On Target: The Building of Butterworth: Australia’s Strategic Commitment to South-East Asia

Brian Weston 'On Target: The Building of Butterworth: Australia’s Strategic Commitment to South-East Asia' in Australian Aviation December 2018


The previous two On Target columns traced the decade-long evolution of an expanding Australian commitment to South-East Asia commencing with the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency in 1948; the signing of the “Manila Pact”, which established the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in September 1954; and the establishment of the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve ‒ a permanent military force aimed at countering external communist aggression against countries in South-East Asia, especially threats against the former British-colonial territories of Malaya and Singapore.


The culmination of these developments saw, by 1959, 50% of Australia’s operational fighter force (two squadrons of CAC Sabre fighters) and 33% of Australia’s operational bomber force (one squadron of Canberra bombers with an embedded flight of supporting Dakota transports) stationed permanently at RAAF Base Butterworth; a commitment of around 1500 RAAF personnel, plus their families. The scale of this commitment is even more imposing when considering the effort and investment needed, by Australia, to transform a modest RAF airfield into a modern RAAF air base capable of sustaining a large operational air force.


Although Britain handed the RAF base at Butterworth to Australia on free loan, Australia also paid Britain a fee roughly equal to 50% of the capital cost of the existing RAF facilities at Butterworth. Australia then assumed responsibility for the development and funding of the base expansion. No 2 Airfield Construction Squadron (2ACS) RAAF arrived in late 1955 to commence a construction/refurbishment program which extended and strengthened the main runway to 2,400 metres; constructed hardstands, taxiways, hangars, fuel storages and armament storage facilities; power supplies, an air traffic control tower and supporting operational facilities; and water and domestic facilities.


Of particular difficulty was the extension and strengthening of the north/south runway into water-logged paddy fields. But the RAAF airfield construction squadrons had retained much of their World War II expertise and had an enviable reputation for getting difficult jobs done well. 2ACS was up to the task.


On 1 July 1958, as eight Canberra bombers from No 2 Squadron touched down, the expanded and refurbished base was transferred from RAF command to RAAF command; becoming RAAF Base Butterworth. In November 1958 and February 1959, Nos 3 and 77 Squadrons, with their Sabre fighters, arrived.


RAAF Butterworth soon settled into an operationally focussed modus operandi including supporting various RAF fighter, bomber, transport and helicopter operations as the Malayan Emergency slowly ground to an end. The RAAF base also came with significant logistic support requirements with No 36 Squadron’s new C-130A Hercules transports – Australia was the first non-US purchaser of the Lockheed four-engine military transport – proving their worth in maintaining regular support services to Butterworth from the east coast of Australia.


By late 1962, tension with Indonesia increased as Britain planned to progress the territories of British North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore to independence, by federating with Malaya and creating an expanded Malaysia.


In January 1963, Indonesia escalated the tension into military “Confrontation”, raising the operational tempo at Butterworth. RAF and RAAF strike aircraft prepared for conflict, preparing target folders and rehearsing strike missions. While RAAF Sabres, by day, and two-seat Gloster Javelins of No 60 Squadron RAF with their Westinghouse AN/APQ-43 radar, by night, stood an ongoing air defence alert, fully armed. Confrontation ceased in September 1965, after a failed coup set in chain events that elevated General Suharto to the presidency of Indonesia.


In June 1962, an additional demand was placed on the RAAF when SEATO called for assistance with the air defence of Thailand. Australia responded by deploying a RAAF Sabre squadron, No 79 Squadron, to Ubon, Thailand. The new deployment, while nominally a squadron, was in reality a half-squadron and although not publicly acknowledged was mounted and supported from RAAF Butterworth involving some innovative arrangements when aircraft and pilots were rotated between Ubon and Butterworth.


The routine involved a No 2 Squadron Canberra flying a navigational exercise to the north. As the Canberra taxied for departure from Butterworth, one or more Sabres could be seen taxying, in radio silence, departing closely behind the Canberra. Once airborne, the Sabres joined into close formation with the Canberra, so as to offer only one radar return. The Canberra was duly intercepted by Sabres operating from Ubon and returned to Butterworth.


Only a close observer could see the returning Sabres had different tail numbers to those that had departed Butterworth some two hours earlier.


The six-year RAAF deployment to Ubon ended in August 1968, soon after No 2 Squadron deployed from Butterworth to Vietnam and No 75 Squadron arrived at Butterworth with their Mirage IIIOF interceptors. But by far the most substantial change regarding the nature of the RAAF presence at Butterworth was soon to come following the declaration, in January 1968, Britain would withdraw from its interests “East of Suez” by 1971.


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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