"Operation Handover" – Darwin, September 1964
David Wilson

{1} On 16 September 1963 Malayan Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman formally announced the existence of the Federation of Malaysia, incorporating Malaya, Singapore, and British territories in Borneo. This drew a hostile reaction from President Sukarno of the neighbouring Republic of Indonesia, who, largely for domestic political reasons, regarded the new Federation as a neo-colonial creation. For the Australian government, the period of "confrontation" between Indonesia and Malaysia was a complicated balancing act between a cool friendship with the former and support for the nascent Federation. The Australian servicemen actively participated in the defence of Malaysia. No.78 Fighter Wing of the Royal Australian Air Force operated alongside the Royal Air Force to prevent illegal intrusions into Malaysian airspace, and Royal Australian Navy warships patrolled territorial waters and supported Australian Regular Army forces on the Malayan peninsula and in Borneo. Alongside plans to neutralise Indonesian air strikes against Malaysian targets, a barely-acknowledged deployment of RAAF formations within continental Australia represents a footnote to the history of Australia's involvement in Confrontation.

{2} A contingency plan prepared in January 1964, "Operation Handover", was predicated on the assumption that Darwin was a "vital base on our direct air route to South East Asia through Singapore" and that it was within range of aircraft operated from "potential enemy bases". Although not specified, the reference would have been to the Indonesian Air Force (AURI) base at Koepang, West Timor, and bases in Eastern Java from where Russian-built Ilyushin IL-28 medium bombers were capable of flying strike operations against targets in northern Australia. Significantly, it was assessed that the only foreseeable threat to Darwin would be due to the nations' involvement in a limited war. Under this scenario it was imperative that the Darwin base be secured "until [unspecified] allied support [was] received". The initial task would be to provide air defence against "raids of low intensity at all heights, which would probably be directed against the aerodrome complex, radar installations, shipping and port installations". In parallel, strike/reconnaissance operations could be conducted from the secure Darwin base to "reduce the threat at source".1

{3} The first phase of operations to secure the Darwin base was to be the deployment of two squadrons (32 Sabre aircraft) from No.81 Wing at Williamtown, New South Wales, which was to be supported by four Neptune maritime patrol aircraft and Hercules, Dakota and Caribou transports. The search-and-rescue responsibility was accepted by an Iroquois helicopter deployed from No.9 Squadron's home base at Fairbairn, Australian Capital Territory, and the strike/reconnaissance capability was to be provided by No.82 Wing Canberra bombers from Amberley, Queensland.2 Whether any aggressive sorties by the crews of these aircraft from Darwin were to be coordinated with similar operations mounted by No.2 Squadron from Butterworth, Malaysia, is debatable. The Malaysia-based crews had certainly prepared target folders and operational briefs on Indonesian targets3; and on 24 September two No.6 Squadron aircraft deployed from Amberley to Butterworth, where they "flew with No.2 Squadron on navigation and bombing exercises to familiarise themselves with the area" and No.2 Squadron flying techniques.4 However, documentary evidence of similar preparation by Australia-based crews is lacking. August was the only month in 1964 that No.6 Squadron was at full aircrew strength of eight crews.5 A proportion of these crews were straight from the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), and it is understandable that the training undertaken (air defence exercises and "lone ranger" flights) was not specifically orientated toward potential operations over Indonesia.

{4} The "Allied support" was to have been in the form of RAF "V" Bombers that, under the provisions of "Plan Addington", were to use the Darwin base for air strikes against Indonesian aerial facilities should AURI attack Malaysian targets.6 Although there had been sightings of suspected Indonesian aircraft intruding into Malaysian airspace in July 1963 and No.78 Wing Sabres were on alert from October, the situation in Malaysia did not reach a near critical point until September 1964. On 2 September a hundred Indonesian paratroopers landed in northern Johore, and it was considered that any further escalation could trigger Plan Addington operations.7 To ensure the security of the base at Darwin for these missions, No.76 Squadron was deployed from Williamtown on the 8th.

{5} Williamtown had been preparing for the deployment since 4 September. On the 7th, Operational Command issued Operations Order 1/64, which called for the deployment of a "half Handover" of sixteen aircraft and supporting maintenance personnel to Darwin. Although the commitment was for half the original plan's number of aircraft, the selection of the requisite number of Sabre Mk 30s "required borrowing from the other two units with the attendant difficulties of selecting aircraft of the same mark with sufficient hours" available before major servicing.8 In addition, fifteen pilots and fifty-one airmen departed from Williamtown by Hercules on 11 September to augment the No.78 Wing aircrew and maintenance personnel at Butterworth.9 Therefore, the deployment was a significant commitment of Williamtown personnel and material. With the absence of No.76 Squadron, the only active flying unit remaining at the base was No.2 OCU. No.75 Squadron had been declared non-operational prior to being re-equipped with the new Mirage IIIO fighter and six of the pilots had been posted to No.76 Squadron. In effect, the total RAAF operational fighter force was committed, with sparse reserves, to potential combat operations from the bases at Butterworth and Darwin.

{6} Due to aircraft unserviceability, the deployment was delayed until the morning of the 8th10,giving the armourers the opportunity to fully arm the aircraft during the preceding evening.11 The Sabres, escorted by a Canberra bomber from Amberley and supported by four Hercules transport aircraft, staged through Edinburgh and Alice Springs, before landing at Darwin at 5.10 pm, local time. The maintenance personnel and equipment traveled in five Hercules sorties. One supported the fighters en route. The second flew direct to Darwin with fifty passengers and 16,000 pounds of freight, while the third, not part of the No.81 Wing plan, deployed an Iroquois helicopter from Fairbairn. The fourth Hercules carried seventy-five base support personnel and personnel to augment the staff of No.2 Control and Reporting Unit (CRU), which was the ground radar unit responsible for surveillance and the ground control of fighter interception (GCI). The last aircraft carried the Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, test equipment and 6,000 pounds of freight.12 In all, 170 officers and airmen were dispatched from Williamtown for duty in Darwin.13

{7} The aircraft were constantly at various levels of alert for the period from 9 September until 17 October. The original requirement was for two Sabres to be airborne within five minutes of a warning, and four more to be ready to take off within fifteen minutes. This was reduced to four aircraft on the 18th and then to two on the 22nd.14 These alert standards remained in force until 17 October, when the requirement was again reduced to two aircraft on 15-minute daylight alert. The remaining aircraft were "released subject to recall to increased readiness within 24-hours".15 To facilitate these commitments, the operational staff at No.2 CRU maintained a 24-hour watch (13 hours of control and surveillance and 11 hours of surveillance) for the initial ten-day period, before reverting to manning during daylight.16 These measures reflected the easing of international tensions which, in turn, led to the decision that the force be reduced.17 On 20 October eight aircraft, and a commensurate number of supporting personnel, returned to Williamtown.

{8} No.76 Squadron pilots at Darwin only made a single interception - a Canberra bomber from No.1 OCU on 11 September.18 However training missions that included practice interceptions, air-to-ground gunnery, aircraft combat manoeuvres, dive-bombing, high/low strikes, night GCIs and blind landings using radar, were flown in parallel with the readiness commitments. The number of pilots available was decreased when seven were sent back to Williamtown to participate in an army cooperation exercise, "Longshot", at RAAF Base Fairbairn, two transferred to Butterworth and one was returned to Williamtown medically unfit. This fluctuation in aircrew strength did not prevent the squadron from flying 446 hours in September, but placed a strain on the remaining pilots. As the squadron commander conceded at the end of the month, any "increase in the alert state with the current number of pilots would be extremely arduous and would reduce squadron training beyond that required to retain proficiency".19 The comment indicates that the nexus between actual operations and the training requirements to maintain operational efficiency was, on an operational deployment away from the squadron home base, a sensitive and crucial balancing act between the number of aircraft deployed, flying hours and overall manpower. No.76 Squadron was fortunate that it deployed with sufficient manpower and aircraft strength to enable alert status commitments to be met and to implement a realistic training program. However, any variation to manning, aircraft strength and alert status, were factors that could effect the overall operational capacity of the deployed squadron.

{9} The other operational deficiencies were less subtle. There were serious shortcomings in the active and passive defensive measures then currently in place at Darwin. Of major concern was that the Air Force had been placed on alert in isolation. Naval coast watch stations remained inactive, depriving the Darwin defence system access to this source of aerial intelligence and early warning of intruding aircraft. The Army light anti-aircraft battery, a vital element in the point defence of the airfield and other essential facilities, deployed to Darwin but remained non-operational. In addition, the inability of the radar operated by No.2 CRU to track aircraft flying at low level was well known. During a recently completed air defence exercise, "High Heron", a trial of radar fitted to Neptune aircraft had proved that it was practical to utilise it as a rudimentary airborne early warning system. This knowledge was not exploited to compensate for the deficiency of the current ground radar surveillance equipment.20

{10} An Air Defence Control Centre (ADCC) was activated at the rear of the No.2 CRU operations room, manned by three Air Force officers (the Staff Officer Air Defence, who acted as the Area Air Defence Commander, the Commanding Officer of No.2 CRU, and the No.81 Wing Intelligence Officer). Provision was made for representatives of the Army, Navy, Department of Civil Aviation and the Civil Defence Organisation. Although the two other Services were not on alert, the Army and Navy provided part-time representatives at the facility; the two civilian organisations were not represented. Although Department of Civil Aviation authorities were not formally involved with the ADCC, they were "most co-operative". Even so, the ability of the Area Air Defence Commander to meet his responsibilities was hampered by the lack of Emergency Security Control of Air Traffic (ESCAT) arrangements and the non-promulgation of an Air Defence Interception Zone (ADIZ).21

{11} Of even greater importance was the fact that:

Throughout the whole period of Handover no single piece of intelligence information was available to assist in estimating the threat and size of enemy forces or the possible direction of attack. From the Local Area Defence Commanders viewpoint regular information on enemy troops and aircraft dispositions is essential, to match the threat with the appropriate alert force, and so obtain more efficient utilisation of the limited forces under command. … Presumably the AURI deployed forces in considerable numbers during the critical periods of the alert. It was ironical [sic] that the Area Air Defence Commander learnt, from a friend passing through Darwin by Qantas aircraft, that the AURI had, during one critical period, moved his entire bomber force to West Irian.22

The latter intelligence was of great importance. Traditionally, the aerial defence of Darwin has been oriented toward a threat from the northwest. Basing bombers in West Irian expanded the potential arc of attack to the northeast, where there was virtually no surveillance and early warning facilities. This would further complicate the defence equation.

{12} RAAF Base Darwin in 1964 was sadly lacking in ground defence measures. Aircraft at the newly constructed operational readiness facility "made excellent targets for strafing and rocketing". The only dispersal areas available had been constructed during the Second World War II. These could, with a little effort, be converted into blast proof pens, however, the bays and taxiways were unsealed and unsuitable for the operation of aircraft; in the "wet" season they would be completely inaccessible. Personnel, too, lacked protection. There were no slit trenches or overhead shelter, and the support areas were located in central, and conspicuous, buildings – like Hangar 172, which still showed damage from the Japanese raids of 1942. The ADCC, located as it was at the "most likely high priority" and vulnerable target, No.2 CARU, was in jeopardy, and communications between this site and the Darwin base was only possible by the diversion of existing domestic telephone services. There was no redundancy built into the system. This was a major deficiency, as the Area Air Defence Commander, responsible for making the appropriate command decisions, depended on the assessment of the data received from all the early warning agencies which was collated at the Centre.23

{13} The positive aspects of the operation were that the deployment from Williamtown was efficient, and the maintenance support provided by technical personnel of the No.76 Squadron and No.481 (Maintenance) Squadron "was maintained in a very satisfactory manner throughout the whole [period]".24 The other positive connotation was the night GCI sorties that developed night interception techniques using the Sidewinder missile-armed Sabres. By careful positioning by ground controllers, it was considered that there was a 50 per cent chance of a Sabre pilot "either visually sighting the target aircraft's jet pipe, or even picking up in the 'tone' range" (the audible tonal sound given in the pilot's headphones when a Sidewinder is tracking and locked onto a target). This night fighting capability did give the Area Aerial Defence Commander another, albeit limited, defensive option.25

{14} The impact of a ten-day period of 5 and 15-minute alerts at Darwin in the overall "confrontation" context, or on the subsequent developments in the area, should not be over-emphasized. To place it in the historical scenario, Operation Handover is not directly mentioned in the official history of Confrontation, and there is only a single-sentence reference to the flight by No.76 Squadron in Alan Stephen's Going Solo. The "absence of an official announcement or any statement of Government policy" explains the lack of recognition of the importance of the event.26 The September and October 1964 issues of RAAF News, the Service's newspaper, allocated space to reports of the alert status at Butterworth and to Exercise Longshot, but the Darwin activity was overlooked.27 However, as the contemporary documents identify, Operation Handover exposed serious weaknesses in the defence of northern Australia.

{15} Many of the shortfalls identified during Handover were remedied. Tindal, originally a bare base, has been developed into the major fighter base in the north. This development is an acceptance of the premise that units allocated for the defence of an area must be located in situ. This may be seen as a continuum of the Handover deployment. The eight aircraft that remained in Darwin after the No.76 Squadron decrease in strength on 20 October 1964 became the No.81 Wing Detachment, and ensured a fighter presence in the north. No.75 Squadron subsumed this role when it relocated from Butterworth to Darwin in 1983 and in its subsequent move to Tindal in 1988. Facilities at Darwin have been upgraded to protect deployed aircraft, while the bare base facilities at Learmonth, Curtin and Scherger give the aerial commander basing flexibility. It would be naive to assert that these developments were a direct result of the lessons learnt from Operation Handover, although they may have reinforced planning assumptions. What is incontrovertible is that, for the only time since 1945, a RAAF fighter squadron was deployed in harm's way on Australian soil. It must be conceded that the probability of actual combat, dependant as it was on the activation of Plan Addington and the current international political climate, was minuscule, but this still does not detract from the fact that the squadron was deployed for war.

© David Wilson

The author

David Wilson is currently the Executive Officer Historical Records–Air Force in the Department of Defence, Canberra, and has published on various aspects of RAAF history. His books include Alfresco Flight: The RAAF Antarctic Experience, The Decisive Factor: 75 and 76 Squadrons Port Moresby and Milne Bay 1942, Lion Over Korea and Always First: RAAF Airfield Construction Squadrons 1942-1974. He is a contributor to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In addition, he headed a team that produced the ten-volume Units of the Royal Australian Air Force: A Concise History published as part of the RAAF 75th Anniversary celebrations in 1991. He holds a BA degree from the Australian National University, a Master of Defence Studies from the University of New South Wales, and has just completed a PhD thesis (also at UNSW).

 

Endnotes

  1. Headquarters Operational Command, Operations Order No.1/64, 010001Z January 1964, National Archives of Australia, CRS A11265/1, item 26/23/Air Pt 1.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Alan Stephens, Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force 1946-1971 (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1995), p.265.
  4. No.6 Squadron, Commanding Officer's comments, September 1964, RAAF Historical Section.
  5. Ibid, August 1964.
  6. Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey; Emergency and Confrontation. Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950-1966 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1996), p.196.
  7. Stephens, Going Solo, pp.263-5.
  8. Operation Handover. Aspects to be resolved by Headquarters No. 81 Wing, 9 November 1964, No.81 Wing, NAA, CRS A11265/1, item 26/47/Air.
  9. Operation Handover 4th September 1964 to 19th October 1964, OC Darwin, 9 November 1964, NAA, CRS A11265/1, item 81W 25/47/Air. No.75 Squadron, Unit History Sheet, September 1964, RAAF Historical Section, gives a total of 65.
  10. Headquarters Operational Command A286, Operations Order 1/64, No.81 Wing, NAA, CRS A11265/1, item 26/47/Air.
  11. Headquarters Operational Command, A298, HQOPCOM 07/0828Z, ibid.
  12. Headquarters Operational Command 07/0743Z, ibid.
  13. Headquarters Williamtown to Darwin, 072245Z, ibid.
  14. No.76 Squadron, Unit History Sheet, September, October 1964, RAAF historical Section.
  15. Headquarters Operational Command, 17/0124Z; 17/0526Z, No. 81 Wing, NAA, CRS A11265/1, item 26/47/Air.
  16. No.2 Control and Reporting Unit, Commanding Officer's report, September 1964, RAAF Historical Section.
  17. Dennis & Grey, Emergency and Confrontation, p.284.
  18. No.76 Squadron, Unit History Sheet, September 1964.
  19. No.76 Squadron, Commanding Officer's report, September 1964, RAAF Historical Section.
  20. Operation Handover 4th September 1964 to 19th October 1964, OC Darwin, 9 November 1964, No.81 Wing, NAA, CRS A11265/1, item 26/47/Air.
  21. Ibid. ADIZ is defined as "Airspace of defined dimensions within which the ready identification, location and control of aircraft is required"; see Fundamentals of Australian Aerospace Power (Canberra: Aerospace Centre, 2002), p.328.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid; Report of Operation 'Handover' 8th September-19th October 1964, No.76 Squadron, 20 October 1964, ibid.
  24. Report on Operation Handover 8th September - 19th October 1964, 20th October 1964, No.76 Squadron, ibid.
  25. Operation Handover Aspects to be resolved by Headquarters No.81 Wing, OC Darwin, 9 November 1964, ibid.
  26. Operation Handover 4th September 1964 to 19th October 1964, OC Darwin, 9 November 1964, ibid.
  27. RAAF News, September 1964, p.1; October 1964, p.3.