Background: The Portuguese Neutrality

The War Illustrated, Nov. 1943

The Portuguese neutrality during World War II seems to have been made possible through two essential factors: the above mentioned Salazar’s pragmatism that led him as Foreign Minister into a game of sensible equilibrium in the diplomatic field and on the other side the fact that none of the countries asked for the direct intervention of Portugal. It doesn’t mean that those countries didn’t press for any bigger involvement or that neutrality was never endangered. It was and the problem of Timor’s invasion proves it. The memoirs of the disastrous participation in the First World War may also have contributed to the unwillingness to participate in the 1939/45 conflict.

One of Salazar’s fist problems may have been Spain, ruled by the dictator Franco. His proximity to Hitler’s Germany predicted the participation of our neighboring country in the War. Salazar will of course direct all his diplomatic efforts on what concerns Spain to assure it remained neutral. His more or less decisive role near Franco is not consensual among historians. Where some declare that the Spanish Government always acted according to the State’s interest and Salazar’s influence was an illusion², others assure that this same influence may have given Franco an alternative to a proximity to the Axis, fact that granted the Portuguese dictator the Allies gratitude³. Anyway, the question that matters, having succeeded or not, is that this was Salazar’s greatest concern. If Spanish neutrality was granted, Portugal would also be freer to any military movements in the Atlantic which couldn’t be possible if it’s strategic concern’s were centred in the Iberian Peninsula.

The War Illustrated, Nov. 1943

The Portuguese Government’s position regarding England has always been of reasserting the existing Alliance between the two countries since the XIV Century. In spite of its desire of a bigger autonomy facing the U.K. diplomacy — Portugal declares its neutrality without consulting its English partners — Salazar always wished to relate with the Allies in the context of the Alliance. It was the only way to keep conversations, however secret, with them without breaking the official neutrality. The U.K. still was Portugal’s biggest commercial partner, not only through import and export businesses but also through their important investments in the country.

Short before the World War II began, the relations with Germany were of little importance. Salazar tried then to enlarge commercial bonds with this country and in 1938 Germany already was our second best commercial partner. During the War Portugal and Spain became essential to Germany since it was in the Iberian Peninsula that they supplied themselves with the wolfram they needed to make their weapons. Although the allied nations had other sources to obtain this raw material, they came to buy here all the wolfram they could in order to prevent its selling to the Axis. Portugal took great benefits from this competition and if when the War started the State was financially deficit, in 1943 the country already presented an important surplus.To our country, Germany sent products like coal, steel and fertilizers, products which the Allies weren’t able to provide. Finally in 1944, with the conflict almost solved for the Allied side, Portugal is obliged to interrupt wolfram supplies to Germany.

By the time of the Timor reoccupation, Portugal, with the aim of assuring full sovereignty on the territory, asked the Allies to take part in the military operations. Negotiations were held with that purpose but that never happened. As mentioned before, military bases in the Azores were negotiated with both the U.K. and U.S.A and that was considered by the Allies as sufficient participation in the effort to retake the island.

¹ – The Portuguese Parliament.

¹ – TELO, António José, A neutralidade portuguesa na Segunda Guerra Mundial, Janus 1999-2000

² – MENESES, Filipe Ribeiro de, Salazar – Uma biografia política, Ed. D. Quixote

Transl. by Maria Manuel C. da Silva

February 19, 1942 — The Bombing of Darwin

Photo: Australian War Memorial

On February 19, 1942, short before 10 a.m. Japan took what would probably be the fist step to the invasion of Timor. About the event, journalist and investigator Paul Cleary published in The Australian an article worth mentioning here. The comment on the first paragraph was written by the equally investigator Ernie Chamberlain to whom we thank the contribution.

Instead of being an attack on Australia and a prelude to invasion, as is widely believed, the bombing of Darwin was part of a synchronised plan specifically aimed at knocking out Allied sea and air power based in Darwin ahead of Japan’s invasion of Timor. The Japanese high command believed these forces could be used in a counter-attack on their troops on Timor, 700km northwest of Darwin, which is why they launched a raid on a massive scale.¹

The Japanese knew that the destroyer, the USS Peary, was anchored in Darwin, and they mistakenly believed large numbers of B-17 and B-24 bombers from the US Air Force were stationed there as well. The Japanese planes sank the Peary along with seven other naval and merchant ships, but they failed to find any bombers. Instead, there were only a handful of Kittyhawk fighters from the US Air Force, most of which were destroyed. In all, 252 people were killed in the bombing of Darwin.

From 10pm that same evening, the Japanese landed about 5000 soldiers, naval marines and paratroopers south and east of Kupang, the capital of Dutch Timor, where 1100 troops from Australia’s Sparrow Force were based. At about the same time, the Japanese landed another 1000 troops in Dili, the capital of Portuguese Timor, where 270 men from the 2nd Independent Company – a special forces unit – had landed despite the protests of the neutral Lisbon government.

Timor was as important to Australia’s defence as New Guinea because it could be used to launch attacks on northern Australia. It was vital to the Japanese. In Allied hands, it could be used to launch an offensive against Japan’s forces in Indonesia, then known as The Netherlands East Indies.

Japan’s official history of World War II, published in the late 1960s, makes these facts clear. The records are written in Japanese.

The Australian War Memorial’s summary of the bombing of Darwin on its website makes no mention of the connection with the Timor invasion, and nor does the Department of Veterans’ Affairs website, ww2Australia. The National Archives of Australia, however, does mention these facts on its summary page. (…)

¹ – The first Japanese air attack on Darwin on the morning of 19 February 1942 involved 188 Japanese carrier-borne aircraft – followed by a second attack wave later that morning of 27 aircraft from Kendari (Sulawesi) and 27 from the island of Ambon. Over 250 Australians were killed in the first raids. After the 19 February 1942 raid, the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia’s north were bombed 62 more times between 4 March 1942 and 12 November 1943. The four Japanese aircraft carriers (Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū and Sōryū) that participated in the Bombing of Darwin were later sunk during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

February 20, 1942 – Japanese Occupation of Timor

"The Sydney Morning Herald", Saturday, February 21, 1942 - National Library of Australia

The Timor occupation by the Japanese wasn’t really the first one in the World War II context. When the invading forces led by General Sadachishi Doi advanced on the night of February 19, the Western side of the island, by then under Portuguese jurisdiction, had already been occupied by the Allied Forces. Those included Dutch troops – mainly from West India – and Australian troops. As we will detail further ahead, the Allies felt great fear of a Japanese military action against Timor and therefore England, Australia and the Dutch government in Batavia insisted on Portugal’s acceptance of military help in the territory. It is an offer Salazar’s government could not accept since Japan, who in September 1940 had signed the Tripartite Convention with Germany and Italy, would immediately take it as a violation of the Portuguese official neutrality policy. After a process full of misunderstandings the Portuguese Government agreed to accept help just in case the Japanese really acted against Timor’s sovereignty and in the context of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, after a formal request from Portugal. Those conditions would later be reinforced through a telegram from the State Secretary for the Colonies addressed to the Governor Manuel Abreu Ferreira de Carvalho in the morning of the Australian and Dutch occupation. But let us go back a little in order to analyse some precedents.

Japan’s politics to expand South was a direct menace to the West Indies (the Dutch possessions of what is today’s Indonesia) and to Australia itself since Timor could be used as a trampoline. In 1937, the Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha, a company devoted to the promotion of Japanese economical interests working from Micronesia and the Sociedade Agrícola Pátria e Trabalho in Timor, made official a partnership to explore some of the island’s most important agricultural resources (coffee, rubber or cacao among others). That same year the Australian Qantas Airline shows for the first time its interest on creating an airline connecting with Dilli. Those were the first steps to a commercial war between Japanese, Australian and Dutch interests leading to a competition not only for the natural resources but also for airline licences mostly without any commercial meaning. At that same time the conflict between China and Japan became stronger. The Japanese used the respect for the territory’s integrity of Portuguese Macau as a way of pressure to obtain easier agreements. Behind the screen of the commercial war, Australian and Japanese control each other, map the island, write reports they send to their own governments.

"The Evening Post", December 19, 1941

As already mentioned, should the Japanese troops take action, the Australians and the Dutch would feel that the Allies should seize Timor. A possible invasion of Portugal by the German would also be sufficient to take such a decision. The Australian Government was possibly convinced that a war scene with Japan at the Pacific would start with an attack to the West Indies or to the Portuguese Timor. However, it occurred in a much clamorous way with the attack to the American base in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. Ten days later, at 8 a.m., the Governor of Timor welcomed in his residence the British Consul – an Australian named David Ross – and two lieutenants, one Dutch and the other Australian. They had come to insist one last time with the colony’s Governor to ask for help. Keeping with the instructions from the metropolitan government, Ferreira de Carvalho felt once more compelled to decline the offer and the request turned, in fact, into an ultimatum. The Australian and Dutch forces would invade Timor that same morning with or without a request for help. The Portuguese sovereignty would be officially kept. The governor has a meeting with officials of the highest rank detached in the colony in order to analyse the situation and a possible opposition to what was considered a military aggression. It was however unanimous not to offer resistance since it would be impossible and useless to the territory’s defence. The answer came down to a protest.

After intense diplomatic negotiations the Portuguese government reaches an agreement with England to replace the allied troops with a Portuguese force. That force would come from Mozambique and defend Timor if the Japanese attacked. The ship João Belo transporting the Portuguese Force sailed from Mozambique but never arrived in Timor on time to carry out the agreement.

On February 20, 1942, alleging self-defence, Japan invades the island of Timor. The invasion of the territory occurred through Dilli’s bay and the artillery batteries on shore showed to be insufficient. Colonel Van Straten, Commander of the allied troops, with some of the West Indies troops sets out to the East of the island. The only operational military resistance would be from the 2/2 Australian Independent Company, a group of commandos that immediately after the Allies’ landing on December 17, sat out to the mountains surrounding Dilli. The Japanese authorities, like the Allies did, report to the Portuguese authorities that if they maintained their neutrality, they would respect the Portuguese sovereignty and would set out of the territory immediately after achieving their self-defence purposes. It never occurred. The obvious sympathy of most of the Timorese and Portuguese populations regarding the Australian, together with de corresponding aversion to the Japanese soldiers and officers, was the main reason to prevent Japan from fulfilling its promise to get out of East Timor before the war was over.

Nowadays the polemics still persist over whether Japan would in fact invade East Timor if the Allies had not done so. It is understandable the Australian and Dutch fear that Japan would do it, but it is also true that the Portuguese neutrality in some way suited the Axe’s interests. A Japanese action against Timor would certainly place Portugal side by side with the allied nations with the implications it would carry, not only at the Pacific area, but also in Europe. Moreover, Japanese diplomatic documents quoted by Professor Ken’ichi Goto in his work Tensions of Empire (1) reveal a Japan divided between a wing pretending to maintain unbroken diplomatic relations with Portugal, to which belonged the Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, and another one, composed mainly by the military, that defended the island’s invasion. Would the moderate wing win if the Australian and the Dutch had not occupied the territory? It may be a doubt of impossible enlightenment. To History remains what turned out to be a tragic event to the people of the Timor Island.

1 – GOTO, Ken’ichi Tensions of Empire – Japan and Southeast Asia in the Colonial & Postcolonial World, Ed. Ohio University Press, 2003

Transl. by Maria Manuel C. da Silva