Butterworth was the best experience of my 20 years with the RAAF. I was fortunate enough to have two postings to 75 Squadron, the first from September 1971 to March 1974, and the second July 1977 returning to Australia in January 1980. The one noticeable difference when I returned in 1977 was the revetments on the flight line. It is only in recent years that I have discovered why they were there.
Following their defeat in the 1950s the Malayan Communists retreated to Southern Thailand. Here, in relative safety, they rebuilt and in July 1968 launched what is now known as the Communist Insurgency War 1868-1989, or Second Malaysian Emergency. Two of my earliest memories of 1971 were a warning about booby traps and being told the RMAF were dropping bombs on the communists somewhere out there in the jungle.
A three-way split in the communist ranks in 1974 resulted in ‘a significant increase in communist armed violence in both Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore’ (Ong, 61). Of this time Cheah Boon Kheng says ‘each faction tried to outdo each other in militancy and violence‘. The period ‘saw the CPM intensify its activities of terrorism and clashes with the security forces. Communist groups attempted to blow up the National Monument in Kuala Lumpur, carried out ambushes of police field forces and succeeded in assassinating the police chief of Perak state and the Inspector-General of Police.’ (p.149)
By the end of 1975 various police and military installations throughout Peninsular Malaysia had been attacked, including one on Penang Island. A rocket attack had damaged a Caribou on the military airbase at Kuala Lumpur. Intelligence warned that the communists had instructed their underground network to launch rocket attacks on airbases during September and October 1975. Butterworth was one of three bases considered most likely at risk.
Reports that the terrorists had acquired mortar capability were of particular concern. It was considered that external security around the Base, a Malaysian responsibility, were far short of that required to act as a deterrent against attack. On 14 October, the DCAS, AM N.P. McNamara advised the DJS ‘The requirement for blast protection of aircraft against ground burst weapons and small arms fire together with aircraft dispersal is currently under review.’ A document dated 22 October 1976 confirmed ‘Action has recently been taken to construct revetments to give some protection to … aircraft at Butterworth against attack’ by ‘light mortars or small rockets.’
The attack never came. However in 1978 or 79 the revetments saved the RAAF from what could have been an embarrassing international incident. Three Squadron were engaged in air to ground gunnery practice. As the pilots were being strapped in for a sortie there was an accidental discharge of a cannon round. A troop assisting the pilot strapped in was injured as the round shot through the ladder and the round embedded in the revetment, thus avoiding injury to nearby Malaysian citizens.
Cheah Boon Kheng. ‘The communist insurgency in Malaysia, 1948-90: contesting the nation-state and social change’. New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies 11, 1 (June 2009), p.149, athttp://www.nzasia.org.nz/downloads/NZJAS-June09/14_Cheah_3.pdf, accessed 12 Sep 2012
National Australian Archives. NAA: A1838, 696/6/4/5 Part 3. Butterworth base - General.
National Australian Archives. NAA: A703, 564/8/28 Part 8. RAAF Butterworth - Ground defence plans.
Ong,Weichong. ‘Malaysia’s defeat of armed communism: the second emergency, 1968-1989. Routledge. 2015