- Francis, Richard
- Ship histories and stories, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Teal, HMAS Hawk, HMAS Curlew, HMAS Gull, HMAS Snipe, HMAS Ibis
- December 2003 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Navy’s part in Confrontation was twofold:
- to provide the deterrent backing to the whole operation with the striking power (never used but known to have exerted profound influence) of the fleet aircraft carriers; and
- to provide appropriate active support ranging from disembarked helicopter squadrons, which operated in the jungle to great effect and with envied flexibility, to patrols in coastal waters and the Malacca Strait where nerves, and rules of engagement, were fully tested and Indonesian probes and attempted landings regularly blunted.
ALTHOUGH LARGER RAN UNITS deployed to Singapore with the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve and served with the Royal Navy’s large Far East Fleet during the campaign, they were joined by smaller units, comprising the 16th Minesweeping Squadron, HMA Ships Curlew, Gull, Hawk, Ibis, Snipe and Teal commencing 4 July 1964. Also based in Singapore Naval Base and hosted by the minesweeper headquarters ship, HMS Manxman (Captain Inshore Flotilla) the Australian ships joined their RN counterparts, beginning anti-infiltration patrols off the coast of Borneo, to prevent Indonesian forces crossing into East Malaysia from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). All these ships were rotated on patrols until Confrontation ended, in December 1966.
Subsequently, the focus swung to attempts at infiltration across the Singapore and Malacca Straits. After some partially successful insertions by small groups into Singapore and mainland Malaya (West Malaysia) the Far East Fleet divided these waters into a series of patrol areas (similar to those now established around the Australian coastline) and the Inshore Flotilla had a busy time maintaining constant patrols by day (and particularly by night) from the eastern approaches to Singapore Straits to as far as Penang, at the northern end of the Malacca Strait.
The most exciting patrolling occurred at night in the Singapore Straits owing to the burden of heavy shipping movements, the bright lights of the coastline of Indonesia to the southward and bustling Singapore City to the north. Patrols were integrated with shore radar stations, Customs and marine police and the ships were kept alert by the cool, evocative voices of the SWANS (Singapore Womens Auxiliary Naval Service) operators on the radio during the night watches. Generally, the assigned patrol area was randomly patrolled by each OOW, according to his CO’s night orders, with ships completely darkened. Care had to be taken when approaching the limits of the patrol ‘box’ to avoid embarrassing the ship in the next ‘box’ and navigation was predictably tense. All small unidentified contacts had to be investigated, which meant little sleep for COs and hands called to boarding stations, or action stations in suspicious circumstances.
On 13th December 1964, Teal intercepted two Indonesian sampans off Raffles Light (known as the ‘most romantic lighthouse in the world’) marking the SW corner of the Singapore Strait, leading up to Malacca Strait. One sampan opened hostile fire on being illuminated by Teal‘s 10” signal projector and Teal retaliated, killing three of their crew. The remainder of the enemy surrendered, (one of whom was an officer of the Indonesian Marines), and the boat was found to contain a quantity of explosives, weapons and military equipment. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant K. Murray, RAN, was later awarded the DSC for gallantry in the action. (This was to be the only gallantry award to an RAN officer throughout the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation.)
During this period a camouflage trial was undertaken by the minesweeper HMS Woolaston, which was painted half-white, half-black. It was assumed that the black would prove invisibility on a moonless night and the white indistinguishable in bright moonlight. In fact the exact opposite occurred. By day the ship looked quite odd and was hard to identify until quite close by. (Her CO, LCDR Rivett-Carnac RN) increased the deception further by fitting out his ship’s company in black No.10s (shorts) at his own expense, which amused the Inshore Flotilla crews immensely, but the Flag Officer at Singapore Naval Base not a bit!).
Shortly after this trial the ships’ hull pennant numbers were painted out to increase anonymity, although this really made it more difficult to identify friendly ships and certainly tested our own ship recognition. RAN ships had their numbers painted large and clear on each bow, while the RN ships had smaller numbers amidships. Indonesian warships were rarely seen but all small craft seen crossing the straits had to be stopped and identified, boarded and searched if at all suspicious or uncertain. This was made necessary due to several unhappy incidents when these boats were found to be booby-trapped. HMS Woolaston herself suffered some damage when a boat being boarded detonated alongside, killing several members of the boarding party, including a midshipman. Subsequently, after closing to investigate a suspicious contact, the suspects would be ordered to swim to the patrol vessel, searched at the gangway and handcuffed to the anchor cable. The offending craft were generally then sunk by gunfire (if safe to do so). A few rounds of machine-gun tracer could ignite the outboard motor’s fuel tank and the boat would be left burning to destruction – a grim lesson for breaching the total night curfew in the patrol areas.