RAF in Borneo

RAF Labuan in 1965: mainland Borneo is just visible on the horizon

The permanent helicopter base at Nanga Gaat had landing platforms for five helicopters, one large enough for a Belvedere

Any hopes that the TNKU’s defeat would bring operations in Borneo to an end were soon to prove illusory. Having successfully executed a relatively straightforward counter-insurgency, British forces were now to be confronted by an infinitely more exacting counter-infiltration task. The potential for cross-border intervention by Indonesia has already been noted. It was fully recognised by Major General Walker, who soon established a thin screen along the frontier using a combined Ghurkha and SAS force. But they were too dispersed to prevent the first significant Indonesian raid, against the police station at Tebedu, Sarawak, on 12 April 1963. The perpetrators were predominantly Kalimantan irregulars – Indonesians, tribal elements and Chinese – trained, led and supplied by the regular military. There was very obvious potential for such operations to be staged to support and encourage the activities of the principal Chinese dissident group in Sarawak, the Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO), which was thought to number about 2,000 personnel. The cross-border raids initially formed part of a combined military and diplomatic strategy by Indonesia to obstruct northern Borneo’s incorporation into Malaysia, which was due to be proclaimed in September. Walker soon received reinforcements. By the summer he could support his frontier screen with a defence component of five battalions, and indigenous tribesmen were also recruited into the so-called Border Scouts. However, in Borneo’s undeveloped jungle and mountain environment, the capability of the ground forces depended substantially on the availability of rotary-wing air lift, and this was insufficient throughout 1963. Deliveries of the new Westland Whirlwind Mk 10 were delayed, so that the planned FEAF helicopter force of two Whirlwind squadrons and one Belvedere squadron was not fully established until August, some months later than originally envisaged. Even then, other actual or potential theatre commitments meant that they could not deploy to Borneo in their entirety. At first, twelve Whirlwinds and 5 Belvederes were made available – a force augmented by a number of Royal Navy Whirlwind Mk 7s and Wessex Mk 1s.

The proclamation of Malaysia in September – with Sarawak and Sabah jointly forming Eastern Malaysia – engendered a level of hostility in Indonesia far beyond British expectations. The cross-border incursions were stepped up, and it became necessary to call in further reinforcements, including two battalions of the Royal Malay Regiment. The mounting intensity of ground operations and the increasing number of troops added to the strain on the helicopter force, and led to the short-notice deployment of more aircraft from 38 Group in the UK during November and December – a further three Belvederes and ten Whirlwinds.

The requirement for rotary-wing lift cannot be fully grasped without an understanding of tactical developments on the ground. The initial Army presence along the frontier was based on a chain of platoon bases, from which about two-thirds of the occupants were out on patrol at any one time. They were established at strategic locations along the main infiltration routes although, given the length of the frontier, it was impossible to cover them all. In time, as more troops were deployed forward, many of these bases were enlarged into company-sized forts of considerable strength and sophistication.

These defensive positions were sited in some of the most inhospitable and inaccessible country in the world. Their construction and much of their subsequent supply was critically dependent on helicopter lift, as was communication between them, and the movement, reinforcement and relief of the troops that they housed. Helicopters were also the sole means of casualty and medical evacuation, and they were used to move heavy weapons – notably 105mm artillery guns – and other key items of military equipment to and between the various outposts. The availability of helicopters allowed single battalions to be assigned responsibility for a frontage of 100 miles or more, for they provided the means by which troops could deploy rapidly to areas that were under threat, or from where operations were to be mounted. Between the various forts and patrol bases, helipads were constructed every 1,000 yards or so to enable such movements, as well the subsequent re-supply of individual patrols in the field. In this way, the helicopter functioned as a force multiplier. As one Army officer who served in Borneo put it, `a single battalion with six helicopters was worth more to the Director of Operations than a complete brigade with none.’

Despite the enlargement of the force, there were never enough. Furthermore, Borneo’s climate imposed severe constraints upon flying, morning mist and bouts of violent turbulence and severe downdraughts later in the afternoon often restricting operations to a period of seven or eight hours per day. Resources had therefore to be husbanded very carefully. Only centralised command could ensure that the available helicopter force was employed with optimal efficiency so that, in the words of the overall joint campaign report, `The cry for “more aircraft” and in particular “more helicopters” was normally satisfied by increased utilisation and redeployment of the existing force.’ Nevertheless, there was the usual pressure for forward decentralisation, which appeared less bureaucratic and seemed to hold out the prospect of faster response times to battalions fortunate enough to be allocated aircraft on a semi-permanent basis. Fortunately, the senior land commanders in Borneo fully appreciated that this approach could potentially deny support to those with a genuine and perhaps more pressing need. So, while it was periodically necessary to decentralise command and control, this only occurred as part of a co-ordinated operational policy, and then usually for short periods or for specific purposes.

Vital as the helicopter was in Borneo, rotary-wing activity represented only part of a very much larger air operation designed to sustain the frontier defence line. Singapore functioned as the main operating base, from where a constant stream of Hastings, Argosies, Beverleys and RNZAF Bristol Freighters conveyed the more urgently needed supplies to Borneo’s two airheads, Labuan and Kuching, leaving bulk supplies to be carried by sea. From the airheads, supplies were flown on by Twin and Single Pioneers or by the Belvederes to a series of forward airstrips, constructed by the Royal Engineers, the RAF’s airfield construction branch or the troops themselves. Some of these strips were co-located with the larger frontier forts.

Otherwise, supplies were conveyed onward to border posts or to troops on patrol – a task performed either by the helicopters or by fixed-wing aircraft, which would drop their supplies by parachute. Over the course of the campaign, a monthly average of over 2,000,000lbs of supplies was delivered by air-dropping alone, and 18 forward bases relied almost entirely on parachuted supplies for a considerable period of time. The practical difficulties involved in dropping supplies to patrols in poorly mapped deep jungle locations are difficult to exaggerate. Aircrew were frequently supplied with map references that were inaccurate by distances of several miles, and drop zones were often only marked by a single orange balloon, hoisted above the jungle canopy.

An unusual feature of frontier operations in Borneo was the fact that there was an enemy air threat. Although partly equipped with obsolete Second World War aircraft, the Indonesian Air Force also boasted some more modern Soviet designs, and could potentially have been employed to considerable effect against border defences or other targets such as airfields. Malaysian airspace was violated on a number of occasions after September 1963. So a combined force of RAF Hunters and Javelins was deployed to both Kuching and Labuan to provide permanent day and night all-weather air defence, and a detachment from 65 Squadron also deployed to Kuching with Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles. While their primary role was to deter Indonesian air activity or – if deterrence failed – to intercept Indonesian aircraft, the Hunters could also have been employed in the ground-attack role to support the Army. Both fighters also flew `presence’ sorties at low altitude, to deter the enemy and shore up the morale of Commonwealth ground troops, and they escorted transport aircraft on supply-drop missions during periods of heightened tension.

It would require an Indonesian own goal of comparable magnitude to resolve this acutely unsatisfactory situation. In June 1964, an international conference was organised in Tokyo in an attempt to produce a negotiated settlement to the crisis. Predictably enough, it failed, and Indonesia afterwards implemented a dramatic change of strategy, mounting a number of small-scale raids against Western Malaysia in late August and early September. Although they were easily dealt with, the Malaysian government in Kuala Lumpur was sufficiently alarmed to support a request from Major General Walker that cross-border operations be approved up to a depth of 5,000 yards inside Kalimantan. Once the Malaysians had altered their stance, the British government followed suit. By the end of the year, Walker had the authority to mount pre-emptive attacks into Kalimantan to counter specific raid threats, although it remained necessary for political reasons for these operations to be subject to the utmost secrecy and security, and for the `minimum force’ principle to be observed. In January 1965, the permitted depth was extended to 10,000 yards, and a further concession later raised the limit to 20,000 yards for a small number of particularly important missions. At the same time, there was some relaxation of the rules of engagement concerning cross-border artillery and mortar fire, and the SAS patrols into Kalimantan were permitted to engage the enemy in combat.

Within strict limits, General Officer Commanding, Major-General Walter Walker now adopted more offensive tactics, and the outcome was a series of operations, staged under the codename `Claret’, which compelled the Indonesians to pull back from many of the bases that they had constructed in the immediate frontier area. The RAF mounted one or two clandestine night supply-dropping missions over Indonesian territory, but the use of offensive air power in support of Claret operations was prohibited, and helicopters were also forbidden to cross into Indonesian airspace, although they were now compelled to operate closer to the (very poorly defined) border than ever before, and to accept the risks involved. One Whirlwind was shot down after mistakenly straying across the frontier in November 1965; sadly, the crew were killed. The Claret operations were accompanied by further strengthening of Sarawak’s defences, a three-layer system being constructed in many areas to provide defence in depth.

This combination of new offensive tactics and enhanced defensive measures effectively determined the outcome of the frontier conflict in Borneo during 1965. Even if the incursions continued on a limited scale into the following year, they became even more difficult and expensive to mount, and brought even fewer rewards. Indonesia descended into political and economic chaos in the meantime, and the new government that eventually came to power was quick to conclude that an end to hostilities was essential. On 1 March 1965, the British Commander-in-Chief Far East reported a marked `decline in Indonesian activity’. Although a formal peace treaty did not materialise until August, the pressure on the Kalimantan-Sarawak frontier was negligible by that time.

Inevitably, perhaps, the majority of histories of operations in Borneo during the Indonesian confrontation have focused largely on the role of the Army. The scale and nature of the RAF’s contribution is seldom acknowledged or, perhaps, fully appreciated. But it is a fact that the Army’s achievements during the conflict were sustained in some way, shape or form by no fewer than 18 RAF Squadrons. This significant commitment was one of the major factors necessitating the extensive development of Kuching and, especially, Labuan. Having originally functioned as a staging post, with a handful of detached airmen, Labuan was ultimately transformed into a fully independent RAF station accommodating more than 1,000 airmen and as many as 30 aircraft of 9 different types. By the middle of 1965 Labuan was handling 2,500 aircraft movements per month, and was working round the clock for seven days per week. Without the commitment of air power on the scale reflected by these figures, a very much larger British and Commonwealth ground component would have been required in Borneo to achieve broadly the same effect as the component actually deployed, which comprised 15 battalions at its peak, and which was always heavily outnumbered by the Indonesian forces on the other side of the border.

It is not surprising to learn that ten of the participating RAF squadrons provided rotary or fixed-wing air transport. But the high cost of confronting the Indonesian air threat provides rather more food for thought, given the prevailing modern-day tendency to assume that control of the air will not be contested. In an environment where no such assumption could be made, it was necessary to deploy detachments from four fast jet squadrons as well as the SAM squadron. Also, of course, the necessary air defence infrastructure was required on the ground for aircraft reporting and control. Despite the fact that no hostile aircraft were intercepted (although many fleeting airspace violations were reported), these measures had to be sustained for three years.

Of the other roles performed by RAF squadrons, two were particularly important. The first was of course reconnaissance. At the beginning of the confrontation, accurate and detailed maps of the frontier and of Kalimantan were non-existent. Such mapping was essential to the successful prosecution of ground operations, and had to be generated from scratch, using aerial imagery collected by the Canberra PR7s of 81 Squadron. The task absorbed the entire squadron effort from May to September 1963, when deteriorating weather forced them to suspend their operations. By that time about 80 per cent of the survey area had been covered. Beyond this, there was inevitably a high demand for tactical imagery from the troops deployed along the border, which 81 Squadron had to satisfy. Throughout the confrontation, they supplied the ground forces with high-quality photographs showing (for example) jungle tracks, frontier crossing points, and buildings potentially used by the enemy. Interpretation facilities were established at Labuan so that imagery could be processed and issued with the absolute minimum of delay.

The second indispensable task was long-range maritime reconnaissance, which was undertaken by the Shackletons of 205 Squadron, and which played a pivotal part in the broader and highly successful maritime effort to protect some 1,500 miles of coast from Indonesian infiltration by sea. `Their ability to radar search areas of sea and, particularly during darkness, to home RN vessels on to suspect contacts enabled very limited naval forces to maintain an effective cordon sanitaire in sensitive sea areas.’

The tendency of historians to look for `models’ governing the successful prosecution of small wars and counter-insurgencies has been noted previously, and Borneo provides a further illustration of the trend. Inevitably, given the general parameters of the conflict, its timing and its location, some authors have sought to compare the British approach favourably with America’s experience in Vietnam. And yet, while there is ample justification for much of the praise heaped on the British for their ultimate victory in Borneo, comparisons with other conflicts must be objective if they are to be useful, weighing all of the factors involved rather than the select few that ostensibly support a predetermined thesis. And no account of the Borneo conflict should draw hard and fast conclusions without acknowledging the veritable catalogue of blunders perpetrated by the UK’s adversaries, which substantially eased the counter-insurgency and counter-infiltration tasks.

Some of these have already been considered. The initial rebellion in Borneo paid insufficient attention to the capture of airfields, and was poorly coordinated. It is equally true, however, that there was a disastrous lack of coordination between the insurgents and the Indonesians, who provided no support or reinforcements to the TNKU during their brief and unsuccessful struggle. Furthermore, whereas the TNKU anticipated widespread popular support for their insurgency, the broader population in the event displayed minimal enthusiasm for their cause. Another key mistake was that, when the Indonesians did begin mounting operations along the border, their approach was incremental, and this allowed British defences to be strengthened and tactics refined before larger and more sophisticated incursions were attempted. Moreover, the infiltrators’ poor and sometimes brutal treatment of tribal elements in the frontier area of Sarawak alienated a potentially valuable source of support, and facilitated British efforts to win hearts and minds. Beyond this, the Indonesian government failed to attract significant international support. Their diplomatic and military postures caused most of the more influential states in the region to identify Indonesia as the aggressor, and this impression was then reinforced by the raids on Western Malaysia, which were also counterproductive because they caused the restrictions on cross-border operations by Commonwealth forces in Borneo to be relaxed.

In addition to the various errors made by Indonesia and the rebel groups in Borneo, the cards were in some respects stacked in the UK’s favour. Few countries possessed such a substantial reserve of jungle warfare experience and expertise, gained during the Malayan Emergency, the Burma campaign in the Second World War and many years of colonial garrison duty in the Far East. No less important, however, was the availability of British troops in theatre in considerable numbers at the beginning of the insurgency, and the means to transport them to Borneo within a matter of hours. If the insurgents had been allowed even a little more time to consolidate and expand their influence, with significant cross-border support from Indonesia, the British would have faced an infinitely more complex and challenging task, which might in turn have necessitated very different operational and tactical responses from those actually employed. In short, if we are to accept Borneo’s status as a `model’, we have also to count on multiple enemy mistakes and, for friendly forces, the availability of certain critical advantages. This seems more than a little presumptuous.