Roger Annett has written a fascinating account of his time as a co-pilot on an RAF Argosy during the little-known Konfrontasi with Indonesia in the 1960s. This end of empire war saw President Sukarno of Indonesia challenge the right of Borneo to join with the newly created Malaysian Federation in the light of British decolonisation. The British made defence commitments to her departing colonies which she duly kept between 1962 and 1966 in the dense, highland jungles of Borneo. Roger Annett's account of his role dropping supplies to regular British soldiers, SAS and Gurkhas allows us to gain an insight into this little discussed and little documented confrontation. It also sheds light on the life of an RAF co-pilot at a time that Britain's armed forces still had global reach and obligations and also had access to a wide range of aviation hardware. The book recounts or mentions in passing all sorts of planes and helicopters that have disappeared into the pages of history books: Argosies, Bristol Freighters, Buccaneers, Javelins, Hastings, Pioneers, Comets, Beverleys, Meteors, Scimitars, Valettas, Sabres, Scouts, Belvederes, Wessex.... and many more.... It was a time when Britain was still very much at the forefront of aviation technology but still had access to the expertise and legacy of the Second World War and was at the cutting edge of new technologies as the Cold War unfolded. The author nicely links the RAF's experience in resupplying troops in World War Two Burma with dropping supplies to the isolated bases and patrols of this even more inhospitable terrain. His period of service also preceded the Retreat from East of Suez and the signal of the end of empire in Asia. Even his journey to Borneo gives an insight into the geo-political era as he travelled via air bases in Libya, Aden and Gan:
"...each a reminder of vanishing British Empire"
Although written by an RAF co-pilot, this is not a book that dwells on the technology or flying processes. It avoids the mistake of being too technical except to give the reader a feeling for the difficulties and challenges of flying these large aircraft over inhospitable terrain to drop supplies in dense jungle onto tiny landing areas cleared from jungle. It is remarkable that 90% of everything that was dropped was 'on-target'. These supplies undoubtedly allowed the British and Gurkha (later joined by Australian and New Zealand) forces to patrol a border that stretched for hundreds of miles in some of the most remote places on the planet. The book also makes it clear the extent of Indonesian commitment to winning the war. Her armed forces apparently outnumbered the British by 10 to 1 in 1963 and there were numerous incursions and indiscriminate attacks. What I wasn't personally aware of was the number of times that Indonesian forces attacked Singapore and Malaysian mainland itself. Unfortunately for Indonesia, her heavy handed tactics alienated Indonesian forces from the local population and gained little international support for her position. Whereas the British and Gurkhas were far more delicate and discriminating in determining their rules of engagement and in winning and maintaining the all important 'Hearts and Minds'. Argosy airdrops were a vital part of this process by allowing troops to move through the jungle on foot patrols and engage with the local population and refrain from using overwhelming firepower to gain a short term advantage to a long term detriment. Indeed, an interesting account of the author flying into Saigon and over South Vietnam as it descended into full scale war made for some interesting comparisons between Britain's and America's techniques:
"Flying over places with names fast becoming known over the world - Dalat, Nha Trang and Qui Nhon on the coast - the scars of battle are plain to see. There is no holding back on the airstrikes here... flaming napalm bombs scorching the undergrowth. Whatever may be the rights and wrongs of this conflict, low profile it certainly isn't. I think of our SAS and Gurkhas in the jungles of Borneo: silent, restrained - and effective."
Later, whilst returning homewards he reflected further:
"There were no air-strikes in Borneo... but the battle was always for hearts and minds. By not strafing the villages of Kalimantan we lost no friends and made no new enemies. Now, Malaysia is one of the 'Tiger Economies' of Asia."
What makes this book so approachable is the way that you see the Far East through the eyes of a young, carefree, RAF bachelor. You see how his eyes light up with the excitement of Singapore, how he longs, forlornly, for an overnight stay in Thailand, you accompany him on some very wild mess parties and leaving-dos (including his own towards the end of the book). He is definitely a hot-blooded male who enjoys the company of women and we accompany him on tours of Malaysia in his ever sportier cars. It is the life of a man in his 20s who has a dangerous job by day but is determined to enjoy himself when he returns to the relative safety of base or the luxury of leave.
His one experience of spending time in the jungle comes across as something of a comedy of errors as he undertook a jungle survival course. The difficulties and issues of living in a hostile jungle without the extra burden of Indonesian soldiers out looking for him, allowed him to gain a new found respect for the soldiers he was dropping supplies to below from his Argosy.
The other joy of reading a book like this is for the fascinating asides that you might miss in a regular history book. For example, he gives an account of his flight to Jakarta to evacuate the British there as Indonesian rhetoric spilled over into open hostility and violence. You learn about some of the strange objects that were dropped into the jungle as supplies: including corrugated iron, goats (for Gurkhas to sacrifice) and most bizarrely of all - cats! (you have to read the book to find out why). There was an interesting second hand account from a pilot escorting the Queen of Tonga on her last flight from Tonga to New Zealand which he believed showed the "Spirit of Commonwealth" that also accounted for the Australian and New Zealand commitment to victory in Borneo. You also get an insight into the developing political realities of South East Asia including, for instance, the surprise and practicalities of Singapore leaving the Malaysian Federation so suddenly and the impact (or lack of) that this had on the war with Indonesia. Mainly though, you gain a little understanding and appreciation for what it was like for a 20something serviceman to find himself in an exotic part of the world fighting a war which few people had heard of in an increasingly complex and complicated world.
The book is only 150 pages in length and the author has an easy to read and engaging style. Do not be put off that this is a book with limited appeal to aviation enthusiasts. The book actually casts an eye on an unusual part of the world during a fascinating period of time. It is truly a book explaining some of the practicalities of Britain managing her exit from Empire.