National servicemen took part in undeclared war

Name: Michael O'Dea
Date: 1966
Unit: 4RAR
Location: Indonesian Confrontation, Malaysia

Private Michael O'Dea was called up for National Service in 1965 when his birth date was pulled out of the hat. But unlike many of his colleagues he didn't go to Vietnam. Instead he went to Borneo where Indonesian guerillas were infiltrating Malaysia.

He recalls there were about 80 in the second intake of National Servicemen.

"We were divided up into two groups, 30 going to Borneo and the other 50 to South Vietnam," Michael O'Dea said. "Several of the group who went to Vietnam were killed or wounded in battles like Long Tan. We will not forget those fellows who we trained with, lived, joked, played football and went on leave with. We also knew their families."

The job in Borneo and Malaysia was different to that facing the troops in Vietnam.

"We were replacements who arrived there at the end of May, early June," Private O'Dea wrote. "The date I remember as I thought that I would not be able to have my 21st birthday at home. We were originally to move out 26 May. Then it was changed to the 28th. We flew to Malaysia. From Terandak Barracks, Malaysia, we sailed for Kuching, arriving 6 June and joined 4 RAR in the Bau area, which was considered the key to Kuching, the capital, just 50km away.

"I was assigned as a rifleman to 8 Section, 6 Platoon, B Company, which was at the forward company base, Stass, protecting the Stass Kampong 2000 metres from the border with Indonesia. My section did patrols along the Gunong Raya and around Stass base to the border of Indonesia.

"My section was under strength because of sickness and injury so we joined up with another section to make only seven or nine men on a patrol where there should have been 20 men in two sections.

"About half way through the tour of duty I took over on the machine gun when the regular gunner was taken ill."

The 'Konfrontasi' or confrontation by Indonesia against Malaysia was due to President Sukarno's objection to the merger of the Federation of Malaya with Singapore, Brunei, British North Borneo (now Sabah) and Sarawak; prompted by the 1962 rebellion. Brunei ultimately declined. Active objections had started in April 1963 when Indonesians crossed the border at Tebeduclose to Kuching in Sarawak. Malayan forces were small in number and all British troops serving in Borneo were in Brunei having helped to put down the Brunei revolt the previous year.

The British Commander-in-Chief, Major General Walter Walker (Director of Borneo Operations-DOBOPS), had the task of defeating the Indonesian aggression on a 1600km frontier. Initially, ill-trained and poorly-armed Indonesian border terrorists threatened the border. Then, in 1964 the Indonesian government strengthened the forces with regulars, and by 1965-66 had trebled their regular garrisons in the Kalimantan/Sarawak area and were operating at almost Army divisional strength.

The Commonwealth forces were dealing with the regular Indonesian army in an undeclared war. The Australian government agreed to commit Australian troops to assist the Malaysian and British forces which formed part of the British 28th Commonwealth Brigade, and in April 1965 3 Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) moved from its base at Terandak in Ma!aysia to Sarawak and stayed until August of that year. In April 1966 4RAR moved to the same area.

Borneo was not Vietnam. In 1966, 30 national servicemen who were selected to go to 4RAR were the first National Servicemen to serve in operations. They had completed their training at Ingleburn and the Jungle Training Course at Kanungra in Queensland and went as replacements for an under strength regular battalion, 4RAR, which was already overseas, having gone to Malaya in April and from there relieved 1/10 Gurkhas in the Bau District in Sarawak.

The aim of the whole military operation was to identify and defeat Indonesian aggression or confrontation and prevent the conflict from escalating into open war similar to that of South Vietnam. Neither side ever publicly admitted that these operations were taking place. The codename Operation Claret was specific to cross border operations and very few senior officers (on a need-to-know basis) and the troops involved (the latter being sworn to secrecy) had any knowledge of these operations. It was not until 1989 that information was downgraded from Top Secret and details were in the public domain as published in SAS Phantoms of the Jungle by David Homer (Allen and Unwin 1989 & 1991). In 1996 further information was released and soldiers could tell their wives and families some of what had gone on.

Initial penetrations were limited to 5000 yards [4572m] but later this range could be, and often was, increased to 20,000 yards [18,288m] for specific tasking. The aim was purely to keep the Indonesians on the defensive by forming a "cordon sanitaire" on the Indonesian side of the border. The potential political ramifications were in the extreme, hence the need for absolute secrecy. On no account were injured or dead soldiers allowed to fall into enemy hands. Neither side admitted incursions into the others territory.

Claret operations were suspended on 28 May 1966 and on 3 June Indonesian Radio announced the end of the confrontation.

Australian patrols continued almost without a break and public records show -that on 13 June shots were fired south of Stass, and on 15 June two contacts were made with the enemy: the first with two enemy believed wounded; the second, four believed killed and two Australians wounded, Private V. H. Richards dying five days later of his wounds in Singapore. Lieutenant R G Curtis of 9 Platoon C Company was awarded the Military Cross for his "cool leadership, bravery, and judgement and determination in leading nine men to block the withdrawal of an enemy party" during this action, and Corporal R R Anderson was awarded the Military Medal.

It was revealed through operational orders found on a dead Indonesian officer that two infiltrating teams of Indonesian troops, code-named MANJAP 1 and 2, had crossed the border on an operation that was planned and approved at a high level, in spite of the public political situation, with the intention of infiltrating around Bau and Matang to engage in sabotage, psychological warfare and terrorism. Additional attention was to be focused on installations at Kuching. However, as Malaysia was determined to end the confrontation and was prepared to give the Indonesians the opportunity to do so without loss of prestige, speculation was dampened down on the whole action.

Helicopters supplied the needs of Mick O'Dea and his mates in B Company; the huge Bristol Belevedere turbine-engined craft had the capacity to carry 19 troops or 12 stretchers or 6000lbs (2,721kg) freight (fresh rations, defence stores, and the 105 Pack Howitzer slung beneath it). The light 2-3 person Bell Sioux helicopters with external racks for freight or stretchers were used for command and control of the large battalion areas.

4RAR was able to borrow from the British units in the area when their own Sioux were not received for three weeks after arrival at Bau headquarters. Most supplies and stores were either airlifted by the Belevederes or dropped by parachute with a very high rate of recovery. The British also used Whirlwinds, Wessex Mark I, and Alouette machines.

Number 8 Section 6 Platoon B Company patrolled the border as a section, took part in larger sweeps, and did not escape the tedious but necessary tasks of clearing fields of fire for the company base at Stass against the continually growing primary jungle on the ridges, lalang grass and secondary growth that grew to a height of three and a half metres in the valley floor.

Operational service in Borneo ceased on 11 August 1966, and the confrontation ended officially on 16 August with the signing of the accords in Jakarta by Razak and Malik, and Sukarno surprisingly also receiving the visiting Malaysian delegation. 4RAR was relieved in early September by 3 Battalion Royal Malay Regiment.

The British General Service Medal (GSM) with the clasp, Borneo, was issued to those who saw special service between the dates of 24 December 1962 and 11 August 1966, in Sarawak.

Australian officers and other ranks saw service there April-August 1965 (3RAR); April-September 1966 (4RAR); 102 Field Battery moved to Borneo in May 1965 until they were relieved in late July 1965; 104 Field Battery served from September 1965 to January 1966, the Australian SAS 1 and 2 Squadrons saw service there in 1965 and 1966. Units of the Royal Australian Engineers 1st and 7th Field Squadrons and 21st/22nd in the Bau-Strass area were primarily involved with road building and built an airstrip at the junction of the Kaumut and Milian Rivers in Sabah.

Australian casualties during the Indonesian confrontation were four killed in action, one died of wounds, two drowned on operations, one died of sickness four were killed accidentally, two suicided. Non-fatal casualties were seven wounded in action, one accidentally wounded in action, one battle exhaustion, and 11 accidentally injured. British casualties were nine killed and 44 wounded and the Gurkhas lost 40 killed and 83 wounded. Indonesians killed numbered 2000.

"Looking back, I never felt the same as those who went to Vietnam," Private O'Dea wrote. "We were never acknowledged the same and it took years before even they were acknowledged publicly. Vietnam was an undeclared war, to me Borneo seemed even less."

The material for this article was based on a story written by Tony James and supplied by Michael O'Dea, both of New South Wales
8/01/2002 10:27:17 AM


Last updated: 4 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), National servicemen took part in undeclared war, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/national-servicemen-took-part-undeclared-war
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