"an excellent example of war as a continuation of policy by other means" 1


The British Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy had been involved in the Borneo situation since 1962, when General Sukarno (the president of Indonesian Borneo, also known as Kalimantan, since independence from the Dutch in 1949) saw an opportunity to weaken prospects of a potential "Malaysian Federation" being formed, the plan for which was backed by the British. This federation would consist of Malaya, Singapore and the northern Borneo colonies of Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah - bordering Sukarno's territory. The federation was the brainchild of Malaya's Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Only the Sultan of Brunei was unsure of joining, and here Sukarno believed he could break the allaince. It was Sukarno's dream to bring the areas of Singapore, Malaya, Borneo and all the British colonies into an Greater Indonesia instead. The "North Kalimantan National Army" rose in revolt in Brunei on the 7th of December 1962, and the request for British military assistance by the Sultan signalled the start of four years of bitter and undeclared jungle war.

British forces were immediately deployed from their Singapore base to put down the uprisings - Royal Marines, Gurhkas and regular Army battalions were the first on the scene, and quickly succeeded in neutralising opposition in the major centers of Brunei, breaking the back of the rebellion. These troops were aided by experienced commanders (several of whom had participated in the Malayan Emergency, including the overall commander Major General Walter Walker) and the corresponding knowledge of fighting in jungle. The last pocket of resistance took until May 1963 to clear.

During the mopping-up operations in mid-1963, Sukarno announced a policy of confrontation towards Malaya, and groups of volunteer saboteurs began crossing into Sabah and Sarawak to carry out acts of terrorism and attempt to subvert the locals. Sukarno failed to prevent the formation of a Federation of Malaysia, which came into existence on the 16th of September that year. Sukarno immediately severed diplomatic relations with Malysia, and incursions increased in size and number so that by early 1964 the Indonesian army had taken control, and company-sized groups were crossing over.

The Malayan Emergency was just four years past, and the British had masses of experience to draw on, particularly in the higher echelons of the command structure. Based in a series of jungle forts initially, British forces could only patrol out from these safe havens to harass and ambush enemy incursions, either by foot or by helicopter (landing at least one valley away from the objective to minimise the risk of being spooted by Indonesians). There was no chance of stopping the enemy crossing the border in this early stage: Indonesian forces could cross the border as and when they pleased. Despite the extremely difficult terrain, the British Gurkhas, Marines and regular soldiers quickly became excellent jungle fighters, probably the best in the world at that time.

However, the CTs of Malaya would have been no match for the well-equipped, well-trained and aggressive Indonesians the British faced in Borneo. They would not run like CTs, but stand and fight - and fight well. Some British officers who had fought in Burma in World War Two even rated Sukarno's best on a par with the Japanese, a compliment not given lightly. They were not guerrillas but soldiers, backed up with mortar fire and artillery if necessary. Company-sized battles between the two sides were not uncommon. Commonwealth forts were even raided from enemy bases near the other side of the border - something that was unheard of in Malaya. Estimates of Indonesian forces based near the border by mid-1964 place well over 22' 000 troops in the area, although limited crossing points in the thick jungle enabled the British to anticipate where insurgents would cross, and therefore to ambush them and/or cut off their retreat. The British and Commonwealth troops numbered around 10' 000, although reinforced to 14' 000 at Walker's insistence by early 1965.

Throughout 1964 the Indonesians became more and more agressive in their attacks, and larger and larger operations were mounted on Malaya. These culminated in a seaborne and airborne assault on the Johore coast in August. This, although successfully repulsed, proved the last straw for the British. It was time to take the initiative. It was time to cross the border.

Turning The Tide:

The British government agreed to allow cross-border operations in late August 1964, under pressure from Walker. They were codenamed "Claret Operations", and their aim was to force the Indonesians to place their bases further back from the border, making incursions more difficult in the long run.

There were strict regulations regarding these operations. Initially only Gurkhas were allowed to take part, although Walker extended clearance to British battalions on their second tour of Borneo before long. A force of at least company strength was required to take part, only within range of friendly artillery support, and against Indonesian bases well reconnoitred by either SAS patrols or reconnaissance patrols from the unit carrying out the operation. There were also "Golden Rules", guidelines that every Claret Operation had to follow:

  • Every operation to be authorized by DOBOPS himself.
  • Only tried and tested troops to be used.
  • Depth of penetration to be limited and the attacks must only be made to thwart offensive action by the enemy. No attacks to be mounted in retribution with the sole aim of inflicting casualties on the foe.
  • No close air support will be given to any operation across the border, except in the most extreme emergency.
  • Every operation must be planned with the aid of a sand table and thoroughly rehearsed for at least two weeks.
  • Every operation to be planned and executed with maximum security. Every man taking part must be sworn to secrecy, full cover plans must be made and the operations to be given codenames and never discussed on telephone or radio. Identity discs must be left behind before departure and no traces such as cartridge cases, paper, ration packs etc. must be left behind in Kalimantan.
  • On no accounts must any soldier taking part be captured by the enemy - alive or dead.

It should be remembered that Britain was not officially at war with Indonesia at any time in this period.

All necessary precautions were taken to minimise the risk of detection once across the border and en route to the target - movement was silent, with foliage only ever cut for one or two minutes at night to prepare a camp site, never on the move. Tracks were rarely used, with communication in whispers or with silent hand gestures. Olive green clothes were painted for better camouflage in the jungle, with cam cream on faces and hands, plus all maps were unmarked and all waste was carried with the troops in plastic bags. The attacks themsleves were always so quick that the enemy was afforded little time to fight back, and friendly casualties were always light - most often one or two killed, if any. The Indonesian casualties, however, were often considerable, the element of suprise used to good effect by the British.

By February 1965, new weapons began to be issued to troops in Borneo, such as the American Claymore anti-personnel mine. British forces also received the AR-15 Armalite 5.56 rifle, to replace the 9mm SMG, and eventually most of the SLRs used in the jungle. This rifle was actually recieved by the British in Borneo before the Americans in Vietnam. The American M-79 40mm grenade launcher was also introduced as an improvement on the British version, the Energa.

As they were so thoroughly planned and executed by such well-trained and experienced troops, Claret Operations succeeded in their objective to push back Indonesian forces from the border to the extent of 10' 000 yards or more by the time they were ceased, after the coup by a General Suharto that deposed Sukarno as Indonesia's president. Despite the halt of Claret Operations, incursions by Indonesians continued, although secretly Suharto was seeking peace. The British only crossed the border to give warning of enemy raids from this point on - but on the 28th of May cross-border activity ceased, and the official end to the Confrontation came on the 11th of August.

The brunt of the campaign in Borneo was borne by the eight Gurkha battalions and two Commandos (formations identical to battalions in all but name) of the Royal Marines, 40 and 42 Commando, although army infantry battalions also served. Between December 1962 and September 1966, the Gurkhas lost 43 killed and 87 wounded, the two Commandos 16 killed and 20 wounded between them. The total for all 15 infantry battalions is 16 killed and 51 wounded.

The fact that these operations remained secret from the British public until the mid-1980s speaks volumes for the integrity of the soldiers involved - a massive contrast to those who run to the press as quickly as possible to sell stories of top secret missions behind enemy lines. The men involved were proud to serve their country, and never contemplated revealing what they were doing or had, even to their loved ones and even years after the events. It was the government who decided to release the details of these operations - otherwise they might yet remain a secret to those who weren't there.

1: Gregorian, Raffi: "The Black Cat Strikes Back: Claret Operations during Confrontation 1964-1966", Department of War Studies, King's College London, Extended Essay 1989, cited in Thompson.


Major General (retd.) Thompson, Julian: "The Royal Marines: From Sea Soldiers to a Special Force" (2000)
Ladd, James D.: "By Sea By Land: The Authorised History of the Royal Marine Commandos" (1997)

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