East Timor was controlled by the Portuguese, and since the Portuguese have long been our friends, it’s not a place where armed Britons have spent much time. But they have spent some time there.
There was a possibility of conflict during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1812 we temporarily took over the part of Timor controlled by the Dutch. The problem was that the Dutch and Portuguese didn’t always entirely agree where the boundary lay between the bits of Timor they controlled. And since we had temporarily taken over the Dutch bit of Timor, we had also temporarily taken over its border disputes as well. This led to some encounters with our Portuguese friends that, as it turns out, were rather less than friendly. In 1812, a Dutchman had been dispatched in a ship with a British flag to inform people in some areas that they were now under British instead of Dutch control. He was trying to reach Maubara, a disputed region claimed by both sides (now in East Timor), but when he encountered the Portuguese commander at Batugade, he was told that he could not go there and that it was Portuguese. The commander, clearly no diplomat, underlined his message by pointing to the British flag on the boat and saying that it was only good for wiping their backsides.
During the Second World War, Portugal was neutral. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, to help protect the flank of the Dutch-controlled part of Timor, a combined Dutch and Australian force took control of the Portuguese part of Timor on 17 December 1941. In February 1942, the Japanese invaded and the Allied troops with local Timorese volunteers fought back in a bitter and brave year-long guerrilla campaign. In 1943, most of the remaining Allied troops were evacuated, and an American submarine, the USS Gudgeon, took off twenty-eight men – Australian, English, Portuguese and Filipino – pretty much the final survivors, on 10 February. After this evacuation, some of the Timorese fought on against the Japanese. The Australian Brigadier Dyke, commander of Timforce, arrived in Dili on 22 September 1945 to help organise the Japanese surrender. In 1974 a left-wing coup succeeded in Portugal, and Portugal announced that it would withdraw from East Timor. In 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor. A long guerrilla campaign ensued against the Indonesians, and in August 1999 a referendum showed a majority of East Timorese in favour of independence. Violence errupted and in September 1999 INTERFET, the International Force for East Timor, arrived to help restore order. Units of the British armed forces played key roles. With HMS Glasgow offshore, British Army Gurkhas and SBS Royal Marines moved in with the vanguard of INTERFET on 20 September. British troops helped to secure the airport, harbour and key road junctions. On 1 October, a Gurkha patrol fired the first shots of the mission, helping to free refugees.