Story 2 - WW2 Winnie the War Winner

Article from the Argus Newspaper (Melbourne), Page 12, 1 Jan 1943
“Signallers’ Skill Saved Lost Force, An Epic of Ingenuity by Bill Marien”


The following are the details of the ingenious work by Signal soldiers that allowed a WW2 commando group to survive, be resupplied and take the fight to the Japanese.

Winnie the War Winner
Illustration from  the WW2 Book 'Signals, The Story of the Australian Corps of Signals'.
Winnie the War Winner, Pages 128 to 132

"Force Intact. Still Fighting. Badly Need Boots, Money, Quinine, Tommy gun, Ammunition."

This was the first official morse code message received in Australia from the lost 2AIF commandos of Portuguese Timor who, for 59 days after the Japanese landing on the island, had been written off as missing or dead.  The signal came to Darwin on the night of 19th April 1942.  It was transmitted by "Winnie the War Winner," a crazy contraption built from scraps of wire and tin, and pieces of long discarded radio sets.

When the commandos showed me the incredible Winnie recently, it was easy to recapture the scene of that night of 19th April.

In the thin air of a Timor mountain hideout, four bearded, haggard Australians were working by the smoking, stinking light of a pig-fat flare.  Three of them watched anxiously as the fourth thumbed a Morse key.  Weak batteries sent the dots and dashes of the morse dimly across the Arafura Sea to the Northern Territory of Australia.  The tension was something physical as the operator strained his ears for a reply.  At last a reply came.

From 19th February, when the Japanese landed at Dilli, nothing had been heard of the AIF commando force which had been in Portuguese Timor since 17th December 1941.  And the commandos had heard nothing from the rest of the world.  They did not even know that Dutch Timor had fallen until other Australians fought through to Portuguese Timor and told them.  There was little prospect of building a radio.  There were no parts, no new batteries. The sets they had were too weak to raise Darwin.

But among those who came from Koepang were two signalmen, Cpl John Sargeant, of Bonshaw, NSW, and Lance-Cpl John Donovan, of Lindfield, NSW.  These two men got together, working under Capt George Parker, of Earlwood, NSW, with Sigs Max (Joe) Loveless, of Hobart, and K. Richards, of Victoria, two members of the original commando force, and agreed that Darwin must be raised.

On the 8th March the four men got to work — Loveless just out of sick bed and Sargeant just recovered from malaria.  Three days later a Dutch sergeant, exhausted, stumbled in.  He had carried what he thought to be a transmitter-receiver 40 miles through some of the roughest country in the world.  It was an ordinary commercial medium-wave receiving set-and out of order.

Corporal Went Scrounging

Loveless, whose knowledge made him No 1 man of the team, thought he could build a one-valve transmitter from parts of this set and of another small and weak set.  He planned a circuit, and all the commandos were asked to be on the lookout for anything that might serve as a radio part.

Cpl Donovan went scrounging at Attamboa, on the north coast, to see what he could salvage, while his companions recovered an abandoned army set.  The parts of the 3 sets were unsoldered, and a bamboo used to catch all the melted solder for reuse.  Loveless had carefully preserved 2 small batteries, but they needed recharging.  A generator was taken from an abandoned 10-year old car and rigged to a series of wooden wheels, which a native was persuaded to turn.  The set was complete on 26th March.  It would not work!

The four signallers had been working with a tomahawk, pliers, and screw- driver.  They had no means of establishing a known transmitting wave-length.  The coils were wound round lengths of bamboo.

On the 28th March, Donovan returned from Attamboa laden like a treasure ship.  He had the power pack from a Dutch transmitter, two aerial tuning condensers, 60ft of aerial wire in short lengths, and a receiving set.  Next day the men had to move all their precious gear, for the Japanese were getting too close.

Loveless got to work on a second transmitter twice as big as the first, and built into a 4-gallon kerosene tin.  A battery charger was recovered from enemy-held territory.  To get it fourteen commandos went through the Japanese lines to the old Australian headquarters at Villa Maria.  There, within 100 yards of Japanese sentries, protected only by the dark, they dug up the charger which had been buried when the headquarters were evacuated.

Heard Darwin Was Safe

On 10th April the signallers heard Darwin on the receiver, and knew then that Darwin was still in Australian hands.  But their second transmitter was also a failure.

Loveless had another idea, but he needed more batteries.  Four were found.  Then the petrol ran out and the charger could not be kept running.  So they raided the Japanese lines and carried off tins of kerosene.  Finally the charger was started on kerosene and run on diesel oil.

Winnie the War Winner
"Winnie" in the Timorese mountains with three of its 2/2nd Independent Company creators.
L-R Keith Richards, John Donovan and Jack Sargent.  Source: AWM

With batteries at full strength they signaled Darwin on the 18th April, but got no reply.  They did not know that their message had been picked up on the Australian mainland and passed on to Darwin, that all transmitting stations had been warned to keep off the air and listen to Timor the following night.

On the night of 19th April they got an answer from Darwin.  Then their batteries failed again.  But the four signallers celebrated by smoking a tin of tobacco which they had saved since leaving Attamboa.

But Darwin Suspicious

On the night of 20th April they again got Darwin.  But Darwin was suspicious; demanded proof of their identity.   So questions and answers like these were rushed across the Arafura Sea:

"Do you know Bill Jones?""Yes, he's with us."  "What rank, and answer immediately?""Captain."  "Is he there?  Bring him to the transmitter. . . . What's your wife's name, Bill?""Joan."  "What's the street number of your home?"

Back came the right answer, and the mainland accepted the fact that the commandos were still fighting.

The commanding officer of the force told me with feeling that but for the amazing job done by these four signallers they would not have been able to contact Australia.

"I don't like to think what might have happened if we had not got through," he said.


Winnie the War Winner is displayed in the Australian War Memorial and is a testament to the skills of the WW2 signal commandos.

Winnie the War Winner
Winnie the War Winner at the School of Schools for repair work in the 1970s.
  Photo supplied by Denis Hare

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