Australian troops entered a territory administered by Portugal, a neutral power World War II, against the express wishes of the administrators. The Australian invasion breached Portuguese neutrality.

The Japanese were moving south in the early 1940’s and fully intended to take over the western half of the island of Timor which was under the control of the Netherlands. The Japanese were very careful, however, not to invade any of Portugal’s territories. They were fearful that any violations of Portuguese neutrality could interfere in the war in Europe. So they planned to avoid the eastern half of Timor which the Portuguese had controlled for nearly 500 years.

However, British and Australian authorities landed 155 men of the Australian 2/2nd Independent Company, part of Sparrow Force, in East Timor on December 17, 1941. The Governor of Portuguese Timor vehemently opposed the arrival of the Australians verbally and in writing. His strongly worded protest reads: “…. every disembarkation of forces will be considered as a breach of the neutrality of our territory”.

The Australian incursion into Portuguese Timor in December 1941 was supposed to assist the Portuguese in the defence of their territory, and protect the colony against Japanese aggression. However, the real consideration was the protection of Australia, as Portuguese Timor was seen to be its “entrance door”. How the small Australian force was meant to accomplish that feat was not made clear.

The presence of the Australians in Portuguese Timor relieved the Japanese of concerns about being the first to invade a neutral territory, and so two months later, on February 19, 1942, a whole battalion of Japanese troops (about 1,100 men)  landed at Dili, the administrative centre. The Australian presence thus had the effect of drawing the Japanese to the area.

The Australian invasion of Portuguese Timor was not of the same type as Japan’s, because the Australians did not deliberately kill Timorese people as Japanese soldiers did. But the action placed the Timorese at risk and made them vulnerable, as the account of the subsequent “Timor Campaign” distressingly shows.

The facts of this troubling history are not well-known by Australians, and it is high time we faced the reality of the shared Timorese/Australian World War II experience.

We have a debt of honour to pay.