Listen to the birdsong of war
Finally, a no punches pulled behind the scenes account of one of military history’s greatest and most astonishing guerrilla campaigns.
When Singapore fell to the Japanese in February 1942 it appeared that little could be done to stop their conquest of all of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. One after another British and Allied outposts were overrun or left behind to starve and capitulate.
The Malay Barrier may have sounded like an impenetrable wall of fortifications stretching from the Indian Ocean to the central Pacific but in reality it was a scattered collection of isolated garrisons, under resourced and unsupported and, when the test came, easily crushed. For the men of those garrisons the Japanese invasion followed a pattern of savage battle followed by brutal murder or years of cruel incarceration.
The war on Timor in 1942 had elements of all of this. The Australian, British and Dutch garrisons on the divided island of Timor, Dutch in the west and Portuguese in the east, had been given the codename Sparrow Force when the Malay Barrier strategy was formulated. Today Grant McLachlan has written a book that documents the history of Sparrow Force. He calls it Sparrow; A Chronicle of Defiance. He uses the subtitle “An epic account of The Sparrows – Battle of Britain gunners who defended Timor as part of Sparrow Force in 1942”. In fact it is much more.
Sparrow is a remarkable book, firstly for its size, over 790 pages, secondly for the extraordinary amount of information and evidence of research, particularly in its 8 appendices and 22 tables, and thirdly for its style.
The book is the author's first and it is clearly a labour of love. What set out as family history research into the war service of the author's grandfather grew into a remarkable study of the creation of Sparrow Force, its epic battles in early 1942 and a record of the fate of those who became prisoners of the Japanese.
Previous authors have tackled the subject of the war on Timor in 1942. Initially it was part of the Australian official history edited by Gavin Long. Later veterans began to write their own reflections and histories of the units in which they served that were part of Sparrow Force. In most cases the earlier works have been unit specific or have provided a cursory summary of the doomed fighting retreat of 2/40th Battalion group around Koepang then focused on the guerrilla campaign in eastern Timor. Few mention the British anti-aircraft battery that was part of Sparrow Force and even fewer link the suffering of those taken prisoner on Timor with the fighting they did before they were captured. Sparrow makes a monumental attempt to cover it all.
To say the book is idiosyncratic is an understatement. The author begins with an 18 page description of his own journey of discovery about the research and writing of the book. As we watch first-hand experience of the Second World War pass with the obituaries in the newspaper every day and the enthusiasm for family history research growing accounts like this are recording how third and fourth generations are discovering their family links to that great landmark event - the Second World War.
The author has chosen to write the bulk of the text as if it is a first person narrative. It is not a style that I am particularly comfortable with. I was always fascinated by how my grandparents formed their sentences and their use of words that had slipped from common use by my generation. I aspired to copy this speech but never quite achieved it. For this reason I wonder why the author has chosen to recreate the dialogue of the characters in his narrative in such a way. For all of my concern about the style others have found it engaging and treat it as a translation from the mid-20th century to the second decade of the 21st. The author’s research is exhaustive and his interviews with veterans extensive so he is well placed to describe the events in detail and make educated guesses about how those conversations may have played out. That said, the story engages the reader much like a movie script, making it perfect for big screen adaptation.
The narrative is unique in that it tells parallel stories. When other authors of tackled this subject they have divided the short battle and long captivity of the 2/40th Battalion group in western Timor and the year-long guerrilla war fought by the largely Western Australian independent company on eastern Timor into two geographically specific narratives and told those stories separately. This author has chosen a strictly chronological approach and so in the space of one paragraph the reader is transported from the description of a daring ambush by a small band of guerrillas in the mountains of central east Timor to an account of the austere, monotonous often brutal existence of captured British and Australian soldiers being used as slave labourers near Koepang.
In the final section of the book, a 100 page collection of chapters under the heading ‘Aftermath’ the author shares his perspectives on the historical context of the Pacific War, the atomic bomb, the treatment of Allied prisoners of war by the Japanese and the post-war war crimes trials. He finishes with some fascinating observations on the statistics of the POW experience during the Second World War.
The book will have very wide appeal as it contains mind-boggling quantities of information from graphs, tables, maps and nominal roles that any military historian with an interest in the subject will find useful as well as a narrative of personal and historical discovery to delight the most avid genealogist, family historian or just the lover of a good story well told. The website that accompanies the book (www.sparrowbook.com ) goes further by mapping the events portrayed and including an extensive archive of unique film footage, interview clips, images, and research links. Much of the remarkable dialogue in the story is verbatim to those interviews.
Sparrow is a record of gallant soldiers who did their job to the best of their ability against overwhelming odds and in a hostile environment. For those who were captured it is a story of endurance, ingenuity and mateship. When McLachlan called it a chronicle of defiance he could not have chosen a more apt title. It is a fitting tribute to a past generation of warriors from one of their descendants.
Brad Manera is an historian and Executive Manager of the ANZAC Memorial in Sydney, Australia.