Canberra Plaque Dedication
On 31st March, 2006, The RAN 16th Minesweeping Squadron finally received the recognition long deserved after such distinguished service, loyalty and courage displayed by the men and officers during the Indonesian Conflict that threatened Peace in the South Pacific.
40th Anniversary of Service During The Indonesian Conflict
AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL – CANBERRA
31 MARCH 2006
16TH MINESWEEPING SQUADRON PLAQUE UNVEILING CEREMONY
ADDRESS BY COMMODORE JIM DICKSON AM MBE RAN (RET’D)
The number of people who have made the effort to be here today for this simple ceremony speaks volumes for the camaraderie of the Service and the strength of the bond formed between those who were privileged to serve in the 16th Minesweeping squadron. It is a bond which had its origins when the first of the six ships commissioned in UK in 1961 and I believe it strengthened every year they were in commission. They were small ships, generally manned by a crew of 30, and that number of young men, living and working in close proximity and inter-dependent for their lives, well-being and happiness, share triumphs and adversities and experiences which bind them together in lasting friendship. The strength of that friendship manifests itself at re-unions, on Anzac Day, and on special occasions like this. We have come together here today for the ceremonial unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the operational service given by these fine small ships during the period known as Confrontation – a time of international tension and difficulty arising from Indonesia’s opposition to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. All six ships of the squadron took part in this campaign between 1964 and 1966 and made a significant contribution to its success.
Confrontation was not a ‘declared’ war but the term was used to describe a period when a state of hostility existed between Indonesia and Malaysia: Malaysia was supported by members of the Commonwealth in its resistance of Indonesian aggression. The ships of the 16th Minesweeping squadron integrated fully with units of the Royal Navy operating as an Inshore Flotilla based on Singapore. RAN participation in Confrontation began in January 1964 and came to an end after the signing of the Bangkok accords in August 1966.
Service during Confrontation was the only service given by the Sweepers which was recognized as ‘operational’ or ‘active’ service for Repatriation benefits and veteran’s entitlements and that is why it is the only service acknowledged on the plaque being unveiled here today at the Australian War Memorial. It should be emphasized however that these same six vessels gave sterling service to the RAN in a variety of other roles between 1961 and the mid 1970’s.
More than 40 years later, it is difficult to convey to those of you who were not there at the time, a sense of the atmosphere, the tension and the general circumstances prevailing during the period of Confrontation. The world was very different from the one we know today. The Cold War was at its height and the threat of conflict with the Soviet Union hung heavily over what we knew as the Free world. Many countries which had formerly been part of the British Empire had gained their independence and were struggling to find their feet. Britain still had a major presence east of Suez including a comprehensive Far East Fleet. Australia was doing nicely economically and enjoying a long period of political stability but our military, and our Navy in particular, was only just starting to cut the ties which had bound us closely to the Britain for over 50 years.
The RAN was a small but very well-regarded and highly professional force with the aircraft-carrier Melbourne as its centre-piece. Melbourne had replaced Sydney as the operational carrier in the second half of the 1950’s; we had destroyers and frigates to support her and we were principally a ‘blue-water’ Navy. The arrival of the ‘bird boats’- as some affectionately called them - and the birth of the 16th Minesweeping Squadron injected a new element into the Service and reinforced a capability for inshore operations which had declined since the end of WW2.At the time the ships were purchased and brought out from UK it was envisaged that they would operate in home waters in, principally, a minesweeping role. As the situation between Indonesia and Malaysia deteriorated in the aftermath of an unsuccessful Indonesian attempt o foment insurrection in Brunei in 1962, pressure began to be exerted by the British government for participation by Australian forces in defensive operations in the Malaysia-Borneo area both on land and at sea. The Menzies Liberal-Country party coalition government acceded to this request subject to certain conditions, one of which was that there be no offensive operations against Indonesian bases or units.Thus it was that the participation of HMA Ships Curlew, Gull, Hawk, Ibis, Snipe and Teal in Confrontation came about.
Between January 1964 and August 1966 each of these 6 vessels rendered somewhere between 18 and 24 months of operational service in the waters off Borneo, Singapore and Malaysia, conducting many monotonous, uneventful, boring days and nights on patrol interspersed with periods of intense activity marked by the interception, boarding or apprehension of craft acting suspiciously or illegally. The intensity of activity varied significantly and patrols in the Singapore and Malacca straits were complicated by the density of commercial shipping, the large numbers of fishing boats, sampans, other small craft and the weather. All six of the sweeper’s ships made their mark at different times and in different places and the plaque being unveiled today reflects the contribution made by the 16th Minesweeping squadron as a whole. Nonetheless, it is appropriate to point out that present here today is the only Australian Naval officer awarded a gallantry decoration during the campaign – Lieutenant Keith (‘Gus’) Murray; who, as Captain of HMAS Teal in December 1964, displayed ‘coolness and judgment’ of particularly high order during interception operations in the Singapore strait. I know that ‘Gus ‘ Murray would want it to be made known that he regarded that decoration as one for his ship rather than for him personally and I hope some of his former crew are here with him.
For those interested in gaining further insight into the nature of the operations and activities conducted by the sweepers in Confrontation I recommend a recently–published book written by John Foster who was Captain of HMAS Hawk and has recorded that ship’s experiences in ‘Hands to Boarding Stations’. Those of you who know J.D. Foster will not be surprised to know that the book is a colourful record and that it includes a foreword by HRH Prince Charles who was himself Captain of a minesweeper HMS Bronington, in 1976. Unfortunately John Foster is not here today; he suffered a heart attack just before Christmas and is currently recovering from quadruple by-pass surgery. Several other Confrontation sweeper C.O.’s are present however – including Bill Willcox, Marty Salmon, Brian Courtier and David Finlay. The sweepers proved capable and effective in patrol operations. While not the most comfortable of sea-boats when conditions got rough, they were nevertheless well-suited to the inshore water activity made necessary by Indonesia’s tactics. Captain Inshore Flotilla’s headquarters in Singapore was a vibrant, helpful and busy operations
centre and the ships were extremely well supported both materially and logistically.
The establishment of a plaque here in this magnificent Australian War Memorial will ensure that the service given by all six ships of the Squadron during Confrontation is appropriately recorded for posterity. What it will not do is convey to future generations of Australians any sense of the feelings of the crews of those vessels.
For those crews it was an unforgettable circumstance. None of us were old enough to have taken part in WW2 and though I cannot say with certainty that no member of the sweeper’s crews had been involved in the Korean war in the early 1950’s, I suspect this to have been the case. We were 40 plus years younger than we are today, a few of our number were teenagers, most of us were in our twenties with the odd one or two like the Chief Engine room Artificer and the Coxswain tipping thirty. Although some had gained operational experience in the Far East Strategic Reserve this was, for all of us, our first real ‘active service’ experience and the adrenalin flowed. We were young, fit, well-trained and enthusiastic, not concerned with the politics of the conflict but ready to respond to whatever our government tasked us to do. While we were no longer young enough to think we were bullet-proof the vast majority of us, I believe, were eager to test ourselves in action. This was, after all, what our training had been directed towards – defending the country and its perceived national interests against aggression. At the same time many of us were in the early stages of married life, we were operating far from home and the constraints placed upon our ability to act aggressively, coupled with the uncertain nature of what we might confront in the way of opposition, combined to generate a high degree of apprehension.That the ships and crews of the 16th Minesweeping Squadron performed so creditably is a fact about which we can all feel proud.
The nature and circumstances of the Navy’s service in Confrontation were not made known to the Australian public at the time for a variety of reasons – one of which was that the ‘silent service’ syndrome was still very much part of the Navy of the 1960’s. They have since been briefly documented in various publications, none of which are well known or likely to become best-sellers. They are, however, an important element of post WW2 RAN activities and it is only proper that they be officially recorded in this national repository of operational service rendered by Australian forces. I’m sure I speak on behalf of the Sweeper’s Ships Company’s present here today, and also on behalf of many others who are unable to be with us, when I extend thanks to all who have contributed, through their efforts, to the ultimate public recognition of the part played by the ships of the 16th Minesweeping Squadron in the Confrontation campaign. In this regard I acknowledge in particular the work done by Rod and Jacquie Cleary. And now, without further ado, I invite two of the former Commanding Officers to whom I have referred – Gus Murray and Bill Willcox – to unveil the commemorative plaque.