January 15, 2021

Borneo

Australia’s secret war in Borneo

Australia’s secret role in a forgotten border conflict in Borneo was kept hidden for decades. Now veterans and their families want recognition.

By KYLIE STEVENSON

Weekend Australian

All they requested was 37.5mm x 26mm of real estate on an envelope. A tiny, sticky-backed, ­philatelic nod to their service. For Brian Selby, SA/NT president of the Australian Malaya and Borneo Veterans’ Association, the application for a stamp commemorating Australia’s involvement in the Malayan conflicts seemed a winnable battle. One that would deliver a tangible acknowledgment of the time he spent in Borneo in the 1960s, one of about 3000 Australian troops who fought in the Confrontation, or Konfrontasi.

But after months of radio silence, last month he received a rejection from Australia Post saying his application failed to “comply with stamp issue policy, which states all commemorative stamp issues must be anniversaries of 50 years or ­multiples of 50 (100, 150, 200 etc)”. Selby was ­baffled – the 50th had passed in 2016 and the next anniversary wouldn’t be until 2066. He’s 75 now. “They could change the 50-year rule overnight,” he says. “It’s a special case. We want that recognition, primarily for the 23 Australians who didn’t come home.”

When he broke the news to his association’s members via email, it ignited a battery of disappointed replies. “There must be someone in government who can override this?” Vicki Tiegs wrote to the group. She is more invested than most. She was just six months old when her father, Barry Algar, was killed while serving in Malaysia. But even she couldn’t honestly say she was surprised, or that the stamps were even the point. This was just the most recent rejection in a long history of being ignored. For ageing veterans, time is running out to resurrect a war that was never called a war; that is not so much forgotten as never known.

Konfrontasi. Such a lyrical word. It slips off the tongue and begs to be repeated. But for more than half a century, it’s hunkered down in long-­forgotten books and journals and classified documents; ­hidden in dusty photo albums and diaries tucked away in the tops of wardrobes. A conflict shrouded in political secrecy so extraordinary, officials were fed fake reports, maps were doctored to hide the truth, and the soldiers were forbidden from speaking even to one another about their missions. And they didn’t. For 30 years.

It began in 1962, when Malaya, Singapore, ­Sarawak and British North Borneo were on the verge of becoming the nation of Malaysia. Indonesian president Sukarno vehemently opposed the amalgamation, believing the British intended to maintain colonial rule in the region. He also had his own sights on North Borneo, part of his plan to create a powerful Indonesian bloc. But the amalgamation went ahead and in 1963 Sukarno vowed to “crush Malaysia”, making the border between the two countries the battlefield in a small, undeclared war that lasted until 1966.

Australia was a reluctant participant. Indonesia was an important ally with whom it needed to maintain diplomatic relations. There was also the issue of the border Australia shared with ­Indonesia in Papua New Guinea, and the fact that Australian military numbers were at a low point. So it wasn’t until 1964 that the Menzies government agreed to send in troops to defend the territory as part of the British Commonwealth Forces, which also included Britain, New Zealand and Malaysia. Australian army, navy, air force and SAS remained involved until the very end.

All Konfrontasi veterans were subject to a 30-year gag under the British Official Secrets Act, but even since that was lifted in 1996 the conflict has rarely received a mention. “Everything – documents, history, memorials – they all skip from Korea straight into Vietnam,” Selby says. “Anzac Parade outside the Australian War ­Memorial has a tribute to every conflict Australia has fought in – it even has memorials for the dogs and horses. I don’t begrudge their recognition, but where is ours?”

While the AWM does feature a small display about the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, Anzac Parade is run by the National Capital Authority, which said in a statement that memorials were generally funded by volunteers or veterans groups and that in the instance of the Confrontation “it seems that there has not been the same impetus to create a memorial”.

Vicki Tiegs is part of a committee fundraising for an official memorial for the Malaysian conflicts. They are just $1000 away from the $60,000 needed to kickstart the project. “For 50 years ­veterans have been waiting for acknowledgment of their service,” Tiegs says. “They’re not getting any younger, and the longer this takes, the less of them will be around to know what they did was appreciated.”

Selby says the Confrontation is one of only two post-World War campaigns that Australia has been involved with that were complete successes. “Not one inch of territory was lost – and no one knows about it.”

I share their dismay. On my desk in a wooden frame is a picture of my grandfather, wearing his slouch hat, medals pinned proudly to his chest. He is one of the forgotten ones, too.

Edgar Wright. Picture: supplied
Edgar Wright. Picture: supplied

My Pop, Edgar Wright, was my favourite person in the world. A raconteur, an adventurer, a horrific dresser, a reluctant Pom, a chronic nail-biter, a huge fan of the St George Dragons. He was guileless, unhurried, a little eccentric and occasionally embarrassing, but always, always fun. When I think of him, the image that fills my head is of Pop marching. Not in an Anzac Day parade or in the army – though he did those things. Marching up the tree-hemmed suburban Sydney street where he lived. When we were kids, he would take my brother and me on excursions. Since he didn’t drive, we walked everywhere, Pop ordering us into a line, and “quick march” off we’d stomp, with him imitating a trumpet to the tune of When the Saints Go Marching In.

Pop always had good stories, but after more than two decades as a soldier, his biggest yarns were of war. Born in 1930 and raised in a poor household in Shropshire, England, he’d been just 13 when he stole his older brother’s ID and joined the British Army. He went on to serve in the parachute squad during the Berlin Airlift and then, around 1949, he answered an ad for the Australian Army. The story goes that he got the call-up and jumped on a boat bound for Oz without telling any of his family or the woman he was about to marry. For a long time they all thought he was dead. And he came pretty close in the following three years while serving in Korea, where he was posted soon after arriving in Sydney.

In the Australian Army, Pop scored a trifecta of forgotten wars: Korea, the Malayan Emergency and the Confrontation. His Korean War stories are the ones he spoke of most. How he’d once ­tiptoed his way out of an unmarked minefield, the other ­Diggers watching aghast. How he smothered two of his mates with dirt when they went up in flames of phosphorus during Operation Buffalo. How it took him six hours to crawl to safety after being injured at The Mound – the shrapnel in his left leg, left arm, chest and back was lodged so deeply, doctors decided it would be safer to leave it in than to remove it, giving Pop the opportunity to tell his war stories every time he encountered a metal detector at an airport for the rest of his life.

As a curious child, and an even more curious adult, I was always asking questions. But when it came to Borneo, his answers halted. He would never go far beyond the funny tales of accidentally blowing up a camp latrine, or the time he mistakenly led his troop into a village of headhunters. Even in the notes he’d written in the years before his death in 2006, his time in the jungles of ­Borneo remained a mystery. The omission glared at me. I needed to know why he wouldn’t talk of his combat experience there. He spoke so frankly of the horrors of Korea, why not Borneo?

I did ask him about it once. He told me he’d taken an oath not to talk about what happened there. “Why is it such a secret?” I remember asking. “Because we shouldn’t have been across that border.” Most families have secrets. But it turned out my family’s secret was a national secret.

Claret. The purplish-red of a good cab sav. The burgundy flow of blood. The code name of a military operation so secret that more than 50 years later, men still take care not to spill it. Claret was what my Pop had been doing: ordered to hike for days over mountains and ridges, through leech-infested swampland and secondary rain­forest seething with dangerous wildlife; to tiptoe into Indonesia up to 10,000 yards (9100m) and ambush or attack the enemy on their own turf.

The purpose of the cross-border raids was to destabilise Indonesian troops. Instead of waiting for the enemy to slip over the border and attack them, British Commonwealth Forces wanted to take the lead, beat them at their own game, shake them up. Official documents show Australian troops from 3RAR, my Pop’s battalion, participated in 32 Claret Operations in their four months in Borneo. The battalion that followed, 4RAR, whose Confrontation was fought in the midst of peace talks, is shown as having always stayed on the Malaysian side of the border.

However, Brian Avery, 4RAR Rifle Platoon Commander and author of the 2001 book Our Secret War, says he did go over the border on more than one occasion, as did many others. “The reports sent back to Canberra from battalions in Borneo were doctored,” Avery says. “So when you did a 12-day patrol like I did, two reports were written – one showed me just walking around in circles inside Sarawak (Malaysia) for 12 days, and the other one showed the full scope of my patrol, which included 11 days in Indonesia. That was the same for every patrol that went over.”

Avery says that at the time, only prime ­minister Harold Holt and his defence minister knew the truth of what was going on – visiting parliamentary delegations were fed fake maps that showed Australians sticking to the Malaysian side of the border. The secrecy even extended to their fellow troops. “The solders weren’t even allowed to ­discuss what they did with other members of the company,” he says. “So soldiers, when I interviewed them for my book after the Secrets Act had expired, said, ‘Oh, we were the only ­platoon that went over the border’. Thirty years after, they still didn’t know that everyone had gone over. It was amazing to me that, firstly, at the time they didn’t even know what the other ­platoons were doing, and secondly, they kept it to themselves for so long.” The reason for the secrecy, says Avery, was diplomacy. “It was a strange situation where you’re fighting someone when you’ve still got full diplomatic relations with them. That must be very rare.”

Brian Selby cites Australia’s relationship with Indonesia as the reason the lack of acknowledgment endures to this day, despite the gag now having been lifted for almost as many years as it was in place. “We have a political situation that still pervades the whole era. Not wishing to upset Indonesia. Which is ridiculous,” he says.

Avery believes history plays a part, too. At the time, the conflict was deliberately presented as Malaysia fighting to “preserve its independence against a much larger and more powerful foe, with some assistance from its British Commonwealth allies”. Any reported contacts were attributed to Malaysia or “security forces” rather than Australia, Britain or New Zealand.

Filling the empty trench of Australia’s war ­narrative between Korea and Vietnam is near impossible now, Avery says, since the real history isn’t there – it’s all cover stories and fake documents. How can you revive something that, on paper, doesn’t really exist? That only a handful of people who were actually there even know about?

Brian Selby. Picture: Tait Schmaal
Brian Selby. Picture: Tait Schmaal

In 2016, Brian Selby attempted his own CPR of history. He organised a reunion for veterans in Borneo to mark 50 years since the ceasefire – an anniversary that could have earned them a stamp, had they thought of it back then.

There were 35 of us – mostly veterans and a smattering of family members – who met in ­Sarawak’s capital Kuching, an unpleasantly warm city about 60km north of the Indonesian border. We spent a week revisiting their old bases. We went to Stass, a village school that became one of the bases where my Pop spent time. Remnants of bunkers were still in the playground and old ammunition boxes were piled up outside the classrooms. We went to villages in Boka, Serikan, Bau and a place called Bukit Knuckle. Locals lined up to shake the veterans’ hands. Some even asked for autographs.

Brian Selby during the war. Picture: supplied
Brian Selby during the war. Picture: supplied

Kuching’s Hero’s Graveyard was the final stop on this nostalgic tour of duty. About 100 Australian and Malaysian veterans gathered in the quiet heat of the cemetery, their foreheads as shiny as the medals pinned to their jackets. The day was an opportunity to loosen the silence a little by unveiling a plaque with the names of the Australians killed. Men who died from booby traps or gunshot wounds or landmines or suicide. One SAS soldier was gored to death by an elephant.

The first name, etched in gold on the polished black plaque, was B. Algar, Vicki Tiegs’ father. Even though she was only a baby when he was killed, Algar’s death in a vehicle accident and the silence around it in many ways shaped her life. “Mum did it tough. Because it wasn’t classified as a war zone, she had to fight to receive DVA [Department of Veterans’ Affairs] benefits and wasn’t given them until 2003,” she says. “I remember as a kid, other kids would say, ‘Where’s your dad?’ I’d say, ‘He was killed in Malaysia’ and, because no one had heard about it, they all thought I was lying, so they just used to call me a fatherless child.”

Each of those golden names underneath Barry Algar’s in Kuching held a special meaning for ­veterans there in the graveyard. For Bill Field – a tall, broad-shouldered man with a trimmed white beard and a ready chuckle – there was one name that glared at him the most: Vic Richards. In 1966, Field’s section of seven men were outnumbered by enemy soldiers on the Malaysian side of the border and “all hell broke loose”. ­Richards and Eddie Lang were injured and had to be ­carried out of the jungle on improvised stretchers. The wounds were horrendous. A stomach opened up. An arm ripped apart. A strike in the solar plexus. Richards had lost a lot of blood but not his sense of humour. Field recalls him cracking jokes as they carried him out on their shoulders. Lang, on the other hand, was saying, “Tell my wife I love her”. Lang survived and earned the nickname “Hard-As-Nails”. Richards died from his injuries.

Graveyard memorial in Kuching, Sarawak. Picture: Kylie Stevenson
Graveyard memorial in Kuching, Sarawak. Picture: Kylie Stevenson

For Don Cameron, there are two names that really hit home, and just being in a graveyard brings it all back. For years he couldn’t go near a cemetery without the smell of death washing over him. One night his platoon had been out on patrol and realised they were camped on some sort of jungle burial ground. “The smell of the bodies, that was with me for a long time,” ­Cameron told me, his slim, angular face pointed towards the ground. “Plus it was where we got the info that our mates had been killed.” There, sleeping atop the freshly dead, Cameron and his platoon were told Sergeant Vincent Vella and Private Larry Downes had been blown up by a jumping jack mine.

One man, who didn’t want to be named, wasn’t just there at the reunion on account of his own Confrontation, which left him with PTSD, but also for his cousin, SAS Lieutenant Ken ­Hudson. In 1966, Hudson and Private Roger Moncrieff had been crossing a swollen river on the Indonesian side of the border when they were swept away. Their bodies weren’t recovered until 44 years later. They were declared missing in action and although it was assumed they had drowned, there was a chance the pair had been taken prisoner, the man told me. “The worst part about the whole thing was his mother tried to get me to talk about operations here and we had the 30-year thing and I didn’t mention anything,” he said. “And I think now sometimes, maybe I should have.”

It made me think of the words my Pop held back, too, and what withholding those stories does to a person. The original purpose of Claret had been to destabilise the enemy, but in war, destabilisation goes both ways, even if that’s not the intention. In the grip of anxiety and fear, everyone ends up at least a little off-balance, especially when the mission is cloaked in secrecy so thick it becomes unmoored from the truth.

As we stood among the tombstones and reflected on this largely unknown war, it struck me that there were many ways war could injure a person. It’s not just death and physical injury. The burden of secrets and the gaping hole of acknowledgment – even the denial of a stamp – can be equally as painful.

For more information on fundraising for an official memorial, go to fesrmemorial.org.au

Webmaster’s note.  3RAR returned from ops in Borneo and returned to Australia in 1965.  In September single soldiers from 3RAR were sent to Puckapunyal to form the nucleus of 7RAR.

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