The Brunei Uprising and Borneo Confrontation 1962-1966

Borneo (Kalimantan to the Indonesians) is the second biggest island in the world. Along its northern coast, one third of the island lay three British dependant territories – the colony of Sarawak, the Sultanate of Brunei and, at the north easterly tip, the colony of North Borneo. The border of these with Indonesian territory, jungle and mountains, is a thousand miles long. In 1961, Tungku Abdel Rahman, Prime Minister of Malaya, proposed the formation of a Federation of Malaysia to combine Malaya, the colony of Singapore and the three (British) Borneo territories. Initially, all concerned accepted the idea but eventually both Brunei and Singapore would drop out - Brunei first, because the Sultan was unwilling to become a constitutional monarch like the others in Malaya; much later (in 1965) Singapore left, reluctantly, because its Chinese majority and outlook did not chime with Malaya. The new Federation of Malaysia was formally born on 31st August 1963.

Indonesia first viewed the Malaysian proposal as helpful in diminishing British influence. But President Sukarno had a wider strategic dream of the whole of Borneo/Kalimantan rightfully belonging to Greater Indonesia and determined to recover the northern territories. He felt confident that the ethnically related north Borneo peoples, if asked, would want to side with Jakarta and his agents became active in subversion. He had allies in the Chinese communities of North Borneo and Sarawak, largely communist, some 24,000 in number and known to Malaysian Intelligence as the Chinese Clandestine Organisation or CCO. They wielded strong financial influence locally, saw no advantage in swopping British authority for Malaysian and would watch and wait. There were pro-Indonesian activists also in Brunei where Sheikh Azahari, an Indonesian ‘freedom fighter’ against the Dutch, had found a military commander, Yassin Affendi, to begin recruiting, arming and training a clandestine ‘army’ around Brunei town and in the nearest division of Sarawak to the west, the 5th Division. He dubbed it grandiosely ‘’Tentora National Kalimantan Utara’ (TNKU) – ‘The North Kalimantan National Army’. Azahari, still hopeful of influence when, along with 14 other political supporters, he was elected a member of Brunei’s Legislative Council, became frustrated when he found himself outvoted at meetings by the Sultan’s 16 cannily nominated officials. The only way forward for Azahari was insurrection.

Azahari’s uprising started on 6th December 1962. In the face of the speedy despatch by air and sea of military units from Singapore, it lasted but eight days. His greatest tactical blunder was the failure to deny to British reinforcements the use of local airfields. By 14th December, Azahari’s woefully under-armed and undertrained ‘troops’ were routed in four brisk actions at Tutong, on the coast road to Seria by the 1st/2nd Gurkhas, at Seria, by the Queen’s Own Highlanders, at Limbang in the 5th Division of Sarawak by 42 Commando RM, and at the Shell depot at Miri by 1st Royal Greenjackets.

The mopping up took longer, stability had to be restored and deterrence established on the thousand mile border. This involved raising the irregular Border Scouts, bringing in the SAS, the Independent Guards Parachute Squadron and the Gurkha Parachute Squadron, plus further strong reinforcement of Gurkha and British units, HQ 3rd Commando Brigade (14th December), HQ 99 Gurkha Infantry Brigade, and on 19th December the arrival of Major General Walter Walker as Joint Force Commander, who established his HQ on Labuan Island where the RAF already ran a transit airfield. Azahari escaped to Manila but Affendi with his remnants was not captured, until May, by 1st/7th Gurkhas.

The opening round was won but Sukarno had not been beaten. The first reference to the term ‘confrontation’ came in a speech by Indonesia’s Foreign Minister in late January 1963. ‘We cannot but adopt a policy of confrontation against Malaysia because at present they represent themselves as accomplices of the neo-colonialists and neo-imperialists pursuing a hostile policy towards Indonesia’. Malaysia and Whitehall took the term to mean a blend of political, economic and military pressures just short of war. The speed and success of the military reaction boosted morale in the longhouses and in Kuala Lumpur but drove the CCO underground. The subversive threat was not eliminated.

The second round opened with an Indonesian-led raid, on 12th April 1963, on the Police post of Tebedu, three miles inside the First Division of Sarawak. Sporadic raids into Sarawak, 69 all told during the rest of 1963, increased in strength and audacity. General Walker’s tactic was to hold the bulk of his forces back ready to react to information from his eyes and ears. To facilitate the rapid deployment of ‘cut-offs’ at the border, units mapped the border tracks and built and numbered endless helicopter pads where troops could be ‘roped in’ behind the invaders. RAF, RNAS and Army helicopters played, from the start an increasingly vital and decisive role. As General Walker later wrote in 1997, in his Autobiography ‘Fighting On’:
‘The helicopter proved to be a real battle winner. Operationally, I reckoned that one minute in a helicopter equalled a day’s march in jungle; that one hour equalled five days; and that one battalion with six helicopters in direct support was equal to a whole brigade. So you can see how much I depended on them.’

The deepest raid yet, into the Third Division of Sarawak around Long Jawi in September 1963, was defeated by the 1st/2nd Gurkhas and their supporting helicopters. In January 1964 an Indonesian incursion at Tawau in North Borneo was severely dealt with by 1st/10th Gurkhas. Similar successes were scored by 2nd/10th Gurkha in the First Division of Sarawak in the first four months of 1964.The skirmishing on the frontier assumed a new dynamic in mid-1964 when Indonesian regular army units made their appearance close to the border, particularly threatening the approaches to the capital, Kuching in the First Division of Sarawak. An over-ambitious Indonesian sea landing at Pontian, in south west Johore on 17th August failed. Two weeks later in early September an even more ambitious airborne landing around Labis, central Malaya, was decisively dealt with by 1st/10th Gurkhas and a New Zealand battalion - a significant escalation.

General Walker signalled the Chiefs of Staff that ‘he was fighting a war with one arm tied behind his back’, seeking permission to seize the initiative by carefully controlled operations into Indonesian territory.

When the UN, following the sea and air incursions, formally recognised Indonesian aggression, permission was granted, subject to secrecy, and that all such operations must be deniable. Secrecy was in fact maintained largely because Indonesia would not admit that the war was now being fought on its own territory. From December 1964, almost every operation of note took place inside Indonesia, under codeword ‘Claret’. Penetrations of 5000 yards and more by rifle companies supported by field and even medium artillery forced the Indonesians onto the defensive. Battalions from Australia and New Zealand joined the action. The war once fought from scattered bases by sections and platoons against infiltrators became a more demanding company commander’s war against Indonesian regulars on enemy soil. Ambushes, fire fights and attacks on fortified positions could only be won by the superior use of infantry tactics and artillery support – more akin to the long-range patrolling against the Japanese in 1943 in the Chin Hills and down on the Chindwin.

One major Indonesian incursion took place in June 1965 when a regular army company attacked the small rear party of a 2nd Parachute Regiment company base at Plaman Mapu while the bulk of the company was out on operations. Under the CSM (later awarded the DCM) they gallantly repulsed the heavily armed attackers, though suffering two killed and eight wounded. In perhaps the major action of the war in November 1965 L/Cpl Rambahadur Limbu of the 2nd/10th Gurkhas won the VC in an attack on an Indonesian company position. Successful raids continued up to March 1966 when offensive operations were called off.

At its peak, some 17,000 Commonwealth troops based in Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong had been deployed in Borneo. Two Royal Marine Commandos, fifteen British battalions, an Australian and a New Zealand battalion, eight Gurkha battalions and Malayan infantry, with their Gunner and RAF and naval helicopter support, bore the brunt. Six-month tours were followed by rest and retraining at home stations before redeployment for a second, third and even fourth operational tour. Behind them was the strategic deployment in-theatre of many, mostly small, Royal Naval patrol ships and fully armed RAF strike units defended by anti-aircraft defences; all these posed an explicit threat which Sukarno did not challenge, his scope for escalation limited to infantry in jungle boots. Troop carrying RN Commando carriers and RAF transport aircraft sustained the operation from start to finish. Psyops and the successful decrypting of Indonesian signal traffic also played a little-known but significant part.

A communist uprising in Indonesia and growing economic difficulties which called for rapprochement with neighbours made a continuation of confrontation an irrelevance. Dr Suharto, Sukarno’s successor, ended it all in May 1966.

Defence Minister Healy referred to the campaign as ‘one of the most efficient uses of military force in history’.

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