234 Lord Cranborne, U.K. Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, to Mr John Curtin, Prime Minister

Cablegram 915 LONDON, 28 December 1941, [1.45 a.m.] [1]


My telegram 913 of 27th December. [2]

1. We feel that the misunderstandings to which we refer are mainly due to the rapidity with which developments have occurred and, to the impossibility of communicating to you in full correspondence with His Majesty's Ambassador in Lisbon [3], discussions with the Netherlands Government and Portuguese Ambassador here [4] and information from other sources.

2. Discussions with Portugal for the defence of Portuguese Timor with their concurrence arose out of the suggestion made in Commonwealth telegram 588. [5] These discussions led to agreement by the Portuguese Government to send an officer to Singapore to prepare plans. This procedure was interrupted by the outbreak of war with Japan, which made it urgently necessary to consider some more rapid arrangement. We had also heard from Mr. Duff Cooper [6] that the Dutch had already prepared plans to move into Portuguese Timor.

3. It was in these circumstances that we asked the Portuguese Government to agree to instruct their Governor in Timor [7] to invite assistance of Australian and Netherlands forces in Dutch Timor in the event of a Japanese attack or to acquiesce in its being furnished if there were no time for an invitation. To this the Portuguese agreed (my telegram 829 of 13th December [8]). We had contemplated that circumstances would admit of Australian and Netherlands commanders [9] going to Dilli and consulting the Governor before any troops were moved. Their troops were moved before any understanding with the Governor had been sought since in view of the presence of Japanese submarines in the neighbourhood of Timor the Governor-General of the Netherlands East Indies [10] felt that immediate action was necessary. We had hoped that taking a realistic view of latest developments in the war in the Far East the Portuguese Government would regard the imminent threat of an attack as tantamount to an actual attack. As it turned out the Portuguese Government interpreted the agreement with us in its strictest literal sense, i.e. as applying not in the event of a threat of an attack but only after an actual attack had taken place. It is clear that in the first instance this did not represent a change of attitude on their part and that our first impression as conveyed to you in my telegram 839 of 17th December [11] was wrong.

4. Our first intimation of the move that was actually made was contained in your telegram 798 [12] (which was received here on the afternoon of 15th December) from which we noted that only two hours were to be allowed for consultation. This placed us in a dilemma. On the one hand while we hoped that the Governor of Portuguese Timor might interpret his instructions as warranting acquiescence even before an actual attack developed, we were apprehensive of the effect on our very important and most secret Atlantic discussions with Portugal if he did not. On the other hand we realised the vital strategic importance of Timor and could not judge from here the imminence of the emergency. We did not feel therefore that we could recommend recall of the expedition which had probably already started (it was then 16th December local time) and, given the presence of submarines, realized that it might well be dangerous for its arrival at Dilli to be delayed.

In the circumstances we felt that the only course was to accept the situation but to try if possible to get a longer period for consultation before the landing was effected if this were practicable. Hence our telegram 833. [13]

5. As regards the statement outlined in that telegram, we telegraphed on 16th December to Lisbon a text in which we hoped to obtain the concurrence of the Portuguese Government. We then heard that the Portuguese attitude to the action taken was violently unfavourable and we were faced with a major crisis in our relations with Portugal. His Majesty's Ambassador in Lisbon stated that the only chance of retaining any vestige of Portuguese confidence in us was to present the matter in such a way as to enable the Portuguese Government to plead force majeure. He accordingly advised a different form of statement omitting any reference to the alliance, and emanating from the Netherlands and Commonwealth Governments only, preferably the former alone (see my telegram 839). It had become urgently necessary that some statement should be made and eventually the Dutch agreed to issue theirs alone.

6. You will realise that it had become essential in order to prevent irreparable damage to the alliance and to the recent most secret strategic arrangements (see my telegram under reference paragraph 1) to make it clear to the Portuguese Government that the decision was not part of a prearranged plan but was dictated by reasons which the local authorities had for believing that an attack was imminent. In our expression of regret to the Portuguese Government we deplored the military exigency which obliged the allied military authorities to take the action which had proved unwelcome to the Portuguese Government. We have not at any time suggested that any blame attached to those authorities for this.

On the contrary our public statement emphasized the positive necessity for this action and this is the line which our Ambassador has repeatedly and most frankly taken with the Portuguese Government.

7. All of Sir R. Campbell's reports show that we are bound to take into account the Portuguese, attitude (see my telegram 906 of 27th December [14]). But on the essential point we have remained absolutely firm, namely that our object is the safeguarding of vital interests by the denial of Portuguese Timor to the enemy and that pre-requisite of any solution must be the presence there of a force sufficient to deal with sudden aggression (see my telegram 886 paragraph 3 [15]).

8. We hope that the foregoing will help to clear up some of the points raised. We should greatly regret it if the Commonwealth Government felt that there have been any avoidable causes for misunderstanding between us and are sure that they will appreciate that the whole question has been and continues to be one of great difficulty and anxiety for us.

1 Inserted from the London copy on file AA:A2937, Timor- Portuguese, defence operations,i.

2 Document 233 3 Sir Ronald H. Campbell.

4 Dr A. R. de S. Monteiro.

5 Document 62.

6 U.K. Minister of State for Far Eastern Affairs resident in Singapore.

7 M. de A. Ferreira de Carvalho.

8 Document 191.

9 Lt Col W. W. Leggatt and Lt Col W. Detiger.

10 Jonkheer Dr A. W. L. Tjarda van Starkenborgh Stachouwer.

11 Document 202.

12 Document 195.

13 Dispatched to December. On file AA: A981, Timor (Portuguese) 3, i.

14 On the file cited in note 13.

15 Dispatched 25 December. On the file cited in note 13.

[AA : A981, TIMOR (PORTUGUESE) 3, i]