Nick Van Der Bijl has written a comprehensive overview of the little known and even less understood ‘Confrontation’ between Britain and Indonesia between 1962 and 1966. The war was basically caused by the left wing President Sukarno of Indonesia not wishing to recognise Sarawak's and British North Borneo’s right to join the Malaysian Federation. He believed that this Federation was a post-colonial construct designed to keep colonialists in power in the region and had his own plans for an Indonesian dominated Regional Federation. The British, in concert with the Malaysians and later with other Commonwealth countries, resisted Indonesian encroachments across the vast 930 mile long mountainous jungle border in Borneo. Neither side had adequate maps, there were almost no roads and the climate was punishing. These ingredients would make for a distinctive and tough 'confrontation'.
The author makes it clear that Britain’s jungle fighting capabilities had come a long way since British humiliation in the jungles of Malaya and on the island of Singapore in 1942. He quite rightly points out the lessons learned during the Burma campaign under the inspired leadership of officers like Slim and Wingate. Interestingly, the Indonesians also emulated Wingate's techniques themselves - perhaps even more than the British who had learnt the limits of his schemes. The Indonesian forces were keen to carve out areas of operation behind enemy lines within which they could train and foment revolutionaries and Communists to help ignite an island wide conflagration.
Despite their clear aims, the Indonesians were to find that the professionalism of the British led forces, and especially those of the Gurkhas and the SAS, were to thwart the Indonesian regular soldiers time and again. The other aspect that the Indonesians failed to appreciate was the importance of winning and maintaining the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population. So when they threatened villagers, took their food and produce or killed locals with speculative or indiscriminate firing they soon earned the enmity of those they were supposedly seeking to ‘liberate’. In contrast, the restrained response of the British and Commonwealth forces around civilian areas combined with giving medical aid and supplies to isolated communities ensured that the locals knew who they preferred to be the winning side.
The author correctly explains the developments in military technology and tactics that allowed the British and Commonwealth forces to ultimately triumph. The helicopter was one such important innovation as it allowed troops to be moved in reaction to intelligence of Indonesian incursions. The British then sought to encircle or lay ambushes for the Indonesians who were often herded unwittingly into kill zones. The jungle was a trying environment for troops of both sides and could be unforgiving. The Indonesians had their moments of individual successes but rarely could they follow these up without control of the air and the ability to resupply soldiers in enemy territory. And as already mentioned, if the Indonesians attempted to live off the land that just infuriated the local population even more.
The author does a good job at explaining the secrecy and success of 'Operation Claret' when British and Commonwealth forces began to go onto the offensive and struck into Indonesia itself in order to destabilise the Indonesian forces and throw them off balance. This escalation only occurred after the Indonesians themselves dramatically raised the stakes by dropping paratroopers directly into Malaysia itself and even landed troops in Singapore. After these events world opinion turned decisively against the Indonesians and Australia and New Zealand felt it necessary to join with the British forces to defend a fellow Commonwealth nation. It is interesting that the Indonesians dare not publicise that their bases were being attacked as they were maintaining to the wider world that their was a spontaneous uprising in Sarawak and Sabah which had nothing to do with them! Admitting that their bases were being successfully attacked would be admitting their lie to the wider world. So, in a strange way, it suited both sides to keep Operation Claret secret. Indeed the secret was kept so successfully that it was not until the 1990s that it became public knowledge at all!
Despite its comprehensive coverage, the main issue that I have with this book is the author’s writing style. It is belaboured. It is written very much in the style of a matter of fact, military account of countless operations. It includes the names of many of the soldiers involved, their ranks and roles, it uses frequent military abbreviations and aronyms and military jargon and terminology litter the pages throughout. All of these are worthy in their own right but just suck the life out of what should be incredibly interesting events. Having read Roger Annett’s books (Borneo Boys: RAF Helicopter Pilots in Action Indonesian Confrontation 1962-66 and Drop Zone Borneo: Life and Times of an RAF Co-Pilot Far East 1962 - 65 on the aerial aspects of the Borneo war, I could not but be struck by the differing styles. Annett’s books are beautifully written, clear, nicely illustrated throughout, easy to read and most of all interesting. This book, on the other hand, is clunky. Paragraphs are long and often have multiple strains contained within them. The author is not always clear when and how to use definite and indefinite articles. Adjectives often lost the nouns or noun phrases that they were supposed to be modifying. Identifying who was the subject or object of a sentence was a frequent challenge. Unfortunately, the author is not a good communicator. Time and again I found myself having to re-read whole sections to try and unravel what was happening. There is no denying that there is fascinating material portrayed in the book, but you have to work hard to be able to appreciate it fully.
I would say that this is a book for someone who ‘needs’ to know about the 'Confrontation'. It is comprehensive and analyses the ins and outs of all the various arms involved, the tactics and strategies employed and the political background in great detail. However, if you are a casual reader who wants to be entertained whilst learning something then you are going to struggle with this book. It is a useful addition to a subject which has very little written about it, but it is also a book that forces you to work hard to get to the core information. I am thankful that I read the book, but it could have been a more pleasurable and interesting journey through what is an intrinsically fascinating subject.