Confrontation in Borneo

In 1964 New Zealand began helping Malaysia to fight Indonesia’s attempt to wrest control of the North Borneo territories in what was known as Confrontation. This role, which continued until 1966, saw New Zealand soldiers mount covert cross-border raids into Indonesia.

On 11 August 1966 representatives of Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace treaty in Bangkok. Hostilities were officially at an end. 1RNZIR completed its withdrawal from Borneo that October.

Although there were no fatalities as a result of enemy action, 12 New Zealanders died or were accidentally killed in the period of Confrontation between 1964 and 1966.

Greater Malaysia

Confrontation was a conflict which developed in 1963 between Indonesia and the new state of Malaysia, which was backed by the British Commonwealth. Its origins lay in the United Kingdom’s plans to divest itself of its South-east Asian empire. This was to be achieved by federating the Crown colonies in Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak), the protected state of Brunei, and the self-governing colony of Singapore with Malaya, which had been granted independence in 1957 and had declared the end of the 12-year Emergency in 1960.

Formal agreement to establish a federation of greater Malaysia by 31 August 1963 was reached between London and Kuala Lumpur in November 1961. Despite relinquishing sovereignty, the British were guaranteed the continued use of their Singapore bases.

Indonesian opposition

These plans for a greater Malaysia were strongly opposed by neighbouring Indonesia and its charismatic president, Achmed Sukarno. He complained, with particular emphasis on the continued British military presence at Singapore, that London’s grant of independence was not sincere.

Sukarno reasoned that Malaysia would become a British satellite and perpetuate, rather than end, European domination of the region. Opposition to Malaysia also buttressed the president politically by distracting Indonesian public opinion from the appalling state of the nation’s economy. It came as no surprise, therefore, when the Indonesian foreign minister, Dr Subandrio, declared on 20 January 1963 that Indonesia would henceforth pursue a policy of Konfrontasi (Confrontation) against Malaysia.

Guerilla warfare

Sukarno was limited in his options for opposing Malaysia. Although equipped with modern Soviet weapons, the Indonesian armed forces were not capable of fighting a war against the British. Instead, Sukarno decided to encourage and support subversive movements already existing in Borneo. If a major insurgency could be fomented, the British might eventually be persuaded to abandon the goal of greater Malaysia. By the end of 1963, this strategy increasingly involved Indonesian army regulars, posing as guerrillas, crossing the border from Kalimantan to attack the security forces in Borneo before quickly returning to Indonesian territory.

British response: Operation Claret

The British responded to Confrontation in a two-pronged manner. In order to deter the Indonesians from mounting an open attack on Malaysia, substantial air and naval forces were deployed in and around Singapore. The main concern for British military planners throughout the conflict, however, was containing the insurgency in Borneo. Here the security forces were in an impossible situation. They were required to defend a 1600-km-long frontier cloaked in extremely dense jungle against an enemy who could readily retreat to safety. Increasingly frustrated, Major-General Sir Walter Walker, director of operations in Borneo, requested permission to pursue the guerrillas across the border. After considerable debate, London finally agreed in April 1964.

The objective of the cross-border operations, code-named Claret, was to wrest the initiative from the enemy. From May 1964, predominantly SAS troops, operating in groups of four, regularly patrolled territory immediately across the border. When a patrol discovered enemy guerrillas moving towards Malaysia, it would arrange for them to be ambushed as they crossed the border.

Britain requests support

This combination of deterrence and military operations was remarkably successful in containing the insurgency to a low-level conflict. Nonetheless, it required a considerable deployment of Britain’s limited resources and manpower. By early 1965, more than 60,000 British servicemen were deployed in the region, along with a surface fleet of more than 80 warships, including two aircraft carriers. From December 1963, the British asked repeatedly that New Zealand and Australia send combat forces to Borneo.

New Zealand refuses to send troops

Keith Holyoake’s National government had to weigh up the policy considerations carefully. On the one hand, there was no question that Malaysia should be supported. In both official and public eyes, Indonesia had committed clear and frequent acts of aggression against the new state. On the other hand, Wellington did not want to become embroiled in a major war with Indonesia. A bloody conflict might poison New Zealand’s relations with its closest Asian neighbour for generations. Consequently, the government initially refused to send troops to Borneo, arguing that the British and Malaysian forces already stationed there were capable of dealing with the problem.

New Zealand drawn in by Malay Peninsula attack

Frustrated by the failure of Confrontation to make any real headway, Sukarno decided in mid-1964 to extend military operations to the Malay Peninsula. On 1 September, 98 Indonesian paratroopers landed just north of Labis in Johore state. One of the few available Commonwealth units in the area was 1st Battalion, RNZIR, which, with Wellington’s permission, was used to hunt down the infiltrators, most of whom surrendered without a struggle.

Two months later, on 29 October, the New Zealanders were involved in a similar operation to capture a small amphibious force which had landed at the mouth of the Sungei Kesang River in north-west Johore. In addition to these activities, the RNZAF’s 14 Squadron, consisting of six Canberra bombers, was deployed to Singapore, where it remained as part of the Commonwealth’s air power deterrent until the end of Confrontation.

Holyoake agrees to send limited force

Sukarno responded to these failures by substantially increasing the number of insurgents crossing the border into Borneo. With Britain’s military resources now almost at breaking point, the New Zealand government could no longer ignore the appeals for assistance coming from London. On 1 February 1965 Holyoake announced that a small Special Air Service detachment, together with 1RNZIR, would be deployed in Borneo as soon as possible. In addition, New Zealand crews would man two former Royal Navy minesweepers, renamed HMNZS Hickleton and Santon, which would join the frigate HMNZS Taranaki in patrolling Malaysian waters in the Malacca Strait.

During late February the 1st Ranger Squadron NZSAS, about 40 men under the command of Major W.J.D. Meldrum, began its tour of duty. They were replaced by a similarly sized detachment, commanded by Major R.S. Dearing, in October. Both detachments took part in Claret operations alongside Britain’s 22nd Regiment SAS.

1RNZIR, commanded by Colonel R.M. Gurr, was not deployed in Borneo until May 1965, when it relieved a Gurkha battalion in Sarawak. In a series of skirmishes, it inflicted substantial losses on the enemy without suffering any fatal casualties. Relieved in October, 1RNZIR returned to its base in Malaya. By the time it was redeployed to Borneo in May 1966, Confrontation had all but ended.

New Zealand troops in Borneo were ably supported by No. 41 Squadron RNZAF in Singapore. The squadron's Bristol B170 Freighters flew regular resupply flights into Borneo, dropping food and equipment to British and New Zealand ground forces on jungle operations. 

The end of Confrontation

On 1 October 1965, an attempt by a group of army officers to seize power in Jakarta was ruthlessly crushed by troops loyal to Major-General Suharto. This event heralded a major transformation in Indonesian politics. Increasingly, Sukarno became a paper President, with real power exercised by Suharto and the army establishment.

These generals, concerned with restoring economic stability and suppressing the Indonesian Communist Party, decided to abandon Sukarno’s radical agenda, particularly Confrontation. Military activity in Borneo by Indonesian insurgents subsided dramatically after the coup. During its second deployment, for example, 1RNZIR did not engage the enemy at all. On 11 August 1966 representatives of Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace treaty in Bangkok, Thailand. Hostilities were officially at an end. 1RNZIR completed its withdrawal from Borneo in October.

Further information

This web feature is adapted from John Subritzky’s entry in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History (Oxford University Press, Auckland, 2000) and produced by the NZHistory team.

Links

Books

  • W.D. Baker, Dare to Win: The story of the New Zealand SAS, Lothian Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1987
  • Ron Crosby, NZSAS: The first fifty years, Viking, Auckland, 2009
  • R. Gurr, Voices of a Border War: A history of 1 Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment 1963 to 1965, privately published, Melbourne, 1995
  • Christopher Pugsley, From Emergency to Confrontation: The New Zealand Armed Forces in Malaya and Borneo 1949-66, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2003
How to cite this page

'NZ and Confrontation in Borneo', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/confrontation-in-borneo, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 29-Apr-2016

Community contributions

3 comments have been posted about NZ and Confrontation in Borneo

What do you know?

Gareth Phipps

Posted: 29 Apr 2016

Hi Graeme/Jack - we have added a sentence in the 'New Zealand drawn in by Malay Peninsula attack' section about the valuable role No. 41 Squadron played flying resupply missions during the Confrontation. Regards, Gareth Phipps, Digital Production Editor (NZHistory)

Jack Shadbolt

Posted: 14 Apr 2016

Hi Grahame
I fully endorse your comments on the failure of a mention of 41 sqn in its most important ops in Sarawark and other border posts, I well remember supply drops in precarious terrain and weather situations by the the 41 sqn unit, they were a godsend to us all there on border operations, the RAF with there Beverlys were limited as to the weather in the high lands but the reliable ,slow flying 40 thousand rivets flying in formation saved the day, and after days of monsoon rain and no tucker we saluted the RNZAF for your supply drops with a hot brew
cheers Jack Shadbolt
2 det NZSAS

Graeme Stagg

Posted: 07 Dec 2015

I find it very disappointing that no reference is made to the RNZAF Transport involvment in Confrontation. I served as aircrew on No 41 Sqn RNZAF based at RAF Changi between April 1965 and Nov 1967. During this time, I flew on active supply dropping operations along the border between Malaysian Borneo and the indonsesian part of Borneo called Kalimantan. We were based on detachement at Kuching flying Bristol B170 Freighter aircraft and in 1965 and 1966 we did non stop supply dropping to the many border forts that had been constructed by the British and Commonwealth troops.