Operations in
Borneo and Malaysia

RAF Canberra, landing at Malaysia, 1950s.
Air dispatch resupply Malaysia, 1963
Halibayn Air-Base 1948 -1966
6 TSU Transmitters, Borneo 1966

Air Support in the Far East

Just as the Berlin crisis broke in 1948, and the airlift began, Britain became deeply committed to a campaign in the Far East that eventually became the model for conducting counter-insurgency warfare. During the Japanese occupation of Malaya during World War II, the resistance war was waged by the Malayan Communist Party. At the end of the war, communists had begun to exploit nationalist feelings throughout colonial Southeast Asia, and the Malayan Communist Party refused to hand in their weapons but retired into the jungle. Their aim was to free Malaya from British colonial rule.

The Malayan Communist Party controlled a field army of insurgents, the Malayan Races Liberation Army. The name was to attract popular support, but 95% were Chinese born. They struck in 1948 with terrorist attacks on rubber plantations and tin mines – the foundations of the Malayan economy – government property and people. A state of emergency was declared which became the longest campaign fought by British Forces since the Napoleonic Wars.


RAF Whirlwind FHU Jungle FOB, Malaysia
Drop Zone marking Balloon marker, Malaya 1958
RAF Dragonfly Casualty Evacuation (CasEvac)
Air Drop, Borneo Villages
TSU Operations and Comcen area, Borneo
RAF Aihead Laubuan, Borneo

Operation FIREDOG, Malaya 1948–1960

All guerrilla armies need the support of the local populace to shelter and sustain them. Operation FIREDOG was a civil and military campaign aimed at isolating the Malayan Communist Party insurgents from the local support that was vital to their survival by keeping them on the run and eventually flushing them out of the jungle. This counter-insurgency warfare was made worse by the climate and terrain of Malaya, 70% of which is jungle-covered mountains sparsely inhabited and linked only by jungle track and river. This difficult task was taken on by British and Commonwealth troops on the ground aided by large numbers of Malayan Police and Home Guard Units. The Far East Air Force supported the civil government, police, and army and was vital to the success of the entire campaign. Constant reconnaissance and good intelligence were the keys to success on the ground.

The air support requirements were complex with a mix of spotter planes, transports, Lincoln bombers and Whirlwind helicopters. The spotter planes made the most flights. Over 12 years, 31 different basic types of aircraft in various versions were engaged in Operation FIREDOG. Austers and Pioneer spotter planes carried out visual reconnaissance. They could fly low enough to spot signs of new trails or other movement in the jungle and could use short landing strips in jungle clearings. Larger transport aircraft, Valettas and Dakotas, kept the troops in the jungle supplied by parachuting supplies in on a regular weekly or daily basis. Army and police patrols frequently spent weeks in the jungle, relying entirely on the air for supplies. Special Air Services troops were also deployed and supplied by air. Air strikes against the insurgents in the jungle usually had little obvious effect. While suspected hide-outs or food dumps were attacked, inhabited villages were never shelled, bombed, or strafed – an important factor in winning the hearts and minds of the locals.

The most enduring work was that of the helicopters. This was the first attempt by the RAF to use helicopters operationally in a combat area. They were originally used for casualty evacuation but became invaluable as troop carriers moving patrols quickly around the jungle. Helicopters were the most important innovation in air transport during Operation FIREDOG but there were never enough of them to meet all the demands placed on them. 6 Tactical Signals Unit elements were deployed to provide HF, UHF and VHF communications support to Transport Operations, the Helicopter Force and Force HQ in Singapore. By the end of 1954 the RAF had completed nearly 6,000 sorties and between 1954 and 1958, flew some 34,000 sorties. It was air transport that made the decisive contribution to the final defeat of the guerrillas in the Malayan jungle.

Gradually the hold of the insurgents was broken, and more and more areas were declared safe. Malaya became independent in 1957, although the Emergency did not end officially until 1960. Without the effective employment of air power, the success on the ground would have taken even longer and might not have been so secure.

Borneo 1962–1966

RAF Airhead, Labuan Borneo, 1965
RAF Whirlwind-inserting-troops. Borneo
RAF Belvedere resupply, Borneo

Following the end of the Malayan Emergency, proposals were made to extend the Federation of Malaya to include the three British territories in Borneo; Sarawak, Brunei, and North Borneo. This did not find favour with President Sukarno of Indonesia, and strong military forces partly irregular were maintained under Indonesian rule. 


In December 1962, a short-lived insurrection against the Sultan took place in Brunei. It was soon suppressed by the British Force flown in to deal with it but provided a warning signal of more serious problems to come. A Joint Force HQ of British, Commonwealth and Gurkha battalions, RAF transport aircraft, helicopters and Royal Navy coastal craft and helicopters was set up in Brunei. They established the principle of secured forward company bases supplied by air, from which aggressive patrols were conducted along the border with Indonesia. Special Air Services penetration patrols conducted cross-border operations and provided timely intelligence. By applying tactics learnt during the Malayan emergency they overcame the Indonesian guerrillas. 


The communications personnel had many difficult problems to overcome. Radio links were established from Joint Force HQ to Singapore, the main port of Kuching and the forward brigades. They carried heavy message traffic despite all the problems associated with using the HF band in tropical conditions. VHF communications were poor again due to the jungle conditions, so radio relay stations were deployed throughout the Peninsula to improve communications for the ground formations and Special Air Services patrols deep in the jungle.


The Federation of Malaysia was formed in September 1963 and included Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo but Brunei elected to remain under British protection.


Southeast Asia Confrontation 1963-66

When Indonesia threatened the newly created Federation of Malaysia in 1963, British Ground and Air Forces were again called into action in Southeast Asia. Air defence and reconnaissance of the entire Malaya, Singapore and Borneo area was carried out and ground attack Hunters were deployed from Singapore to the port of Kuching and Labuan in North Borneo. Helicopters and short-range transports operated alongside the tiny Royal Malaysian Air Force and provided mobility for the British, Commonwealth and Malaysian troops in the jungles. As a further deterrent, detachments of Canberra’s and V-bombers were sent to Singapore. By 1966 the confrontation had fizzled out. It never went beyond a local conflict, but it had shown the efficiency of Allied and inter-Service cooperation. It demonstrated that in jungle conditions, air power was indispensable to help the forces on the ground both to defeat the enemy and win the hearts and minds of the local population. The confrontation ended officially in August 1966, with the signing of the Peace Accord between Malaysia and Indonesia.


Video: Malaya - Jungle Raid