SIGNALLERS' SKILL SAVED LOST FORCE
An Epic of Ingenuity
By BILL MARIEN
"Force Intact. Still Fighting. Badly Need Boots, Money, Quinine, Tommygun, Ammunition."
This was the first official message received in Australia from the lost AIF commandos of Portuguese Timor who, for 59 days after the Japanese landing on the island, had been written off as missing or dead.
The signal came to Darwin on the night of April 19. It was transmit- ted by "Winnie the War Winner," a crazy contraption built from scraps of wire and tin, and pieces of long discarded radio sets.
When the commandos showed me the incredible Winnie recently, it was easy to recapture the scene of that night of April 19.
In the thin air of a Timor moun- tain hideout, 4 bearded, haggard Australians were working by the smoking, stinking light of a pig-fat flare. Three of them watched anxiously as the fourth thumbed a Morse key. Weak batteries sent the dots and dashes of the morse dimly across the Arafura Sea to the Nor- thern Territory of Australia. The tension was something physical as the operator strained his ears for a reply. At last a reply came.
From February 19, when the Jap- anese landed at Dilli, nothing had been heard of the AIF commando force which had been in Portuguese Timor since December 17, 1941. And the commandos had heard nothing from the rest of the world. They did not even know that Dutch Timor had fallen until other Aus- tralians fought through to Portu- guese Timor and told them. There was little prospect of building a radio. There were no parts, no new batteries. The sets they had were too weak to raise Darwin.
But among those who came from Koepang were 2 signalmen, Cpl John Sargeant, of Bonshaw, NSW, and Lance-Cpl John Donovan, of Lind- field, NSW. These 2 men got to- gether, working under Capt George Parker, of Earlwood, NSW, with Sigs Max (Joe) Loveless, of Hobart, and K. Richards, of Victoria, 2 members of the original commando force, and agreed that Darwin must be raised.
On March 8 the 4 men got to work — Loveless just out of sick bed and Sargeant just recovered from ma- laria. Three days later a Dutch ser- geant, exhausted, stumbled in. He had carried what he thought to be a transmitter-receiver 40 miles through some of the roughest coun- try in the world. It was an ordinary commercial medium-wave receiving set-and out of order.
CORPORAL WENT SCROUNGING Loveless, whose knowledge made him No 1 man of the team, thought he could build a one-valve transmit- ter from parts of this set and of another small and weak set. He planned a circuit, and all the com- mandos were asked to be on the lookout for anything that might serve as a radio part.
Cpl Donovan went scrounging at Attamboa, on the north coast, to see what he could salvage, while his companions recovered an abandoned army set. The parts of the 3 sets were unsoldered, and a bamboo used to catch all the melted solder for re- use. Loveless had carefully pre- served 2 small batteries, but they needed recharging. A generator was taken from an abandoned 10-year old car and rigged to a series of wooden wheels, which a native was persuaded to turn. The set was complete on March 26.
It would not work!
The 4 signallers had been working with a tomahawk, pliers, and screw- driver. They had no means of es- tablishing a known transmitting wave-length. The coils were wound round lengths of bamboo.
On March 28 Donovan returned from Attamboa-laden like a treasure ship. He had the power pack from a Dutch transmitter, 2 aerial tuning condensers, 60ft of aerial wire in short lengths, and a receiving set. Next day the men had to move all their precious gear, for the Japanese were getting too
Loveless got to work on a second transmitter twice as big as the first, and built into a 4-gallon kerosene
tin. A battery charger was recovered from enemy-held territory. To get it 14 commandos went through the Japanese lines to the old Australian headquarters at Villa Maria. There, within 100 yards of Japanese sentries, protected only by the dark, they dug up the charger which had been buried when the headquarters
HEARD DARWIN WAS SAFE
On April 10 the signallers heard Darwin on the receiver, and knew then that Darwin was still in Aus-
Prlnted and published by Robert N.
Myers, of 205 Lennox street, Richmond, for This Arous and Australasia* Limited, at the Registered Office, 365 Elizabeth street, Melbourne.
tralian hands. But their second transmitter was also a failure.
Loveless had another idea, but he needed more batteries. Four were found. Then the petrol ran out and the charger could not be kept run- ning. So they raided the Japanese lines and carried off tins of kero- sene. Finally the charger was started oil kerosene and run on diesel oil.
With batteries at full strength they signalled Darwin on' April l8, but got no reply. They did not know that their message had been picked up on the Australian mainland and passed on to Darwin, that all trans- mitting stations had been warned to keep off the air and listen to Timor the following night.
On the night of April 19 they got an answer from Darwin. Then their batteries failed again. But the 4 signallers celebrated by smoking a tin of tobacco which they had saved since leaving Attamboa.
BUT DARWIN SUSPICIOUS
On the night of April 20 they again got Darwin. But Darwin was suspicious; demanded proof of their identity. So questions and answers like these were rushed across the Arafura Sea:
"Do you know Bill Jones?"— "Yes,
he's with us."
"What rank, and answer imme- diately?"— "Captain."
"Is he there? Bring him to the transmitter. . . . What's your wife's name, Bill?"— "Joan."
"What's the street number of your
Back came the right answer, and the mainland accepted the fact that the commandos were still fighting.
The commanding officer of the force told me with feeling that but for the amazing job done by these 4 signallers they would not have been able to contact Australia.
"I don't like to think what might have happened if we had not got through," he said.