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Malaya and Borneo Veterans’ Day

In 2011, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs designated 31st August as the official date of commemoration for two historical campaigns involving Australian Defence personnel – The Malayan Emergency (1955–1960) and the Indonesian Confrontation (or Konfrontasi, 1965-1966).

The Malayan Emergency (1955–1960) 

The Malayan Emergency was an irregular campaign fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA). 

The MRLA was an insurgent force comprised mainly of ethnic Chinese and was the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Employing guerrilla tactics, the MRLA was branded communist terrorists by the British government of Malaya. From 1948, the MRLA sought the support of disaffected Malayan-Chinese who were upset that British promises of an easier path to full Malayan citizenship had not been fulfilled. 

In addition, the harsh post-war economic and social conditions contributed to the rise of anti-government activity, prompting support for the MCP’s calls for Malaya to become a socialist state. 

The MRLA conducted military attacks on the British colonial government, culminating in the assassination of the British High Commissioner to Malaya, Sir Henry Gurney, in October 1951. British resolve hardened following the assassination, and galvanised the Malayan government into prolonged counter-insurgency operations against the communists. The operations were designed to destroy the communist base of support in local communities and drive the MRLA into the jungle, where it would be difficult for them to receive supplies from supporters. 

In October 1955 and following the withdrawal of Australian Army units from Korea, then-Prime Minister Robert Menzies committed Australian ground forces to the Malayan Emergency, deploying the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR), with its supporting 105 Field Battery. 

In October 1957, 2RAR was relieved by the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) and A Field Battery. October 1959, saw the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) and 101 Field Battery take a turn in Malaya as 3RAR returned to Australia. 

During the Emergency, Australian infantry and artillery served in offensive operations against the MRLA while Australian engineer units undertook bridge construction, road building, maintenance and bomb disposal tasks in support of military infrastructure development. 

The successive battalions were used almost continually on patrolling, ambushing, food denial and cordon and search operations in northern Malaya, except for short periods of leave and retraining. 

Approximately 7,000 members of the Australian Army served in theatre during the Emergency, in which 13 members were killed in action and 24 were wounded. In addition, there were 21 non operational deaths and 111 cases of non-operational casualties. 

The Emergency officially ended on 31 July 1960 at which time the Australian commitment remained as part of the Far East Strategic Reserve, with British and New Zealand units. 

The Indonesian Confrontation (or Konfrontasi, 1962-1966) 

The Indonesian Confrontation was a period of hostile relations between Indonesia and Malaysia. In September 1963, Britain granted independence to its colonies in Southeast Asia - Malaya, Singapore and the British protectorates of Sabah and Sarawak – who joined to form the new nation of Malaysia. 

Indonesia was politically opposed to a federated Malaysia, attempting to destabilise the new nation with the view to breaking it up. The actual (undeclared) war began in early 1963, when Indonesia launched a series of cross-border raids into Malaysian territory. By 1964, Indonesian regular army units had also become involved. This development drew in Britain, Australia and New Zealand in support of Malaysian interests. 

The Australian Army’s contribution began in 1965. The Australian Government had been reticent to commit ground forces from the Far Eastern Strategic Reserve for fear of risking further confrontation with Indonesia where the Australian Territory of Papua New Guinea bordered with Indonesian Western Papua. However, Indonesian airborne and amphibious attacks on Labis and Pontian (on the Malaysian peninsula) in September and October 1964, persuaded the Australian Government that a greater involvement in support of British operations to defend Malaysian interests was required. 

In January 1965, as part of a larger British and Commonwealth force under overall British command - the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), 102 Field Battery, 1 Special Air Service (SAS) Squadron, as well as field and construction squadrons - deployed to Borneo. 

In addition, 111 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, relieved later by 110 Battery, was deployed to the Butterworth Air Base in Western Malaysia in case of Indonesian air attack. At the same time, several brigades of Indonesian regular troops had been moved from Java to Kalimantan, opposite Sarawak and Sabah. 

The Indonesian incursions into Sarawak and Sabah were predominantly the work of relatively small groups, often less than platoon-size. The Commonwealth security forces were deployed primarily in company bases within mutually supporting gun range, with patrols mounted to gain intelligence, set ambushes and forced the Indonesians back behind their own border. 

3RAR served on operations from March to July 1965 and were replaced by the 4th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR) from April to August 1966. 

The SAS squadrons likewise served in turn, with 1 SAS Squadron deployed from April to August 1965, and 2 SAS Squadron from March to July 1966. 

These operations included Infantry and SAS patrols crossing the Indonesian border to harass Indonesian forces in their advanced base areas. As well as operations on Borneo and the mainland of Malaysia, Australian troops were engaged in intensive patrolling along the Papua New Guinea land border between Indonesian and Australian territory. 

The Indonesian Confrontation formally ended in August 1966. It was the last occasion in which Australians fought alongside other Commonwealth forces for what was essentially a British cause – the fate of former British colonial possessions in Southeast Asia. 

Seven Australian Army members were killed and six were wounded during the Confrontation. In addition, there were 10 non-operational deaths and 14 other non-operational casualties. 

The Australian Army’s involvement in the Confrontation was based on the military principles of containment and de-escalation and provided invaluable experience in developing jungle fighting and counter-insurgency warfare ahead of Army’s contribution to the war in Vietnam.

Last updated
4 December 2016
Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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