Read one sailors experience in East Timor while serving on HMNZS Canterbury
I was the Commanding Officer of HMNZS Canterbury. She is our last aging Leander class frigate, which, as one of only two frigates available at the time and, of course, other good reasons, was sent as one of the ships to be included in the United Nations sanctioned International Force East Timor (that is INTERFET) contribution. Including Canterbury, from early September 1999 through until February 2000, New Zealand had a ship on station in or near East Timor. Over 540 sailors, of which 238 were in Canterbury, formed a major part of the New Zealand Defence Force 1100 strong team that INTERFET (NZ) became.
Ships have always been the silent contributors and East Timor was no exception. Read the official reports, news bulletins or even watch who the politicians welcome home, and you might be tempted to think that East Timor was only a mottled shade of green. Some might even question whether we sent ships at all if you only watch the TV news. What I would like to do is offer a sailor’s view of how we became involved, some of what we did and how it felt.
At this point then, I’d now like to quickly walk back in time a little and explain how such an operation even became necessary.
The story of modern Timor begins on 7 December 1975. I don’t know what it is about that date but important things seem to always occur near it. Indonesia worried over the possibility of a new and potentially challenging nation emerging on its doorstep from the collapse of Portugal’s colonial empire, invaded and annexed East Timor. This invasion was implicitly tolerated although the UN did adopt resolutions between 1976 and 1982 for Indonesian Forces to be withdrawn and the right to self-determination to be offered to the Timorese.
Through these years the Indonesian Armed Forces were undoubtedly repressing the population, but Timor was generally ignored by the world. Casualty figures range widely up to about 230,000 for the five years of 1976-80 alone. What became clear in 1991 was that the Indonesian’s were acting as colonial masters in a clear parallel to previous administrations. During a pro-independence rally in Dili – the capital city – in November, an English cameraman captured the brutal and violent end brought to at least 50 civilians by the military. A further 91 were injured and yet another 90 remained unaccounted for.
This massacre appears to have been the watershed for international opinion against Indonesian occupation. Pressure then began to mount for self-determination and from 1995 onwards, Indonesia and Portugal held annual talks to discuss issues of human rights and the like. By 1998, countries like Australia were being less than subtle in their communications with Indonesia and it appears that groups of Indonesians were simultaneously realising that the cost of retaining Timor was higher than any returns that might be made. For whatever reasons – on 27 January 1999 then President Habibie offered the East Timorese a referendum to enable them to choose between autonomy within Indonesia and independence. Later that year, in May, the Secretary-General of the UN was entrusted to organise the referendum and the United Nations Assistance Mission for East Timor (UNAMET) was born to oversee the referendum. Indonesia, meanwhile, guaranteed “that the popular consultation is carried out in a fair and peaceful way in an atmosphere free of intimidation, violence or interference from any side” in an “Agreement between the Governments of Indonesia and Portugal – New York 5 May 1999, Art 1″.
This arrangement was, however, by no means unanimously accepted by all in Indonesia. Some within the government and military began to rally militia units within East Timor, with the clear intent of influencing the ballot result through intimidation and threat. This unofficial and unsubtle policy was carried out in the months leading up to the referendum on 30 August 1999. People were beaten and tortured, crowds intimidated and the populace generally made to fear for their lives. Despite this, 98 percent of all voters turned out to register 78.5 percent favouritism for the road to independence. Sadly – it was also to be a road to death and destruction at the hands of the militias. With at least the tacit support of the Indonesian military, the militias unleashed violence and destruction across East Timor. The capital city and other towns were sacked and an unknown number of Timorese were killed. Up to 500,000 people were displaced and many of these were forced to leave the province for other parts of Indonesia. By 7 September the UN had become extremely concerned and Kofi Annan issued an ultimatum to Indonesia to restore order within 24 hrs or face international intervention. Despite this, the situation worsened as Indonesian authorities did nothing to stop the violence. A day later things were so bad in Dili that the few remaining neutral United Nations observers were forced to evacuate to Darwin – a situation that brought East Timor into even sharper focus for the UN.
A Security Council mission did manage to get into Dili and were shocked by what they saw. Pressure continued on Indonesia from both world opinion and the media, and suddenly Indonesia acceded to international forces entering East Timor to restore security and re-establish peace.
With Indonesian acceptance now achieved, the UN was now able to act and in only a matter of days the Security Council issued Resolution 1264 on the 14-15th of September. Australia then found herself called upon to act as lead nation for the UN Chapter Seven mandated operation to restore security, preserve lives and, if the situation allowed, provide humanitarian assistance. As operational planning commenced, INTERFET was created and preparations made to deploy.
Despite the high level political moves and gains, by mid September the situation in on the ground in East Timor was becoming desperate. Law and order were now effectively gone, the Indonesians had abrogated, for whatever reason, their security role, and the UNAMET monitors had been forced to withdraw. Time for the continuation of politics by other means!
As you can hopefully gather though, the indicators that East Timor was likely to become a military problem had been there for some time. Australia, as the closest and most effected of the regional nations had been preparing contingency plans for a considerable period. Here in New Zealand the worsening situation had not gone unnoticed either. In March of 1999 then Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Adamson, initiated planning for any contingency that might arise. Both the Australians and Americans were consulted and New Zealand plans started to formulate around the available force options. The Americans were busy with Kosovo, the Gulf and a number of other global brushfires and were plain in their acceptance of a support role but not for one requiring combat capability. The message was clear, if it needed force to secure East Timor – it would have to be provided by more local assets. Initial planning was along the lines of a Services protected evacuation. This quickly faded as events in Timor unfolded and grew to a fully fledged military operation requiring force protection and reinforcement. For New Zealand, the selection of force elements from the naval inventory was pretty simple, although some early thought was given to choosing the small Inshore Patrol Craft as coastal patrol vessels. This idea was quickly cast aside as the Inshore Patrol Craft lacked any real force or self protection capability. Similarly, the idea of using HMNZS Resolution, the Hydrographic research vessel for charting the unknown waters of Timor was discounted through to a lack of protective armament and commercial requirements in New Zealand waters. Some thought was also, no doubt, given to bringing back the HMNZS Charles Upham from her Mediterranean orange cargo hauling charter. Again, this was also quickly realized to be impractical although Strategic sealift was definitely a key requirement for getting the Army’s heavy equipment to Darwin and then tactically deliver it across the gap to Timor. In the end, this was achieved by charter from civilian companies and a reliance on other allied forces in INTERFET for the delivery to East Timor. The other option of HMNZS Manawanui – the diving tender was also unavailable due to our ongoing commitment to Bougainville. With the need for force protection and supply as the key determinants the options narrowed to one or both of the two frigates – HMNZS Te Kaha or Canterbury and the tanker HMNZS Endeavour. In the end – all were used as INTERFET became our largest naval commitment since the Malayan/Indonesian confrontation.
All of us, Te Kaha, Endeavour and Canterbury, had been in the area as a RNZN task Group under my control until the end of August and we were well acclimatized for operations in East Timor. Through a mixture of generally good timing and, I suspect, some unofficial contingency planning, Australia hosted one of their largest multi-national naval exercises – called Kakadu – in Darwin in August, timed nicely to coincide with the forthcoming independence referendum.
As is always the case though, the opposition never reads your planning operation order, and the militias’ activity forced a short delay in proceedings in Timor. This meant that Exercise KAKADU concluded and the ships started to disperse throughout the region before events took the major turn for the worse. While it would have been awfully convenient to have occurred while KAKADU was on, the timing meant ships headed off and then later returned. One notable exception, of course, was that KRI Nala – the Indonesian Guided missile Frigate that had been participating in KAKADU, did not come back to Darwin after returning to Indonesian waters off Timor. We saw her some time later but it seems the pleasantries of KAKADU were not to be repeated and no communication was ever responded to.
KAKADU had been a great preparation exercise for the New Zealand ships although the vagaries of an old platform did not escape Canterbury. We spent most of the latter part of the exercise tied up to the Darwin wharf as my engineers took the port engine and gearbox apart looking for a mysterious vibration. Our claim was that we had secured the beachhead for the ships at sea – a claim that took deep pockets and a tolerance for the night life of Darwin to achieve. In hindsight – we probably should have applied for residency at this stage.
Once KAKADU completed I handed over control of the New Zealand Task Group to Commander Ross Smith in Te Kaha and he and Endeavour left Darwin and headed north to Singapore for Exercise STARDEX off the Malaysian exercise areas in the South China Sea. This is one of our major exercise commitments under the Five Power Defence Arrangement and was also being used to prepare Te Kaha for duties in the North Arabian Gulf later in the year.
We in Canterbury had been away for some months at this point having worked up a number of ships, trained in various exercises and generally flew the flag on the Australian coast. Our overseas tasking was almost finished we thought and we were heading home. Once there the plan was to drop off our Seasprite helicopter, return to Sydney for a week of training for a warfare course and then home again for a well-deserved rest break and fix-it session. As the saying goes – the only constant in life is change! And so it was for all of us.
Back in East Timor – as I said before, by 8 September things had become untenable for the UN and the decision was made to evacuate the UNAMET observers. This triggered the first naval response in New Zealand and at 4.30 in the morning local time; Ross Smith took a call from the Maritime Commander to advise that Te Kaha would be withdrawn from the exercise fairly shortly and why. Ross immediately set about arranging a fuelling stop with Endeavour, and after getting rid of exercise observers on board at the time, headed south towards Timor at his maximum speed. After three days of travelling at 25 knots he transited via the Wetar Strait just north of Dili and reported that at about 0200 the crew observed the fires that were by this time ravaging the Timorese city. Te Kaha then pressed on into the Timor Sea and started looking for any friendly tanker to refuel from. Even more importantly, they were getting hungry and needed to replenish with food as supplies were very low. After an early morning refuelling from HMAS Success, Te Kaha turned to join HMAS Darwin who was patrolling in international waters to the south of Timor. Before they could join them though, Te Kaha was directed to proceed to Darwin and be briefed and await further orders. While there, Te Kaha took the opportunity to load their torpedo tubes for the first time as these had been empty while conducting training. Although the submarine threat had not been stated directly, we were all aware of the Indonesian force capability in this area with 209 and 206 type submarines and were not going to take chances. No small task given the design of the ANZAC class ships, which do not allow direct access from the torpedo magazines to the ships torpedo tubes.
Endeavour had also been bought into the action by this time at the direct request of the Australians who were scrabbling to find sufficient fuelling platforms for the ships and land plans that now were starting to come together. After replenishing fuel in Singapore at the end of the STARDEX exercise, Commander John Campbell and his crew turned Endeavour for the waters south of Timor to join the now increasing crowd of Australian, New Zealand and British warships. This was a nervous time for Endeavour who woke on their second day of transit south to find an Indonesian landing craft with what looked like a gun barrel pointing out of the cargo area tailing them. The landing craft stayed with them for about two days as they came down through the Java Sea and then slowly disappeared over the horizon without indicating anything. No other Indonesian ships replaced though and Endeavour eventually arrived and took up station about 50 miles off the eastern tip of Timor and awaited developments on the 18th of September.
By now INTERFET was in full swing. As Endeavour loitered, a naval armada had sailed from Darwin on the 18th and Te Kaha was now among the ships heading slowly north towards Timor. Heavy force protection was the order of the day with HMA Ships Tobruk and Jervis Bay carrying the first load of heavy equipment and sea-borne troops for insertion. Around them were placed warships from Australia, HMS Glasgow from the UK, USS Mobile Bay and Te Kaha. Its about 600 miles from Darwin to Dili so a 36 to 48 hour transit at best speed with some of the slower troop transports. This gave the Commander of INTERFET time to gather the air insertion forces ready for a co-ordinated landing in Dili. The next day, the commander of the operation Major General Peter Cosgrove flew into Dili and laid the groundwork for troops to begin landing. Catching the Indonesians off guard, a massive build up of force began from first light on the 20th with aircraft at the Dili Airfield and followed almost immediately by the arrival of Tobruk and Jervis Bay into the Dili wharf. With their cargo and personnel beginning to unload, Te Kaha was dispatched to take fuel from Endeavour. Once this was completed, Endeavour was escorted into Dili harbour by Te Kaha and allowed to transfer her precious load of aviation fuel before she was then escorted out of the area to the east.
Te Kaha remained in the Dili area acting as guard ship until the 25th when, with our arrival in Darwin, she cleared the Indonesian archipelago and headed towards the Persian Gulf and other adventures. Endeavour was destined for home and a brief maintenance period before collecting more fuel and returning to the foray around Timor.
Meanwhile we were now well into our warfare training week in Canterbury off the coast of Sydney. We watched the developments by signal and whenever we could, on the coastal TV stations. Things looked to be going bad in Timor fairly rapidly and the subject of any involvement by us was quick to rear its head in discussion throughout the ship. We all agreed that it appeared unlikely as the signals pointed to Te Kaha’s continued involvement. So by the end of the week, with no indications of anything coming, we entered Sydney and tied up for another demanding weekend run ashore in the more traditional international hot spots of Kings Cross and The Rocks. As we carried out this arduous duty I had my first inkling of things changing when early on Sunday morning of the 12th of September my secure phone rang. On the other end was the Fleet Operations Officer who politely inquired of my health (obviously aware of the pressures of the Kings Cross/Rocks conundrum). He then warned of the possibility that events in Timor, and the need for Te Kaha to disengage, might require us to deploy as well as the need to say nothing to anyone about this as no plan had been approved. He asked me to look at what requirements we had and how quickly we could return to New Zealand, uplift a helicopter if one was available and get moving towards Darwin. Easy questions really although all required to be considered without any advice to the ships company. After chewing on this overnight and engaging my Heads of Department in a bit of 20 questions about a topic that doesn’t have a name – I had my answers and was ready for the call that followed at 0800 the next morning. On an old steam Leander with a crew that by this stage had been together for six months of training I will never forget the satisfaction that went with the briefing that took place at 0815 that morning. All the crew mustered as the plant was still cold and I advised them what was going down and the possibility that we might yet have a role to play in it. Some smiles broke out. Then I talked about how the intention was to get home as quickly as possible and that the crew would stay as they were without relief as they were the best possible combination to take in harms way – having just finished assisting other ships working up, PWO (Principal Warfare Officer) training with submarines, gunnery firings and the multitude of tactical exercises that time in Australia brings. By this stage grins were visible everywhere and I think if I’d asked them to walk on hot coals in the engine room to check their enthusiasm – only a few would have turned down the chance. I walked away from that briefing knowing that we could cope with anything to come and was never called on to change that opinion. I rate myself as incredibly lucky for that. More importantly – the team swung into action and four hours later we sailed from Sydney to start what I suspect is the fastest ever transit of the Tasman by a warship. Fifty-one hours later we tied up at Devonport and everyone went home that night to see their families before 36 hours of frantic preparation.
Over those next two days the gravity of the situation became more apparent to us as the news media broadcast the Prime Ministers warning that New Zealand should be prepared for casualties and so on. At a more local level, casualties were occurring rapidly as the medics arrived in the first wave of what they termed staff support, to jab, stab and dab each of us in preparation for the Timor conditions. Once this was over, the re-supplying and fixing of everything that could be achieved in such a short space of time took place. It was a frantic race to prepare the ship, but also to prepare each individual for what was, at that point, a deployment of unknown duration. Finally though, by 17 September we were deemed ready and the New Zealand Cabinet had approved the commitment of a frigate and a tanker to INTERFET. With the assistance of a popular TV reporter for working out the exact timing of our departure, we sailed at 1915 on the evening of the 17th. The exact timing was to ensure that we fitted into the ad break between segments of the TV show to give the best coverage of the ships departure for any who doubt the power or influence that the media have on these things.
After a slightly less paced but no less intense trip to Darwin, we arrived on 25 September and awaited our first tasking. We had met up with Endeavour on the transit from Torres Strait on the northern tip of Australia to Darwin and taken possession of a boat but otherwise had little contact with any other naval units to this point.
After 2 days spent chewing our fingernails and tearing at our leash in Darwin, Canterbury finally got started on INTERFET work on the 27th of September. We sailed at 1900 to the novel accompaniment of diners in the local wharf restaurant all stopping and clapping us as we slipped from the wharf. In fact, to digress slightly, this became standard operating procedure for each of the four patrols we did. We would arrive in the daylight, turn every single person to a job; to either fuel, shutdown, washdown or store or have everything finished within about four hours. Then the entire ships company would head for a single pub – normally the one that promised the Physical Training Instructor that we could watch the rugby. Once the group debrief was completed over a few hours everyone would head off for their own R and R pursuits for the time left in harbour. Two hours before our patrol sailing time it was back on board for a crew check – into overalls and back out onto the wharf for a last taste of civilization in the wharf restaurants and eateries. As Special Sea Dutymen closed up the last few would return on board, the diners would stand and clap and we would slip into the night. I’m not sure if it ever defeated the eyes of the watching Indonesians at the end of the wharf but it certainly felt good.
The first of our four mission patrols was for 16 days. The initial task for each patrol would normally be an escort task of a troop carrier to the Wetar Strait or even into Dili. On this first occasion we escorted Tobruk to Wetar before peeling off and loitering in this area to provide the air and maritime recognized picture. Threat warnings covered all of the possibilities with submarines, aircraft and surface ships in the list of potential Indonesian ORBAT (order of battle). As we closed the Wetar Strait there were a number of Indonesian warships around and we positioned ourselves in the classic up threat position to warn them off interfering with Tobruk’s right of passage. While this was a reasonably aggressive posture, the meaning was obviously clear and caused no problem for the Indonesians who closed to about half a mile and then turned away. We immediately gained an impression of a kind of forceful curiosity. For them this appeared to also be a satisfactory way of retaining the Asian Face, while we were satisfied that we also met our response criteria. End result – Tobruk sailed in without interference and all ships kept quite safe throughout the investigation. No communication and just some sweat as we maintained the correct rule of the road.
Once we were in the area of operations and had dropped off whatever ship we had brought up from Darwin, we found our tasking came thick and fast. Normally a ship would be held in the close proximity to Dili as a guard ship – or – as General Cosgrove put it – a tireless watchdog reminding people not to fool with the troops. Classic sea power presence translated into littoral operations. This was often our first task of each patrol before something else came along. Over the 77 days that Canterbury spent on four patrols 20 days were devoted to being Dili guard ship.
The guard ship tasking also started to present other opportunities. I had made brief contact with then Brigadier Dunne (now our joint force commander) while in Darwin. Both he and I strongly agreed on the desire to have kiwis help kiwis even though we were never part of the joint NZ force. So when we arrived that first time in Dili, we scrambled a crack team ashore to make contact and see what we could do. The tasks were varied but worthwhile and over the course of our stay in Timor, every single sailor and officer went ashore and took part in something to help either the kiwi’s or humanitarian work for the Timorese. Our best claim to fame for the kiwi’s though was that we got the first flushing toilet going again in Dili – much to the relief of the Army!
Even such seemingly simple tasks presented quite large obstacles in those first few days. Ships and people were flowing both into and out of the only operational part of Dili harbour. The Indonesian Navy had sent a number of large LST’s (Landing Ship – Tank) to uplift their soldiers and these would arrive unannounced and move straight up to the part of the dock that they still controlled. Meanwhile, out of nowhere would come HMAS Jervis Bay at 50 odd knots and park itself at the other end of the wharf. For us to land a boat load of sailors with sidearms also required a good deal of training and checking and then a very cautious entrance to a harbour thick with smoke and people. The Army ashore were also nervous and an unannounced boat load of trigger happy sailors was not on their list of happy day makers! The first boat was a carefully thought out evolution and my diplomatic executive officer carried the day to a successful conclusion.
The other problem with this was that although we wanted to be ‘Joint’ in our activities, we were often a bit too good at being stealthy and were often ‘unfindable’ when the PR or VIP contingents were looking for photo opportunities or useful tasks. On occasion I would get the middle of the night shake for the “flash” signal from Dili which inevitably turned out to be a request for a plumber, electrician or twenty feet of string rather than a request to open fire on the enemy!
Not withstanding and in many ways because of this – I can honestly say that East Timor was the most enjoyable and challenging thing I’ve ever done and I suspect that most, if not all, of the 540 sailors would claim the same. A large part of the enjoyment rose from the contact with fellow kiwis and that we were engaged on something so positive in terms of helping a nation to secure and then rebuild itself. At a more personal level – you couldn’t help but notice the resilience of the Timorese and particularly the children. I think most sailors were touched positively by what little contact we had with the locals.
Our activities ashore were also directed at helping the Timorese but again, we chose a Kiwi route to be given tasks. Using Brigadier Dunne’s Dili Command staff we would be allocated to tasks around Dili that needed grunt. One of the problems that the Army detachment faced was that Infantry soldiers needed to be either on patrol or stood down for rest. Because we were in Defence watches for the entire operation we could devote, after carefully weighing the risks up, about 20 sailors and officers per day for anything that came along. So over the three months we expended 1350 man-hours on humanitarian tasks such as rebuilding hospitals or clearing and setting to work markets that the militias had destroyed. It was back breaking hot and menial, but there were few complaints. This may have been because after the threat of the Indonesian military left we were able to race offshore and give everyone a swim in the cooler waters offshore. Again – a risk but well worth it for the smiles it caused.
Not withstanding these minor tasks though – the main role was to meet the INTERFET requirement to restore security. This we did by maintaining the Recognized Maritime Picture to give ComINTERFET the security he needed ashore. Combat-wise, we remained at defence watches from the time we sailed Darwin until we left the Area of Operations (AO) on our way back to Darwin. In Canterbury’s case this meant four patrols of 16, 20, 21 and 20 days duration. We escorted 30 amphibious and supply ships safely into Dili or under the protection of a fellow warship and demonstrated presence in the AO for a total of 77 days in all. Twenty of these were spent as guard ship for Dili with another 15 spent guarding Suai on the South Western border. In the first patrol alone we were challenged by 10 unalerted air contacts, where Indonesian Hawks or other aircraft flew off the coast at us.
It was also during this early task off that I got my first view of what had really been going on in East Timor before INTERFET had arrived. We were guarding HMAS Labuan on a trip to Bataguade, immediately beside the border of Western Timor on the northern coastline. As Labuan beached and surveyed a potential landing site for later use, the numerous small fishing boats peacefully carrying out their business in the rich and plentiful waters off the coast struck me. Not one of these Western boats ventured across the imaginary line in the water that was the border and yet the fishing was obviously fantastic or they would not have been there in such abundant numbers. The fear that the militia had imposed on East Timor was patently obvious and we never saw a fishing boat engaged in such activity for the entire time we spent near Timor.
This was also probably our most worrying operation. Operating so close to West Timor – still a stronghold for both militia and a tense Indonesia, in the very first days of INTERFET but with strong Rules of Engagement for protecting the unarmed landing craft. It was fairly nerve-racking to be called to the operations room and find an unidentified aircraft closing on a steady bearing from the West. Again we adopted the up threat posture – really your only safe bet on a gun Leander and started the warning off procedure while closing up the guns crew. One advantage the Leander does have though, or perhaps the time-frame just seems exaggerated, is that you gain extremely early warning of what then takes forever to come into your gun range. So by the time the medium speed contact had closed to 20 miles or so, we were all calm enough again to watch it slowly alter its closest point of approach to just ahead of Labuan. The aircraft never acknowledged our calls and to this day I’m sure he has no knowledge of how much blood pressure he raised that day. Blessed are the aviators for they know not what they do!
We were also lucky I think that Timor and INTERFET changed in nature as the operation progressed. Even the Commander of INTERFET was astonished, I believe, at how quickly his ink blot theory of control turned into more of an ink stain over most of the country within a few short weeks. I credit much of this to the rapid withdrawal of the Indonesian military. This weakened the militia who until this time had been expecting continuing support from their benefactors. With the military gone, INTERFET, including the ships, were able to concentrate on the militias and then, once they were controlled, on beginning the process of humanitarian assistance. What this meant for us was that our first patrol was tense and on a very aggressive footing. We were expecting trouble, had trained for it, and presented a very strong face to any that chose to notice. Contacts were investigated, prosecuted and reported in record time, lookouts identified ships at maximum distance and chefs produced action snacks to the delight of all.
The second patrol took on a reinforcing role, protecting the insertion into Suai of the New Zealand battalion and other tasks designed to control and limit the militia. We started some humanitarian work at this point with our tasking from Dili Command to protect food handouts or market restoration, but the mood was still tense and vigilance was the call whether at sea or detached ashore.
The third and final patrols then changed again. The militia had been largely thought to be controlled or forced well back into Western Timor or the mountains and the focus shifted again to humanitarian assistance and getting the people of Timor back into a self sustaining existence.
While I can’t help but use Canterbury’s examples through my obvious experience of them, I also need to mention Endeavour. Although she spent only 29 days inside the AO, Endeavour’s role was vital to the success of INTERFET and involved much more than the time mentioned suggests. For most of the considerable time she was available to INTERFET, Endeavour tracked the long miles to and from various oil installations loading and then discharging fuel to a hungry force ashore, afloat and even aloft. Without her, the mission would have been left at arms reach from the nearest fuel source in Darwin – an impossible ask for the Army and Air Force who could not have achieved what they did. Tanker resources were the scarcest throughout the operation and probably caused more headaches for the Naval Component Commander’s staff than anything else. Not just for them though when others became blasé about naval fuel supplies. When Endeavour was away from the AO, it was difficult for everyone. On one occasion, when the Canadian tanker HMCS Protecteur was withdrawn to Darwin to off-load personnel, all fuel supplies stopped for a lengthy period.
A hungry and frustrated Leander was forced to anchor and conserve fuel for much of the absence – a problem that never arose for the rest of INTERFET because of Endeavour’s presence. On the up side of our forced anchorage though – I tried my first attempt at combat fishing. Big strikes and hooks disappearing were the order of the day! And of course there is this story of an 8 ft. black marlin at Suai that haunted the dreams of the CO of Tobruk and myself.
Even though it was possible to relax a bit as things progressed, tension was always a part of each day. Our posture of vigilance paid dividends even in the last patrol though when we stumbled on a submarine contact while working with HMAS Sydney off the Oecussi enclave. We have no way of evaluating what the contact may have been, but suffice to say that it re-focused people quickly and turned our minds back to a state of preparedness for the unexpected.
Well – I hope this gives you some idea of the flavour that Timor was. As I said earlier I don’t think any of the 540 sailors and officers would argue that while it was enervating, it was a hard and stressful operation. We didn’t envy our Army or Air Force compatriots their living conditions ashore (even with a flushing toilet), but gave our best to help them carry out their tasks and I think the results speak for themselves. We left Timor on the 10th of December as the first of the summer monsoon rains poured into Dili and helped to put out some of the smouldering fires lit by the militia three months early. It was a haunting sight and left us with the impression of finished business for Canterbury although by no means finished for Timor or an Asia-Pacific that shows all the hallmarks of future conflict and turmoil.