Roger Annett, the author of Drop Zone Borneo: Life and Times of an RAF Co-Pilot, has returned to Borneo to examine the efforts of another aerial arm involved in the Indonesian Confrontation of the 1960s. He himself had been an Argosy co-pilot but he had obviously built up an admiration and appreciation of the exploits of the helicopter pilots who had been responsible an awful lot of the lifting and moving in the little known and even less appreciated Asian war that went on from 1962 until 1966.
One thing that should be pointed out in this book is that the layout and organisation of the volume is superb. The publishers have done a magnificent job. It is very clearly laid out and there are some truly great pictures, including many colour photos, throughout the book. They really do add a lot for the appreciation of what the helicopters and their pilots had to go through. Some of the landing sites have to be seen to be believed - either perched precariously on a hastily created platform or plunged into deepest, darkest jungle. The reader's admiration for the pilots only increase with such photographic evidence.
The book gives a clear overview of the background political and military events which shaped the conflict and its peaks and troughs in the four years that it continued. Although Indonesia never officially declared war (hence the confrontation label) the level of fighting and commitment of forces on both sides was quite substantial. Indonesia even tried to escalate the war by invading Malaysia's mainland and Singapore - to little avail. The largest problem facing the British was how to police such a vast border covered in both jungles and mountains and with very few roads. It is pretty difficult to conceive of a more difficult battlefield to fight upon. It did not help that neither side had accurate maps and so navigation and defining what you were defending and attacking was something of a feat in itself. It was the inhospitable nature of the geography of the conflict zone which made the humble and relatively new weapon of the 'helicopter' so invaluable. Whirlwinds and Belvederes, amongst other helicopters, could deploy troops at a moment's notice, evacuate wounded personnel, move equipment, food and ammunition to where they were required and could also ferry the local population to safety or to medical attention if required. In short, they magnified the fighting potential of what was rarely more than 10,000 soldiers guarding a mountainous, jungle border area of thousands of square miles. It is difficult to imagine how this could have been accomplished without the helicopter.
'Borneo Boys' refers to the new breed of helicopter pilot who were sent out to the Far East to fight in one of Britain's final 'End of Empire' wars. Previously, helicopter pilots had been a pretty rare breed and were generally older and more experienced. However, as the utility of the machines became obvious, a new generation of pilots had to be trained in a hurry and so there was an infusion of new blood into the service and Borneo is where many of these new entrants broke themselves into their roles. Roger Annett does a good job at pointing out the difficulties of flying this early generation of helicopters with observation issues, having to fly alone most of the time, navigating by compass (on fairly useless maps) and always having to have at least one hand on the controls to keep the helicopter in the air. Add to this the issue of enemy machine guns potentially firing at you, the heat and humidity and the difficulties of balancing fuel with loads and the range needed to travel and you can see that their missions could become pretty onerous pretty quickly. There were also mechanical failures to deal with and there are some heart breaking accounts of experienced pilots crash landing and in some cases dying due to technical problems mixed with arduous flying conditions.
The author explains that the prominence of the helicopter was identified in the earlier Indonesian attempt to subvert Brunei in 1962. In this case, the British had taken firm and decisive military action to reinforce and challenge these Indonesian attempts to seize control of the tiny emirate. They quickly identified a number of priorities. They understood the need to have a Joint Command Structure to oversee the various arms involved in conflict, the importance of surveillance and reconnaissance to allow them to use their small forces more effectively, the importance of winning hearts and minds, the need to have secure bases from which to operate and finally the need to have access to more helicopters in order to permit flexible response to the threats as and when they occurred. This last recommendation forms the kernal of the book and the author provides plenty of examples of how this flexibility was exercised and the punishing workload that was undertaken as the isolated British, Malaysian and Gurkha forces faced one of the most populous states in the world during a period of deep political instability for these newly formed nations.
The role of hearts and minds is a constant theme in the book whether it was medical care dispensed, pregnant women being medi-vacced to hospitals or just joining in with local festivities and celebrations and getting to know the local people. The value of these operations was possibly best expressed in the book when a UN fact finding team when to evaluate whether the people of Sarawak wanted to join with Indonesia or stay in Malaysia. One tribal leader went off message and surprised the UN team when he 'expressed a preference for remaining under British colonial rule!'. It says much when the colonised wish to see a return of their colonisers! The 'hearts and minds' operation was possibly too successful in this case.
Tactically, the helicopters were vital in allowing the British and Gurkhas to get behind the enemy and set up ambushes for retreating parties of Indonesians after incursions. Later, when the British started taking offensive action across the border in Indonesia, they were an indispensble means of extracting forces in a hurry or to take out any wounded. Of course, the British authorities did not want a downed helicopter as a trophy for the Indonesians, so inordinate care and invariably tree top level flying was taken in the rare occasions that permission was given to cross into Indonesia. General Walker explained the value of helicopters when he said: 'A Single battalion with six helicopters is worth more in the jungle than a whole brigade with none. Air mobility was becoming a new and important battlefield consideration.
One pilot's recollection nicely sums up the value and importance of the helicopter effort in the war. He explained that after a Whirlwind's forced landing close to the Indonesian border, Gurkhas rushed out of the helicopter to secure a perimeter whilst a large Belvedere helicopter was summoned with a ground crew to bring all the necessary spare parts. In the surprisingly short time this took local children played around the soldiers and aircrew pretending to be helicopters and marvelled at the wonders of velcro on the aircrew's suits. The pilot went on to make this telling comment about the contribution of the helicopter force to the war effort:
"It all seemed to sum up in many ways our efforts in the Confrontation - professionalism, team work and a dollop of good luck, against a backdrop of native goodwill."
What makes this all the more poignant is the contrast with the unfolding tragedy in nearby Vietnam where American forces, with access to enormous quantities of military equipment (and especially helicopters) were struggling to win the all important 'hearts and minds' of the local population there. There were probably never more than 100 helicopters in Borneo at one time whilst American forces had access to over 3,000 in nearby South Vietnam. But the professionalism of the pilots, clear military goals, the use of restrained force whilst attempting all along to protect and guard the local population meant that Britain achieved a positive outcome. In many ways it was the last hurrah of British intervention in Asia. In 1967, the Labour government announced Britain's withdrawal from East of Suez. Britain's centuries of colonial involvement in the region was to all but end. But at least they went out with a success under their belt and with the appreciation of the people they sought to protect.