1st Squadron, Special Air Service Regiment

In 1965 the Australian government decided to increase its contribution to the British force defending Malaya and that its troops would under take more aggressive action in the Controntation. Following a request from the Malayan government, at the end of January the Australian government approved sending the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) and the 1st Squadron, Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment to Borneo.

The first troops from the squadron arrived in Borneo in February, with the advance party flying into Brunei on 16 February. The remainder of the squadron arrived by ship, disemarking at Brunei two days later. Shortly afterwards the squadron moved to Tutong, where it began four weeks of acclimatisation and famililarisation training.

The SAS’s previous training had been based on platoon-sized infantry tactics. However, at Tutong the squadron was instructed by British SAS soldiers in the new techniques developed by the British 22nd SAS Regiment already operating in Borneo. Of foremost importance was the development of the new four-man patrol. The syllabus also included physical training, contact and ambush drills, jungle navigation, unarmed combat, helicopter procedures, and other specialist training.

The squadron’s first operational patrols deployed on 28 March. A series of patrols were delpoyed into the upper Batang Baram River valley. Other patrols operated in the Pensiang area in Sabah, supporting the 2/7th Gurkha Rifles, and by early April a third series of patrols were deployed to the “Gap” area between the Interior Residency of Sabah and the coast.

These patrols were primarly for reconniasince: gathering topographical information, observing known border crossings, following any Indonessian incursions, and winning the “hearts and minds” of the indigenous population. The usual system for hearts-and-minds operations was for patrols to live near local villages and provide medical or other assistance to the villagers in order to gain their confidence and encourage them to pass on any enemy information.

To control the situtation on the border, British Commonwealth forces had been operating across the border into Indonesia since October 1964. These operations (code named “Claret”) were normally carried out by infantry patrols but in 1965 the SAS was given permission to patrol to a limit of 18 kilometres into Indonesia - beyond normal infantry boundries.

Patrols were usually deployed by air to the infantry position closest to the patrol area, where the patrol commander could discuss the situation with the local infantry commander. The SAS would then be lifted by helicopter to a landing zone near the border, where the helicopter would either land or the patrol would be winched or abseil to the ground. The patrol would move off on foot.

Patrols normally lasted for 14 days, with the men carrying all supplies. Rubbish was either carried out with the patrol or buried, wrapped in polythene bags to reduce smell. When moving through the jungle, cutting jungle vines and branches was not permitted, nor was using existing tracks. If a track was crossed every effort was made to smooth away footprints or any other evidence of passing. All communication within the patrol was by hand signal or whispered conversation.

1st Squadron began conducting Claret operations on 1 May. The first patrol was to the Labang area in Indonesia where the Sembatung River came within three kilometres of the border. Thereafter, the squadron patrolled the Labang and Salilir River area. In early June the squadron extended its operations in Sabah, patrolling the Lumbis area, as well as the Long Banga District in Sarawak.

Although the patrols were still primarily for reconnaissance, operating in thick jungle was dangerous. On 2 June a patrol operating along the Selimulan River was charged by an elephant and Lance Corporal Paul Denehey was gored. He died before he could be evacuated. Denehey was the first Australian SAS fatality on active service.

Throughout June and July 1st squadron was given a series of tasks to complete. It was to observe the villages at Lumbis and Talisoi and, guiding a company from the 2/7th Gurkhas, attack either village if there was a suitable target. Squadron patrols were also to watch the approaches to Long Banga and from Agisan, destroying any small enemy groups. They were also to observe Long Bawan and its airfield, with the view of conducting future offensive operations. All patrols were to continue the hearts-and-minds operations in the villages along the border. Once the reconnaissance was completed, including watching for any possible enemy approaches south of Pensiangan and from the Bawaan River valley in Sarawak, the SAS could conduct offensive operations.

The squadron’s first offensive action took place when a patrol led a Gurkha company to Lumbis and participated in attacking the village on 25 June. The squadron was active for the rest of June and July. On one occasion a patrol trying to locate the airfield at Long Bawn clashed with an Indonessian patrol. Having the advantage of surrprise, the Australians killed the two lead-Indonesians before falling back when the rest of the patrol returned fire. On 5 July another patrol killed at least seven Indonesians in an ambush. The squadron ceased operations on 1 August and subsequently returned to Australia.

During 1st Squadron’s five months in Borneo, it spent a month training, another month on hearts-and-minds operations, and three months on Claret opeations. The squadron spent about only six weeks on offensive operations. During its tour, the squadron mounted 23 reconnaissance, 7 reconnaissance/ambush, 2 ambush, 4 surveillance, 1 special and 13 hearts-and-minds patrols. These patrols lasted between two and 89 days.

Borneo was the SAS’s first operational deployment and highlighted the squadron’s skill, ability, and endurance. The SAS also gained valuable experience which they would put into practice in Vietnam.

Glossary

Battle Honours

  • nil

Casualties

  • 1 died
  • nil wounded

For more information please see the Roll of Honour database.

Commanding Officers

Decorations

  • nil

For more information please see Honours and Awards database

References

  • Horner, David Murray, SAS : phantoms of war : a history of the Australian Special Air Service, (Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2002)
  • Malone, Michael John, SAS : a pictorial history of the Australian Special Air Service 1957-1997, (Northbridge W.A.: Access Press, 1997)
  • McKay, Gary., Sleeping with your ears open : on patrol with the Australian SAS, (St Leonards, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin, 1999)