RAAF Butterworth upgraded by No 2 Airfield Construction Squadron
Name: Kevin Le Fevre
Unit: No 2 Airfield Construction Squadron
Location: Butterworth, Malaya
Australia's major area of strategic concern in 1953-54 changed from the Middle East to South-East Asia with the threat of communism and the domino theory uppermost in the minds of the government.
Following high-level meetings with Britain and New Zealand in 1953, it was proposed to establish a Far East Strategic Reserve including Navy, Army and Air Force.
The RAAF was to provide a fighter wing of two squadrons, a bomber squadron and an airfield construction squadron which had the job of upgrading Butterworth airfield to take the new modern jets flown by the RAAF. These included Canberra jet bombers and Sabre supersonic fighters, an improved version of the F86s which had been so effective against the Russian-built MIG-15s in Korea.
In 1955, Cpl Kevin Le Fevre was a member of No 2 Airfield Construction Squadron sent to Butterworth to build an additional airstrip at the existing airfield which had been established by the RAAF during World War II. This was Australia's biggest overseas construction project.
The engineers faced major problems with the terrain with the main runway built over swampy paddy fields. Many of the 300 members of No 2 ACS were veterans of airfield construction projects in Borneo, Japan, Cocos Islands and Woomera and they quickly overcame the problems. A locally recruited labour force included about 600 Malays.
Kevin Le Fevre recalls the halcyon days he and his mates spent in the area during the airfield construction.
"We assembled in Townsville, Qld, and after stores etc were sorted out we took ship to Malaya on a migrant ship New Australia, landing at Georgetown in late September 1955.
"We moved immediately to Butterworth where we began constructing the airstrip. It was very hot work.
"Our first impressions of our accommodation were not favourable. However, we soon found they were perfect for the climate and proved surprisingly comfortable.
"At the time there was much activity in Malaya as the country prepared for the big step of gaining independence from British rule. Great changes were taking place and all this proved fascinating stuff for we Aussies who had little experience of how a foreign country functioned.
"The native people were at all times friendly and hard working. Local labour was used quite extensively at the strip construction site and on the base. They worked as kitchen hands and cooks, labourers and as domestic staff who cleaned our bashas, one boy being responsible for two huts. The houseboy we had was called Sabtu and he quickly became our friend as well as a worker.
"One of our entertainments was an outdoor movie theatre which was set up outside the Navy, Army, Air Force Institute (NAAFI). We had some great times together at the NAAFI.
"In Singapore the Christian Churches had set up a leave centre called 'The Sandy Soldiers Home'. This had originally been established in India and relocated to Singapore in 1948. When we went on leave this was a convenient place to stay. It was cheap, very clean, and homely.
"However, there was a 23.00 hours curfew at 'Sandy' and if you were not in your bed when the curfew came you'd be locked out. We were always served an early morning cuppa and this was when a headcount was carried out. Woe betide you if you were an absentee, you had to give a good explanation. This was not an RAAF regulation, just a condition of residence at 'Sandy'. Still it was a good place to stay and was never short of fellas looking for a bed.
"Tourism had not yet come to Singapore so we were able to observe the native population unspoilt as yet by commercialism. Religious festivals were frequent and a great chance to see how the various religions paid homage to their own gods. Muslims were the predominant ones, yet Tamil ceremonies were the most colourful.
"Some of our blokes acquired animals as pets whilst over there. A pet monkey belonging to one of the fellas was a great source of enjoyment till it turned savage and attacked someone. Another bloke adopted a coloured parrot as his pet. Nobody befriended a snake but we often saw snake charmers in the local markets.
"All RAAF personnel were given a one-off cash allowance for purchase of extra clothing appropriate to the climate. Since we were not permitted to wear uniform at any time when off duty, this allowance was much appreciated. Malayan floral shirts were cheap and comfortable and very cool to wear.
"The airstrip was completed by early 1958 and finalising operations took a few months more. We had been away from Australia nearly three years and although our time in Malaya had, for the most part, been enjoyable, we were all ready to come home.
"We flew out in three groups on Super Constellation aircraft in June 1958."
The Canberra bombers of No 2 Squadron flew into Butterworth on 1 July 1958 followed the next day by the Lincolns of No 1 Squadron. No 3 Squadron arrived with its Sabres in November and No 77 Squadron arrived early in 1959.
The aircraft were soon involved in anti-terrorist activities with Canberra bombers attacking terrorist camps in northern Malaya in September 1958.
Material for this article was supplied by Kevin Le Fevre of Victoria