A war few wanted
Voices from a Border War
Wilson Scott Publishing
We all know smoking kills, though it usually takes years of inhaling toxins before the heart shudders to a halt or cancer triumphs.
But back in 1963, lighting up in the jungle during Soekarno’s Konfrontasi offensive against newborn Malaysia could have meant death was just seconds away.
That’s because the Indonesian soldiers continued smoking kretek (clove) cigarettes while trying to infiltrate Sarawak and Sabah, giving away their locations to the keen-nosed troops tracking them, according to these accounts from the men who were there.
It was a lesson learned too late, indicating not just a lack of authority but also that the Indonesian army, which was largely using irregular militia, didn’t really have its heart in the job.
It’s widely believed that the Ganyang Malaysia (Crush Malaysia) campaign had been launched for domestic political purposes, diverting attention from economic problems.
Soekarno had earlier been indifferent to Britain giving its colony independence. Then he changed his mind and started arguing that Malaysia was destined to become a puppet state. Konfrontasi ended quietly after Soeharto became president.
The four-year undeclared war cost Indonesia 590 lives. More than 770 men were taken prisoner. By contrast the British Commonwealth forces supporting the Malaysian federation lost 114, most of them Gurkhas.
Australian and New Zealand troops were involved and took the opportunity to refine their jungle warfare techniques. These were later applied in Vietnam – though not always by US forces who seemed not to have learned the importance of stealth and discipline, radios off, hand signals only, no after-shave and no smoking.
The Viet Cong did not make the same mistakes.
Also important was winning the hearts and minds of the locals. The phrase has now been corrupted by cynicism but in the Borneo border fighting it had real meaning.
Without the help of the ferocious Dyaks known as Iban, and who were often hostile to the Indonesians and enjoyed collecting their heads, the Commonwealth forces would have been floundering in the swamps and lost in the dense tropical forests.
The Iban had families on both sides of the border so could move around easily, though not always safely. They were used in psychological warfare, taking false messages to the Indonesian military, such as warning them to beware of minefields that didn’t exist.
The egalitarian Ozzies and Kiwis respected the Iban culture, paid the people to work, gave them medical supplies and won their loyalty. By contrast the Indonesian militia were reportedly brutal.
Brigadier Robert Gurr was head of the 1st Battalion Royal NZ Infantry Regiment fighting in Borneo and in this book he’s collected the stories of the men he commanded. There are only a few minor attempts at balance – these are the accounts of the victors.
That doesn’t mean they’re non-stop Boy’s Own Annual yarns of gallantry and smart soldiering. There are plenty of tales of stuff-ups and incompetence. Some of the worst casualties on the Malaysian side were not inflicted by Indonesians but by helicopter accidents.
Other problems included communication systems failing and mistakes in translation. There’s also humor. A commander about to evacuate a limping soldier found the man had put his boots on the wrong feet in his rush to withdraw.
One Kiwi in the midst of an ambush was surprised to hear the Indonesians calling out in English: ‘Come and get it British!’
“At such times life becomes like a slow-motion movie,” the soldier said. “I recall being intensely irritated that Indonesian intelligence should be so bad it could confuse a New Zealand infantry company with a British one.”
Of course the Border War was no chuckle time. Jungle warfare was nerve-wracking, brutal close-quarter combat where the enemy could suddenly appear, fire, and then vanish behind the dripping green curtain.
Some in the Commonwealth lines wondered what they were doing so far from home risking their lives in mud and malaria for a political sideshow.
But this was also the era of the great Communist scare when Australians felt particularly vulnerable. The West was terrified that Soekarno was turning his country into a Communist state and had to be stopped.
Although there’s evidence the Indonesian military was unhappy with their president’s leftist leanings they found themselves on the same side with Communist guerrillas also fighting to destabilise the Malaysian Federation.
Technically the Commonwealth forces were not supposed to enter Indonesian territory to avoid inflaming the international political situation. They had to wait on the Sarawak side for the Indonesian soldiers to cross over or parachute in before they could attack.
Inevitably such rules were ignored. By entering Kalimantan, making contact and then retreating, the pursuing Indonesians were lured over the border and trapped.
The troops were also not allowed to bombard Indonesian bases with artillery “unless the enemy acted aggressively.”
The Indonesians tended to operate in groups of 20 to 30 men and had no such restrictions on their movements. Until the later stages of the conflict they were the numerically superior force.
Thirteen years after Konfrontasi ended, good relations had been restored between the former combatants. One NZ officer attended the Indonesian Staff College where he met some of his one-time enemies. He reported that he was impressed with their honesty:
“Amidst laughter tinged with some sadness I would be regaled with the hardships they suffered in Kalimantan. They (the Indonesians) existed on very limited supplies over very long and extremely complicated supply lines and communications, but they were still able to fight with determination.”
By contrast the Commonwealth forces were backed by artillery, air power and good support with munitions, food and medicines.
There’s clearly a need for histories telling the Indonesian side of the conflict. It wasn’t the greatest moment in the Republic’s history but it deserves recognition for the courage shown by the men on the ground supporting their country.
(First published in The Sunday Post 13 June 2010)