AFTER NOTE TO
FLIGHT LIEUTENANT ROBIN BROWN'S
A SHORT HISTORY OF
NO> 81 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE
THE NEXT PHASE 1963 -1966
The Brunei revolt was finally suppressed early in 1963. However, infiltration of the Borneo territories by guerrillas armed, trained, and encouraged by Indonesia, intensified after the proclamation of Malaysia in September, and hostilities spread to Western Malaysia when Indonesia began making incursions on the Malay peninsula in August 1964. The campaign, officially designated “Confrontation” continued for a further two arduous years until Indonesia, recognising that victory was beyond her grasp, signed a peace treaty with Malaysia in Bangkok on 11 August 1966.
81 Squadron had been heavily committed from the outset, initially with top priority given to the Borneo Survey, followed soon afterwards by a rapidly growing requirement for tactical reconnaissance in support of the ground force operations.
To quote from Air Chief Marshall Sir David Lee's Book.
EASTWARD, A History of the Royal Air Force in the Far East 1945-1972
“The photographic work of the Canberra PR7s of 81 Squadron proved to be a vital asset to troops on the frontier at this stage of operations. As mentioned earlier, huge areas of Borneo were virtually unmapped, certainly to the large scale required for tactical operations. Flying from Tengah and using Labuan as an advances base, the squadron met the heavy demand for tactical photography along the length of the frontier, producing prints of a quality, which clearly identified frontier crossing points, jungle tracks and isolated 'longhouses',,,,,,,,,
The range and endurance of the Canberra was so much superior to any previous PR aircraft in the squadron that not only could a great deal of work be completed during each sortie, but the high speed of the aircraft permitted the results to be processed and issued to those requiring the information with the minimum loss of time. Tactical intelligence could not have been gained or updated in any way other than by aerial photography and, although other aircraft than the Canberra carried cameras for specific purposes, the contribution of 81 Squadron was even greater than it had been during the earlier operations in Malaya”.
The above account, published in 1984, barely 20 years after the event, does not mention wider ranging reconnaissance tasks performed throughout the campaign, knowledge of which was confined strictly to those who were directly involved.
Consequently, historians who wish to the full extent of 81 Squadron's role in the Confrontation may have to wait for hitherto unreleased details to be made public under the Government's 40-year Rule.
During 1964 Tengah became highly congested with air defence, and offensive reinforcements from other theatres, including an RNZAF Canberra Bomber squadron.
From mid-September that year 81 Squadron itself was reinforced by two Canberra PR7s and crews from Wyton, a welcome and valuable addition which was maintained on rotation from Cyprus, and UK throughout the more active phase of Confrontation. The visiting air and ground crews were commendably quick to adapt to local operating conditions, and fitted in admirably.
A detachment from JARIC (Far East) was already based at Tengah to meet the requirement for rapid processing and assessment of the squadron's photography. Its reaction typically enabled aircrew to view their photography, and debrief with photographic interpreters within minutes of landing thus enabling the results to be forwarded to forces on the ground in Borneo with minimum delay.
Because it had a mobile role, 81 Squadron was established to conduct its own first and second line servicing (a marked contrast with other permanently-based Tengah squadrons, who relied upon centralised servicing).
This enviable arrangement bred a very strong team spirit and 81's groundcrew performed outstandingly to keep the squadron flying throughout a prolonged period of intense activity. During this phase, main spar hairline cracks were detected in some RAF Canberras, and a significant number of the fleet were grounded for investigation and repair. However, despite a month-long spell, when only two of its PR7s were serviceable, the squadron managed to meet its full flying task, without a break in continuity, thanks largely to the efforts of its servicing personnel.
A signal sent by the Senior Air Staff Officer, HQ Far East Air Force to the Officer Commanding RAF Tengah in January 1966 said:
“I am pleased to see that 81 squadron consistently achieved their operational flying tasks throughout 1965. The squadron has done a first class job and their efforts in Borneo are much appreciated by all,,,,,,,,,,,, Please pass my congratulations to all concerned”
In February 1965 two PR7s, and a ground support team deployed to RAAF Darwin for Hot Squirrel, an air defence exercise, which also provided an excellent opportunity to carry out valuable photography in the region. A further deployment to Darwin for Exercise High Rigel followed in December 1965. Meanwhile despite the demands of Confrontation, the squadron had been engaged in numerous other tasks, including SEATO Exercise Air Boon Choo in Thailand during April 1964 plus ongoing long-term commitments such as the Malay Survey, remnants of the old Firedog campaign in North East Malaya, and periodic photographic detachments to Hong Kong, and Addu Atoll (Gan).
Also under the “Joss Stick” series of exchange visits between Far East-based RAF and USAF Squadrons, two PR7s with ground support deployed in in September 1964 to Clarke Field in the Philippines where for 10 days, they were hosted by and flew with an F100 squadron. 81 Squadron subsequently reciprocated by hosting a detachment of two USAF photo reconnaissance F101 aircraft at Tengah in March 1965.
Morale received a boost later in 1965, with the announcement that 81 Squadron had been awarded its Standard. The consecration and presentation ceremony was held at Tengah on Friday 24 June 1966, with Air Marshall Sir Angus Walker, Inspector General of the Royal Air Force, as Reviewing Officer. Regrettably, the Squadron was to be disbanded less than four years later on 16 January 1970, as part of the drawdown from the Far East. The Standard returned home to be laid up in St Clements Danes on Sunday 7 June 1970.
The closing years of the Squadron's existence from February 1966 to January 1970 would need to be addressed by other authors, who were present over that period. However, two additional entries can be provided here to complete the list of Squadron Commanders recorded at Appendix C of Flight Lieutenant Robin Brown's Short History;
28 February 1966 Squadron Leader J B Fitzpatrick.
(now Air Marshall Sir John Fitzpatrick KBE CB RAF Ret)
29 1968 Squadron Leader C. M. Henderson.
Meanwhile addressing the final phase in 1970, we return to Sir David Lee
for the last word.
“FEAF's squadrons continued to rundown, 81 Squadron at Tengah being the next one to suffer disbandment. Many allusions have been made in earlier chapters to the vital photographic reconnaissance and survey work of this squadron. It has been the only fulfilling this role since the end of hostilities in the NEI (Netherlands East Indies) in 1946, and it has surveyed virtually the whole of South-East Asia, with its Mosquitos, Meteors, and finally Canberras, as well as providing millions of tactical photographs for the operational ground forces in Malaya and Borneo. But 16 January 1970 was the day selected for its disbandment at Tengah, which had been the squadron's base for many years. An impressive farewell ceremony was held on the airfield, after which most of its aircraft were flown home to be redistributed among other PR squadrons. The standard was laid up and the squadron was not reactivated in another theatre, always a matter for intense regret when a squadron has had such a long and distinguished record.”
Gordon Gilbert. (OC 81 Squadron 1963 -1966) Bexhill on Sea, April 2006.
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