In 1963 the SAS first went to Borneo for what was to be a three-year operation. The Indonesian-Malaysian conflict was a violent confrontation, but thankfully not on the scale of Vietnam or countless more lives would have been lost.
The President of Indonesia, Sukarno, was sending troops over the border to Malaysia to disrupt the area. Sukarno thought that Malaysia was a puppet state of Britain and didn’t want Britain to have increased control over the area which he thought would happen if Malaysia expanded.
Disrupting the Area
Disruption was the order of the day. Indonesian troops started crossing the border and attack Malaysian troops. Peace talks ensued but so did the infiltration and attacks. The SAS, along with other British Commonwealth Special Forces units deployed to Malaysia to firstly protect the border from enemy raids and help populated areas to defend themselves.
The SAS had it tough though. The size of their border to watch was around the size of the England/Wales border and all with just sixteen men. The men were split into four patrols with each patrol being twenty-five miles apart, having about twenty-five villages each to look out for. That task wasn’t going to be easy when the terrain and environment were so tough.
It’s in SAS: The Jungle Frontier that Peter Dickens goes deep into the events that occurred during the three years that the SAS were in Borneo. Breaking down each tour by each squadron, Dickens covers how the changes were made tour to tour and why they were making the changes.
D Squadron’s First Tour
During ‘D’ Squadron’s first tour from April to August 1963, the Commanding Officer (CO) of D Squadron, Major Tom Leask realised the size of the task they faced. The First and Second Divisions that they were covering were a large area and his men would be fully occupied to cover the ground.
It was down to Frank Williams, the Squadron Quartermaster-Sergeant to recruit a local unit of Border Scouts. These could relieve some of the workload the SAS faced. Williams had sorted the patrols for the area, jumped in a boat and was heading up the river at a leisurely speed from Simanggang in the Second Division, with the sole mission of recruiting some local Border Scouts.
He wasn’t sure how to go about getting them to join the team and Williams says:
Ten years earlier in Malaya, we had Iban trackers. My three were Roh, Ejok and Jalan. We got on very well but they left in 1954 and I’d thought that was that; but would you believe it, there was Ejok coming the other way in a dugout, so I reversed engines, he back-paddled, and we had a big talk on a sandbank. Then he plunged into the jungle, returned with Roh and Jalan, and the unit was founded.
They had to spend some time training the men, what with their weapons being pointed at friendly soldiers and a lack of discipline being a bit of a problem. Despite this, they were keen and fit and did some good work collecting intelligence on the border.
Protecting the Border
The plan at first was to protect the border. The Indonesians were crossing over and attacking in Malaysia. They were injecting fear into the villages and it was hard for the SAS to cover such a vast area of ground with so few men. The men had to win the hearts of the locals. The Indonesians caused so much fear that after they had appeared in the villages, and could also be lying in wait to attack either the SAS or the Gurkhas, the locals were just too scared to say anything.
A 150 strong enemy force attacked without warning with no SAS present. The attacked men comprised of six men from the 1/2nd Gurkha Rifles, three policemen and 21 Border Scouts. They fought well and fought strongly against the attack, but five were killed including signallers meaning a four-day jungle trek was required to report the news. Winning the hearts of the locals became the main focus.
The SAS had some excellent trackers so they could start to come and go from the villages without being followed or seen. Nobody, not even the villagers would know when they would arrive, and after dispensing supplies, medical treatment, medicines and conducting work to improve the villages, the tide started to turn towards a favourable opinion of the SAS, but it was very slow. There were many that were still not onside. Although not hostile, they weren’t too friendly, instead, being neutral when the SAS were in town and they had to try to change this.
Jungle warfare is incredibly tough. Not just tough on the body but on the mind too. The heat, the stress, the concentration required during patrols, the lack of quality food, the requirement to always go a bit further, as the SAS always do.
A quote about selection from SAS: The Jungle Frontier;
Those determined to succeed had much good advice to encourage them. The sage who advocated forgetting the mountain and thinking of sex for the honour of the Regiment offered other helpful precepts: ‘Don’t envy the physique and vast experience of the man who’s obviously going to pass, it’s such a disappointment when you have to carry his bergen back to the RV.’ ‘Don’t sit down half-way up a hill but promise yourself a rest at the top, where the wind’s so damned unpleasant that you’re forced down to the next valley before pausing to get your bearings, which you’ll only find by climbing the next hill…
It continues to give a little insight into the mindset of a SAS soldier;
If you give up when you’re completely shattered, you’ll find out too late that the Regiment is mainly composed of men who were completely shattered.’ ‘Smile now and again; you won’t tire out the face muscles and might even fool the instructors into thinking you’re enjoying the course, which ought to make you laugh anyway.
The first aim of de la Billiere was to get some morale back into the locals along the border. The locals were pretty much acting as double agents, so any SAS visits into their village could be reported to the Indonesians. How de la Billiere dealt with this was to try to build the trust. He told them whenever they had a problem with Indonesian soldiers if they called, then the SAS would arrive with 100 Gurkhas within the hour to deal with them. De la Billiere told them to execute a practice run and sure enough, when they radioed, pretending they had come across the enemy, the SAS and Gurkhas were there fast.
The plan worked. The locals started to trust the SAS a bit more. Day by day they had to work to increase the levels of trust the locals developed with them, the relationships would be vital to gain victory in this confrontation.
Offensive operations that crossed the border were the next order of the day. These had to be properly planned though, after Billy White’s death the Indonesian’s had left an inscription on a tree, saying ‘Go No Further, Winged Soldiers of England’ which like a red rag to a bull inspired the SAS to go further. Standard operating procedures were looked for normal border patrols and evaluated to ensure any required changes were made and the patrols adjusted.
These cross-border operations were very secretive, only those that needed to know, knew, and that wasn’t many people. Captain Ray England would be leading the patrols here.
The key to these patrols over the border were to remain undetected. They didn’t want to roll up on enemy camps and hit them as they didn’t have the firepower to win that way. Patrols would be slow with a stop every twenty minutes to ensure they didn’t miss any unnatural signs and lead man would change every hour. It’s very tiring work both mentally and physically to be the lead scout on a patrol and by changing personnel regularly the patrol could remain alert
The book covers Operation Viper, where the SAS wanted to disrupt the enemy around the Long Pa Sia Bulge. They did this by planting claymores as the centrepiece of traps. Sergeant ‘Gipsy’ Smith was the pro at this and joined with the planning.
The claymores shot out 900 shell shot, up and down the track. Smith says himself:
Wherever you were within fifty feet you collected about thirty balls; we put them up trees to avoid the undergrowth and filled the gaps with grenades, all wired together to trigger at the same moment. The big problem was the detonator cord which was white and stood out a mile, so we stuck moss onto it with black glue, and when we came back later the moss had actually grown and the cords looked so like creepers that even the Border Scouts couldn’t spot them.
Cross-border operations continued including one raid to grab some important documents. They had problems with swamps and rivers as always, with some requiring wading, some leaving the men neck deep and clearly unable to fight should the have to and so crossing them was cancelled and another route was sought.
Ambushes were laid and acted upon. The enemy more often than not would use the river to resupply their camps hidden deep in the jungle, their knowledge of the local area meaning trying to cross swamps on foot wasn’t on their agenda.
10 Yard Attacks
At times just four SAS troopers would take out three times the number of the enemy by waiting for a convoy of their boats to pass them and opening up on them from a distance as short as 10 yards. The Indonesians, although a tough enemy, just didn’t seem as focussed at times and lapses in concentration will often lead to death when you’re facing special forces.
If the enemy were now getting killed in their own areas, then the hope was to prevent them with their attacks, both cross-border and anywhere else.
It’s a nightmare environment to fight in, the SAS men being much weaker and shattered after a few months of fighting and patrolling there. Luckily the replacements were eager to get back in when it was time for Squadron turnarounds and the expertise didn’t drop off from one squadron to another.
It would be good to read more about the New Zealand SAS and Aussie SAS and their involvement in the confrontation. They helped out and played a massive part but SAS: The Jungle Frontier only covers the SAS, and the author mentions that he has to stick to just the SAS which is a shame but I will find more books that cover the other units involved.
I’m still getting towards the end of the book but if you want to get a detailed, well-researched book covering the SAS in Borneo then this is a perfect one to grab hold of.