In this Online Cenotaph Story Roger Hovenden shares his experience of service in East Timor (Timor Leste) between November 2001 to May 2002.
In September 1999 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel went into East Timor to restore peace and security as part of a multinational force (known as International Force East Timor or INTERFET) sanctioned by the United Nations. New Zealand personnel continue to serve in East Timor as part of a United Nations peace-keeping force (known as United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor or UNTAET).
This operation represents the largest deployment of New Zealand military personnel since the Korean conflict in the 1950s.
Between September 1999 and 2002, more than 5,000 NZDF personnel served in Timor as part of INTERFET and others did until 2012, serving with the United Nations. A number of New Zealand police also served there.
Suai was the site of one of the worst atrocities during the post-referendum violence, when 200 people were murdered in the Suai Church Massacre on 6 September 1999. Suai became NZ Battalion Headquarters with Forward Operating Bases (FOB) in various locations.
For me this all started in January of 2001 when I started my Intermediate Logistics Officers Course (ILO) in Waiouru. This was an eight-week course that finished in late March 2001 then two weeks later I was back in Waiouru again this time on my Grade three course, another eight-week course. Four days out from the end of the course I was told I was deploying to East Timor as the Logistics Officer for NZBATT5 recon team. Got back to Christchurch on the Friday from course and flew out early hours Sunday morning to overnight in what became known as the tin city, RAAF Base Darwin, and then via a RNZAF C130 flight into Suai. From minus 2 degrees in Christchurch to a humid 32 degrees in Suai was a bit of a body shock to say the least.
New Zealand had their main Supporting Operating Base in Suai not far from the Airport. I believe it was previously a hospital run by nuns. By the time I arrived the New Zealand Battalion was well established. There were Battalion FOB’s in Tilomar (Coy HQ), Belulik Leten (BL) (Coy HQ), Gate Pa (a Pl) and on the border at JPF (border post). Our caterers were spread among all these locations with the bulk being in Suai supporting the Air Point of Debarkation (APOD), RNZAF Base and the Battalion HQ.
I completed the reconnaissance and discussed Relief in Place (RiP) with the outgoing Battalion (NZBatt4) and although I was not the Unit Movement Officer (UMO) (at this stage at least), the late Capt. Ray Mihaere (fondly known as the King of Tonga), who was the (S4) of 2/1 RNZIR, lent over to me at the finish of NZBATT4 briefing and said "hopeful you got all that as I'm on the advance party going out and you’re it to bring them in." That was news to me!!
While the recon team was returning, NZBATT5 personnel deployed to the West Coast of the South Island for pre-deployment training. One night at home and off to the “tropical” West Coast, and we were straight into mud and rain. The build-up was long; living in muddy, wet conditions on the West Coast for training and then grazing elbows and knees live firing in Tekapo.
Lt COL Anthony (Lofty) Hayward was the NZBatt5 CO with MAJ Raymond (Chuck) Dowdell, OC CSS Coy, CAPT Ed Robinson as Op Officer and I as the XO who picked up most of the admin work such as Out of Theatre Leave (OTL) which had to be sorted prior to departure. Each per had 14 days leave either back to NZ or to Aussie. Bali being part of Indonesia was a no-go zone. OTL was difficult as everyone wanted their leave towards the middle or end of the tour and there was a lot of haggling with the infantry over this, with very little success. As things would have it my sister-in-law was the secretary of the Canterbury Rugby Supporters Club, and she got the 2002 super rugby draw two weeks before it was released to the public. Sunday March the 17th Crusaders vs the Reds in Ballymore Brisbane. Monday morning, I gave up most of CSS Company’s ballots to secure the two-week period around the weekend of the 16th and 17th of Mar 2002. I wasn’t that popular with most of the guys but just said to them what dates they wanted to change to, and I’ll see what I could do. Sure enough, the day after the draw publicly came out the infantry wanted most of the slots which I had blocked booked and the haggling began, but we got what we wanted.
The Relief in Place (RiP) was spread over a month with the advance party departing in late October by C130 and remaining flights were UN Charted flights last flight in late November from Christchurch to Beucau Timor then by helicopter from Beucau to each person’s assigned FOB (Suai, Tilomar etc.) with all their weapons and equipment. Each person had one individual trunk which was sent by road and married up with them a couple of days later, so you were required to live out of your pack for a couple of days.
Being an ex-Chef and Commissioned from the Ranks, I knew a lot of people within the ranks some in key positions so could get things done. Also, we had a good mix with SSgt Lance Ball also a chef in the CSS Ops and WO1 Danny Turnbull a steward in the Bn Ops so I had a good network of people throughout the Battalion which was a benefit when it came to conducting Courts of inquiry of which there were two, I had to conduct in the first four months along with two UN mission inspections that got me around the complete AO either by road or helicopter.
The first Lord of the Rings Movie also did its rounds of the AO three large reels of film and a projector along with a specially made screen were required to be moved. The Movie took over three and a half hours with three intervals to change the reels. A bit of a logistics nightmare getting the people and equipment to each FOB after a couple of minor issues at the beginning due to weather conditions, however it was screened in all of the FOB’s and was really enjoyed.
Anzac Day: This was celebrated as accustomed to by the military. Wreaths were laid and remembrance of those that came before us.
Our Catering staff did an excellent job throughout the deployment they had some difficult times with several visits from Senior Officers from many countries and the NZ Governor General Dame Silvia Cartwright also dropped in for a few days. This was above their normal catering support of the FOB’s. Each Sunday they had the afternoon off, and BBQ rations were provided of which sub-units cooked back in their own lines. The JNCO did get Christmas Dinner cooked for them by the SNCOs and a few out of trade caterers, now that brought back some distant memories and was an education and a half for some of us, but we survived with all fingers still attached.
Catering Warrant Officer WO1 Duane Fyfe managed his staff well and certainly did more than their share on security of the FOB along with their long trade hours. When the ration truck arrived everyone available in the FOB went to the kitchen to unload no matter what rank or sub-unit under the supervision of the CAT WO ration truck was emptied within minutes and rations secured appropriately.
A Pakistan Engineer unit was responsible for fixing the roads in the Suai area. They were “interesting” as after two weeks of fixing a section, it was back to the state it was in if not worst state than before they started to fix it. Towards the end of our deployment the Japanese took over from the Pakistan Engineers. The Japanese Self-Defense Force (SDF), we were told, spared nothing and they kitted their deploying engineer group out with all brand-new equipment and after the recon they discovered that this equipment was not suitable for the area and two big for the roads, so they scrapped the lot and reconfigured all their equipment to support the terrain. Their arrival was spectacular, and hundreds were on Suai beach to watch them. Two Japanese warships and a large Logistics ship anchored about 2 km offshore and then like bees out of a hive, out came three hovercraft’s and within minutes they were straight up onto the beach. The Japanese had arrived.
For our return home after six months the UN had chartered a Russian Ilyushin aircraft to take us from Beucau to Christchurch. Like most things Russian this was an old, noisy, very basic and massive plane including the seating, which was great, but because of the noise factor it could not land in Christchurch until after 0530. I also had a feeling it was refused permission to fly over Australia. So, we had to fly to New Caledonia and wait in the airport there for four hours and then re-board for the final leg back to Christchurch, so we thought. Seeing the lights of Christchurch was a great feeling until the roar of the engines as it accelerated back up into the sky again. Good old Christchurch Fog and next stop Ohakea Air Force Base where we sat for another four hours and finally arrived in Christchurch around 10 am. Late but great to be home.
East Timor was a new experience for me and a bit of a learning curve, but I was lucky to have two very good officers Chuck Dowdell and Ed Robinson, which I learnt a lot from. I think they also learnt a few things from me as well being a former crusty old Warrant Officer.
Competitiveness: To pass the time someone decided to start a run home and worked out the distance between Suai and Christchurch (5,934 Km) the running track was about 1 .2 km around the FOB that made the countdown from 4,945 laps as I was the last man in most had 1,000 laps on me, like the Ops Off who was in the advance party. He commented that even when he comes back from OTL he will still be miles ahead of me. So, this became a challenge as I was about 600 laps behind him in the race for home when he went on OTL so I doubled my effort but just could not do it by the time he arrived back I was only 22 laps behind him, and I was still to go on leave and 1600 laps from home. So disappointed until the Ops Off got off the truck with his foot in a plaster cast and I knew then I was home free, and victory was mine!
Bizarre: Most ridiculous thing was turning up at the APOD for a helicopter flight to Dili and having to remove all your sharp instruments bayonets, knives, etc. which went into an ammo tin and padlocked before boarding but we could keep our Weapons and Ammo. (Rifles plus six magazines fill of ammo, our pistol and our grenades) – I still think that was just bizarre.
Hilarious: Japanese deploying their equipment into Suai by hovercraft and the first one landing and dropping its ramp with the crowds’ expectation of a large dump truck or a big bulldozer but no driving off down the ramp was a drain digger smaller than a mini car.
Saddest: The saddest was the accidental death of a young Irish soldier- It was also one of the most notable how all the Kiwis got together and gave him a real New Zealand sendoff which I know was appreciated by all his comrades.
Happiest – meeting my wife in Brisbane on OTL.
Most memorable: The people I didn’t know before the deployment that I know now- friends, work mates and what we all have in common – we were all members of a great deployment - NZBatt 5.
About the author of this article.
This article was prepared by Roger Hovenden. Roger enlisted into the New Zealand Army in September 1977 as a chef. He held a number of positions in Linton Camp, Fort Dorset, Burnham Cam and Waiouru. He has held the position of Executive Chef Government House, Catering Warrant Officer, Burnham Camp and Chief Instructor Joint Services Catering School, Waiouru before being commissioned. He has served in Tuvalu, Germany, East Timor, Cambodia and Afghanistan. He is currently employed by NZDF as a civilian in the position of Class 1 Supply Systems Regulator and SO2 Catering, Defence Logistics Command (Land). Roger is a member of the RNZCT Association.
Cite this article
New Zealand Battalion 5 in Timor Leste. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 29 March 2023. Updated: 10 May 2023.