War against Sukarno

Claret Operations
Borneo 1964-65

It was decided that infantry attacks could be launched across the border in to Kalimantan territory to pre-empt the Indonesian attacks into Borneo. These operations were given the code name 'Claret' and they were to change the fortunes of war for both the Indonesians and their Commonwealth opponents. No longer could the Indonesians feel secure in their border bases and camps even if they were within Kalimantan territory. Initially these raids were confined to a penetration depth of only 5,000 yards but this was later increased to a depth of 20,000 yards. No longer would the security forces ever feel as frustrated as they had been earlier in the campaign. It was doubtful whether the Indonesians realised that they were seeing the beginnings of a new Commonwealth strategy.

While the Kalimantan border bases were being harassed by British and other Commonwealth troops, the cross border operations exacted a great mental and physical toll on the troops concerned. Courage and skill were required to overcome the tensions and problems of operating behind the enemy lines and the planning of such raids had to ensure that once the troops crossed the border in to Kalimantan that they would be within the limits of fire support from guns located just over on the friendly side of the border, guns that were often flown in by helicopter to a pre-planned LZ for the duration of the operation. The main concern was the problem of getting their casualties back to Sarawak or Sabah without using helicopters. This meant they were faced with the tremendous task of manhandling wounded men through the thick jungle, up mountain slopes, and across fast flowing rivers.

Indonesian troopsObviously for the badly wounded soldier, being carried over such hostile terrain, the chances of survival were greatly reduced. Fortunately for the British and Commonwealth forces, the Indonesian forces lacked efficient communications and relied on primitive support that was hampered by long and tenuous supply lines. Nevertheless, the Indonesian build up continued under the command of Gen. Maratan Panggabean. Panggabean was an experienced soldier who had been trained first by the Japanese and had completed his military training in the United States. His immediate subordinate was Col. Supargo who commanded No 4 Combat Command. He too had been trained in America. Dotted along the border were over 20,000 Indonesian troops. To meet these threats, the forces available within Borneo were pathetically small. West Brigade with a front of 600 miles had five battalions. One British, three Ghurkha, and one Malaysian, supported by 25 troop-carrying helicopters. The adjoining Central Brigade, with a front of 300 miles, had two Ghurkha battalions and 12 helicopters. East Brigade, with a front of 80 miles, had one Royal Marine Commando and one infantry battalion forward and no helicopters. At this time the total number of troops under Gen. Walker's Command within the Borneo territories was little more than 10,000 men.

The need for reinforcements was urgent; not only for infantry but engineer squadrons were needed for a multitude of tasks-to build airstrips, roads and bridges. In the end Gen. Walker's protests did produce three more infantry battalions, bringing the total up to 13.

As a result of these reinforcements, by January of 1965 the British and Commonwealth forces in Borneo totalled some 14,000 soldiers supported by 29 guns, two squadrons of armoured cars and four field squadrons of engineers. Gen. Walker was convinced that the only way he could throw the Indonesians off balance was to increase the number of raids into the enemy stronghold of Kalimantan and in addition, the Royal Marine Special Boat Sections were to make small scale amphibious raids round either flank on the coast.

In the 5th Division of Sarawak,'C' Company, 1/2nd Ghurkha Rifles, with its base at Ba Kelan was guarding the approaches that ran across the border. The valley from Ba Kelan stretched over the border to a village called Long Medan, which the Indonesians had converted into a stronghold. The natives of the whole valley belonged to the same tribe, the Murats. They had crossed the border time after time to carry on trading. The Indonesians had forbade any more cross-border trade causing the local community hardship, which eventually led to a petition from the villages to the commanding officer of the 1/2nd Ghurkha rifles to take action. Several reconnaissance patrols had been carried out and official permission for the cross border raid was granted.

The plan was simple: one platoon was to give fire support to the assaulting forces if they came under heavy from any new and previously undetected positions using 3.5-inch rocket launchers, LMGs and M-26 grenade launchers, while the company commander led the other two platoons into the assault against the enemy. Two 3-inch mortars and two general-purpose machine guns were pre-positioned on a nearby hill and were guarded by a platoon from another rifle company. 'C' Company had to move by night approach to cover a distance of eight miles without being detected, which was quite a problem for 150 men when everything had to be carried including rocket launchers and rockets. Each of the Ghurkhas carried two mortar bombs in addition to his own weapon and load. The night of January 29th 1965 was selected for the attack. 'C' Company marched all night and reached the jumping off position in the early hours of the morning of the 30th. Everything went as planned until the attack was sprung by an Indonesian walking towards 11 Platoon's position.

The Platoon did not hesitate and slammed four rockets down on the enemy bunkers, and the company commander gave the order to charge. Under close covering support his party fought through the positions from bunker to bunker, using grenades and rifle fire. From across the river an Indonesian 12.7-mm anti-aircraft gun began firing, joined by a 60-mm mortar and medium machine guns and the situation began to look grim. The precaution of placing the 3-inch mortars and machine guns on the nearby hill saved the crisis. The Mortar Fire Controller (MFC), a corporal who was to win the Military Medal, had to stand up and expose himself to the Indonesian machine gun fire. He was able to pinpoint the hostile 60-mm mortar position and after a ranging round his second bomb blew it up and killed the crew. He then turned his attention to the Indonesian machine guns and knocked them out. Meanwhile, the 12.7-mm gun remained in action pinning the forward section down.

In retaliation, 12 Platoon sent a corporal and two riflemen to silence the gun and after taking a rocket launcher across a paddy field they approached the gun position. The corporal opened fire and the first rocket hit the gun pit killing its occupants. That was to be the end of the battle. It had taken one hour and fifteen minutes. The company commander ordered a withdrawal and by the late afternoon, using a more direct route, the raiding force was back across the border carrying two of its badly wounded men with it as well as the body of a dead Ghurkha rifleman. A few days later it was confirmed that 50% of the Indonesian strength in that area had been killed and that Long Medan was never reoccupied by Indonesian forces in the Ba Kelalan area again.

A few months later, in November 1965, it was decided to send another raiding mission into the area opposite the First Division of Sarawak. This was to be a more ambitious operation. The mission, by another Ghurkha Company, was to ambush the main river supply route at two points near the Indonesian company-sized bases. It would take the raiding party over two days to reach the target area. Each man carried light rations to last 12 days, apart from his personal weapon, ammunition and other vital necessities. Two rivers were met in succession and each time the Assault Pioneers bridged each river with fallen trees. Once the tree was in position, a Ghurkha soldier went across securing hand ropes to enable the company to cross.

A day later the company reached an area near the River Separan. Patrols had reported the area as being thick primary jungle with a fast flowing river that was about 25m wide. The company commander, realising he would be ambushing between two large Indonesian camps, crossed the final river with care. The Assault Pioneer Platoon was left behind to cover the rear while the rest of the company crossed unseen and set its ambush on a track that linked the two enemy camps. The company commander placed himself and the Anti-tank Platoon in the ambush area while the Reconnaissance Platoon and the Forward Observation Officer (FOO) remained on the other side of the river in order to protect the rear. The FOO by using his communication link could assist by bringing down diversionary fire on the approaches to the ambush as soon as it was sprung. Then it was just a question of waiting.

5.5 on Claret fire missionAll were in position by 0945 hours. At about 1100 hours the company commander received the signal for "enemy" and about five minutes later a small party of Indonesians walked through the ambush zone, followed seconds later by five more, then another six, and then came a continuous line. It was time to spring the ambush. GPMG's opened up from the flank followed by the crash of claymore mines, which had been laid, on the other end of the ambush position. All the waiting ambushers opened fire on the targets in front of them and a minute or two later artillery shells crashed down on either side of the ambush position. The ambush completely stunned the Indonesian soldiers but it was not long before a counter attack swung in from the south covered by a mortar attack from an Indonesian position near by. The support company held firm and the Indonesian counter attack was an abortive one.

After inflicting heavy casualties on the Indonesians, the company commander decided to withdraw across the river, while the FOO directed his guns on to shelling the immediate area of the ambush position. There was no time to waste. The company set off and pressed on hard until dark. Next day, the fifth day after setting out, it recrossed the border. It had been a model operation well planned and expertly executed and as a result the Indonesians in that area took no more offensive action during the confrontation.

The fact that nothing was know about these "Claret" operations until the mid-1980', speaks volumes for the integrity of the soldiers and Marines of the time as these operations were graded top secret. Royal Marine Commandos, with their great experience, took part in several of these operations. The fact that they were concealed from the press and public for twenty years was a remarkable feat and is rather different from today of those that rush into print and describe the most secret of operations. In a media-conscious world, that in itself made the Borneo confrontation unique.

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