The first major Australian SAS operation began on 21 June 1965, when a patrol led by Corporal John Robinson helped guide a company of Gurkhas under the command of a British officer, Captain Ashman, to attack Lumbis, a village about ten kilometres inside Indonesian territory. After three days walking, they reached the target undetected. Indonesian soldiers were active within the village, and Ashman deployed his forces around the settlement. Mortars and machine guns were in place by 6 am the following morning. However, Ashman waited until a gong sounded at 9 am to summon the troops to breakfast before ordering his men to aim their weapons. According to the official history, ‘A group of about ten men gathered and started to eat and only then was the order given. Four to six enemy were killed in the first machine-gun burst and the Gurkha mortars quickly adjusted their fire onto the village. The second salvo went through the roof of the eating hut.’
Though the Indonesians were ‘slow to react’, they eventually answered the fire with machine guns and a mortar. However, they were ineffective, and at 9.50 am Ashman ordered the company to withdraw, and a British 105-mm Howitzer about 10,000 metres to the north-west began to shell the village. According to an observer, ‘One shot landed a little over a metre from the enemy’s radio shack whose roof lifted then settled again.’ The attacking force returned to the border, reaching it just before last light.
On 1 July, the Australian unit planned its own attack on an Indonesian airfield well inside the border at Long Bawan. Garland sent Warrant Officer Alan ‘Blue’ Thompson with his patrol to complete the reconnaissance. Four days later, they had reached a position about three kilometres from the airfield and set up a lay-up position (LUP) when they spotted an Indonesian patrol, travelling in single file, coming up behind them. They quickly took up ambush positions near the track, and when the leading Indonesian was only four metres away they opened fire. According to the operational report, the leader was struck by eight rifle and six Owen gun rounds, the second by ten rifle and six Owen gun bullets. Both died instantly. Their compatriots took cover and returned fire, but by then the Australians were on the move out of the area. The airfield attack never eventuated.
Further ambushes by 1 Squadron followed, and on 3 July Sergeant John Pettit took his patrol south into Indonesian territory, reaching the Salilir River the following day. There they established an overwatch position, and on 5 July they saw boats travelling up and down stream with paddlers stripped to their shorts, but in each case apparently commanded by a figure in an olive-green shirt. Suddenly a downstream craft turned towards the Australians’ position on the bank, where they apparently planned to beach their boat.
When they were ten metres from the shore, Pettit and his patrol opened fire. According to their report, ‘In less than a minute the patrol poured 81 rounds of [rifle] and 26 rounds of Owen gun into the boat. Not one enemy was able to return fire with the submachine guns they were carrying. Most were either knocked overboard or jumped into the river.’ Pettit estimated they had killed seven and seriously wounded two. Later intelligence suggested one had been killed instantly, while three died of wounds.
On 21 July, another patrol spotted a prahu powered by an outboard motor with six men in white T-shirts and blue shorts. As it approached the Australians’ position on the bank, a Bren-gunner, Lance Corporal Chris Jennison, saw ‘rifles, webbing and kitbags’ on the bottom of the boat. He opened fire. Three rounds struck the man in the bow. The force of the bullets threw him into the water; three others were killed before they could move but two others leapt into the water. However, when they reached the shore and began to scramble up the bank, they were gunned down. The patrol withdrew without loss, and by 24 July they had returned to Brunei Town.
When Garland’s men completed their mission after five months in country, they had killed 17 enemy with only one fatal casualty – Paul Denehey. However, by any reasonable measure it was not the most propitious beginning for an outfit that aspired to be the best of the best, operating at the highest levels of military endeavour and from its most lofty principles. It had secretly invaded the territory of another country, one that represented no particular threat to its Australian homeland. It had operated as a puppet to a colonial power whose motives remained the assertion of its own interests in a post-colonial world that no longer accepted its presumptions. Indeed, the first director of Borneo operations revealed the underlying motives nine years later, when he wrote that the mission illustrated ‘the art of hitting an enemy hard by methods which neither escalate the war nor invite United Nations anti-colonialist intervention’.
Nevertheless, the unit had been ‘blooded’, and it had learnt some hard lessons in the process. It had been exposed to the unvarnished reality of Special Forces warfare, where the unexpected was the norm and the need for initiative and versatility was paramount. Tactically, it had confirmed Garland’s belief that insertion by helicopter followed by a hard walk was far more effective than parachuting into action. And strategically there was a growing realisation that Australians operated best when given outright responsibility for an area of operation, then left to devise their own methods to achieve an agreed outcome. And nothing that occurred during the remainder of the unit’s time in Borneo would contradict these conclusions.
After 1 Squadron returned to base, there was a five-month hiatus before 2 Squadron under Major Jim Hughes was considered battle ready. Hughes had won a Military Cross in Korea, fought with the British in the Malayan Emergency in the late 1950s and had been an instructor at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. Short and slight, he was nevertheless as tough as leather and a natural leader of men.
By the time they arrived in January 1966, the strategic situation had changed totally. The attempted coup in Jakarta on 30 September 1965 had not only diminished Sukarno’s authority but it had also undermined support for konfrontasi within the military. But while most of the regular army forces had been withdrawn, there remained a number of militia groups trained by their Special Forces, later known as Kopassus.
By now the Allied operation was dominated by Big Army personnel, and Hughes was unsettled by his reception in Brunei. ‘I always remember the indifference to our arrival shown by the staff of HQ Australian Army Force, as if we were an embuggerance factor – you know, “We got rid of 1 Squadron last year, now you buggers are here!” I had a feeling I might be interfering with their golf or something.’
However, at least the Brits were pleased to see them when they reached their Kuching HQ. ‘[When] we got down to B Squadron 22 SAS who we were replacing, they all bent over backwards,’ he says. ‘The difference was chalk and cheese.’ Sergeant Ian Conaghan said the training at nearby Matang with their British colleagues was first rate. ‘We did a tremendous amount of live firing,’ he says, ‘and because it was under operational conditions the normal safety limits were reduced to the absolute bare minimum. We had Iban border scouts attached who taught us tracking and they were very good. And we were introduced to Claymores there.’
The Claymore, an American invention, was a flat, rectangular mine that stood just above the ground on two folding legs. When detonated, it propelled 700 deadly steel balls in an arc 60 degrees wide, two metres high and 50 metres deep. A 22 SAS officer, Captain Angus Graham-Wigan, promoted a technique of linking an array of the mines with an electrical cord to be fired when ambushing the enemy. On the first occasion an Australian troop from 1 Squadron employed the Graham–Wigan technique, the array failed to explode. There is no record of the device being used in this fashion by 2 Squadron. Indeed, according to Jim Hughes, the emphasis of his mission was different from that of his predecessor. ‘Our [aims] were firstly reconnaissance, secondly hearts and minds, thirdly border scouts for the 3rd Division, fourthly air rescue. I was a bit worried about doing that because I found the parachutes sitting on pallets on a dirt floor covered in dust and cobwebs in a shed.’
In the event, they would not be needed.
The first taste of battle came early in 2 Squadron’s deployment, when three of the NCOs – Sergeant John Coleman and Corporals Frank Styles and Jeff Ayles – joined B Squadron in a cross-border operation. Commanded by Major Terry Hardy, they deployed into Kalimantan with 50 British SAS soldiers at last light on 3 February, planning to attack an enemy camp at dawn. Visibility was reduced by a heavy downpour, and at 10.30 pm they stumbled into an enemy position. Coleman was with the leading troop, and they turned away quickly and began to clamber up a steep track towards a clearing. The militia opened fire with a .30-calibre machine gun. The attackers took shelter in a flimsy hut and responded but quickly retreated.
On the way out of the shelter, one patrol member threw a phosphorus grenade, but it struck an upright, rebounded and exploded. Coleman later wrote, ‘We were not in a good tactical position, with our hut burning and a few of the blokes on fire, me included.’ Pinned down, Coleman found himself ‘well alight and hurting’, while the rest of the force had departed. ‘This wasn’t the best news I’d ever received,’ he says. Major Hardy ordered distant artillery to target the camp. As the shells struck, flaming SAS operators raced for the river and jumped in. Coleman and several others joined them and drifted downstream.
When they came ashore, according to the official history, ‘It was a nightmare journey for Coleman. For two hours they crawled on hands and knees along wild pig tracks and then rested before first light. They then came across a long house which could have been a base for local [enemy] scouts and then turned sharply towards the border.’ During the morning they arrived at a Gurkha patrol camp and the first thing Coleman’s medic did was offer him a cigarette. ‘Before this I had never smoked,’ he says, ‘but with the burns and such I sucked the bloody thing inside-out and from that day to this, I smoke.’
It was the last time 2 Squadron members were part of a British force. After this, they carried out their own operations, albeit within their non-offensive limitations. This was ‘exceptionally frustrating’ to Hughes and his men. ‘We had honed our fighting skills to a very sharp edge and were unable to put them into practice,’ he says.91 Nevertheless, they did venture across the border several times early in their deployment. There were no contacts with the enemy, but the terrain itself proved a hazardous opponent. On 3 March, Lieutenant Ken ‘Rock’ Hudson led a four-man reconnaissance patrol into enemy territory and discovered footprints of what appeared to be a militia patrol. They followed the tracks until they came to the flooded Sekayan River. Hudson resisted the urgings of his men and decided against risking a crossing. On their return, Hughes backed his fellow officer. However, on 17 March they returned to the area, and on this occasion Hudson spotted what seemed to be an enemy base across the river. Though it was raining lightly, he decided to make a night crossing for a closer look.
They left their overwatch position at 3 am, with Hudson leading. When they reached the river, Hudson entered first and behind him, with each man holding the belt of the man in front, were privates Bob Moncrieff, Frank Ayling and Bruce Gabriel. The current was moving very fast, and as they waded at chest height there was a sudden fall in the riverbed that broke their hand-holds. All four were swept into the current. Ayling, a strong swimmer, found Gabriel in the darkness, and they floated about 500 metres downstream together before they were able to scramble to the bank. There was no sign of Hudson or Moncrieff.
The two survivors made their way back to their OP, and when their compatriots failed to return they headed for the emergency rendezvous, reaching it at 7.15 am. There they tried unsuccessfully to make radio contact with base before striking out for the border. They reached it at 5.30 that evening, and once again tried to call base, but without success. Finally the next morning they got through, and a helicopter arrived at midday.
Hughes was then faced with the terrible difficulty of mounting a search for his men without alerting the enemy – or indeed the world at large – that they had trespassed into Indonesian territory. This meant they could not use helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft or large ground parties in the search area. So on 23 March, Corporal Jeff Ayles, with Gabriel as his guide, took a patrol into the area. They searched for the next five days but in vain. The army released the names of the two casualties but no details of the incident at the time.
Meanwhile, on 25 May 1966 a party of senior Indonesian officers flew to Kuala Lumpur to start negotiations to end konfrontasi, and three days later orders reached British SAS headquarters in Labuan that all ‘Claret’ operations across the border were to cease immediately. On 21 July, 2 Squadron was relieved by D Squadron of 22 SAS, and five days later they flew out of Kuching for the Australian RAAF base at Butterworth. They were given a short R&R in Penang, and all were returned to Swanbourne by 15 August. By then the peace agreement had been signed between Indonesia and Malaysia.
It was the last time the British would seek to assert their military force in the region. The fading imperial ambition to regain their colonial power was finally put to rest. For Australia, it meant a recalibration of its defence ties, with the new emphasis heavily weighted towards America. And with the intervention in Vietnam turning into a major war on the Indo-Chinese Peninsula, Australia’s Special Forces would be driven very firmly into the American camp. But while Borneo had taught many valuable lessons in jungle warfare, there was still much to learn. And before they were deployed to Vietnam it became routine for the SAS to undergo a final training operation in Papua New Guinea.
There they were free of certain restrictions placed on Australian operations at the Canungra Jungle Training Centre in Queensland. Claymore mines, for example, were only detonated in strictly controlled environments on the mainland, while in Papua New Guinea they could be used in situations that more closely resembled contacts with an enemy force. Major Reg Beesley, the OC of 3 Squadron, says, ‘Some of my blokes had never seen jungle, let alone fired a shot in it, so it allowed me flexibility in regard to live firing.’
The training exercises typically involved SAS patrols of five or six men in opposition to soldiers from Papua New Guinea’s PIR in a variety of locations, not least the border with their new neighbour, Indonesia. It provided equally valuable training for the PIR soldiers and revealed a substantial military presence to any Indonesian observers. It also gave the squadron commanders the chance to gauge the quality of their men since only three of their four troops would be required for the Vietnam engagement. This was yet another factor in the recalibration of Australia’s forces to correspond with their American ally. Jim Hughes says, ‘The four troops would be in competition. First rate people got left behind but collectively they weren’t the best troop.’
Most of the SAS operators relished the training. According to a former regimental NCO, ‘Operators had to become acutely familiar with one another’s skills and idiosyncrasies to the point where they almost knew what each member was thinking. The aim [was] to hone jungle skills, acclimatize to a tropical environment but more so for each patrol member to bond.’ Lieutenant Bill Hindson says, ‘We worked up from small patrol activities to long-distance patrols. It was essential to get the patrol working together under very difficult conditions. I think eventually we came to respect one another.’
They also learnt to take advantage of all available means to get the job done. For example, when faced with a trek over mountainous country where ridges became rock climbs and the jungle between them almost impenetrable, they were not above hiring local bearers to carry their heavy packs. This was not always successful, as even the locals demurred at some of the peaks. Others accepted payment and then departed the scene.
Back in Australia, there was a further period of fine-tuning before the final selection was made. By now, according to Jim Hughes, ‘They were jumping out of their skin. They wanted to go.’ The trainers worked their men hard, determined to prepare them for combat following the old army dictum of ‘train hard, fight easy’. But accidents were inevitable and a Silver Star swimmer, Private Tom Irwin, drowned during a crossing of the Collie River.
The first to deploy would be 3 Squadron and its final training was done in and around Swanbourne under the watchful eye of its new OC, Major John Murphy, who had served with US Special Forces in Vietnam. He quickly replaced a number of Borneo veterans whom he regarded as insufficiently flexible to adapt to the new American-style regime.
After negotiations at High Command, it had been agreed that the unit would form part of the 1st Australian Task Force with 5 and 6 RAR battalions in Phuoc Tuy Province, its designated AO, in combination with the 173 US Airborne Brigade. The Australian plan was to establish a base at Nui Dat, a small, sharply rising hill about five kilometres from Baria, the provincial capital. When Murphy arrived on the afternoon of 16 June he immediately made contact with the Task Force CO, Brigadier David Jackson. Jackson approved the SAS to go into action immediately, and on 30 June five separate patrols set out through the Task Force perimeter and into hostile territory.
Now they were in a real war.