The SAS in Borneo
When the North Kalimantan National Army launched a revolt in the Sultan of Brunei on 8th December 1962 the Indonesian Confrontation began. British Forces Borneo Territories was set up in late December 1962 and within days Lieutenant-Colonel John Woodhouse, of 22 SAS, and his signaller arrived in Borneo with new Morse radio sets, which were the only method of reliable communication in jungle operations. Three days after Woodhouse's visit, 'A' Squadron 22 SAS was deployed to Borneo.
Although numbering less than 100 men, 'A' Squadron deployed along the 1,500km border between Indonesian Kalimantan and Sarawak and Sabah. Aided by local tribesmen, the SAS four-man teams could supervise vast areas of jungle tracking signs of Indonesian activity and the jungle itself prevented Indonesian fast movement allowing reinforcements to be helicoptered in ahead of the Indonesians to set up ambushes.
Most of the tribesmen spoke Malay as did many of the troops, most of whom had operated in Malaya. Some had not seen many white men before so their confidence had to be gained. Each team located the largest village in its area and set up a hide nearby to monitor movements through the village. They introduced themselves once they were satisfied that the Indonesians were present in the area and paid their respect to the village headman. The troopers accepted food and hospitality from their hosts before retreating to their hides. In each four-man patrol was a medic and medical aid was provided to the villages building up mutual trust. As mutual trust built up the patrol moved into the edge of the village and would help the villagers with daily tasks when not out gathering intelligence.
Once established, the patrols moved out to spread the word along the border of the threat from the south. If the headman was unimpressed, they told him to cut down a patch of trees and the army would arrive to protect them. The patrol then called up a helicopter-borne company of Ghurkhas once a clearing was established and they arrived on cue.
When the Indonesians made their first major raid into Sarawak against the police post at Tebedu, 'A' Squadron was already established in the villages, but the SAS were not in position, at this time, to block this retreat.
In mid-May, 'D' Squadron relieved 'A' Squadron in the villages and continued the hearts and minds campaign, spreading the word of the threat from the south and eroding what little support the Indonesians had among the tribes.
There were too many tribesmen to move into fortified settlements so some of the young men from each village volunteered and were trained in the use of firearms and defensive tactics. The British Army supplied rifles and ammunition and this native force became known as the Border Scouts. After three weeks of training they returned to their home regions led by small teams of Ghurkhas. The Border Scouts were not properly trained troops, and although ideal as trackers and couriers were no match for a regular soldier.
As the conflict in Borneo escalated, selection at Hereford was accelerated as 'B' Squadron was reformed and became operational in January 1964.
Following the Indonesian attack on Kalabakan, the Indonesian Army became openly involved in the conflict and 'B' and 'D' Squadrons had sufficient manpower for cross-border raids into Kalimantan. Slowly, SAS patrols, guided by local tribesman, established the lie of the land south of the border into Indonesia. The first patrols wore normal British Army uniforms and carried standard issue Self-Loading Rifles so that the claims of lost soldiers could be upheld if the patrols were discovered.
Later, the SAS reverted to their specialist weapons including shotguns and Armalite rifles. The SAS had two specific tasks - long-range patrols and guiding regular forces on cross-border operations. The long-range patrols were tasked with finding Indonesian supply lines, bases and reconnoitering suitable ambush sites. These patrols usually lasted three weeks with all supplies carried by the patrol, and supplies were reduced as the patrols penetrated further to allow fast movement eventually reaching just 15lb of dehydrated rations per man in a pack with water bottles, survival kit and ammunition all being carried on the belt.
The men had less than a week at the end of each patrol to recuperate due to the shortage of manpower, and at the end of a three-patrol tour they were normally flown back to Hereford for a few weeks rest. The troopers were limited to shoot and scoot operations to keep casualties to a minimum as helicopter casualty evacuations in Indonesia were not possible.
Full cross-border operations by British infantry units began in June 1964, which were guided by SAS troopers and these missions remained top secret for a long time due to political sensitivity about putting British troops into a country not technically at war with Britain. These were the Claret Operations.
The Claret Operations are covered elsewhere in this chapter. The SAS four-man reconnaissance patrols were not strictly classified as being part of these operations and were not normally subject to the stipulations made on the raids. Occasionally the Indonesians would bounce the SAS patrols in their territory, but the superior training and experience of the SAS were often enough to regain the advantage. Some troopers were injured and a small number killed, and one is believed to have been captured and tortured to death.
In April 1965, the Indonesians mounted a major attack on the British 2 Para Company base at Plaman Mapu. The raid was eventually routed by the garrison but two of the paratroopers died of their wounds and another eight were injured. This raid galvanized the General Staff and overt cross-border raids were authorized with Ghurkha and British Army battalions penetrating Kalimantan over the next few months, killing nearly 100 enemy soldiers for the loss of only four men.
Indonesia mounted one last 50-man invasion in March 1966 that ended with the loss of 37 men. Following this raid Indonesia began negotiations with Malaysia and a peace treaty was signed on 11th August 1966.