gunner Bury who escaped from the main Timor prison camp and is thought to have been recaptured by the Japanese. On Bombardier Lawson’s 21st Regimental roster, compiled it is believed in Changi, he lists a Gunner Berry who went missing in Timor. Gunner Berry is also mentioned in missing personnel files in the UK National Archives but he has no Japanese index card, no prisoner of war questionnaire form (WO 344 series), and does not appear in the CWGC, COFEPOW or FEPOW Community databases and lists or any of the prisoner lists on the Allied Centre site. He most certainly existed but apart from his initials and service number little else has been found so far.

In a report written by the 79th’s Battery Commander, Major ‘Jack’ Dempsey, he mentions a Gunner Bury who escaped from the main Timor prison camp and is thought to have been recaptured by the Japanese. On Bombardier Lawson’s 21st Regimental roster, compiled it is believed in Changi, he lists a Gunner Berry who went missing in Timor. Gunner Berry is also mentioned in missing personnel files in the UK National Archives but he has no Japanese index card, no prisoner of war questionnaire form (WO 344 series), and does not appear in the CWGC, COFEPOW or FEPOW Community databases and lists or any of the prisoner lists on the Allied Centre site. He most certainly existed but apart from his initials and service number little else has been found so far.

No definitive official record of the actual number of men, and their individual details, sent to Timor has yet been found. However, according to some official documents 180 officers and men of the 79th Battery of the 21st Light Anti-Aircraft Royal Artillery Regiment were sent by sea to Koepang, Dutch West Timor. Aside from the gunners there is no record of any member of their usual support attachments from the Royal Corp of Signals (RCS), Royal Army Ordinance Corps (RAOC) and the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), who have been with the Regiment since they sailed from Gourock, Scotland in early December 1941, accompanying them to Timor. Apart from ‘B’ Troop it appears that all the rest of the gunners of the 79th were sent to Timor. It is not clear whether the Battery Commander, Major John Dempsey, who arrived by seaplane ahead of the Timor contingent, was included in the 180 count but if not then 181 would be a more accurate figure. Sgt Munday, the Battery Clerk, was quoted in Paley’s book as saying there were 175 men in the Oesapa Besar prison camp in Timor. It is not clear if Munday’s number was for the time of surrender or when the gunners left the camp some 6-7 months later for Java. During their Timor captivity the gunners lost four comrades who died of wounds or illness, at least two escaped (Gunners Harold L J Martin and F C Berry). Gunner Martin is believed to have been caught and executed. Gunner Frederick J Watkins was killed in action the day before the surrender.

The following information is provided for each individual:
a) Rank
b) Surname and First Names
c) Service Number
d) Date of Birth
e) Camps*
f) Date of death or burial
g) Cemetery or Memorial**
h) Home Town***

*All who survived the fighting or captivity on Timor were also in POW Camps in Java and most would pass through Singapore (usually Changi Barracks) if being transported from Java to Japan or the Burma-Siam Railroad. Those who worked on the railroad and survived would usually return to Singapore and may then have been sent to Japan. A few remained in Singapore and Java. Once in Japan they could be moved to several different camps. The camps came under a regional jurisdiction and on occasion the regional boundaries were changed. The names of the camps were sometimes changed or the whole camp was moved to a new location. In the camp list then the regions of mainland Japan are identified as:
FU = Fukuoka,
Hi = Hiroshima,
TO = Tokyo,
HA = Hakodate,
NA = Nagoya,
OS = Osaka,
Others as:
BS Burma-Siam Railroad,
KO = Korea,
S = Sumatra,
Sing = Singapore,
Ch = Changi,
Ti = Timor

** The cemeteries-memorials are:
Y = Yokohama,
S = Singapore,
J = Jakarta,
Je = Jefferson Barracks, Missouri, USA,
K = Kanchanaburi,
A = Ambon

*** Home town is a short form of the address of the named next-of-kin as given on the 1942 Japanese Index cards. In some instances the addresses were updated during the war or immediately afterwards. In these cases both short form addresses are given.

Timor Roster

  • Click HereFor Full Details of the Timor Roster


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