Timperley’s rescue voyage
This article was first published in Milne Bay 1942 and is now reprinted with permission from Clive Baker and War Book Shop
It was during March that Lt Alan Timperley (ANGAU), was ordered to sail to New Britain. Together with Sgt John Marsh and Cpl Dave Neil from Army Signals, he was to locate and rescue troops from the over-run Rabaul Garrison.
They set sail in the small launch Mascot without navigational aids other than a ‘cheap Japanese Compass’ and inadequate charts that dated back to the 1914 German colonisation. Their crewmen were villagers Sari, Oivo and engineer Bobby.
With a heavy load of food and equipment, the boat was so overloaded that it threatened to capsize in heavy seas.
They departed from Milne Bay on 28 March, heading on a northerly course via Samarai Island and through the D’Entrecasteau Group of islands. They were dogged by engine and gear trouble and were forced to make repairs as they went. Before crossing the 200 miles to New Britain, Timperley gave all his men the opportunity to wait in the safety of the Trobriand Islands until the Mascot returned from Japanese territory. All men elected to go on with him. From the Trobriands, the crossing was rough and the boat shipped water and needed constant pumping.
No one knew the coast ahead, but Timperley working with his cheap compass, reached Jacquinot Bay, just two miles off course. Although they heard aircraft the men were not spotted by the Japanese and moored their boat close inshore. The three Europeans went ashore on 5 April, looking for the retreating Australian troops.
Timperley’s official report:
We turned our attention to the plantation residence and walking towards us was a man in tattered clothing. It is hard to say who was the most surprised. I shall never forget the expression Lt Fisher’s face held, when we acquainted him with the fact that we had crossed to New Britain from Papua. We continued to the house and there found two sick men who were very weak and unable to help themselves. The other occupants of the house had sought cover in the plantation, thinking we were a Japanese patrol.
The enemy had been making use of small pinnaces for landing patrol and survey parties and I can quite understand the reaction on awakening to find a dirty-coloured launch a few hundred yards from the house….
A local Catholic Priest, Father Harris, was looking after many Australians in his local area. John Dawes’ book, Every man for himself, continues the story:
The men were at Mass in the mission church and during the ceremony a stranger entered.
There was something incongruous about his appearance in that torn congregation—yet something perfectly fitting. It was as though the splendour of resurrection were among them,that the glory of morning had entered the garden beauty of Mal Mal, with the new graves near its church. The officer was clean-shaven, his clothes neat, a revolver was strapped to his belt.
He wasn’t of them, though now he stood among them. Someone tapped one of the worshipping soldiers on the shoulder. ‘Come outside,’ he said, ‘we’re saved.‘
Searching up and down the coast Timperley’s party found more and more men, mostly in a ‘frightful condition’ and very weak. As they drew these men into the vicinity of the Mascot, a radio message was sent to Port Moresby advising that a bigger boat would be needed to cope with the numbers.
Sgt John Marsh filled out the picture in his diary:
Moved ashore at 0600 hrs. Natives ran into the bush on our approach. Moving up to a house on beach, came across Lieutenant Fisher of Anti-Aircraft Company, Rabaul. Observation post of 9 men in house. Captain Timperley with Lieutenant Fisher went down to see Senior Officer at Wanung in preparation for collecting men together. … Prepared Kai (food) for men while Bobby ran the Mascot in-shore to hide it. Prepared to erect aerial. 140 men brought into sites surrounding Mal Mal … men arriving in terrible condition and half dead. Tobacco and matches almost run out. Managed to pass a message to VIG (radio call-sign) via ‘Pud’ Arnold at Milne Bay about conditions and number of men …
The food carried from Milne Bay soon improved the condition of most men but a few were too ill and died while they waited. Many had to be carred on stretchers to the rescue point.
Finally, over 160 men were waiting to be rescued as the Laurabada sailed north, escorted by a screen of aircraft.
She arrived on 9 April, and loading was commenced immediately, some of the first evacuees being two women, Mrs Yencke and Mrs Watterman (with her four children) all of whom had escaped the Japanese invasion. Major Owen was one of those rescued, soon to be killed at Kokoda while leading the 39 Battalion against the Japanese. Father Harris would not leave with the party, despite the obvious danger of being captured and maltreated, when the Japanese inevitably came to his Mission. There was discussion amongst the troops, about taking him away by force but in the end it was decided to bow to his wishes and leave him and fellow church worker, Brother Brennan, with their native ‘flock’. Harris said to his would-be rescuers:
l came here to tell them what Christianity means. If I deserted them when they were in trouble, how could I ever return and preach Christianity to them again…
Timperley knew that there was a Coastwatcher in the vicinity of Jacquinot Bay and he left a Teleradio and battery charger with Father Harris, to be collected later. As they sailed away, the Australians looked back to the man who had cared for so many of them:
Father Harris was alone in the approaching night, a deep tropical night … but in the memory of those men—the 157 who left the south coast of Palmalmal—he lives as they last saw him; with a wave and a smile.
The Father continued to assist troops and downed aircrew until late 1943, when he was executed by Japanese marines.
Timperley and his men started their slower return journey south. The faster Laurabada soon passed them and steamed out of sight. Despite fierce storms and a 41-hour journey, the brave men aboard Mascot arrived back at Gili Gili on 14 April, having travelled over 1000 miles. In an understatement of their achievement, Timperley finished his report:
… we left, feeling that we had done our job and that our results were much greater than we had anticipated.
After Timperley’s rescue trip, other brave men crossed to New Britain in small boats saving more of the Rabaul Garrison men. Timperley received a Commendation from General Blamey and today the provincial Capital of Alotau has a street named after him.