Borneo Boys: RAF Helicopter Pilots in Action Indonesian Confrontation 1962-66 by Roger Annett. Published by Pen & Sword, Hardback, priced £25HAVING written the histories of two squadrons which served in Borneo during the Confrontation, 230 Squadron RAF and 656 Squadron AAC, I approached this book with a considerable degree of interest.
The ‘Confrontation’ was between the UK and the newly independent state of Malaysia on one side (with support from Australia and New Zealand), with Sukarno’s Indonesia on the other.
It was one of Britain’s ‘small wars’ of the 1950s and 1960s but for political and diplomatic reasons, it was somewhat under-publicised at the time, particularly the CLARET secret missions across the border.
It was a resounding success in great contrast to the contemporary debacle which was developing in Vietnam.
The author served during the Confrontation as a pilot with Transport Command (see Drop Zone Borneo, which is also published by Pen & Sword).
He has used this personal experience and has allied it to a commendable degree of extra research to produce a book which gives the reader a real feel for the period.
He has interviewed 24 veterans of the campaign and intersperses the narrative of the developing picture as a whole with many fascinating personal memories.
The reader sees the world through their eyes, which really brings a sense of realism and immediacy to the story, which is told by the author in a relaxed but authoritative style.
The historical, political and military background is sketched in succinctly, as also are the technical details of the helicopters central to the story, the Westland Whirlwind Mk 10 and the Bristol Belvedere.
The message which comes through very strongly is summed up admirably in the words of one of the pilots, “professionalism, team work and a dollop of good luck against a background of native goodwill”.
The sole aim of the helicopter pilots was to support the troops on the ground, who were engaged in defending a 1,000-mile frontier, chiefly composed of deep jungle, rivers and mountain ranges.
Without the helicopters and their crews – in the air and on the ground – it would have been virtually impossible to prosecute the campaign so successfully.
Helicopters really came of age in Borneo, as indeed did their pilots, many of whom were straight out of the training system, as the RAF at first struggled to provide sufficient personnel to man the five helicopter squadrons which would serve there.
In another telling quote a young pilot remarks: “Helicopters we understood were the preserve of very experienced master pilots and war-time flight lieutenants who had spent years learning the dark arts [of rotary-wing flight].”
After the Borneo experience this was decidedly no longer the case, as the nature of operations dictated a much greater degree of autonomy and responsibility for junior pilots than was customary in the RAF.
The chief difficulties facing the pilots were the terrain, the climate, the inadequate maps, ground fire from the Indonesians and …. spilled grains of rice – see page 94.
I would like to have heard more from the Belvedere crews but an author, of course, can only work with what is available to him – had I known in advance of the book I would have been able to put him in contact with at least one more Belvedere pilot.
The text is complemented by a marvellous selection of hitherto unpublished photographs, culled from old albums tucked away in the lofts of these 24 ‘Old Rotors’.
This is an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend as a very good read and also an important piece of aviation history.