Our speaker on 16 August was Col Tom Seccombe CBE (RM) Rtd, whose topic was the little-known Indonesian Confrontation fought from 1962 to 1966 in Borneo to oppose Indonesian expansionist plans in South East Asia. Col Seccombe served in the latter part of this campaign as a Company Commander in 42 Commando, Royal Marines.
Col Seccombe prefaced his talk by describing the political and military situation and the Brunei rebellion which preceded the Confrontation. Borneo is the second largest island in the world and most of its 287 000 square miles (743 330 km²) is covered with jungle. The island contained four states - Kalimantan, which included two-thirds of the island, was Indonesian. The rest was British. Sarawak, with a population of 90 000, had been granted to Sir James Brooke in 1841, but was ceded to the United Kingdom after the Second World War, becoming a Crown Colony. British North Borneo, with a population of 600 000, had become a Crown Colony in 1891. Between these two lay what was left of the Sultanate of Brunei. It covered only 2 226 square miles (5 765 km²) but the discovery of oil in 1929 and the concession to Shell Petroleum of the oilfields provided the Sultan with great wealth.
Justifiable resentment at inadequate housing, education and water supply and the inefficiency, corruption and riches of the small ruling class led to a small revolt in 1953, which was easily repressed. All three states had a Malay majority and a significant Chinese minority, settled in or near the towns and trading posts along the rivers.
Thoughts of war were not dominating military minds in either Whitehall or Singapore during the autumn of 1962. In South East Asia, the Malayan Emergency had ended two years earlier and the defeated Communist Terrorists had fled over the border into Thailand.
Indonesia was then ruled by President Sukarno whose aim was to establish a Malay empire which would include Indonesia, all of the Malay Peninsula, all of the Borneo territories and the Philippines. With some 150 million inhabitants and limitless national resources, this would have rivalled the USA, Russia or China.
As a counter to Sukarno's expansionist plans, the Federation of Malaysia was formed - this included Singapore, Malaya, Brunei and British North Borneo. The Sultan of Brunei was reluctant to share his wealth and was opposed by a reformist Peoples Party which had a military wing known as TNKU.
In November 1962, a new unified command was set up with its headquarters in Singapore. Most of its units were involved in routine garrison duties but it included a major fighting formation, 17th Gurkha Infantry Division, commanded by Maj-Gen Walter Walker. He had served with distinction since 1934 on the NW Frontier, in Burma and the Malayan Emergency and was a superb trainer of men and an expert in jungle warfare.
At 2am on 8 December 1962, a TNKU revolt broke out in Brunei, aimed at political and social reform. It was not a Communist or Chinese inspired revolt but was supported by Indonesia which provided training and intelligence support. Warnings of the unrest had been given to the Commissioner of Police but no action was taken by Far East Command. Most of the rebel attacks in Brunei had been repulsed but the power station had been captured, the power supply had been cut off and many police stations throughout the country and in the fifth division of Sarawak had been attacked. Limbang had been captured and the British resident was a prisoner.
The C-in-C, Admiral Luce, gave orders that the contingency plan for the re-inforcement of Brunei to be carried out. Despite a slow start, the first Gurkha troops reached Brunei that evening and advanced on Limbang.
On the following day, the Resident, realizing how widespread the rebellion was and how few troops and policemen were available to contain it, sent a war canoe up the river carrying the red feather of war, the ancient summons to the tribal warriors. Hundreds rallied to the cause, led by the legendary Tom Harrison, Curator of the Sarawak Museum in Kuching who had commanded similar forces against the Japanese in 1944. Fortunately, he got on well with Maj-Gen Walker!
On 12 December, Seria police station was successfully stormed and on the following day Limbang was relieved by 89 Marines of M Company, 42 Commando, in a sharp action in which 5 Marines were killed and 8 wounded. On 16 December, Far East Command issued a statement noting that all major centres in Brunei had been relieved. On 19 December, Maj-Gen Walker was appointed as Commander, British Forces Borneo Territories.
Jakarta then broadcast a series of inflammatory statements designed to increase tension in Borneo and, on 20 January 1963, the Indonesian Foreign Minister announced a policy of confrontation towards Malaysia. Groups of Indonesian volunteers began in April to infiltrate into Sarawak and British North Borneo, to raid, sabotage and subvert the local population.
On 12 April the war proper started when Indonesian forces stormed and overran Teredu. The war was internal against the Chinese Communist Organisation which had cells in many of the villages and external against the Indonesian Regular Forces. This was the main difference between the Malayan Emergency and the Indonesian Confrontation. Many of the tactical lessons learnt were readily adaptable, chiefly the need for an active hearts and minds campaign.
To defend the vast area of Sarawak, Brunei and British North Borneo, Maj-Gen Walker had initially only 4 battalions and an SAS Squadron. This force was later augmented the Tom Harrison force of local irregulars, who became the Border Scouts and were used as trackers and border watchers. With such a small force initially, Maj-Gen Walker had to rely on good intelligence and helicopters.
Initial skirmishes revealed that the enemy enjoyed an immense advantage because they could range freely up and down their side of the border probing the undefended targets. Speed and flexibility would become the battle winners for the defenders.
Helicopters of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm played a vital role in the campaign, flying in reaction forces to the scene of an incident in the jungle which would otherwise have taken many hours to reach. Helipads were cut or blasted out of the jungle for their use. They also carried 105mm howitzers from place to place, as under slung loads.
When the federation of Malaysia was formed on 16 September 1963, British North Borneo changed its name to Sabah. Brunei elected to remain a British protectorate which gave Britain a military foothold in Borneo which was not subject to Malaysian political influence.
Indonesian reaction to the formation of Malaysia was immediate and furious. Sukarno promised a "terrible confrontation". The Royal Malay Regt was very keen to play their part but lack of experience and a disinclination to accept advice from local commanders resulted in some reverses - 8 killed and 19 wounded at Kalabatan. During the spring of 1964, Indonesian forces became increasingly involved in the fighting and Maj-Gen Walker's most urgent task was to develop new tactics. The war changed from a platoon commander's to a company commander's war.
Strongly defended permanent forts manned by companies were established in the jungle. Their defences included minefields, barbed wire, punji stakes, medium machine guns, mortars and field artillery. Col Seccombe described conditions in the jungle - cuts and sores turned septic in a very short time. It was also very hot and humid and there were many insects and snakes. Jungle rats were also numerous. The jungle was very dense and movement was slow. The most useful means of travel were the rivers. Life was difficult and Col Seccombe described some of the ingenious methods used by the troops to make themselves more comfortable.
A lull in enemy activity had led some people to believe that the war was being won. Maj-Gen Walker realized that this was not the case and persuaded the new Army Minister Fred Mulley to seek Cabinet approval for cross-border raids on Indonesian bases even though Indonesia and Britain were not at war.
On 17 August Indonesian Marines and Chinese Communists crossed the Straits of Malacca by boat and landed on the coast of South West Johore. Most of these were killed or captured by local troops. Two weeks later, an attempt was made to drop Indonesian paratroops about 160 km north of Singapore - this miscarried. One transport crashed into the sea and the remaining two ran into an electric storm. Their troops were scattered all over the place and were wiped out.
Soon afterwards cross-border raids were authorized. Only tried and trusted troops were used and each operation had to be authorized by the Director of Operations. None of the participating troops were to be captured - either dead or alive. Easier said than done!!
In the spring of 1965, Maj-Gen Walker's term of command came to an end and he was relieved by Maj-Gen George Lea, who had commanded the SAS with distinction during the Malayan Emergency. Col Seccombe explained that the war had remained a secret because the Indonesians were averse to admitting their defeats. By the end of 1965 Lea had the measure of the Indonesians and had been strengthened both politically and militarily by the arrival of Australian and New Zealand troops.
In October 1965, a communist coup in Jakarta failed and some thousands of Communists were killed. President Sukarno lost power and was replaced by Gen Suharto. Peace negotiations with Malaysia started and a peace agreement between the two countries was signed in August 1966.
The Borneo campaign had lasted 3 years and 9 months. At its height there had been about 17 000 Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen in Borneo, supported by another 10 000 or so in South East Asia Command. Commonwealth losses were 114 killed and 181 wounded. Indonesian losses were put at about 600 killed, but, largely due to the secrecy of the cross-border operations, the actual number was far higher.
Maj Tony Gordon thanked the speaker or a fascinating and very informative talk about a little-known war and presented him with the customary gift from the branch.
We welcome the following new members and look forward to seeing them at our meetings - Messrs J M Griffin and M Lasker.
We still have a number of subscriptions outstanding. If you have not paid, please do so as soon as possible either at our meetings or by post or deposit to our bank account at Nedbank Foreshore Branch, branch code 108309, account number 108 333 2058. Please note your name in the "Remarks" column. Thank you.
Thursday 13 Sept - THE RAND REVOLT 1922
Thursday 11 October - My Time in the SADF and SANDF - The Border War and the Units I served with
Thursday 8 November - An Overview of the African Military situation and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale
Saturday 13 October - Tour of Cape Town War Graves
Share transport where possible and please bring your own lunch and refreshments.
Final arrangements will be made at our October meeting on Thursday 11 October.
Bob Buser (Secretary/Treasurer)
Phone: 021 689 1639 (Home - evenings only); 021 689 9771 (Office - mornings only)