It is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin during the Second World War. More bombs rained down on Darwin Harbour that during the infamous attack on Pearl Harbour. But the attack on Darwin was only one of a series of coordinated raids on Australian targets. Singapore had just fallen to the advancing Japanese. Contrary to belief at the time, this was not a prelude to invasion. It was a preparation for the invasion of Timor. Three groups were dispatched to halt the enemy advance before they reached Australia. These were Sparrow, Gull and Lark Forces. Two of these were swiftly overrun, but a few hundred survivors of Sparrow Force and the commando-trained 2/2nd Independent Company consolidated in East Timor and sustained a guerrilla campaign for a year against vastly superior enemy forces.
The story of this heroic and largely forgotten struggle is told in a new exhibition launched this weekend by the Museum of Western Australia, entitled Debt of Honour. Artefacts, pictures, rare footage and interviews with surviving veterans of the 2/2nd Independent Company, 2nd AIF draw back the curtains on this action and its aftermath. The story is as much about the Timorese who helped the men of the 2nd/2nd survive and strike back at the enemy, and the tragic loss of life when Sparrow Force finally withdrew.
The tropical medicine story in Debt of Honour is not difficult to winkle out. The small Army Medical Corps unit deployed with Sparrow Force was led by a CAPT Roger Dunkley, their only medical officer. He had to deal with malaria, other tropical infectious diseases and battle casualties in a makeshift field hospital under constant threat of enemy attack. It is said that he didn’t lose a single patient, yet very little is known about him beyond his service in both World Wars. His official portrait photo shows him as a quietly confident younger man. Other photos in the exhibit show him at ease with his comrades-in-arms, if a little war-weary.
There is much in this exhibition for those with an interest in the origins of our current friendship with Timor Leste, going back to the post-war ties between diggers and the families of their Timorese helpers (known as criados).
Debt of Honour runs until 20th May, before touring the rest of the country and going to Timor Leste. Entry is free.
Repaying the debt: