On Target: RAAF Butterworth: From “Emergency” to “Strategic Reserve”

Brian Weston 'On Target: RAAF Butterworth: From “Emergency” to “Strategic Reserve” ' in Australian Aviation October 2018 p. 1


The On Target column in the September issue of Australian Aviation outlined how the RAAF began what was to become a longstanding Australian engagement in South-East Asia. It commenced with Australia’s involvement in the Malayan Emergency in June 1948, which was indeed a war, although a war by a different name.


The Malayan Emergency also foreshadowed the long timescales involved in conducting counter-insurgency warfare. This was evident not only from the 12 years it took until the Malayan Emergency was declared ended in 1960, but also from the reality that even after the declared end of the war, small groups of Communist terrorists continued to evade and operate, especially in the northern border areas of Malaya, until well into the 1970s.


The Emergency also verified the concerted “whole of government” approach to counter-insurgency warfare which, by 1957, had contained the Communist insurgents such that there was widespread acceptance the Emergency was being won.


But, if by 1957 the conduct of the war was proceeding towards victory, how was it that by 1959, 50% of Australia’s operational fighter force and 33% of Australia’s operational bomber force was stationed permanently at Butterworth in northern Malaya?


The explanation for this large commitment of Australia’s air force lies in the fact the Malayan Emergency was only one of many security issues evident in post-World War II, South-East Asia. These security issues were of concern especially to Australia, the United States, and to those European nations that, prior to World War II, had substantial colonial and economic interests in South-East Asia.


The interests of the colonizing European powers had been disrupted by the rapid advance of the Japanese through South-East Asia and the Pacific in World War II. This illustrated the brittle hold the European powers had over their colonial interests. Notwithstanding, at war’s end the European powers sought to return to their colonial territories but, following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the abrupt end of World War II played havoc with the aspirations of the major European powers. It was only Britain that managed to return quickly and re-establish authority over its South-East Asian colonies and protectorates. France’s attempt to return to Indochina ultimately ended in a demoralizing military defeat, while the Netherlands, early on, had to concede independence to the former Dutch East Indies.


As early as 1949, the map of North-East and South-East Asia was being recast. Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party overran mainland China, ejecting the ruling Kuomintang to the island of Taiwan. Indonesia won its brief revolutionary conflict with the Netherlands, although what lay ahead for Indonesia was uncertain. France persisted longer in Indochina. But, with their military defeat at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh, the eight-year war in Indochina also came to an end, fracturing the former French colony of Indochina which would have longer term consequences; while the Korean War of 1950 to 1953 would also have consequences which still are with us today.


These conflicts changed the geostrategic and geopolitical make-up of North-East and South-East Asia and contributed to the emergence of the “Domino Theory” with the generally accepted implication the next domino to fall would be Thailand; which is interesting, as Thailand is the only major South-East Asian country not to have been colonized by a European power.


This rapidly changing strategic environment drove the establishment of the South-East Asia Collective Defence Treaty when in Manila, in September 1954, Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States signed the Treaty; with both the Philippines and Thailand seeing merit in the establishment of a “NATO-like” American security guarantee to protect them from potential communist insurgencies. Unsurprisingly, the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) established its headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand.


Shortly after, in 1955, the United Kingdom, facing the inevitable independence of its South-East Asian protectorates and states, established the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve, a permanent military force aimed at countering external communist aggression against countries in South-East Asia, especially British-colonial Malaya and Singapore.


Australia was invited to contribute to the Strategic Reserve, and agreed to deploy on a permanent basis two squadrons of CAC Sabre fighters; one squadron of Canberra bombers, with an embedded flight of supporting Dakota transports; and a range of supporting units to Butterworth in what was soon to become the independent Federation of Malaya.


This, a commitment of 1500 RAAF personnel, plus families, in what quickly became RAAF Base Butterworth. It was a national security commitment which was to endure until 1988, before downscaling to the more modest Australian presence which remains at Butterworth today, some 70 years after the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency.


Next month’s On Target column will detail the remarkable transition of a small RAF airfield into the major operational base that was to become RAAF Base Butterworth.


Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation commanded No 75 Squadron at Butterworth from 1980 to 1982. This On Target article appears in the Australian Aviation magazine.


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