Lost and written off in the jungles and mountains of Timor after the island fell to the Japanese, the men of Sparrow Force thought medico Roger Dunkley deserved a Victoria Cross. He received only a mention in dispatches and today is all but forgotten
American and Australian veterans of World War II have rightly honoured the heroic doctors of World War II – the Australian surgeon “Weary” Dunlop probably pre-eminent among them – who worked miracles in Japanese prison camps. But a West Australian doctor with achievements at least as heroic has been largely forgotten, except by the few surviving members of the 2nd/2nd Independent Company. He does not even have an entry in The Australian Dictionary of Biography.
Lost and written off in the jungles and mountains of Timor after the island fell to the Japanese, the 2nd/2nd, numbering about 278 men, with a few stragglers from other units, fought a guerilla war at odds of around 100-to-1 for nearly a year. “Little-known but great in spirit are the men of Timor,” said Winston Churchill later. “They alone did not surrender.” They did more: they killed an estimated 1,500 enemy for the loss of 40 of their own men. They tied up about 30,000 Japanese and supporting resources which would otherwise have been available for the invasion of New Guinea. It is not unreasonable to suggest that they saved New Guinea and possibly northern Australia and saved countless American and Australian lives thereby. Further, they played a part in distracting Japanese forces that could otherwise have been used against the Americans struggling to establish a foothold in the Solomons.
Their campaign was one of the greatest feats of arms in the entire history of war. Without Dr C. R. “Roger” Dunkley, the medical officer (who was my uncle), their survival would not have been possible. He had served as a private in the First World War with the 28th Battalion and took a medical degree in Melbourne after the war. As well as general practice he became a radiologist and Honourary Assistant Surgeon at Fremantle Hospital. His experience as both a fighting soldier and a surgeon would stand him in good stead later. His step-father was Sir Frank Gibson, Fremantle’s long-serving mayor (all Sir Frank’s children and step-children served as officers in the Army, Navy and Merchant Marine).
The 2nd/2nd were part of the tiny, hastily-assembled force rushed to defend Timor late in 1941. As they learnt of the fall of Singapore and the tide of Japanese conquest sweeping towards them, the ludicrously small force grimly prepared, burying ammunition and other equipment at secret dumps in the hills, walking barefoot to toughen their feet against the day their boots gave out. The main Allied forces were quickly overwhelmed by the Japanese landings but most of the 2nd/2nd — “Sparrow Force” — got away.
It was not enough for them to flee into the mountains, however: to survive they had to hold territory, which meant aggressively patrolling and attacking whatever the odds. The Japanese were to describe them as “Devils who jumped out of the ground, killed some Japanese and then disappeared.” Two or three raids were launched every week, often small in themselves but with a huge cumulative effect.
After demands by the Japanese that they surrender were rejected, the Japanese informed them that they would be treated as “bandits” and beheaded if captured. “So what else is new?” was the Australian response – the Japanese had already murdered the allied wounded and prisoners after the landings.
Dunkley repeatedly carried out major operations while actually under fire, and when the enemy were closing in, though quite a slightly-built man, carried the wounded away on his back. One man, Alan Hollow, had had his jaw shot away and Dr Dunkley fed him through a tube for months. The hospital had to be moved 23 times, often with the enemy just behind. The Australians were far too thin on the ground to provide it with such luxuries as defence cover (even Hollow, his head held together with bandages, had to work and fight).
In addition to battle-wounds the Australians were attacked by malaria and all the other tropical diseases of campaigning in jungle without even reliable drinking-water. Their boots did fall to pieces so they had to go with bare feet in the jungle. They bought food from natives in an attempt at a balanced diet but along with everything else their money was running out. For the constantly-moving hospital there were no anaesthetics, drugs or other equipment apart from what the doctor could carry with him or improvise. When thread for surgical sutures ran out, Dunkley used horse-hair.
The standards of heroism set by the Men of Timor were different to those of ordinary men, but by those standards Roger Dunkley was held by them a hero. In a tribute to him at the time of his death Mr Colin Doig, who had been a captain with the 2nd/2nd and later wrote a book about the campaign, said: “Nothing I could say would be sufficiently high praise for Roger Dunkley – “Doc”, as he was called. He was revered by every man who served with him. His medical feats and his acts of personal heroism were legendary.
“One day one of our lads had his knee shot to pieces. Timor natives took him to a village and hid him in a hut. The village was subsequently occupied by the Japanese and Dr Dunkley went in in the dead of night to get the wounded man out.”
Dunkley never worked in a secure hospital. From the time of the enemy landings in February, 1942, the Australians fought not only alone but with the knowledge that they had been written off by their own side. Their people in Australia regarded them as dead. They eventually managed to steal and make enough parts and batteries to build a radio. They carried it to a mountain-top and tried to signal Darwin. The first two such radios failed. On 19 April, 1942, the third, “Winnie the War-winner,” succeeded, and an initially unbelieving Army command learnt that they were still alive and fighting. Their first plea was: “Boots, quinine, money and Tommy-gun ammunition.”
Supplies were air-dropped and later brought in by sea. The first Navy men to make contact with them did not recognize the gaunt, haggard, bearded men dressed in rags as Australian soldiers and assumed them to be local mountain tribesmen.
War-cameraman Damien Parer made a film “Sparrow Force: Men of Timor”, now available online, showing Dunkley at the “hospital.” Parer commented: “With little equipment he does miracles.” They were evacuated by the Navy after nearly a year of more ot less continuous combat against impossible odds and without a day’s security. When they finally returned to Australia, the men of the 2nd/2nd were shabbily treated. They had no victory parade, and little other recognition. Dunkley, who the Men of Timor thought deserved the VC, received only a picayune Mention in Dispatches.
It is thought sections of the Labor Government, and in particular the far-left Minister for Labour and National Service, Eddie Ward (who early in the war had coined the nick-name “four shillings a day murderers” for Australian troops), hated the 2nd/2nd because they had fought with striking watersiders in Darwin to get their ships loaded for Timor in 1941.
It was a small part of a total of about 6 million days lost from Australia’s small industrial infrastructure directly from strikes on the wharves, coal-mines, ship-yards, aircraft factories and other strategic industries in Wotld Wat II.
Roger Dunkley left the Army at the end of the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel and returned to medical practice in Fremantle. He was the Fremantle City medical officer and also for a time the police and prison doctor. Once, as a small boy, I was disconsolate over losing or breaking a treasured toy gun, he more than made up the loss by lending me his revolver. “Uncle Roger’s probably shot a lot of Japs with that,” My mother told me when I proudly showed it to her.
He died in May, 1969, aged 69, the cause of death probably being related to his Timor service.