The Australian Special Air Service (SAS) gained its first experience of active service overseas in Borneo during the Confrontation. The first SAS soldiers reached Brunei in February 1965. While cross-border operations into Indonesia’s Kalimantan had been taking place before the Australians arrived in Borneo, participation was limited to experienced troops. The Australian SAS’s first patrols took place on the Malaysian side of the border and were mainly intended to obtain topographical information on tracks, rivers and villages as well as conducting surveillance of known border crossing points and shadowing Indonesian infiltrators. Patrols were ordered to avoid contact, but if an incident took place a ‘shoot and scoot’ policy was employed, offensive action was to be avoided unless specifically ordered. Most patrols were instead engaged in ‘hearts and minds’ operations.
Australia’s involvement in the Indonesian Confrontation followed a similar pattern to involvement in the Malayan Emergency – initial government hesitation gave way to escalation until the commitment peaked during the conflict’s later stages.
When the New Federation of Malaysia came into being in September 1963, both Malaysia and Britain asked whether Australian troops could be sent to Borneo to help repel Indonesian-backed incursions. The Australian Government wavered. Although Prime Minister Menzies had spoken publically of his desire to help Malaysia, other members of Cabinet felt that Britain – not Australia – should be doing more. The United States also warned against open conflict with Indonesia. The Australian Minister for External Affairs, Garfield Barwick, therefore announced ‘a carefully graduated response’ to the British and Malaysian requests.
After further requests and Commonwealth talks held in Bangkok in March 1964, Australia agreed to supply Malaysia with stores and military equipment, and to train Malaysian soldiers in both Australia and Malaysia. In April 1964 a squadron of Australian engineers was sent to Borneo and two Australian Navy minesweepers were made available to patrol the area. Nevertheless the official position remained that Australian ground troops already in Malaysia as part of the 28th Commonwealth Brigade were only to be used to defend the mainland against external attack. In September 1964 the Indonesians did in fact begin paratroop and amphibious raids on mainland Malaya. Members of the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) assisted in operations against the invaders, and in December 1964 the minesweeper HMAS Teal exchanged fire with an Indonesian vessel off Singapore.
In January 1965 the Australian Government responded to this expansion of the conflict by agreeing to the deployment of 3 RAR to Borneo. A second Australian infantry battalion (4 RAR), Special Air Service squadrons, and Australian artillery and engineer units also served in Borneo before the end of the Confrontation in August 1966. In addition, Sabre jet fighters of No.78 Wing RAAF began deploying from Butterworth airbase to Labuan in Borneo in September 1965, and 12 Royal Australian Navy vessels attached to the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve patrolled Malaysian waters at various stages during the conflict. Seven Australians died on active service in the Indonesian Confrontation.
SAS troops began patrolling in Borneo on 28 March 1965. For many who participated in these patrols the experience was one of moving through jungle that was home to abundant and exotic wildlife. There was, however, a price to be paid for patrolling through such beguiling scenery – mosquitoes, sand flies, leeches, fire ants and numerous other creatures could inflict painful bites which often became infected. Heat and humidity caused problems and as one ill-fated patrol learnt, even wild elephants could inflict mortal wounds on men who had no experience of dealing with such creatures. The first member of the SAS to die on active service was killed not by the enemy, but by a rogue elephant. Sadly, Lance Corporal Paul Denehey died an agonising death in the jungle, suffering unimaginable pain for several days from the terrible wound inflicted by the elephant’s tusk.
Many of the patrols encountered villagers and on more than one occasion the hospitality offered in return for medical care and other types of aid detained the Australians for longer than had been anticipated.
In May 1965 the Australian SAS began their first cross-border patrols, known by the codename Claret. Like any Commonwealth troops involved in cross-border patrols, the SAS operated under a set of rules, primary among which was that offensive operations could not be carried out without the sanction of the Director of Borneo Operations. Unlike 3RAR, the SAS were eventually permitted to operate up to 20,000 yards (approximately 15 kilometers) on the Indonesian side of the border, beyond the limit set for infantry patrols.
During their four months in Borneo the Australian SAS conducted more than 40 patrols on both sides of the border, almost half of which were solely for reconnaissance. Patrols were usually inserted into the patrol area by helicopter which landed at an established landing zone. If it was not possible to land, soldiers would either abseil to the ground or be winched. Patrols were conducted entirely by foot and without resupply so everyone involved had to carry everything they needed on their backs. Those men from the regiment who went on to serve in Vietnam remembered operations in Borneo as having been far more physically demanding due mainly to the nature of the terrain, the length of the patrols (one of which lasted 89 days) and the need to live off short rations. Borneo did, however, prove to be a valuable proving ground for the SAS ahead of their deployment to Vietnam.