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"Konfrontasi" - The Indonesian Confrontation

- No.3 SQUADRON in the Regional Hot-Seat in the mid-1960s -

By Peter Larard (former Sabre pilot)


Sabres on the Flight Line at Butterworth, Malaysia, 1966.  (Penang Island is in the background across the strait.)

Most Australians today know nothing of the conflict that occurred between Australian Armed Forces and units of the young Indonesian Republic all along the Malaysian-Indonesian border in the mid-1960s.  In his reminiscences below, Peter Larard recalls that the "Konfrontasi" was quite a tense situation, which 3 Squadron found itself right in the middle of...

I left the airforce on my 41st birthday.  It was time.  I went farming!   - That's 35 years ago, over 40 since Vietnam, 44 since Butterworth.  I loved it though, and for the flying I'm sure I would do it again.  My son did much the same, only on Mirages and Hornets and now his son has graduated from 2FTS.  It's becoming a family thing.

My time in 3 Sqn. at Butterworth was 1964 to 66 inclusive.  (My flying log books are of little use now.  They were regarded at the time as just an administrative chore, so they are loaded with no-longer-comprehensible abbreviations.)

The Indonesian "Konfrontasi": it was seen very seriously by HQ 224 Group, the RAF Command then running Air Power in the new Malaysia.  

I was a fresh Squadron Leader in January 1965; B-Flight commander in No.3 Squadron, having been in the Squadron since June '64.  I had my young wife and three children in housing on Penang Island.  77 SQN was allotted the primary strike responsibilities of 78 Wing.  They were briefed and ready for attacks on AURI (Indonesian Air Force) at Medan in northern Sumatra.  3 SQN got the air-defence part, although we were both warned for either duty.  

As pilots in 3 SQN, we were a bit envious of the 77 blokes.  They looked like seeing combat action while we had to wait until we were attacked.  RAAF Air Commodore "Hoot" Gibson (SASO 224 Group) even visited and issued likely participants in the strike business with one antique Maria Theresa silver dollar for use to bribe inhabitants - in the event of needing to evade capture in enemy territory after a bail out!  

We reckoned that was the then equivalent of "cool", if a bit bloody stupid.  

Nobody attacked us from the air, and 77 went nowhere to drop bombs.  I did, however, while on detachment with 77, make a live intercept of an Indonesian Badger bomber on the Singapore ADIZ boundary one day, during a deployment to Tengah [air-base on Singapore Island].  It didn't cross the boundary or fire on me, so I was not authorized to engage.

 


Tupolev Tu-16 "Badger" bomber - now preserved in the Indonesian Air Museum


The family story did not provide grounds for much humour.  There must have been some, and I vaguely remember a plan involving a ship to come from somewhere, but we knew of no specific arrangements in place for the evacuation of families in the event of a serious ground attack, or threat to Penang Island (yet we were repeatedly told to expect this). 

Pilots and tech airmen were deployed to Singapore at short notice, leaving wives with children to more-or-less fend for themselves.  On Penang our neighbour's wife had a plan to collect ours, and another family with kids, and hot-foot it north to Thailand in their big car - kept ready topped up with extra fuel!  - Not a very bright bit of RAAF history.

As well as the local deployments to Singapore and Labuan Island, 78 Wing also provided pilots and personnel for 79 SQN at Ubon, Thailand, on two-monthly rotations.  Everybody had at least three two-month Ubon tours in two years at Butterworth, some had more.

In late '65, the Indonesians flew a Badger at low level over Malaysia's Labuan Island RAF airstrip.  In reply, 78 Wing was ordered to deploy a half-squadron of Sabres to Labuan to fly in pairs on armed patrols in daylight along the Sabah /North Kalimantan border and to provide two armed aircraft on a five-minute alert at Labuan.  "Great stuff!" was the pilots' reaction.  - "This is war!  We get to qualify for Defence Homes Loans, we maybe get a campaign medal..."  

The Indonesian amphibious-invasion threat had diminished by then, so the worry about folk back on Penang was less.  3 SQN had the duty over Christmas 1965, during which we flew as described, searching in vain for any sign of an Indonesian aircraft, the very presence of which was grounds for engagement.  We could not wait to hear the growl of a locked-on live Sidewinder.  

But that was not to happen.  We saw nothing, despite sometimes erring in our navigation to surprisingly find ourselves staring down the runway of an Indonesian airfield across the border.  But the flying was exciting - at about 360 knots at low level in pairs below the tropical thunderstorms, often very close to what looked like 300ft.-high trees and over ground for which the maps had fifty-mile-wide blank "No Relief Data" patches.  The wingmen did a fantastic job just staying in formation.

Generally, terrain on the border regions was tropical rainforest around 6000ft above sea level, with little to no man-made features.  Mt Kinabalu (15,000ft) was smack in the middle of it, between the Sabah border and the base at Labuan.  At low level in the the border area, UHF radio contact with the GCI radar control was unreliable.  Blokes made their own map detail from visual observation and passed their personalised maps on to relieving pilots.  It worked; because nobody hit a hill - or, for that matter, a lumbering RAF Beverley, a Bristol Freighter, an RN chopper, or an STOL Pioneer engaged on transport support for the troops - and there were plenty of opportunities to do so!  We knocked-off come sundown, when No.60 Squadron RAF with their Javelin night-fighters took over the duty until dawn.

The op was entitled "Operation Fanshawe".  At Labuan we were quartered in an old Shell Company mess, on what had become part of the RAF Station, under Wing Commander Pinn ("Rusty" naturally) who was also the President of the Mess Committee (and so an Absolute Ruler in his own right!).  

We had one pilot who helped maintain our independence, a young Flying Officer, normally quietly-spoken and seemingly relatively demure, whose never-ending joy was replying, straight-faced, to RAF officers at dining tables when they requested to pass the butter etc., in a dialect and accent precisely replicating the original.  None of the recipients picked it, while most of us were quite unable remain at that table.  Mick (as was his name) simply ignored requests to desist.  The RN chopper pilots sided with us in rivalry with the RAF, for whom they had names much more derogatory than knuckleheads.  

A Beverley crew story might be of interest.  They had picked up some Dyak tribesmen and were surprised to be offered, "a cuppa tea sahib?" on their flight deck about 15 feet up a ladder from the cargo hold.  Yes thank you, they had said, and were enjoying the drink until one of them went back to check and found these guys with a wood fire, boiling water on their cargo deck!   (However, the floor of the Beverley had been built by Blackburns for heavy cargo duty; it was not about to melt.)

Butterworth and Penang were perhaps still in the very last days of the "Raj".  In those days, as a matter of course, "Officers" still lived, ate, and were looked after in "First Class" style.  The old-style traditional Officers' Mess at Butterworth was an important part.  

On a normal routine day in Penang, a bus picked us up and dropped us home.  Because we had three children, our household was provided with a cook, two amahs (maids), and a part share of a kebun (gardener).  Those servants' only holiday was Sunday!  Young living-in pilots at Butterworth had their rooms made up, daily laundry, their shoes polished and of course general cleaning.  Their dining room had white table linen and full steward service.  Other facilities included tennis courts, a base swimming pool and golf course, games rooms, ante rooms, library, and a well-stocked and convenient bar, again with steward service.  For both young marrieds and young single men, this was a pretty good deal

Families' servants became loved as part of the family, sometimes staying in communication for many years.  There was a lot of "after hours" contact.  In my time both squadrons had at least one ski-boat which had a lot of weekend use by families, and the evening and weekend social calendar was usually busy and enjoyable.  Not only was flying that uncomplicated Sabre multi-role day fighter (which the USAF call "the last of the sport models") amply challenging and exciting, but from a families' point of view too, despite the separations, most will remember their Butterworth years very fondly.


3 Squadron Ground Crew at Butterworth displaying  Sabre Armament (Cannons, Air-to-Air Missiles, Long-Range Tanks and Bombs)


There's no doubt that the reaction of 224 Group by deploying air power and upping alert states was a major factor in the containment of the "Konfrontasi", however, the feeling grew on me throughout the period that Konfrontasi was largely an Indonesian sabre-rattling-cum-posturing exercise, using the formation of Malaysia as an excuse for Sukarno to divert home attention from the many shortcomings of his regime.  I was never aware of any evidence for Sukarno to conclude that Malaysia was any threat to Indonesia.  Singapore had opted-out by early 1964 anyway and the Brit/Aust/NZ military build-up in Malaya had all been associated with the CT Emergency.  

Similarly, the F-111s have always provided a great backdrop for our "good" relations with Indonesia, whether we would have used them or not.  Teachers need canes.  It's a pity they can't have 'em anymore, I reckon.

P.L.


Portrait of Wing Commander Peter G. Larard, DSO, RAAF, Forward Air Controller with the USAF Vietnam.
W/Comdr. Larard was chosen to have his portrait painted as a representative of the RAAF who served in Vietnam.
He is a graduate of the RAAF College, the RAF College of Air Warfare, the RAAF Staff College, and a retired RAAF fighter pilot and fighter squadron commander.  
He was an airborne Forward Air Controller in Vietnam, and has an award of Distinguished Service Order from that period.  
He retired early from the RAAF in 1974 after six years in the rank of Wing Commander.  The portrait was painted at RAAF operational headquarters in Lapstone, NSW and took a month to complete.  
[Painting byValerie O'Neill, 1974.  Held in the Australian War Memorial.  Copyright: AWM ART40864.]

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