Australian Cold War Warriors – The Secret Aussie History of the Second Malaysian Emergency (Counter Insurgency War 1968 – 1989)

It’s kind of strange to think that an important and significant part of your own personal military history is based upon a lie. It’s not my personal lie, it’s way bigger than anything I could come up with myself. This lie encompasses 50 years and involves every single government that Australia has had in that time. Even more astounding is the fact that the lie was openly discussed in government and military circles at the very beginning and that the real information is pretty much available for anyone to read today. The lie is part of Australia’s strategic and political history and the only ones directly affected by it today are the nine thousand Australian servicemen who participated in the Second Malayan Emergency against communist insurgents from 1972 to 1989.

This is the personal account of Private Sean Arthur’s experience as a Rifleman at RCB in 5 Platoon, Bravo Company 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) in 1977.

Australian Army Rifle Company Butterworth, Malaysia 1977

Ours was not an actual shooting war, but our involvement was essential to keeping the insurgency down to a manageable level. If we had not been there protecting essential military aircraft, personal and other military assets the chances were almost certain that the Butterworth Airbase in Northern Malaysia would have been an irresistible target for the insurgents. If the airbase had been attacked, even once, and lives or materiel destroyed it would have had an incalculable effect to the security of Australia. It would also have given new life to the defunct geopolitical “domino theory” of the 1960s. The domino theory was the deep-rooted concept that every country in Southeast Asia would topple towards communism unless the West involved themselves more significantly in that hemisphere militarily.

The Malaysian Communist Party (MCP) lost their first confrontation — the Malaysian Emergency — in 1960. But the communists were not down and out. Instead they retreated to the jungles surrounding the Malay-Thai border to lick their wounds. For the next 8 years the armed wing of the Communist Party — predominantly ethnic Chinese — regrouped and retrained for yet another offensive. The nineteen-sixties were years of revolution and armed struggle and Malaysia was no different. The continuing success by the red armies in the Vietnam war was an object lesson to the communists. They believed that Revolutionary War could be achieved anywhere provided determined resistance and a careless attitude to casualties were maintained.

China offered moral but limited material assistance to the Malaysian Communist Party under leader Chin Peng. By April 1976, the CIA estimated that there were about 2400 insurgents operating throughout Malaysia committing hundreds of small-scale attacks. The vast majority of the communist insurgency were based in the Thai-Malay border region only 120 kilometres North of the Butterworth Air Base (BAB) where we were stationed. You might suppose that given that the rifle company was 120 km from the Communist base of operations they were too far away to be much of a threat? The distance was largely immaterial. The Communist Terrorists (CT), as they were known at the time, committed attacks even in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, which was another 500 km further south.

For this account, I don’t want to get too bogged down into the war itself, my intention is to give the background for Australia’s involvement in it. However, I will make the following points that really makes the Australian government’s current position very awkward.

1. It is an uncontested fact that Malaysia was involved in a long and bloody second insurgency from 1968 to 1989.

2. As part of the response, Butterworth Air Base was actively involved in combat and medivac operations by the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF). This is also an uncontested and unremarkable fact.

3. From 1970 until 1989, Australia established a Rifle Company at the Butterworth Air Base to provide a protective and quick-reaction infantry force for RAAF/MAF Base Butterworth during a resurgence of the Communist insurgency in Malaysia.[1]

4. The Rifle Company Butterworth (RCB) were company sub-units of approximately 100 officers and men deployed from their parent rifle battalions residing in Australia.

5. RCB had Rules of Engagement (ROE) with the authority to engage lethal force should the airbase be threatened by the enemy. Every Australian soldier was made familiar with the ROE which included warnings in the Malay language which most ex-servicemen can recite to this day.

6. At the time under discussion, the fact that RCB was defending the air base from attack from MCP CT forces was open knowledge in the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) and the only reason that we were there. The infantry company not only had repeated briefings about deploying counter strategies should we come under attack, we also mounted a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and conducted assault drills in defence of BAB.

7. Approximately, 9000 Australian servicemen rotated through BAB over almost 20 years which translates to roughly 80 different Rifle Companies defending Australian and Malaysian personal and material during the conflict.

8. The Australian Government developed and operated a pretext for our secret involvement in BAB which satisfied multiple strategic problems. The public pretext was that were an ordinary garrison force (like any other in Australia) and that we were rotated through Northern Malaysia for “training” purposes. Ask any RCB veteran — there was nothing comparable between our training in Australia and our service in Malaysia.

9. The RCB Company was heavily armed and the QRF had a full combat allotment of ball ammunition at all times. Every QFF counter-attack drill on the air base was conducted with live ammunition, including belt fed 7.62 mm for the M60 GPMG during dry practice assaults through Vital Points (VPs) (more about this later). In Australia live rounds were collected from us within minutes after a range shoot. In Malaysia we were fully armed and battle ready every second of duty.

10. The QRF acting in response to a VP callout had no way of knowing if it was a drill or the base was under actual attack until they arrived at the location. This was deliberate because in a war situation any emergency call might be the real thing. Any time the QRF dismounted from the truck during a callout they could have been involved in an active enemy contact.

11. Unlike the folks at home being fed a pretext about training, the command at the RCB could not afford their soldiers believing such invented stories. Soldiers on the ground were instructed about the truth and the real extent of the threat because their lives, and those of their comrades, depended upon knowing that truth. So, a schizophrenic policy was in play where the soldiers were instructed on our real purpose and Australians at home were told that their servicemen were in Malaysia for training purposes. This odd policy has continued to this day.

12. There have been several reviews over the years concerning RCB, in part brought about by outraged ex-servicemen, where the public statements about the pretext for being at BAB has become the real reason for our being there. The public lie has now not only overtaken the real truth, but it has become a house of cards upon which the real truth rests. Several governments now have relied upon reviews, which in the end revolve around public statements made at the time. Each judicial review rests on the same lies, and with every review the truth is buried deeper and becomes that much more difficult to reveal. For the most part questions in Parliament about RCB during the time of the war is simply answered with the reports about previous reviews including:

· The 1993 Committee of Inquiry into Defence Awards,

. The 2000 Review of Service Entitlement Anomalies in Respect to South-East Asian Service 1955–1975

· The 2003 Review of Veterans’ Entitlements,

· The 2011 Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal Inquiry into Recognition for Members of Rifle Company Butterworth Service in Malaysia between 1970 and 1989, and

· The Medallic Recognition Joint Working Group on Service in South-East Asia 1950–2011 published in 2013.

Each of those reviews has consistently found that Rifle Company Butterworth’s service does not qualify as “warlike service” under the applicable legislation. But, each of those reviews also commences with the premise of what was publicly promoted by the government of the day — only training, etc.

The problem for the Australian government is that for the first time – and thanks to the tireless work by ex-veterans in the RBC Review Group – we have been slowly getting access to incriminating documents from the archives, both military and political, outlining the real story. One intelligence report stated that a single rifle company was inadequate to the real threat and suggested two battalions for the job. That is at least eight times the infantry deployment at the time.

My Personal Experience as a Rifleman at RCB

At this point I would like to outlay the ordinary story about a typical RCB deployment during the Second Insurgency in North Malaysia at Air Base Butterworth.

Before I do, I would like to explain that there was really no “typical” or “standard” experience at RCB. The Australian army’s total deployment lasted 19 years, so you would expect that procedures would have evolved from year-to-year, or from company-to-company. This is particularly true in that Butterworth had four deployments a year, every year. The main sequence of duty lumbered on, such as the QRF callouts, etc, but the general routines and daily activity would vary according to the whims of the CHQ and/or the local enemy situation on any given deployment. Suffice to say that some veterans would not recognise parts of my account, and I would probably not recognise parts of theirs. I can only recount my own time as an infantryman at Butterworth with the knowledge that other soldiers had different experiences.

Ex-veteran RCB strength may have started out at 9000, but every year our numbers deplete, possibly because it is the intention of the Australian government that the story dies with the veterans? For one thing, politicians of all stripes have shown excellent aptitude in denying recognition to their servicemen when the real facts are at their disposal. And, after all, governments and wars continue in an endless cycle, and those governments have their hands full with veterans from more recent conflicts, not just those from older times.

Cpl Larry North, Vietnam and RCB Vet.

Let me tell you a bit about my story of RCB. No heroics, no gunfire, no action — just a simple grunt in a war zone doing his job like those before me and those who would deploy after me.

I landed at Butterworth Air Base in Malaysia just before Christmas in 1977, as part of 5 Platoon, Bravo Company 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR). It was a chartered QANTAS flight via Singapore and it was my first international trip. Like everyone else, I had a single big jungle green transport bag with my name stenciled in massive letters on one side. Everything I owned from civilian clothes and personal items to army uniforms was squished into that bag. My military webbing was stowed somewhere in the hold, and I can no longer recall if we brought our weapons over from Oz or just took over the armoury weapons in-country at BAB. I think that it was the latter as I have no memory of lugging guns from the aircraft. We wore civvies because Singapore was still enforcing the rule of no uniforms in the airport terminal which I believe was a hangover of not being seen to support any of the combatants during the Vietnam war.

It was hot night when we touched down at Butterworth, but we were pretty much already acclimatised to the heat as our parent battalion 1RAR, was based in Townsville. A bus took us to our new lines which were a few cosy (but incredibly beat-up) wooden buildings adjacent to the base golf course. Our little barracks included no creature comforts at all. We had a basic steel frame bed and a wooden locker that was so abused that the Japanese may have even used it during their occupation in WW2. This didn’t worry any of us in the least because as infantryman we had a bed. An actual bed and a roof over our head — this constitutes luxury in itself. We supposed that the RAAF servicemen who shared the base with us had motel rooms and possibly butlers, but there is nothing new in RAAF extravagance. My brother was an NCO in the RAAF and we had even been on the same major exercises together in Oz. His experiences in the field, however, were a lot different from that of mine. The RAAF idea of hardship included dodgy air conditioners, while mine involved running out of drinking water in the scorching North Queensland sun.

Snazzy RCB barrack’s furniture. Typical 8/9 RAR hooligans from a previous tour, scribbling on the antique furnishings.

We discovered the next day that the company had a couple of “houseboys” who would make our beds every day and keep the lines and the communal bathroom spic and span. An amount would be deducted from our pay to employ these individuals. The idea that someone would make my bed and sweep the barracks was a joyful one. I met our guy the next morning who showed up as I was in the process of making my bed. He acted hurt and surprised that I would rob him of his duty. He told me never to attempt such a brazen act of ordinary domestic chores again. It was kind of bizarre given that the military had bashed into our heads that not making a bed was a chargeable offence. However, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

So, for the next three days our houseboy showed up and made all the beds in the barracks and made a big production about swinging a broom around the room — and then he never showed up again for about two weeks. That’s right, for the rest of the three-month tour of duty at Butterworth we only ever saw the guy a handful of times, and we continued to make our own beds and clean-up the lines and the bathrooms but, of course, our pay was still deducted for the privilege. It annoyed us on very many levels, none of us minded cleaning up after ourselves, however everyone objected to his robbing our pay. I’ve read that our time in BAB was one of servants, ice tea and palm trees. They must be thinking of another air base?

The first week was learning about our role in detail. It was either the first day, or perhaps the day after, that every one of us was taken on a tour of the Air Base Butterworth by Iroquois chopper. It was an inspired idea because we got to see the entire base in one hit, including the areas that were to be considered Vital Points (VPs) and where the rifle company was situated according to the grand scale of the base. As it turned out we were tucked out into the extreme edge of one corner bounded by golf course on one side and a Malay Kampung located just on the other side of the wire boundary. A Kampung describes an indigenous Malaysian village, but was often unfairly used as just another name for slum. The village directly on the other side of our boundary line was clean and neat and I liked to listen to the beautiful Muslim call of prayer at dusk and dawn.

In the treeline directly ahead was a Malay village bordering the Air Base. Photo taken by my barracks.

It did trouble me that a village abutted directly against company lines and I didn’t understand why we would allow ourselves to be situated in what was an obvious security threat. Even if the enemy happened to be terrible shots they could have poked a weapon through the wire and pinged a dozen of us before we could even get to our arms in defence. I suppose this matter concerned everyone who served at RCB but not enough for them to move the company deeper inside the base. Our lines were also very close to the main gate, which I guess was deliberately planned.

Our briefings told us that in the event of an attack RBC would be responsible for the defence of the airbase and that the local Malaysians security force would be under our orders and direction. This is what makes RCB veteran’s teeth grind every time we hear that our role was only for training. We were told repeatedly to our face that we were the tripwire for enemy engagement and we acted accordingly.

RCB from the direction that the QRF truck would tear down the road towards you careless of life, limb and government property. Note the two sharpest bends in the road, probably designed to wake up dozy diggers at the very commencement of the wild ride.

The other thing of note concerning our company area is that we were located towards one end of the main runway (the Southern end). This meant that both us and our village neighbours were forced to get used to jet aircraft coming and going at all hours of the day and night. I can honestly say after a couple of days the screaming of fighter aircraft coming and going did not wake me up from my honest slumbers. They became just part of the background environmental noise.

Prior to our deployment to Malaysia, preparations included training one of our rifle section to become a truck driver. Every section of every platoon had their own a truck driver. Likewise, at least one from every platoon qualified in the basic Malay language course. I found our translator to be quite useless unless swearing was involved in the conversation. They all learned to swear fluently in Malay, every one of them.

Our section truck driver was a useful lunatic on the road and I can’t speak highly enough about his driving skills. He was after all — first and foremost — just another grunt like any one of us. In a skill that involved very fast driving in a very old and beat-up truck our driver was the best in the company. Why is that noteworthy? Well the speed at which we arrived at our VP determined how many we would have to do on any given night. So, if we arrived at the VP at an acceptable time in order to “dry assault” that location, as a rule, we might only have to do about three in total that night. If, on the other hand, we were tardy at arriving at the VP, we would normally have additional VPs added to our nightly routine. So instead of three breakneck runs through the base in the middle of the night, we might have to do five or six if we were only seconds late at our destination. Seconds late was considered unacceptable.

The ancient VP Truck. This beast, and perhaps a couple like it, carried 9000 Australian soldiers at dangerous speeds to a possible encounter with the bad guys for almost 20 years. (Photo Credit: Trooper Paul Whiteman, ex 2 Cav who served with C Coy 5/7 RAR at RCB in 1984)

The army rule was you absolutely had to stick to the speed limit, but you also couldn’t be late at your VP. You do the math! By anyone’s reckoning these two opposing rules were impossible to legally accommodate. I think the answer was everyone studiously avoided looking at the truck’s speedo. In any case, having a lunatic at the wheel was a definite plus.

Off-duty RCB Diggers happily awaiting the arrival of the truck taking them to the mess. Looking back, we were really all just stupid kids.

Every day a section was allotted Quick Reaction Force (QRF) duty. This was posted weeks in advance so you knew when your duty was on the rotation at any given time. If it was a weekday, you would start the day at 6:00 AM and jump on the truck for breakfast soon afterwards and begin the work-parties or training schedule by 8:00am.

If you were detailed for QRF that day you performed normal duties until 4:00 pm with the exception that if something were to go down you had to drop what you were doing and be the first to go deal with it.

At the allotted time that afternoon the duty QRF would pick up their webbing and weapon and wander over to the guard room and stack the gear next to a vacant bed that was bare of covers apart from a grubby pillow. They would sleep on that bed fully clothed with your webbing and rifle at the foot of the bed.

Sleeping fully clothed on a bed wearing boots took some getting used to. There was a table and chairs for those who wish to play board games, which I never did. Most nights I would go to sleep on the hot sticky plastic mattress listening to endless stupid arguments about the rules of Risk, which for some reason was very popular at the time.

I would try not to sleep until the after first VP callout and that usually happened before midnight. In a little office adjacent to the guard room was a telephone piquet. For our company the telephone was usually manned by the section 2IC. Every time the telephone went off the entire QRF’s collective heart stopped and the room went very, very quiet. Everybody tried to listen to the soft conversation on the other side of the little internal window.If we didn’t hear a VP number immediately upon his answering the phone we could relax.

However, when we were on a actual VP callout, the phone would ring in and the 2IC would scream out a VP number, say, “VP 14” and all eight of us would conduct a mad scramble for the truck parked outside the door, collecting weapon and webbing with one hand on the way out in a mad, but controlled, panic. Australian soldiers are scientifically trained to panic but only in a controlled way.

Comically on a VP callout, many times, all eight of us would try and get out the door at once tangling ourselves in a huge mess. Our driver would have the truck revving before the last of us was even hauled onto the tray of the truck and had the wheels starting to burn. That first five seconds where everybody was trying to collect themselves in a heap and clipping themselves into their webbing and trying to find their rifle on the floor of the truck as we bounced along gaining speed was quite exhilarating and I will never forget it.

About eight seconds ago we may have been in a deep sleep, and eight seconds later we were hurtling along the empty night, each of us trying to remember which one was VP 14. Mind you, we all had live ammunition in our magazines and it is a small miracle that nobody was ever shot during the mad dash boarding the truck.

VP, stood for “Vital Point”, although I believe some companies called them KPs for “Key Point”. It doesn’t matter, they were shorthand for locations scattered all around the airbase designed to get semiconscious and dazed troops to the required location with the quickest explanation and in the shortest amount of time. All troops were supposed to memorise all the VP locations, but in truth only the section commander and the truck driver really bothered. The rest of us were simply passengers until we got to the pointy end.

Shortly after getting to Butterworth I had a role change in the section from forward scout to number two on the gun. I took my job quite seriously and although I wasn’t the primary gunner on the M60, my job was to carry all the extra belts of ammunition, feed ammunition into the gun, and make sure the rounds were on target. My good mate Legge, was the gunner, and he had eyeglasses like coke bottles and was the only man in the section who could sleep through a VP alarm. So, I would first buckle myself into my webbing grab my rifle and then drag Legge from his bed by his boots, thrust the M60 into his chest and push/pull him towards the truck.

My section gunner, Pte Legge. When off duty on base there was literally nothing to do but await next round of duty.

The crazed drive through the empty base is one of fondest memories. With one arse cheek gripping onto the bench seating along the sides, one hand gripping the side of the truck and the other grasping your weapon, you would bounce along seriously in danger of going over the side. Many of us gave up the challenge of trying to sit on the impossibly small bench seating, and we just lay in a heap in the centre of the floor as we rolled along. We were collectively so tangled that if one fell out of the truck, everyone would fall out.

The arrival at the VP would be announced by the screeching of the truck to a halt and all the humanity and equipment in the back of the truck sliding violently towards the front of the vehicle with an unpleasant thud and a word or two might be voiced that you grandmother would disapprove. Because we were professional infantryman, we would bound out of the truck a second later and would shake ourselves out into assault formation.

Listening for the orders of the section commander, most often the gun group deployed to the right and the scout and rifleman to the left. We would then conduct dry fire movement (no actual shooting) throughout the VP until the duty officer who was lurking in the shadows would call off the assault. The duty officer would disappear and then the QRF would leisurely clamber back into the back of the truck and we would amble back to the guard room at the official speed limit just for a change of pace.

When we got back to the guard room the phone would ring and the duty officer would give feedback on our VP callout. If we got there in the acquired time and the assault was conducted professionally, we would receive a happy thumbs-up. Occasionally the section commander would undergo a very uncomfortable one-way conversation from the duty officer. The DO might explain how useless the section commander was in the role of command and that the duty officer’s dog could probably do a better job in running a rifle section. Whether or not the duty officer actually owned a dog, in those instances, the section commander would return to the guard room to tell his section a bit about themselves that they would rather not know.

One unacceptable VP timing meant that we would probably have a rough night of doing more of the same, and less time lying in our bunks in the tropical heat. Even on a good night you didn’t really have a very good night. My section commander at the time was Corporal Larry North, a Vietnam veteran and somebody you went out of your way not to provoke. He was a lovely chap but very much disliked his troops casting doubt on his professionalism.

If we had several successful VPs during the night, as a reward, the DO would abort the final one after about 100m on the truck. On this shortened, last VP of the night we would often finish just before the main gate at a stop sign when the duty officer would, quite recklessly, step in front of the approaching speeding truck stopping it with an outstretched palm — and if that didn’t work — possibly his body. Subalterns being expendable, as is their traditional role in battle. Which was nice of him.

That was on a weeknight. On a 24-hour weekend QRF duty all these VPs alarms would happen the length of the 8:00 am to 8:00 am duty the next day. This usually consisted of at least half a dozen VPs, day and night. We were young, fit and almost as perpetually tired as parents of triplets.

5 Platoon Sargent, Nick Vidot. By the look of it, somebody was in for it.

Not all of the section on QRF duty expended their time running VP alarms. One digger in the section was physically locked up in the armoury (called an armscote for reasons beyond my understanding). The guy locked up inside with the company arms and ammunition had nothing to do at all. He could sleep, read or stare vacantly at the ceiling. He was as helpless as a prisoner and depended upon his mates in the nearby QRF guardroom for sustenance. They would bring him a cold tray of supposedly hot food on their return from the mess.

The armoury guy didn’t enjoy a good night’s rest either on account of having a roaring VP truck screaming past his head every couple of hours, and then have them return only a little less hasty 20 minutes later. At least he didn’t have to do the actual VP run which could be stressful. The armscote duty was popular for those who wanted to nurse a hangover, but being locked up in a small wooden building containing so much explosives made me yearn for the great outdoors. It does beg the question as to its purpose. The only obvious reason for doing so meant that the man locked inside might be able to defend the armoury when the QRF was busy elsewhere. It was generally considered to be a shit place to be located in a shooting war. One round of tracer into the ancient wooden building and it would be a Viking’s funeral for him.

Quite apart from QRF callouts there was another hated night-time duty. Every night a section was detailed to patrol the company perimeter in two hour, two-man shifts. These guard patrols were armed with a L1A1 pickaxe handle. We were told that we were there to prevent thefts in the company area, but nobody had ever heard of any gear being stolen. Also, early on we were issued with a starlight scope to scan the darkness. After a few days the scopes were taken off us again because we kept on breaking them. Grunts could ruin anything — it is our not so secret superpower.

Lastly our patrol beats were odd in that we had to range quite far from the company lines, including deep into the golf course and almost to the Mirage flight line. We often wondered how ranging all over the golf fairways would prevent theft in the barracks. Recently I saw old declassified intelligence report suggesting that an anticipated CT attack would come from the exact direction of our pickaxe handle patrols. That made sense because why look for trouble in the infantry lines when instead you could blow up a Mirage or two?

The famous 25 meter pistol range situated in the middle of the golf course. An area that we had to patrol in the middle of the night, for some reason?

During our tour of RBC we did experience an odd turn of events.

All three platoons had a short one-week advance-to-contact exercise in the jungle at Langkawi Island immediately off the coast. Nowadays Langkawi is studded with luxury tourist resorts, but in 1977 it was raw triple canopy, pest-infested primary jungle. So, while the QRF was always manned back at Butterworth we had one platoon at a time that did the hard yards in the bush.

This is the thing: everyone was issued with three magazines with ball ammunition to be gaffer-taped inside the right-hand side basic pouch. The left pouch had blank ammo, the right had the real deal. The reason for this, is that in the event of accidentally encountering a real enemy while we were on exercise in the bush, we would be able to defend ourselves. I don’t think that whoever came up with this idea had thought it through all that well because after a few days in the rainforest and the associated downpours, the gaffer-tape was useless and peeled off.

Even on exercise just off the Malaysian peninsula it was not considered impossible that we might not somehow end up in a real firefight with the bad guys. “Non-warlike” my arse!

How did Australian soldiers come to be involved in a foreign civil war that apparently was not even a war in any sense?

For the rifle company at Butterworth, it was a Schrödinger’s War — quite the little paradox. But to give the politicians credit, they pulled it off. The political scene at home was the primary cause of all this dark craft and deception. The Vietnam war had finally come to an end in what was a very ugly social upheaval for the country. People were sick and tired of war and every short haircut was distasteful to civilian sensibilities.

In 1972, Gough Whitlam had promised to “bring the troops home from South East Asia”. And so, he did, in the main, however, that left the country with a little strategic problem. Malaysia had more than 2500 active communist fighters blowing-up this and that and ambushing government troops. The CTs were hell-bent on replicating the Viet successes in the jungle. If you imagine that that’s not very many troops, then they were doing pretty damn good job with those few numbers because government causalities were mounting and the second civil war had lasted two decades. Plus, the Malaysians wanted — actually needed — help, but the issue was politically sensitive. They couldn’t be seen to be that weak, after all they kept saying that they were on top of the enemy but the war never seemed to reach a conclusion.

RCB was the Malaysian’s insurance policy sold to them by the Australian Government as part of the Five Powers Agreement. Whatever else were to happen out in the bush, their air assets were being properly defended by the Diggers.

The fall of the Saigon government was a salutatory lesson for London, Canberra and Kuala Lumpur. Lastly, their biggest and most expensive military base was also the closest base to the main CT hideouts in the Malaysian-Thai Borderlands. Butterworth had two Australian Mirage Squadrons (75 and 3 Squadrons) and a host of Malaysian fighters and transport aircraft. Not to mention Malaysian and Australian military personal and civilians attached to BAB. Lastly, let’s not forget about all the RAAF military and civilian families in country.

Butterworth Airbase. Note the old Sabre Jet in the foreground and the Malaysian Northrop F-5s to the top left. At this point in the immediate foreground ambulances would often meet medivac flights collecting Malaysian battlefield causalities.

All of the Australian governments during these long 20 years were busy straddling a particularly nasty barbed wire fence.

On one side of the wire you had the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) treaty obligations.[2]

Concerning the FPDA, if you remove all the legalese from the arrangements, Australia was committed to some sort of action in the event of a military threat concerning Malaysia. That’s why a rifle company was in Butterworth in the first place.

Our sole role was to defend the air base in event of an enemy attack, which is why we had live ammunition, ROE and a QRF on duty every day for 19 years. After all, the country was a shooting war and people were being killed. However, Australia’s other leg rested upon real estate on the other side of the rusty barbed wire fence.

The politicians in Australia, starting with Whitlam but happily continuing with all conservative and Labor governments thereafter, insisted that all combat troops were withdrawn from South East Asia. So, armed Australian infantryman operating in a war zone and performing one of the basic roles of forward defence against known and recognised enemy combatants were also, somehow, to be classed as “non-warlike”.

That was the tightrope that the Australian government was walking. We had “Fortress Australia” at home and an isolated little Australian armed detachment of 100 men sitting 6,000 km away.

It must be said that the Australian gamble paid off.

In 19 years, Butterworth Air Base was never attacked (to my knowledge). The Australian Army mounted a QRF for approximately 7000 days preparing for an attack that never ultimately arrived. That was lucky for the Australian government, given that for all those long years Malaysia was involved in a shooting war and the CT enemy were never shy about attacking government forces.

The Malaysian government forces during the long war suffered 1000 casualties of which 155 troops were killed. Most of these were from small-scale attacks or ambushes of the type most favoured by jungle insurgents. Twenty-five to thirty armed raiders can do a lot of damage to an unsuspecting unit. This type of attack was their particular speciality. The Malaysian army were mostly inexperienced conscripts, although there were a few SAS trained rangers. I myself saw ambulances picking up the poor maimed MAF members on a couple of occasions. It brought home to us that the QRF was not in any way a military training exercise.

BAB was only physically protected from an infantry attack by a wire cyclone perimeter fence. It could be breached with a pair of wire cutters. For insurgent raiders nothing could have been simpler. Inside the wire lay expensive and almost irreplaceable jet aircraft and fitters/crew.

successful attack would have propaganda value beyond any lives lost in the attempt (if you were an insurgent fighting force, at any rate). Yet, that fat and juicy military target was never attempted even once? Not once in 20 years?

The simplest reason for the absence of an attack is that the strategic plan worked. It was no secret that as long as a fresh and aggressive Australian regular infantry company was able to instantly react with deadly force to any inclusion to the airbase, the exercise would be pointless. Not only that, it would be an embarrassment. The Australian government’s long-term gamble seems to have paid off after all. The Aussie government was able to roll “sixes” for 19 years straight. Good for them.

That said — it might be a political gamble, but the chips on the table were Australian soldier’s lives.

Before the little story ends, it is important to understand what I am not saying. Australia has been sending men and women off to fight since the 1800s. In one very special sense, I am not arguing equivalency.

Our service at Butterworth was not Gallipoli, nor Kokoda, nor Long Tan and nor Tarin Kowt. In all those conflicts men and women paid a blood price, even if they survived. Nobody is arguing that RCB service was the equivalent of their experience, least of all me. However, our service was the same in one critical respect. Politicians sent Australian servicemen into an active war zone, lied about it and are lying about it still. All we want — all we deserve — is simple recognition of the fact. It happened, let them say so. Australia has a long history of turning its back on those whom it dispatches on foreign service. Must it be that way?

And that, dear reader, is why not giving Rifle Company Butterworth proper active service recognition is not only unjust but also despicable. It is long past the time that the historical record and the public lies be corrected.

I doubt it will happen any time soon though. My faith is that the RCB veteran community will never throw in the towel. Although we are now old, grey and fat, at heart, we are still the same hell kickers that we were in the old days.

This I believe.

The author, aged 19, Christmas 1977, RCB Malaysia



[1] Horner, David; Bou, Jean (2008). Duty First: A History of the Royal Australian Regiment (2nd ed.). Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978–1–74175–374–5.


[3] I should mention that the RAAF were not helpless babes and also took part in all sorts of security action in defence of their own base too.


The Deception


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