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[Home] [103 Sqn Post War] [Confrontation 1960s]

103 Squadron during the Sixties -  Confrontation

103 Squadron - Tim Nicoll

Above - Tim Nicoll pictured in the Far East in the 1960s

  Very little appears to have been written about the presence of Britain’s armed forces in Borneo during the sixties, let alone committed to visual media. It is therefore understandable that, on the rare occasions,   when the subject arises any comparison which the public at large might make is with the American presence in Vietnam. Consequently events are viewed as portrayed in films such as ‘Platoon’ or ‘Full Metal Jacket’. This perception is very far from the truth. I will attempt to correct this impression by describing some of my personal experiences as a helicopter pilot during those years.

   Borneo is the third largest island in the world and is located roughly one third of the way between Singapore and the northern coast of Australia. From the end of the nineteenth century until the early 1960s the northern quarter of the island, comprising Sarawark and Brunei, came under the protection of Britain. South of the dividing mountainous range, rising in places to 10,000 feet, the remainder of the island formed part of the Dutch East Indies. While the whole of the island was occupied by the Japanese during WWII, only the Dutch part sought independence to become Indonesia following their defeat. By the early sixties Indonesia was becoming increasingly communist and guerrillas, with the backing of the regular Indonesian army, attempted to annex the northern part of the island. The hostilities which followed, officially given the misleading misnomer of “Confrontation”, lasted until November 1966. During that time the RAF helicopter units in the Far East were 103, 110 and 225 Squadrons flying Whirlwind 10s and 66 Squadron equipped with Belvederes. Quite early on during Confrontation, 225 Squadron had been rushed out from the UK to confer a degree of mobility on the Australian, British, Malaysian, Singaporean and New Zealand units which were seeking to prevent this annexation.

  Remembering that Borneo is twice the area of Britain, you may begin to grasp the scale of the task facing the allied ground forces and their utter dependence on helicopters for their movement over such a vast, unmapped, inhospitable and largely, impenetrable terrain. Additionally, during the early years, there was the added complication that from time to time Indonesian parachutists would land in Johore, the most southern of the West Malaysian states, requiring mopping up by our troops who, again, required the support of helicopters.

103 aircrew Kuching 1966

 Joining the Squadron

     I joined 103 Squadron at Seletar in August 1965 for a two year tour. Like all new arrivals I had to complete my in-theatre training as a Short Range Transport, usually abbreviated to SRT, pilot and a Jungle Survival Course before carrying out any productive flying. A little known but interesting feature of the Jungle Survival Course was that approximately half of the students were USAF pilots destined for Viet Nam. In common with about a fifth of our strength, I also qualified as a Search and Rescue, SAR, pilot. I also completed the course to become one of the four SS 11 air-to-ground missile qualified pilots.

        At the time of my joining, the squadron strength was about 15 aircraft and 20 pilots. By the time I left these figures had doubled, yet the squadron was still commanded by a Squadron Leader! I can’t help contrasting this with the Transport Command policy of those years which insisted that every captain of a shiny VC10 had also to be a Squadron Leader!

  The Squadron Headquarters at Seletar incorporated a dedicated SAR Flight covering Singapore and the southern half of the Malay peninsular. Another 103 Squadron SAR Flight, with similar responsibility for the northern half of the peninsular, was based up near the Thai border at Butterworth which was also home to a squadron of RAAF F86 Sabres and a helicopter flight of the embryonic Royal Malaysian Air Force. However, the majority of the squadron was deployed to Borneo.

Whirlwind SAR

  Dispositions in Borneo

  By the time I joined, the main Borneo detachment had completed its move from Labuan to Kuching following the disbandment of 225 Squadron. From west to east, it had further forward detachments co-located with battalion or commando HQs at; Lundu, Balai Ringin, Simmanggang and Nanga Gaat. Tasking at the latter detachment was often shared with RN Wessex or with Whirlwinds of 110 Squadron. There were normally four Belvederes of 66 Squadron at Kuching and a rather greater number of 110 Squadron aircraft at Labuan.

  With the exception of Lundu which had to be supplied by sea, and Nanga Gaat which was routinely restocked by longboats capable of tackling the cataracts on the Lupar River and its tributaries, the battalion and commando HQs were generally located on dirt roads and were thus accessible from Kuching. Whilst all had helipads, Lundu and Simmanggang also had small airstrips suitable for use by army Austers or the Single and Twin Pioneers of 209 Squadron. In several cases infantry HQs also had an attached troop of 105 mm howitzers of a Royal Artillery Regiment based at Seven Mile Bazaar just south of RAF Kuching.

  Company positions were usually about 10 miles forward of their HQs, often right on the border itself which for most of its length ran along the watershed. These positions were generally not accessible by road but invariably by helicopters. For this reason they were generally constructed on a small hillock. The trees were left on the Indonesia side, to block the view of prying eyes, but removed from the top and the reverse slope to provide a helipad and a clear approach. Some, such as Plaman Mapu could also be resupplied by parachute, whereas others such as Stass or Biawak were within range of Indonesian anti-aircraft guns making para-drops impossible. Sematan the most north-westerly allied position in Borneo could be resupplied via sea, helipad or airstrip but not by road. When judged against European standards, communication was fairly difficult and mobility on the ground by the limited troops available would have been neigh impossible without helicopters.

  Our Squadron presence at Kuching and its forward detachments ran to about 10 aircraft. We maintained one aircraft at 15 minutes   readiness at Kuching during daylight but in an emergency crews were expected to fly casevac sorties from all detachment locations in addition to their usual SRT role. We also kept at least two SS11, air to ground, missile equipped aircraft and qualified operators available at Kuching. Unlike the practice today, we did not have aircraft and crews specifically dedicated to Special Forces. Instead, these sorties were flown by the most experienced aircrew available whenever a requirement arose.

Whirlwind on platform

  Living Conditions

    Throughout their tours in the Far East, helicopter aircrew normally spent five weeks in Borneo followed by three weeks in Singapore or West Malaysia. On return to Singapore we were normally given a two day stand down, completed mandatory training, including night flying, and underwent categorisation and other examinations. The lucky ones might even have been permitted a few days’ leave! Thereafter it was time to conduct SRT training with the army or, as in my case, to go onto an SAR shift pattern of 15 minutes readiness during the hours of daylight, on call during darkness, and then 48 hours off duty until it was time once again to return to Borneo. Occasionally we would detach SAR crews to Butterworth to enable the crews there to take leave. When all these various squadron commitments, their associated specialist requirements and, in some cases, limitations are taken into account you may begin to appreciate how the flight commanders required an Honours Degree in one armed paper hanging if they were ever to find time to fly themselves!

  As you might expect, our living conditions in Borneo were pretty basic. Accommodation normally took the form of atap huts made from bamboo and palm fronds. This was not as idyllic as it may sound since, although initially perfectly watertight, the roofs quickly became infested with beetles whose droppings would fall during the night onto those sleeping below! The solution was to beg, borrow or steal a gore of parachute from the army which we then strung as a canopy over our beds. But this by no means kept out the rain! Rations were often tinned although on one memorable occasion the quartermaster at Lundu managed to obtain some Abroath kippers. To complete the fantasy, they were delivered packed in ice and sawdust aboard a traditional Chinese junk! Predictably, whilst attached to the Gurkhas, curry dominated every meal – not necessarily as unwelcome as that might sound.

  Another unusual aspect of life for RAF personnel was that, except when at Kuching, we were always armed. It took some time to accustom oneself to carrying a personal weapon into lunch or taking it to bed, not to mention keeping it handy when making visits to more private places. However, to put things into perspective our lifestyle was infinitely more comfortable than that of the infantry in the forward positions who lived in slit trenches protected by barbed wire and pangies - outward facing wooden stakes driven into the ground, sharpened to a spike and smeared with excrement.

  Even in the sixties, the British Empire lived on and an example had still to be set to the local population of the standard of dress required after 1900 hrs! At Kuching, as was also the case in battalion and commando headquarter units, members of the officers’ and sergeants’ messes dressed for dinner in “rubber planters rig”. This consisted of a white long-sleeved shirt, tie, long trousers and laced shoes. The notable exception was Nanga Gaat where, following a tradition left behind by the Royal Navy, a sarong and flip flops substituted for trousers and shoes.

Native village


 GPS and other modern navigation aids were still 40 years into the future. Whereas the Dutch had surveyed their East Indies before WWII, the same was not true for Sarawark or Brunei. Instead we were expected to make our own maps which put us in the comical position of being more sure of our location when over enemy territory than when over our own. Experience showed that it was best if detachment commanders specialised in particular areas of countryside, each about the size of an English county, and for them to return to the same area on each detachment. For that reason I spent most of my time in Borneo at Lundu occupied successively by Gurkhas, Royal Marine Commandos and Malaysian Rangers. My ‘parish’ extended forward to the border and then along it to Tanjong Datu, the most north-westerly point in Borneo, about sixty miles away. In UK terms, I was required to know intimately an area about the size of Yorkshire. When briefing visiting aircrew it was usual to give directions by reference to particular outcrops of rock, clearings or changes in foliage colour. For example, when directing a crew to a newly cut landing point it would be quite normal to tell the pilot to fly to a known landing point, reduce speed to 60 knots, turn onto a particular magnetic heading for a specified number of seconds which would bring him to, say, a limestone outcrop where he would turn onto a new heading which after so many seconds would bring him to the smoke flare of the waiting troops.

Whirlwind approaching beach

  The Dyack Population

If all this seems rather primitive it is as well to remember the remoteness of the region. Kuching, the capital, was about the size of a small English market town. Although Lundu, Bau, Serian and Simmangang were major centres of population based upon a bazaar, they were each no bigger than a very small Yorkshire village. The kampongs were even smaller and sometimes consisted of just one atap building, following the contour of a small ridge, in which the entire population lived. These huts would be built on stilts and some could be sixty or even eighty yards long. They would normally be divided along their length with half providing a public covered recreation area. The other half would be subdivided into family homes. Decoration might well consist of a number of wicker baskets containing shrunken human heads. The other occupants of the kampong usually consisted of chickens and pigs which lived under the hut where they would forage on the rubbish conveniently dropped through trap doors in the floor above.

Most intelligence was gathered by word of mouth and hence depended on the goodwill of these villagers. It was quite usual for us to drop off an eccentric army officer by the name of Captain John Hodges carrying no more than a water bottle and a WWII United States Army Garand rifle. He would make his way on foot from kampong to kampong chatting in Dyack to the headmen until, two or three weeks later, we received a message to pick him up from some distant point. If he or one of his trackers were able to notify us of a serious illness or a difficult pregnancy we would do our best, operations permitting, to ferry the person concerned to hospital. On one occasion this gave rise to an amusing incident. A woman who was experiencing a particularly difficult labour had become quite accustomed to seeing helicopters flying over her kampong. Hence she was willing to be lifted into the back of my Whirlwind when I arrived in response to a call for help. However, it was quite a different matter at the hospital where, never having seen a vehicle, she jumped in great fright out of the waiting ambulance!

Thus the relationship between the helicopter crews and the local Dyack population was generally excellent and quite often gave rise to invitations to attend longhouse celebrations. In these cases we would arrive in our Whirlwind taxi carrying some sort of alcoholic present. The headman would meet us and expect us to knock back a welcome drink of cloudy arack made from the fermented bark of trees. Having recovered without too many grimaces, it was quite likely that we would be offered a Coca Cola, part of a crate carried through the jungle on somebody’s back from the nearest road head several miles away. We would then be invited to visit the single classroom school and, on one memorable occasion, to view the kampong’s prized Singer treadle sowing machine! Afterwards, we would be expected to sit down in a circle and chat with the senior men of the village whilst the women killed and then cooked a number of chickens. These accompanied by a mound of rice would be served on a large circular communal platter from which we ate using only our right hands. When we had eaten our fill, the plate would be passed to the young men who had sat down behind us. They, in turn would pass the dish to the women sitting behind them. Such is equality!

  Hospitality could extend even further! The Dyacks believed that a single act of intercourse between a man and woman could never result in a pregnancy. It was also quite common for a headman to invite a particularly favoured male guest to spend the night with one of his unmarried daughters. If you then took into account the Dyack conviction that the length of fingers and toes carried further desirable implications, you will readily appreciate the advantage of wearing size 12 shoes!


  Flying the Whirlwind

                         So what was the Whirlwind like to fly? When judged against modern standards the simple answer is “difficult”! The collective lever had a friction device which could be used as a lock when, for example changing radio frequencies. However, apart from lacking any form of feel or trim, the stick was unbalanced. It felt about right in pitch but was over sensitive in roll to the extent that if ever the pilot let go, the stick would flop to one side under the weight of the grip, rolling the aircraft as it went. On the other hand, or foot, the pedal loads were very high. When hovering at Maximum weight for more than about five minutes, the strain on the legs and back became so great that it was a relief if the co-pilot could also take some of the load by placing his feet on the pedals.

   Nowadays it’s all too easy to take the payloads and reliability of modern helicopters for granted. So let’s examine this topic in greater detail. One of the first demonstrations of hovering flight was given by Hanna Reisch in the Deutschland Halle in Berlin in the mid-thirties. Helicopter engineering has therefore now had 70 years in which to evolve. The Whirlwind 10 was designed in the mid fifties, less than half way into the development life of this form of transport. Judged against modern equipment, our aircraft in Borneo were very limited in what they could do, not to mention the reliability with which they did it! To put this into perspective, just compare today’s average motor car with one of fifty years ago.

   To give one example, at the height of 10,000 feet, to which terrain and weather occasionally forced us, the flight envelope was a mere 50 to 55 knots.   Again, when deploying in an armed role into territory possibly occupied by enemy troops, we could only lift two SAS troopers who, when carrying their own body weight in kit, weighed in at about 380 lbs each. Little wonder that we much preferred to deploy Gurkhas in belt order! But to return to the example of the SAS, after dropping off the first chalk to probe for mines with bayonets and generally secure the landing site, we would reduce the crew to the usual single pilot and remove armament, armour and superfluous role equipment to improve the payload. If operating in the vicinity of other helicopters we were even known on occasions to remove navigation bags and the drum of survival equipment! Once the destination and flight time were known, fuel carried was reduced to a minimum – typically 7 lbs for each minute of flight and deplaning, 100 lbs for gauge error and a 50 lbs allowance “for the wife and kids”. Even bachelors qualified for the latter! To reduce the total time taken to deploy a patrol we would, with rotors turning, normally try to take on fuel from 45 gallon drums at the departure point simultaneously with emplaning   troops. In the case of a deployment of less than 20 miles and when all these ruses were employed, it was possible in the course of a day for a single Whirlwind to carry more troops and freight than a much larger Belvedere, affectionately known by the local people as a “flying longhouse”. When participating in such a “lift” it was not unusual for a pilot to fly six, or even seven, hours in a day. Given that this included a take off or landing at Maximum weight every ten minutes or so, you can begin to see why we thought we were fully earning our flying pay.

  More serious, was the unreliability of the Whirlwind which fell under two main headings, the main rotor and the engine. A rotor blade consisted of a single main spar of extruded light alloy which also served as the leading edge. Light alloy boxes were glued behind this to give the desired aerofoil shape. These boxes were also glued side to side. The hot, humid conditions played havoc with the glue joints which were prone to separate even to the extent of the boxes occasionally breaking away. The remedy was for the pilot to recognise the vibration and noise indicating the onset of this breakdown and for the groundcrew to apply cordwise bandages of black sticky tape over adjoining box junctions where the failure had occurred. Once one blade had been treated in this way, identical bandages had to be applied at equal span to the undamaged blades to retain rotor balance. It was not at all unusual at the end of a day’s flying to see an airframe fitter balanced on the tail boom as he carried out these repairs.

 When flying over endless miles of trees over 200 feet tall in a single engined helicopter the chances of surviving an engine failure were pretty slim. Coupled with the fact that very few engines achieved their scheduled removal life, aircrew could be forgiven for turning prematurely grey! Occasionally, the rotors of the compressor or turbine rubbed on the stators. More frequently the problems lay in the computer which was designed to fuel the engine such that it drove the main rotor at a speed of 217 rpm regardless of load. Like the rotor glue, this computer also succumbed to tropical weather. The back-up system consisted of a clutch to disengage the computer actuator whilst simultaneously engaging a crude cock which permitted the pilot, by means of a twist grip, to control the amount of fuel entering the engine. Upon realising he had a computer failure, the pilot’s immediate action was to establish autorotation. He then had to effect the change over to manual control and carefully recover the decayed rotor rpm without stalling the engine. All this had to be done in almost the twinkling on an eye as the aircraft could be dropped at over 30 feet per second! I consider myself lucky that two of my three engine failures occurred within autorotation range of an airfield. Far more fraught was the third occasion when, heavily laden, my engine computer failed and I had to revert to manual control over the middle of the vast Sampadi Forest losing in excess of 600 feet of height in the process. Had not some sixth sense prompted me to fly at a much higher altitude than usual that day I would not be relating the experience now! It’s hardly surprising that part of the Whirlwind’s performance graph came to be known by aircrew as the “dead man’s curve”.

  Despite all these limitations the aircraft could be flown and hovered with precision. After a few hundred hours, I came to enjoy flying the Whirlwind more than any of the other twenty or so types I have flown. That surely must be its definitive assessment.

Whirlwind on ground

  Working and Living with the Troops

 Although much of our work with the Army and Royal Marines consisted in deploying troops and in keeping them resupplied, there were some interesting variations. In the absence of modern satellite communication systems, troops conducting offensive patrols had to be supported by radio relay stations. It was also usual to provide them with artillery support by deploying a 105mm howitzer to a location giving an enhanced range and good field of fire. Consequently, in both cases we would be required to lift troops onto a peak where they would deplane by rope. We would then lower food, water and a chain saw to them. By the time we returned next day they would have felled trees and constructed a small log platform onto which we could land. This would be the dimension of our undercarriage plus a few inches to spare. In the case of one pad, “Old Smokey”, the tail boom projected over a 2300 feet shear drop! Only then could we get on with the real job of lifting in the radio station or the howitzer broken down into several manageable loads.

  Shortages of military equipment have not been confined to the Falklands and more recent wars. Such was the RAF shortage of jungle green clothing that we even had to sign for buttons! Nor was ammunition available for us to practise firing our personnel weapons. In each case, enterprising aircrew could solve the problem by bartering with the army. The usual currency was cockpit lighting bulbs which just happened to work on the residual power of otherwise depleted army radio batteries. Suitably connected, these could provide frontline troops with lighting in their dugouts. At the other extreme, an aircrew dinghy knife was reputedly worth an Armalite rifle. Somewhere in between on this scale of values it was possible to barter time-expired items from our survival packs for a variety of army goodies.  

  Living and working with the troops created strong bonds, the most important of which was the soldiers’ conviction that we would do our utmost, even under fire, to evacuate them if they were ever to suffer casualties. At the other end of the spectrum, the front line troops appreciated the favour of flying a Pakistani barber or a few extra cartons of “Tiger” into their trenches. Having established such relationships it was heartrending to see the body of a Royal Marine friend, who only the previous day had been so full of life, being flown to the mortuary in Kuching. Nor was it much easier, when too late to save their lives, we looked down from the cockpit onto bodies, albeit of strangers, suspended from bamboo poles, being loaded into the helicopter cabin.

  Sometimes life saving worked the other way. On one occasion the Royal Marines were running short of ammunition during a particularly hard fought firefight at Biawak. I was tasked to resupply them with ammunition in an under slung net. Just as I was about to enter a hover over the landing pad, a marine jumped out of his covered trench and vigorously waved me away. It later transpired that he had heard a salvo of mortar bombs being fired and, whilst they were in flight, had left the safety of his trench to warn me. Later that morning when the Royal Marines had beaten off the attack, I returned with my load to find the helipad covered in craters. I undoubtedly owe my life to that unknown marine.

  The continuation training commitment included night flying. This could be carried out at Seletar or Kuching under the supervision of Air Traffic Control (ATC), or up country under the control of an army Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOT). In either case the usual approach to landing was made using a SHNAP,an acronym for Seletar Helicopter Night APproach aid. The SHNAP, invented by Wing Commander John Dowling, consisted of three torches shone towards the helicopter by three Gurkhas positioned in the shape of an isosceles triangle. The two forward soldiers held the lights on their shoulders and the third sighted his light whilst lying on the ground. By aligning the lights horizontally, the pilot was able to judge his descent path and, by spacing them equally, to obtain horizontal alignment. The height of British troops tended to give an uncomfortably steep descent to such an extent that we preferred these soldiers to mount the two forward torches on sticks of Gurkha height rather than on their own shoulders.

 In Borneo our readiness lasted, in theory, from dawn to dusk although the latter sometimes became open to interpretation when returning to base following an operation. However, the Indonesians   didn’t always observe our rules and would quite often make dusk attacks on our patrols or positions before escaping under cover of darkness. This meant that the Forward Air Commander, the former England international rugby player and referee Group Captain “Larry” Lamb, would sometimes authorise a night casevac sortie to pick up our casualties and bring them in to the British Military Hospital in Kuching. We got into the habit of anticipating these sorties by detailing a “duty sober crew” who resisted the temptation of a “Tiger” following the end of a day’s flying.

  The first problem facing the crew was to locate the unit involved, remembering that we had neither accurate maps nor navigation aids apart from a compass and watch. The problem was frequently compounded by the lack of compatible radios. One method was to arrange before departure for the army to send a pair of Landrovers to a known position at the end of the nearest track. On hearing the sound of the approaching helicopter the drivers would switch on their headlights to form an arrowhead pointing in the direction of the casualties. The pilot would then follow this indication until he received a light signal from the unit he was seeking. If out of contact with the enemy they in turn would fire a Very pistol upon hearing the sound of the helicopter: if still in contact they would vigorously wave us away using torches. Despite our training, it was rare for the patrol to be able to set up a SHNAP. It was far more likely that they would shine their torches onto the chosen landing point or surround it with burning Hexamine cooking stoves. It was also unusual for the pilot to use any form of exterior lighting since this would be an open invitation for any lurking enemy to open fire. In contrast to these difficulties the flight to the hospital and then the return to base was what used to be described as “a piece of cake”.

River and Jungle

  And finally……

      The mind has the wonderful capacity, with the passage of time, to forget the bad and to dwell upon the pleasant side of events. Consequently, when I roll back my thoughts to forty years ago, they are dominated by memories of the freedom of action conferred by deploying with my own aircraft to the middle of nowhere, the excitement of flying over rugged yet beautiful terrain, the eccentricity of the pongoes with whom I lived and by the frisson of danger which, fortunately, never quite materialised.

  Written by the late Tim Nicoll in 2007


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